published as children’s books than would have done if they had been published as fantasy. Nor was I itching to write about religion. I originally wanted to write a story about a girl who goes into a room where she shouldn’t be and has to hide when someone comes in and by chance overhears something she’s not supposed to hear. A little later I discovered she had a daemon, that was the point at which I realised I’d got hold of a story somehow that I could use – no, you don’t use a story – that I could explore, and say something about Kleist’s essay which I had come across fifteen years before. The religious theme evolved as part of what Lyra has to struggle against and give up. What do you say to Auden’s line that poetry makes nothing happen? Poetry by itself is just a stringed instrument making no sound. It needs air around it and a human mind to resonate it. Then it makes a difference but not in a simple instrumental ‘x therefore y’ way. It’s more complicated; it takes longer to resonate and to set up neural patterns. It does things, but it doesn’t do what the poet thinks it’ll do. You can’t predict how people will read your work. You might think you’ve written a searing indictment of the slave trade and people read your novel for the love story – that’s part of the democracy of reading that I’m very keen on. While not being afraid to play God as a writer? This business about the omniscient narrator also has a bearing on Lyra and the alethiometer and the loss of grace and innocence and confidence and so on. At the beginning of the twentieth century, with the modernists, we lost confidence in storytelling – think of Joyce, and Woolf to some extent, and E M Forster with his ‘oh dear – yes, the novel tells a story’ as if it were a shameful thing to do. Suddenly the novel became self-conscious about itself and about the process of storytelling, and a huge awkwardness set in that resulted in a split between the people who tell stories – the middlebrow – and the others who would do anything rather than tell a story who were the other thing – the highbrow. Hugh Walpole on one side, James Joyce on the other, and never the twain shall meet. Whereas in Victorian times everyone read Dickens. The gulf is lessening now because people are becoming less self-conscious, or rather learning to deal with their self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is like shyness – charming in a child of twelve but not so charming in someone of 32 or 42 or 52, so to deal with it you have to pretend you’re not shy. The way to deal with self-consciousness in storytelling is to pretend that you’re not self-conscious. Writing for children is liberating because it forces you to pretend you’re not self-conscious. There is a lovely passage in an essay by Umberto Eco about the difficulty the post-modern chap has in telling his girlfriend that he loves her. He doesn’t want to say ‘I love you’ because those words have been used without irony by Barbara Cartland. Finally he finds a solution.
He says to her, ‘As Barbara Cartland would say, I love you.’ Ha! The tongs of irony you need to hand the sugar of affection. Have you seen the film of ‘Northern Lights’ (to be released as ‘The Golden Compass’ this Christmas) and do you feel at all sorry to think of children coming across the story for the first time as a film? I’ve seen bits of it. Teams of slaves are still putting the thing together, assiduously. The look is wonderful, immensely rich and intriguing and attractive. Lyra is played by a girl called Dakota Blue Richards who has never acted before and holds the whole thing together. She was one of ten thousand seen for the part. No, I’m not sorry. I think the story will survive. I would be sorry if there was a law which said every time a film comes out the book or books on which it was based had to be withdrawn. As James M Cain replied when asked if he minded what had been done to one of his books: ‘They’ve done nothing to my book, it’s there on the shelf.’ A number of those who see the film will have read the book already. Non-readers probably wouldn’t have come across the book anyway. How much trouble did the project encounter in America as a result of your book’s perceived anti-Christian bias? The problem for those who think there’s an antireligious anti-moral bias in the books comes when they haven’t actually read the books: of course there’s a criticism of organised theocratic tyrannical religion but who can disagree with that? A review in the Church Timessaid, ‘When the morality is secure the metaphysics don’t matter.’ The qualities which my books criticise are intolerance, fanaticism, cruelty, and the qualities they celebrate are love, kindness, openness, curiosity. I think the moral majority in America is not a majority at all and that the power of the organised Christian Right is a phantom. Theocracies don’t have to be religious. Soviet Russia was a theocracy. They had a holy book, which was Marx; they had prophets and doctors of the church (Lenin, Engels, Stalin, and so on); they had a priesthood that had privileges and powers above the ordinary, which was the Communist Party. There was also a teleological view of history and you could either be on the side of history or against history. There was a state apparatus of denunciation, betrayal, punishment, the idea of heresy, even the cult of holy relics – so many parallels. In the new edition of ‘His Dark Materials’ you have added a series of what you call Lantern Slides at the end of each volume, glimpses of the characters in different but possible situations. Aren’t these an invitation to others to write stories about your created worlds? It already happens on the Internet. It’s called fan fiction: there are six hundred or so already doing it, maybe more now. Bloody nerve, isn’t it?
LITERARY REVIEW August 2007