Darkness Visible: An Interview with Philip Pullman


By Kerry Fried, Amazon.com

In a transatlantic chat with Amazon.com's Kerry Fried, Philip Pullman discusses the completion of His Dark Materials and a mistake that C.S. Lewis really shouldn't have made. He also offers up his favorite characters, major and minor, discourses on whether or not you can choose your ideal dæmon (sorry, folks, not a chance), and dwells on the key turning point in human evolution (let's just say that it involves a certain serpent).


Amazon.com: Now that the last book in your trilogy is done, may I ask how much of it was by your design and how much your characters themselves created?

Philip Pullman: I guess the overall shape of it was mine--in the sense that I knew from the beginning what was going to happen and where the characters were going to go. But they always surprise you; they always do things that you don't know about in advance. So I guess part of it was me and part of it was them.

Amazon.com: Can you give me an example of a character making the first move?

Pullman: Mrs. Coulter surprised me by turning out the way she did. She was always one step ahead of me, actually. I could never quite tell how she was going to get out of this circumstance or that one, this situation or that one. And although I felt that her attitude was changing and deepening or maturing--or whatever you'd like to call it--throughout His Dark Materials, it wasn't until I was well on my way through the third book that I realized what she must do in the end.

Amazon.com: How long have you been living with these people and who was first on the scene?

Pullman: Seven years. The first book took me two years, the second one took me two years, and this one's taken me three. The first picture I had, really, was of Lyra hiding and overhearing something that was not meant for her ears. And because I liked the character that she was, I let my mind play about with other things she could be doing. And then other pictures assembled themselves and gradually came to me--like moths I suppose. They can sense there's a story going on and want to be part of it, so they flock to the little light that's glowing.

Amazon.com: Was Lyra's dæmon, Pantalaimon, with her right from the start?

Pullman: Not quite at the beginning, no. Because when I first began the book, she didn't have a dæmon at all--there were no such things as dæmons. But I couldn't really get things started until I discovered that she did have one, and what they were, and what they did. That was a long process of sitting and staring at the page and trying the first chapter various ways. Finally I just realized that she had a dæmon. And I began to figure out some, though not all, of what dæmons did. In fact, I was still discovering things about them in the very last pages of The Amber Spyglass.

Amazon.com: Do you have a favorite character?

Pullman: Apart from Lyra, who was my guiding star all the way through, I really have to say it was Mrs. Coulter.

Amazon.com: She is entirely intoxicating.

Pullman: She intoxicated me, I tell you! It's a good thing that I don't know any Mrs. Coulters in real life--a good thing that there aren't any Mrs. Coulters in real life.

Amazon.com: How about among the minor players?

Pullman: Lee Scoresby. I liked him as soon as he turned up, this Texan mercenary balloonist. Incidentally, I took his name from the name of that actor who appears with Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns, Lee Van Cleef, and from an Arctic explorer called William Scoresby.

Amazon.com: The battle in which Lee Scoresby and his hare dæmon, Hester, are very much outnumbered in The Subtle Knife is one of my favorite scenes, and one of your most wrenching. Hester is right up there in my pantheon.

Pullman: An aunt of mine has that same dry, laconic nature and way of talking. I'm very fond of this old lady, and Hester has something of her in her, I think.

Amazon.com: Let me ask you about any favorite moments in the books.

Pullman:

I like confrontation. I love the scene between Lyra and Iorek Byrnison the bear, when they first meet in the mud outside the bar. I like the fight between the bears in the first book, the scene when Lyra first comes across Mary Malone, the scientist, in The Subtle Knife , and also the scene when Will meets the bear in The Amber Spyglass . Scenes where important characters come together for the first time have a particular charge and they're very exciting to write.

Amazon.com: There are also scores of quiet, apparently minor moments. In The Amber Spyglass there's one in which Lyra finally acknowledges one of the little Gallivespian spies, the Lady Salmakia. I was wondering how you'd made that leap between Lyra's listening to this woman to her hope, one day, to have "a child of her own, to lull and soothe and sing to, one day, in a voice like that."

Pullman: I was conscious that there were quiet moments to come. In fact, the last section of the third book has certainly to enter a new kind of emotional realm. If you think of a long work like this in terms of a piece of music, the loud passages are loud only because they are contrasted with the quiet ones. And in a painting, the bright sections are bright because they're set against sections which are dark. If you're going to have great excitement, you've also got to have calm passages, and it's a question of arranging them all in the best possible order so they make the most vivid and telling contrast with each other. It's a complicated business! [laughs ]

Amazon.com: Lyra "has had bad luck with her true parents," as Lee Scoresby puts it, but he and several others are intent on making it up to her. Will, too, is desperate to find his father and rescue his mother, though less willing to accept substitutes. This loss--and gain--also figures in some of your other fiction.

Pullman:

Well, in one way there's nothing so inconvenient in a story as a mother and father. As Jane Austen might have put it: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that young protagonists in search of adventure must ditch their parents. In another way, though, there is no doubt some psychic pressure behind this. Peter Dickinson and I were talking one day and this subject came up and we agreed how strange it was that so many children's authors had lost one or both parents in their childhood. My father died in a plane crash when I was seven, and naturally I was preoccupied for a long time by the mystery of what he must have been like.

Amazon.com: When Lyra is captured and taken to Bolvangar, you describe the nurse as someone who "would be able to stitch a wound or change a bandage, but never to tell a story," and storytelling becomes key, really, to the future of mankind in the final book. You've long stressed that you call yourself a storyteller and not a writer. What distinction do you make between the two?

Pullman: For me the story is paramount and the actual literary texture is secondary. That's not to say that I think the literary features are not important, because I do take great care to use words properly and have a certain grace and rhythmic propulsion. But it would be flattering, for example, to think that I had made up a story which other people could tell in different words and which would still have whatever effect it has now. I'm aiming high, but Hans Christian Andersen's tales are just as effective, just as powerful, when told by other storytellers. Whereas something like Madame Bovary, if it were told by another novelist, would be flat, stale, dull, and unprofitable. But it is extraordinary in the words of Flaubert.

Amazon.com: When you received the Carnegie Medal in 1996 for The Golden Compass, you said that adult novelists had lost or didn't seem to care enough about the art of storytelling. I was wondering if you'd read anything since then that changed your mind.

Pullman:

When you make speeches like this you have to be a little bit provocative. [laughs ] The organizers expect it, because they want to get the prize in the paper. But I do believe that in adult literary fiction, certainly in Britain, the writers who are highly esteemed are the ones for whom story is not the predominant factor. And it seemed to me that in the work of some of them, stories are actually rather disdained . They are embarrassed, shifty , to be telling a story, so they play all kinds of literary tricks and go all postmodernist. They foreground the fact that they know that they're telling a story so that the reader won't take them for some innocent person like Tom Clancy or John Grisham, who presumably doesn't know he's telling a story. I thought these tricks were irritating and silly and it was a stage which these people really ought to have got through.

Amazon.com: Speaking of embarrassment, I avoided The Golden Compass when it first came out because I thought I had a complete inability to read fantasy--

Pullman: Well you're not the only one. I can't read fantasy either. And I discovered that the reason I don't is because it doesn't tell me anything interesting about being a human being. In the world-of-the-dead passage in The Amber Spyglass , Lyra's fantasy doesn't satisfy the harpies. They're only satisfied when she tells them the truth. And I mean that. That's something which I can put my hand on my heart and say: I believe passionately that that is true and that books which satisfy us and feed us and nourish us have to have this substratum of genuine truth in them. And I don't see much of that in most fantasy.

Amazon.com: One reason the trilogy is so enlarging is that you reveal a deep connection between dæmon and human. Many of us, even though we really should know better--and you've told us that we should--do suffer from dæmon envy.

Pullman: [laughs ] It was the richest idea I've ever had. There were so many different things I could do with it. But it works , and it's actually saying something about the business of being human--it's not just decorative. In the first draft of The Golden Compass , everybody's dæmon changed shape, adults' as well. But after some time I sensed that this wasn't actually adding anything to what I was trying to say. I walked around the garden and thought about it and I suddenly realized that of course what the whole story is about is growing up. It's about the difference between innocence and experience, between childhood and adulthood, and if this dæmon business didn't symbolize or signal that, it would simply get in the way. At that moment, I realized that I had to have some difference between the children's dæmons and the adults' dæmons. Shortly afterwards I learned what it was: adults' dæmons settle--they don't change. That is the key to a lot of the story.

Amazon.com: They're very physical, sensuous creatures, but they don't seem to need to eat. Pan occasionally catches a fly, and in The Subtle Knife he dips his paw into the omelette batter--

Pullman:

You can point to all sorts of places in the story where I have not mentioned things that you don't need to know. Another thing you don't need to know is how dæmons are born. I don't want to go into the gynecology of dæmons--you don't need it for the story, though I could do. [laughs ] And this is a mistake, incidentally, which C.S. Lewis made in his Narnia books. At one point, he says that since the centaurs had two stomachs--a human stomach and a horse's stomach--they had to have two breakfasts. First they had a breakfast of bacon and eggs, and then they had a breakfast of hay. Presumably they ate the hay with their human mouths, but how ? It's an irritating little detail that sticks out and makes you think, "Huh?" And the one thing you don't want is for the reader to go "Huh?" So, ignore it. If you've got centaurs, fine, but don't mention their food. It's not necessary.

Amazon.com: I read an interview with you in Talking Books where you said that if you had the choice your dæmon would be a raven, "because that's the bird in North American mythology that stands for the trickster, the storyteller, the creator."

Pullman: But it's no use my saying, "I'd like it to be this, I'd like it to be that." I'd be stuck with whatever it was and I would have to make the best of it. I think the way to find out what your dæmon is is not to think what you'd like it to be, but to ask your friends what they think it is. Probably the best way to do it is anonymously! Give them each a piece of paper and they can write it down and come to a consensus.

Amazon.com: Do you feel a great sense of relief now that you've finished the trilogy?

Pullman: Relief, yes, but also I miss it terribly. I miss this one more than most because I've been living with it for seven years, and because I think it's the piece of work in which I have said most clearly what I most deeply wanted to say.

Amazon.com: You question not the nature of holiness or of what is sacred but whether the Church in Lyra's world is truly interested in it. For some the first two books of the trilogy have run the gamut from blasphemy to evil.

Pullman: Well, I expected that, and I expect there will be more. But I think that as long as people are agitated about whether Harry Potter makes you into a Satanist, they're not going to be very bothered with me. So I'm happy to shelter under the great umbrella of Harry Potter. [laughs ]

Amazon.com: The third book makes it quite clear that we should all work toward a better present, which might quiet some readers' concerns.

Pullman: I do believe very profoundly in this notion of the Republic of Heaven--that we are all ourselves responsible for making things better, and we can't escape it by blaming anyone else for it or by shoving off the responsibility onto somebody else. It is up to each of us. I'm not trying to preach in the book, Heaven forbid, all I'm trying to do is tell a story. But if the story does resonate and reverberate in people's minds and makes them feel certain things, then perhaps that's to the good.

Click here for Part 2 of the interview.