1 Your name is one of 20 on the longlist for Children's Laureate. Do we take it that this means you are happy for your name to go forward to the shortlisting stage and that you feel positively about the envisaged role of a Children's Laureate?
The Children's Laureate is too new for anyone to have a grip on what it will turn out to mean. I have let my name go forward not in the expectation of making the short-list, but simply because if someone offers you something, it seems rather churlish to turn it down. My own feeling, already publicly and privately expressed, is that the conception of the thing is an awkward blend of honour and job. It's all very well to honour someone for a lifetime's achievement and there are several people on the shortlist who deserve that much more than I do but some of them might be old and/or unwell, and in any case not prepared to give up precious time to go round doing a public relations job. I think it's a mistake to blend the two things together. Anyway, there are some people still alive but no longer working, like C.Walter Hodges, who deserve all kinds of gratitude and praise for their contribution to children's literature, who won't feature on a list like this because they've dropped out of the public eye. What we really need is something like an Academy of Children's Literature to do this sort of thing properly, and represent all of us who work in the field.
2 Your outspokenness about C. S. Lewis and the Narnia books, first aired at a conference in Cambridge during August, and more recently printed in a prominent article in The Guardian, took the children's books world aback. Do you feel, in general, there is insufficient astringency in chidlren's books commentary and criticism?
1. C.S.Lewis When you criticise Narnia, what you're doing, I've discovered, is not what you think. You think you're offering an opinion about the literary or moral qualities of a work of fiction. In fact, unless you offer unqualified and unstinting praise, you're blaspheming. His followers are unhinged. I got two kinds of responses to my Guardian piece: half of them said Hoorah, you've said exactly what I've been feeling for years but never dared say; and the other half accused me of mean-mindedness, spite, and every kind of twisted malevolence. A correspondent in Canada forwarded to me some of the Internet stuff (this was before I knew how to subscribe to discussions groups, so I hadn't seen it for myself). I was amazed by the frothing swivel-eyed barminess of some of it. Apparently one of my motivations was envy, because Lewis's books have sold more than mine. Well, they would, with a fifty-year start, wouldn't you think? But that was the quality of the response. So you can't criticise C.S.Lewis with any hope of a rational discussion coming out of it. But in general, in the reviews I get asked to do, I avoid putting the boot in: there isn't room, in the limited space children's books have, for condemnation as well as praise. Far better to use the little opportunity the papers give you to talk about children's books to praise something readers might not otherwise come across.
3 Did you read the Narnia books when you were a boy, and if so were you as uneasy about them then as you are now?
No, I didn't read the whole of Narnia as a boy: I read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and felt slightly queasy, as if I were being pressured to agree to something I wasn't sure of. Now I can see what that was, and why I felt odd. Reading the whole sequence for the first time as an adult, I was angered and nauseated by the sneakiness of that powerful seductive narrative voice, that favourite-uncle stance, assuming my assent to his sneering attitude to anything remotely progressive in social terms, or to people with brown faces, or to children who don't seem like his own favourites. No-one has expressed this better than John Goldthwaite, in his marvellous A Natural History of Make-Believe (OUP, 1996), when he compares Lewis to that sort of teacher who seeks to curry favour with the bullies in his class by mocking the children they would be picking on anyway: the "little girls with fat legs" in Prince Caspian, for example.
4 Your comments on fantasy in another interview with the American internet bookshop Amazon, recently posted on the Amazon.co.uk site, and your efforts to disassociate yourself with the mainstream of children's fantasy, have surprised and confused many of your adult readers. An American on an e-mail mailing list commented recently: "Is it true he claims his books aren't fantasy? And where does he get off being so stupid?" Do you have an answer to that?
They do take things seriously, don't they. We need a special sort of typeface to signify irony: not italic but ironic. (Not my own idea, but I forget whose). I have said that HIS DARK MATERIALS is not fantasy but stark realism, and my reason for this is to emphasise what I think is an important aspect of the story, namely the fact that it is realistic, in psychological terms. I deal with matters that might normally be encountered in works of realism, such as adolescence, sexuality, and so on; and they are the main subject matter of the story the fantasy (which, of course, is there: no-one but a fool would think I meant there is no fantasy in the books at all) is there to support and embody them, not for its own sake. Daemons, for example, might otherwise be only a meaningless decoration, adding nothing to the story: but I use them to embody and picture some truths about human personality which I couldn't picture so easily without them. I'm trying to write a book about what it means to be human, to grow up, to suffer and learn. My quarrel with much (not all) fantasy is it has this marvellous toolbox and does nothing with it except construct shoot-em-up games. Why shouldn't a work of fantasy be as truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being as the work of George Eliot or Jane Austen? Well, there are a few fantasies that are. One of them is PARADISE LOST. That's where I get off being so stupid, in the words of that irony-free reader.
5 The first volume of His Dark Materials included an announcement saying that the second volume would be set "in the universe we know" and "The third will move between the universes". In the event The Subtle Knife, the second part, moves between three worlds, with helpful marginal motifs for the reader. What casued this change of plan?
My little announcement at the beginning of NORTHERN LIGHTS was overtaken by the need, when I got to Book Two, to let the reader know what was happening in Lyra's world. I had to go back and forth: hence the little motifs in the margin the idea, I happily admit, of my editor Liz Cross.
6 The Subtle Knife does gain from the congruence of contemporary Oxford and the other worlds. The new paperback editions of the first two volumes contain as impressive an array of review quotes as any leading adult novel. Why do you think that this work has been so enthusiastically received?
1. I don't know. I can only be very grateful. I guess that it probably does have something to do with this fantasy/realism thing: the most frequent comment I get from adult readers is something along the lines of "I never normally read fantasy, but I was hooked at once " and so forth. I'm giving them something they normally expect to get from realist fiction, which most readers probably prefer.
7 The reissue of The White Mercedes as The Butterfly Tattoo (also set in Oxford) earlier this year confirmed what a powerful realist writer you are. I liked the original title best, because the white Mercedes is such a sinister and imposing image at the book's conclusion. Who decided on the change?
The Macmillan editors, Marion Lloyd in particular, thought that THE WHITE MERCEDES was a title that would appeal more to boys, and be off-putting to girls. I wasn't sure, and I'm still not. The problem with changing titles is that someone is bound to buy it, thinking it's new, and be disappointed.
8 Coming back to the fantasy/other-world theme for a moment.When I reviewed The Subtle Knife in Literary Review, I wrote: "Where other writers of fantasy often merely pinch features from predecessors' visions, Pullman has created a unique otherworld, made all the more vivid by the frequent returns to Oxford." I had in mind, when writing this sentence, the phenomenal commercial success of the first Harry Potter book, which I have made no secret of being perplexed by. My perplexity has increased tenfold with the even greater success of the second book, and the spectacle of the first, in paperback now, being marketed for adults. Why any adult should want to read such derivative stuff, laced with juvenile jokes about bogeys of the nasal variety, rather than (or, even more puzzlingly, alongside) the literate, densely allusive writing of His Dark Materials I cannot fathom. My question is: were you at any stage concerned that the uncondescending references to Church lore and Milton might alienate some children?
No. I knew I was telling a story that would be gripping enough to take readers with it, and I have a high enough opinion of my readers to expect them to take a little difficulty in their stride. My readers are intelligent: I don't write for stupid people. Now mark this carefully, because otherwise I shall be misquoted and vilified again we are all stupid, and we are all intelligent. The line dividing the stupid from the intelligent goes right down the middle of our heads. Others may find their readership on the stupid side: I don't. I pay my readers the compliment of assuming that they are intellectually adventurous.
9 The daemons are such a distinctive feature of the His Dark Materials. They come over as some bizarre mixture of guardian angels and astral planes. Are they based on anything, or pure invention?
Daemons came into my head suddenly and unexpectedly, but they do have a sort of provenance. One clear origin is Socrates' daimon. Another is the old idea of the guardian angel.
10 You have been withering about the quality of writing in educational books, particularly in books about or for teaching English. What is your perception of the current state of play in the teaching of English in schools?
Withering I think I remember that book, and withering was what it needed. There is absolutely no excuse for poor writing. The language is our responsibility: we should look after it, not treat it badly. I know very little about the current state of English teaching; I left the classroom thirteen years ago, and have only visited it since as a bird of passage. I do know that I would find it impossible to teach now, myself, under the National Curriculum, and with Literacy Hours every day. It's a sad state of affairs when a profession isn't trusted and has to be told exactly what to do and how to do it: it means it is a profession no longer. It may be I don't know that the only place where proper teaching can now go on is in the independent schools, which as far as I know are not subject to this tyranny. What a marvellous state of affairs it would be, if that were true. That last sentence is to be printed in ironic.
11 You now have an international reputation and must be heavily in demand for conferences and other public events. To what extent do you safeguard your time to ensure continuous, uninterrupted periods for writing?
I try to say no. But the people who ask me to go and talk or lecture or whatever are such good people, doing such worthwhile things, and some of them are old friends; saying no is hard to do. But I try.
12 During Sunday tea today, my father-in-law, now in his late seventies, described his first school library. It was a glass-fronted cabinet, no more than 3 feet wide. To select a book, pupils had to point at the glass. The teacher would then open the cabinet, take out the book and stamp it. Very often the wrong book was removed. No second-thoughts were allowed. This is in marked contrast to today, when huge numbers of children's books are published each year. Teachers and librarians often worry that children are just browsing, dilatorily starting one book then moving on to another without finishing the first. Do you have any advice for teachers and librarians who hold these concerns?
Advice to teachers and librarians anxious about children who browse or drift: two things, really. One is to keep on doing the "selling" that good librarians and teachers have always done: get to know the books, talk about them enthusiastically, read out intriguing first chapters, all that. The other is to trust the story. If people are reading Harry Potter (despite your reservations) dammit, if they're reading THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE then something in the story must have gripped them, and once gripped, twice a reader.
13 I know you have an interest in graphic novels and can remember you remarking somewhere on a group of secondary school pupils, whose literacy skills were rated very lowly by their teacher, being able to speak with great subtlety about narrative development, characterisation etc.in terms of the graphic books you discussed with them. Does this mean you advocate using such material in school?
Absolutely. The problem is twofold: one is that teachers really have to make the time to become acquainted with the best graphic novels, how they work, how to talk about them and they do take time: they are not easy to read by any means, being thicker (in an informational sense) than normal text. The other is availability. They often don't come through the normal channels of traditional publisher-rep-bookshop. There aren't many specialist comic shops in provincial towns.
14 To what uses, if any, do you put the Internet, and how do you see it impinging on children's reading?
For the first two years of my acquaintance with it, I used the internet almost exclusively for e-mail, which is wonderful. Then I began to browse a little, but found it too slow and hard to find what I really wanted not that I always know what that is, but it still seems easier in a library among a lot of books than on the screen. I've just woken up to the discussion groups thing the rutgers group, or whatever it is, and suchlike and now that I have, I'll probably lurk around the edges of that for a while.
15 How does your normal working day begin and end?
I sit down to write by hand, in ballpoint, on A4 narrow lined paper, after breakfast, and work through till lunch with a break for coffee and reading mail. Then I have lunch and watch Neighbours (invaluable). In the afternoon I read or take the dog for a walk or do something physically constructive (this summer I made a clavichord with my 16-year-old son a delightful business for all sorts of reasons). In the evening I finish the three pages which is my daily task, or if I finished them in the morning, I do whatever journalism or reviewing or lecture-planning I have in hand. I spend Sundays answering letters; it takes me all day. To add the answer to q.17 in here, I put the work on the computer after I've written it by hand. Actually, with the current work (Book Three of HIS DARK MATERIALS) my wife is entering the text for me, to save time, and I shall work on it when I've finished the whole thing, in a month or so.
16 What can you tell us about the book that's already finished, and due for publication in 1999?
I WAS A RAT is a variation on Cinderella. A little boy turns up at the home of an old childless couple insisting that he was a rat. They don't know what to do with him, so take him in; but gradually his claim that he used to be a rat ias taken more and more seriously by various interested parties, including, in increasing order of degradation, a fairground proprietor, the head of a gang of thieves, and a tabloid newspaper. What happens in the end depends on whether he has been telling the truth; but ... what is the truth? The Philosopher Royal says there's no such thing; but the Princess knows better.
17 And the shed you write in -- is it like Roald Dahl's, or is it wired up with all mod. con.s?
My shed is a twelve foot by eight foot wooden structure, with electricity, insulation, heating, a carpet, the table where I write (which is covered in an old kilim rug), my exorbitantly expensive Danish tilting-in-all-directions orthopaedic gas-powered swivelling chair, my old computer, printer and scanner (i.e. they don't work any more but I'm too mean to throw them out), manuscripts, drawings, apple cores, spiders' webs, dust, books in tottering heaps all over the floor and on every horizontal surface, about a thousand jiffy bags from books for review which I'm also too mean to throw away, a six-foot-long stuffed rat (the Giant Rat of Sumatra from a production of a Sherlock Holmes play I wrote for the Polka Theatre), a saxophone, a guitar, dozens of masks of one sort or another, piles and piles of books and more books and still more books, a heater, an old armchair filled to capacity with yet more books, a filing cabinet that I haven't managed to open for eighteen months because of all the jiffy bags and books which have fallen in front of it in a sort of landslide, more manuscripts, more drawings, broken pencils, sharpened pencils, dust, dirt, bits of chewed carpet from when my young pug Hogarth comes to visit, stones of every kind: a cobblestone from Prague, a bit of Mont Blanc, a bit of Cape Cod ... On and on the list goes. It is a filthy abominable tip. No-one would go in there unless they absolutely had to. I enter it each morning with reluctance and leave as soon as I can.
18 Sounds like a place for ACHUKA's digital camera! In the meantime, can we finish with a question about your book jackets... Which of your covers do you like/dislike the most and why?
Easy to say which of my covers I like the most: the US Knopf edition of the first two books of HIS DARK MATERIALS (they call NORTHERN LIGHTS by the name THE GOLDEN COMPASS). They were painted by the artist Eric Rohmann, whose beautiful picture books are not known in this country, to my continuing amazement, and are absolutely stunning. Many of my European publishers use the same design. As for the ones I liked(d) least, they'd have to be the Puffin photographic covers for THE RUBY IN THE SMOKE and its sequels: a conceptual mistake, I always felt.
Here is an opportunity to order the American editions. The hardbacks, with cover designs referred to by Philip Pullman, are above. These are available at a significant discount. The American paperback editions are below.