Philip Pullman | "It will make the cross people even crosser"

Philip Pullman | "It will make the cross people even crosser"

The first rule about interviewing Philip Pullman for his latest book is "don't talk about the book". Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is published by Canongate in April next year, as part of its Myths series.

There is a clue in the title as to the book's content and why its publisher wants to keep it under wraps until publication date. The 118-page novel is certain to generate its own publicity once released. "Some people will be cross," says the author.

Pullman is most well-known as the writer behind the bestselling children's series His Dark Materials, the success of which has enabled him to become only slightly less well-known as one of the UK's foremost atheists. His Dark Materials, while a brilliant children's fantasy that has drawn comparisons with The Chronicles of Narnia for its storytelling, is also a thinly-veiled critique of organised religion: second in a list of books that people have tried to ban across America.

Though he plays down the comparison, Pullman is now regularly bracketed with militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Given this, it would be almost rude for Pullman not to have written this book.

Surprising source

Yet the idea came from a surprising source: the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, during an event at the National Theatre six years ago. "He wondered why I'd not put Jesus in His Dark Materials. I said I would tackle it in a future book, and I thought it was time to deal with that story."

Pullman says he began the process of examining the story by re-reading the Gospels from the Bible, as well as the so-called Apocryphal Gospels that never made the final cut. He also read studies on the life of Jesus such as George Eliot's translation of David Friedrich Strauss' Das Leben Jesu Kritisch Bearbeitet ("The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined").

"There is a long tradition of viewing this story, as like any other myth that has come down to us from antiquity— something that can be critically examined, and where you look at the Bible texts not as sacred and inviolable works, the inherent word of God that can never be touched, but as human productions in a historical context that we can look at and see why they have the form that they do."

But this book is not history, it fits into a series, which re-interprets myths from the point of view of the 21st century. "I'm not setting out to rival the Bible, and I hope my book is not going to cause anyone to slaughter anyone. It is about how stories become stories, and how they become fixed and settled and differ from the events they are based on. There is no story that comes to us unmediated."

Though we are unable to talk about it in detail, it is also a book about Jesus, a figure held in high esteem by most religions. In Pullman's version he cuts a decisive figure, and it is clear from reading the material that Pullman's view of organised religion has changed little from his portrayal of the sinister "Magisterium" in the Materials series.

He is not unaware of the likely reception the book will get from some quarters, but he says he did not set out to "annoy, irritate, or enrage the faithful". Nevertheless: "It will make the cross people even crosser. But anything I do enrages some people, and I think the very idea of this will enrage even more people, and my advice is read the book, and if you are still enraged when you've read it, that's fine. I'm not disputing your right to argue with me."

Possibillian

Pullman denies he is a "militant" atheist. He says he is more keen on the term "possibillian", a word coined by fellow Canongate writer David Eagleman, meaning "a state of mind that sees all sorts of things as possible".

Some children's publishers might be forgiven for thinking Pullman more militant than "possibillian" at times. He was at the vanguard of author resistance to age-ranging ("I think we won that one," he says, "and it was a good fight to have, certainly publishers were taken aback"), and has been leading a similar charge against the government's scheme to vet those adults— including writers— who regularly work with children ("It is a preposterous over response to a stimulus that is anyway inaccurate").

Pullman says that he does not think his growing contrarian reputation will colour his younger readers' views of him ("I don't know what other people's perception of me is") and that the new book is not an indication of him "turning away" from children's writing.

Gathering dust

"I love writing children's books, and I'll go on doing it. But we have to do what the writer part of us wants to do." This may assuage those Materials fans eagerly awaiting the next instalment in the series." The Book of Dust is growing— slowly— as I always told them it would," he says. It won't be next year though he counsels, "it might be the year after".

He does not think this new book will appeal to children, though he adds: "With every book I write, everyone is welcome."

Canongate, April, £14.99, hb, 9781847678256