Master storyteller, uneasy atheist
In most of his books, Philip Pullman broaches religious themes, but his latest, in which he retells the life of Jesus is a more forthright criticism of organised religion, he tells FIONA McCANN
PHILIP PULLMAN answers the door of his village farmhouse in Oxfordshire wearing a beige cardigan and rimless spectacles. Ushering me inside with avuncular attention, he furnishes me with a cup of tea and later a plate of biscuits as we settle before a white stone fireplace over which hangs a didgeridoo. Two ancient, wrinkle-faced pugs sniff affectionately around his feet. So this is the “wicked” man on a sure road to hell, at least if detractors offended by his latest book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, are to believed. Who knew the devil would come clad in a cardigan? Yet Pullman, best known for his best-selling children’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, is unapologetic about his new book, despite the letters he has received denouncing it.
“This is my religion. I was brought up in it. I know the stories very well. I was surrounded with it as a child,” he says. “I have every right to tell this story because it belongs to me as much as it belongs to the Pope.”
In his new retelling, Jesus is born with a twin brother, the quieter, less charismatic Christ, who shadows his visionary, radical twin until he is drawn into a plot to bring about Jesus’s demise. “I was thinking just about the name Jesus Christ: what do we mean by this? Two very different ideas are yoked together in that name, and I wanted to prise them apart and see what it was like to dramatise the difference between them,” says Pullman. “If you look at the New Testament, as I did quite closely during the preparation for this book, I find it interesting to see that the man is called Jesus throughout the gospels, but Christ almost entirely throughout St Paul’s Epistles. It’s very much a before and after.”
Emblazoned on the book’s cover, lest there be any doubt, are the words “This is a story.” Yet how much of what this book contains represents the beliefs of a man once described by the New Yorkermagazine as one of England’s most outspoken atheists? “[With the title] I’m putting my cards on the table.” In his exploration of the difference between a Jesus who is eager to bring about a better world and a Christ who is afraid his brother’s legacy will not be understood by the masses unless it is given the right spin, Pullman makes it clear where his favour lies. “It is a pretty scoundrely role that the Christ in this book plays.” Yet if Christ is the scoundrel, he’s also the storyteller, enjoined to record not what actually happened in his brother’s life, but what he believes should have happened.
It’s on the subject of this notion of a “bigger” truth that the kindly uncle disappears, and Pullman’s anger surfaces. “When anybody tells you that what you know is not really true because there is a bigger truth, they’re lying.” Pullman’s feelings about organised religion have been voiced before, and though he was raised in the Church of England, he has publicly stated that he no longer believes in God. Has he then left the church of his youth? “I was baptised, I was confirmed, I was a pious youth. But it didn’t work for me any more,” he says, though he is intrigued to hear of the thousands in Ireland who have been using websites such as countmeout.ie to defect from the Catholic Church. “Can you do that voluntarily? I didn’t know that. I thought you had to do something wicked and then they kicked you out.” With the Church of England, he says, “you just stop going and they forget about you. It’s very simple.”
Yet he will not go so far as to reject it either. “I don’t believe in it any more. I haven’t rejected it because I still respond to the stories, I still respond emotionally and imaginatively to the myths.” And he still grapples with religious themes in much of his work.
“ His Dark Materialsis the Old Testament book, if you like, which comes straight out of Genesis,” he says, drawing a neat line between the acclaimed trilogy and his newest work. “This is my New Testament book.” As a story that came straight out of Genesis, where women first fell out of biblical favour, the choice of a female protagonist in His Dark Materialsseems pointed. “I didn’t make her female,” counters Pullman simply. “She just came to me like that. I can’t change [the characters]. I can’t say ‘Now here I need a strong female character, so I’ll make her like this.’ That’s not how characters come to me. They come to me entire and complete and I get to know them as I would get to know a real person.”
FOR ALL HIS leanings towards logic, Pullman’s description of the creative process is not without its magic. “A glib answer I often give, when people ask ‘where do you get your ideas from?’, is to say I don’t know where they come from but I know where they come to. They come to my desk and if I’m not there they go away again. So I sit at my desk being prepared to be very bored and very fed up for a very long time.”
His boredom has yielded more than 20 books, though he is still best known for His Dark Materials,the success of which, while welcome, has had its disadvantages. “It didn’t affect the way I write, or my cast of mind as I sit down to write, or my need to write, or any of those things: all it did was take up time. It takes me two days a week now to answer letters, and most of them I’m just saying ‘No, I can’t.’” Behind us, a table strewn with documents, on which stands a box of cards readied for Pullman’s polite refusals, bear witness to this state of affairs.
Still, Pullman finds time to write – he is currently working on a sequel to His Dark Materials,called The Book of Dust– perhaps because he always knew that’s what he would do. “There was never the slightest doubt in my mind from the very earliest time I was aware that there were things called books and they had people called writers who wrote them. That’s what I wanted to do.” He did not, however, set out to become a children’s writer. Yet years as a schoolteacher taught him how to engage a young audience. “I learned what I was good at, how I could time a story so as to make them keen to listen and get to the exciting bit just as the bell went, and I learned what I couldn’t do. Whenever I tried to put a funny bit in, it didn’t work. I can’t tell funny stories, but I can do exciting stories and I can make them want to know what’s going to happen next.” As a teacher, he used to put on plays with his students at the end of each year, a time he recalls with evident fondness, and some wistfulness about strict curriculums and political correctness that hamper teachers nowadays.
Some of these plays were later developed into his early books, including Count Karlsteinand The Ruby in the Smoke, the first of the Sally Lockhart series. Since then there have been many more, and though he is reluctant to pick a favourite, he will say that his “best books are the fairytales, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Clockwork, I Was a Ratand The Scarecrow and his Servant. I think they’re my best books. They are simple and straightforward in the way I wanted them to be, which is the most difficult thing.”
The interview nearing an end, I ask to see the place where the ideas come, but Pullman’s current writing room is out of bounds. He will, however, show me the room where he used to write – until, he says, his tools got in the way. He opens the door to a room I half-expect to see crowded with his characters. Instead, it has been colonised by books. They cling to the walls, and pile in precarious towers on the floor, sharing space with an assortment of work tools, several guitars and a beautiful, wooden rocking horse. The tools, he explains, were used to build the horse, which he carved from ash and poplar. It trains a bright black painted eye on me, as if to remind me that Pullman’s creativity extends far beyond the printed page.
Songwriter, teacher, guitarist, carpenter, husband, father, one of Britain’s greatest living writers or the devil incarnate: Pullman is a man of many hats. Yet by his own description, he is – scoundrel or no – a storyteller.
“I still think of myself as a storyteller in the marketplace. Anybody who wants to stop and listen to a story of mine is welcome, no matter how old they are, whether they’re a man or woman, whether they’re black or white, whether they’re human or animal. If a dog wants to stop and listen to me, welcome.”
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christis published by Canongate (£14.99)
Philip Pullman appears in conversation with Fintan O’Toole at Trinity College’s Edmund Burke Theatre on April 17th, in association with the Dublin Writers’ Festival