These Words Matter: Peternelle van Arsdale

This is a difficult question for me to answer because there were many books that contributed to me being a reader, but there is one (trilogy) that stands head and shoulders above the rest in turning me into a writer. Allow me to explain…

Being a writer was not a lifelong dream of mine. If you’d told me when I was in my twenties that I would one day be a novelist, I’d have laughed. When I was about eight years old, I flirted with the idea of keeping a journal and got myself a white pleather-covered diary with a lock and key. I had the idea that having something so secret and special to write in would magically grant me secret and special things to write about. A secret and special life.

That is what’s called “putting the cart before the horse.”

I tried writing down my most desperate longing as well as (no doubt) a few grudges and resentments. When I read the whole thing back, I was horrified. It was terrible. Embarrassing. I shoved the diary in my desk drawer and that was it for me and journaling. In a way, the books I read kept me from writing. I couldn’t write something as captivating as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and it didn’t really occur to me to try.

In any case, I genuinely adored reading. I didn’t have to write books in order to love them. So my dream from a very early age was to have something to do with making books. To my great luck, I realized that dream—for decades I was a book editor, and I still love to edit. It’s thrilling and rewarding to know that you’ve helped an author achieve their vision, that you’ve helped them make their book the very best possible version of itself.

It wasn’t until I was in my late thirties and had a child of my own that I discovered the trilogy that turned me into a writer: the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Those books, beginning with The Golden Compass, combined everything that I loved about literature while also being written for young readers. Something about his particular combination of rich storytelling and young protagonists flipped a switch in me and got me wondering if it might finally be time to buy myself another (metaphorical) white-pleather diary.

The story arc captured in the three novels—The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass—is dense and complicated and thrilling.

The characters are good and evil all rolled together, and the writing is simply gorgeous.

Pullman does something that I emulate in my own writing, which is that he manages to have an original voice without being overly decorative. I keep trying to find one line in particular that I love, but it eludes me. (I’ve referred to it so many times, and I suppose I will take this as an excuse to sit down and read the books all over again.) Will is searching for his father and he’s walking through the forest, exhausted and thirsty, and he comes upon a stream. Pullman writes that the water was “very clear, very cold.” I just loved that repetition of the word “very” and the way the words “clear” and “cold” were unadorned and yet perfect all on their own. I could feel Will’s thirst as well as his relief. I thirsted for that clear, cold water, too.

Pullman opened up a world of possibility to me.

He showed me how I could combine all the weird and wonderful things I’ve been obsessed with my whole life—fairytale and myth, religion and belief, the supernatural, the gothic and atmospheric, the gray areas between good and evil—and mix them into novels that can enchant and terrify and grip. And his characters! They’re forever lodged in my imagination. I can conjure all of them in my head, from the chilling Mrs. Coulter, to the bristling-with-energy Lyra, to the bravely loving Will. I adore all of them. Yes, especially Will. I would love to write characters who rest in someone’s heart the way Pullman’s rest in mine.

That’s the magic Pullman worked on me. He uncovered that yearning child with the empty diary. She was still inside of me–the one who so wanted to do (and write) something special. I hope that now I have.

Peternelle van Arsdale majored in English literature at Bryn Mawr College, and then landed in book publishing. She worked her way up from editorial assistant to executive editor of adult fiction and nonfiction, and eventually struck out on her own as an independent editor. Her first young adult novel, The Beast Is an Animal, is being developed by Amazon Studios for a feature film. Her second novel is The Cold Is in Her Bones. Peternelle's essays have been published by LitHub, Hypable, and Culturefly, and her short fiction has been published by The Whitefish Review. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she continues to edit and is at work on her third novel.

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