Who is your favourite character to write and why?
I like them all, of course. People are surprised when I say that I like Mrs
Coulter, but what I mean is that I like writing about her, because she's so
completely free of any moral constraint. There's nothing she wouldn't do,
and that's a great delight for a storyteller, because it means your story
can be unconstrained too. I'm not sure I'd like to know her in real life
(well, of course I would; she'd be fascinating). Writers have always enjoyed
the villains, and so do readers, if they're honest.
His Dark Materials seems to be against organised religion. Do you believe in
I don't know whether there's a God or not. Nobody does, no matter what they
say. I think it's perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about
without bringing God into it, but I don't know everything, and there may
well be a God somewhere, hiding away.
Actually, if he is keeping out of sight, it's because he's ashamed of his
followers and all the cruelty and ignorance they're responsible for
promoting in his name. If I were him, I'd want nothing to do with them.
What inspires you?
Three things. (1) Money. I do this for a living. If I don't write well, I
won't earn enough money to pay the bills. (2) The desire to make some sort
of mark on the world - to make my name known. To leave something behind that
will last a little longer than I do. (3) The sheer pleasure of
craftsmanship: the endlessly absorbing delight of making things - in my
case, stories - and of gradually learning more about how they work, and how
to make them better.
Can you give us some insight into what daemons are? Why don't non-humans
I was discovering more about daemons all the way through - right up to the
very end of THE AMBER SPYGLASS. And I'm sure there are other aspects of them
that I haven't discovered yet. I don't want to say anything about them which
will give away some of the plot of the final book, but I will say that the
daemon is that part of you that helps you grow towards wisdom.
I don't know where the idea of them came from - it just emerged as I was
trying to begin the story. I suddenly realised that Lyra had a daemon, and
it all grew out of that. Of course, the daemons had to represent something
important in the meaning of the story, and not be merely picturesque;
otherwise they'd just get in the way. So there is a big difference between
the daemons of children and adults, because the story as a whole is about
growing up, or innocence and experience.
Your books deal with many of life's big questions? God, the church, good and
evil, love? and you are not afraid to challenge your young readers. Is that
a conscious aim when you sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper? Do you
think children's writing has a duty to pose difficult questions?
No. The only duty it has is best expressed in the words of Dr Johnson: "The
only aim of writing is to help the reader better to enjoy life, or better to
You have run into criticism from certain religious groups who regard you as
subversive, with the Catholic Herald describing your work as 'worthy of the
bonfire.' Do such emotional responses concern or upset you or does it please
you to generate strong reactions?
I'm delighted to have brought such excitement into what must be very dull
Your work has been performed on radio, television and the stage and the film
rights to His Dark Materials have been sold. Is it difficult to give up your
work to someone else¹s interpretation?
No. The democracy of reading (see above) means that as soon as a book is
published you lose control of how it's interpreted anyhow, and so you
should. To tell someone else how to read your book is to fall into the
temptation of fundamentalism. When it comes to performance and film and so
on, what you should do, it seems to me, is make sure the people you sell it
to know what they're doing, and then leave them alone. You are better
employed writing new books than arguing with people about how to interpret
your existing ones.
Have you consciously set out to create female heroines like Lyra and Sally
Lockhart? Have you found any difficulties as a male writer in creating young
No. I write almost always in the third person, and I don't think the
narrator is male or female anyway. They're both, and young and old, and wise
and silly, and sceptical and credulous, and innocent and experienced, all at
once. Narrators are not even human - they're sprites. So there are no
limits, no areas, or characters, or sexes, or times, where these sprites
can't go. And they fix on what interests them. I wouldn't dream of
deliberately choosing this or that sort of person, for political or social
or commercial reasons, to write a book about. If the narrator isn't
interested, the book won't come alive.
Why do you hate God so much as it appears in your books?
Philip: Well, it is not that I hate God, it is just because I don't believe
in God, it is just that I think the people who do believe in God and
persecute the people who don't believe in God are thoroughly dangerous, that
is the way I would put it. People who have got an idea of God that makes
them want to persecute other people for not believing their idea of God,
they are the dangerous ones, people who say we have got the truth and the
truth is in the Bible or the Koran or the whatever it is and we know the
truth, and we are going to kill everybody who doesn't believe things that we
believe, that is a dreadful state of affairs and it is an unfortunate part
of human nature that it seems to be attracted to this sort of extreme
certainty and arrogance and so much so that they want to make everybody else
believe the way they do and kill everybody who believes different. And I
think that is the dangerous thing and those are the people I mistrust and
fear and would fight against willingly.
Selina, 14, Essex
Your books have been compared to Tolkien who wrote Lord of the Rings. What
do you think of that?
Philip: Well I'm flattered I suppose because people who say that don't
usually say these books are just like the Lord of the Rings, a load of
rubbish that was too, they generally say it because they are intending to
say it is a good story or something and so I am flattered by that. I don't
think that I was doing the same sort of thing that Tolkien was doing, he
started by inventing the language the Elves speak, he invented a world in
which that language could naturally come about and then found himself
writing stories about that world.
So he began in a different way and I think he had a different sort of
purpose too. I didn't begin like that, I didn't invent a whole language or
all the different history of the different places or anything like that, I
just wanted to tell a story about a girl and a boy who were both growing up
and I found myself writing a sort of fantasy about different worlds because
that seemed to be the best and most vivid way I could tell that story. So
they began in different ways and they had different purposes. On the other
hand I live in Oxford as Tolkien did, I have written a big book in three
volumes as he did and there are sort of fantastical elements in both of
them, so I can see similarities but there are other ways in which we are
very different I think.
Dave: That, for example: two male angels in love. Whether it's done with a
softer brush or right in the foreground, there's a lot for readers to think
about in these books, kids especially. You're making them confront
questions. That frightens a lot of people.
Pullman: Some people will find things to object to, but I've met objections
already from people who've accused me of promoting Satanism or something.
There was a little boy in America who wrote to me recently who said he was
going to sue me because I was criticizing his religion. I haven't heard
anything from his lawyer.
Dave: There's bound to be more attention on this book after the whole Harry
Pullman: I'm kind of relying on Harry Potter to deflect all that, actually.
I was quite happy for Harry Potter to get all the attention so I could creep
in underneath all of it.
Dave: Either way, you're hardly the first author of children's books to
present ideas that aren't universally accepted. For instance, you made some
comments in previous interviews about C.S. Lewis and the perspective his
narrator brings to those stories. You singled out a scene in Prince Caspian
when the narrator is picking on a little girl with fat legs.
Pullman: He does. But I think it makes a big difference if you read those
books as a kid. I read them when I'd already grown up, and I thought they
were loathsome, full of bullying and sneering, propaganda, basically, on
behalf of a religion whose main creed seemed to be to despise and hate
people unlike yourself. Whatever Christianity says, I don't think it's that.
Dave: What children's books would you recommend?
Pullman: There's a lot of good writing in Britain at the moment: Jan Mark,
Anne Fine, Jacqueline Wilson, Peter Dickinson. I also read a couple of very
good American children's books recently, the last two winners of the Newbery
Medal, in fact: Bud, Not Buddy [by Christopher Paul Curtis] and Holes [by
Louis Sachar]. I admired them very much.
Dave: Do readers ever tell you that you remind them of another writer?
Pullman: The names that come up most often are C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.
Tolkien, but mostly from hasty critics. Readers, most often, have read with
enough attention to know that these books aren't like Lewis or Tolkien.
Because Tolkien is such a huge presence in the landscape of fantasy fiction,
people feel they have to refer to him. It's like Mount Everest. When you're
talking about a mountain, you say, "It's not quite as high as Mount Everest"
or "It's less than half as high as Everest." Tolkien is the reference point.
Interview with Philip Pullman
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