An Audience with Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman
Image: Scholastic

By Katie Harling-Challis

Choosing which of the many Durham Book Festival events to attend, I was rather spoilt for choice, but having grown up with His Dark Materials, there was one event I could not miss. I had to see Philip Pullman. Chaired by Caroline Beck, this one-hour interview covered wide and varied ground, from the questions of literary interpretation to the act of writing itself, as well as the controversial topic of religion within fiction.

Is there a right way and a wrong way to read a book? Pullman declares “No”. When writing, Pullman becomes a dictator: over his characters, his plot, his punctuation. He is a tyrant over his novel, and he listens to no one else’s thoughts, opinions or ideas.

When the novel is finished, however, it is a different system entirely. The process becomes completely democratic, and as an author he believes he has no right to say ‘you’ve got it wrong’ – and neither can other authors say that to him. As he succinctly puts it, “What I get from George Eliot is what I get from George Eliot,” and not whatever she herself meant.

The act of writing was under discussion, and the question that is asked of all writers was voiced: where did you get the idea for ‘X’? And so Pullman was asked of his ‘daemons’. His response? “As with all ideas, I don’t know where it came from, but I know where it came to.” At first, he told us, Lyra had no daemon, nor did anyone else. He rewrote the beginning of Northern Lights many times, and felt that it just wasn’t right. So he decided to begin again, writing the first word “Lyra”, which was then ‘naturally’ followed by “and her daemon”. At the time, Pullman was surprised, and continually so as he first wrote these new ideas down. He may not know where that idea came from, but he knows it came to his desk and it stayed there. As Raymond Chandler suggested, “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun.” Now this does not have to be a literal gun – “you’re aiming for something surprising, something neither you nor your characters are expecting”. This is what to aim for when stuck with writer’s block: Pullman’s ‘gun’ was the daemons.

Mention of his latest novel brought voiced excitement from the audience, as he spoke briefly about his work entitled The Book of Dust.

The title for Pullman’s epic trilogy His Dark Materials was another idea that apparently “leapt out at him” when re-reading a passage from Paradise Lost by John Milton – the very passage quoted at the beginning of Northern Lights. A unique teenager, Pullman has admired this mammoth text since first studying it at A Level, where he found the language ‘thrilling’. As we were given the first of many recitations, Pullman illustrated his point by quoting with a real depth of feeling and earnestness, and all from memory. It’s not so much about what the words themselves mean, but the sound and effect that is created by being read aloud.

Pullman was also asked for his opinion on fairytales in relation to his 2013 publication of Grimm Tales: For Young and Old. As Pullman put it, when writing a novel the writer does all they can to make it a literary work, to justify its presence in a library, but fairytales were never made to be written down. They don’t work like novels: the characters are not ‘real’; they have no psychology; they are not deep or complex. What there is, however, is absolute clarity, and this is what draws him to them. In his retelling he said his aim was not to let any of the “literary stuff get in the way”, that he wanted it to be “clear as water”. It is their “extraordinary power of simple, clear, uncluttered stories” that he admires, and what makes them so loved by children and adults alike.

The discussion was not all literary related – Pullman’s rather radical relationship with religion was also questioned. Religion is about “big questions and big answers”, and as he stated himself, “I like those, and I can’t argue with that.” According to Pullman, the trouble comes when religious people get political power, as he shows in Northern Lights through the Magisterium. Yet Pullman says “Christianity formed my mind”. He grew up listening to preaching and the stories and language of the King James Bible, so that it became inextricably part of who he is. He used the phrase ‘cultural Christian’, arguing that you “can’t do away with these early things” learnt in childhood. They become a part of you, even if you may not believe them.

Pullman’s novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was also mentioned, as well as his being accused of ‘killing off God’ – Caroline Beck, chair of the event, certainly didn’t shy away from controversial topics. Pullman explained his interest in the man Jesus and his belief that he existed as preacher or storyteller; that he even seemed to be an unusually wise one, shown in his clear and powerful stories as retold in the gospels. It is when it comes to Jesus’ crucifixion that Pullman once again reveals his radical side: comparing Jesus to present day doomsday tellers certainly fits with Pullman’s radical atheism.

And it doesn’t stop there, as Pullman talked of how he sees the God of the Old Testament as a ‘capricious baby’, who then seems to “grow up a bit” as the Bible progresses. So, if God can grow older, is it not logical that he should then die? A loaded question, and bound to bring in a never-ending amount of arguments from all across the theological world.

Does his atheism get harder as he gets older? For once, his reply was ambiguous, explaining how atheism will describe what he sees in the world from one point of view, agnosticism from another. As he admitted, “I don’t know very much”, and even here the decisive man that is Philip Pullman gave way to multiple answers.

Mention of his latest novel brought voiced excitement from the audience, as he spoke briefly about his work entitled The Book of Dust. Only a little was revealed. Pullman confirmed that Lyra will be making an appearance, and that it is neither a prequel nor a sequel, but a companion novel to the famous trilogy. Until the publication date draws nearer, we will get no more information than that.

The audience were welcomed to ask questions, and our final one of the afternoon was on the imaginary world of characters – “have you, Philip Pullman, ever imagined a future for Will Parry?” He’s going to be a doctor, according to Pullman, and a very good one, helped by his daemon. However, Pullman doesn’t know if Will will ever see Lyra again, and if he did, “[He] wouldn’t tell you.”

A laugh from the audience at this last statement, but under the humour I am left feeling that it is hiding the strength of Pullman’s own stubbornness, and the certainty of his character. Philip Pullman is a man who knows his mind, and his decisiveness can seem quite welcome – as all who are so set in their opinions will appear in our unstable and changing world. Yet one must remember that decisiveness does not necessarily denote wisdom.

While he may have described himself as dictator and tyrant when it comes to the writing process, an element of this is still held in his everyday personality. And it must do, if you are to consistently question the Christian ideology that you have grown up with. Pullman is certainly a force to be reckoned with, whether in literature or ideology, and no one but him will tell us what will happen next for his characters.

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