Tuesday, 1 April 2008
And so last night to the Oxford Town Hall, where author and Oxonian Philip Pullman kicked off the Oxford Literary Festival with a reading from his new book, “Once Upon a Time in the North.” The slim novel is a “prequel” to Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, a snappy little tale featuring a 24-year-old Lee Scoresby, the laconic Texas “aeronaut” who figures in the later books. (And is there a rule that “laconic” must be followed by “Texas”?)
Pullman said that one of his favorite parts of putting the book together was collecting the little bits that accompany it, picking out the dark blue cloth that it’s bound in (an homage to his university?). Oxford is full of Oxfam used book shops and he said the listings in an old Shipping World Yearbook from around 1910 were the inspiration for the ramshackle Arctic port where the action takes place.
The new book, he said, is a retelling of a classic Hollywood movie he saw as a boy: “The Magnificent Seven.” He said of his novel, “This is not a Western, it’s a Northern.” It’s set in a frontier land where courage is the chief virtue. “Courage could be said to be the most basic virtue there is,” Pullman said. “It allows you to exercise your other virtues.”
One of the things I like about Pullman is that he doesn’t have to compromise any more, not that he ever did. He managed to make a long, dense trilogy about the depradations of organized religion into a best-seller. And though his new book will no doubt appeal to Guardian-reading peaceniks, one of the first thing Lee Scoresby does is pull out his revolver—even if it is only to bash a balky valve on his balloon. Lee is even revealed as a bit of a playa.
It’s hard for a writer to see someone as successful as Pullman and not wonder, How does he do it? What’s his secret? Pullman was very open about how he works, but of course the answer to those questions is that he’s very smart and he works very hard. He knows his Milton and his Blake, his Genesis and his “Treasure Island.” He’s proof that the secret behind great writing is great reading. As for the writing, Pullmann does 1,000 words a day, in longhand, and even if the prose is flowing like water, he stops before getting much past 1,001. “If it’s going well that’s a good time to stop because it will be easy to start the next day.”
He doesn’t start a project with a theme in mind but builds it from the particulars of a scene: the smells, the sights, the sounds, the “minute particles” that bring a world to life. He lets the characters develop on their own, sometimes being surprised when they demand bigger roles than he intended for them. He isn’t afraid of the obvious, either.
Pullman answered questions from the sizeable audience that filled the Town Hall, saying that, yes, he has interesting dreams but he never includes them in his fiction. Your dreams, he said, are never interesting to other people. He said his daemon would be a raven. (His illustrator, John Lawrence, had already drawn it.) And he liked the look of last year’s “Golden Compass” movie, a comment that suggested there were things about it he didn’t like. But there are always compromises in film versions of books. A book, he said, is like a democracy, where author and reader each cooperate and play their parts, the writer providing the ingredients that the reader assembles in his head.
“Why did Lyra have to join the grown-up world?” asked one attendee. Pullman said that to have done otherwise, to leave her a child, would have made her a Peter Pan. “And Peter Pan is a ghastly book,” he said. The His Dark Materials trilogy is about the loss of innocence and how something that some might think is sad is actually to be celebrated, since it brings special compensations, such as wisdom.
“Innocence is not wise,” he said, “and wisdom can’t be innocent.”
Speaking of innocence, I love this photo of a little girl peering down from the balcony in the ornate Town Hall, a human face almost lost among the putti and the plaster.