Philip Pullman: The Storyteller’s Art

The trilogy of novels Philip Pullman published between 1995 and 2000 (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, known collectively as His Dark Materials) brought into being one of the most alluring imaginative worlds in modern literature. Combining enduring themes — the passage from innocence to experience, the spiritual intuitions and animal instincts of identity, the corruptions of priestly power, the enigmatic and exhilarating energies of wonder — with thrilling, headlong storytelling, His Dark Materials has garnered a wide audience among readers young and old.

The trilogy has been widely honored. In 2001, The Amber Spyglass was awarded Britain’s Whitbread Book of the Year Award, the first time that prize has ever gone to a children’s book. Earlier this year The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in its British edition) was voted by readers the favorite among all volumes that have won the Carnegie Medal in that prestigious award’s seventy-year history. On a recent visit to New York a few weeks before the premiere of the film version of that book, Pullman sat down with me in the Barnes & Noble offices to discuss the storytelling art that shaped his tale of Lyra Belacqua and the many characters she meets in the course of her adventures. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. — James Mustich


JAMES MUSTICH: As you reached the conclusion of “Miss Goddard’s Grave,” a talk you delivered a few years ago, you said, “I haven’t mentioned something that might seem trivial; but I think its importance is profound and barely understood. That’s the difference between reading a story in a book, and watching a story on a screen. It’s a psychological difference, not just a technical one. We need to take account of it, and we’re not doing it.” With the release of the film of The Golden Compass imminent, I was hoping you might begin by explaining what you meant by that.

PHILIP PULLMAN: That’s a very interesting place to start. As I remember, I gave that lecture in an educational context, and I was concerned then, at the time I wrote the piece, with the way that pictures, and the understanding of pictures, seem to be neglected in education, compared to the way we teach children to read. We’re rightly concerned that children should learn to read and to write and to become literate, and so on, but in doing that, we sometimes forget that pictures can also tell stories, can inform us in ways that are not exactly parallel to the ways in which words do. They’re different. They work differently. I think it important for us to help young people to gain that sort of literacy as well.

One of the texts I sometimes quote — it’s not a text, it’s just a pronouncement — was made by Pope Gregory the Great in about 592, I think. This was in connection with the question of whether it was okay to paint pictures on the wall of churches, given the commandment that forbids us to make representations of things. What he said was, “What words are to the reader, pictures are to those who cannot read.” Which, on the face of it, seems to make sense. It seems sound, good policy. If you can read, you have the words; if you can’t read, you have the pictures.

But what it does actually is make two assumptions that I think have bedeviled our understanding of pictures for a long time since then. One is that words and pictures are equivalent, whereas they are not. When you see an actor in a role on a screen, for example, that actor’s face is forever afterwards associated with that character. It is very hard to disentangle the two. When we read about that character in a book, we can supply what the person looks like, and we supply all sorts of other things that are not there, because they don’t have to be there. Words and pictures are not the same.

Another interesting difference between them is that words work in time, and pictures work in space. Pictures are very good at showing you where things are, what things look like, how far away things are — that sort of thing. But a single picture on its own cannot show us the order of things happening. Stories are all about the order of things happening. This happened, and then that happened because of what happened earlier on. To do that, you need words, which are extremely good at depicting this because of the way verbs have tenses, and the way sentences have grammatical sequence of clauses and so on, all of which help us to understand the order of things.

So words and pictures aren’t equivalent. That’s the first kind of mistake that Pope Gregory made about them.  

The second consequence of what he said is that it set up a sort of hierarchy of esteem in which educated people have the words, but people who are not educated — children, illiterate people, slaves — have to make do with pictures. This has curious consequences in the way, for example, that now children’s books are expected to be illustrated and adult books are not expected to be illustrated, that, when children reach a certain age, we say, “Come on, stop reading comics now; read proper books.” And the fact that we just don’t think visual literacy is important enough to teach in school.

These things have interested me for a long time. Why was I happy, then, to say, “Go ahead and make a film of The Golden Compass?” Apart from the small question of the fee involved, there was the fact that I had come to think that stories are not actually made of words. Stories can be presented in the form of words, but they can also be presented in the form of pictures. You can even present a story in the form of a dance. Whatever stories are made of, words aren’t fundamental to it. Something else is. And what I think is fundamental to the narrative process is events — stories are made of events. And I’ve just given a lecture in Toronto, and I shall repeat it in Chicago later this week, which is about these fundamental particles of narrative, how they work, how they acquire different kinds of emotional-metaphorical charge, and so on.

Now, coming back to the question you began with: because stories are made of events and not words, it doesn’t really matter that they are going to take my novel, which is made of words, and put it in a film which is made of words and pictures. The story has already been told in a number of different ways. It’s been an audiobook, a full cast recording, with a lot of actors doing the parts. It’s been a radio dramatization. Both of those entirely depend on words, of course. But it’s also been a stage play, which was presented on two different runs at the National Theater in London. A lot of the effect of the play depended not only on the words in the script, but on the stage effects and, not least, the magnificent music by Jonathan Dove. So all these things had a bearing on how the story was told, and the story survived. The story I told seemed to come through, and I have every faith that it will come through in what the movie people are doing.

JM: What you’ve been saying leads me to think of the difference between the storytelling tools that can be used in a film and those available to a novelist. There was a BBC adaptation of Middlemarch several years ago, and that being one of the novels I love most, I was attentive to it. It was extremely well done — literate, faithful to the story. But by the second episode, my pleasure in it was overtaken by a sense something was missing, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then I realized the story was being presented mostly in close-ups and reaction shots –- there was no room for the narrative voice — the filtering intelligence — that is so important in Eliot’s novel. You’ve said somewhere that the narrating voice that tells Middlemarch is just as much a made-up character as Dorothea or Mister Casaubon.

PP: Yes.

JM: That third-person narrator, filtering events through a kind of central intellect, was not present in that film, and I don’t know if you can even have it in a film in the same way. So the question I have is not so much about the movie of The Golden Compass compared to the book, but about the different modes of storytelling the two media make possible.  

PP: That’s very interesting. I remember that adaptation very well. I think it was the Andrew Davis one, which was about 12 years ago. It was extremely good, and, as you say, it did all those things, but we didn’t have George Eliot’s extraordinary, wise, ironic, sometimes tender, sometimes cutting voice coming in. The famous comparison she makes between why we think everything revolves around us…

JM: The candle?

PP: That’s right. The candle and the reflections in the polished steel. (Editor’s note:  Middlemarch, chapter 27). That was missing, of course. There isn’t really a direct equivalent for this in film, although a very skillful director could, I daresay, find particular camera angles, particular things to show in the background while something else is going on, particular ways of catching a character, as it were, unaware, so an expression flickers across their face that isn’t there in the script — that sort of thing. A clever director could find sort of equivalents to get to some of this. But much of it won’t be there. Much of this central filtering narrating consciousness is gone, replaced by the neutral eye of the camera.

Yes, Middlemarch is a good example of that. Middlemarch is a novel that is diminished by being put on the screen. It can’t help but be, because so much of what we enjoy in Middlemarch is the interplay between what the characters do and what we know about them because of the telling voice.

It’s less of a problem for the cinema when it deals with novels that are purely concerned with action and what people do. I haven’t thought this through, and I’m just trying it now to see what it sounds like. But maybe it would be less a problem with novels that are told in the first person. The interesting thing to me about Middlemarch, and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and several other great novels, is precisely this omniscient, as we call it, third person, which naive readers mistake for the author. It isn’t George Eliot who is saying this; it’s a voice that George Eliot adopts to tell this story.

There can be something very interesting in a novel like Bleak House, which was also done very well on the television by the same adapter, Andrew Davis. Now, Bleak House is told in two voices, as you remember. One is the somewhat trying Esther Summerson, who is a paradigm of every kind of virtue, and the other is a different sort of voice entirely, a voice that tells the story in the present tense, which was unusual for the time, a voice that doesn’t seem to have a main character attached to it.

But I think that Dickens is playing a very subtle game here. I’ve noticed a couple of things about that second narration that make me wonder whether it isn’t Esther herself writing the other bits of it. For instance, at the very beginning, she says, “When I come to write my portion of these pages . . .” So she knows that there is another narrative going on, but nobody else does. Nobody else refers to it. The second thing is that she is the only character who never appears in those passages of present-tense narration. The other characters do. She doesn’t. Why would that be? There’s one point very near the end of the book where she almost does. Inspector Bucket is coming into the house to collect Esther to go and look for Lady Dedlock, who’s run away, and we hear that Esther is just coming — but no, she’s turned back and brought her cloak, so we don’t quite see her. It’s as if she’s teasing us and saying, “You’re going to see me; no, you’re not.”

Now, that’s Dickens, at the height of his powers, playing around — in ways that we would now call, I don’t know, postmodern, ironic, self-referential, or something — with the whole notion of narration, characterization, and so on. Yet, it doesn’t matter. Those things are there for us to notice and to enjoy and to relish, if we have the taste for that sort of thing. But the events of Bleak House are so thrilling, so perplexing, so exciting that a mere recital of the events themselves is enough to carry a whole television adaptation, a whole play, a whole story. It’s so much better with Dickens’s narrative playfulness there, but it’s pretty good without them.

JM: Just as George Eliot created the narrator’s voice in Middlemarch, you created the very distinct narrative voice in His Dark Materials, which is quite different from the narrative voice of your other books. I’m wondering how you developed it. And to introduce a corollary to that question, let me say I’ve spent a lot of time with my family listening to the audio editions of these novels, of which you are not only the author but the actual narrator as well. So your voice was very much in my head as I re-read the books in the past few weeks. Which is appropriate enough, I guess.

PP: I think that the voices for all my books are different. I hope they all are. The voice that tells His Dark Materials is not the voice that tells the Victorian thrillers I did, with Sally Lockhart, and it’s certainly not the voice that tells my fairy tales, such as The Scarecrow and His Servant and I Was A Rat.

It’s an interesting process, this finding the voice. It’s partly to do with where you see things from. I always remember in this context David Mamet, who is a very interesting writer on cinema and theater, saying that the two questions a director has to ask are “What do I tell the actors?” and (this is the interesting one) “Where do I put the camera?” Where do I see things from? How close do I go? Am I entitled to go into his mind? If so, can I go into her mind, or am I just given access to one of them?”

This is the thing that takes me longest of all when I’m beginning a novel, to work out what the limits are, what the powers of the narrator will be, what is the appropriate tone to take. And where do I see things from: am I watching this, as it were, from stage right or stage left? That makes a difference. Mike Alfreds is an English director who has a company called Shared Experience. They do a lot of adaptations of novels. He’s discovered that when they use a narrator, if they put the narrator stage right, the audience perceives the narrator as being somehow involved, warm, part of what’s going on. If he puts the narrator stage left, the audience feels the narrator to be critical, detached. Isn’t that extraordinary?

JM: Yes.

PP: Ever since then, I have to say, whenever I do a conversation with someone on the stage, I take care to be stage right. But that’s an aspect of where you’re seeing it from, you see, whether the narrator is viewing the characters, as it were, sympathetically or, as it were, critically. This takes a while to discover for each book.

JM: What was the experience of making the audiobooks like?

PP: It was huge fun. The director, Garrick Hagon, who assembled a cast of very fine actors from the BBC radio drama tradition, who had learned their craft in the days when — well, I don’t want to make them sound as old as Methuselah, but some of them are getting on a bit. They knew exactly how to use a microphone — how close to go, how to modulate their voices so that they could raise the emotional temperature by 1 millimeter, and so on. Their mastery of regional accents was extraordinary. Little things like that. They never made a pop sound when pronouncing a “p”. They didn’t do that. They were so technically adept, they could avoid all those sorts of glitches and problems that affect amateurs like me. So I learned a lot from them, and it was a wonderfully enjoyable process.

JM: It’s a great joy to listen to.

PP: Thank you.

JM: Let’s pursue the theme of narrative voice a little further. You’ve written on several occasions of the “loss of story” in 20th-century literary fiction. In your words, “Novelists became fascinated by other things than telling stories, and in the process, the feeling seemed to grow that there was something wrong about telling a story from a single central directing consciousness, because that act involved a narrative voice, and narrators were now notoriously unreliable.” You’ve also said that “only in children’s literature now is the story taken seriously.”

PP: Hmm.

JM: Do you feel it would be harder to write an adult novel in the third-person? Does children’s literature give you the freedom to use that kind of omniscient narrative voice in a more confident way than you could in an adult book?

PP: Well, I would be quite happy to try third-person narration in an adult book. And it’s certainly not unknown. But there was a sort of embarrassment about storytelling that struck home powerfully about one hundred years ago, at the beginning of Modernism. We see a similar reaction in painting and in music. It’s a preoccupation suddenly with the surface rather than the depth. So you get, for example, Picasso and Braque making all kinds of experiments with the actual surface of the painting. That becomes the interesting thing, much more interesting than the thing depicted, which is just an old newspaper, a glass of wine, something like that. In music, the Second Viennese School becomes very interested in what happens when the surface, the diatonic structure of the keys breaks down, and we look at the notes themselves in a sort of tone row, instead of concentrating on things like tunes, which are sort of further in, if you like. That happened, of course, in literature, too, with such great works as James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is all about, really, how it’s told. Not so much about what happens, which is a pretty banal event in a banal man’s life. It’s about how it’s told. The surface suddenly became passionately interesting to artists in every field about a hundred years ago.

In the field of literature, story retreated. The books we talked about just now, Middlemarch, Bleak House, Vanity Fair — their authors were the great storytellers as well as the great artists. After Modernism, things changed. Indeed, Modernism sometimes seems to me like an equivalent of the Fall. Remember, the first thing Adam and Eve did when they ate the fruit was to discover that they had no clothes on. They were embarrassed. Embarrassment was the first consequence of the Fall. And embarrassment was the first literary consequence of this Modernist discovery of the surface. “Am I telling a story? Oh my God, this is terrible. I must stop telling a story and focus on the minute gradations of consciousness as they filter through somebody’s…”  

So there was a great split that took place. Story retreated, as it were, into genre fiction — into crime fiction, into science fiction, into romantic fiction — whereas the high-art literary people went another way.

Children’s books held onto the story, because children are rarely interested in surfaces in that sort of way. They’re interested in what-happened and what-happened next. I found it a great discipline, when I was writing The Golden Compass and other books, to think that there were some children in the audience. I put it like that because I don’t say I write for children. I find it hard to understand how some writers can say with great confidence, “Oh, I write for fourth grade children” or “I write for boys of 12 or 13.” How do they know? I don’t know. I would rather consider myself in the rather romantic position of the old storyteller in the marketplace: you sit down on your little bit of carpet with your hat upturned in front of you, and you start to tell a story. Your interest really is not in excluding people and saying to some of them, “No, you can’t come, because it’s just for so-and-so.” My interest as a storyteller is to have as big an audience as possible. That will include children, I hope, and it will include adults, I hope. If dogs and horses want to stop and listen, they’re welcome as well.

So I have always hoped that my audience would include children, and that means that I have to pay close attention to the story, and how the story is unfolding, and whether the story is clear and comprehensible. They don’t have to understand everything that’s happening, but they have to know what’s happening. They don’t have to understand why everything is happening, because that’s a puzzle to the people in the story as well. The reason children, quite young children have read this story and followed it all the way through is because they know that Lyra is puzzled about the things that are happening, but she is going to find out. So they don’t mind being puzzled, because they know that Lyra is, too, and they are following her. They are with her.

JM: One of the great appeals of the His Dark Materials books to a very wide audience is just this embrace of story, particularly in light of the nature of the large themes you’re dealing with. You rejuvenate story as a mode of apprehension — a means of apprehending the reality of how we live our lives, and what the context for those lives are. It’s gratifying and delightful to be in that world, where, even if we’re not given answers to the great questions, we are allowed a purchase on them in some way. And you can do that through story in ways that you can’t when you’re dealing with just the surface, I think.

PP: That is true. I am glad you said that. I thank you for that. That’s one of the things that I hope that people will take away from the books. At a crucial moment in the story, in the third part, when Lyra is in the world of the dead, the ghosts of the children ask her to tell them what it was like to be alive.  

JM: Yes. That’s one of my favorite parts of the trilogy.

PP: We can come back to that, if you like, later on.

JM: Yes, let’s come back to it. You alluded to the Fall, and I want to talk a little more about that. You’ve written a lovely scene in which Lyra asks Lord Asriel if the story of Adam and Eve is true, and he says something along the lines of, “It may not have happened, but it is true in that it can help us to calculate all manner of things that couldn’t be imagined without it.”

PP: Doesn’t he compare it to the square root of minus-1 or something?

JM: Yes, that’s right. So it’s almost as if the story is an instrument to help us understand where we are. You’ve said in one of the interviews I’ve read that you try to present “the idea that the Fall, like any myth, is not something that has happened once in a historical sense but happens again and again in all our lives.” “The Fall,” you continued, “is something that happens to all of us when we move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood and I wanted to find a way of presenting it as something natural and good, and to be welcomed and . . . celebrated rather than deplored.”

By considering the Fall as a story, a recurring myth, is it in some ways more realistic in terms of our existence than it would be if it were historically true as a single event? It kind of points to the power of the story itself, to be true and real in its own way beyond the limits of actuality.

PP: Yes. This is where the value of the stories we call myths comes from, the fact that they are repeated again and again in people’s lives. This is what Freud, of course, discovered about the Oedipus story. Whether you go all the way with Freud or not, it remains true that it is an extraordinarily gripping story, and by interpreting it in terms of the familial drama that Freud himself was investigating, he does point out one of the sources of its power over us.

There are a number of myths, of course, that have this power. They have survived for thousands of years, survived not only the forgetfulness of the listeners, but survived sometimes the incompetence of the storytellers. As C.S. Lewis points out, I think, a myth is a story whose power to affect us is independent of the way it is told. So when we first hear the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, for example, it doesn’t matter in which version we hear it. Whether we read it in a children’s book or hear it being told to us in a class, it doesn’t matter. It’s the story itself, the events themselves that have that power to affect us. Which chimes very well with another of my favorite quotations, this one from Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Events themselves are wiser than any commentary on events.” Which comes back to what I’ve been saying about events.

JM: One thing that’s so enjoyable to me about these books is the way you return us to the power of story in a quite simple but effective way. Early in The Golden Compass, when Lyra hides in the wardrobe in the retiring room, you describe Lord Asriel’s attention in this way: “Lord Asriel looked across the room directly at the wardrobe, and Lyra felt the force of his glance almost as if it had physical form, as if it were an arrow or a spear.”

Throughout the trilogy, you give physical form — the daemons that coexist with the characters in Lyra’s world, the Specters of Cittágazze, Dust itself, to mention just three — to psychological and existential ideas, allowing you to deal with major themes within the context of the story in a way that’s very liberating for the reader — at least for this reader. The physical embodiment of states of mind or aspects of experience in characters or objects really gets us right to the elemental uses — and pleasures — of storytelling itself.

PP: Well, thank you for that. I think that this was one thing that I realized early on in thinking about this book, when I found, to my consternation, that I was writing a fantasy. I hadn’t expected ever to write a fantasy, because I am not a great fantasy fan. But I realized that I could use the apparatus of fantasy to say things that I thought were true. Which was exactly what, I then realized, Milton had been doing with Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost is not a story of people and some other people who’ve got wings. It’s not one of those banal fantasies that just rely on somebody having magic and someone dropping a ring down a volcano. Paradise Lost is a great psychological novel that happens to be cast in the form of a fantasy, because the devils and the angels are, of course, embodiments of psychological states. The portrait of Satan, especially in the Temptation scene (I think it’s in Book 9), is a magnificent piece of psychological storytelling.

So it was possible to do, I realized, and with Milton as my encouragement, I launched into this book — which I reluctantly accept has to be called a fantasy. Finding physical embodiments for things that were not themselves physical was one of the ways I approached what I wanted to say. But then, that’s what we do with metaphor all the time. That’s the way metaphor works. The way metaphor works is not the way allegory works. Allegory works because the author says, “This means so-and-so, that means such-and-such, and this can only be understood in such-and-such a way. If you don’t understand it like this, the book won’t work.”  

It seems to me that some critics of mine, from the religious point of view, are treating my novel as if it were an allegory and they had the key to it. It is not an allegory, and they don’t have the key to it, because there is no key apart from the sympathetic and open-minded understanding of the reader.

JM: Let’s talk about religion for a minute.

PP: Sure.

JM: One could say that religions begin as stories and then are transformed, or corrupted — as you choose — into doctrine, and the doctrine tends to suck the life out of the stories. Bear with me a moment, because I’m going to make a leap to something else you’ve written about — quite brilliantly, I think. And that’s the way reading is taught in schools today. You’ve written — quoting an educational manual, I believe — that many teachers today “think that reading consists of using a set of strategies to decode, selecting, retrieving, deducing, inferring, interpreting, identifying and commenting on the writer’s purposes and viewpoints, relating texts to the social, cultural and historical contexts.”  

“That’s it,” you continue in your own voice. “That’s all. Nothing else. That’s what they want children of 11 to do when they read. They don’t seem to know that reading can also be enjoyed, because enjoyment doesn’t figure into the list of things you have to do.”

It seems to me that the approach to reading you’re being critical of exudes a fear of the imaginative process of engaging with a story, and that this fear of the imagination and its powers is what you react against in religious doctrine as well.

PP: That’s a very interesting parallel, and I haven’t thought of that. But thank you for bringing it to my attention. I shall now claim it as my own and develop it further.

JM: Wonderful. Please do.

PP: But you are right. Religion begins in story. Yes, it does, because religion is an attempt to make sense of what is incomprehensible to us, what is inexplicable, what is awe-inspiring, what is frightening, what moves us to great wonder, and so on. That is the religious impulse, and it is part of our psychological makeup — of everyone’s psychological makeup. Well, perhaps not everyone. Perhaps there are some people who are not curious, not interested in where we come from and what it’s all about. It’s certainly part of every culture that we know about. Every civilization and every system of belief has its beginnings in explanation. “The world was created by a great turtle who laid an egg, and then etc., etc. As a result of that turtle, we have to be good, and not eat fish on Fridays.” That’s the way it develops. [LAUGHS]

Well, I can’t argue against an impulse which I myself feel, which is the impulse to wonder, to make sense of things, to feel extraordinary elation and delight when I see the wonders of the material world around us, the physical universe. How can I argue against something like that? Our desire to do good, our understanding of what good is and what evil is, is somehow bound up with this feeling. One story goes that God created the world, and it was good, and then he put a man and woman in the garden and told them not to eat from the tree of knowledge, and they did, and everything fell apart as a result, and that’s why we are so unhappy now. So vote Republican and do this! That’s the way that story has been interpreted.

Religion is, as I say, something universal and something human, and something impossible to eradicate, nor would I want to eradicate it. I am a religious person, although I am not a believer.

Religion is at its best when it is a long way from political power. The founder of the Christian religion — or, the founders of the Christian religion, Jesus and St. Paul — were both clear about this. “Blessed are the meek.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” St. Paul is perfectly clear that the highest Christian virtue is charity, not patriotism, not martial valor, not exalting your class, your group, your race above others, but charity. That’s the highest virtue. When religion remembers that and acts accordingly, it does good.

But religion, at various points in human history, notably the history of Western Europe and the history of some parts of the Middle East more recently, has acquired political power, and put its hands on the levers of social authority. It decides who shall live and who shall die. It decides how we shall dress, what we shall be allowed to read, whether we shall go to war, and so on. When religion acquires that power, it goes bad very rapidly. That’s the criticism I think the story of His Dark Materials is making, because in Lyra’s world, power is wielded by religious authority, and that’s why it’s gone wrong.

JM: My two favorite scenes from The Amber Spyglass, the last book of the trilogy, seem to amplify some of the themes we’ve been discussing. The first is the one you mentioned before, in which Lyra travels to the world of the dead to liberate the ghosts, and the ghosts greet her with these exclamations: “‘Please,’ they were whispering, ‘you’ve just come from the world. Tell us, tell us, tell us about the world.'” It’s a very powerful scene. Similarly, not much later, when Tialys bargains with the harpies, he says, “. . . from now on you will have the right to ask all the ghosts to tell you the stories of their lives,” and the hitherto vengeful creatures are satisfied. In these instances, you seem to be telling us about the nourishment that stories provide. Could you talk a little bit about that?

PP: Yes. When I took Lyra down to the world of the dead, I didn’t know how I was going to get her out. But I relied on her quick-wittedness and I relied on luck or chance or whatever. The ghosts came along and they asked this question, as you described, and Lyra, for the first time in her life, has to tell a story that is true. Up till then, she’s been a fantasist. She has spun lie upon lie, and story upon story, not only to get herself out of trouble, but also to entertain her listeners. And she is very good at it. She tries this with the harpies, who guard the world of the dead, when she first goes down there. But they see through it at once, and they screech and they fly at her with claws and they cry “liar-liar-liar!” — which sounds like her name. So when she is confronted with these desperate children, so eager to hear about the world and what it was like, she begins to do exactly what they ask for, to tell them a story that’s not a fantasy, but a piece of realism. And she describes the day that she and her friends played in the mud beside the river, and they had a great battle, and they threw mud at each other. She describes all the feelings, the mud squishing through her fingers, and the sight of the sun coming through the dappled leaves as it strikes the riverbank, and the coolness of the water, and the smell of the cooking fires. She brings all those things life. Then she has a terrible shock, because she looks up and sees the harpies sitting around listening to this. This is what they’ve been hungering for all this time, and they had never thought to ask. But now they’ve heard it, they want more. They want more, they want more.

That’s the point at which Tialys, the Gallivespian who is the length of one of our fingers and rides a dragonfly, has the great idea of making a bargain with the harpies, as you’ve mentioned. From now on, every ghost who enters the world of the dead will have to come with a story, the story of his or her life, and tell it to the harpies. It doesn’t have to be a big adventure; it can just be a description of a day playing with the children, like Lyra’s, or whatever it might happen to be. In exchange for this true story, the harpies will lead that ghost outside to dissolve into the Universe and be one with everything else.  

Of course, I stole that, as I stole everything else! I stole that from the Oresteia — the bargain Aeschylus’s characters make with the Furies that are following them about. “You will be the guardians of this place, and we will worship you and we will give you honor,” they say. Then the Furies are satisfied, and they leave off their pursuit of Orestes. There’s nothing new in stories. It goes round again and again and again.

But that was something that I thought was a good way out for Lyra, and it did reassert the value of story. States it fully and clearly, brings it out. And also the value of realistic story. It’s got to be true. And there’s a moral consequence; for those who have eyes to see, they can see it: you have to live. You have to experience things to have a story to tell, and if you spend all your life playing video games, that will not do.

JM: The second scene I have in mind is the one in which Mary Malone is on a platform in a tree in the land of the mulefa, and she’s communing with the currents of Dust, almost being carried away. I’m going to read it, because it’s so beautiful, I’d like to hear it.  

And something happened to the Dust wind: instead of that slow drift, it was racing like a river in flood. Had it sped up, or was time moving differently for her, now that she was outside her body? Either way she was conscious of the most horrible danger, because the flood was threatening to sweep her loose completely . . . .

         . . . [T]he particles of dust were streaming along as if they, too, were pouring over some invisible edge.

         And carrying her away from her body.

         She flung a mental lifeline to that physical self, and tried to recall the feeling of being in it: all the sensations that made up being alive. The exact touch of her friend Atal’s soft-tipped trunk caressing her neck. The taste of bacon and eggs. The triumphant strain in her muscles as she pulled herself up a rock face. The delicate dancing of her fingers on a computer keyboard. The smell of roasting coffee. The warmth of her bed on a winter night.

It occurred to me in reading this that, in order to hold onto her body — to hold onto the world she knows — she is telling herself the kind of story the dead demand from Lyra.  

PP: Yes.

JM: And I have this question for you. Do you believe that stories are, in a very real way, our mental lifeline from the physical world to the world of Dust, the larger current of the cosmos? That, in the same way as Mary Malone retrieves her body with these details of her own experience, we send our stories out into the cosmos as a “mental lifeline” in the other direction?

PP: Well, that’s a very good image. I hadn’t thought of that, but now you mention it, I think that’s right. It’s one of the places where I come as close as I can to having the characters say what I mean myself. The thing this is saying is what Will says later on about the angels. He says, “They wish they had bodies. They are envious of us. They wish they could smell the roasting coffee and these things. They can’t understand why we, who have the power to feel these things, who have nerves and senses, aren’t in a continual state of ecstasy. That we can touch things, that we can hear things and smell things, and taste things.”

If there was one feeling or one idea that I would like readers to take away from the trilogy (though I don’t tell them this is what they must take — they can take what they choose), I would like them to take away this emphasis, this continuing and strong emphasis that I put on the value of being alive and having nerves and senses — of having a physical body.  

This is where I owe a great debt to William Blake, of course: “Show me a world where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy,” he wrote. And: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,/ Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” And: “Every thing that lives is Holy.” Blake celebrated the sense that this world we live in is the most extraordinary, miraculous place, and we should cherish it, we should look after it — with delight begins responsibility.

JM: That’s a wonderful conclusion. But allow me one more question. There’s been a book announced as a Spring publication — it’s coming out in April, I believe — called Once Upon a Time in The North. Is that a companion to Lyra’s Oxford, the same kind of pendant to the trilogy?

PP: It is a sort of pendant, or — I’m looking for a word which suggests something that is not hanging down, but … Anyway, I’ll leave that. It’s too difficult for me! [LAUGHS]

Once Upon a Time in the North is a story about two of my favorite characters in the trilogy, the aeronaut Lee Scoresby and the bear Iorek Byrnison, who, when we meet them with Lyra, are already old companions. They’re comrades in arms. They’ve fought together many times. They’ve rescued each other from danger, and so on. It was my son who said to me he’d like to read the story of how these two first met. So that’s what I did. It’s a story that takes place twenty years before The Golden Compass. These two are both young, and knocking about the Arctic, so to speak, and they run into a bit of trouble, and they hitch up together and solve it.

Now, again, I stole this, too: this is the scene in The Magnificent Seven in which Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner ride the hearse for the undertaker, and take the body of Indian Joe, or whoever it is, up to Boot Hill, where the townspeople wouldn’t let them. So I wrote that story.

JM: Will that be the end of this world?

PP: No. No-no-no.

JM: There’s more to come?

PP: There is one more big book to come, and that’s a book called The Book of Dust, which will be about Lyra. She will be a little older. She’ll be about 16. The story of His Dark Materials is over. It’s done, it’s finished, but this is a new story, and she will be facing new problems, and difficulties and temptations.

JM: Well, I can’t wait to read it. Thank you very much.  

                                                                                                            November 1, 2007

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