Philip Pullman is a writer of exceptional imaginative ability. An author of over twenty books, he dwells in that rare domain of being loved and revered by both children and adults. Best known for his trilogy, His Dark Materials – in which humans have visible, external souls, armoured polar bears carry children through the snow, and witches take human lovers – Pullman’s books are artful, intelligent and unflinching in their depiction of the more brutal realities of life. They are also tendentious: in 2009 His Dark Materials was listed as the second most banned book in America.
Religious controversy seems to have spurred rather than hindered Pullman: in March 2010 (released here in May) The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman’s first book for adults, was launched. The novel is a retelling of the Christian story in which Mary gives birth to twins: the calm, loving Jesus, and his introspective, scheming brother Christ. By dividing the figure of Jesus Christ into two distinct characters, Pullman represents the dichotomous nature of the mythologised messiah.
Kill Your Darlings recently chatted with Philip Pullman about The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, the enduring power and consequences of storytelling, the place of religion in today’s society, and whether art can make the world a better place.
– Hannah Kent
KYD: Congratulations on the publication of The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ, Philip. Shall we begin with talking a little bit about how the idea evolved?
Philip Pullman: Well, I’d been thinking about religion, and thinking about Jesus and thinking about God – I’ve been thinking about these things for a very long time now. Occasionally, I’d say something about it in my writing, as I did in The Amber Spyglass, where I talked about the effects of organised religion. It hadn’t occurred to me to write about Jesus specifically until the Archbishop of Canterbury and I had a conversation at the National Theatre, about seven years ago. He pointed out that, despite saying a lot of things about religion, I’d said nothing about Jesus, and why was this? I thought: That’s a good question. I better think about a book in which Jesus has more than a walk-on part. So I had had that running at the back of my head for a while, and in another separate saucepan at the back of my head – if I can continue this metaphor – I had the publisher at Canongate suggest I write a myth for their Myths Series. These two separate ideas were bubbling away, then one day it occurred to me to combine them and to write about the myth of Jesus. I started reading the New Testament quite intensely, obviously, but also some biblical history, and some theological and archaeological works and that sort of thing, until finally I thought of the story. Which was, of course, the split character of Jesus Christ, and its two component parts and the idea to dramatise the difference.
How long did the book take you to write? Did you find that after the germination of these ideas you could write rather quickly, or was it a reflexive process: writing some, then returning to the books, then continuing?
No. Once I’d done the research I put it to one side, because you have to let your imagination work on the material. When that happens the actual writing doesn’t take very long. But the process of thinking about it and ruminating about it and making notes is part of the creative process, of course. You have to factor that in. So, all in all, it took years, but from the first word I wrote to the last, it was about a month.
I was interested in what you consider your novel to be exactly. Would you consider it an interpretation of the New Testament? Or perhaps a parody? Even a rebuttal?
No, I don’t think it’s any of those things. I think it’s probably more a fable than anything else. The reader knows (and the writer knows) that this Christ is an invention, whereas the Jesus in the story is probably not an invention. I mean, he’s probably a real historical character. Probably born roughly at the time that we say he was born, and probably executed in Iran by the Romans for political reasons. So we have two central figures – one fictional, one fact – and when you put the two figures together in the way that I’ve done, it can only be a fable.
I’m not expecting people to believe this, or to think that I’m putting it forward as a serious alternative to the Gospel or any nonsense like that. This is a story, primarily, about how stories become stories. I have a fictional character intruding upon the story of a real character, in order to point out that what we know about the real character can only be through the medium of story, and that those stories are themselves partial, and edited and altered – by the author, by time, by history, by copiers, by the mistakes of copiers… All these things intrude on the pristine fact and are, as it were, refracted through storytelling so that it looks different from the real one and the stories look different from each other. The colour green looks different from the colour red, although they both come from the original white light before it’s gone through a prism.
That’s a very good way of putting it.
I just thought of that on the spur of the moment!
Hold on to that one.
[Laughs] I’ll use it again.
Towards the end of The Good Man Jesus, the stranger who visits Christ says: ‘People will leap to the most lurid meaning they can find, even if it’s one the author never intended.’ I think this could possibly be applied to the reception of your work. What sort of responses have you started receiving?
Well, the response from the dim-witted Christian Right is completely predictable. They believe that the Bible is literally true, and they think that anybody who is writing anything must, in turn, mean that to be literally true as well, because they don’t understand analogy, implication and metaphor, and all the things that make a literary work into a literary work. They’ve criticised me for writing something like this even before they’ve read it.
The response to the book has ranged from, ‘This is a very poor imitation of something that is beyond imitation’, to the other extreme. The reception from clerics has been interesting; the archbishop himself, Archbishop Rowan Williams, and Bishop Richard Holloway writing in The Observer, and someone who’s not a cleric but a great scholar of Christianity, David McCulloch – they all understood what I was getting at. But then ask any author about the reception of their book and they’ll… [laughs]. The most intelligent responses, of course, are from those who like it.
I just read today that at some of the recent literary events you’ve attended, you’ve had to actually have security…
Oh, that’s an exaggeration! That only happened once, at the Oxford Literary Festival, where I launched the book, and that only happened because I had had so many letters accusing me of blasphemy that the organisers thought that it was possible the event would be interrupted by people standing up and shouting and denouncing me. But there were no actual threats; nobody thought I was in danger. It was just a certain amount of stewarding taking place at the event, so that if anybody did stand up and shout and disrupt the event, they could be quietly encouraged to leave. There weren’t any bodyguards.
I’m glad to hear it. You’re obviously very well known as an author who has a profound dislike of organised religion, and you’ve said before that you shall never like God. What role did Christianity play in your own upbringing?
Oh, a very large one. That is why I can write about it. I can’t write about Islam – very important as it is as a subject – because I don’t know anything about it and I’ve never experienced it. It’s never engaged my imagination or emotions, whereas Christianity has. That was the cultural medium in which I was brought up. I still measure my life by means of the Christian year, the old liturgical year. I spent a lot of time, when I was a boy, in my grandfather’s household. He was a clergyman of a little parish in Norfolk. I remember his church very well, I remember his sermons. Everything about my childhood was rich with Christian references, not only from the New Testament, but from the Old Testament, too. The story of David and Goliath, the story of Samson, Adam and Eve – the whole Bible from beginning to end was part of what made me what I am. I recently heard the phrase ‘Cultural Christian’, and I think that’s what I am. I mean, if I’m in an art gallery and I see a painting of a religious scene, I know what it’s about. I can simply say: ‘Oh, that’s Saint Peter, or that’s Saint Catherine, or this is the story of Samson and Delilah.’ I know the stories so well.
Do you feel that if Christianity and its stories hadn’t had such a strong place in your life that you would not have had the authority to write The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ?
I think that’s right, I probably wouldn’t. But I wouldn’t have wanted to. One thing I was conscious of when I was writing it – and I’m conscious now as it’s going out to the world – is that the majority of people who read it probably won’t be as familiar with those stories as I am, and I wonder how much they’re missing. What I hope – I really do hope this quite strongly – is that people read the book and find it interesting and turn to the Bible to read the gospels for themselves. They would be surprised, I think, by what they find. I thought I knew the story pretty well before I began my concentrated reading for the book, but I was struck afresh by how different the gospels are from one another, how they tell the story in ways that are very distinctive. When you’re a child, you tend to imagine that the story of Jesus’ life took place in the same order that it comes to you in the year. He was born at Christmas time, and the birth involved a stable and an ox and an ass, and there were some shepherds and some wise men with colourful costumes. There was a little donkey there, too, and lots of snow, and the stars were shining bright and all that sort of thing. Then a few months go by and he’s betrayed and crucified, and three days later he’s resurrected and we have Easter eggs and daffodils and little lambs all over the place. He also went about the place healing people and telling stories, and that’s all you remember. Even as someone as saturated, as steeped in Christianity as I am, that’s more or less all the idea you have of him. That is until you actually read the gospels, and see all kinds of contradictions between them, and inconsistencies, and differences, and gaps, and lacunae. The difference in tone, for example, in the accounts of the crucifixion. In Mark, it’s very, very there; it’s stark, and it ends with this great cry: ‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’ That’s all that Jesus says when he’s on the cross. In Luke, it’s very different; Jesus on the cross didn’t say that at all. He says: ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And he says to the good thief: ‘Tonight you will be with us in paradise.’ He’s not anguished at all; he’s calm – it’s blessings all round. It’s a very different account. They can’t both be true, and this is my point.
One of my immediate reactions when I was reading the book was to go back and read the gospels.
Oh good! I’m glad that happened.
I often wanted to do that during the retelling of the parables in The Good Man. For instance, the story of the loaves and fish. I was intrigued by the way you kept the gist of the stories yet altered them, sometimes quite significantly. Why did you do this?
Well, for some of the stories I haven’t changed the events, I’ve simply changed the interpretation. Like the stories of healing, for example. In other stories – especially with the parable of the five wise and the five foolish virgins – I’ve changed the story quite significantly. I changed the account of the five foolish virgins simply because I cannot believe that the Jesus who on one occasion taught selflessness and not concerning yourself with tomorrow, could on another occasion praise these rather mean and greedy little virgins who didn’t give their oil to anybody else; praise them for looking ahead and being so prudent. That’s a Thatcherite vision that the first Jesus would have condemned utterly. I can’t believe they both came from the same mouth. So, I’ve changed the story of the girls with the oil to make it rather closer to what I believe Jesus would have said.
I remember that story; your retelling was particularly striking. Many people wouldn’t even question these accounts.
Yes, you need to know the story first to think, ‘Oh no, that’s not how I remember it. Did it say that? I must go to my Bible and look it up.’ This is my point about people not knowing the Bible as well as they used to. I worry about the younger generations, you see. I don’t think that children who are at school now will encounter these stories. They don’t form part of the world we now grow up in.
Do you think that children should read the Bible?
Yes. I think they should be helped to read the Bible by people who know it well. I also think they should have to read the stories of the Greek myths, and myths from other nations and cultures. I think these myths are part of our common cultural heritage, and that every child should be part of it. But I think they should encounter them not as things to be believed literally, but as stories to be enjoyed. I’m convinced of that.
Do you hope that children will read The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ?
No, I don’t know if they will. It’s not a children’s book. It’s not published as a children’s book. One of my most persistent critics in the UK said that… I can’t remember it exactly, but the gist of it was that as a writer for children I shouldn’t be allowed to write books like this because children will read them and be misled by them.
My view of audience has always been that I don’t say who my audience is. I don’t mind who my audience is. I’m very grateful to have an audience at all. It’s an act of extraordinary presumption on the part of a writer to say… [laughs] Well, I just said, ‘this is not a children’s book’, but it’s actually not for me to say. All I do is tell a story. I have this romantic idea of the novelist, or the writer, or the storyteller – it’s like an open marketplace, and there’s all sorts of things going on: there are people behind stalls, there’s a juggler over there, there’s a busker, a pickpocket going through… I am telling a story. Anyone who wants to stop and listen is welcome. The larger the audience I have, the more pleased I am. And if they want to stay to the end, put a few pennies in the hat, that’s good and I can live another day. That’s the view I have of my audience. My idea is to win an audience by beguiling them, not by forcing their attention.
You have often said that you are just a storyteller, but the same could have been said of Jesus and his apostles. Do you think there is such a thing as just as a storyteller?
I’m not sure if I can be compared to Jesus, because he did, after all, heal people, and I haven’t tried that one yet [laughs]. But he was a great storyteller. There’s no doubt about that. One of the greatest the world has ever known. Anybody who hears the story of the Good Samaritan has only got to hear it once and they’ll never forget it. They’ll remember the story of the man who helped a person from another tribe, when the people from his tribe didn’t help him. A great, great story. Jesus was a great maker of images, too. The idea of trying to get the speck out of your neighbour’s eye when you’ve got a great plank stuck in your own – that’s a fabulous image. It’s so bizarre, so funny that you can’t help but remember it for the rest of your life. He took his stories from everyday physical experiences of work. He used that physical memory and made such brilliant moral images out of it. The man was a genius. There’s no doubt about it. And it’s a terrible pity, a ghastly, ghastly pity that he was killed when he was. I wish he’d lived for another eighty years and gone on telling wonderful stories. I wish he’d written a book.
One of my tests – one of the questions I like to put to Christians – is this: I’d like them to imagine that they can go back to that week in Jerusalem before the betrayal, before the execution, and they can watch Jesus go about his work, telling stories and arguing with the Philistines, and throwing the money changers out of the temple and all that. They can feel danger gathering around him, and they can see the Romans taking notice of this troublemaker, and they know what’s coming; they know what’s going to happen. But they have, in their power, a magic gift. They can, by only touching Jesus’ hand, transport him at once to another place where he’ll be safe. Would they do this, or wouldn’t they? Would they save him from crucifixion, or would they let him be crucified? That’s a question I’d like Christians to think about.
Have you received any answers?
Well, people are unsure of what to say about this. I imagine that the princes of the church, the great priests, the popes, the preachers, the powerful cardinals, the crowds of multi-billion television churches in America, I imagine them having this power and seeing him, and thinking: ‘Well the Church is very important. It’s important for the Church that he should die. I’m not going to help him.’ But I don’t know. The response I would give if you could save him and didn’t, would be: ‘Doesn’t that make you complicit with Judas? What’s the difference between you and Judas?’
That’s one of the fascinating things about this book. Before I read it, I was intrigued to see how you would treat the figure of Jesus. What struck me throughout was your great admiration for the man Jesus, and your empathy for him. What is conveyed, in terms of a more negative attitude, is your opinion on organised religion and the Church, which is represented explicitly by the Christ figure.
Do you believe that there are ways to honour the religious impulse of human beings, our need to question the mystery and purpose of our existence or to publicly express gratitude for life through formal ceremony? Can we honour this religious impulse without organised religion?
Oh, I’m sure there is. And each individual must find it for himself. I think it is a matter of individual discovery, individual expression. I mean, the way I do it is to write the books I write. I think there’s indeed a religious impulse, as you put it very well, and those particular questions are part of it. The religious impulse is a naturally occurring human phenomenon. It’s part of what we are.
I’m a great admirer of Richard Dawkins, but I think he’s wrong about his basic attitudes to religion. His attitude to religion seems to be that it’s wrong because it tells untruths, and the people who believe in it are believing a lie. Well, as a novelist, I’m in the lying business. I spend my time concocting untruths and persuading people to believe in them for a while. So, the fact that people are believing something untrue doesn’t worry me. What worries me about religion is the power it has when it gains money, when it gains political influence, when it gets its hands on powerful leaders. So I’m with the dissenters, if you like. I’m with the Quakers, I’m with the people who stand out and away from organised churches. But the religious impulse is part of what we are and it always has been. From the very earliest human remains we have seemed to be involved with ceremonial burials and beliefs in an afterlife, a sense that there is a power bigger than us, and we are in awe of it, and it’s deserving of attention and respect: these are human things. And I am a religious person. I don’t believe in God, the Church does, but that’s neither here nor there.
You mention Richard Dawkins, and we ought to mention Christopher Hitchens. These writers, like yourself, are outspoken atheists and have been producing work that directly contests the existence of God. They have been enormously popular. Do you think this is a contemporary phenomenon, this interrogation of religion and its place in our lives?
It does seem to be. Not only from the existence of Dawkins and Hitchens, but from the great popularity of their works. People are genuinely interested, genuinely concerned, genuinely enquiring. And this can only be good. I’m very happy to live at the same time as Dawkins and Hitchens. I like and admire them both as people and as writers. But I’m not of the same kind as them.
Why do you think these writers are so popular at the moment? Why do you think their works have been hitting the best seller lists? What is it about the Zeitgeist?
That’s what it is. It’s also the fact that Dawkins writes very well. If he was a poor writer, or a clumsy writer, he wouldn’t be a best seller. But he’s a very good writer. He writes very elegantly, with great force and clarity, and that’s an important thing. But it is part of the Zeitgeist, yeah. We all question more than we used to. The old answers don’t seem to work anymore. I think that there’s been a sort of millennial anxiety, or concern, or consciousness, as well; the fact that two thousand years have passed. Where are we now? What’s going to happen to us? We sense, perhaps more than previous generations, that the world we thought we could depend on seems to be sick. We thought we could pour chemicals all over the land, we thought we could pour waste products into the rivers and seas, we thought we could blow petrol fumes and smoke into the air and it would just vanish. The world would just take it all away and clean it up and we could forget about it. Well, we now know this isn’t true. We now know that the world is an unwell place. We know it is our fault. And we know that if we don’t do something about it we’re in dire trouble. That’s the sense I don’t think previous generations have had. We also know, because of those wonderful photographs from outer space, that, in a very visceral, emotional sense, this is the only home we will ever have. We’ve got to look after this place. So all those feelings come into it.
I’d like to please talk a little bit about your creative process now. I remember reading a transcript of one of your lectures, where you said that you write fiction by drumming your fingers on the table and staring at the wall. Now, I’m sure there’s a little bit more to it…
It’s a matter of doing a lot of reading, and absorbing, and walking about, and looking at things, and listening to things, staring at things. There’s a lot of that. And then there is the time when you actually have to sit down at your desk and look at your piece of paper, and take your pen – I work by hand – and start making marks upon a surface, whether it’s marks of ink on a surface of paper, or pixels on a glass screen. Doesn’t really matter, but you have to put some marks down, you have to put some words down. When I’ve got to that stage, I try and do it mechanically, regularly. I write three pages each day, whether I feel like it or not. You can’t bring feeling into it. I stop when I get to the end. Then I put it on the computer and that’s the editing stage. Editing is much easier on the computer; word processing is a wonderful thing and I’m not going to knock it. That’s the process. But in the write-it-down stage, you have to retreat into yourself a little bit. You have to ignore phone calls and people who come to the door, and just go into this little shell, where you write words every day and don’t really think about anything else. But that’s very difficult these days. The more well known you become as a writer, the harder it is to get away and have that silence and that solitude. It’s much easier to write books when you’re not well known.
Who do you write for, if anyone?
Myself, primarily, because I get to satisfy the sense I have of what a good story is, how it works and the shape of it. I write for the story. I am the servant of the story. The story comes to me and expects to be well told. And like any servant, I have to anticipate the issues of the master; I have to make sure nothing gets in the way. You have to make sure the mind is clear, that you’re free from anxiety and apprehension, that you’ve got no phone calls to make or people to go have lunch with. You’ve got to clear the way for the story and give all your attention to it. So I write for the story.
Much later comes my sense of an audience. As I said earlier on, I don’t write for a particular audience, but I write hoping that I will find as large an audience as possible.
Do you consider yourself an intuitive writer?
Well, I hope that the parts of my work that demand intuition, receive the intuitive attention they require [laughs]. It’s part of what you are, but of course you’re not a creature of pure intuition, you’re also a creature of habit, of memory, and talent, and practice.
You’ve said before that the responsibility of those of us – and I’m assuming you’re including yourself in this quote – who are neither very good or very bad is to imitate the best, to look closely at what they do and try to emulate it.
I believe that passionately.
Which authors do you consider to be the best?
The anonymous ones! The ones who wrote the gospels, for example, or the wonderful poets who wrote the Scotch ballads.
Why is this?
Because they told stories so simply, so clearly, so sparely. They pared it down to the bone. There’s no fat there. It’s all bone and muscle and drive. It’s just wonderful, wonderful storytelling. Some of the best folk tales, too – and I mean the best folk tales in the transcriptions that we have. For example, I’ve just been reading through the Grimm Brothers’ stories for a production I’m in the process of making. Some of those, like ‘The Juniper Tree’, in the Grimms’ collection, are miracles of storytelling. Absolute miracles. So those are the authors, the storytellers, I try to emulate.
Do you often return to folk tales?
Oh yeah. They’re a perpetual spring, a fountain of nourishment. The Brothers Grimm and Umberto Eco’s wonderful collection of Italian folk tales, which I adore.
Do you think this is one of the reasons why your books have been so successful? Have you consciously tried to emulate this simplicity?
I don’t know. In the His Dark Materials trilogy, I wasn’t trying to emulate folk tales, I was trying to do something else. The storytelling in that book is very consciously crafted and the voice of the story has a distinct personality, I feel, which the best folk tales don’t have. If folk tales are clear, clean water, then what I was hoping for in His Dark Materials was rather good wine.
In that case, why do you think His Dark Materials has been so successful? What did it do that endeared it to so many people, children and adults alike?
The novels were published first as children’s books, which meant that my first audience, whether I wanted them or not, were children. Children followed the story, complicated as it is, full of long words, full of difficult situations, because they wanted to know what was going to happen to Lyra. And they liked Lyra. They wanted to be in the story as Lyra’s friend. So, they were willing to go to places and situations they didn’t fully understand because they knew that Lyra didn’t understand them either, but that she was damn well going to find out! So that’s why I think children read them. And I think adults read them in much greater numbers than if they had been published as adult books, funnily enough. If they had been published as adult books, they would have been called fantasy, and only the fantasy fans would have read them. There’s almost a complete firewall between the worlds of fantasy and the worlds of ordinary literary fiction. Fans of the one don’t read the other. So, only the fantasy fans would have read them and they would have been kept in that little fantasy ghetto. But because it was just a children’s book, and because children nag their parents to read their books because they want to talk about them, adults began to read them, then passed them onto their friends, then they found their way into book groups. I could never have found that audience consciously.
I believe you when you say that you don’t necessarily write with a younger audience in mind. But no doubt your experience as a teacher has given you a great understanding of children and what children want from books.
Well, I’m certainly experienced with children. And I’m experienced at telling stories to children, too.
Do you think that more teachers should be writing for children?
I don’t know if they should. In my generation, quite a lot of writers have been teachers. My prediction is that this won’t happen in the future, because teaching has changed. In Britain it’s changed. We used to have a certain amount of freedom, we used to have autonomy in the classroom, we used to be able to follow our imaginations and our instincts, and our enthusiasm to some extent. You can’t do that now. As a teacher you’re now completely hamstrung, confined and constricted. You’re forced to follow the pattern laid down by the Department of Education. You have to follow precisely the guidelines and fill out all the forms. There’s no time, there’s no scope for imagination. There’s no time in the evening when you get home and you’ve done your marking, for your own work. You’re exhausted. You’re worn out. So my prediction is that current ranks of teachers won’t have the time or the ability to tell stories in the way that they want to, and they probably won’t become writers.
In that light, if you could encourage teachers, given the constraints that surround them, to do one thing in their teaching practice, what would that be?
Tell stories. Learn a story, any story, a folk tale, or a ghost story, if you like. Learn it well enough so that you can tell it without looking at the book. Go for a walk and practice it. Tell it to yourself. Tell it to the dog. Tell it to your own baby in the cradle. But get it well enough into your head so that you can stand up in front of the class and tell it without looking at the book, and you will be astonished at the effect it will have. I’ve said this many, many times to young student teachers, and they’ve all been apprehensive about this: ‘I’ll forget something’; ‘I’ll do it all wrong’; ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ And I say: ‘Just try it.’ Universally, they come back to me and say, ‘Hey, it worked!’ And the reason it works is because the children aren’t looking at the teacher any more. They are looking at the story. The teacher becomes invisible, and the teacher doesn’t matter anymore, only the story matters. If only I could get the teachers to try that, and if only I could get the bloody government – in my country, anyway – to allow teachers the freedom to do that, just for enjoyment, just for delight, just for beguiling the children, bewitching them by the power of story, just to allow them to do that, well, that would be something worth doing.
This leads to my final question. I was reading an article you wrote for the Guardian in 2002, in which you asked the question: ‘Can art do anything to make the world better?’ At the end of the article you acknowledged that you hadn’t really answered that question. I was wondering if you could attempt to answer it now?
I forget who it was that said all art was quite useless. It was probably Oscar Wilde. W.H. Auden also said that no single poem he wrote ever saved a single Jew from the gas chambers. So, in one sense, art and literature are useless. In another, in a way that can’t be measured numerically, they’re profoundly useful. I think people will go on telling themselves stories. It’s part of the way the mind works. My touchstone for this, the little phrase I cling to, is usually attributed to Dr Johnson, but it is nowhere in the literature about or by him. He said, or was supposed to have said, that the true aim of writing should be to enable the reader to better enjoy life, or to better endure it. I think that’s very, very good.