Lorne Jackson speaks to a celebrated author whose views always manage to court controversy.
Many people made the pilgrimage to see the Pope during his recent visit to Birmingham.
Philip Pullman was not one of them.
There are several possible reasons to explain why the best-selling children’s author was never likely to be amongst the fervent worshipers who watched, enthralled, as the pontiff beatified Cardinal Newman.
Authors are often solitary souls. Word whittling hermits, who prefer the company of a friendly thesaurus to a feisty crowd.
Pullman is also a busy man, with plenty of blank pages to badger.
But forget all that.
The real reason why he would never dream of plodding Popewards is that Pullman is one of the most prominent atheists in the country. Right up there with Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.
He only has tut-tuts for the true believers.
So, of course, he looked upon the Papal beatification of Cardinal Newman with a mixture of bafflement and exasperation.
“The process of beatification and canonisation is such a lot of nonsense that I don’t think it matters at all,” he scoffs.
“It’s not going to make any difference to Newman, who is dead. And it’s not going to make any difference to anybody who is alive, either.
“Except some people will have another Saint to pray to.
“My problem with the Pope’s visit, specifically,” he adds, “Was that it was a state visit and we had to pay for it.
“The Pope is welcome to come here as a private person, and be interviewed and engage in all normal democratic processes, or not, if he pleases.
“If he wants to come here and pray in solitude over the grave of Cardinal Newman, then he is welcome to do that, too.
“But my objection is when he is regarded as a head of state. Because the Vatican is not a properly constituted state.
“It was just a patch-up between the Catholic Church and the fascists under Mussolini.”
Pullman is not afraid of courting controversy, as the above diatribe exemplifies. This gruffness against God has worked its way into his fiction, most famously in the celebrated His Dark Materials trilogy of novels.
The series is about a young girl called Lyra Balacqua who lives in an alternative universe, and must battle against a repressive religious sect called the Magisterium who control society with a vice-like grip.
The books have been lauded by the liberal intelligencia, enjoyed by children and adults alike, and won their fair share of prizes along the way.
They have also been banned in schools in America and the UK.
“I’m already a figure of hate amongst church groups,” shrugs Pullman. “They know my work is evil without even reading it.”
So is he retreating from his hard-line hectoring of the holy crew? Far from it.
Pullman’s latest book, The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ, takes a more overt tilt at Christianity.
It is a re-telling of the New Testament as though Jesus was two very different people – one good and one bad. Not surprisingly it has proved controversial with many devout Christians.
It would be a pity, though, to see Pullman as no more than a man who is cross about the man on the cross.
First and foremost, he is a teller of tales.
One of our finest, too. He was recently included in a list of the 50 greatest British authors since 1945.
Before starting work on His Dark Materials, Pullman wrote a series of slim books that were less driven by ideas, and more in the spirit of traditional fairy tales.
One of those, The Firework Maker’s Daughter, has just been adapted into a children’s play by the writer Stephen Russell for the Birmingham Stage Company. It begins a lengthy run at the Old Rep from November 9.
It tells the story of Lila, a young girl from the Far East, who wants to become a firework maker, just like her father. But her spoil-sport parent informs her that it’s no job for a girl. So Lila sets out in secret for Mount Merapi, in search of the elusive royal sulphur that will help her achieve her heart’s desire.
On the way she faces pirates and supernatural creatures, including the terrifying Fire Fiend.
Then her friend Chulak arrives to help her with Hamlet the talking elephant. Soon she must return to save her imprisoned father with a firework display to rival the best on earth.
Pullman has seen many of his works translated into other types of media.
Northern Lights, the first part of His Dark Materials became a special effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster, starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman.
Meanwhile, Billie Piper starred on TV as Sally Lockhart, the feisty heroin of a series of Victorian thrillers written by Pullman.
Is he always happy with the adaptations?
“Everything that has been put on has worked in one way or another,” he says. “I always find the process very interesting, though excitement isn’t always the word I’d use about how I feel. Sometimes it’s apprehension.
“But excitement is certainly the word for what the Birmingham Stage Company are doing, because it’s such a very good, very vivid play they have put on.
“The cast is wonderful. I really couldn’t have wished for a better set of actors. There’s also terrific music in the play, and all the actors play musical instruments on the stage, which is even more impressive. I think the whole thing is wonderful, and really couldn’t be more proud.”
Pullman is also interested in adapting his own works.
A couple of years ago he wrote The Adventures Of John Blake, a Boy’s Own sort of yarn, which appeared in a comic book called The DFC.
The comic was cancelled before the story was completed, so he spent part of this year rewriting it as a film script.
Pullman has also considered directing a movie.
“If someone gave me the chance of directing a film I might well take that because I think the director of a film is in a very strong position as a storyteller.
“The director is a storyteller who decides what the camera should look at, and how long we should look in this direction before turning our heads somewhere else. That’s the sort of thing a storyteller does.”
He adds, wistfully: “Though I don’t suppose anyone ever will give me the chance to direct a film. But there we are.”
I’m rather surprised that Pullman is interested in the movie-making world.
With his donish dome of a head, house in Oxford, and challenging, ambitious works of fantasy, he often comes across as a JRR Tolkien or CS Lewis of our times. (Minus the Inkling duo’s cosy Christianity, of course.)
But he surprises me further by revealing his current literary passion – Lee Child.
For those who haven’t come across Child before, he is a Birmingham raised author of no-nonsense, action-packed thrillers, set in the US.
While Pullman’s work often probes the nature of faith, freedom and morality, Child’s books tend to probe the nature of fists, fast cars and mega fire arms.
“I just love stories,” explains Pullman. “I like good tales where ever they happen to turn up. Whether they turn up in thrillers, or whether they turn up in great plays, like Hamlet. Or folk tales.
“That’s why I’ve recently become a great fan of Lee Child. He tells a very good story. I’d been curious about Child for a while, because I’d seen his books on the shelves, and I had picked them up.
“But they looked like average, to not very good, stuff.
“But eventually I took one home with me and I was delighted with it. And I’ve read my way through two-thirds of his books, now, with about five to go. And I’m really enjoying them.”
As an enthusiastic reader, Pullman certainly seems to dismiss the limiting labels that are often imposed on works of fiction. He would also like to discard a certain label that has been stamped on his own books. He does not view himself as a writer of kid’s fiction.
“I certainly don’t see myself as a children’s author,” he says. “Not at all. I hope I’m an everyone’s writer. My romantic image of myself is of the old story teller in the market place.
“There’s a lot of activity going on. There’s people buying, selling. A juggler over there. A busker in the corner. And there’s a pickpocket going through the crowd.
“And there am I, on my little square of carpet, telling a story.
“I don’t put up a sign saying, ‘Keep out, only for children’. Or, ‘Only those over ten years old are allowed to listen to this story.’
“I welcome everyone who wants to stop and listen. And it is in the interest of my story – and my bank account – to have as large an audience as possible. That includes children, and it also includes adults. So I try to tell a story that will please everyone.”
* Philip Pullman’s The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, adapted by the Birmingham Stage Company, is at the Old Rep from November 9 until January 28. For more information: www.birminghamstage.com