Sunday, 18 October 2015

Philip Pullman at the Durham Book Festival - on Northern Lights, fairy tales and his hatred of CS Lewis and Tolkien

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'Northern Lights' came out when I was about ten, and it was my first ever book obsession. I've read the trilogy several times, and every time I've got a little more out of them. 

Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching Philip Pullman being interviewed as part of the wonderful Durham Book Festival. I've written up an overview of the discussion below. Apologies for anything that I've paraphrased horribly, as I've put this together from notes typed on my phone!

Very early on, Pullman made it very clear that it he doesn't think an author should tell the reader what to think. When writing, he is the dictator or tyrant of his world, and has powers of life and death over it. This becomes a democracy when the book is made, because you can take what you like from it.

I really enjoyed hearing about Pullman's literary influences. He's obviously stupendously well-read, and discussed his physical reaction to reading Milton as a teenager. Both Paradise Lost and Northern lights are about the coming of experience into the world of innocence. This is also a subject that William Blake deals with, the idea that your life story begins when you realise you were born into the wrong family (Pullman's words!) Pullman not only read aloud the Milton quote from Northern Lights, but could recite chunks of Milton from memory! Amazing.

An amazing experience was when I realised that even Philip Pullman has struggled over his writing. He redrafted the beginning of Northern Lights many times before writing the words 'Lyra and her daemon'. I loved the idea that this revelation surprised him, and he had to read his own writing back to work out what a daemon was. When asked what his daemon would be, he said it would be some kind of bird that steals things (because that's what authors do!)

At two points Pullman read aloud from 'His Dark Materials' (the scene in 'Northern Lights' where Lord Asriel shows the photograph of dust, and the one in 'The Subtle Knife' where Lyra and Will meet). His readings were absolutely mesmerising, and I'd highly recommend watching if they ever turn up on Youtube.

Philip Pullman's relationship with religion has been discussed at length in the media. The way he explained it was really interesting; that he has no argument with the big problems and answers brought up by religion, but only takes issue when religious people get political power. He was brought up as a Christian and it formed his mind, so he writes about Christianity because he knows it.

I was also really interested in Philip Pullman's take on fairy tales. Because fairy tales weren't written, there is little development of the character and settings, or use of dialogue. The characters have no psychology, and just act rather than thinking about things. He loves the power of simple and uncluttered stories, and has written a version of Grimms' Fairytales that I will definitely check out!

A particularly humorous moment was when Philip Pullman mentioned that his great regret is that CS Lewis died 'before he could have a go at him, and I'm ruder about Tolkien' (paraphrased). Pullman described his problem with Tolkien is that there are few women and no hints of sexuality. He also hated the ending of the Chronicles of Narnia, and felt that it betrayed the characters and readers. He disliked the treatment of Susan in the books, because she was kept out of Narnia for growing up in a normal, healthy way!

My final revelation - Philip Pullman is writing a new book set in the same universe! How didn't I know this? 'The Book of Dust' will apparently feature Lyra and other characters from the series, but is neither a prequel nor a sequel (if I remember that right - I was very busy freaking out at the time!)

I hope you enjoyed my fangirl ramblings! If anyone reading this hasn't yet discovered 'His Dark Materials', you should do so immediately and thank me later.

I'll leave you with a picture of the book signing at the end of the event. Although you can't see my face very well, you might notice the expression of giddy excitement...

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