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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 11:58 GMT
Philip Pullman: Master story-teller
Pullman: Says he reinforces important moral values
Pullman: Says he reinforces important moral values
In a wooden shed at the bottom of Philip Pullman's garden, a stuffed rat keeps watch over two comfortable chairs, several hundred books, a saxophone, a guitar and dozens of brightly coloured artificial flowers stuck to a computer with Blu-Tac.

It also watches over the author, when he is in there, because the shed is where Pullman, 55, works on his novels.

It has been a productive setting for him now The Amber Spyglass has become the first children's book to win the prestigious Whitbread Prize.

Pullman won the 30,000 Whitbread Prize
Pullman won the 30,000 Whitbread Prize
Mr Pullman was also the first children's author to be on the long list for the Booker Prize. He has had a string of other literary accolades - and has sold millions of books around the world.

Some would say he is a beneficiary of the recent resurgence of children's literature in the UK, while others would say he is partly responsible for it.

Born in Norwich, Pullman spent his childhood travelling around the world with his father and step-father, both in the Royal Air Force, living in Australia, South Africa and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

Developing a love of story-telling through radio serials, ghost stories and comic books, he says his life was changed the first time he saw a Superman comic.

"I was sure I was going to write stories myself when I grew up," he said.

After school, he studied English at Oxford University before starting to write novels for adults - but they did not take off.

Soap fan

He then became a teacher, using his story-telling skills to create plays for the pupils - some of which provided the foundations for his first children's novels, such as The Ruby in the Smoke.

After 12 years of teaching, he became a part-time lecturer at his old university, taking courses in the Victorian novel, folk tales and how words and pictures fit together.

But when his writing began to pay, he left to spend more time with his stuffed rat, able to keep his routine of working in his shed from the morning to early afternoon, when he would go to the house to watch Australian soap opera Neighbours.

He would study the "ancient story patterns", he has said, that were modern versions of those in classic literature.

Translated

In 1996, he won the prestigious UK children's award The Carnegie Medal for Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy.

The second instalment, The Subtle Knife, and the third, The Amber Spyglass, followed.

It is The Amber Spyglass for which he has been awarded the Whitbread Prize, and the trilogy has been translated into more than 20 languages around the world.

His novels are grounded in a
His novels are grounded in a "moral and intellectual integrity"
The story follows Lyra Belacqua, a young half-wild orphan girl who is plunged into a fantasy world of good and evil.

But unlike books such as Harry Potter, His Dark Materials explores deeper and darker moral territory.

In The Amber Spyglass, for example, God dies after a great war rages in Heaven.

Mr Pullman has not been the subject of ire from those protesting about the religious content, though, except for a handful of letters when the first book was published.

"If you find that you inadvertently become a Satanist, you can write to the publisher and get your money back," he told a newspaper.

Wisdom

He knows his readers can handle and enjoy complex and shady storylines, and says his books reinforce some important values.

"Such as that this life is immensely valuable," he said. "And that this world is an extraordinarily beautiful place, and we should do what we can to increase the amount of wisdom in the world."

One critic wrote that he differs from other authors of fantasy novels by keeping the reader grounded in a "moral and intellectual integrity".

"You soar into the metaphorical and the metaphysical, but never stoop to the supernatural.

"Here be dragons, sure, but there's none of that lazy nonsense about magical spells, potions and wands."

'Moderately harmless'

The trilogy has now sold almost 1.5 million copies in the UK alone.

After deflecting comparisons with Blake, Milton, Tolkien, CS Lewis and JK Rowling, Mr Pullman will continue to be his modest self and retreat to his rickety shed, saying he will continue writing until he is dead.

"As far as he can tell, Philip Pullman is moderately harmless and useful," says his publisher's website.

"He would like to carry on doing what he's doing now, and there seems no reason why he shouldn't."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Philip Pullman, award-winning author
"I was very surprised and happy"
The BBC's Razia Iqbal
"He is a real champion for children's literature"


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