Philip Pullman: I’m Quite Against a Sentimental Vision of Childhood
In Conversation with the Author of the His Dark Materials Trilogy
This interview originally took place on December 9, 2016.
Nicholas Tucker: It’s some time since you wrote His Dark Materials. Do you often find yourself looking back to it now it is going to be newly televised by the BBC?
Philip Pullman: I do, constantly, because I am writing the successor to it, The Book of Dust, and I have to keep checking facts, like what was so and so’s name and what sort of dæmon did they have. But also because I want to regain some of the energy I had when I was writing it. I well remember coming to the end of the first book and my normal practice had been to write three pages a day by hand on A4 narrow lined paper. But I was running out of money. I had almost got through my publisher’s advance and things were getting a bit desperately tight. I was still working part-time at Westminster College, but I did have this sense of urgency. So I decided to up my output to five pages a day and what’s more punish myself by not drinking any alcohol during the last hundred pages or whatever it was. It was a hot summer and I was in a state of suspended animation really. That was a period when I probably worked more intensely than any time before or since. But it was a good state to be in and I think about it now trying to get back to something like the same state 25 years later.
NT: Was there ever a moment when you felt the story started telling you?
PP: Yes, to an extent it did. There are things a story wants to do and there are things that you want to do. And in the end the story wins because it knows better than I do. There’s an odd sense that one is discovering rather than inventing. There’s a sense in which the story almost seems to be there in some Platonic realm and what I must do is try to transmit that pure sense to paper rather than go in for any clever stuff of my own. It’s curious, because I don’t actually believe in Platonic realms of pure being yet writing feels more like discovering rather than merely going along with a literary construct that’s only made of words. So I do believe instinctively that it is in fact all out there somewhere and I am just writing it down. I can’t justify that at all but there it is.
“There’s an odd sense that one is discovering rather than inventing.”
NT: Some of the epic scenes in His Dark Materials remind me of great opera. Do you ever write with music playing yourself?
PP: Never, never never. The reason is a simple one—it’s to do with rhythm. I have to hear the rhythms of the sentences as I’m writing them. In fact I can hear the rhythm of the sentence I want to write next even before I know what words I’ve got to go with it. And if there is any music going on however distant it makes this almost impossible. That’s why I had a shed built, because my oldest son was learning the violin. He was very good at it and became a professional musician. But I was listening to that rather than to my words. Other noises don’t worry me a bit. Pneumatic drills, traffic, I can put up with all that. But music is an absolute killer. I love music. I listen to it a lot and play it as best I can on various instruments. But I never listen to it when I’m writing.
NT: Do you use different skills when you are editing what you have written?
PP: Yes. The sort of thing I deal with when editing might involve working on hastily written sentences where you can’t quite tell who the “he” or “she” referred to actually is. Another little principle that I’ve found useful when I’m writing a scene is to make sure the reader gets some sense of where we are, indoors or outside. What the weather’s like? Is it sunny? Is it raining? Who’s present? Those things are important to me as a reader because I like to know them. They would certainly be important if this was also something that was going to appear on the screen since the script-writer, the director, the designer all need to know these things. So I always try to clarify what I am writing about with a little touch of things like that. Not overwhelming everything with detail but including just enough.
NT: So now your work has been televised and filmed, has the realization that what you put down on paper might well in time appear on the screen changed the way you write?
PP: I genuinely don’t think it has. I do write with the sense very far back in my consciousness that maybe what I’m doing may one day be adapted for something. But mainly it’s the experience on the paper that I want to get right. I want to get back to the eye and the ear of the reader.
NT: When I say the name Lyra which particular image drawn from the subsequent play, film, or from the original story comes to mind?
PP: At the moment I am writing The Book of Dust which is also about Lyra, so the image that comes to mind at the moment is of someone who hasn’t been seen yet and therefore hasn’t been inhabited by another face or voice. So only I can see that face at the moment.
NT: What about Mrs. Coulter? Is it possible to see any face now for her other than the one created so memorably by Nicole Kidman?
PP: She certainly did the part brilliantly. One extra reason I was sorry they didn’t do the whole trilogy was because I wanted to see her change from being a cold-hearted, ideology-driven tyrant to someone who’s feeling the love for Lyra is growing within her and her trying to push this feeling away. I wanted to see her do that change, and I know she could have done it because she is a wonderful actress and could have made that whole transition look totally convincing.
NT: Did you always know that Mrs. Coulter was going to come good in the end?
PP: It stole up on me rather than being a sudden revelation. I love Mrs. Coulter dearly. I always treated her with the greatest, wary respect in all her scenes. She was ghastly really but also wonderful to write about. I’d run a mile from her in real life. In the scene in the Himalayan Cave where she is hiding out with Lyra at the start of The Amber Spyglass, at one moment she pulls down a bat from the roof. She then gives this to her dæmon, who tears it apart.
I saw that happen in real life at the zoo in the Burford Wildlife Park in a cage full of gibbons. These are very attractive creatures with long arms which they swing about with. A bird, I think a starling, flew down to pick up a crumb outside the enclosure. A long grey arm instantly shot out through the bars, dragging the bird squawking and flapping into the cage. The other gibbons came round to see what was going on while the poor bird itself was demolished. People started shouting, because the creature was obviously causing such extreme pain and misery to the bird. But what was it doing? This wasn’t evil, it was just pure curiosity. But morally a very odd moment. And I used that when I had Mrs. Coulter give the bat to her monkey dæmon.
NT: You have said recently that you are reading more William Blake. What are you finding there?
PP: Blake once wrote these words to his friend Thomas Butts:
Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me: ‘Tis fourfold in my supreme delight And threefold in soft Beulah’s night And twofold always, may God us keep From single vision and Newton’s sleep!
Now single vision in Newton’s sleep is the sort of deadly scientific reductionism that says everything can be explained by the movement of impersonal particles. Twofold vision is when we see things as human beings do, viewing everything through a penumbra of memories, hopes, associations, and so on, reacting in an essentially human way. Threefold vision is what he meant by poetic inspiration and fourfold vision is what I think he meant by mystical ecstasy—a moment of intense identification with the natural world. And following Blake, I believe that all four ways of reacting can be used by a writer according to what they are trying to achieve at different moments.
NT: Have you ever got to fourfold vision yourself?
PP: Once when I was a boy, in a storm on the beach. And another time, when I was newly married, I remember coming home from my work as a library assistant going to our little flat in Barnes. And everything seemed to be double, everything seemed to have a parallel somewhere else. I remember seeing a group of people standing in a circle around a busker and the next thing I saw was a newspaper placard showing a picture of more people standing in a circle round a hijacked plane in Jordan somewhere. That sort of doubling I saw all the way. It was as if the whole universe was connected, leaving me in a state of gibbering excitement. Those were the only two times I have felt what Blake I think was referring to as fourfold vision. It is important never to rely entirely upon single vision. We must use all our faculties and senses always. Single vision is death.
NT: What about innocence? Should we always be in a hurry to leave this state behind us in order to work towards wisdom instead?
PP: I have never wanted to extirpate innocence. I don’t want to thrust the facts of life on children of four or five. What I’m against in a quite visceral, loathing way, is the sentimental vision of childhood you get in books written in the so-called Golden Age of children’s literature. Peter Pan, who thinks it’s better always to stay a child, some of A.A. Milne’s verses, I can’t bear them, they make me sick! Children don’t want to be children—they want to be grown up. The games they play are about being adult. Recalling my own adolescence, and encountering sexuality and intellectual excitement was all part of an extraordinary wonderful, glorious awakening. The whole universe began to sing. So when you get people like C.S. Lewis in the Narnia books lamenting the fact that children have to grow up it makes me very angry.
“Children don’t want to be children—they want to be grown up.”
NT: What about religion? Have your own feelings about it changed over the last decade?
PP: Well in a way they have. When I was writing The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ I read the gospels right through making lots of notes. And what struck me was how different the accounts were of Jesus according to who was telling the tale. That for some people makes the whole story more convincing because that divergence of views over what actually happened is exactly what you hear as members of a jury when witnesses are telling you what they thought they saw at the time. I see their point but I don’t agree with it.
And if you look at all the other apocryphal gospel accounts, as the Biblical scholar as well as ghost story writer M.R. James once pointed out, you can see exactly why they were left out because they are bloody awful and don’t work as stories. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are easily the best told of the lot. And there are wonderful fictional moments within them. Who saw Satan coming to Jesus in the desert? No one did. It’s obviously fiction. When Jesus was alone in the garden of Gethsemane when all the disciples were asleep, how do we know he said: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.” It must have been an invention but it is also an extraordinary moment of imaginative and emotional power. When you look at the four gospels as a storyteller, you can see exactly how well they work.
So I think a bit more subtly now about the Christian story. I can’t also deny how good some religious people are. They set about doing good a lot of the time for reasons I don’t believe in but which are satisfactory for them. I have always felt that a measure of goodness is not what you believe but what you do. And religion can supply a sense of community to some people. I once put this to Richard Dawkins: if you had a little girl who was terribly ill and knew she was soon going to die, do you tell her the stark facts of her oncoming death? Of course you don’t! You tell her a fairy tale about going to heaven. What else can you possibly do?
NT: So when did you start doubting the Christianity that you had been brought up in?
PP: I think the first thing I read that made me start thinking in a contrary way was Colin Wilson’s once famous book The Outsider. And that pointed me at people like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and got me thinking in a new way. After that I got interested in existentialism and all that stuff and poor old God just got shuffled away. I floated in and out of various other beliefs in my twenties. I was a Buddhist for a bit and then got interested in the occult and astrology. But they all fell away. I still remain very interested in the esoteric but not as a believer. But people like Dawkins, who dismiss religion entirely as utter foolishness, I think are simply wrong.
NT: His Dark Materials starts with a child who by the end is turning into a newly sexualized young adult. This is in contrast to many other children’s books where characters often seem to stay the same age from start to finish.
PP: That’s one of the main themes of the whole trilogy. When Lyra and Will kiss for the first time they don’t have to do anything more than kiss. But if you can’t remember what your first kiss was like I feel sorry for you.
NT: Broadly speaking almost all children’s and young adult novels have endings that if not always entirely happy at least make moral sense. Do you feel this applies to His Dark Materials too?
PP: Well, such endings happen more frequently than we might think with adult books too. She marries him; the murder is solved or whatever. Books that are popular and read and talked about usually have endings that actually satisfy in a moral sense whether they are happy or not. The ending of His Dark Materials made lots of people cry—it made me cry too. But it was also satisfying, I hope, because it didn’t offer easy options after so much that had gone before.
From Darkness Visible: Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials. Used with permission of Icon Books. Copyright © 2017 by Nicholas Tucker.