For many days in April, I walked on a cloud of purplish-pink satin. The DNA had asked me to interview Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials Trilogy, and positively one of my favourite-est writers. As I told Amit, for just a few moments in time and space, he would be reading my words. Amit had wanted to call our first-born Lyra, since we had n when we were fresh from reading all three books. I would have too, except somehow, Lyra Vachharajani didn't quite do it for me.
The DNA had to chop the questions and answers for space, so here, peoples, is the whole truth!
In 1995, a year before Harry Potter flew in on his broom, a fantasy novel by Philip Pullman made a quiet yet significant entry. Northern Lights, the first part of the His Dark Materials Trilogy, tells the story of two children who meet across parallel universes and end up subverting the Church’s authority in a breathlessly exciting journey across seas, skies and worlds. Darker and less gimmicky than J K Rowling’s Potter story, the Trilogy sold 15 million copies, earned critical acclaim, won the coveted Whitbread Book Award and, inevitably, attracted moral censure.
With a wide range of influences like John Milton, William Blake, Heinrich von Kleist, the King James Bible and comic books, Pullman has written around 20 very successful books including plays, fairytales, and novels for the young. In a Pullman book – whatever its scope or size – the story is always king. Over email he tells Anita Vachharajani about his latest book, the allure of stories, and his advice to book-burning fundamentalists everywhere.
The books in the Dark Materials trilogy were filled with a longing for individual freedom within a humane, good and principled universe. There is also a robust rejection of authority. I feel that The Good Man Jesus… takes this theme further. Jesus is the more truly human, the more worshipful brother; while Christ has a larger vision for an organized religion. Could you comment on this?
In one way, the two brothers represent two of the types of authority described by the sociologist Max Weber. Jesus is the embodiment of charismatic leadership, which is based on the domination of the leader by means of miracles, magical powers, prophecy, and so on. Christ is the embodiment of a later sort of leadership: not possessing any sort of charismatic gifts himself, he envisages a church based on the authority of tradition. The progression from one to the other is typical of the way many organisations develop.
For someone who is reportedly an atheist, you take religion very seriously especially when you are being critical of it. Allusions to the Bible, prayers and hymns permeate your work and your discussions. Was religion a very significant part of your childhood?
Yes, very much so. Not in an oppressive way - simply that I grew up in the household of my grandfather, who was a clergyman in the Church of England. I went to church every Sunday, I absorbed the stories, I loved the language of the liturgy and the King James Bible. It's a large part of what made me.
You were a teacher during the ’70s. Did interacting directly with children influence your storytelling and your craft as a writer?
I was a teacher before we had such a thing as the National Curriculum in England. We had a great deal more freedom in those days, and I thought it would be a good idea to tell the children (I was teaching 11-13 year olds) some of the stories of the Greek myths - simply because they were wonderful stories, and I couldn’t see that they would ever hear them otherwise. So I did that, and I also wrote a play to be performed at the end of every Christmas term. The experience of these things played a big part in my apprenticeship, so to speak. As far as the plays were concerned, I had to entertain a mixed audience - both the children and their parents. The one thing I didn't want to do was have a bit of silly slapstick for the children, and then a bit of clever word-play for the adults, for example. Absolutely not! So I had to make up a story that would make them all laugh for the same reasons, or make them all feel the same suspense, or move them all in the same way. To take them all seriously as members of an audience.
You once said in an interview with Robert Butler that ‘your life begins when you are born, but your life story begins at that moment when you discover that you are in the wrong family’. Your characters are often adolescents caught in that awkward space between childhood and a more adult awareness of the world. As a writer, why does this point in a character’s life interest you so much?
I remember my own adolescence, both for its hideous embarrassments and for the sense of thrilling intellectual adventure. It is a very important time of transition for everyone - transition from one form of thinking to another, as much as anything else. We develop a sense of where we are intellectually, which is not always the same as where we find ourselves dwelling. In my case, I discovered a passionate devotion to the arts in myself, whereas my family that cared for them not at all. Perhaps one day I shall write my memoirs...
Your books have universal appeal – adults and kids enjoy them. What do you think draws so many adult readers to your books?
One thing, definitely, is the experience I describe in 3 above. Because I take the story seriously myself, it tends to be the sort of story that adults can take seriously. And it touches young people at the point in their lives when they are going through the experiences that will make them into adults, and they can see that I'm talking to them without patronising them. At least I hope so!
Who would you say are the greatest influences on your work as a writer and a storyteller?
I would say that the greatest influences must have been all the great stories that I've read, and the enjoyment I've derived from them. When you become interested in stories and how they work, your enjoyment is doubled. There is never an end to the delight one can derive from stories.
How do you react to fundamentalists and people who fear that reading your books would corrupt their children?
If I were to offer such people a word of sincere advice, it would be this: don't make such a fuss. By making a fuss about this or that book, you only increase your children's desire to read it secretly. Haven't you realized that? My advice would be - ignore it completely. Regard it as beneath your notice. Don't say a word about it. The more you call for such books to be banned, the more excitement about them you stir up. Haven't you learned that
Some of your writing can be viewed as being anti-Church. Yet your novels have an avowedly moral universe a world where humanistic values triumph. How has the British religious establishment reacted to this?
For the most part, with a mature and unworried indifference.
You said on your website that ‘I thought it would be hard to find an audience for this story [the His Dark Materials trilogy]’. Could you tell us a bit about why you thought the series wouldn’t find an audience and what happened when the books actually went out into the world?
I hoped it might reach the sort of audience my previous books had found, which is to say the small audience of children and adults (teachers and librarians) who are interested in reading books labelled ‘children’s books’. And that was exactly what happened, at first. But little by little children must have been urging their parents to read it, because I noticed that audiences at the events I did were getting older and larger. By the time 'The Amber Spyglass' came out, there were as many adults reading me as children. And of course I was very gratified by that; it was a reward for the apprenticeship in telling stories that I'd gone through as a teacher.
You’ve probably been asked this question many times before, but I have to know: the idea of a daemon in the His Dark Materials trilogy a living animal which represents a person’s character and always accompanies him or her is striking and unique. Where did it come from? How did you decide that a child’s ever-changing daemon would freeze when she moved into adulthood? Finally, if you had a daemon, what would it be?
The idea of the daemon didn't come to me until I'd tried to write the first chapter many times, and each time been foiled. It just wasn't working. When I discovered that Lyra had a daemon, the story became much easier to tell.
Soon it was obvious that the whole story would turn on the nature of the daemon, on the moment when it settled, on the very difference between adults and children; and I couldn't imagine how I had ever thought I could write the story without daemons.
Oh, and my daemon is a raven - or a jackdaw, or a magpie: one of those birds that steal bright glittering things.
The Trilogy has many unforgettable characterizations Lyra Belacqua, Serafina Pekkala the witch, Iorek Byrnison the bear, to name just a few. There are parallel universes our own and many others, one seemingly Victorian world (where Zeppelins fly) and creations like the Subtle Knife and the alethiometer. How did you cope with the challenges of this vast canvas? Was it tough living with so many vibrant characters in your head?
Actually, it was a lot easier than writing a short story. That's the real challenge. Remembering the various characters wasn't hard in the least: they were all so vivid to me that I couldn't have forgotten them even if I'd wanted to. And working on a vast canvas makes it easy to solve a narrative problem by inventing a whole new world ... As I say, writing a short story is much harder than that.
From the rich joyfulness and texture of fantasy to The Good Man Jesus… which has the tight economy of a fable. How challenging was it to make the transition from a complex and layered style to one that is far more spare?
It was very interesting. I thought I'd try to do without landscape, and weather, and imagery. The only imagery in Jesus is when one of the characters uses a simile or a metaphor. The narrator eschews such devices. Similarly, there is hardly any description, whether of landscape or of characters. As for weather, the only weather in the gospels is a storm; but I thought I could do without that too. I was trying to get down to the bare bones of story, where there are events and nothing else. Neutral, uninflected storytelling.
Your re-telling of fairy tales like Puss in Boots and Aladdin offer a layered version of old favourites. What draws you to re-visit these classic stories?
Simply the fact that they are wonderful shapes to handle. As a jazz musician enjoys the sequence of chords in this or that tune, so I enjoy the sequence of events in a classic fairy tale and I love playing variations over it.
In Count Karlstein there is a lovely interplay between text and words the book jumps in and out of comic-book-style drawings. How important do you think the visual element is in a book for young children?
Picture-books are profoundly important in helping children not only to read but to acquire a visual language as well. I think we should spend much more time than we do in teaching children to draw. Nothing helps you see something so well as drawing it; nothing gives you so acute a visual sense.
In this world where so much information is delivered to us in graphic images, it is vitally important to have a way of talking about and analyzing these forms of communication.
Your drawings appear at the start of each chapter in the Dark Materials trilogy. They are melancholic, spare and arresting. How did you end up drawing for the books? Do you plan to draw a children¹s book and write it as well as in the future?
The publisher wanted a symbol of some kind at the start of each chapter, and I thought I could do better than that and draw a picture. He was very sceptical until I produced three or four drawings to show that I could do it. As for a picture book, I can do certain things but not others. To tell a story in pictures you need faces, and faces are very hard to do.
So for the moment I shall hold back from trying a picture book!
A shorter version of this interview appeared in the DNA of Sunday, April 9, 2010. You can read it here: http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/interview_my-sincere-advice-to-religious-fanatics-ignore-the-book_1380767