My recent visit to Oxford coincided with the Oxford Literary Festival, and I was able to go to a couple of events including a rare appearance by Philip Pullman, timed to mark the 20th anniversary of publication of Northern Lights.
In conversation with Nicolette Jones, children's books editor of The Sunday Times, Philip Pullman talked most entertainingly about the writing process, his influences, and the extraordinarily rich concept that is the daemon.
He revealed that he doesn't have the readership in mind at all when he writes as he feels that identifying them even in general terms as 'children' or 'adults' might exert a subconscious control which he doesn't want, and he's glad of his wide audience as no-one is excluded from the world he has created; related to that he commented that there is no right way to read his books, and how you understand or respond to what he has written is entirely up to you; "that is," he says, "as it should be".
It's well known that Paradise Lost inspired the His Dark Materials series (that's the origin of the title, for one thing), and Philip Pullman recalled loving Milton's work, as a teenager, with a "physical admiration and passion, not just an intellectual appreciation". On the subject of his well-known atheism, he termed himself "a cultural Christian", not exclusively atheist, whose work is informed by his deep knowledge of the Bible and of growing up with a clergyman grandfather.
In beginning Northern Lights with the words "Lyra and her daemon ...", he opened up a deep seam of material which he has mined to great effect. His use of the daemon - the soul, the spirit, the physical manifestation of the inner self - arose out of his observations of children (he used to be a teacher) and the changes adolescence brings. The onset of self-consciousness, of a realisation that certain talents will never be ours, of withdrawal in certain circumstances, all these things occur at the same time as a broadening of our mental horizons, and a reconciliation with who we actually are - hence the daemon's changing as the child grows and develops but 'settling' on adolescence: we may think we are a lion, when in fact we are a poodle (to use his own example), but the sooner we accept that and live comfortably with it, the better.
As to the writing itself, he's well on with the next book in the series, The Book of Dust, and says it may be out next year. To this end he continues his habit of writing three pages every day. If the work is going well he stops at three pages, giving himself a 'springboard' into the next day, and if it's going badly he still fulfils his quota. "Gin helps," he says, if he finds himself lacking inspiration, and if he does dry up in the middle he recommends simple dialogue of the ' "Hello," "oh, hello," "how are you?", "I'm fine, thanks," " nature to fill the page!
Asked about his own daemon, Philip Pullman reckons it's a corvid of some kind, a magpie, a raven or a rook: "... a bird which steals things. I hear things, read things, see things, then 'steal' them and use them myself".