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His Dark Materials: The Transcript…


10th July 2018 | by Rachael Rogan

His Dark Materials: Philip Pullman In Conversation with Ali Nicholl
The Panacea Museum, Bedford
Monday June 18th 2018

Transcribed by Emily Ross

[PP was asked about whether he intended to write more about Lyra’s world (etc) and was a short way through his answer when recording began]

PP

…In The Amber Spyglass, I thought that was the last I’d see of Lyra; but then a little story came to me which I called Lyra’s Oxford, and then another little story came to me which I called Once Upon a Time in the North, and I realized that my mind was very happy in that universe, and I’ve be very interested to see what would happen when Lyra was growing up. So I kept on thinking, not planning, but thinking and making notes and reading around and so on, and it gradually became clear to me that, yes, there was another story, and it would involve Lyra at the age of twenty or so. But before I got to that, I thought I needed to explain a bit of background, because there were some other characters who were going to feature in Lyra’s story as a grown-up, and we needed to meet one of them especially, which is Malcolm. So yeah, it’s a mixture of intention and hope, really.

AN

Being on Malcolm, you’ve described The Book of Dust as being not a sequel, not a prequel, but an equal.

PP

Yes, you’ve got to have a soundbite haven’t you?

AN

Was it liberating coming back to the universe but with a different timeframe, and a different focus, and a different perspective?

PP

Yes, it was very enjoyable indeed. I enjoyed getting to know that side of Oxford in between writing the first trilogy and the second, because in Oxford at the time, around 2000, a little later than that, there was a lot of fuss about the boatyard. On the canal, on the Oxford canal, there’s a boatyard which has been used for years by the people who live on boats, the people who work on boats, the canal people who I call the gyptians. There was a great hoo-hah about whether they were going to sell the boatyard, whether it was going to be developed as blocks of flats and all that sort of stuff, and the boat-people asked me if I’d get involved and make, you know, play a part in their struggle. So I was happy to do that. In doing that, I learned a lot about seeing Oxford from that point of view. The Oxford I’d known, you see, and I’d written about, was the academic sort: the world of the colleges, the college rituals, the dinners, the fellows and the servants and all that sort of stuff. I found it extremely interesting to see Oxford from another point of view: from the water level, because Oxford’s laced through and through with canals and mill streams, and the River Thames and the River Cherwell and it’s a very watery city. And so, as I played with this idea and thought about it, Malcolm sort of drifted into my mind and I became very fond of him, and very interested in his Oxford as well as Lyra’s Oxford.

AN

In addition to the change in sense of place, an the different viewpoint, you’ve said that you wouldn’t go back and change anything about His Dark Materials, it’s complete and tied up; but coming back to the universe and doing a new trilogy, do you notice changes in yourself manifest in the writing?

PP

Well that’s a good question, and I think it’s partly to do with the kind of audience the book seems to expect. Now I don’t – in the same way that I can’t say what I intend with any particular book, I really don’t like saying ‘this book is for 8–9 year-olds’ or ‘this book is for grown-ups’; I’d much rather let it find its own audience. But books do seem to expect a particular kind of audience. A textbook on academic philosophy will probably expect an audience that isn’t first primary school children (though some very bright primary school children might find themselves reading it!) The audience that I think this book, the new book, expects, or seems to expect, is probably an older one. But more than that, I can’t say. As I was thinking about it, in the process of discovering what the story was, I discovered or I came to realise that whereas the theme, for want of a better word, the theme of the first trilogy was innocence and experience, this one had a different focus of attention, which I think is best expressed in William Blake’s term vision. ‘How we see things’. Whether we see with imagination, or in a sort of cold, one-direction way.

AN

Moving away from single vision?

PP

Exactly, that’s right yes. Blake was very down on single vision. He was a ginnit. He believed that we didn’t see things truly if we saw with a cold literal, single-minded, rational, exclusively rational, eye. We began to see things clearly when we saw with imagination as well, and I think that’s a very important lesson for all of us, and that was something that I became more and more interested in.

AN

I think that’s fascinating because I’m very aware, having, in preparation for this, listened and read some of your some of your other interviews talking about The Book of Dust, that you use a very visual language when talking about the imagination in the books. So, ‘I saw him in his canoe and he looked up at me,’ and you know, ‘I saw a character in a previous book and I have to write about it…’ It’s lovely that discovery that you’re going on. Do you plan out the books? Or are you on a journey in seeing who you encounter as you wander through?

PP

Oh no, I could never plan. I tried… I wrote my first novel, ooh, years ago, when I was about 21, straight-off, like that, boom, and it was terrible. And I thought, well, the second one, am I going to write a second book? Yeah, of course I am going to write a second book. So I’d better make this one a bit better so I’d better plan it. So I made a plan. I spent months writing this bloody plan, it was a wonderful plan and it was so complete that I didn’t feel like writing the book! [laughter] I threw the plan away, and from then on, I’ve never made a plan. It fills me with a certain amount of despair when I hear that children have to make a plan before they write a story in schools to fulfil the requirements of that hideous dragon, the SATs and the national curriculum and so on. And I always tell them, yes, do make a plan but write the story first and then make a plan, because then not only is it more fun, but it’ll come out exactly like a story and you’ll get more marks. But it is important to make a plan, yes, but quite seriously after you write it. Then you can see what you’ve got, and what you need to cut, and what you need to bring forward a bit, and what you can do without, and what you need to expand – all those things. But I never planned in advance, no, no.

AN

Is the cutting a difficult process?

PP

Ah, I love it.

AN

I know you’ve said, sorry to keep quoting you back at yourself, I know you’ve said you grow the tree and then you do the carpentry and then you make the chair and so on, but the scrap wood, I guess to keep going? The bits that fall by the side? Do they stay with you, do you go back to them, do you revisit them, or do you cut it dead, the demands are the piece, and move on?

PP

You have to be pretty ruthless. The bits that you like the most are often the bits that don’t add much to the story. You know, you might find yourself in raptures over your piece of beautiful prose describing those trees in the garden or something, but what’s happening at that point in the story is that the story has come to a halt! While you describe the beautiful trees! And people want to know what happened next, never mind your damn trees! You can see trees by looking out of the window! So you’ve got to be fairly brutal with the stuff, with the stuff you cut. But I didn’t mind doing that. I like sharpening the story, and making it work as quickly and swiftly as possible. What do I do with the bits I cut off? Well I think well, like everything else, I think it’ll go to the Bodleian Library in the end. That’s what’s happening to my papers and things. I – if I’d written a – do I ever? No, I don’t think I ever have used a piece which I’ve written for one story but rejected later in another, no, no. So my safe at home is full of discarded bits.

AN

And while you’re doing this writing into the dark and exploring, you’re discovering yourself about this universe you’ve created. And you mention in particular dæmons, which were invented for quite a practical purpose, or at least so I’ve heard.

PP

Yeah, I didn’t invent them, I discovered them one desperate afternoon. I can almost date it, actually. It was probably 1993, when I began to write Northern Lights. I hadn’t thought of dæmons, then, but Lyra was on her own, she was exploring – she went into this room where she wasn’t supposed to be, and she overhears something that she’s not supposed to overhear and that sets the story going, but she didn’t have a dæmon at first and I couldn’t make it work. So, after draft fifteen or sixteen, I wearily took up another piece of paper, wrote ‘Chapter One’ at the top, and then I wrote ‘Lyra and her dæmon…’ and I thought ‘what, what’s going on? She’s – she’s got a dæmon? This is interesting, what’s going to happen now?’ It was almost like that: I was surprised by this dæmon, and it enabled the whole thing to get going because if you’ve got two people in a scene they can talk to each other, they can argue, they can negotiate things, it’s much more dynamic than if you just have one person where you have to describe what she’s thinking – and that’s always, you know, ‘how much do I say?’, ‘is this too much?’ and so on. So the dæmon surprised me immensely when he turned up. It reminded me of the truth and the value of that great piece of advice of Raymond Chandler’s to writers – ‘when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun’. In other words, have something happen that you, the writer, didn’t expect! Because that will get the story going like nothing else. It didn’t have to be a literal man with a gun, of course, in my case it was a dæmon; but having this dæmon appear suddenly – and what could he do? Oh, he could change shape; one minute he’s a moth, and oh, what is he now? Good Lord, oh, that’s interesting. But the story couldn’t really get much further than that until I thought about this, having written the first chapter, and I realized that unless this dæmon had a sort of function in the story, it would just hold the thing up. It would just be a bit of whimsy. It’d be one of those things that makes me not especially interested in reading fantasy, because fantasy is full of these arbitrary things that don’t mean very much. What did it mean, to have a dæmon? Well, I didn’t really know. Until I realized that of course, children’s dæmons do change and then they stop changing in adolescence, and well that was the most exciting moment I’ve had as a writer. Realizing that children’s dæmons are different from adults’.

AN

Is that because as children get older, the kind of, to use a Blakeian, the mind-forged manacles sort of settle in…?

PP

Mind-forged manacles, yes, you’ve put your finger on it. That’s exactly what it is. It was just such a good metaphor for that. But since then I have discovered other things about dæmons that I didn’t know, and I’m still discovering new things now as I write The Book of Dust.

AN

And still, even with the Book of Dust, one written and two…?

PP

Two is being edited. Much of it being discarded.

AN

But still being discovered. You’re still on that journey with dæmons.

PP

Yep, yep, yeah, yes; it’s a very good idea. [laughter]

AN

And I want, if I may, to come back to the children, who are at the heart of both the original trilogy and this first volume, and obviously we haven’t seen the second or third volumes yet. You taught 9–13 year-olds for many years.

PP

Yes, I did.

AN

And, we have two protagonists, in fact, more than two, who are 11, 12: is there a particular facet of children at that age and stage, and the growth they’re going through, knowledge acquisition, that intrigues you?

PP

Yeah. I remember my own childhood pretty well, and my own adolescence. I remember the enormous sense of intellectual discovery that accompanied it. All sorts of other things are happening to you, of course; your body is changing, you’re becoming much more aware of sex, sexuality, but the main thing that I remember, most vividly, is the sense of sheer passionate excitement at discovering things like poetry, or painting, or music, I mean classical music, not pop music. It was a time of windows opening and doors opening along vistas that were much more immense and distant than I could ever have dreamed, distant ranges of mountains which I was longing to explore, that sort of thing. And I used to see that kind of thing happening to the children I taught. Around the age of 12, 13, the big changes are beginning to happen with them. Some are more precocious and it happens to them earlier than others, but they are changing; they become self-conscious, as we all do at that age. In a way that they weren’t as young children. They are as adolescents: your body changes and your voice changes and all sorts of things happen and, among some of the children especially, there was this sense of horizons opening out, and I used to watch them and talk to them and listen to them and remember my own childhood and the excitement of those discoveries I used to make. Well, it was such an interesting thing to explore. I came upon an essay by Heinrich von Kleist, the German romantic writer, when I was in the middle of teaching, which is all about the difference between the puppet, the marionette, and the dancer. He explains it in a beautiful way: the marionette, says a friend of his who is a dancer, is far more graceful than the most graceful dancer, why is that? Because the puppet, the marionette, is not self-conscious. It’s not aware of what its arms are doing so it can swing them with perfect freedom. The human being, on the other hand, is always self-conscious, especially if they’re not trained, or they’re too young. ‘Look at that young man playing Paris in the opera,’ he says, ‘look at him when he’s offering the apple to Venus. His soul is in fact located, and it’s a frightful thing to see, in his elbow!’ Because, you know, he’s doing that [gestures with arm outstretched yet bent at the elbow]. And he goes on to say this is the story of the third chapter of Genesis, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of knowledge and became immediately embarrassed by their own nakedness, which they weren’t aware of before; this is a precise analogue to the changes we go through in adolescence. But you can’t go back, you see; the way back to the Garden of Eden is guarded by an angel with a fiery sword. You’ve got to go on. You’ve got to go through life: through embarrassment, through mortification, through experience, through suffering, through all the things that we call, you know, the business of life. Then eventually, if you keep – if you remain aware of things – if you keep thinking about things and you don’t become a creature of habit, eventually you acquire another sort of grace, which is at the sort of wisdom end of the scale. That whole idea of Kleist’s, which corresponds quite closely to Blake’s innocence and experience, fascinated me. So that was what lay behind it.

AN

You mentioned the poetry of your youth. What were the big influences; the literary elements that in your own childhood grabbed you, and stayed with you?

PP

One occasion about which I have spoken before but I don’t think to anyone in this audience, was when I was about twelve. I was at school in the local state school in Harlech in North Wales, and there was a new teacher. He was the RE teacher, and he’d obviously been told that, you know, ‘the school concert is coming up, will you prepare something for the school concert?’ So he told us, what were we, 12, 12 years, that we were going to do the voices of St Paul. So we drew a map of the voices of St Paul on the blackboard and he said ‘now copy that’, so we all started copying the voices of St Paul, and then the door opened. In came six big boys, really big boys, at least two years older than us; pimples, five o’clock shadow, knuckles dragging, thugs they were. And they went to the back of the class, and he conducted them. They didn’t sing; they spoke. ‘A cold coming we had of it, / Just the worst time of the year / For a journey, and such a long journey: / The ways deep and the weather sharp, / The very dead of winter.’ I had no idea what that was. As they went on, and as the poem continued, some lines spoke to me, in a way that had a physical effect on me: my skin bristled and my blood – my heart beat faster. ‘At dawn we came down to a temperate valley, / Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; / With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness…’ Why those lines affected me I don’t know, but they did. And of course, it’s T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’, which I didn’t know until later. That was an absolute revelation to me, because it was one of the first ways – one of the first times I’d realized the magic that you can have in words without fully understanding them. I didn’t really know what was going on. It was so magical, that I couldn’t help but be intensely moved. A few years later, I was moved in the same way by another poet, by Milton in Paradise Lost. And in between, no, it was about the same year as the earlier experience, the same thing happened with some music. It was the same school, it was a winter afternoon – an afternoon in the winter term but the sun was shining, the late sun was quite low, and our teacher was away so we had to go into the hall, take a book in the hall and sit and be quiet while the music teacher did his music lesson. And you’d hear the school choir, and they were rehearsing something and, again, it was none of our business what it was, he didn’t bother to tell us what it was, why should he? There started this most beautiful tune; I’d never heard anything like it in my life. I felt my heart melting. What it turned out to be was the aria ‘voi che sapete’ from Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ and it seemed to be all about being in love. And the late afternoon sun shone on the hair of a girl who was sort of sitting over there, and I looked at her, and she took no notice at all, but the sun on her hair and that music made me fall in love: bang, like that. I was in love with her for a whole week. [laughter] But that music, it affected me in a way that music had never done before. So there we are: Mozart, Eliot, Milton, who have I left out? Bob Dylan, I suppose. Because like everybody else I had a guitar and like everyone else we all listened to Bob Dylan, and his early songs were quite easy to play, actually, because there are only about three or four chords in them, and I used to go busking.

AN

Successfully?

PP

[pause] No… [laughter] I had quite a traumatic experience in the Seashell Café in Pwlleli when my home-made harmonica-holder fell apart reaching the climax of ‘When the Ship Comes in’ [laughter]. But that was part of the whole discovery thing, you know.

AN

So what separated you and Dylan, was it a harmonica-holder?

PP

That’s the reason for his greatest success. [laughter] Yes; he had a professional harmonica-holder, which was why fifty years later he got the Nobel Prize! [laughter]

AN

What fascinated me there, especially when you were talking both about ‘The Journey of the Magi’ and then the story of listening, hearing Mozart for the first time, was your vocation of sense of place by using light, as well. So the ‘Magi’ is all about light, and then when you heard Mozart, the light was coming into the room – that’s clearly something that’s very important to you. Is that something you deliberately convey in your writing, or is it something that’s impossible to stop bringing in?

PP

[laughs] It’s impossible to stop. One of the things I do not – I don’t have a sort of rigid checklist. But I do sort of ask myself with each scene that I’m writing: where are we? What’s the weather like? Where’s the light coming from? What time of day is it? Who is present? All these questions that it’s nice to know when you’re reading a scene: where they are, and who is present, and all those things. So I like to try to get it clear to myself, those things. The aspect of – the matter of vision does play a part in La Belle Sauvage, because Malcolm at one point, the young boy who is the protagonist of the story, begins to see a little jiggly spot of light which gradually gets bigger and bigger and bigger and disappears, and he calls it ‘the spangled ring’, because it reminds him of that hymn [‘Let Us with a Gladsome Mind’] which includes the lines, ‘Th’hornèd moon [to shine] by night, / ‘Mid her spangled sisters bright’; he’s very susceptible to poetry, as I was. And that phrase resounds it, so he calls it the spangled ring. This is something I’ve experienced, a number of times, many times; it’s the migraine aura, which doesn’t always herald a headache – but it is a remarkable thing. I first noticed it when I was trying to read some music at the piano, and I couldn’t see the note because right where I was looking, there was this little shiny jiggly thing, which gradually got bigger and turned into a sort of broken ring, and gets, over about twenty minutes sort of disappears like that [gestures through head]. And it leaves you with a vague feeling of oddness or strangeness. Anyway, I wanted to, I wanted Malcolm to experience this because I wanted to explore myself what it means. A person of single vision would say it didn’t mean anything – it’s a function of blood pressure in the brain, or something; it doesn’t mean anything in a wider sense at all. But, Malcolm is young, and he is intensely curious about everything. He asks his friend, Dr Hannah Relf, what this is, you see – and she says, ‘Oh yes, well that sounds like a migraine aura,’ which he mis-hears. He thinks she said ‘migraine aurora’, and he thinks, ‘ah! It’s the northern lights! It’s my own little private northern lights.’ That, in turn, will lead him, later on, to a theory of his own about vision, which… I’m not going to say anything about because I haven’t gotten there yet!… But coming back to your question about vision, yes it is very important.

AN

While we’re on La Belle Sauvage, it starts in a very light, and I would suggest potentially lighter than Northern Lights started, which got straight into the exciting incident. The book itself is quite a bit darker than the original trilogy.

PP

I think so, yes.

AN

Was it deliberate to start, then, in that, you know, the grounded tales of the pub – and this is the first five pages so not sure you need a spoiler warning.

PP

Yes I wanted to establish Malcolm’s background and I wanted it to be an intensely secure and happy, well, a secure and happy background. He’s an only child, he’s the son of an innkeeper in the pub that really exists, called the Trout, and I wanted to give him a background with parents who were secure enough to let him go off and have adventures without interfering with him, who loved him unconditionally but didn’t smother him with it, who were sufficiently indifferent to his doings to let him have all sorts of interests of his own, which he didn’t want to talk to anyone about. And it was my French publisher, who said you’ve given him the picture of an absolutely perfect, happy childhood, and I suppose I have. Very different from Lyra’s, which is full of drama and excitement and mystery. His is absolutely grounded and secure, which helps him later in the book, when he’s called upon to help the very, very young Lyra out of a difficult situation.

AN

These are, in the both the original trilogy and The Book of Dust, these are ordinary children in exceptional circumstances, or extraordinary circumstances, and responding to them.

PP

Absolutely. Absolutely. Completely, yes. I did not want to make Lyra, or Malcolm, or Will, into ‘special’ children, with ‘special’ gifts and a ‘special’ destiny, and so on. The witches think that Lyra is important because of something she’s going to do, but it’s not something she knows about, it’s something she does accidentally, by chance, and she’s just the agent of it, rather than the great bearer of a, you know, a majestic destiny. Not at all! These are children very like the children I used to teach. There’s a Lyra, and a Will, in every class in every school in the world. And a Malcolm. And I used to watch the children I taught, as I said, I used to watch their alliances and friendships, and groups that they formed. Very interesting to watch the differences between girls’ groups and boys’ groups at that age. Girls’ groups are very tight, very firmly formed, and very conscious and something they’re very aware of. Boys’ groups are much more casual and slap-dash, and they’re not nearly so intense about it. But if a girl gets thrown out of her friends, if they ‘break friends’ it’s traumatic – there’s tears and all sorts of sobs and crying, and usually there were two groups of girls in each class I taught, and they were quite different. One was the sort of fashionable ones who knew all the words to the pop songs, the sort of café-society little girls, and they were a bit sort of precocious and they knew all about makeup and boyfriends and so on. The other group was a group of very good little girls, who always did their homework on time and brought me presents, and whenever they wrote the letter i, they’d always do a big circle over the letter i. There was one class I had where a girl was thrown out of the fashionable group and she sort of floated around for a week and then she joined the other group. And she personally, she completely changed! From being a sort of fashionable, supercilious, look-down-at-the-boys girl, she became very quiet and good and brought me presents and circled i’s. So it’s just fascinating to watch them.

AN

The journey that Malcolm goes on, or at least, the broad mythos of the journey he goes on: going from a happy childhood, but allowed to explore, into a wild, made up of waterways rather than woods and so on, is evocative of traditional fairytales, I would suggest. And between His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, you visited and selected and made a compendium of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Why do they resonate with people? Why do they resonate with you? Why was it worth going back to them?

PP

I’ve always been fascinated by Grimm – and folktales of all sorts. Do you know Italo Calvino’s wonderful collection of Italian folktales for example? And Katharine Briggs’s British folktales. Folktales fascinate me, because of the patterns you see in them, and because they recur, and you find Ali Baba’s story in the One Thousand and One Nights, and there’s an Ali Baba sort of story in Grimm which is obviously derived from it. So, all these patterns and shapes were interesting, but when Penguin Classics asked me if I was interested in doing a Grimm to replace the Grimm they’ve had in print for about thirty or forty years, I jumped at the chance. So I read all the stories in the Grimm translations that I could find, and chose the best sixty or seventy, and told them myself, in as clear a way as I possibly could. My aim was to be as clear as water, that’s what I’d claimed. So the story can run without any political string-pulling on my part, or any attempt to be clever and make a literary thing out of it. And I learned a great deal; I learned some stories I didn’t know at all, like The Three Snake Leaves, which is a wonderful story. And I learned some things I grew to value very much, like the sheer swiftness of storytelling: ‘Once there was a farmer who had three sons. When he was about to die he called his sons…’ You know, as quick as that. None of the scene-setting, none of the character-drawing, none of the social depth and observation that you get in a novel. A novel is a quite different beast. It was such fun to do these stories. And to learn from them how to be swift, how to be quick, and you also learn, if you’re doing it in the way I did it, to be curious about where they got this particular story from. I noticed after I’d read a few of them that some of the best stories had been told to the Grimms by a woman called Dorothea Viehmann, who was the widow of a greengrocer, I think she was a haberdasher or something in the next town. Her stories are particularly good because she’s obviously thought about the structure of them very clearly. She’s worked, she’s refined them, she’s told them to herself over and over again and in fact the Grimms said that they always liked taking stories from her because she could be guaranteed to repeat the story in just the same ways that she used before, so they had no difficulty in writing it down. Her stories were particularly good, and there are two stories in the collection which are so good that it’s impossible to make them any better. One is called The Fisherman and His Wife, perhaps you know it, it’s the wife who wants more and more and more, and eventually finds themselves back in the shack where they lived. And the other story is The Juniper Tree. Now, these stories were not told to them orally, but were sent to them in manuscript by a man called Philipp Otto Runge, who was a painter, and they are in a particular dialect, I can’t remember which one it was, but it’s not in sort of straightforward German. Anyway the thing about these stories is that they don’t function like the others, in that it’s easy to tell them in your own words. If you want to tell The Juniper Tree with maximum effect, and it’s a very effective story – it’s a horrifying story, it’s a very beautiful story – if you want to tell it with maximum effect you’ve got to use their words, because it doesn’t work as well in yours. It’s an odd thing. And I was bearing in mind throughout the teaching of Italo Calvino, who said, quoting an old Tuscan proverb in his own book of fairytales, ‘the story is not beautiful if nothing is added to it’. So if you tell a story, you’re not only allowed to add your bits that you’ve made up, you’re encouraged to. And it does depend on the storyteller as well. If you’re very good at telling funny stories, well, go for the funny stories but make them funnier. There is a very funny story called The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage, which, you know, a really funny storyteller could have a ball with. If you’re very good at doing suspense and horror there are tales like the Robber Bridegroom which will make anybody shiver, so go for them. But your own temperament and your own personality, and your talent – what you’re good at – get full scope when you’re telling folktales.

AN

And, having been such a prolific writer yourself, and creating the stories that you have, they have been turned into Hollywood films, plays, audiobooks, audioplays, graphic novels, and a new TV series…

PP

Nothing left but a t-shirt.

AN

Is it exciting for you to see other storytellers working in other media taking the mythos and the world you’ve created and then bringing their own skills as storytellers to that?

PP

Yes, but as somebody said you mustn’t inhale. It’s always interesting – and the money’s good – [laughter] but sometimes, and sometimes you’ll find an actor or an actress, like Nicole Kidman for example in the film, who brings something absolutely unique to a part and sees things in it that you hadn’t been aware were there – that’s wonderful, when that happens. But it also does happen that you might find your story in the hands of a less than competent scriptwriter, or a not very imaginative director or something, and then it suffers a bit. But you know, you can’t keep on interfering. Partly because they bought the rights to do it, and paid you a lot of money for it, so can’t say ‘oh no, no, stop it! You’re doing it all wrong!’ But mainly because you haven’t got time! You’re writing another book! And you know, people say, do you worry when – I can’t remember who it was that was asked this question [it was James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice] – ‘don’t you worry that they’ve destroyed your book?’ And he said, ‘They’ve done nothing to my book, look there it is on the shelf! It’s still there!’ If there was a law that said every time a book is made into a film all copies of the book had to be withdrawn and burnt, that would be a different question – but there isn’t such a law! And actually our experience, isn’t it, of seeing films made of books that we enjoy, is of expecting slight disappointment. You know, you don’t look like that, she’d have never have said that… They’ve changed the ending, they’ve left out my favourite bit, and all that… So I take it pure fait accompli.

AN

Moving on to the next volume of your series… The title comes from actually a treatise about the subterranean and largely invisible peoples of fairies and elves and fauns…

PP

That’s right. Indeed. It’s called The Secret Commonwealth, and it was such a good title that I stole it. There’s no copyright in titles… Anyway, the copyright wouldn’t have been relevant in this case anyway.

AN

1692, I think.

PP

That’s right. It’s a little book by Robert Kirk who was a Scottish clergyman, and it was about the folklore of fairies, and imps and goblins and hobgoblins and devils and that sort of thing, which is a fascinating little book. I just pinched the title.

AN

So what can we expect from The Secret Commonwealth, and when might we see it?

PP

Well I thought I would be able to finish editing it by the summer but that’s proved impossible because I’ve been going all over the place and doing other things, so I’ll finish editing it by the end of the year and … it’ll be published next year sometime. Not sure when. And then I’ll get on with finishing the third book.

AN

Which has a shape?

PP

I can tell you where it’s going to take them, it’s going to take them to Central Asia. [audience woos and laughs] Which is somewhere I’ve never been but then I’d never been to the Arctic when I wrote Northern Lights, so I think I can probably make that up as well. [laughter] But yes that’s going to take them there. And it will be – the theme of vision will play a part.

AN

Fantastic. Wonderful. Well thank you very much for the conversation. I think Rachael has some audience questions.

RR

I do. I kind of didn’t want to interrupt – we’ve selected a couple of questions if you wouldn’t mind going through them. Obviously I’m very aware that time is marching on and Philip does have to get home this evening.

PP

Well – the night is young! [laughter]

RR

There are a couple of questions there, it may be that you’ve actually covered some of that in your questions now…

AN

My God, so these continue where we are. What are your biggest hopes and fears for the BBC adaptation? This is the new TV series which has James McAvoy and Dafne Keen…

PP

Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Hamilton man – he’s playing Lee Scoresby. Well my hopes are obviously that it will be a faithful retelling of the story. I know it’s a good cast. The things I’ve seen of the design look spectacular. I think they’ve got enough taste not to overdo the spectacular-osity of it, because you can rather go overboard with CGI and computer-generated special effects. I’ve sometimes thought that the best way to adapt it would be to spend hardly any money on it and do it with some tin cans and bits of cloth in your back shed; do you remember Noggin the Nog? And Bagpuss? But they are spending a lot of money on it. But I hope they’ll tell it well. My fears – well my fears are that it won’t find an audience and will be cancelled after the first series.

AN

So this is a common question I know you get, it’s from Lauren at Kempston Library. She says, why did you choose a female protagonist in Lyra?

PP

I didn’t. I didn’t, she chose me. I didn’t think, ‘Now, I must write a book and I must write a book about a girl, because there aren’t many books about girls!’ Well actually there are lots of books about girls! And more and more, these days, there are books about girls who are, in quotes, ‘feisty’, unquote. That’s a word I never use. I said to the producers of the television show, this is what you must write: ‘Lyra – Feisty – UNTHINK’. Didn’t like the word feisty. Do you know where it comes from? If you look it up in the dictionary of etymology, you’ll find that it originates in an old German word for ‘fart’. The word is feist. A feisty dog, or a feisty dog, was one of those little dogs that jumps about farting all over the place. That’s what you say, when you talk about a girl being feisty! I won’t have it. Now, no, I didn’t choose a protagonist deliberately but Lyra was the protagonist who came to me. I had no choice but to write about her, I was very glad to. I had written about girls in other books; I wrote about Lila, the Firework Maker’s Daughter, I wrote about Sally Lockhart in four books set in Victorian London. So I’m quite happy, for all sorts of reasons, to write – but if you want to make girls look strong, you don’t need to make boys look weak. There was a spate, a few years ago, of ‘feisty’ princesses who went rescuing wimpy princes from dragons and so on. That’s no good, who’s interested, who cares about that? Who cares about a wimpy prince? Nobody cares about him. So I’ve always made a point of having strong boys, as well. Will and Malcolm, for example. But really, I didn’t choose her.

AN

You say that she chose you – do you live with your characters? Do they weave in and out of your life, or is it while you’re in process and while you’re in session they’re there and you can see them?

PP

I’m thinking about it a lot of the time. Not all the time, because sometimes I’m thinking about the book I’m reading or, I do a lot of woodwork, and I’m thinking about the way I cut this particular piece of wood: do I have to, should I use the bandsaw, or should I use the table saw for this one? That sort of thing. But when I’m not doing that, when I’m lying around – lounging – loafing – yes, I think about them all the time. Mainly in terms of the story; what happens if we do that? Might well make it a bit difficult to do that, but on the other hand, yeah, I know, let’s do something like that… All these negotiations with yourself, negotiations with the course of the story, and possibilities and different possible outcomes and so on, they’re all floating through and around all the time.

AN

While you do incredibly well-drawn characters, the question here chimes in: you don’t shy away from big philosophical ideas in your books. When you begin writing do you start with a big philosophical idea?

PP

No, never! No, no, no – I start with a simple incident.

AN

Don’t know whose question that is, but – think long and hard about what you did.

PP

No, no. I’m interested in these things. I’m very, very interested in these things, and I read a lot about them and so on but you never start with a theme, no. Start with an incident. I do, anyway. Start with something curious, that you’ll want to know what happens next. Start with the characters, and the settings, or the weather, or the boat, or the river, whatever but start with something concrete and visible, that’s what I do. A theme will emerge. And you can’t help it. If you’re writing a book that takes several years to write, the things that preoccupy you as an adult will inevitably be there in the book, because you can’t do any task for seven years without taking it seriously, it’s not a trivial thing. You can’t be trivial about it. You’re serious about it. It’s one of the most serious things you’ll ever do. So, naturally one of the things you are preoccupied with as a person will come through somehow in the story.

AN

I think for me, and I’m sure a lot of us, is that one of the things that’s so evocative of your writing is that you’re not building static worlds, in what’s often a common fantasy, fairly heartless ‘there’s a race of people over here’ and ‘there’s a race of people over there’, and for some reason, they don’t like each other, or they do – but instead, it’s about the interactions between things and people and situations.

PP

Yes. I mean really, I’m writing about us, of course. This is our world, and the dæmon is just a metaphor for something that we all know about but it just makes it a little clearer to see, if you have a dæmon. But Lyra is a human being, not an inhabitant of the planet Zargon, or something. And that’s really the most interesting kind of novel I’d find to read. I read very little fantasy because so much of it seems to be entirely arbitrary. You know, whether they’ve got two heads or they’re green, or – I couldn’t care less. There are not very many fantasies that I’ve read that talk about being human. One of the fantasies that does is one called A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay. Very strange book, published almost a hundred years ago. And that’s specifically about morality and evil and good, and it’s brilliantly done, but – that’s one of the exceptions as I say.

AN

And we heard earlier you saying that you could remember the instant where you thought of dæmons, but the question here is: are you aware of the first thought that inspired the world in which His Dark Materials is set?

PP

It was Lyra going into the room when she shouldn’t be, and it was an Oxford common room, senior common room. And it was what could a little child be doing there, I wonder why she’s there? That’s interesting… What could she – oh yes, then she’s overhearing something. And there’s a bottle of Tokaji involved; Tokaji is one of my favourite drinks, and I thought I’d put it into the story. So there’s a bottle of Tokaji, or a decanter of Tokay, involved. And that suggested all sorts of other things, the world of ritual and Jordan College and the exotic world of the splendour of college ritual and so on, and it all grew out of that. That first little instant of Lyra going into the room where she wasn’t supposed to be.

AN

We have the final question, which is a more specific one: Are witches akin to the fairy people in La Belle Sauvage?

PP

Well the witches that we meet in His Dark Materials are women of the North, and they have certain characteristics. One is that they can live for a very, very long time. Another characteristic is that although they have dæmons, the dæmons don’t have to stay close to them as the dæmons of ordinary women do – they can range a whole world away. The witches are, they’re not sort of – it’s not just one culture of witches: there are different witch-clans, and they have different alliances and different habits, just like human nations do. They take human lovers: men who live for a little brief flicker of time in contrast to their own lives, and so it’s tragic, and increasingly tragic, to be a witch, because your lovers will grow old like butterflies in a day, and then die, and the children you bear them will also grow up and die long, long, long before you will. So it’s a kind of tragic fate to be a witch, and it’s always struck me as being an interesting psychological… What would it like to be a witch? Now, the fairy people, the people who turn up in – well, there is a fairy, isn’t there, in La Belle Sauvage, that’s part of the Secret Commonwealth, of course, which term is actually used in the book. And we’ll find out more about them, and about what their place in our world is, in The Secret Commonwealth and in the next, in the book that comes after it. I don’t want to say too much more about it at the moment; they’re not the same as the witches, but the witches inhabit this sort of uncanny half-world between our world and the world of things that we know nothing about. Which is why they come from the Arctic, I suppose.

AN

Finally, if I may, a slightly random question of my own: I’ve heard you previously say that one of your favourite books was The Magic Pudding. So, I heard this, and I went and read The Magic Pudding, and I wondered if you could draw a thread, between the content of this brilliant little book, very funny, with little excerpts of poetry interlaced within it, and a world in which people and animals are, without comment, sitting alongside each other. Very early on, we meet Bill Barnacle who –

PP

He’s a man with a large hat, a beard half as large as his hat and feet half as large as his beard.

AN

[laughter] – who is drawn like a sort of Australian goldmining prospecter of a certain era, and his sidekick –

PP

Sam Sawnoff.

AN

Sam Sawnoff, is a penguin!

PP

Yeah.

AN

And there’s no distinction drawn throughout this world between the animals and –

PP

Well, they were shipmates! So, yeah.

AN

And, just having read it in context, I wondered if you could see any parallels or threads weaving…?

PP

I can’t see any direct connection but I just love that book. It is exceptionally funny, and one of the things that make it such a delight is the wonderful illustrations by Norman Lindsay, who wrote it. He was a very interesting man, and there was a film about him actually, starring Sam Neill, I can’t remember what it was called, Elle Macpherson was in it as well. He was the artist who had beautiful daughters and there was all a bit of a scandal in this little back –

AN

Sirens.

PP

That’s the one. In this little outback town where they all lived. Anyway he wrote this extremely funny book. And he wrote several adult novels as well, which are all very funny, too. I just love it, I’ve loved it since I was 8 years old.

AN

Fantastic, well, Philip, thank you very much for your time here.

PP

Thank you for your interesting questions, and thank you all for listening.

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