Philip Pullman: My daemon is a raven, a bird that steals things

Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials trilogy is celebrated the world over, has finally produced a new instalment in Lyras story. As La Belle Sauvage hits the shops, he answers questions from famous fans and Observer readers

Philip Pullman opens the door to his 16th-century Oxfordshire farmhouse looking pale and slightly washed-out in his crisp, white shirt and nut-brown waistcoat. Is he under the weather? No, no, Im perfectly fine, he reassures me. Just a bit apprehensive, perhaps, about whats to come. We are meeting a week before the launch of his new novel, so what is to come in the next few days is a whirlwind of book signings, public appearances, glad-handing, readings and interviews: Im doing the minimum possible but it is still going to be absolute pandemonium, he smiles ruefully.

In truth, Pullman feels fitter and more energetic than he has for a long while. He spent much of the past couple of years in constant pain, until surgery restored him to full health last spring. Im a great deal better now, but thats one reason Im trying to keep the fuss to a minimum, he says. You sense he might feel short-changed with no fuss at all, however, and Pullman grants that he is looking forward to sitting down in his book-lined study and getting to grips with my very long list of questions from Observer readers, writers, theatre directors, clergy and other distinguished folk.

But first things first. Come and say hello to the dogs, he bids me, leading the way to the kitchen, where Coco and Mixie, his 18-month-old cockapoos are scratching frantically at the closed door. The pair of them spring out barking, then jump up and paw us deliriously before skittering off around the house in pursuit of each other. Pullman grins: they are obviously the apple of his eye. The next five minutes are spent recapturing the dogs and banishing them once more to the kitchen. Then were almost ready to begin.

It is no exaggeration to say Pullman devotees the world over have been almost as excited as his dogs at the prospect of his new novel, La Belle Sauvage, which arrived in bookshops last Thursday. A young woman on the tube practically hyperventilated when she spotted me reading an advance copy and confided that she had named her daughter Lyra after the brave heroine of Pullmans bestselling trilogy, His Dark Materials. The book is no run-of-the-mill publication (but then, nor is anything he writes): it is the long-awaited first volume of The Book of Dust, a new fantasy trilogy intended to stand alongside His Dark Materials. Fans of all ages have been waiting 17 years for him to return to the magical world ofNorthern Lights,The Subtle KnifeandThe Amber Spyglass, which have together sold more than 17.5m copies around the world and been translated into 40 languages.

The new series is not a sequel or a prequel, but an equel, Pullman told the Todayprogramme on Radio 4 when it was first announced (how many other new novels make the 8am news?). It starts 10 years before His Dark Materials when Lyra is a baby, with the next two books moving forward 10 years from HDM to when she is an adult. Once again, the theme is growing up and adolescence as an initiation into the difficult and confusing realities of the world. The first volume features a flood of biblical proportions, a pair of brave young rescuers, a cast of sinister spies and is a darkly brilliant, epic read.

Pullman came late to fame. He studied English at Exeter College, Oxford and graduated with a third because, he has said, he was having a wonderful time but no one took the trouble to let him know he was doing really badly at his degree. He worked at Moss Bros in Oxford for a while and then became a teacher for 15 years, living with his wife, Jude, in a modest suburban house in Oxford. They are still contentedly married and have two grown-up sons. He became a childrens writer in 1982 with Count Karlstein, followed by the Ruby in the Smoke series, but it was not until he was almost 50 that His Dark Materials aimed at young people but finding equal popularity with adults shot him to literary superstardom.

Since then, Pullman has established himself not just as a world-class writer but an outspoken public figure, a paid-up member of the great and the good. As president of the Royal Society of Authors he has campaigned for payment for authors appearing at literary festivals and for ebook library loans. He has battled against the closure of libraries and opposed the labelling of books according to age and gender. Only last week he scandalised the Daily Mail by dismissing Winnie the Pooh as sickly nostalgia, saying he has no time for its author, AA Milne. I cant stand the man, he told Sunday Times interviewer Bryan Appleyard.

A humanist and an honorary member of the National Secular Society, Pullman is also a persistent and vocal scourge of the Christian church. An agnostic rather than an atheist, he has infuriated religious groups with such declarations as: Im trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief. His Dark Materials, which ends with his cruel and intolerant God-figure being destroyed, was considered blasphemous by some Catholic organisations when it was first published. And although Pullman numbers Rowan Williams and Justin Welby among his supporters, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, published in 2010 which retells the story of Jesus as if he were two brothers, Jesus and Christ, with contrasting personalities was seen in some quarters as fanning the flames.

The publication date of La Belle Sauvage on his 71st birthday was a happy accident rather than a deliberate plan, his publicist claimed, but a rejuvenated Pullman shows no signs of quietening down. His current bte noire is Brexit, of which he has been an outspoken critic. Sixteen months on from the referendum, he remains more convinced than ever that it is a terrible mistake. It is a quarrel between public schoolboys magnified by circumstances in the media into a gigantic existential crisis for the whole nation. The leaders of the Leave side are the most dishonest. Its frightening, really. If you can get someone like Michael Gove saying people have had enough of expertsits alarming to think were in a society where that can be said and not instantlyscoffed at.

This brings us rather neatly to our first question, which is, perhaps not surprisingly, on the same godforsakensubject.

Anna
Anna Maxwell Martin as Lyra in the 2003 stage adaptation of His Dark Materials at the National Theatre in 2003. Photograph: Donald Cooper

Famous fans questions

Why did the Remain side of the referendum lose and how can they convince readers and voters to change their minds?
Andrew Rawnsley, the Observers chief political commentator
I didnt hear the right arguments at least not until the night before the referendum when Sheila Hancock was on a television debate and she, quite rightly, pointed out that Europe is this great peace-making thing. Weve got an organisation here thats kept the peace in Europe for 70 years, she said, and we should be proud to belong to it. And I thought, thats exactly right. But the argument put on both sides was an economic one. You know, if we leave, it will be great because we can make trade agreements with all the other countries in the world who are just panting to do business with us. Its just hopeless, utterly dishonest and disingenuous. How do we change peoples minds? The only way to do it is with emotion really. If people havent got an emotional understanding that Europe is the best thing thats happened to us for 2,000 years, then they are easily persuaded that its a bad thing. They buy all these dishonest arguments about taking back control. Its just absolute nonsense! But people wont be simply argued out of this view. Terrible thing to have to admit, but reason doesnt work.

How much credence do you give to the suggestion that somewhere, there might be other planets and worlds much like our own?
Melvyn Bragg, writer and broadcaster
David Eagleman, an American scientist, once said if you look at the night sky and hold up your thumb and look at your thumbnail, it is covering something like 10,000 galaxies. The amount of stuff up there, and the number of planets is infinite. It is not conceivable to me that there isnt life somewhere.

You have said that every child needs to encounter music as early as possible I mean make, with voice, with clapping hands, with stamping feet, with instruments of every kind. Whats your own best music, whether listening or playing?
Fiona Maddocks, Observer music critic
I love all types of music jazz, great pop music, world music and folk music but the music I listen to most is piano music from the 18th, 19th and 20th century. Russian music in particular. One of my favourite composers is Nikolai Medtner. He was a contemporary and great friend of Rachmaninov, although not as well known. More and more pianists are playing him now, though. The only instrument I play myself is the ukulele. I like to just sit here and plonk.

I wonder if you can tell us something about tractors and trees?
Mark Haddon, novelist
Aha! Mark is a neighbour of mine and I know just what he is getting at. About five years ago my wife and I bought about seven acres of land behind the house. It was rough grassland and hadnt been touched or grazed for decades, so we bought a tractor and a mower so we could mow the grass down and have a look at what was there. Having reduced the grass to a manageable level so that we could walk on it instead of fighting our way through thistles and brambles and giant hogweed, we thought it would be nice to plant some trees. So we planted about 700 trees and dug a pond, which was a complete failure because all the water leaks out as soon as it fills up but were going to sort that out. So you could say Jude and I are happily engaged in agriculture or arboriculture, or something like that. Its lovely to drive about on the tractor great fun.

In the parallel world of His Dark Materials, science of a sort has flourished in spite of the religious authorities. What about the arts? Would Shakespeare of a sort be read in Lyras Oxford?
Rowan Williams, former archbishop ofCanterbury
Would the arts be crushed or allowed to develop? I dare say the authorities in Lyras world might well try to suppressthe arts. But thats an interesting story, which I havent written. Maybe I will.

How much of your imagining of the Magisterium was shaped by real world events that were unfolding as you wrote?
Katherine Rundell, childrens and YA author
Very much. I suppose if Id been writing it 50 or so years ago, I would have had to look back in history for parallels, such as the Spanish Inquisition. But in recent times weve had so many new examples in all parts of the world of religious power being used ruthlessly and mercilessly for political ends, and thats what I find very dangerous.

If you could lead a revolution in someone elses world, which world would it be?
Frances Hardinge, childrens and YA author
Ha! What an interesting question. I think Id lead a revolution in the Narnia story, and Id put Susan at the head, because she was the one who was turned away at the end because she was growing up and she was interested in boys. Yes, let Susan lead the revolution of the rejected in Narnia.

Philip
Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

What is the origin of the character Giacomo Paradisi, the true bearer of the knife in The Subtle Knife?
Ed Sheeran, musician
In one way he comes from inside my head, because he just turned up when I needed someone to be the bearer of the knife. In another sense, he comes out of a whole tradition of Italian folk tales and Italian storytelling, which includes such things as the commedia dellarte. I gave him an Italian name because that helped create the atmosphere I wanted.

How do you know when youve written something good? How does it feel?
Caitlin Moran, journalist and author
It must be good if it still feels true and parts of it surprising when you read it for the 100th time, I suppose.

Would you like to see your new novel, La Belle Sauvage, illustrated or would you prefer to let your readers visual imagination soar and conjure their own pictures in their heads?
Shirley Hughes, childrens author andillustrator
It is sort of illustrated, in that there are little chapter-heading vignettes. I did those myself for His Dark Materials but there wasnt time for this book things have just been too hectic. So an artist called Chris Wormell did them and hes done them marvellously. They are not full scale illustrations, just pictures, some of them symbolic, some of them actual objects which give a flavour or an atmosphere to the story and I do enjoy that.

What is your own daemon?
Frank Cottrell Boyce, author
I think shes a raven. She belongs to that family of birds that steal things the jackdaws, the rooks, crows and magpies and I admire those birds. I applaud their enterprising way of dealing with the world and their intelligence. I love the way ravens fly: they are the most acrobatic and daring birds. So I would be very pleased if my daemon were a raven.

Would you rather be a woodpecker or awriter?
Meg Rosoff, author
I dont think of myself as a writer. Writing is an activity, its what I do, writing is a verb. Most of the time Im not a writer because Im not writing. Im a grandfather or a cook or an aspiring ukulele player or a wood worker or a dog walker. Ive never been comfortable thinking of myself as a writer. I dont know whether woodpeckers think of doing other things they probably peck wood more than I write!

Did it occur to you when you were writing His Dark Materials that within two decades the Magisterium would be so powerful in so many parts of the real world?
Nicholas Hytner, theatre and film director and producer
At the time of writing, things were already going that way and it did occur to me that it could get worse and this is undoubtedly what has happened. Repression in the name of religion has become more dominant, so we need to be more and more on our guard.

Where does your attitude towards the church come from?
Antonio Carluccio, chef and restaurateur
Well, it comes first, and most deeply, from my family. My grandfather was a clergyman in the Church of England. I went to church every Sunday, I believed it all implicitly because grandpa told me it was true and I loved him. So the language of the prayer book and the authorised version of the Bible are inextricably mixed with my neurons and cells and memories thats one side of it. The other side is what I have read since, about the history of the church and the way the church behaved when it had power in Europe, and the parallels I have noticed between that time and areas of the world now where other faiths have power and are abusing it. Even faiths that we used to think of as being gentle, like the Buddhists who are behaving very badly in Myanmar. So my attitude to the church is twofold. Firstly its where I belong Im a cultural Christian. Secondly, I have learned to have a grave suspicion of all religious power wielded politically.

How did you come up with the idea of the mulefa, the wheeled beings of The AmberSpyglass?
John and Mary Gribbin, astrophysicists and science writers
I can date that exactly to a holiday my wife and I had in Slovenia with my son it must have been about 20 years ago. We were walking around Lake Bled and there were a lot of people rollerblading along. My son was a great science fiction fan and I asked if he knew any books where there were creatures with wheels, and he couldnt think of any. Then we started talking about how it would be possible for a living creature to have wheels and thats where the idea came from. It was a useful one because it introduced the notion of symbiosis because the mulefa depend on the trees that produce the seed pods that become their wheels and the trees depend on the mulefa to pound the pods on hard roads so that they crack and then germinate.

Are there any classical myths that you think we should live by today?
Paul Cartledge, ancient historian and former professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge
Im very fond of the story of Prometheus because, in essence, its the same as the story I was telling in His Dark Materials, which is itself the same as the story of the third chapter of Genesis: the story of Adam and Eve. Its about humanity acquiring knowledge and the gods who own the knowledge are very jealous of it and punish those who steal it. Ive always felt a great resonance in that myth and I think thats the one Id pick to live by.

What would you most like to be remembered for?
Sarah Perry, author
It would have to be a book: I dont think Id want to be remembered for anything else! I suppose I might be remembered for His Dark Materials and maybe The Book of Dust, when its finished, because theyre big, and theyve been read by a lot of people. But I think Ive said this before Id most like to be remembered for a book called Clockwork.

Why did you pick Clockwork, of all yourwork?
SF Said, childrens author
It is the most perfectly constructed story. Its short, which helps. Im very fond of it. I think it works in all the ways a story should work.

How can we get the British public to accept that we have a responsibility to offer shelter and safety to refugees in larger numbers than up to now?
Lord Dubs, politician and campaigner for refugee rights
Its a very important question because we have a responsibility and we have, somehow, to change the story thats told from the one about social security scroungers and foreigners. I suppose its up to those who write the words to change the story. Its up to journalists to be responsible, its up to newspaper proprietors and in most cases thats a pretty hopeless cause. Perhaps there was a greater sense of responsibility in the days when the newspapers and the broadcasting franchises were the only media but nowadays, when anybody can broadcast anything on the internet, there is so much deliberate misinformation. The world is changing too fast for me to understand. Im a dinosaur, really.

Many scientists enjoyed His Dark Materials because it contained so many ideas that chimed with modern physics, from the multiverse to dark matter and even quantum entanglement. I am assuming your new books will do likewise. Do you have to keep abreast of the latest discoveries and theories in science so that you dont miss a trick?
Jim Al-Khalili, scientist and broadcaster
Science is an unfailing source of wonder and mystery so I love reading about it. Having said that, my knowledge of science is paper-thin and a lot of the science I put in the books is set-decoration rather than anything deeper. I try and get it right, to make sure the sets dont wobble when people walk in the door. But if its convincing, its thanks to people like you and others who write and broadcast about science, rather than to any original thoughts about it that Ive had.

If you could give to one public figure the gift of being able to see their daemon from this day forwards, who would it be and why? And what would their daemon be?
Jack Thorne, playwright and screenwriter
Donald Trump. Any visceral awareness that man could have would be an improvement. I dont know what his daemon would be something utterly repulsive. If he had to go everywhere accompanied by a loathsome toad or something similar, it would help us all a bit.

Im greedy so I also want to know, how would our world be most impacted by our ability to see our daemon?
We might understand ourselves a bit more. We might be less able to deceive ourselves about our own nature.

Jack Thorne has adapted His Dark Materials for a major BBC series currently in production

Whatever your age when you read it, everything you write is gripping, generous and lit with a layered understanding, one that suggests an agelessness of the imagination. Youre like Tove Jansson in that way. What is it about good writing that makes elements of age and time, as if by magic, irrelevant?
Ali Smith, novelist
I hope everybody who reads my books feels welcomed, whatever their age is. If they dont understand them because theyre too young then they will certainly be able to come back to them later. I dont exclude anyone and I dont believe, as some publishers want to do, in putting an age recommendation on the cover. The Tove Jansson comparison is a very flattering one because I love Tove Jansson. And like her, I think I am imagining things now in the same way as when I was a child. What difference does age make apart from general decrepitude and slowness and lack of energy? I suppose one thing thats changed is that I am now experienced enough to know how to write a long book. I know how to pace it, and I can judge by experience if an idea is going to last for 500 pages, because some will and some wont. But Im still moved by the same things or frightened by the same things. So in that respect Ive not left the child behind.

Nicole
Nicole Kidman and Dakota Blue Richards in the 2007 film The Golden Compass, based on His Dark Materials.

Readers questions

How do you think we can encourage the next generation to be critical thinkers? (Claire Watkins)
You wont get critical thinkers and independent thinkers by following a rigid curriculum in schools with marks for expected answers. Theres got to be a freedom for teachers to leave the curriculum occasionally and to ask questions for which there isnt a prescribed answer with a certain number of points allocated to it. Theyve got to take risks and weve got to allow children the freedom not to know about things. This does not only have to happen in schools it can also happen in homes.

Thanks to your recommendation, I recently discovered the joyful, bonkers Australian book The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. Are there any other secret classics Im missing out on? (Spum)
The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay is the funniest book Ive ever read. It never ceases to amuse me. My favourite book thats not The Magic Pudding is probably The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton published in 1621. I just love it and it should be widely known. Its the funniest book you could ever expect to read about melancholy.

Whos your favourite Spice Girl and why? (3FeetHigh)
I suppose my favourite for a while was the blond one, Emma Bunton. Why, I havent the slightest idea. But I also admire very much what Victoria Beckham has been doing. Shes a genuine designer, not just a celebrity. Her clothes look very good and they work. And shes really worked hard to establish herself.

When youre writing something with such a massive vision, like His Dark Materials or The Book of Dust, do you need to reel yourself in? How do you not end up writing a 2m-word book? (Elizabeth Logan)
Well, exhaustion is a great help. Eventually you just get so tired you have to put your pen down. The other big brake is experience, I think. You sense how long an idea will last, how big it is, and you try not to overshoot the end. Its always better to write something short than something long, and I do cut a great deal. Maybe people think I should cut a bit more but I am a great cutter.

If you could travel back in time and change one thing in a story you have written what would it be? (Zhou Fang)
So many things instantly come crying at me: Me! Me! Change me! Cut me out! I think, if I had the chance, Id clarify The Amber Spyglass a bit. There are a few passages in that book which could have really done with another six months work. I was being hassled Come on, hurry up, write it, finish it and I let that get on top of me. I should have taken longer with The Amber Spyglass.

Is Lyra an Eve character? If so, in what ways? (Theo Friedmann)
In a sense she does fulfil that function in the story of His Dark Materials because she is the one who acts out the myth of the acquisition of knowledge.

Do you think its possible for a really good writer to come out of the internet age? (Dave Marnell)
There have been maybe four or five great revolutions in storytelling in human history: the first was when we acquired language, with its tenses and its possibilities and we discovered we could say things that werent actually true, but were enjoyable. The second was writing, making marks that preserve a story longer than the life of the person telling it. Then there was printing, which enabled stories such as the Bible and other things to be disseminated worldwide. Then in the 20th century there were the movies, another huge revolution. Now weve got the internet. Notice how these things are moving ever more quickly? Either that means were coming to the end of the cycle or theres something new over the horizon weve not dreamed of yet, I dont know.But writers will continue to emerge because writing telling stories and writing them down is a very ancient thing. Weve always done it, and as long as were human beings we always will.

You dont force Lyra into a gender stereotype, and she is not written from the male gaze position. What do you think about other heroines in young peoples fiction? (narrare)
Im glad that seems to be the case with Lyra. But I never thought that in order to make girls strong we have to make boys look weak. There was a sort of fad for silly, wimpy princes who had to be rescued by feisty princesses I dont care for that. Incidentally, have you ever looked up the etymology of the word feisty? Its to do with farting. So I never use it myself. Lyras a bit of a scoundrel in some ways shes a shameless liar, shes a barbarian, shes a bit of a savage, and those things are not necessarily admirable. But shes real. Shes based on no one in particular but I did teach a lot of little girls who were like Lyra. In every classroom in the country there are girls like Lyra. And in some classrooms there are boys in the same situation as Will Parry was in His Dark Materials. And there are boys like Malcolm in La Belle Sauvage. These are real children, theyre not divinely gifted or special.

Whats your favourite pub in Oxford? (Jonathan Chadwick)
There are a lot of very good pubs in Oxford. The one I used to go to a great deal when I was an undergraduate was the White Horse, on Broad Street, and theres a scene set in there in The Secret Commonwealth, the next book. The Trout in Godstow is a very good pub, too, and plays a big role in La Belle Sauvage. I havent told the owners or asked them if I can use the name, but its my world, not their world, so maybe its all right.

Do you think that killing God, which is one of your stated aims in your writing, is a worthwhile or necessary objective in the 21st century? (Chris2131)
The question doesnt arise in western Europe, because in western Europe God is already dead. In other parts of the world, the God who is believed to exist is an exceptionally nasty character and it wouldnt be a bad idea if it was put to sleep.

What do you think will survive of our civilisation? (Hywel Jones)
Literature will survive, because there are libraries, which will survive. Some of our visual art will survive, although artworks are more fragilebecause they cant be reproduced in large numbers: theres only one Mona Lisa, so if that goes weve lost it. Music is different because it depends on being performed. The score is not the music, its a guide to the performance. And if there arent such things as orchestras, well lose all that. Will science survive? I hope so because its science that will keep the wheels turning and the electricity flowing and keep the show on the road basically. If science doesnt survive, were in real trouble.

What are your thoughts on the Nobel prize for literature going to KazuoIshiguro? (Lisa OKelly)
Im glad he got the prize but itll wipe his next two years out, creatively speaking. Because how do you come back from that? Obviously, its a nice thing to happen, but once youve been given a prize and money and attention you feel obliged to be nice to people when they ask you to do things. But you shouldnt. You should say No, piss off, Im busy, I dont want to talk to you. You start asking yourself constantly, How am I going to live up to this? It is paralysing. Ishiguro is going to have to cultivate a level of benign indifference and just keep going his own way.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman is published by Random House Childrens Books (20). To order it for 14.60 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/22/philip-pullman-my-daemon-is-a-raven-la-belle-sauvage-interview-questions

Author: Billy Roland

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