Philip Pullman is making a rocking horse. He likes the challenge of working with the grain of the wood, of getting the chisels sharp and matching a joint. He likes the "engagement with the world of materials". He's finished making a table for the hall, but now, with the horse, he's got to carve. "If the eyes are slightly skew-whiff," he says with a smile, "the whole thing can look terribly sinister."
He's better known, of course, for materials of a different kind: His Dark Materials, the multi-award-winning trilogy that began with Northern Lights and ended with The Amber Spyglass. It was voted the nation's third favourite book in the BBC's Big Read and has sold more than seven million copies worldwide. Even the most jaded critics were swept away: "A genuine masterpiece of intelligent, imaginative storytelling," said Terence Blacker. "Is he", asked one critic, "the best storyteller ever?"
The "best storyteller ever" is sitting at a round table in the book-lined offices in Oxford of his publisher, David Fickling. Tall, solid and slightly owlish, he is courteous, but matter-of-fact. He agrees that his work with wood is an apt metaphor for the art of telling stories. "I could do an extended riff on working against the grain and not against the grain," he says drily. "There are," he adds, after a moment's pause, "similarities and differences." The supreme rationalist, whose work has transported so many into the icy wastes of a magical north and its interlocking worlds, is anxious to be accurate. "You probably use a different part of the brain," he declares. "You have to get it right and that means knowing the properties of the wood."
If anyone knows the properties of his materials, it is probably Pullman. Contrary to his image as some kind of genius who sprang into the literary landscape from nowhere, he has been writing all his life. Northern Lights was just the culmination of an extraordinary range of storytelling skills that he had been honing in a variety of contexts for years: in his work as a teacher, where he would read the children fairy tales and write plays for them to perform, and in a range of books for younger readers.
His first book for children, Count Karlstein, was published in 1982 and followed, over the next decade, by a quartet of books featuring the young Victorian adventurer, Sally Lockhart. These were followed in turn by the now internationally famous trilogy, but also by a series of books for younger readers. He calls these books (all re-issued by Doubleday this month) "the fairy tales".
All three work at many different levels. The Firework-Maker's Daughter is both an adventure story and an extended metaphor for the making of art. Clockwork is a gothic fantasy with a sinister twist, which draws heavily on German Romanticism. It's also a philosophical parable, playing with notions of free will, cause and effect. I Was a Rat! is a rollicking romp about Roger the rat-boy, but - as the title implies - it's also a brilliant parody of the sleazier reaches of journalism. "What I hope," says Pullman, "is that the stories I write will entertain both the young readers and the older ones. What I don't want to do is to write the sort of book that has silly slapstick for children and clever stuff for the grown-ups. I want them all to enjoy the same bits for the same reason - but maybe see different things in it."
But does he really expect his younger readers to appreciate the finer points of philosophy? Or the nuances of his parody? "Well," he replies, with just a hint of the school-teacher, "they all know about David Beckham and how the papers set him up. And," he adds, "Big Brother, of course." Well, OK, but what about words like "epistemology" or "psychoanalysis"? "They might" he suggests crisply, "be interested enough to look them up."
If his younger readers don't necessarily spot shades of Candide in his new book, The Scarecrow and His Servant (Doubleday, £10.99), they can't fail to be enchanted by the character's sweetness. The tale begins, like so many of the best ones do, with a thunderstorm. When the scarecrow is struck by lightning, he blinks with surprise and comes to life.
He meets a boy, Jack, and together they set out on a journey. It seems to involve an exciting array of adventures - from battles and a shipwreck to encounters with tricksters, brigands and the evil Buffalonis. It's a charming, funny tale that's also a touching exploration of what it means to love, and to be good.
It was, says Pullman, during a production of Bernstein's Candide at the National Theatre that the idea for the story struck him. "The relationship between the master and the servant," he points out "is something that goes right back to Greek and Roman comedy and henceforth through Shakespeare and ends up in the hands of PG Wodehouse. On the one hand is all the financial power and on the other the intellectual power. It's an interesting mutual dependence. I wanted," he adds, "to get the power and cleverness and the sort of naive optimism - and also the sense of righting wrongs."
The scarecrow is, as instructed in the dying wishes of his farmer-creator, "courteous... brave... honourable and... kind". He is, in fact, the kind of character who rarely features in fiction. In the tradition of Satan as the most interesting character in Paradise Lost, and perhaps of the not-so-tragic death of Little Nell, writers have a tendency to conflate the good with the boring. Pullman begs to differ: "I actually find good characters, characters who are struggling to be good and to be brave, interesting and attractive. Think of Bertie Wooster. His impulses are good - and yet he's never boring. We enjoy what he gets up to. Perhaps," he muses, "it's only when you've got someone who's slightly zany: a dumkopf."
This particular dumkopf's infectious optimism is in stark contrast to many of the characters and impulses in Pullman's work for older readers. Does he make an effort to present a world for the younger ones that isn't quite so bleak? Like Jacqueline Wilson, in fact? Pullman nods."I don't think I've heard her say this, but I'm sure she'd agree with it - Dr Johnson's remark that the true aim of writing is to enable the reader the better to enjoy life or the better to endure it."
Pullman offers an energetic engagement with the world, of life as a quest for love and truth. We're told in The Scarecrow and His Servant that "although the Scarecrow's heart was broken, his curiosity about the world was undimmed". Insofar as literature offers lessons for life, would he agree this is his central theme? He pauses before replying. "Yes. Curiosity is a great virtue. So is hope. You mentioned optimism," he says. "Actually, the word I'd use is hope. It's not the name of a temperament. It's the name of a virtue."
It is precisely the absence of this virtue that triggers his quarrel with CS Lewis, whose Narnia books are the clear precursor of His Dark Materials. "What I object to," Pullman explains, "is not the presence of Christian doctrine, it's the absence of Christian virtue. If you were an otherwise intelligent person and you knew nothing of Christianity, and you heard that the Narnia books were great examples of Christian fiction, you would never know that the greatest virtue was supposed to be love."
Pullman is currently grappling with a moral dilemma of his own. With fame - and fortune - has come a torrent of demands on his time: requests for talks and readings, letters from his young fans. "You've got to be cruel and heartless," says Pullman, "but if you make one part of yourself heartless it can infect you like a sort of moral woodworm. Who do you belong to? Do you belong to the people who would read the books that you're going to write or do you belong to the people who want you to talk to them? I've decided," he declares, "I've got to write".
In his precious spare time, he is writing an introduction to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. He loves the "sense of this enormously powerful vortex of hideous darkness." It's clearly an interest that's not entirely academic. "I'm familiar with melancholia," he confesses, "familiar enough to find it utterly terrifying. It's a curious thing that many writers seem to be affected by it. But," continues our most popular storyteller with a rueful smile, "I dare say a lot of electricians are, too."
Biography: Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman was born in Norwich in 1946 and lived in England, Zimbabwe and Australia before moving to north Wales. After reading English at Oxford, he taught at middle schools in Oxford, where he still lives. In 1986 he moved to Westminster College, where he spent eight years teaching BEd students. He published his first children's book, Count Karlstein, in 1982. It was followed by The Ruby in the Smoke (1986), the first in the Sally Lockhart quartet. He has also written shorter stories, which he calls "fairy tales": The Firework-Maker's Daughter (1995), Clockwork (1996), I Was a Rat! (1999) and, now, The Scarecrow and his Servant (Doubleday, £10.99). He is best known for the His Dark Materials trilogy: Northern Lights (1995), which won the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Children's Book Award, The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), the Whitbread Book of the Year. The National Theatre production of His Dark Materials returns on 20 November, and a stage version of The Firework-Maker's Daughter opens at the Lyric, Hammersmith on 26 November.