Philip Pullman is the author of the bestselling trilogy His Dark Materials (Knopf) and two short spin-off novels, Lyra’s Oxford, and coming this April, Once Upon a Time in the North, which follows the adventures of aeronaut Lee Scorseby and reveals how he meets the armored bear Iorek Byrnison. We spoke with Pullman on the phone from his home in Oxford.
What occasioned you to write Once Upon a Time in the North?
Well, I had already done Lyra’s Oxford, which is just a short story really, but one framed in a beautifully produced book with all the engravings and documents. We enjoyed playing with that model—the designer, publisher and I—and Once Upon a Time in the North is produced the same way.
Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North—they are like an amuse-bouche—you know, those little French hors d’œuvres served at the beginning of a meal to whet the appetite. Each one is a short story, really, intended to divert and entertain.
Why did you choose to write about Lee Scorseby and not another character from His Dark Materials?
I’d always wanted to tell the story of how Lee and Iorek met for the first time. It was my son that wanted to know this story actually—it was he who suggested that I write about how they first met and I agreed it would be nice. Lee and Iorek are quite middle-aged by the time of His Dark Materials, and are old companions. I always start with a theme, and I discovered partway through that Lee’s story is about honor, about the fact that he is an honorable man. There are a number of situations in the book when his honor is tempted—he’s wounded, he’s dirt poor, but he still behaves honorably and he gains a great a friend in Iorek.
Lee has a soft spot for women too, doesn’t he?
Well, yes of course. Lee Scorseby is a grown man. At one point he makes a pass at Serafina Pekkala and she turns him down!
What else are you working on these days?
At the moment, I’m writing a comic. It’s a weekly comic produced by David Fickling, my British publisher. In Britain we used to have comics that came out every week—funny stories, adventure stories, fantasy stories. This is what I am revising.
Can you tell us what the comic is about?
It’s a bit secret. I’m under strict instructions to keep it under wraps.
How about why you decided to get into writing comics then?
I love comics. I’ve always loved the comics—ever since I discovered them as a boy, the intoxicating swiftness of the narrative once you have pictures as well as words. I remember when I realized the graphic difference between a speech bubble and a think bubble, the way you tell the difference between speaking and thinking in a comic. It was wonderful. It’s one of those great moments in our discovery of how to read. So I remember that from my childhood and I remember the excitement from getting a comic every week. And then I remember my discovery of Batman and Superman—I was living in Australia at around age nine. I’d never seen American comics before and I remember the dizzying sense of excitement and thrill when the latest Batman and Superman came available. I also loved (in those two comics in particular) the unlimited fantasy: you could draw anything, invent anything—there were no boundaries.
Are there any comics in particular that are influencing yours?
One of my models for comic storytelling is the great Europeans—especially Hergé’s Tintin. Tintin inhabits a real world, unlike Superman; or should I say a “real” world, one where there are fast cars, but no superpowers. Hergé has an unrivaled ability to draw supremely well, to create a huge cast of characters, for example, each of whom has a face that is recognizably and immediately his and no one else’s, and which is also capable of registering a range of emotions and expressions; and all with such simple lines, and little dots for eyes! It's almost miraculous. Similarly, his backgrounds are immaculately researched, the perspectives are solid; everything seems real. I said “his” and not “his or her,” however, because there is only one female character in the whole of the oeuvre, and that is Bianca Castafiore, the terrifying soprano. That is a lack, or a limitation; Tintin’s world is entirely a male one. But what a rich one, and so funny and inventive. That’s the kind of comic I am aspiring to. That’s not exactly giving away secrets. I think what I’ve said remains in the margins of the permitted.
Going back to His Dark Materials, and the all-important question on fans’ minds: are there any more HDM books in the works?
Yes—The Book of Dust. It’s another novel. It’s set rather later, after Lyra’s Oxford, when Lyra is a bit older. There’s a little hint about what Lyra is doing later on. I wanted to bring Lyra in tangentially at the end.
And when can we hope to read The Book of Dust?
The Book of Dust has had numerous hold-ups, principally because of the other things people keep asking me to do that prevent me from being single-minded about it. The filming of The Golden Compass took up a year of my life. I’m multitasking at the moment: I’m writing the comic, I’m writing essays with political themes. But a novel is more demanding than that. A novel is something that occupies all my time and all my attention. To try to do many things at once—it’s like asking an oil tanker to be a taxi.
When I’ve finished the story I’m writing for the comic, I’ll say no to everything else. I wonder how many times I’ve said that now....
You mentioned at the talk you gave at the New York Times last fall how many drafts you went through of chapter one for The Golden Compass—13 or 14, I think you said. Is this just part of the writing process for you? Do you go through that many drafts for chapters in all of your books?
I never write with the intention of writing that many drafts. Every time I write a sentence it’s with the intention of it being the last version of that sentence.
What about the Sally Lockhart books? Would you consider another story featuring her in the future?
Later on... yes. Not immediately, of course. I’ve got my hands full with Lyra for the next two or three years. I will certainly come back to Sally because I like her and there are a lot of interesting stories I can tell about her. I also like the realism of the background, and I like the dynamics between the characters—especially, since The Tin Princess, Jim and Adelaide. I want to develop them further. I can see them as a sort of wisecracking and very sexy pair of late Victorian detectives, a sort of William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man. If I have time, if I have time....
Any tour plans coming up that we can look forward to?
Oh no! [Pullman laughs.] I tour with great reluctance and only when the next big book comes out. It’s exhausting and it’s never-ending. Of course I love to meet people—that’s the best part. But it would be nice if they’d come to me!
Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman. Knopf, $12.99, 978-0-375-84510-9 ages 12-up