Author Philip Pullman was born in Norwich in 1946 and educated in England, Zimbabwe and Australia, before his family settled in North Wales. He attended Exeter College, Oxford. He spent several years as a teacher before becoming a writer.
He is perhaps best known as the celebrated author of the His Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden Compass (which won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize for Children's Fiction), The Subtle Knife (shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal), and The Amber Spyglass (the first children's book to win the Whitbread Book Prize). His other books for children and young adults include I Was a Rat!, Count Karlstein and the Sally Lockhart thrillers The Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well and The Tin Princess.
Pullman received the Eleanor Farjeon prize in recognition of his contributions to the world of children's books. He was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in the New Year Honors List 2004. He won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2005.
Pullman on The Ruby in the Smoke
The first version of this story was called The Curse Of The Indian Ruby, and it was written as a play. I like the honest simplicity of penny-dreadful blood-and-thunder, and what's more I take it seriously: the people in the story may be witty about their predicaments, but if the narrator winks at the reader above the heads of the characters, then the whole thing changes its nature at once and becomes camp. I enjoy camp, but I am not in the business of purveying it.
Instead, I tried to make the world of the story as solid and realistic as I could. So Sally Lockhart is a real young woman, as real as I could make her, anyway; and the world she lives in is as real as I could make that. The story is set in 1872, on the very cusp of the modern world, and the series that starts with The Ruby goes on to touch some modern concerns: feminism, socialism, new technologies, new forms of social relations. It was a time when, for example, it was just beginning to be possible for a woman to find an occupation that was more interesting than teaching or domestic service. Sally's background, though unusual, is not impossible; and the things her father has taught her — about keeping accounts, about shooting a pistol — become the very things her life will depend on.
Furthermore, the dark background of the story (the smoke of the title) has its roots in historical truth. There really was an opium trade between India and China run by and for the British Government, and this country went to war with China to force that country to accept the opium we wanted to sell there. The opportunities for fraud, piracy, skullduggery of every kind must have been enormous.
So there was a solid background for my melodrama. But melodrama it is, and one of the traditional images of melodrama is the fabled jewel with the curse on it. Here it's a ruby — red, like blood. As the Book of Proverbs says, the price of a virtuous woman is far above rubies; and each of the two women at the centre of this story — Sally herself, and the cunning and vengeful Mrs. Holland — turns out to have been sold, or bought, for the Ruby of Agrapur.
A word about Mrs. Holland. I love her dearly. She's one of the best villains I ever thought of, and if I could have foreseen Julie Walters in the part, I might have... but enough of this futile longing. I'm fond of all the characters, and Sally is the one at the center of the story, the one who will go on and develop in the stories that follow. As I began by saying, she's as real as I could make her: uncertain, but determined; shy, but brave; trapped in a dark and dangerous mystery, but finding her feet in the casual, half-commercial, half-Bohemian world of the Garlands and their photographic business. Billie Piper plays her to perfection.
I hope the audience will enjoy watching this penny-dreadful as much as I enjoyed writing it.