Blog: His Dark Materials

DQai9u6VQAA9B5UI picked up this intimidating tome this morning. 1102 pages. The font is not generous. I am not sure how I am going to hold it in my hands for long hours. Kindle has spoiled me. But I have decided to end my year with this book, which I have already begun to love. I think I will write a couple of blogs about His Dark Materials. However, I want to share this modest, beautiful preface with you.

I began to write this novel with little sense of the plot, even less notion of the theme, and only the vaguest idea of the characters. I’m convinced that that’s the way to do it. I tried to work out the plan of a novel once, when I was young, ahead of writing it. It was an excellent plan. It took me months and covered page after page, and in the end I was so fed up with the damn thing I threw it away and started a quite different novel with no preparation at all, which came out much better. I suppose these things are partly temperamental; I know that some excellent writers make a great thing of planning every book before they write it; but it doesn’t work for me.

One thing such a technique prevents is what I think every long book must have if I’m not to go mad writing it, and that’s the element of surprise. I had no idea what Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear, would say when Lyra first came face to face with him. His vulnerability to strong drink was a huge surprise. I knew there was going to be a boy called Will, but his reason for running away and thus meeting Lyra was a complete mystery to me until it happened. As for Lee Scoresby, I was as ignorant of his existence as the gyptians themselves the sentence before he turned up. These surprises are pleasant and exciting; they feel like a kind of reward. If I knew they were coming I wouldn’t enjoy them at all.

In the first sentence above, I mentioned something I called the theme. By that I mean what the book is about, in some fundamental sense. I’ve heard that some writers decide on a theme first, and then make up some characters and a plot to exemplify it. They seem to get on all right, but again, it wouldn’t work for me. A book, especially a long book like His Dark Materials, has to have some sort of theme, or else you’ll be working for a long time (this story took me seven years) in a moral vacuum. But that doesn’t mean you have to decide what the theme is. If you’re working as seriously as you know how to, for a matter of years, then a theme will emerge whether you want it to or not. It’ll be something you think very important. It might be the most important thing you know. Once you know what it is, you can shape the story more precisely to help it show up, but it’s a mistake to rely on the theme to lead the story for you. I think I did that in a couple of places in this book, and it’s the worse for it. But there we are, we’re never too old to learn. Next time I shall remember: the story should lead, and the theme will emerge in its own time and its own way. Besides, if you want to write something perfect, write a haiku. Anything longer is bound to have a few passages that don’t work as well as they might.

So here is a story that was the best I could do at the time, written with all the power and all the love I had, about the things I think most important in the world. I think it was worth writing. I hope you think it’s worth reading.

— Philip Pullman
Courtesy: Random House

This note is comforting for a lot of reasons. Writing terrifies and liberates me. Before I hit the ‘publish’ button every time, I pose some questions to myself: Why did I write this? Why should anybody read this? What makes me think that this piece is worthy? Did I prepare well? Am I just rambling? Is my grammar okay? Are my sentences too short? Just the sort of questions which fan my insecurity. But I muster the courage and publish the posts because I have something — just a whisker — to share, and I want to say it in the way I know.

I love Pullman’s note even more, for I don’t ever scheme my stories; that has made me feel small. I have never known the beginning and the end. I have always allowed my writing to lead me, surprising myself on my way. Maybe, that’s why I think that my stories write themselves and that I am their instrument. I can never chase and pin down my thoughts if I work backward. Maybe, that was why I couldn’t survive in journalism, for my temperament supplied my words.

Sometimes, writing feels like a trance. Sometimes, it’s like abusing substance. Sometimes, it’s like inflicting pain on myself. Sometimes, it’s like lifting weights. Sometimes, it’s like walking an unruly dog. Sometimes, it’s like communicating with the beyond. Sometimes, it’s like the last ray of the evening sun. But, it’s always, always liberating.

PS: I thought Pullman’s note might motivate you or hurl a pebble in your pond, if the idea of writing a book is in the offing. 🙂

What do you think of this preface? What are your thoughts?


25 thoughts on “Blog: His Dark Materials

  1. That is such an interesting preface. I have never written fiction as an adult so I am really out of my element when discussing these things. In terms of theme, I think that I would probably have it worked out fairly early, maybe even before the plot. I tend to think in terms of themes a lot.

    It is interesting that Pullman can be surprised by some elements of his own plot.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t imagine writing a novel without a good idea of where it’s heading. But then, I can’t imagine writing a novel at all! One has to wonder, if he’d done a bit more planning could he have kept the page count down to a reasonable length…? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I read this a long time back. but you’ll learn soon once you finish the book and start reading the comments and subtexts.. pullman might not have planned the work, but I cant shake off the feeling that he planned the premise.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. My daughter loved this set of books (trilogy?) when she was in her teens, and is, I believe, currently re-reading it. And that’s about all I can say because I haven’t read Pullman. I remember there was a bit of a controversy about the series from some religious quarters because they didn’t like what they saw as Pullman’s atheism. But of course I can’t comment on that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, WG. It’s quite interesting that your daughter and I do similar things sometimes. You mentioned a few times. 🙂

      Pullman observes a lot about the church in the book. But again, my knowledge is quite limited with respect to that. His writing is terric though.


      1. She used to but hasn’t for a few years now. It was more a food and chocolate, travel, life lessons blog. You can probably still find it… Wayfaring Chocolate… But it’s not active.


  4. Whoa you can do it! 🙂 I think it’s a wonderful preface and one that would make me as a reader more confident in going on this long! journey. I don’t really do long books, I just need closure and endings to come up for air. But it’s a trilogy so that’s okay 🙂 Happy reading!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I wish I could write a story that just went on its own without planning out a thing — like Pullman. Most times that’s how I write my blog posts — I don’t plan really what to say : I just go & cover things as I go along. Pullman’s preface is interesting and gives me hope perhaps that I could make up something someday.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I find it fitting that just this morning I finished reading another volume in the Everyman’s Library series and was combing the list in the back (of other books in the series), looking for another to try in the future, because I enjoyed the supplementary essays in it. And, now, of course, I covet THIS one. (Which the library does not have, of course, although I cannot complain about the library because, for the most part, it is a very good friend to me.) The bit you quoted, that’s from the preface to this volume or from elsewhere online? I am so interested in hearing about his process. And, also coincidentally, also this morning, I was listening to a 2014 BBC interview with him about the Story Museum (in London UK apparently) and he did speak a little about how stories should begin with characters not themes, that exam questions are about themes, which I appreciated. So, now it seems as though I must begin to reread the series. How far are you in your reading?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. B.I.P, this preface is from the book. There is a story about how I bought this edition. My father gave me Rs 1,000 one year ago, asking me to buy new clothes for myself for Pongal (which is our harvest festival, also our Thanksgiving). I stumbled upon this edition online, changed my mind about buying clothes, and got this book. I am sure my father didn’t expect this from him daughter, who was well into her late twenties then. 🙂

      Sometimes, I am incurably in love with Pullman. Sometimes, I am in a love/hate relationship with him. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that he didn’t work on the plot, because the sub-text and the references tell me otherwise. But, if he said in the interview that his characters come first, I do want to believe him, because I am madly in love with the gyptians and Iorek Byrnison. No, not Lyra or Will or Mrs Coulter for her intelligence. None of them. My heart is after the bearking and the boat-people. I love the witch Serefina Pekkala the most. Like LOVE her. I just have 100 more pages to say bye to the book, B.I.P. 🙂


      1. How did your father respond when he discovered that you had bought a book, it was just unexpected? The idea of choosing books over clothes is certainly something I can relate to, but I wonder if you got some finger-wagging over your choice. 🙂 Either way, I’m sure it was worth it, even if you do not wholly love PP and all the aspects of this cycle of stories.

        Well, yes, I can see where those characters might be more appealing in some ways, and they are amazing, I do agree, but for those young readers who had never “met” a gutsy girl heroine (back in 1995 when they were the exception rather than any rule), I think Lyra was the favourite by default; she stood out so much in a landscape populated by brave and adventurous boys. What a marvellous beginning to that series for girl readers, with a disobedient and determined girl who dared to strike out against the odds! (I don’t remember the witch very clearly, so I will be watching for her on my reread!)

        Liked by 1 person

I love reading your comments! :)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s