Author Interviews, Book Resources

Philip Pullman Interview Transcript

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The author Philip Pullman was interviewed by Scholastic students.

When did you first start writing?
In 1968. I began writing my first novel the day after I took my final exams at Oxford University. And I just never stopped

What was your favorite subject in school?
My favorite subject was English, partly because it was all about reading, and I loved reading books. And partly because I could do it. Spelling and grammar and that kind of thing came very easily to me, unlike science and mathematics, which I found much harder.

What age group do you consider your books appropriate for?
Anybody who can read at all will get something out of more or less anything I've written. It's impossible to say precisely who my audience is or ought to be, and I really don't like to shut anyone out by saying, for example, that this is a book for young children, or for teenagers, or anything like that. I hope that my audience includes boys, girls, men, women, dogs, horses, and pigeons.

The characters in the His Dark Materials trilogy often have very unusual names. How did you come up with names like “Lyra,” and do the names themselves have any special meaning?
Okay, Lyra (lye-ra) had her name from the very beginning. I don't know where it came from. Other names I had to make up. For example, Lee Scoresby comes from two sources. One is the actor Lee Van Cleef, who looks just like the character. And the other is the name of an arctic explorer, William Van Scorsby. But you have to look in all sorts of places to find names for characters. For example, the witch, Serafina Pekkala - I got her name by looking in the Helsinki telephone directory, because I wanted a name that sounded Finnish.

Did The Golden Compass stir up controversy?
Yes, to a small extent it has done. The books do talk about the big questions of religion, such as “Where do we come from?,” “Is there a purpose to life?,” “What happens when we die?,” and so on. And the answers that the book seems to suggest are not necessarily those that organized churches or organized religion would agree with. So, a certain amount of controversy is probably inevitable.

Where did the idea for The Firework-Maker's Daughter come from?
This came from my childhood. When we used to have fireworks every year on Guy Fawkes Night. I always loved the names they used to give fireworks, such as “incandescent fountain,” “scarlet volcano,” and things like that. And I'd never lost that love of fireworks, so I thought it would be nice to do a story all about them.

Are there really albino elephants?
As far as I know, yes. But I'm not sure whether they're pure snowy white. I just like the idea of all this big white space on which it was possible to write graffiti, and post bills, and so on.

Did moving around a lot as a kid affect your writing?
Well, it certainly gave me a lot more things to remember when I was grown up. We traveled pretty well all around the world by sea. And doing that, you come to see things that you just wouldn't notice when you fly. I mean, things like flying fishes and whales and the way the color of the ocean changes around the far south of Africa. And how the feeling of the ship changes with the different shape of the waves. And all these physical memories are still very real and vivid to me. Like the smell of the diesel fuel mixed with the smell of cooking food. And that's just given me a store of memories that I would never have had otherwise. Some of them I use, and some I haven't used yet. But I'm very lucky to have had those experiences.

Have you visited the United States?
Yes, I have. As a matter of fact, I was there just a month ago, touring for a new book. I've toured over most of the United States, but the problem with this sort of tour is that you have to travel onwards too quickly to be able to see very much of any one place. So I now have a long list of places to come back to and spend longer in.

Do you do a lot of research when you're not writing a book just to get ideas?
Ideas come all the time. I never have to do any research to find ideas. Research, for me, is just a name for having fun finding out things. And sometimes these are things I'm searching for in particular, and sometimes they're just things I get curious about for no special reason. It's not what a scholar would call research, but that's what I call it.

Why do you like to do your writing in a shed?
I had the shed built about 15 years ago when my oldest son, who was then 13 years old, was learning the violin. I was a teacher in those days, and I used to write in my spare time, which happened to be about the time of day when my son was practicing his violin. Now, he's a very good musician, and I found it more interesting to listen to him than to do my writing. So, I had the shed built in order to have a quiet place where I wouldn't be distracted. And I've worked in it ever since.

Are you researching anything in particular right now?
Not researching at the moment. What I'm doing now is gathering my thoughts in preparation for another short-ish book, about the same length as The Firework-Maker's Daughter, which I'm planning to start writing in February. But that doesn't need much in the way of looking things up. It's just a matter of sitting in my chair, staring at the wall, and tapping my pencil on the table.

What advice do you have for kids who want to be writers?
My advice is to take no notice of anyone else who thinks they can tell you what people want to read. If you ask anyone now, bookseller, publisher, reader, or librarian, what they want most, the answer will be “the next Harry Potter.” Now then, did they say that before the first Harry Potter was published? Of course not - they didn't know they wanted Harry Potter until J. K. Rowling thought of him. So the truth of it is, they don't know what they want, and you have to show them. And the only way to do that is to write exactly what YOU want.

How did you come to write two such very different series as the Sally Lockhart trilogy and His Dark Materials?
They started in different ways. The first Sally Lockhart book began because I was fascinated by the world of late Victorian London, and I was sure that there were lots of exciting stories I could tell about that time. His Dark Materials began very simply with a picture in my head of a little girl overhearing something she wasn't supposed to overhear. And it all grew out of that. But the two series do have something in common, I hope. Which is that in both of them, I put the story before everything else.

Where did you get the ideas about the daemons in The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife?
In my shed!! What I mean by that is that the idea came, like every other idea I've ever had, as a result of sitting and thinking. And there's no other answer than that.

You seem to have a lot of very strong female main characters. Do you do that on purpose?
No, I don't. But I'm always glad to find strong female characters in my stories. For lots of reasons, not least because I like strong female people in life. But I've always thought that in order to show girls being strong, you don't have to show boys being weak. So, I try to maintain a balance and to depict strong and weak, good and bad, men and women, girls and boys.

Do you still collect comic books?
Yes, I do. And on my recent tour of the States, I gathered a good number of them. Some of which I haven't had time to read yet. I love comic books because I think they're a very exciting way of telling stories.

Have you ever authored a comic book?
No. I would like to very much. But I'd also like to do the drawings. I do draw, but I'm not yet good enough to draw faces. I can draw bodies and buildings, but faces are what you tell stories with, and I'm not good enough at them, yet. But maybe one day...

Thank you to everyone who asked questions, and my best wishes to all. I hope you enjoy reading any books of mine you haven't gotten to yet!

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