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His Grimm Materials: A Conversation With Philip Pullman

The best-selling author on his new fairy tale collection, writerly superstitions, and what his daemon would look like.

MJ: You recently told a young reader that the person you'd most like to have dinner with is Jesus. What would you ask Jesus?

PP: Yeah, well, he's the most fascinating character in history, really—the character who's made more difference to the world than anyone since him. I daresay that Muslims would say Muhammad was that character, but I think Jesus had a sort of 600-year start on him. [Laughs.] I'd like to hear what kind of Jew he was, for example, how pious he was.

The crucifixion saved Jesus from dealing with the fact "that the kingdom of God wasn't ever going to come."

According to what he says in the Gospels, he was absolutely certain that the end of time was coming, that the kingdom of heaven was coming within his lifetime—if not within his lifetime, then within the lifetime of those who were listening to him.

Like many prophets—and we've seen several in our own times who say, "Come up on the top of the mountain; the flying saucers are coming on Tuesday and then we'll all go and we'll all be taken up to Venus and we'll all live happily every after," and they all go up to the top of the mountain and the flying saucers don't come, so on Wednesday they kind of trudge down rather disconsolately: "Well, we got the timing wrong. It's next October"—Jesus was in that unfortunate position. The crucifixion saved him from that. He never had to deal with the fact that the kingdom of God wasn't ever going to come. His disciples, of course, had to deal with it, and little by little they had to realize that it's a metaphorical thing. Well, that's not what Jesus meant. I'm fairly sure he meant it literally. But he must have been the most fascinating man.

MJ: So would it be fair to say you're a fan of Jesus and an enemy of the church?

PP: Uh, yes. That's pretty much where I am. If we all gave all our goods to the poor, the church would fall apart. If we all hated our father and mother, as Jesus told us to, there'd be an end of the church's emphasis on the family as being the one important thing holding the whole society together. There are all sorts of ways in which the church's teachings contradict directly what Jesus says in the Gospel.

MJ: You have a superstition involving "story sprites." Tell me about that.

"I've written all my novels on a paper of a particular size with lines of a particular distance apart and with two holes in the paper for the folder clip."

PP: The state of mind which I put myself when I tell a story is one in which superstition flourishes very easily. And I welcome that because it helps me. A story, to me, has a particular sprite, like the angel of the spirit of that story—and it's my job to attend to what it wants to do. When I tell the story of Cinderella, the sprite does not want me to make it into an allegory of the fall of communism. The sprite would be unhappy if I did that. I can't put it any more clearly than that because it's a strange area and I'm not very sure about it myself. But I'm perfectly happy about being superstitious and atheistic.

MJ: Any other notable superstitions?

PP: Yeah! I've got a number of private superstitions which I've discovered work.

MJ: Do tell.

PP: Uh, well, I'm superstitious about the paper that I use, for example. I've written all my novels on a paper of a particular size with lines of a particular distance apart and with two holes in the paper for the folder clip. There was a time a few years ago when I couldn't get any two-holed paper and all they had in the shops was four-holed paper. And I thought, "This is terrible!" It was when I was finishing The Amber Spyglass. I couldn't buy any paper with two holes in it and I had two or three chapters to write. Well, I found the answer! I found these little stickers that you write a price on and stick them on a back of a book—I got a whole bunch of those and I covered up the top hole and the bottom hole. [Hilarity ensues.]

MJ: That is so funny!

PP: Yeah, that's an example of utter irrationality. But it worked for me.

MJ: Is it also true that you write precisely three pages a day?

"How shall I put this tactfully? It would interest me a great deal to know that J.K. Rowling had the whole how-many-thousand pages of Harry Potter sketched out" in advance.

PP: Uh, yes. When I'm in the middle of writing a novel, I write by hand on that sort of paper, and when I get to the bottom of the third page, I finish the sentence at the top of the next page. Or if I finish the page with a sentence, I write that sentence on the next page, so the next page is already defeated! It's not just a blank page looking at me. But when I'm doing a film script or something, I'm doing that on the screen because you use special software for scripts and so on. So I do it until I've done roughly the right amount.

MJ: It's interesting you don't use computer to write your novels, since it makes the editing so much easier.

PP: Yeah, too easy!

MJ: You're a fierce defender of public libraries. Do you feel strongly about how readers come to your work?

PP: Yeah, that is a good question. The e-book revolution has made it very easy to pay writers a good deal less than what their work is worth. I do strongly believe that we writers ought to hold out for much better royalties.

MJ: J.K. Rowling reportedly sketched out the Potter series before she wrote the first book. I gather that's not how you operate.

PP: Well, that's what she said. [Laughs.] How shall I put this tactfully? It would interest me a great deal to know that J.K. Rowling had the whole how-many-thousand pages of it sketched out before she began to write it. One of the ways in which writers most show their inventiveness is in the things they tell us about how they write. Generally speaking, I don't like to make a plan before I've written a story. I find it kills the story—deadens it, makes it uninteresting. Unless I'm surprised by something in a story, the reader's not going to be surprised either.

MJ: Okay, so you're sitting there staring at your two-hole paper…

Pullman came up with the notion of a dæmon "because I'd written the opening of the book about 15 times without the dæmon and it wasn't working."

PP: Well, I have an idea, usually a visual image of some sort. A setting. A particular, I don't know, urban scene, a particular time of day. Something that grips my imagination for some reason.

MJ: What was it for His Dark Materials?

PP: It was this child going into a room where she wasn't supposed to be and being trapped there and hearing what happens.

MJ: How did your notion of a dæmon come about?

PP: That just came about because I'd written the opening of the book about 15 times without the dæmon and it wasn't working. A girl goes into a room, looks around, somebody comes in and she's trapped. But it wasn't working and I didn't know why. Then Raymond Chandler's advice came true: "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun." In this case it was a dæmon. When in doubt, have a dæmon! Wow, yes! Now Lyra can talk to the dæmon. And the dæmon can contradict her and say, "No, don't go in there, we're not supposed to." It was suddenly much more dynamic.

MJ: You created a foil, essentially.

"I thought [The Golden Compass] would sell maybe two, three thousand if I was lucky."

PP: That's right. Someone to converse with, an accomplice, all sorts of things. And it wasn't until much later that I realized what the dæmon could do, and that adult dæmons were different from children's dæmons because they stopped changing. That was the real moment: not discovering the dæmon but discovering that adults' dæmons had stopped changing. That's when I realized that I'd got hold of this big innocence and experience idea. The most exciting thing that's ever happened to me as a writer was realizing that.

MJ: What form would you prefer your own daemon to take, and what form do you suppose she might actually take?

PP: That's a good point: You can't choose, can you? I would like my dæmon to be more photogenic than I am. Then she could take my place in the photographs I have to submit to. But I think my dæmon is probably one of those birds that steal things: a magpie, a jackdaw, a raven. She's a scruffy, greedy, idle, old thing, but she has a very sharp eye for a story.

MJ: Did you fathom how alluring the notion of a daemon—this literal animal soulmate—might be for your readers?

PP: I had no idea. I had hoped people would like it. But you see, my previous books hadn't sold very well. I had a small readership. I had a few good reviews. And I thought this would be the same. I thought it would sell maybe two, three thousand if I was lucky.

"I get a small amount of mail from people who think I'm going to hell. I think Harry Potter distracted a lot of those readers."

MJ: The success of the books took you entirely by surprise?

PP: Absolutely, completely by surprise. I was amazed—delighted of course.

MJ: Tell me about the mail you receive.

PP: There was a period when I had a great deal of mail specifically about His Dark Materials. Before the third book was published, that's when I got the most. When is it going to come out? Hurry up, hurry up! What happens next? To which I could only reply, "You'll get it when it's finished." I get a small amount of mail from people who think I'm going to hell—and deservedly, I may say, for having seduced so many children into the powers of evil. That kind of letter is less common than it was. I think Harry Potter distracted a lot of those readers.

MJ: There have been no less than 18 books written about His Dark Materials.

PP: Eighteen! Is that right?

MJ: They're all on your website.

PP: Oh, right. Well you're a more assiduous reader of my website than I am a writer of it.

MJ: Have you read any of them?

PP: No. It would either make me think what a great guy I was or else make me think, "No, they got it all wrong; let me write in and correct it."

MJ: One thing that struck me was that the alethiometer, the all-knowing device that Lyra comes to master, could be a storyteller's curse. It's a built-in deus ex machina.

PP: That's one of the reasons why I had Lyra lose it in the end—it was getting too powerful. If you know what's going to happen next, it ruins the story. She's using it still in the book I'm writing now, the sequel, but she's having to do it consciously, with all the reference books, and it's a real chore. That way it works for me as a storyteller.

MJ: What else can you tell me about The Book of Dust?

PP: It's progressing. It's taken me a while to get started because I was doing lot of other things, including film scripts, shorter books, my Grimm tales. But now the way is clear and I'm very happy with the way it's going.

MJ: Speaking of films, just before The Golden Compass movie came out, one writer predicted that your characters would shortly be as famous as Dumbledore and Gandalf. Was it a blow to you that films were never made of the other two books?

PP: I completely expected it. I'm pretty surprised that they made the first one, actually.

"I'm quite tempted by the idea of doing His Dark Materials as a 24-part TV series like Game of Thrones."

MJ: Why?

PP: Because of the implications. I don't think they realized what they'd got. When they saw where the story was going, it was quite clear that they weren't going to…

MJ: Kill off God?

PP: [Laughs.] You could put it like that, yes.

MJ: Has there been any interest in making another go at it?

PP: I'm quite tempted by the idea of doing it as a 24-part TV series like Game of Thrones. It doesn't need the scale of the movie screen, it needs the length of a TV series.

MJ: I would definitely watch that.

PP: I would watch it too. I think it could be done.

MJ: The conservative British columnist Peter Hitchens calls you the anti-C.S. Lewis. Did you ever view His Dark Materials as a literary response to Narnia?

PP: No. I've spoken and written about Narnia. I didn't feel the need to address the Narnia question at all in His Dark Materials. This is my story, not C.S. Lewis's story—and not an answer to it either.

MJ: You've also been critical of Tolkien, calling his work "infantile." What's your take on, say, the Harry Potter books—or The Hunger Games for that matter?

PP: I haven't read them, partly because fantasy actually is not something that interests me very much. The only fantasy that I've felt to be emotionally satisfying is a book called A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay. He was a strange writer, Scottish writer. It was published around 1920. It's a very crude and primitive sort of science fiction. It's about morality—good and evil—and he deals with it in a way that is so forceful and so powerful that it sweeps aside any doubts you may have about the validity of the genre, in a way that Tolkien certainly doesn't. Tolkien seems to me reactionary, conservative, fearful of a modern world. Fearful of anything that isn't sanctioned by the passage of long eons of time. I think what I'm doing in His Dark Materials is politically the reverse of that.

MJ: On your website you say, "I'm not in the message business; I'm in the 'Once upon a time' business." But your stories and your public antipathy for the church have made you a lightning rod. Can you have it both ways?

PP: It'd be nice! Although I say it I'm overtly not in the message business, the way you speak of the characters in your story shows what you think of the values of conservatives‚ or evolution, for example. It shows where your moral center is. So you are in the message business whether you like it or not.

MJ: Given what you've written about religious fundamentalism, you must take a rather dim view of our Republican Party.

PP: I look at the state of the American politics and I scratch my head in wonder. How can the Republican Party, any party, have fallen into to such a state of self-destructiveness—self-destructive stupidity? How is it possible? I don't know. It's an absolute mystery to me.

MJ: Hey, it keeps Mother Jones in business!

PP: Yeah. [Laughs.] I guess it does. But it reduces people of my acquaintance, here and in the States, to open-jawed wonder that any party can behave as badly, as stupidly, as simply destructively as the Republican Party and still be in business as a serious political party.

MJ: Let's end with a question about endings. It strikes me that the Grimms' endings could use some improvement—at the very least a bit more variation.

PP: "They got married and they lived happily ever after" really is the beginning of another story entirely, isn't it?

MJ: Like how did they get married and live happily ever after. I need to know that!

PP: [Laughs.] The answer is that they didn't. But then it became a novel.

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