This interview took place in August 2000, at Lexicon, a small literary convention (Unicon 2000) held in Oxford, England. An edited version of this interview (of which this is a lightly-edited transcript) previously appeared in Locus #479, December 2000.
TB: I noticed in the programme book that there’s an early novel of yours that doesn’t seem to have been reprinted, Galatea
PP: Oh, Galatea: I’ll talk about that one. There’s another one, too, which I don’t talk about. Galatea was published in 1976, I think: published by Victor Gollancz in this country, and Duttons, I think, in the States. It’s a book which I remain fond of. I think Gollancz had a fantasy, or science fantasy, list at the time, and it had this limited life in this country, but it continues to lurk in the States. Each time I go over there and I’m signing the books which are currently in print, someone comes along with a second-hand copy of Galatea and asks me to sign that. Also there’s a chap at R____? University, I think, who’s apparently teaching it, using photocopied stuff, and there’s a fellow in Seattle, University of Washington, who wrote a chapter on it in a book about post-modernism – in which he also talks about Dean Martin, Andy Warhol and somebody else. I’m very happy to belong to that company. So, Dean Martin and I are icons of post-modernism. But I hope it’ll come back into print, because it is a book which I remain fond of. I don’t know how you’d classify it; but then classifying anything is terribly hard. I don’t know what’s fantasy and what isn’t fantasy. I suppose sort of magical realist … it’s a year or two too early for the magic realist thing, otherwise it’d have ridden that wave, but it didn’t.
TB: You’ve been quoted in several places as saying that you don’t read much fantasy, that you think fantasy isn’t a worthwhile form of literature.
PP: Don’t tell them! [gesture at audience]
TB: I think they’ve guessed! Can you expand on that?
PP: You invite me to the lion’s den and then you say …
TB: We’ve got you surrounded now.
PP: What I mean by that, what I’m getting at, rather clumsily, by saying that, is that what I remember of the fantasy that I’ve read – and I have not read much modern fantasy, I have to say … I haven’t read much modern fantasy – by modern I mean post-Tolkien. I read Tolkien when I was an undergraduate at this very college, 35 years ago. I met Tolkien, and I’ll tell you my Tolkien story. Upstairs, in the Rector’s lodgings, 32 years ago. What I remember from Tolkien was that here was a book full of the most tremendous excitement, with a narrative skill that left me breathless, and which continues to teach, I think, three very interesting things about the quest story, which is the basis of The Lord of the Rings, but which didn’t actually tell me very much about being a human being. I found more of that in Jane Austen, for example, than I found in Tolkien. Maybe that’s my fault, not Tolkien’s fault, maybe that’s not what people go to Tolkien for: but that’s what I was mostly interested in. I was mostly interested in the sort of literary experiences I was getting from George Eliot and Jane Austen, more so than what I was getting from Tolkien. In the book that – I suppose it’s fantasy – Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife, and in The Amber Spyglass which is coming out in November – what I’ve tried to do there is use the apparatus of fantasy to say something that I think is true about human psychology and about the way we grow up and about the difference between innocence and experience and so on. Now, I know that I’m missing a lot, and I know that each one of you could instantly quote me half a dozen books of fantasy which do this: I’m accumulating a reading list. I will eventually read all the things I should have done. Would you like to hear my Tolkien story?
Audience: [frenzied yips of assent]
PP: When I was an undergraduate at this college – this was Tolkien’s own college. He was a Fellow here for many years, but he’d retired by the time I came here to read English. Now, in my day – I think it still goes on, but they might have stopped it now, I don’t know – if you were unfortunate enough to read English at Oxford you had to study this filthy language, Anglo-Saxon, which we all hated. It’s just full of barbarous, horrible sounds, and there’s no literature in it, and all the rest of the stuff. That’s what we thought then. So, we weren’t very keen on Anglo-Saxon. Nevertheless, for some reason, the Rector of Exeter College was kind enough to invite me and two of my friends – all of us reading English – to dinner to meet Tolkien. This was in 1968, when everybody was being Hobbits, you know, we were all going about being hippies. He was pretty famous then. We went into dinner upstairs, in the Rector’s Lodgings – thank God I was not sitting next to the old boy. One friend was sitting on his right, the other on his left. He turned to the first one – he knew we were all reading English – “Tell me,” he said, “how are they pronouncing Anglo-Saxon these days?” My friend, who was as idle and ignorant as I was, could only sort of gasp and goggle. So Tolkien, slightly displeased, turned the other way and said, “And did you enjoy The Lord of the Rings?” – to which my other friend had to say, “I’m awfully sorry, I haven’t read it.” So – well, I could’ve answered that question, but I couldn’t have done the first question. So that’s my Tolkien story: I have actually met him. But I’ve read The Lord of the Rings, indeed, but not for a while. So, what I’m getting at when I say .. when I make what appear to be disparaging remarks about fantasy, are only functions of my ignorance of what the best fantasy is. Because my main interest, as a writer of novels, is in saying something which I believe to be true about the way which I think we are. I haven’t … I didn’t see that in Tolkien, and so I haven’t read much fantasy since.
TB: It’s quite easy to group your work into three or four sections: there’s the books for younger readers, at least one of which – Spring-Heeled Jack – is partly a graphic novel. You’ve said before that comics were what you read as a child, what influenced you a great deal: have you ever considered doing a full-length graphic novel?
PP: Yes, several times; but what I’d like to do is draw it, as well as write it. In fact, I do go to drawing classes – I have done for a number of years – the little illustrations in Northern Lights are something that … I did them, so look, I’m a professional illustrator, I’m proud to say, as well as a writer. … I do go to this drawing class, when I’ve got the time. It’s a life class. What annoys me when I see illustrations is people whose bodies don’t fit together; the shoulders don’t work or something. So I thought I ought to go and study how do people’s bodies work, so I went to this drawing class, which means I’m now fully equipped to write and illustrate The Child’s Book of Nudes. I can’t do clothes yet! Actually, faces are the difficult thing. If you want to tell stories, you have to be able to draw faces. What I really, really admire, in the work of the very greatest comic books artists – for example, Hergé – is that, in a work – in any of the Tintin books – you will find a large cast, each of 2which, each of the characters can be perfectly distinguished in terms of their features. They always look different from each other. You can always tell that character when they turn up. And furthermore, each character can have a range of different expressions on their face, and still be recognisable as that character. Now that is the hardest thing of all to do, and once I’ve been to enough drawing lessons and drawn enough faces and so on, and learnt to do that, then I’ll do my graphic novel.
TB: And will that be another Penny Dreadful?
PP: Well, that would be fun. I don’t know what it’ll be yet, but I have got this ambition. I love comics. I used to read – well, some of you are old enough to remember the Eagle – Dan Dare – wonderful stuff. When I was a boy in Australia – we lived in Australia for about 18 months when I was about nine – that was the first time I saw American comics, I mean Superman and Batman, in their pre-self-conscious, post-modernist stage, when they weren’t dark. I loved these things; I felt such a thrill when I first saw a Batman comic: I can’t compare it to anything else, really; just this sudden excitement of seeing this way of telling a story. It was so new to me and so exciting to me and so vivid and so powerful. I can remember the thrill to this very day. Comics … newspapers used to be delivered – the boy used to ride along the street and throw them onto the lawn. I remember each week when the bundle arrived with my comic in, I used to race out there and get it. I still feel that excitement now.
TB: I just described these as Penny Dreadfuls, and Jim in the Sally Lockhart books reads Spring-Heeled Jack and so on. Are they actually original Victorian tales retold?
PP: Well, Spring-heeled Jack was a character in Victorian penny dreadfuls. He was, like Batman, a costumed super-hero. Spring-Heeled Jack’s costume – he was supposed to look like the Devil, so he would put springs in his heels. Which incidentally I saw in the paper the other day, some Russian’s invented now, did you see that? Petrol-powered spring-heeled boots, which you can bound along on.
TB: How do you steer?
PP: Well, I don’t know: you lean? By bouncing off walls, probably. The idea was that he was dressed as the Devil and he would turn up to rescue ladies in distress, to apprehend villains and all this sort of stuff. There were huge numbers of these penny dreadfuls, in series; there was the Deadwood Dick series, there was the Wildfire Ned series, and all this sort of thing. Most of them have vanished, because they were printed on cheap paper and nobody thought they were worth collecting anyway, and so they’ve gone the way of a lot of popular literature. But there is a collection in the Bodleian Library here, the John Johnson collection, if anyone’s interested. You can go and look at some of these things, which have been preserved and which still exist. I think they’re fascinating, they’re lovely; I just feel a sort of warm glow when I think of these things. When I was doing my penny dreadful cum graphic novel, I took Spring-Heeled Jack as my hero, and just sort of wove a story around that. It’s partly graphic novel, as you say: it’s got speech balloons and it’s got little poems; but it’s got text in between. This I found quite hard to do, because there’s a curious thing that happens when you write a story in pictures; it is in the present tense, whether you want it to be or not. Pictures are in the present tense. But the text in between the pictures was in the past tense, like a conventional story. So there is a sort of disjunction, a not-quite-fit between the text and the pictures, which I never really solved. I did another story in the same format, called Count Karlstein, which is based on – well, not based on, set in – the world of German Romantic ghost stories, legends and this sort of thing. In the same style: a graphic novel with elements of text. Still there’s this basic contradiction between the past tense of the narrative and the present tense of the pictures – which I find very interesting, and I can talk for hours about it, but I won'’ say much more about it. I could solve the problem by writing the text in the present tense, but I don’t like doing that, so I’m stuck.
TB: The Sally Lockhart books – I suppose you could call them expanded penny dreadfuls. They do have that sort of … that same narrative structure: excitement, chase, denouement .. except there’s far more moral depth to them.
PP: I’m grateful to you for saying that! I hope there is. I hope also that - going back to the notion of telling a story rather than showing it in pictures – I was able to use the tone of voice, the tone of the narrative … the controlling intelligence that’s telling the story, if you like, has a tone of voice. This is different for every book that you write, and part of the difficulty when you begin a book comes from – as those of you who are writers, and I know there are some here who are – you’ll know this – one of the most difficult things to do when you’re starting a book is to find the right tone of voice to tell it in. That’s partly to do with how much humour you can expect to be understood; there’s a sort of shared space of humour between you and the reader, how much you can rely on that and how much you have to tell them before they understand what you’re saying is funny. Sometimes it’s quite a lot! But it’s also something to do with the basic narrative problem which faces a director of films: I don’t know if anyone knows David Mamet’s very interesting book on directing films. He says – I’m not quoting exactly – the basic question for a director of films to decide is ‘where do I put the camera?’ and that is really the basis of ‘where is this coming from?’ Where am I seeing this from? How close am I going to the action, how far back can I go, how much is in focus. If it’s a shot with narrow depth of field, so you isolate someone against a suggested background, it’s a different effect from if it’s all in focus, if you have a very small aperture, in photographic terms. All these things are story-telling decisions that I find fascinating and very interesting. They’re more under your control, you’re more able to do that sort of thing, if you write in the third person not in the first person. Which is why I always prefer to write in the third person. When I was doing the Sally books, I found that that suddenly became available to me, that sort of tone and that control, of where things are seen from, of what tone it’s reported in, and so on. So that’s what I was having fun with in the Sally books, and will continue to have fun, because there’s going to be more.
TB: Oh yes, The Tin Princess is finally coming out in this country. What took so long? That’s been out in the States for six years.
PP: Well, it’s been available in this country, theoretically; in other words it was published by Penguin. They published it six or seven years ago, Puffin published it; they did their best to conceal its existence from the public, and consequently few people heard about it and it wasn’t widely sold. It only very recently – well, comparatively recently – went out of print in the Penguin edition, because Scholastic wanted to republish it, together with the three – the first three Sally books, but they couldn’t get the rights, because Penguin were saying ‘yes, it’s still in print, there are three copies on a shelf in Swindon!’ So Scholastic couldn’t get rights! Anyhow, it’s coming out in November, I’m very glad to say.
TB: And you say that’s not the last one …
PP: It’s not. It’s the last that I’ve written, the last so far, but I certainly want to write more. I like those characters, I like the way they interact with each other, and I want to see more of Jim and Adelaide in particular. I want to bring the events up to the mid-1890s before I’ve finished. There’s a sort of background theme of photography going through the books. Sally meets this young photographer, Fred Garland, in the first book. Fred’s uncle Webster is very interested in photographic experiments, and in The Tiger in the Well they’re building the first sort of apparatus to photograph motion. Experiments of this sort were going on all over the world, of course. There were the Mybridge photographs in America, there were the French experiments of the Lumiere brothers for many years, and so on, so this was very much of the time. And because it relates so closely to story-telling, to the way we tell stories in pictures, I thought it was an interesting thing to have going on in the background of the stories. And I want to bring it up to the mid-1890s because that’s when the first true cinema films were made, the first true moving pictures were shown. That’s a theme I want to continue, and in 1896 or so, Sally’s daughter Harriet will be 16, which is a good age for her to have an adventure, I think, so we’ll do that.
TB: One thing that struck me about the Sally books is that they’re marketed as children’s’ or young adult books, and there are certainly some very adult moral questions raised in them. In the third book Sally is in a position where she may have to barter sex. How much of the moral undertone are your target audience – who are your target audience, and how much of the moral undertone will they get? How much will just pass them by?
PP: Well, this is a very large issue. The whole question of who books are for is a terribly difficult one. The most difficult question I ever found to answer is ‘who do you write for?’ The honest answer is, I don’t write for anyone, actually, except myself: I write for the story. But inevitably publishers want to know – well, it’s not so much publishers. Bookshops want to know who your audience is, and librarians want to know who your audience is, and parents like to know what sort of age it is, because they’ll buy books for children without reading them themselves necessarily, and they want to know whether it’s ‘suitable’ for a twelve-year-old or something. I haven’t the faintest idea. My ideal, and what I would like to consider myself doing – what I do like to consider myself doing – is the old notion of sitting in a marketplace, where all kinds of other transactions are going on around me. People are buying food and selling food, and somebody doing tricks over there in the corner, and the pickpocket over there, and there’s a public hanging over in the corner, all sorts of stuff. And there I am on a bit of carpet with a hat in front of me, telling a story. And whoever wants to stop and listen is welcome to do so. I do not put up a sign saying ‘this story is only for twelve year olds’ or ‘no children welcome here’ or ‘only women need be interested in this story’ or anything like that. I don’t want to exclude anyone, because as soon as you say ‘this story is for such and such a group’, what you’re actually saying as well is ‘this story is not for anybody else’. I don’t want to do that. I would like to tell the sort of story which brings children from play and old men from the chimney corners, as somebody used to say. I’d like to tell a story which is entertaining and interesting, in necessarily different ways, but nevertheless to all kinds of people and all different age groups. I’m lucky enough to be able to have an audience which I know is mixed like that. Most of you here are grown up, I’m delighted to see you, and I’m delighted that I have an audience of grown-up people. I’m also delighted to have an audience of young readers as well. But I do not write for one section or for another section. I tell the story that comes to me that wants to be told, in a way that would entertain me if I were reading it. That’s what I do. I haven’t really answered your question: I’ve dodged it.
TB: Certainly the moral issues in the Sally books – I was actually reminded of another great young adult trilogy, being the Earthsea books, by Ursula Le Guin.
PP: Which I’m ashamed to confess I haven’t read.
TB: Damn, there goes another question!
PP: No, make the point, because …
TB: The first three Earthsea books, I would say, are a coming of age trilogy: three complete, separate tales, taking the protagonist from a young boy to an old man. But there’s actually a fourth book, Tehanu, which was published quite a lot later than the first three. That is really quite a harrowing read for somebody who read the Earthsea books as a child, and comes to Tehanu as an adult, because it’s got child abuse, rape, murder – lots of nasty things. It’s not a nice book – well, it’s not an easy book. I had a similar feeling with the Sally Lockhart books, that a child reading them would probably go back [to them as an adult] and see more.
PP: Well, if they do, then I’m pleased. But I can’t be held responsible for my readers being upset if they’re too young, because I don’t say at any point ‘this story is for nine year olds’. Adults who are responsible, such as teachers and librarians and above all parents, do have a responsibility here. Give a child a book without necessarily reading it all, but having a look at it, then the parent themselves bears some of the responsibility if the child is upset by the book. I don’t think the author does, because the author has to tell the story that he or she wants to tell. It’s usually not the author who puts ‘For nine year olds’ on the cover; publishers do that. But as I say, my aim is to tell a story which does have other resonances, if you like; some of them being moral. That’s not to say I set out to preach. I’m in the wrong trade if I set out to preach. When you undertake a task of any length, of any sort of intellectual weight, when you set out to write a book that’s going to take you seven years to finish, as I did with His Dark Materials for example, then necessarily you do have some sort of moral commitment to it: you do it because you think it’s a good thing to do. You wouldn’t spend seven years doing something that you didn’t believe in with some part of your moral being. So there is that dimension to it, yes. If that’s what people want to see and talk about then that’s fine; if they want to go for the story and ignore the other stuff equally that’s fine. I’m not telling them how to read any more than I’m telling them which people are allowed to and which aren’t. I just tell the story that I want to tell.
TB: The one of your books that’s received most strong comment for its content is The White Mercedes, recently republished as The Butterfly Tattoo.
PP: Yes, annoyingly. I wish they hadn’t done that.
TB: Why did they do that?
PP: The idea was, it was originally called The White Mercedes, a story about teenage love, basically; it’s a tragedy. When Macmillan republished it they said that the marketing people …if you have a story with the name of a car in the title, girls won’t read it. I merely report that! I goggled and said ‘what nonsense’ and they said ‘well, can we think of another title?’ I wasn’t particularly keen on the title The White Mercedes in the first place, but they told me it would help sell lots more copies if we called it The Butterfly Tattoo. Being unmotivated by anything but the highest motives I thought ‘jolly good, more money!’ so I agreed to it. But in fact it hasn’t done as well as it did when it was called The White Mercedes, so I think they were wrong. .. Your question wasn’t about the title, though, was it? It was about the content.
TB: It’s actually quite a graphic and unsettling tale of teenage love.
PP: Yes. Not as graphic in this country as it was in the States.
TB: Oh really?
PP: It was – I won’t say ‘censored’ in this country, but they suggested I tone down the sex scene a bit in this country. So I did, because the story didn’t entirely depend on the graphic qualities of the sex scene. But they didn’t suggest that in the States. In the States, you see, they have this category called ‘Young Adult’, and ‘young adult’ books can be full of sex, violence, rude language – whatever you like. If they’re called ‘teenage’ books or ‘children’s’ books they have to be very much more fussy about it, but because it was marketed as young adult I could be as rude as I liked.
TB: [to audience] Has anybody got an American edition? … I suppose I’ve managed to wind everybody up madly by not talking about His Dark Materials yet. .. So what would your demon be?
PP: Well, I don’t know, because, it’s an essential thing about demons – I don’t know if anyone’s got a copy of NL with them, because I could read you the passage –
TB: Has anyone not got a copy with them?
PP: [retrieving a copy from adoring audience member] I’ll just read you the passage which explains this. It’s when Lyra’s going to the North, she talks a lot to an old sailor about all sorts of things. This sailor is actually based on a sailor I talked to when I was a small boy, on the ship on the way to Australia, because everybody went by ship in those days. That’s how old I am. And this old boy on the ship showed me, among other things, how to sweep the floor properly. What you should do is you push the broom away from you, you don’t pull it towards you – that’s unseamanlike. Anyway, Lyra’s talking to this old sailor about demons: she says ‘why do demons have to settle?’ because, for those who haven’t read the story, everybody has a demon which is a sort of animal spirit companion which can’t go very far from you and remains with you all your life. Now, the big difference between children’s demons and grown-up demons is that when you’re a child your demon can change shape. It can be a rat, a cat, anything you like, anything it likes, from moment to momenTB: depending on your mood and your thoughts and feelings. But in your years of adolescence, when puberty strikes, then the demon’s power to change vanishes, and your demon settles down in one fixed form which it’ll have for the rest of your life. That’s your demon. Now Lyra says ‘why do demons have to settle? I want Pantalaimon (that’s her demon) to be able to change for ever. So does he.’ And the sailor says ‘ah, they always have settled and they always will. That’s part of growing up. There’ll come a time when you’ll be tired of him changing about and you’ll want a settled form.’ ‘I never will; says Lyra. ‘Oh, you will. You’ll want to grow up like all the other girls. Anyway, there’s compensations for a settled form, like knowing what kind of a person you are. Take my old demon. She’s a seagull. That means I’m kind of a seagull too. I’m not grand or splendid or beautiful, but I’m a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That’s worth knowing, that is. And when your demon settles, you’ll know the kind of person you are.’ And Lyra says, ‘Suppose your demon settles in a shape you don’t like?’ ‘Well, then you’re discontented, ain’t ya? There’s plenty of folk as’d like to have a lion as a demon, and they end up with a poodle. And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it. Waste of feeling, that is.’ So, you see, you cannot choose your demon, and so no matter how much I might like to have a bird or a cat or something graceful or elegant, I’d probably turn out to have a crab or a slug. But one aspect of this business which has been picked on by some critics, notably in America – somebody criticised me for being terribly class-ridden and British and snobbish because all servants are people whose demons are dogs. This critic thought that I was saying if your demon’s a dog you have to be a servant. It’s not like that at all, as Lyra explains elsewhere to Will (who doesn’t know about demons). “If your demon turns out to be a dog, that means you’re the sort of person (and there are plenty of those about) who enjoys knowing where they are in a hierarchy, who enjoys following orders and pleasing the person in charge”. There are people like that, and they make good servants. We don’t have servants any more in our society but we do in Lyra’s world. If your demon is a dog that is a sign to you that that’d be a career that you’d enjoy doing and that you’d be good at. So that’s what having a demon says – one of the things that having a demon says to you. But I do not know what my demon would be, and I cannot choose. The way to find out what your demon is, is to ask your friends to write it down anonymously. Then you will find out.
TB: There was one point about demons which – you say, I think, right at the beginning of Northern Lights, that somebody’s got a demon of the same sex as themselves, and this is very rare. Now, does that indicate homosexuality? Or what?
PP: I don’t know. There are plenty of things about my worlds I don’t know, and that’s one of them. It might do! But it might not! Occasionally, no doubt, people do have a demon of the same sex; that might indicate homosexuality, or it might indicate some other sort of gift or quality, such as second sight. I do not know. But I don’t have to know everything about what I write.
TB: But you can make it up as you go along …!
PP: To a certain extent, but then you discover the rules of the world that you’re building as you build them, I’m sure you’re aware of that. I can’t suddenly invent a rule that contradicts all sorts of things that have gone before. Nor do I sit down consciously and work out the rules, draw up the constitution of the world before, as if one were drawing up a constitution of a bowls club or something. It doesn’t happen like that. To some extent, it’s rather like what happens in mathematics, where you discover things – for example, the realm of imaginary numbers. Are they invented or are they discovered? As soon as you discover – as soon as you come across this notion of imaginary numbers, you realise that it is a realm which has its own laws, which has its own things that you can’t contradict and which in turn allow you to do other things with the rest of the natural numbers and so on. It’s partly like that when you’re exploring a world in a book that you’re writing. You’re sort of discovering it as well as inventing it. So there are other things, no doubt, I haven’t yet imagined or thought of about demons. I do find it’s a very rich idea, and right at the end of AS, after 1200 or more pages, I was still discovering new things I could do with this human-demon link. In a way, it’s the best idea I’ve ever had. I don’t know all of it; so, to answer your question, ‘maybe, yes, but who knows?’
PP: There are some places where I don’t want to follow my characters. There are some places where one would not want to follow one’s characters. One doesn’t follow one’s characters into the lavatory; very few books do. James Joyce does, but – if it’s important for the story to follow your character into the lavatory, of course you do. But in most cases it probably isn’t. There are some places where one, out of natural courtesy or storytelling tact, or whatever it is, you don’t go. Perhaps that’s one of them.
TB: I’m very interested in Lyra’s world. Is it an alternate?
TB: It’s very difficult to place exactly what year it is there. Most critics seem to think it’s late 19th century, and I can make a good case for it being mid-20th. What are the major differences?
PP: The notion is that it’s the present day, because when she comes through into our world, or when Will goes into the world where they meet, it’s the present day for Will: it’s our …you know, 2000. So it’s the same date in Lyra’s world. I purposely didn’t give a date. But it is the same date. The idea is that the worlds split apart at some date in the past and developed differently. Some things have gone ahead, other things have remained static or developed differently – the technology’s different and so on. Now this is based on – comes out of this notion of multiple worlds, which is familiar to readers of popular books of physics and Scientific American and this sort of stuff, there’s a man at Oxford called David Deutsch[?], who’s written and lectured widely on this notion of parallel worlds. I find it very intriguing. Apparently, the nature of certain experiments in physics, such as the double slit experiment, with light – photons and so on – if you think through the consequences of that, says David Deutsch, you are left with no alternative but multiple worlds. There must be other worlds than this one, other universes than this one, with which there is no contact. And yet the double slit experiment – in other words, what goes on in one world affecting what goes on in another – must indicate that there is some sort of interaction. So this notion of multiple or parallel worlds is a wonderful gift for a storyteller. All you have to do is invent a way of getting from here to there. So you invent a knife that cuts a hole in them, and there you are. In a sense, the problem of how to get from where we are – which is the everyday world – to that ‘other place’, which is where the adventures happen, is one of the basic science fiction questions. Jules Verne invented a huge great big gun to fire people at the moon. H G Wells invented this stuff called cavorite[?], the antigravity stuff … Does anybody know that marvellous book Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay? [show of hands] I was sure some of you would. Well, in Voyage to Arcturus the technology consists of back rays. Light that goes outwards, like the light from these light fittings, that’s ordinary rays; but there’s also a special secret sort of light that goes back to its source, hence ‘back rays’. Now, in order to get to Arcturus, the scientist – whose name I’ve forgotten – has bottled some rays from the star Arcturus. These are back rays, and they fuel the rocket ship by means of these back rays. Nonsense, of course. But that’s just another way of solving the problem of how to get from here, which is dull, to there, which is exciting. The notion of parallel universes is just another of these ways of going from here to there. I don’t fully understand the physics of it: I don’t even partially understand the physics of it. I know enough to fake it, for somebody who’s about as knowledgeable as I am. The function of research, incidentally, for a novelist – because novelists have to do something very different from what non-fiction writers do. If you’re writing [non?]fiction, or science, or something, there’s a certain obligation at some level for you to tell more or less what you know to be the truth. When you’re writing fiction – or if you’re a journalist! – it’s different. If you’re telling a story, of course, you don’t have to tell the truth. What you have to do is not to be truthful but plausible. The function of research is to enable you to invent convincingly. That’s what I do with my research. I read enough to enable me to make up more stuff in a way that would fool me if I were reading it!
TB: So, in Lyra’s world, the Church – which is a Calvinist church with no Pope – is a lot more powerful. Actually … what are the differences in that church? Is there a Christ, is there a Messiah? And what’s his demon?
PP: I hadn’t thought of that! I wanted to have a world in which the Church was powerful, and I wanted to make it a Church with competing bodies within it. Rather than have a Pope in supreme command, I had a sort of collegiate church with different bodies. There’s the Oblation Board, there’s the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Society of the Holy Spirit and so on. All these are different power bases, and depending who’s in charge of each one at the time, this one can be more powerful, and that one can be … go down a bit, and so on. So it’s a sort of warring, or rather a squabbling, body which enabled me to sort of play the politics of one off against another. And rather than have one body of doctrine and one authority, I could invent the bit I needed for this story and then go to another story and invent another bit. And it didn’t matter if they contradict. Damn, the real world contradicts itself a hundred times a minute! You can be over-consistent in a story, and rather than spend all my intellectual and imaginative energy on making this world entirely full and self-consistent throughout every little nook and cranny, I spent my energy writing the story, getting the narrative right. I let the reader’s own imagination make up any gaps. If you want to think of what demon the Messiah might have had, feel free to do so! No one will contradict you. What I did do, though, for the sake of – the one thing I did think important – rather than drawing up a constitution of all the different countries and all the rest of it, and thinking of a detailed economic history, and all that sort of stuff, I did think it was important to have a coherent … I suppose you could call it a myth … an underpinning central creation story for the whole of the trilogy. I discovered this as I was writing, bit by bit, and every so often I’d break off from the narrative and rewrite the myth, and refine it a bit more. Written down, it takes about five or six pages, but it’s not explicit in full anywhere. I might do a companion volume, I don’t know yet, in which all sorts of things are spelled out in greater detail, such as the alethiometer and how it works, such as the myth in the background and so on and so forth. But the myth was very important to me because it did give a sort of imaginative consistency to the whole thing. I knew that I was always, whatever point in the story it was, I was writing against the background of the same big central story which was underlying all the other stories. Just as in Paradise Lost, the Judaeo-Christian creation story underlies that without ever being fully spelled out. Milton needed that, and I needed my myth. So that was the thing which I spent time working out.
TB: Is it the same myth for Lyra’s world as it is for ours?
PP: Let’s put it like this, it’s the same myth for all three books in the trilogy. There are aspects of our world which resonate with and reinforce the things that happen in Lyra’s world; there are things that are unique to our world, and don’t. But then there are billions of other worlds; we only see a very small handful of them. The central myth is the central story for all of them, rather than for any one in particular.
TB: Since you mention Paradise Lost, I can mention the critical comment that His Dark Materials is a sequel to Paradise Lost.
PP: Well, I’d be very flattered if it were seen like that. I only mentioned Paradise Lost because it was the starting point for me. I’ve loved that poem ever since I was 16 and we did it for A-level at school. I found it intensely enthralling, not only the actual story – the story of the temptation and so on – but also the landscapes, the power of the poetry and the extraordinary majesty of the language, which excited me then and continues to excite me now. It’s – I’m not making any claims that I’m anywhere near a hundredth of the class or power or whatever of Paradise Lost: it would be monstrously presumptuous to do anything of the sort. Paradise Lost was a starting point; that’s all. I do have a slight advantage over Milton, which is this: as William Blake said of Milton, ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and heaven, and at liberty when he wrote of devils and hell, is that he was a true poet and of the devil’s party without knowing it.’ When you read PL the force and truth of this comment becomes clear to you; because all the imaginative energy is with Satan. When he talks about God and the Son, Christ and the angels and heaven and so on, the temperature goes right down. But when he’s with Satan, especially in the first books where they’re planning what to do, the engagement is total. He says it isn’t. But it is. And this is borne out in that wonderful story of the old 18th-century squire. Now, somebody reminded me of this, and I wish I could remember where it does come from. This old, near-illiterate 18th-century squire – I think it was 18th-century – squire or lord or something, being read to by his rather better-educated butler, out of Paradise Lost. The old boy's sitting there with a pint of port in his hand. At one point he bangs the arm of his chair: ‘By God!’ he says, ‘I don’t know what the outcome may be, but this Lucifer’s a damn’ fine fellow and I ‘ope he may win’. He was responding to Milton … engagement, you see.
TB: Somebody’s also said that if these were ‘grown up books’, then the viewpoint character would be Lord Asriel, and not Lyra.
PP: Well, maybe: I’m not sure about that. This is not his story; it’s Lyra’s story. And it’s not told by her either. It’s told from this favourite viewpoint of mine, which is the sympathetic but slightly sceptical narrator. The narrative voice is outside Lyra; it doesn’t stick with her all the way either. Occasionally it goes off and talks about something she’s not aware of. And so I’m able to say things about Lyra that she herself would never say: I think the third chapter of the first book, describing the background to her life and the way she lives her life as a child in the city of Oxford, I think I say at one point ‘in many ways she was a coarse and greedy little savage’, which no child would say of herself, or of another child. This is an adult voice talking about her. I don’t think that’s quite right, the point which you’ve just quoted. I think the story is Lyra’s, no matter who’s reading it.
TB: She’s the Child of Destiny, isn’t she?
PP: Well, yes. Now this is made clear … this is where we come to the point where I say ‘ah, but you haven’t yet read the third book’.
TB: That’s because you haven’t published it!
PP: I hadn’t finished it until last week!
PP: This is the … she is going to be placed at a point where something depends on what she does. This does not mean that she herself is of extraordinary importance. I’m very wary of books in which somebody’s born to a particular destiny or is gifted by nature with supreme, divine gifts. Lyra’s a very ordinary little girl. There are hundreds of Lyras in Oxford. I used to teach Lyras when I was teaching. There were thousands and millions of children like Lyra, and Will, in every country in the world. There’s nothing special about her. She’s only special by virtue of the fact that at some point she will be placed in a particular situation where the fate of a lot of things depends on what she does. It’s not her, it’s not special to her: she’s a very ordinary child. And this is something which I stress throughout, and especially in the third book. There’s a phrase which comes into the third book and which occurs in the last line of the third book, especially, so it does have a particular emphasis, which sums up what I mean: and the phrase is ‘the republic of heaven’. We’re used to the kingdom of heaven; but you can tell from the general thrust of the book that I’m of the devil’s party, like Milton. And I think it’s time we thought about a republic of heaven instead of the kingdom of heaven. The king is dead. That’s to say I believe that the king is dead. I’m an atheist. But we need heaven nonetheless, we need all the things that heaven meant, we need joy, we need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, we need a connection with the universe, we need all the things that the kingdom of heaven used to promise us but failed to deliver. And, furthermore, we need it in this world where we do exist – not elsewhere, because there ain’t no elsewhere. The Republic of Heaven is the notion which is given its full expression in the third book. The whole thing’s been leading up to that. In keeping with that, Lyra is a very ordinary child.
TB: But she inspires a great deal of loyalty and love and protective instinct, from a great many people – nearly everybody apart from her actual parents.
PP: I’ve known children like that. She’s not divinely blessed or gifted. The point I’m making is that ordinary people are capable of great deeds, not that great people do extraordinary things occasionally – but that ordinary people can do them, when pressed, when they need to: which I think is a republican notion.
TB: I think she’s maybe not that ordinary in that, for a twelve-year-old, she actually has quite a developed moral sense. At one point she is more ready to trust somebody because she finds out that he’s a murderer – which I thought was a very interesting moral point. She doesn’t want some weak person: she wants someone who will fight for what they believe is right.
PP: This happens near the beginning of the second book, when she meets Will for the first time. Will is the boy from our world. He and Lyra meet in this sort of third space, a world which is new to both of them, so neither of them know their way round. Lyra at first is afraid of Will because, coming from our world, he doesn’t have a visible demon, and she doesn’t know if he’s alive or a ghost. She’s frightened of him. So she asks the alethiometer, and the alethiometer gives the exact answer which Lyra would understand. ‘He is a murderer’, it says. (The alethiometer, for those who haven’t read it, is this truth-telling instrument which she learns to read by intuition). The alethiometer knows Lyra; it knows what she will appreciate and respond to. If it said ‘he’s in trouble, he’s had to run away because of this and that’, she wouldn’t be nearly so interested. She needs at that point to admire, trust and rely on him, so it tells her that he’s a murderer, which is glamorous – dangerous – exciting – so she does.
TB: So she is an ignorant little savage, really.
PP: Yes! But because it’s a book about growing up and because, what I began by saying, my only interest in stories is in stories that tell us about ourselves, she does of course develop and grow up and learn in the course of the three books. And at the end of the third book, of course, we discover what form her demon will settle in.
TB: [to audience] I told you I wasn’t going to ask that one!
PP: But it’s not a poodle!
TB: The third book; delayed.
PP: No, not delayed. What gives you that idea? … It wasn’t delayed, it was prematurely announced. Publishers in this country and in America made the great mistake of listening to me when I said ‘yes, it’ll be finished in 6 months’ time’.
TB: But making things up is what you do for a living!
PP: Exactly! They sort of jumped the gun; before they had the manuscript in finished form on their desks, they said ‘it’ll be finished in the autumn, it’ll be published in May’. I kept seeing other things I wanted to do to fiddle with it, so I didn’t let it go until it was ready. I’ve heard all sorts of rumours; someone wrote to me and said ‘is it true that it had to be withdrawn because it was blasphemous?’ And somebody else – there’s a story going round on one of these Internet sites that I delivered it to the publishers but then asked for it back again. It’s all nonsense. All that happened, really, was that the publishers said that it’d be ready before it was, and I absolutely refused to let it go before I thought it was ready. I finished the first draft last August; I finished the complete rewriting and cutting of about 200 pages from it last March; then it was in a state where I could show it to my editors, here and in the States. They made their comments – always very helpful and useful – and in the light of those, in the light of my further thinking, I went back and did some more work on it. It’s just last week that I finished doing the proofs for this country and the States. I was thinking of other bits I wanted to put in and putting them in right up to that stage as well. So, it hasn’t been withdrawn, it hasn’t been delayed, it hasn’t been prosecuted for blasphemy – it’s a pity, really, that’d get a lot of useful publicity. It’s just that I took my time and I was not going to let it go until I was ready. It’s now ready, so that’s it, and it’s coming out in November.
TB: Despite leaving us with all those dreadful cliff-hangers at the end of book 2.
PP: Well, what do you expect? I want you to read it! If I’d said ‘here ends book 2. In book 3 this will happen, and it’ll all end happily’ or whatever… of course I want people to be left in suspense. That’s what story-telling’s all about. It’ll be out on the first of November.
PP: Well, it’s out of my hands now. If it’s delayed now, it’ll be the publishers’ fault, so you can blame them. It’s going to be out on the first of November, no doubt, no question. I’ll actually be in the States then, because I’m going over on the 12th to do a three-and-a-half week tour with far too many cities, and I’ll be coming back on about the 4th. So I’ll be doing a publicity tour of this country at the beginning of the second week of November, for about ten days or two weeks or something. Then I shall be buried, I think.
TB: On the Random House website, there’s a section on the alethiometer. Was that your work?
PP: They had the nice idea of having a bit of background on each of the books. I wrote the stuff on the alethiometer, which actually Scholastic are going to publish as a separate little pamphlet in this country, either to coincide with publication or just before it, so it’ll be available here as well. I did that; it was rather fun to do that.
TB: Were you influenced by the Tarot?
PP: Not the Tarot specifically, but the notion behind or underneath the Tarot, yes. The notion that you can tell stories, you can ask and answer questions, and so on, by means of pictures. We come back to pictures again. What did influence it were those extraordinary devices they had about the middle of the sixteenth century – emblems, emblem books. There was a great vogue for these things. The first emblem book, I think, was published in 1544 in Italy. The idea was that you had a little moral …a little piece of wisdom encapsulated in a verse, usually Latin, usually doggerel, and a sort of motto, and illustrating those there was a picture. A favourite picture was a hand coming out of a cloud, holding a heart – no, two hands, one hand coming out of a cloud holding a heart, another hand waiting to receive it, and the hand waiting to receive it has an eye in the centre of its palm. Now the moral of that is that you receive a gift of somebody’s heart, but first look, and make sure what it is that you’re getting. So these were illustrations of trite and banal little moral points. Another favourite one was the helmet of a suit of armour, lying on the sand with bees flying around it. The idea of that is the things which once were instruments of war are now turned to peace. They’re all rather everyday little things, like ‘look before you leap’, or, ‘penny wise, pound foolish’. Trite little, silly little, ordinary everyday observations; but, given this extraordinary semi-surrealist air by being pictured in emblem form in these rather curious little woodcuts. This was another source for the alethiometer – the idea that you could make a moral point or give information or whatever by using pictures. So I invented the alethiometer using a mixture of conventional symbols, such as the anchor, which is a traditional symbol of hope, and ones I made up, and I wrote out this long sort of recipe for how to use the alethiometer itself. And then I discovered, in a book of emblems in the Bodleian Library, something rather similar. It looked as though somebody had actually drawn the alethiometer. But what had happened was that in this particular emblem book, which was published in about 1620, somebody had invented a way of fortune-telling. You were supposed to cut this thing out, and you put a pencil or a stick through the middle of it, and you twirl it like this and, wherever it falls … you ask a question and you twirl it. Wherever it falls refers you to a number inside the book, and you look that up, and that’s the answer to your question. So people were using this sort of thing in that sort of way. And then, of course, there’s the Tarot, as you mentioned: there’s the Chinese I Ching …all sorts of ways of divination. There are dozens and dozens of ways of interrogating the universe, basically, and the alethiometer is the one I made up for this book.
TB: Any chance of any of your work being televised or filmed?
PP: Well, the film rights have been sold, but all that means is that the company that bought them has the right to make a film. It doesn’t mean they have to. They have a limited number of times they can renew the options, I understand: after that the rights revert. I don’t know how it works. So the film rights were sold quite early on, but the company who bought them – Scholastic Films – they do make films. They made a film of the Lynne Reid Banks book, The Indian in the Cupboard. But mostly what they do is try to put a package together consisting of screenwriter or finished screenplay, and director and star, and then they sell that package to a big studio. They were going to wait until all three books were out before they decided what to do – whether to make it one film of the three books, or to make three films, or to make one film of the first book and forget the others, or to change Lyra into a boy … have Danny La Rue playing the bear, or something … Stranger things have happened! So I don’t know. What I do know is that I shall have nothing whatsoever to do with it, because that way lies frustration and grief. The writer of a novel only has power at one point in the film-making process, but no other: the only point at which you have power is when you sell the rights to someone who wants them. The only power you have is that of getting more money than they want to give you. That’s all. If you think you have any rights after that, if you think you’ve got any power – you haven’t got any power at all. Sometimes, as a sort of sop, they give you a casting consultancy or something. Did I read that J K Rowling was insistent that there should be an English boy playing Harry Potter? And they said ‘yeah, sure, we’ll do that, by all means’. So they auditioned 400 English boys and they ended up giving the part to an American one, as they’d intended all the way along. So it doesn’t mean anything.
TB: Which brings me nicely onto, what do you think of Harry Potter?
PP: I haven’t read them all; I’ve read the second one. I read that because I was judging the Guardian Children’s Fiction Competition. They sent me the proof of the first one before it was published, which is now worth five thousand quid or something …and of course I gave it to Oxfam, like all the other books I get for review. It didn’t seem to be my sort of thing, the first one, so I didn’t read it, and I read the second one because I was judging the competition. I thought it was all right. It was inventive, it was funny, it was all those nice things. I didn’t read the third or the fourth because I wasn’t sufficiently … it didn’t do what I want books to do. It didn’t tell me very much about being a human being. It was a jolly, funny, school story, I thought. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my impression.
TB: Why’s it so successful?
PP: Who knows? It’s a mystery. Publishers and writers talk about this all the time. ‘Why? Why? Why not me?’
TB: Could it be you? Would you want to be that successful?
PP: I don’t think so. In terms of children’s books, which is what they’re labelled as, they’re already successful. They’ve been bestsellers in most lists, and so on. My books are already commercially successful in terms of children’s’ books. The Harry Potter books are successful in terms of Big Macs, on that scale – the number of hamburgers McDonalds sell, they’re that successful. It’s a different sort of scale. Everything about Harry Potter is on a different sort of scale. The phenomenon – I can’t really see a connection between the phenomenon, which is extraordinary, and the books, which are pleasant but not extraordinary. That’s my feeling. But good for her. Actually, I feel quite sorry for her, because that amount of money and attention and fame and everything else, must be kind of disorienting, don’t you think? I have the same publisher in America – well, one of my American publishers is the one who bought Harry Potter for the States, Arthur Levine[?]. I had a meal with him in Chicago, back in May, and I said ‘how’s she getting on? What’s her life like now?’ He said ‘I don’t know. I’m not allowed to reach her.’ He can’t get through to her, and he’s her editor.
TB: That would explain a lot, actually. Have you seen the size of that fourth book?
PP: I do think she’s in a terribly difficult position, and I do feel quite sorry for her. I do sympathise … I envy the money, of course – who wouldn’t want that much – but on the other hand, think what that would do to your relationships and your friends. How can you suddenly be …it’d make your life very difficult, I would think.
TB: But you’d quite like to find out?
PP: No, I don’t think I would. I’ve got as much money as I want, and I’ve got as many readers – I’ve got far more readers than I ever thought I would have, and I’m invited to nice events like this, and get to listen to interesting questions and meet nice people, and so on. I don’t want anything else. I don’t want more.
TB: That sounds a really good place to stop! Thank you very much, Philip Pullman.
PP: Thank you.