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20 | May 2, 2013 | | Cambridge News


Philip Pullman: ‘I think we can all sympathise with someone who doesn’t fit’


KNOW what my daemon is,” says Philip Pullman earnestly. “She’s one of those birds that sometimes looks like a magpie or a jackdaw, or a raven when she’s being particularly cross; one of those birds that steals things, one of the crow family. Because that’s what storytellers do, we find nice interesting things lying around and we pick them up, take them away and write stories about them.” Talking to Philip Pullman, the outspoken children’s author who brought up a generation on dust and giant polar bears, feels like being woven into one of his tales. Melodically answering questions with a voice that has the same comforting tone as David Attenborough, his sentences spill out like a Jackanory special; it’s enthralling. That’s not to say it isn’t incredibly nerve-racking speaking to a man renowned as much for his writing talent as for his outspoken views as an atheist – he regularly receives letters telling him he has sentenced himself to “damnation by fire” and “eternal hell”. Thank goodness he didn’t mind the “What would your daemon be?” question. Whether you’ve spent large portions of your life happily devouring his Sally Lockhart books or reading Northern Lights over and over again, the Norwich-born giant of children’s stories is a literary juggernaut. Since his writing career launched, as a sideline at first, in the early 70s, he has picked up the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Book of the Year award, the Guardian Children’s Book Award and the Carnegie of Carnegies, but these trinkets aren’t his greatest achievements. Pullman is most proud of staying in print. “That’s something I’m very happy about, because books go out of print so quickly and the life of a book can be very, very short,” he says. “But I’m very proud that most of my books are still there on the bookshelf.” A case in point is the fact we’re speaking in the run up to the fantastical stage version of his 1999 children’s fairytale, I Was A Rat! at the Cambridge Arts Theatre – it has been whipped into theatrical shape by Teresa Ludovico, the artistic director of acclaimed Italian theatre company Teatro Kismet. It’s a story about a raggedy little boy who turns up on the doorstep of an elderly couple one winter’s night saying he was a rat. Philip, a former English teacher, explains how

In an exclusive interview, Ella Walker talks to the Northern Lights writer about the stage version of his children’s story, I Was A Rat!, and quizzes him on fairy tales, woodwork and the long awaited Book of Dust. ᔡ I Was A Rat! is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, May 4 at 1.30pm and 7pm. Tickets £12.50 for children / £15 for adults from (01223) 503333 or RAT’S THE WAY TO DO IT: Pullman’s show is at the Arts this week

the book, and now the show, charm readers and watchers alike because they tap into that irritating voice in our heads that tells us we’re different. “I think we can all sympathise with someone who doesn’t fit,” he says ponderingly. “Someone who doesn’t feel like they’re in their right place in the world, someone who doesn’t know what everybody else knows and doesn’t know how to behave, and always gets into trouble because they don’t know how to behave.” The story was one of his earliest forays into the world of the fairy tale, something with which Pullman has a serious preoccupation. “They’re not the same as writing a novel,” he says. “When you write a novel you can do all sorts of things with the camera, if you see what I mean. You can go close up and go into people’s minds, you can step back and see them from a distance then you can go into someone else’s mind, and you can do all that sort of thing that the cinema does so well. But with

a fairy tale you’re at a sort of fixed distance, you and the characters. You see them from the outside in a way.” He admits it’s a difficult thing to do, even when you enjoy it as much as he does, hence his recent, revised collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Grimm Tales: For Young and Old. Reading, distilling and rewriting the stories – and there are more than 200 of them – must have been a challenge. “The great thing there is that the stories are already there, and I didn’t have to make them up,” Pullman says wryly. “A lot of the Grimm stories are marvellous, a lot of them could be marvellous if they were a little bit twisted or the ending was a bit better or the beginning came a little less abruptly or something like that. So I felt I was entitled to change them around a bit just to make them read more fluently and to inhabit my voice a little more closely.” If you haven’t read the collection, Pullman

narrowed it down to 50 sinister and sweet, dark and funny tales. “The interesting thing is, when you ask people what fairy stories they remember from Grimm, we think there’s a lot, but there’s only about half a dozen. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin,” he reels off. “But as well as those, [I chose] stories that I found interesting or intriguing or unusual, stories I felt I could do something with. “The story I think was the best – the best, it’s not quite the same as a favourite – is one called The Juniper Tree. It’s the most beautiful, the most horrifying, the most perfect story in the whole book. It’s most extraordinary. But the story I like the most, is a very simple old one called The Musicians of Bremen. It’s about a donkey and a dog and a cockerel and a cat and they’re all so old that they’re going to be kicked out of the farm and they get together and decide they’re going to go to Bremen and be musicians. Well, they don’t get to Bremen but they find a nice happy home in the end. It’s a very simple little story and I’m very, very fond of it.” Known for writing plots that tackle difficult and sometimes terrifying subjects, fairy tale or not, he is definitely not afraid to scare. “There’s a difference between being scared and being horrified though,” he says, after I tell him Northern Lights still frightens me now. “I think one thing you should do with a story children are going to read is, you should leave them with a little bit of hope at the end, a little bit of redemption. You shouldn’t leave children with an ending that’s so bleak and so empty of hope and so full of misery that they’re left empty of hope and full of misery themselves. That’s the cruel thing and a wrong thing to do, I think. And although the ending of His Dark Materials is sad, there’s a strength in it and a hope too.” The 2007 film version, The Golden Compass, seemed to go too far

Cambridge News | | May 2, 2013 | 21

FYI How famous is Philip Pullman? He’s Google’s mumber on ‘Philip’ search – that’s how famous


Philip Pullman on . . . ɀ Never having learnt to play a musical instrument: “I regret I didn’t pay more attention to music when I was younger. Mind you, we moved about a lot when I was a child and we didn’t have a piano, so I couldn’t have learnt. But that’s what I’d like the most. Of course, nobody ever says ‘I wish I’d never learnt the piano’.”

Audrey Niffenegger ᔡ Audrey Niffenegger, St Peter’s Church, Ely, Wednesday, May 8, at 7.30pm. Tickets £6 from www. toppingbooks.

ɀ Stirring up religious controversy: “I think I was saying what I thought was right, what I still think is right, and if people get upset by it then they’re wrong. I don’t mind upsetting them.” ɀ Writing for adults as well as children: “It’s not easy to write for anyone but the sort of audience I like best isn’t exclusively children. When I was writing school plays, I always enjoyed seeing the children and the grown-ups laugh at the same time, and on the edge of their seats with suspense at the same time.” ɀ iPads, Kindles and ye olde paperback: “My two eldest grandchildren, they’ve got iPads and all sorts of things but they’re deep in books, always reading books, so I don’t think you can’t have the one if you have the other. I think if you’re interested in reading you’ll get your reading wherever you can, whether it’s from a book or an iPad, a Kindle or whatever.” ɀ What he’s currently reading: “I’m reading piles and piles of books, heaps and heaps of books. I pick one up, I read a bit and put it down, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped reading it, I’ve just stopped reading it for that moment, in that room.”

the other way, dumbing down the controversial aspects and smoothing out the parts which were tougher to read. What did he think of the film? “I thought parts of it were very good. Nicole Kidman was fabulous and the little girl who played Lyra, Dakota Blue Richards, she was perfect. But I wish they’d told the whole of the story instead of stopping before the end of the book. They filmed it, it’s all there somewhere,” he sighs. Although the film trilogy will not be completed, not with the same cast at least, as Dakota has grown up and Daniel Craig is “far too expensive”, he has high hopes it could be made for television instead. “Like Game of Thrones,” he buzzes. “I’d be very pleased if that happened.” Luckily His Dark Materials fans will

be pleased to hear The Book of Dust, a follow up to the trilogy, is slowly taking shape. “It’s set in Lyra’s world and Lyra is a character but it’s not set at the time of His Dark Materials, it’s both before and after,” Philip says cryptically, adding: “That’s all I can tell you, but it’s 200 pages long so far and I’m writing it steadily every day. It will probably take me all this year and all next year as well, to get it all done and all right.” The countdown to 2015 begins . . . And then what has he got planned? “I’d like to do another fairy story, but I’ve got lots of things I’d like to do. When I’ve got a bit of spare time I’d like to make an armchair,” he says explaining how he’s a bit of a carpenter, having already made a rocking horse and a stool to go in

front of the fire. It turns out books and wood go “very well” together. “When you write a book it’s all mental; apart from the action of moving your hand across the page, all the activity is mental. But when you’re doing something like craftsmanship, of any sort, it could be drawing or woodwork like I do, you’re doing something physical and you’re involved with a physical material. “You’re involved with the materiality of wood, and you have to feel it and you have to smell it, and you have to sense the way it’s going to behave if you saw it or plane it. It’s a very physical thing and I enjoy that enormously, it’s a great rest, a great change from writing.” Just as long as he doesn’t stop writing.

WHEN The Time Traveler’s Wife was released in 2003, there was no avoiding bookshops laden with the bittersweet tale of time-travelling Henry DeTamble and his wife Clare Abshire, ever being abandoned. It was wonderful, but sadly, there was no avoiding the inevitable Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana film either. Audrey Niffenegger’s second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, was a disaster, an exercise in trying too hard to squeeze out a second book quick-smart to capitalise on the debut’s success. Set in London’s Highgate Cemetery it played about with mystical body swapping, life and death and made a hash of the relationship between identical twins. Can you tell we weren’t impressed? The best part of it was a subplot about an agoraphobic who lived in an attic, writing crosswords. But perhaps we should give

Niffenegger the benefit of the doubt . . . In an evening hosted by Topping & Company’s Booksellers in Ely, the Chicagoborn author will be speaking about her new novella Raven Girl, a “new fairy tale” which she illustrated herself. So far, the national press have been debating whether drawing her own pictures was the best idea. Not that she’s a bad artist: Niffenegger has released several graphic novels, including The Night Bookmobile which was serialised for The Guardian, and has taught book art at several American universities. But The New Statesman has argued the new book’s illustration is a bit too literal: “A passage of a man watching his Raven-wife fly into the air is illustrated with a picture of a man watching a raven fly into the air.” We’re hoping she can talk her way back into our good books.

Philip Pullman: I Was A Rat!  

Philip Pullman: I Was A Rat!

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