Philip Pullman talks exclusively to Cuckoo (about Moomins)

At Durham Book Festival, Cuckoo Reviewer in Residence and Matthew Hale Award winner Jowita Krasik got the chance to talk exclusively to Philip Pullman about William Blake, Moomins and revisiting Lyra in his forthcoming novel.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the first book in Philip Pullman’s seminal His Dark Materials trilogy and, to celebrate, Durham Book Festival organised a special celebration of his works, culminating in a special event at The Gala Theatre on Saturday 17 October.

Pullman’s stories appeal to people of all age groups and this was evident from the audience, which was brimming with diversity. Younger readers get to enjoy the action of his books, while older readers can delve deeper into the darker sides of his world. His narrative choices aren’t dictated by readership “The story is the master and I am the servant”, he tells me.

But what led him to start writing in the first place, I asked, having been lucky enough to interview him before the event: “When I was a small child, I loved books and stories so much,” he told me. “I’d read stories and then I’d tell them to my brother and to my friends at school. I suppose I must have realised at some point that the people who wrote the stories got money back from them, and from then on there was no turning back! That’s what I wanted to do… I always wanted to write.”

On a personal level, Pullman’s books helped me out enormously when I was learning English as a second language (even though I read them in the wrong order, having started with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, before working my way back to Northern Lights!).

It seems appropriate then, that one of Pullman’s favourite stories growing up is not very well known at all in the UK. “There’s an Australian book called The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay – it’s an Australian children’s classic, which was published about 100 years ago actually. We lived for a while in Australia when I was a boy and every Australian child has this book. And I read it and I loved it… I still love it. It’s very, very funny… an enormously funny book. And I also loved comics as well – Superman, Batman – and the British comics as well: The Beano and The Dandy and things like that.

Another series I was very fond of was the Moomin books by Tove Jansson. They’re a family of little trolls that live in Finland, like little hippopotamuses. I loved them and I still do – I think they are wonderful books. Those are my favourites, I think… If my stories are any good it’s because I’ve been imitating the stories that I enjoyed when I was young.”

Above anybody else, Pullman’s main inspiration is the poet William Blake, and he recited a number of his poems during the event: “I came to William Blake when I was about 16 and I was reading a big long poem called ‘Howl’ by the American poet Allen Ginsburg – he was one of the beatniks of the 1950s. When I was 16 I was very keen on being a beatnik; they were sort of the hippies before hippies. Anyway, Ginsburg mentions William Blake a lot, and because I was interested in Ginsburg I found myself interested in William Blake and I found him absolutely wonderfully exciting and truthful: he seemed to tell the truth about people. He has a wonderful collection of poems called Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which is where the famous poem ‘Tiger, Tiger’ comes from.”

If he had to recommend one book for a young person to read, however, it would be something completely different.

“I think I’d go for the Brothers Grimm,” he tells me. “There are many great novels that everyone ought to read, but sometimes we’re not ready for them. I’m thinking in particular of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which is a great book, but I tried to read it when I was at university studying English, but I didn’t get on with it at all. But then, reading it when I was forty, suddenly it all came into focus… I was able to see it. It’s a wonderful book… a magnificent book, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a young writer. I would recommend the fairy tales by Grimm, because they’re written with such a simplicity and clarity that they’re a great lesson for anyone who’s writing. Whether you’re going to write fairy tales, or thrillers or chick-lit or romance, you can’t do better, if you want to be a storyteller, than to learn from the Brothers Grimm.”

A few years ago, Pullman translated a collection of the Grimms’ fairy tales, which he tells me was a very enjoyable experience. “One day I’d like to do something else like that again; I’d like to do a collection of maybe English and Scottish ballads or maybe British folk tales, which are also very important to me.” The darker undertone of his novels (for example, children being ‘severed’ from their daemons) can be traced back to many of these traditional stories, which we get told today as children in highly condensed versions.

Durham Book Festival has been distributing 3,000 free copies of Northern Lights – the opening His Dark Materials instalment – around the region, as part of their Big Read project, which brings us to his inspiration behind its main protagonists.

“Lyra isn’t based on any one particular girl but I’ve known a lot of girls like Lyra, because I used to teach a lot of girls that age. The thing about her is that she’s a very ordinary girl… she’s not special at magic or got a great secret destiny that she has to find out about. She’s an ordinary girl with an ordinary girl’s reactions. She’s very affectionate; she’s very quick to give her love to things; she’s brave; she’s a little bit willful and naughty and she wants her own way… that sort of thing.”

Her friend Will Parrie comes from a completely different background: “His situation is that he’s looking after his mother, who is very ill … I haven’t known any children in that position, but I have heard of situations like his, and it strikes me as an extraordinarily brave thing to do.”

Finally, I asked to what extent Pullman has drawn from experiences in his own life when writing his novels. “I sometimes put it like this,” he says, “life begins when we’re born, but our story begins when we discover we’ve been born accidentally into the wrong family. We find that we’re different from our parents, and from our brothers and sisters: how can they live with this terrible furniture they’ve got and this awful wallpaper, and the terrible music they listen to on the radio? I’m not like them; I’m somebody else… I’m me; I’m different. That’s the time of life which Lyra and Will are just about to enter into at the end of Spyglass.”

It was certainly a great pleasure to meet the man behind so many wonderful stories and learn how his own life contributed towards his writing.

He ended with one particular nugget that I’ll be sure to bear in mind: “When I have a story in my head, I want to tell it as well as possible. I don’t just do it for the readers; I do it for me…”