He thought his epic tale of two 12-year-olds would appeal to a few clever kids and a few adults. Then it sold 15m copies and was turned into a blockbusting film. Robert Butler goes for lunch...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, December 2007
He had written fairy tales, detective stories, melodramas, thrillers and fantasies. But when Philip Pullman embarked on his trilogy, "His Dark Materials", he went back to the most fundamental story of all: the one with the snake, the apple and the fig leaf. He recast Adam and Eve as a 12-year-old girl and boy living in parallel universes, who meet, fall in love and spend the night together. This time God, known as the Authority, fades away and dies. "I thought there would be a small audience," Pullman says, "a few clever kids somewhere and a few intelligent adults who thought, "That's all right, quite enjoyed it.'" Well, he got that wrong.
The books have been translated into 40 languages and sold 15m copies, and that's only the beginning. In 2003 and 2004, a stage version was a big hit at the National Theatre in London. This month the phenomenon goes to another level with the release of the film, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. It's produced by New Line, which brought us "The Lord of the Rings" 1, 2 and 3. By the time New Line has worked its way through the trilogy, Pullman's rewrite of Genesis 3 will have gone far beyond its bedtime-reading, Waterstone's-shopping, theatre-going constituency. It will have become a story known by people who may not even read.
"His Dark Materials" has its origins in the writings of Milton, Blake and Kleist, but if that sounds literary and erudite, don't worry, it won't show: this is a big-budget fantasy movie playing at a cinema near you, and near pretty well everyone else. Its main characters--Lyra, Mrs Coulter, Lee Scoresby--will shortly be as famous as Dumbledore and Gandalf. But there's a difference. Pullman has written an epic with the entertainment value to capture a mass audience, which simultaneously taps into the same profound themes as Homer and the Bible. It's a story with a dark and powerful undertow: a creation myth for the 21st century.
Its author sits in the study of his farmhouse near Oxford surrounded by books, Black & Decker woodwork equipment, and a rocking horse that he's making for a grandchild. Two pugs, Hoagy and Nellie, run in and out. Next door, our photographer and her two assistants are transforming his kitchen into a photographic studio. ("I've never been on a front cover, have I?" Pullman says to his wife, Jude, who greets this invasionary force with warm and unconcerned tolerance.) During the shoot, his broad face and high-domed forehead change dramatically when he dons a wide-brimmed hat (a little reluctantly) and a beret (more enthusiastically): as an author, he would rather be cast as a Paris intellectual than a Tory squire.
On the dining-room table next door, a pile of new publications and spin-offs sits next to a picture of Pullman with the new James Bond. "His Dark Materials" comprises three books, "Northern Lights" (1995), "The Subtle Knife" (1997) and "The Amber Spyglass" (2000). It's "Northern Lights" that has been made into the movie, called "The Golden Compass"--the name of "Northern Lights" in American bookshops. Genesis 3 runs to 24 verses; "His Dark Materials" weighs in at 1,300 pages. Pullman spent seven years in a shed at the bottom of his Oxford garden, doing his three pages a day (no more, no less). About one in ten pages made the cut. The mathematics alone is impressive.
It all began in the last 15 minutes of a wet Friday afternoon in a classroom in Oxford. Or that's how you would want to tell it. After reading English at Exeter College, Oxford, Pullman did stints working at Moss Bros, the suit-hire shop, and a public library. Aged 25, he qualified as a teacher, mainly, he says, because he liked the idea of the holidays. It was the early 1970s, there was no National Curriculum, no Sats and league tables, and "no bumptious ignorant twit in Whitehall telling me what to do and how to teach". So Pullman found that he had time to tell stories. He believes all teachers should be able to tell a story "at a moment's notice to a class for the last quarter of an hour on a wet Friday afternoon". Not read it, he insists-tell it. "If you're reading out of a book all the time, nothing changes. But if you tell it face to face, you improvise a bit, you play around..."
He set about this task in a typically deliberate way. In the first term, he decided, he would do the births and deaths of the gods and goddesses, their natures and deeds; in the second term he would do the origins of the Trojan war, which would segue into "The Iliad"; and in the third term, he would do "The Odyssey". He prepared each week's story thoroughly so he could tell it without notes. He was teaching three separate classes, which meant telling each episode three times in a week. Again, the maths is impressive. "I must have told each story 36 times."
It was a perfect apprenticeship, giving him "an unsupervised, unnoticed little area of ground" to cultivate his own talent and find out what kinds of stories he could tell. Others might be good at making people laugh; he wasn't particularly. "But I was good at doing exciting stuff that kept them listening." He was drawn to a world of "once upon a time", "meanwhile", and "suddenly", of hidden hands and knocks on the door, of dark, stormy nights, shadows and surprises, ogres and-time and again-orphans. He says he couldn't do the storytelling now. "I'd be sacked, I'd go to prison: "You're not fulfilling the requirements of the National Curriculum! Away with you!'"
At each school where he taught, Pullman wrote and produced the end-of-term plays, which enabled him to reach another captive audience: the parents. He treated the parents and children as one audience (he dislikes the business of throwing in sophisticated jokes for the grown-ups) and wrote for both age groups at the same time. "I got better at it. It's to do with taking your story seriously, laughing, yes, but never scoffing at it, always taking the story seriously."
His inspiration came from a family-run toy shop in Covent Garden. "I wanted costumes, I wanted colour and spectacle. My source for all this was toy theatre, those lovely little things that you can get from Pollocks. I've got the lot. I discovered them as a grown-up and fell in love with them." Some of his school plays became children's books: "Clockwork", "Count Karlstein" and "The Firework-Maker's Daughter". Go into a bookshop and Pullman can be found between Marcel Proust and Mario Puzo on the fiction shelves, and between Terry Pratchett and Arthur Ransome in the children's section. The only difference is the cover.
When Pullman got home from school in the evenings, his eldest son would be doing his music practice (he is now a professional viola player) and Pullman would go to his shed at the bottom of the garden. He is the most successful writer since Roald Dahl to have worked in a shed. "My real life began", he says, "when I came home from the job and sat at my table and wrote three pages for the day."
No one could accuse Pullman of under-researching his subject: the heroine of "His Dark Materials" is a 12-year-old tomboy called Lyra Belacqua, and Pullman spent 12 years teaching girls of this age. He taught at three schools in Oxford, one working-class, one middle-class, one in between. The working-class pupils, whose parents mostly worked at the car factories, were very direct and let him know immediately what they thought. The middle-class pupils, many of whose parents were dons, had subtler ways of expressing their disapproval. The three schools were diverse in socio-economic terms, but he discovered that within the classroom the same patterns of behaviour applied. There were certain roles that always had to be filled: the clown, the smelly one who no one wanted to sit next to, and the king and queen.
"If you work out quickly in the first couple of days who the king and queen are, and you direct all your attention to them in the first week or so, get them on your side, you won't have any discipline problems because everyone follows them. They don't follow you. They follow them."
The girls in particular fell into two groups. "There were the sophisticated ones who knew all the words to the pop songs and were aware of style and fashion. The most precocious of those had a boyfriend. They'd give themselves airs, they were café society, they were little Paris Hiltons. And there was another group. They weren't quite as grown-up as that and still liked little ponies and brought me presents and wrote [cards] with a big loop, even a heart-shape, over the letter i." He noticed that if a girl fell out of one group and joined the other, she instantly took on the attributes of the new group.
In the novels Pullman dramatises this shift from innocence to experience through the device of daemons. Everyone has a daemon or animal spirit: when you are young, the daemon keeps changing shape; as you get older your daemon settles into a constant form. The daemons are the single most brilliant idea in the books. Pullman got the idea from paintings by Leonardo da Vinci ("The Lady with the Ermine"), Holbein ("The Lady and the Squirrel") and Tiepolo ("Young Woman with a Macaw"), where there seems to be a psychological link between the person and the creature. Six years earlier, in his children's story "Spring-Heeled Jack", he prefigures this idea with a mournful moth who flutters around as the villain's conscience. The first four words of "His Dark Materials", "Lyra and her daemon...", are the four most important in the trilogy. Everything follows from that.
"I had been thinking about the central question, which is the innocence and experience business, and the transition which happens in adolescence, for a long time. I'd been teaching children of the same age as Lyra, children who were themselves going through this physical, intellectual and emotional change in their lives. The biggest change we ever go through really." Once, when I interviewed Pullman in front of a packed house at the National Theatre, he drew a big laugh when he explained what was so special about this age: "Your life begins when you are born, but your life story begins at that moment when you discover that you are in the wrong family."
The only time an author has any influence over a script, Pullman once told me, is when he sells the rights. He later refined this thought, telling another interviewer that you can't intervene in the early stages of film-making because it's like pushing at fog and you can't intervene in the later stages because you're pushing against a brick wall, but there is a stage in between when it's like pushing at a heavy wheeled object, so it's worth a try. Pullman has followed the making of "The Golden Compass" from a distance. The movie's first screenwriter Tom Stoppard came round for lunch. Pullman read various drafts, then Stoppard left the production, and the director Chris Weitz wrote new versions. Pullman read those and has written some bits himself. He was keen never to be officially employed by the film company: "It means I can tell them to bugger off."
I had first met Pullman in 2003 when writing "The Art of Darkness", a backstage account of the National Theatre production. He told me then: "I'm fundamentally a storyteller, not a literary person, if I can make that distinction. If I wrote a story that had enough vigour and life to pass into common currency and be recounted by people who had no idea that I was the author, nothing would give me greater pleasure."
On one point, however, he did express a firm opinion to the film-makers. "From a very early stage I was keen on promoting the idea of Mrs Coulter being played by Nicole Kidman." Mrs Coulter is the elegant, icy villainess, who adopts the heroine. One performance of Kidman's made him want her for the role: ""To Die For', where she plays the weather girl who's murderously working her way up the corporate ladder." Kidman has made one notable change to the character. "I'd described Mrs Coulter's hair as black. I was clearly wrong. You sometimes are wrong about your characters. She's blonde. She has to be." He is full of praise for Kidman's blonde incarnation (pictured below). "When she raises an eyebrow, the temperature in the room drops by ten degrees."
The fictional world that Pullman creates is dominated by a cruel and repressive church. The Reformation seems not to have taken place, and Jesus barely exists. Many people have taken offence at this portrait of the church. The Association of Christian Teachers urged its members to boycott the stage production. The Mail on Sunday described Pullman as "the most dangerous author in Britain". Most recently, the American-based Catholic League has called for a boycott of the film on the grounds that it "sells atheism to kids".
Is he expecting controversy? He pauses: "I am beset, not beset, that's too strong, I am attended by crazy people." The day before our interview he had given a reading at the Sheldonian Theatre as part of the Oxford Chamber Music Festival. There were 750 children from primary schools in the Oxford area listening to music and readings. A small boy from one of the schools was taken out "rather ostentatiously" before each of Pullman's readings and brought back in again when the reading was over. "Apparently his parents objected to his hearing anything of mine on the grounds that he might go to hell if he did."
Pullman says that people who are tempted to take offence should first see the film or read the books. "They'll find a story that attacks such things as cruelty, oppression, intolerance, unkindness, narrow-mindedness, and celebrates love, kindness, open-mindedness, tolerance, curiosity, human intelligence. It's very hard to disagree with those. But people will."
How will he respond to those attacks? "A soft answer turneth away wrath, as it says in my favourite book." (Proverbs 15:1.) So he won't argue back? "It's a foolish thing for the teller of a story to answer critics. If you're putting forward an argument, you can argue back and demonstrate why your argument is better than theirs. But if someone doesn't like a story you've written, what are you going to say? "Well, you should'?"
Two early moments were pivotal in turning Pullman into a writer. The first occurred in the mid-1950s, when he was nine. His father, an RAF pilot, had been killed in Kenya during the Mau Mau conflict. His mother remarried soon after, and the family sailed to Australia. It was here that Pullman first came across comics and drama serials on the radio: "Clancy of the Outback", "Dick Barton" and "The Adventures of Superman". Pullman "devoured" them. He "brooded" over them endlessly. After lights-out, he would tell stories of his own to his younger brother (his first captive audience), not knowing each night when he started a story, how it would end.
After Australia, the family settled in North Wales. Pullman found an inspirational English teacher at the local school who introduced him to "Paradise Lost". He says he wasn't responding along the lines of ""here's an interesting argument, yes, I agree with it.' I was moved physically, emotionally and intellectually by the language." He learnt "yards" of Milton. When he began writing "His Dark Materials" (the title itself comes from Milton), he realised after a while that he was telling the same story. "But I didn't think on the one hand, "Oh, bugger, I'm telling the same story', or, on the other hand, "Oh great, I can copy it.' I just realised that in his patch Milton had been working on the same thing. And a long time ago the original writer of the book of Genesis had been working on the same story."
Several times Pullman reminds me that a work of fiction is not an argument. Perhaps it's safest to say that in "His Dark Materials" he has constructed his own imaginative world so as not to submit to anyone else's. He likes to quote William Blake's line: "I must create a system, or be enslav'd by another man's." His story is a rival to the narratives put forward by two earlier Oxford writers, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and C.S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia". Pullman loathes the way the children in Narnia are killed in a car-crash. "I dislike his Narnia books because of the solution he offers to the great questions of human life: is there a God, what is the purpose, all that stuff, which he really does engage with pretty deeply, unlike Tolkien who doesn't touch it at all. "The Lord of the Rings' is essentially trivial. Narnia is essentially serious, though I don't like the answer Lewis comes up with. If I was doing it at all, I was arguing with Narnia. Tolkien is not worth arguing with."
Pullman clearly enjoys an argument; Bernard Shaw, after all, is one of his favourite authors. He draws the line at discussing issues with fundamentalists. "You can't communicate with people who know they've got all the answers." His measured, sometimes schoolmasterly demeanour, making nicely balanced rational points (that he has no doubt made before), masks a fierier, more combative nature. As he clears away our lunch in the kitchen-bowls of chicken Thai soup and a plate of whiffy cheese-he talks about a flashy young tv director who fouled up an adaptation of one of his stories. As Pullman offers up one example after another of the director's cluelessness, his hands clasp the table and his face reddens: he is vehement in his disdain.
For Pullman, there's a morality to good craftsmanship. As a young man he wrote verse and studied every kind of poetic metre he could--rondeaus, villanelles, sonnets and sestinas, the more complicated the better. He believes that if you can recognise rhythm and cadence in poetry, then you can do so in prose. It's not hard to see him extending the principle of good craftsmanship more generally. A bad politician is one who reaches beyond his or her capabilities, who doesn't understand how societies are constructed, and who screws things up.
After the soup and cheese, he returns to his armchair in the study and his anger mounts again, when our discussion about climate change ("without question the biggest issue of our time"), leads to the war on terror and Iraq. He says that George Bush is "a moral criminal", and Tony Blair has "a great deal to be apologetic for. Not that he ever will [apologise]. Armoured with his self-righteousness, he will never admit, even to himself, that [the Iraq war] was a ghastly mistake. A terrible, terrible error." Pullman has particular contempt for the sloganeering. He says "the war on terror" is "an utterly stupid phrase. Utterly, ridiculously foolish phrase. No one should ever have used it. Certainly no British politician should ever have repeated it."
Pullman prefers to get involved in politics on a local level, joining the campaign to save a local boatyard from misguided development. In his study there's a model of a wooden boat he's constructing. As a craftsman, he pointed out to me, he is a joiner (not a carpenter); as a citizen, he rarely joins anything. "I'm not an activist," he says, "I'm a passive-ist." But he's increasingly besieged by his admirers, receiving countless invitations "to open a conference, speak at a festival, dedicate a library, write an article, join a campaign".
Most troubling of all is the scale of the fan-mail. He gets hundreds of e-mails and letters. "It's a great source of..." He is momentarily lost for words. "It makes you sigh. Either you ignore these letters and feel bad about it and guilty about it or you take the time and trouble to answer them. And then you regret the time you're not spending on your work." He used to reply to them all. Some writers have piles of unopened letters in the corner of their study, but he worries about finding himself at the other end of the spectrum. "The other way to deal with it was Margaret Mitchell, who wrote "Gone With The Wind". She spent the rest of her life answering letters."
Pullman's grandfather was an Anglican vicar, who could also take the smallest incident and turn it into a story. Was there a time when Pullman believed his grandfather's stories about God?
"When I was a small boy, I believed implicitly everything my grandfather told me. He was grandpa. He knew."
Does he feel a sense of loss now?
Or sense of absence?
"Loss because there's something gone that I used to believe? I really don't think so. I think it's a gain. It's a gain of a wider perspective. It would be like saying do you feel rather sad that we know the Earth's not flat any more? No, actually, I feel rather better knowing the Earth's round. It's more interesting."
Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life
Portraits by Jillian Edelstein