Philip Pullman talks about writing

Philip Pullman, Penelope Lively and Daniel Hahn
On May 13th, I took the bus over to Piccadilly Circus for a Society of Authors event that I had been looking forward to for quite a while: Philip Pullman in conversation with Daniel Hahn and Penelope Lively. It was an unusually well-balanced and fascinating discussion by three authors who obviously respected each other and their audience. Here are my notes of their discussion. 

Daniel Hahn's Twitter pic is by Sarah McIntyre 
Introducing the other writers, Daniel Hahn, the moderator, mentioned that Philip Pullman has won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Prize, "the Nobel Prize for children's writing"– adding that the Nobel Prize never does go to writers for children. Penelope Lively has won the Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal, among other awards for her books both for children and adults.

The first question was to Penelope Lively

Daniel Hahn: What were you like as a child? Did you read much?

Penelope Lively: All I did was read! I think childhood reading is different from every other kind of reading.

Egypt in 1942 
As a child, I was educated at home in Egypt, during World War II, by someone whose own education had stopped at age 15. Although the war was going on, we were still able to get books from Britain. I found Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series, set in the Lake District, completely enthralling. The green hills and lakes were so exotic! Palm trees and the Nile were not exotic to me. 

I also loved reading Andrew Lang's fairy tales and his Tales of Troy and Greece. I gave Achilles a tank instead of swords.

At the end of the war, I was sent to a British boarding school, where one of the punishments was to be sent to read a book for an hour in the library. –Penelope Lively

[This interview quotes one of her teachers at the school who confiscated her Oxford Book of English Verse with the words, “You are here to be taught that sort of thing, Penelope. And your lacrosse performance is abysmal.” ] 

In response to the same question, Philip Pullman talked about his own very different but also exotic childhood. His father and stepfather were both in the RAF and they travelled to new postings by sea. 

Philip Pullman: Southern Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] by sea, Norfolk to Australia by sea. You don't just get into a metal tube and climb out at the other end.

Like Penelope, Philip loved to read. 

The first book I managed to decipher was a Noddy book. [Being an American, I did not know Noddy and heard this as "naughty," which gave me the wrong impression!] 

Philip read Rudyard Kipling, especially the Just So Stories. As he was leaving the house in England for one of these ocean voyages, he seized a book as he left, which turned out to be Longfellow's Hiawatha poems. 

It had a strange rhythm– powerful.
"Dead he lay there in the sunset"
 In Australia, he discovered American comics, which had not yet made their way to Britain. Philip loved Superman and Batman. The story is swift and economical. Nothing stands in the way of what comes next. Returning to the U.K., he frequented the Battersea Park Public Library and loved the Moomins. I know they're two-dimensional; they don't look right in three dimensions.

The Moomins: Sniff, Snufkin, Moominpappa, Moominmamma, Moomintroll (Moomin), the Mymble's daughter, Groke, Snork Maiden and Hattifatteners
Daniel Hahn asked a question about rhythm and sound in writing.

Philip Pullman: Rhythm is terribly important. I don't know how people write with music playing– I have to stop it. I can put up with pneumatic drills but not music. 

I hear the rhythm of the next sentence before I know what's in it. –Philip Pullman

Daniel Hahn: Do you think about your audience when you are writing?

Penelope Lively: The childhood experience of reading is different from adults' reading. There is an innocence. I would read Nicholas Nickleby aloud to a friend, weeping. Writing for children, I always read it to myself. With adult novels, too, if something sounds lumpy it is wrong.

When I was writing for children, I was always afraid it could put some child off reading! It was a huge responsibility.

If I were on a desert island, I'd still write. –Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman: I try not to presume anything about my audience. I try not to think about them.He began writing for children when he was teaching ages 9-13 and needed a play, so he wrote one himself. I discovered you have to entertain adults as well. I enjoyed seeing mixed audiences of adults and children laughing at the same points.... If I were on a desert island, I'd still write.

I think it was Auden who said that there are some good books that are only for adults, but there are none only for children. –Penelope Lively
Philip Pullman: The joy of discovering a good children's book as a parent is wonderful.

Daniel Hahn: When did you know you wanted to be an author?

Penelope Lively: Very late, my early 30s. I thought, could I have a go myself?

Philip Pullman: I used to enjoy telling stories when I was young, and then I started making them up. From the moment I discovered authors got paid! I don't think there's a moment when I haven't. I wanted to be a poet as a teenager.

This is not the boarding school Penelope Lively attended 
Penelope Lively: Every self-respecting teenager should be writing poetry. In my appalling boarding school, another girl and I used to write, and we had to keep it a secret.

Daniel Hahn: I have heard a child ask, "How much do you have to pay to get your book published?" A chilling vision of the future!

Tell us about how you write.

Philip Pullman: Writing came from reading. I was an obsessive reader as a child. The reading turned into writing at some point.... I haven't got the energy I used to. Three pages a day is his output but I do very little else. Now, when he is stuck he isn't anxious. Habit is the writer's greatest friend. 
Habit has written more books than talent ever has. –Philip Pullman

Penelope Lively: I was a diarist for 30 years. Diary writing is a workout, a bit like exercises. I am not sure I'm as confident as Philip. The stuckness happens a lot.

Audience members had been asked to submit questions in advance.

Daniel Hahn: There are a lot of questions about process.

Penelope Lively: I used to go to my desk at 9:30 and stay there most of the rest of the day. I've a notebook where I dash down ideas. I used to have a pigeonhole system. The trouble with a diary is that there's no index! But it's fascinating to look back at a diary. The memories are different.

Daniel Hahn: Has the way you think about memory changed?

Penelope Lively: Long-term memory is always there. But why have we got one memory, and not others? Somewhere inside here [tapping her head] is a whole lot of memories that I have no access to. As opposed to the polished ones, that we take out and polish again.

Daniel Hahn asked an audience-member question about ideas.

Ideas come to my desk. If I'm not there, they go away again. –Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman: On a long book, I spend a long time brooding about it. There are three piles of paper: story– notes– and throw-away.

If I forget the idea, it wasn't worth keeping.

Penelope Lively: Poets are good at this.

Philip Pullman: Ideas have a weight. You can generally tell if the idea is a short story or a novel. There's a hinterland.

Penelope Lively said that she had once had a bad fall. Afterwards, she sat down and found herself writing, 'The pavement rose up and slammed into her face.' These became the opening words of How It All Began

Daniel Hahn: What do you think all your work has in common?

Philip Pullman: I haven't finished! So I can't say.

Penelope Lively: I had no idea I'd write adult books! It was in no sense deliberate. She said she fills a whole notebook up before beginning to write. 

A question followed about planning books.

Philip Pullman: I like writing in the dark.

I used to make a plan, but then by the time I finished, I was so bored with the bloody thing that I wrote a completely different sentence. 

It really worries me that schools make children do a plan first.

Once you've got a lot of dead ends and loops, you have to go back and do some surgery. Like turning a tree into a chair. That's the stage I enjoy.

But P.G. Wodehouse used to write 30,000 words of a synopsis before he started his books!

Both writers agreed that they hate the phrase "writer's block." 

Penelope Lively: Sometimes the characters fall silent for a week.

Raymond Chandler used to say that when you didn't know what to write next, have a man come through the door with a gun. –Philip Pullman

Daniel Hahn said that characters often seemed to have their own lives and could do surprising things.

Philip Pullman: How do we know when a story has gone wrong?

Penelope Lively: When the implausibility is implausible. There has to be an internal coherence to the implausibility.

Philip Pullman: As when you are watching a play and the scenery onstage wobbles.

One test is when they do something surprising and it feels right. For example, in Trollope, whom I admire, there is a young clergyman in Barchester Towers who is speaking with an old lady. She tells him not to disregard honour and money. It's surprising.

Daniel Hahn: Are you optimists about publishing today?
Philip Pullman: We are in the middle of one of the very great revolutions in storytelling. The first one was language; then of making marks on clay or papyrus. The third was Gutenberg. The fourth is digital. 

In the middle of revolutions, you cannot tell what is going to happen. –Philip Pullman

Johannes Gutenberg did not plan the Protestant Reformation.

I'm not a pessimist. The hunger for stories is a permanent part of human nature. The desire to tell stories is strong.

For such things as royalties and copyrights, it's very different. And that's why we have the Society of Authors. [The audience applauds.]

Penelope Lively: Will stories cease to be written? I don't think so. I have an old-fashioned belief in the future of the book. My grandchildren prefer to read books, not a Kindle.

It is a dire time, though, for younger writers. Editors and publishers used to be much more willing for writers to take a few years. They would put their trust in a writer. It was a much healthier climate. Now the money men have taken over. Huge conglomerates.

Philip Pullman: Publishing is bigger and bigger. But it's tesselated. The spaces between have grown bigger, and there is room for small presses like Pushkin and Galileo in the gaps.

A book is a marvellous piece of technology! When you drop it, the words stay where they are! –Philip Pullman

You can drop it in the bath!

Daniel Hahn: How will the profession of writer be different in the future?

Penelope Lively: It already is. There are so many more literary festivals; so many book groups disseminating writing. It's excellent for readers, it's socially cohesive, and for writers.

There seems to be an expectation now that writers will go on roadshows. –Daniel Hahn

Penelope Lively: We never anticipated that.

Philip Pullman: Some people are good at it, and some are bad. Writers don't fill stadiums and sell merchandise. Publishers used to pay for book tours. The world is different now. But there's no reason we writers should be good at these things.

Daniel Hahn: Another reader question. What was the first book to affect you?

Philip Pullman: The death of Robin Hood. That was something I remember. Hiawatha–the bird that dies. I remember weeping.

Penelope Lively: Dickens, definitely. Nicholas Nickleby.

Daniel Hahn: A reader question for Philip about the stealing of the daemon of the child. What was the meaning of this? Could it have something to do with boarding school?
Lyra and her daemon, by Farewellrani
Philip Pullman: In the simple sense, no. But I didn't really know what the daemon meant. It wasn't there in my first draft. But remember what I said about Raymond Chandler? The man with the gun? Putting in the daemon helped the story. We don't always know the meanings of what we write. I wrote the whole first chapter with just Lyra. But it was all internal dialogue. With the daemon, suddenly this became a dynamic relationship– it was much easier to write.

Daniel Hahn: Are you ever surprised by readers' interpretations?

Philip Pullman: Some are alarming, some are hilarious. This raises adult questions about literary criticism. But does an author know what's in the book? Up to a point, yes, but ... no.

The floor was opened to questions.

Audience member: A question for Penelope Lively. I'm a psychiatrist. You spoke of not being able to access memories. Sometimes under hypnosis people can remember things.

Philip Pullman: Memories under hypnosis? I'm quite skeptical. It might feel very true, but if there is no independent confirmation of the memory, how do we know it's true?

Daniel Hahn mentioned the German book Anders [the title means Otherwise/Different/Someone Else], by Andreas Steinhöfl, about a boy who falls into a coma and loses his memory. He has to find out from other people who he really is.

Audience member: Can you discuss diversity in children's fiction? I'm the mother of four Asian-British children.

Philip Pullman: We go to fiction to extend the range of our empathy. It speaks so quietly and closely to all of us.

Penelope Lively: Children need to read to escape the prison of their own heads.

Philip Pullman: I have just read a wonderful book called The Art of Being Normal, by Lisa Williamson. It's not just for boys who want to be girls– it's for everyone.

Penelope Lively: There needs to be every kind of diversity.

Audience member: Do you ever write the last paragraph or chapter first? Do you feel a compulsion to write the ending first?

Penelope Lively: No, I have to have a chronology. Sometimes I write a scene that has to come in later, but not the ending.

Philip Pullman: No, I write in order. In the Dark Materials trilogy, I ended the book in hexameter [like Hiawatha] and with the same word it began with–'Lyra'. Nobody noticed.

Audience member: Does it matter where you write?

Penelope Lively: I can write anywhere. Some of my happiest writing has been simply sitting in a garden in Somerset.

Philip Pullman: I'm very superstitious. I like to have my lucky bits near me. I have a lucky stone on my desk, and a lucky magnifying glass.

Time was up. Daniel Hahn thanked both writers, and the audience members gave a good round of applause. The latest books of the three writers were for sale afterwards. It was a very satisfying evening. –Julie Sullivan

Daniel Hahn is a writer of more than 40 books, award-winning translator, and editor of the new Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. He is currently chair of the Society of Authors. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielhahn02
Penelope Lively's books have won the Booker Prize, the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Award, among others. Her latest book is Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time, a memoir.
Philip Pullman is the winner of the Astrid Lindgren prize, the Carnegie Medal and the Carnegie of Carnegies, the author of many books, and the current president of the Society of Authors, an organisation that defends the rights of British writers. He is on Twitter at @philippullman


  1. I love that the daemon came about partly just to give Lyra someone to interact with!

  2. Yes, it's so interesting seeing how writers sometimes often don't even know about important characters in advance! Aragorn in Lord of the Rings was originally a hobbit with wooden feet!

  3. It always take lot of time to become a successful writer. Without good writing practice we can't be successful. summarize an article


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