I read Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy back-to-back-to-back in the weeks preceding this conversation. By the time I'd reached the middle of the first book, The Golden Compass, I was content to exist half in my own world and half in Philip Pullman's. It seemed appropriate, if somewhat perplexing to casual acquaintances. Extending my arm in front of my body, holding an imaginary sharp instrument in my hand, I would show whomever would tolerate me how Will used the subtle knife to cut into other worlds.
"Will says it feels like stitches he's cutting," I explained again and again. "He says he can tell from the feel of each stitch against the blade which world he's about to enter."
Even as I started The Amber Spyglass, I knew I was living on borrowed time. Each sitting with the manuscript pushed my bookmark closer to its final pages and I began to recognize the bittersweet sadness of a wonder passing. Volume Three is the most ambitious installment of the series, shifting from one world to another as storylines converge. Oxford and Cittagazze, the world of the dead...soon enough, these worlds would close to me—it felt that way, as if they were slipping away. I hoarded the last chapters of Pullman's magical creation like a sleeper stirring, grasping at the hems of a dream.
I spoke to Philip Pullman—I, alone in the Internet Annex at seven o'clock in the morning, he at a hotel in Stockholm in the middle of his afternoon. I am not ordinarily a morning person. On the other hand, I hadn't been so gloriously consumed by children's fantasy since the Saturday morning cartoons of my youth, so the hour seemed appropriate. I'd spent the previous three weeks lost in his books.
Dave: What are you doing in Sweden?
Philip Pullman: I'm visiting a fantasy festival in Stockholm, doing a lot of interviews and meeting people from my Swedish publishing house. They're showing me a wonderful time. Stockholm is a beautiful city.
Dave: That raises one question right away. In an interview after the publication of The Subtle Knife, you denied that the trilogy was pure fantasy. You called it stark realism.
Pullman: I've had to deal with that frequently in the last couple days at this festival. People say, "What were you talking about? Of course you're writing fantasy!"
Well, when I made that comment I was trying to distinguish between these books and the kind of books most general readers think of as fantasy, the sub-Tolkien thing involving witches and elves and wizards and dwarves. Really, those authors are rewriting The Lord of the Rings.
I'm trying to do something different: tell a story about what it means to grow up and become adult, the experience all of us have and all of us go through. I'm telling a story about a realistic subject, but I'm using the mechanism of fantasy. I think that's slightly unusual.
Dave: It was fun to read all three volumes, one right after the other. About a hundred pages into The Subtle Knife, it occurred to me how much more complex the story was becoming.
In The Golden Compass, we stay with Lyra almost exclusively as the story moves along. Having Will enter in Book Two, working back and forth between different worlds, the structure - and really, the story, itself - becomes a lot more complex. In The Subtle Knife, and even moreso in The Amber Spyglass, we leave Lyra for very long stretches.
Pullman: Just as Lyra is growing up, accumulating new experiences and seeing the world in a wider and more complex way, so the reader is doing that as well. The structure of the trilogy is mirroring the consciousness of a growing, learning, developing consciousness. The story widens out; we have the perspective of a lot of characters instead of one.
You have to give the reader some sense of this large scale and the many strands of narrative in the story. And those many strands also allowed me to vary the pace. From moments of high stress and danger, I could move to another part of the story and have a few pages of quiet and peace.
Dave: Which is organic to the story, itself. The characters will be in great danger one moment, then with the help of the subtle knife, they'll cut into another world and escape to a peaceful scene. Those abrupt transitions exist within the story, even on its surface.
Pullman: This is one of the great joys I've found in writing fantasy. You can do this: you're in danger in one world so - slash! - you cut out into another one. The real world doesn't work like that, but fantasy does. I'm discovering the freedom of writing in this way.
Dave: The Amber Spyglass starts with a very quiet scene, picking up immediately after the finish of The Subtle Knife. I found it interesting that in the first few pages Mrs. Coulter has a realization about telling the truth. That becomes a major motif of Book Three.
Pullman: It's all about that really, most importantly with Lyra and Will in the world of the dead. Lyra learns to her great cost that fantasy isn't enough. She has been lying all her life, telling stories to people, making up fantasies, and suddenly she comes to a point where that's not enough. All she can do is tell the truth.
She tells the truth about her childhood, about the experiences she had in Oxford, and that is what saves her. True experience, not fantasy - reality, not lies - is what saves us in the end.
Dave: Is Lyra's story what you'd imagined it would be when you started The Golden Compass?
Pullman: This is what I wanted to do, yes. I knew this was where I was going, that this would happen at the end. And I knew it would take me this long to get there.
Dave: How carefully was that outlined at the very beginning?
Pullman: I knew that the story would fall into three parts. The first part would deal with Lyra, taking her to Svalbard and the gateway between the worlds. The second part would introduce Will and take him up to the point where that book ended. And the third book would deal with Will and Lyra together and their perilous journey toward the garden.
I knew it would end in a garden. And I knew I would use a variation on the temptation motif, when Lyra falls in love. It's the story in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, but here it's seen from another angle, through other eyes, this moment of revelation and sudden understanding, sudden self-consciousness, knowledge. I knew it would happen like that from the very beginning, seven years ago.
Dave: After reading all three books in succession, it really does seem to be one extended story, but working seven years on one story and releasing it as a 1200-page children's book might not have been the most practical approach.
Pullman: I wasn't sure if a 1200-page children's book would work in the marketplace, but also, I needed some money earlier on. And anyway, the story does fall naturally into three parts so it made commercial sense and also storytelling sense to put it out in three parts.
Dave: The books work for a lot of reasons: they're very suspenseful, so you want to keep reading, and the characters are great, but one thing that really drew me in initially was the imagery. One of the images in this book that had that effect on me appears when Lyra is talking about the Gallivespians, new characters in Book Three. They're only a few inches tall. Lyra wonders how water must appear to them...
Pullman: She wonders how they manage to drink, and she imagines the water droplets, the surface tension?
Dave: You used the word rind to describe the outside of a droplet.
Pullman: That's how she'd think about it. If you watch a pond, and watch the insects walking on the surface, it does have that tough elastic quality. And it would be like that, hard to get through the surface, if you were so small. That's how it strikes Lyra.
This kind of playing with language was one of the great pleasures I had in the book.
Dave: The "marzipan" scene is where everything comes together. Also, Mary becomes a full character for me at that point.
Pullman: I'm glad that happened, and I'm grateful to you for saying that because it was very important that that should happen. Mary, of course, comes with her own history, which we don't know much about until that point, but the whole reason she's been brought through the book is to tell that story.
That's what wakes Lyra up to the possibility of another way of relating to Will. That's the moment in which she is tempted, so to speak.
It's a curious thing: we have to be told how to fall in love. We don't do it automatically. Somebody made the point that if there were no stories about love, nobody would ever fall in love. We wouldn't know how to do it. I realized that somebody would have to explain how it had happened to them so Lyra would see it was possible that it could happen to her and Will.
Dave: The epiphany about good and evil, and about the distinction between a good and evil person and a good and evil act...Mary is the one who brings that out, finally, too.
Pullman: She's a very important character. I like Mary Malone very much. She had an important task in this book, and she brought great qualities to it: experience, wisdom, and modesty. She was the right person at the right time.
Dave: The Amber Spyglass doesn't present any new characters on the scope of Lyra or Will, but we meet a lot of new secondary characters.
Pullman: There isn't a major new character in the book because at this point it's too late. It would upset the balance of the book to introduce a new major character in the last third of the story. The narrative would be lopsided.
The new characters are important, but not on the same scale. I like the Gallivespians very much. I also like the two angels, Baruch and Balthamos. These two have been with me as an image for a long time. I liked the idea of two male angels who love each other and who are, themselves, very different characters. They play an important part in the moral education, so to speak, of Will, but also in the outcome of the story.
And I loved it when I thought of how to bring Balthamos back at the end. We've almost forgotten about him. Two hundred pages before, he ran away.
Do you remember the movie The Magnificent Seven?
Dave: I do.
Pullman: Do you remember the Robert Vaughn character? He was the one with the fancy waistcoat, the one who's lost his nerve.
There was a scene in the saloon where there are three flies on a table. He sweeps his hand across them, and when he opens his hand, there's only one fly there. He says, "There was a time when I would have got all three." Then the fight comes and he runs away, but he comes back right at the end and plays an important part.
The Magnificent Seven has been with me for a very long time, since my boyhood, and when I think about it, Balthamos is playing the Robert Vaughn part.
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 Potter craze.
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.
Dave: From what I've read, you don't seem entirely convinced that the proliferation of writing programs is necessarily producing better writers.
Pullman: This is the contradiction I've never resolved in my own mind about teaching writing: there are some things you can talk about; other things you can't. But when you teach writing, you only deal with the things you can talk about, so half of it gets left out. And that half is just as important as the half that gets taught.
I wonder what these students of writing take away. Do they imagine writing as a collaborative activity where you write a bit, then share it and talk about it, and people take it to pieces? Then you go back and write a bit more and show it again, and they take it to pieces again?
For me, anyway, it's not like that. Writing is spending a long time in silence, by myself, and covering up the work when anyone comes in the room so they can't see it.
Dave: At what point did you show The Amber Spyglass to someone? Had you completed a draft by that point?
Pullman: Oh, yes. I show it to my editors when I think it's ready for them, but still nobody else. I value their comments and questions very highly. My editors, Joan Slattery at Knopf in New York and David Fickling in Britain, are wonderful guides to how stories ought to work. I depend on them a great deal. I'd finished pretty well to the point where it was publishable before I showed it.
Dave: Will you be reading for the audio version of The Amber Spyglass?
Pullman: I will, but there wasn't time to do it before the book was published. It's a long, complicated process, not only to record it, but to edit it, with all the actors.
Dave: Do you enjoy doing it?
Pullman: Very much, indeed. It's great to work with actors of the quality and the caliber and the experience of the people I've worked with. They really put me on my mettle. I'm a newcomer, a novice to this business of using a microphone. But these characters can turn up or down the emotion at the drop of a hat. They're so practiced and so professional. It's a joy to work with them.
Dave: I've been looking for my daemon.
Pullman: Well, it's no good, you looking for it. You find out what your daemon is by asking other people what they think it is.
Dave: They'll know?
Pullman: Ask a bunch of your friends, once you've explained what a daemon is in the first place.
Dave: Do people tell you what yours is?
Pullman: I'm reluctant to ask in case it's a slug or something.
Dave: When I started reading some interviews you'd given to promote the first two books, I saw certain questions coming up again and again that you really couldn't answer. You kept saying, "Wait until the third book. Read the whole story before you make any judgments." Was that frustrating for you?
Pullman: Extremely frustrating. This came up in the interview I did last night. There were a lot of questions after my talk, and I had to keep saying, "I'm sorry, I can't tell you the answer to that, but when you read the third book..." I must have said that a thousand times.
Now I'll just be able to refer them to the book. Then if they want to argue with it, I'll have to find another answer.
I called Philip Pullman on August 31, 2000. Despite the fact that in the previous twelve months more Powells.com employees have written glowing Staff Picks blurbs for The Golden Compass than for any other title, I was surprised how thoroughly the book engaged me. Lyra followed me everywhere. I couldn't wait to find the time to stop and read more. The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass followed. I didn't do much those three weeks but work and read.
÷ ÷ ÷
Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State