Skepticism

Hilarious Philip Pullman Interview

I’m not mad keen on Philip Pullman, I find the His Dark Materials trilogy a bit dull, although I appreciate I’m probably in the minority there. However, today the BBC published an interview with him in which the public pose the questions, and Pullman answers. At first, he seems to be as dull as suspected. Duller, even. His answers are terse and bored and patronising. But as I read on I realised that what seems to be the worst interview ever is actually genius. By the end, I was laughing out loud. I don’t know if he did it on purpose, and it doesn’t really matter. Pullman has gone up in my estimation. Here are the highlights of the piece:

Did you ever expect His Dark Materials to become so popular, as well as such a controversial subject?

Never!

Are you still writing The Book of Dust? Can you give us a little more insight about it?

Not yet. I never show anyone work in progress.

Would you consider writing a story for Doctor Who’s time and space adventures?

No. I write the things I want to write, not things someone else asks me to.

I just read The Broken Bridge and loved it! I was wondering, how do you write from the point of view of characters that are so different from you (half-Haitian teenage girl)?

Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the story. As for how I wrote it, it’s a matter of imagination. You imagine what it would be like to be someone else, and then you write about it.

That last answer killed me. It’s like someone asking Phillip Seymour Hoffman how he went about playing the role of Truman Capote, and him replying “I pretended I was him”.

Full interview is here.

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27 Comments

  1. Do you consider it offensive that Christian groups challenge you that your books contain anti-Christian sentiment?
    Martin, London

    No. I simply think how dull their lives must be, to find something so harmless such a threat.

    Heee!

  2. Fun stuff, thanks for the link. I think this was my favorite Q/A:

    I read the Dark Materials trilogy and actually found it to affirm my own beliefs in God while being critical of church organisation. Is a reader allowed to have a Christian/religious reading of a text that is supposed to be atheistic?
    Ian Gilbert, Antwerp, Belgium

    Good grief. Where do these ideas come from? “A text that is supposed to be atheistic” – who says it’s supposed to be atheistic? Not me. And as for being allowed or not to read it in a supposedly unauthorised way – I am a devout believer in the complete democracy of text. It sounds to me as if you think reading is surrounded by rules and prohibitions and commands. It isn’t! Not a bit of it! Once a book is in your hands, ITS INTERPRETATION BELONGS TO YOU. You can read it in any way you like, and take away any meaning that makes sense to you. That’s the great freedom of reading.

    Of course, if you want to persuade someone else that your reading is a good one, you have to do the usual literary-critical things like finding evidence in the text, like looking for patterns of imagery or influence that support what you claim the book is saying, and so on. But the idea that the author is sternly watching every single reader to make sure that they’re reading in the RIGHT WAY belongs to some nightmare of authoritarian mind-control. Reading is a democracy!

    I love that sentiment. “Reading is a democracy!”

  3. I was very disappointed when I read the first of this “wonderful trilogy that was going to be bigger than Lord of the Rings!”

    I found it dull and the characters totally contrived. But this is only my OPINION.Yeeesh.

    I felt I had to highlight the opinion bit, because I have been attacked by so many Pullman lovers, for daring to say that I didn’t like it…

    After reading the interview, at least now I know why I dislike the book so…

    Which is odd for me. I am normally very forgiving of the faults in books.

  4. @Rats Acre: Oh don’t tell me that, I just bought the hardcover set to read over Christmas break. :) Hopefully if it’s not that good I’ll have cognitive dissonance on my side to make it seem better – “I wouldn’t have spent money on a substandard book, so it must be good!”

  5. @Rats Acre: I intended to read the whole trilogy, but couldn’t make it past the first book. I thought the character development was awful and found myself skipping bits of text just to be able to make it to the end. I NEVER do that!

    If it was intended partially to serve as an “answer” to the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, then I think it failed utterly at the task. Despite their flaws, those are good stories that have passed the test of time.

    In his defense, I absolutely love some of Pullman’s other stories. Some of his stuff for younger kids is quite good!

  6. @Kimbo Jones: It was better than people think. Here’s the thing… you read Narnia for the first time as a kid. You’re reading Pullman for the first time as an adult. Pullman is better written, more complex, and so on… but you are WAY more sophisticated. So it seems contrived in comparison. Don’t expect it to be a grown up book. It’s YA fiction, just deal. And the first book is actually the worst, so soldier on.

  7. I read this series and liked it well enough. Then I listened to the audio book and caught a lot more nuances for some reason. I absolutely loved it the second time around. I suspect I fell victim to skipping ahead when I read it but in audio I was forced to listen to the whole thing and I got a lot more out of it.

    I did the same with Lord of the Rings. Couldn’t get through it in text but in audio, it was excellent.

  8. @Masala Skeptic: I think Pullman’s trilogy lends itself to skipping, particularly the first book. I keep meaning to reread it at some point because whenever I talk with people about it, I realize there’s some huge bit I’ve already forgotten or apparently skipped.

    I’ll never blame anyone for not being able to get through LotR, as much as I love it. I reread it around Christmas every year (need to do that soon) and I always seem to find something I’d forgotten when I reread it. (I also reread the Silmarillion about once every five years, which may indicate I have a problem. :))

    I’m always curious which of the LotR books trip up people. Most people seem to get bogged down in tree description in the early part of Fellowship, but I know a lot of people who had more trouble with The Two Towers.

  9. @sethmanapio: I read Narnia as an adult too (2 Christmases ago, last Christmas was Harry Potter), so maybe those will have prepped me. Narnia’s book 7 was trash either way (I don’t know in what universe where what happened is supposed to be a good thing, but it’s not a sane one).

    I read so many academic and non-fiction books during the year, that at Christmas vacation I like to sit down with something much lighter that I can just zoom right through. Usually it’s relaxing, but Narnia book 7 made me stabby.

    @Jason W: Yeah, if I had to read any more 2-page-long descriptions of trees… I just recently started rereading it and switched it up for Death from the Skies. :) I’ll get back to it eventually.

  10. I think I will avoid reading anything in the future that I see compared to The Lord of the Rings. It’s always a disappointment.

    It’s an expectations thing, and some books that I might otherwise enjoy seem bad because my expectations have been raised so much.

    Narnia was a big yawn for me. “Really? That’s it? How shallow.”

    I listened to the His Dark Materials books from audible and I thought it was okay – but just okay. I think it definitely benefited from the care taken in producing the audio version, which was very well done. I think I would have liked it more if I wasn’t expecting it to be excellent.

    I am a Hedge

  11. @Kimbo Jones: You think Narnia’s seventh book was bad? Try Lewis’s Space Trilogy. The first and last books are pretty good stories, and relatively restrained, but the second book, Perelandra, is really one long religious argument between the good guy, Ransom, and the bad guy, Weston (possessed by what is essentially the Devil).

    SPOILERS: The arguments are presented to the Eve figure of the planet Venus, with Weston trying to make her disobey the God-figure of the novels and thus bring about a Fall, and Ransom trying to convince her to continue obeying. Eventually, Ransom realizes that he needs to sleep, while the supernaturally-charged Weston does not, and that his logical and emotional arguments somehow keep falling short of Weston’s, so he decides the proper course of action is to bash Weston’s face in with a rock. And this is quite distinctly presented as the correct choice.

    So there you go: if someone else has a better argument than you, brutally murder them. I can’t even begin to say how appalling I found the message of this book.

    On topic, I plan on picking up His Dark Materials from the library once I clear out some of my backlogged reading. So, in another few years.

  12. I somehow managed to read the entire HDM trilogy right before the big Christian bruhaha over the movie started and I was absolutely in LOVE with it. Still am. I do remember thinking as I was reading it, “Wow, they’re declaring war on God? Geez, how are they going to spin that back on its head?” Took me well into the third book before I realized, “Whoa crap, no they’re actually trying to kill God.”

    I may have to read the series again in light of all the literary criticism of the story because I thought the series was truly spellbinding through and through. The third book in particular had two of the most moving, gut-wrenching scenes I’ve ever read in any book ever… of course the third book does also devolve a couple of times into a blatant “Christianity is bad” rant which mimicks the worst aspects of most Christian fiction, namely stopping your story in order to preach.

  13. @Expatria: It’s really the entire Leviticus-like chapter that boils down to “And this elf prince claimed this set of hills for his kingdom as he liked hills, and this elf prince claimed these plains because there were horses there, and he was fond of horses” that makes up a big middle chunk of the book that always throws me.

    I really like the first part of the book; it’s a much more satisfying creation myth than most I’ve been exposed to. And, you know, there’s fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…

  14. See, I’d heard lots of people complain that the end of the third book went off into “stop the narrative and bash Christianity” mode, but when I got to it. . . I didn’t find it so shocking. We find out in the first book that the bad guys are Calvinist Catholics with a history of employing their power of thumbscrew. Does it really get worse than that? Perhaps in degree, but not in kind.

    I think the story of Mary Malone’s deconversion was an allusion to Proust, except with marjoram instead of a madeleine.

    When all’s said and done, I enjoyed the first book rather more than the latter two, but mostly because it seemed more tightly plotted, as if more care went into its planning. Pullman had some great ideas in the second two thirds of the trilogy, but the structure in which they were arranged seemed a bit too. . . spongy, I guess. Specters? Gay angels? Changing the very nature of the afterlife? All fantastic. The plot in which they occur? Not so tightly woven.

  15. I do agree with Blake. The third one did kind of devolve into a kind of, “I’m making it up as I go along,” plotline where you kind of went, “Okay wait, where did THAT come from?” Personally I liked the second book the best overall.

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