Pullmeister RAQ

Philip Pullman: Some Rarely Asked Questions

Here follows an abridged transcript of a Q&A session given by Philip Pullman to the Balliol College English society on 6th November 2002; your trusty correspondent Thea Logie managed to gatecrash it... Though trying to be as accurate as possible, I have taken the liberty of summarising some of his points. I have also had to cut a great many of his references to his books to avoid spoilers. [Additions thus are editorial. Thanks be to COPAC for helping me with the book titles cited.]


PP: (to assembled, sitting in what he almost immediately refers to as the 'hot seat') Oh dear, looks like I'm on trial, doesn't it? Actually, the one time I did feel I was on trial was during a so-called "atheist-Christian dialogue" - which was effectively a lot of Christian expert witnesses laying into me... Amongst other things, they accused me of promoting underage sexuality. I said to them, "And what page is that on?" They themselves couldn't give any direct references, for the good reason that there is no underage sexuality in "His Dark Materials".

Q: Have you had any problems with marketing your books in the US, in the wake of the extreme reaction of the evangelical Christians to 'Harry Potter'?

PP: As a matter of fact, no. "His Dark Materials" seems to have slipped under their radar whilst Harry Potter, poor thing, took all the flak! Besides which, the American audience is generally older: there's a separate, recognised 'Young Adult' section of the market, which means, in many cases, that I can get away with being much more explicit in the American editions of my books than in the British ones (which are aimed at 'children')! That hasn't stopped some people, though. A lad from Atlanta wrote to me threatening to sue me - although I have yet to hear from his lawyers; some people have openly accused me of 'promoting Satanism' - to which I would argue that they haven't followed the drift of the trilogy at all (I wonder if they've got stuck on some of the long words?); finally, the most vicious of my critics in print have been those of the 'Catholic Herald', who seem to me to be nostalgically sharpening their thumbscrews and wishing the Pope would bring back the Inquisition.

Movies versus Books

Q: I hear you've sold the film rights to "His Dark Materials"?

PP: I have indeed. In fact, I sold them even before I was sure that 'Northern Lights' was going to be a success, so that if we only sold six copies of the book I'd still have something to show for it!

Q: Do you think the forthcoming film will work?

PP: Well, some films work and some don't. It's more true of modern books than of classic ones, because unlike the classics modern books like mine tend to lean more on the human sensibilities than on the storyline, as a rule. I'm quietly hopeful about the film - it's to be made by New Line Pictures, the ones who made the "The Lord Of The Rings" movies, so they should be quite sensitive to the spirit of the books. Plus, Tom Stoppard is currently writing the scripts - what more could you ask for?

Q: So will you, like JK Rowling, have much creative control over the project?

PP: Only a minimal one, and I think that's the way it should be:

Q: How would you compare books and movies as methods of storytelling?

PP: Well, of course, the art of storytelling dates right back to ancient times, but it still continues today. Then we had written stories, and printed ones, and they still continue even with the advent of plays such as Shakespeare's, and later cinema and television. No one medium can supplant all the others: once a book has become a movie, the book doesn't become redundant; but each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. Take the stage plays of my books, which are going to be performed at the National Theatre. Now, there's a particular sequence in the third book where one of the characters, puzzled by something, "taps his thumbs together". That's the sort of close-up which works both in a book and on film, but has to be represented some other way on stage, otherwise it's not noticeable. The location of a camera's viewpoint - literally in the case of a film, metaphorically in the case of a book - can make all the difference in how a story is told: Jane Austen and Howard Hawks, each in their own ways, use this to great effect, cutting between 'long shot' and 'close-up'. Or, there are situations where the camera is deliberately absent from the action as something shocking happens - one can draw parallels between an unseen domestic row in Trollope's "Barchester Towers" and an ear-amputation in Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" that's more heard than seen. In their different ways, both are equally effective.

Bigger Issues: Philosophy

Q: Some people have complained of your books that the stories are spoiled by there being too many big philosophical issues read into them...

PP: I'd refute that:

Bigger Issues: Feminism?

Q: Lyra [the main protagonist], rather like Alice of 'Alice in Wonderland', is the classical example of a strong young girl through whom we see a strange new world. Will [her co-protagonist] isn't seemingly as strong. Is there anything going on here?

PP: I know there are some writers about who try to seize on the latest fashionable trends in literary criticism. I can safely say I'm not one. This is just the way that the story grew in my mind: Lyra didn't appear to me out of my own choice. Nor was there meant to be any political bias: quite the opposite. Will, if you look closely, is intended to be Lyra's equal in character as well as age.

I prefer to tell my stories in the third and not the first person. The first person can be rather restrictive, telling the whole story from the point of view of a single person's mind and opinions: the third person brings into play that free-ranging metaphysical being called 'Narrator'. Personally, I wouldn't quite dare to write 'as' Lyra: I'd rather have the liberty of being able to view her reactions, as it were, from the outside.

Q: Aha. Is this perhaps because you and Lyra are so, ahem, different?

PP: I won't deny that we are, but that's not at issue. I think no-one writing children's fiction these days can fail to recognise some sort of a debt to 'Alice in Wonderland' in whatever form. Neil Gaiman's 'Coraline', though its reputation may not end up being so enduring as Carroll's work, follows a similar pattern.

Gnosis, 'Filters' and 'Systems'

PP: A lot of psychoanalysts have been going to work on re-interpreting particular issues in old folk-tales. One interesting book I read, written by a man called Bruno Bettelheim, called "The Uses of Enchantment", basically looked at fairy-tales through what were, fundamentally, Freudian specs. I'd say that Freudian and post-Freudian interpretative theories use 'filters' in their analysis (much as photographers use coloured filters if they want to bring up particular contrasts), to pull into sharp contrasts details and relationships in a text that might have gone unseen by ordinary readers, and perhaps even by the author him- or herself. However, we should not be misled by these theories. They are no more than filters, and though they may enhance one's appreciation of a text, they are no help whatsoever in creating one. Besides, authors and readers impose enough of their own filters on texts, created by their cultural heritage, expectations of a text and indeed what books they'd read previously, without having any more filters imposed on them by others.

Q: The third book has a very different feel, and indeed, a different theme to the two that come before it... Was this intentional as part of some system or arc?

PP: Um, no-one's asked me that one before! (thinks) No, not really. The advantage of setting out to write a trilogy of books is that it gave me room for pure improvisation - anything I happened to think of that sounded good at the time didn't have to be immediately explained, but could be held over to the next book, or left as a loose end if it wasn't important. Personally, I didn't feel that having an over-arching 'system' as such was terribly important. In fact, in one case a minor detail I dreamt up on the fly for the purposes of the first book actually reappeared as a useful addition to the third, helping to develop the powers that the two main protagonists acquire.

As part of my background reading, I had a look at another book called "The Alternative Trinity: the Gnostic Heresy in Milton, Marlowe and Blake" by A.D. Nuttall - and I was rather disconcerted by it: someone had managed to pull these very different writers together in one book by the tropes they empolyed, and it had me wondering where and how my own work could fit into the grand scheme of things. Then it occurred to me that these were just the interpretations of a critic. Any system I created, borrowing the words of Blake himself, had to be my own, not anybody else's. Moral of the story: take a firm line when dealing with literary critics!


Q: The theme of work in life seems to crop up as one of the themes in the book...

PP: Yes, I was particularly inspired by a quotation from John Ruskin:

There is a sense in the story that Lyra is forced to work her way out of a kind of innocence. An essay by the philosopher Heinrich von Kleist, written in 1810, called 'Marionette Theatre', describes this kind of progress in some detail: the perfectly innocent marionettes are capable of far more graceful dancing than the awkward, self-conscious human dancer. His message was that, although the Eden of perfect innocence is currently lost to the human race, it is not lost forever - it can be regained, if the human race is willing to spend its life trying. But the innocence it will find is a more mature one, in a way: in perfect innocence, one merely accepts that a fact is so, whereas, in the innocence of perfect wisdom, one accepts that a fact is so because one already knows why it is so. Working toward that end should be a joyful action.


Q: You've already denied that there is any real underage sexuality in 'His Dark Materials': and yet there is at least some evidence of relationships developing between the characters...

PP: Again, I was trying for a kind of psychological realism, even if the world in which it takes place is a fantasy one. I think adolescence is, and should be, all about discovering the meaning and value of your own body as well as that of other people's, as changes occur to it. It ought to be a point in life that is celebrated, but the Church traditionally seems to treat it as a time of 'horror' to be passed over on the way to adulthood as quickly as is decent. It's also a time of struggles: I can foresee Lyra in future books a few years older than in the original trilogy having to come to terms more fully with the powers she now possesses, whilst trying to keep them hidden from the ordinary world.

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