This year’s London Literary Festival began with a talk from the author Philip Pullman at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. During a fascinating evening, a transfixed audience were taken through the life and works of the Norwich-born writer, everything from the comic book-loving youngster to the much-loved author of today.
A particular theme of note was Pullman’s description of how the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy came about. One of the most amazing children’s books of recent times was created – rather modestly – as a result of a lunch with the author’s publisher, which consisted of some “particularly excellent sausages and mash”. When asked by his publisher what he would like to write next, even much to his own surprise, Pullman declared he was keen to create a new version of John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. With both men possibly over-enthused by what were some particularly good sausages and mash, the pair excitedly bounced thoughts and ideas off each other for several hours and ‘His Dark Materials’ was born.
This rather unplanned and spontaneous approach to the trilogy seemingly continued as the work began to take shape. Key themes in the book seemed to appear at random and developed fluidly over time. The author spoke about how the all-important element of the daemon occurred, an idea which only formed as he struggled with what was “the fifteenth draft of the first chapter”. This integral theme which featured so strongly in the trilogy only came about as a highly frustrated Pullman decided he needed to take drastic methods and “adopt the Raymond Chandler approach” (when in doubt, have a man enter the room with a gun) i.e. when in trouble as an author, simply surprise yourself.
“Time spent telling a great story is never time wasted” - Philip Pullman
It was incredible to hear how Pullman worked as a writer. Whilst his methods appear systematic, bordering on superstitious (he always writes using the same pen, upon the same type of paper, within the same room), his ideas seem to appear from rather more ambiguous beginnings.
It would be interesting to hear how other books of his were developed, and similarly those of other authors too. To think of the number of books which have been created out of just a random thought or conversation. How important have the specific circumstances of motive and method been to creating some of the great literary works throughout history? For example, a person I know (who shall remain nameless) once wrote and got published a chapter of a book simply because they needed to buy a new hall carpet. What would have happened if the rest of the house had needed re-decorating too? Would the chapter in question have changed or been added to? Could it have become a book or even a trilogy?
Similarly, think of the number of great stories which have been lost because of the wrong circumstances. Would ‘His Dark Materials’ have ever materialised if it had not been for that conversation and those particularly excellent sausages and mash?
In my opinion, we are greatly indebted to that particular lunch.