Philip Pullman, author of the wildly successful His Dark Materials young adult fantasy trilogy, is hard at work crafting his hotly-anticipated follow-up to that series, The Book Of Dust.
Pullman told the the Guardian in 2007 that it’s "a big, big book," and it’s clearly big enough that, while working on it, he’s also published a pair of other titles: 2010’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and 2012’s Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm, in which he rewrote classic Grimm’s tales in his own distinctive voice. In 2012, he told the BBC that The Book of Dust is his main focus now—but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still seek out the occasional side-project as a diversion.
Pullman’s current diversion isn’t a book exploring, say, the Norse myths, or a reinterpretation of Christian mythology as a series of fairy tales: Rather, he’s spent the past several months chronicling the adventures of Jeffrey, his favorite housefly, on Twitter.
"I joined Twitter last November because the people who do my website suggested it. I was a bit tentative at first, as if I was going into the water on a cold day," he recalls. "I didn’t have much to say, actually. I’m not on tour at the moment and I’m not doing many appearances—I’m just staying at home and writing a book, which is (a) dull and (b) private. But we did have this very friendly fly in the kitchen, so I started tweeting about what he was up to."
Pullman’s narration of the fly’s adventures—he named him Jeffrey—continued until the fly disappeared. "I wrote an obituary for him, but then some people said how sorry they were, so I brought him back to life. And from then on," Pullman says, "It was fiction."
Writing fiction is, of course, Pullman’s profession, but it’s easy to see how Tweeting the ongoing adventures of Jeffrey—who encounters a variety of other bugs, joins a band, serves as a secret agent, and becomes a foot soldier in the War on Dung—would provide some satisfaction for Pullman while he’s in the midst of a years-in-the-making follow-up to his most beloved work. On Twitter, as he writes about Jeffrey’s adventures, he’s able to pack his work with whimsy and inside jokes that might be inappropriate in a novel. There are gags about British light orchestral music, and Pullman—whose son is a professional viola player—gives "the viola section of the Silverfish Symphony Orchestra" a hard time.
"What I welcome about telling a story like this is the brevity," he says. "Normally I work at much greater length, and with a greater degree of—so to speak—seriousness. This is fun."
Part of that fun is the format of Twitter itself. "It’s kind of a novelty for me to write in installments, but of course, it’s the way many novels were written and published in the nineteenth century," he says, adding that he doesn’t think of this as a novel. He does, however, have the opportunity to let the nature of Twitter shape his story. "Someone tweeted me the line, ‘The name’s Bond—Jeffrey Bond,’ and that set off a big storyline that hasn’t worked its way through yet."
It’s funny to read an author like Pullman, who has a reputation for seriousness, riff on spy novels, beat poetry, and classical music through the absurdist adventures of a housefly. And he does occasionally interrupt the stream of Jeffrey’s exploits to talk about something more widely relevant—the Scottish independence referendum, or retweets about the fight to save British libraries—but it’s clear that Jeffrey’s story has become an important part of how Pullman engages with Twitter.
"I just want to know what’s going to happen next," he says. "It is sort of an imaginative break from The Book of Dust, yes, a kind of emotional relief. But I like the medium of Twitter, and I like to see what other people are doing with it." He cites Hungarian poet George Szirtes as a particular favorite, although he has less patience for people who merely retweet praise they receive. ("I hope I’m never reduced to that.") Still, he can imagine a day when he uses Twitter for something other than as a venue to primarily tell his followers what Jeffrey’s up to.
"I suppose when I’m on the road publicizing The Book of Dust, when it comes out, I’ll have more actual news to tweet, but that’s a way off yet," he says. "And sometimes I’m interested in a question of politics, such as the forthcoming referendum in Scotland on whether or not to become independent. That seems to me a question of profound importance for England, and hardly anyone’s talking about it. So I tweeted about that the other day. Maybe I’ll say something more soon."
In the meantime, Pullman’s content to focus his Twitter efforts on Jeffrey—and fans who eagerly anticipate his next novel have the unique opportunity to follow his storytelling in real time. At the very least, Pullman seems to have a lot of admiration for the character of Jeffrey.
"The beauty of Jeffrey is that he is absolutely innocent. His only weakness is the regrettable taste for dung, which he picked up on a wild night in the field outside. Otherwise he is spotless, pure, a veritable Sir Galahad of a fly," Pullman says. "And so on."