Inspiration from Fantasy Novelist Philip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors

During the Covid19 lockdown, the Society of Authors are presenting a number of webinars with notable authors, and the other day I attended “Afternoon Tea with Philip Pullman”.

I was keen to hear from the author of a fantasy trilogy that captivated me, “His Dark Materials“. 500 of us attended, all waiting with drinks and snacks to hear what the President of the Society of Authors might have to say to us from his Oxford study. When he came on, he showed us his working space; untidy, spilling over with miscellaneous items such as his jacket slung over an open box of labels, files and paper and books. I was greatly encouraged to see this; no compulsion to tidy up his workspace there!

He was asked what the Society of Authors means to him, and he said, “It simply means that I am part of a body of people who have experienced some of the disappointments and hopes and occasional successes that I have.

On his wall is a giant map of the world and it seems this is a major inspiration for him. He says he doesn’t plan his novels. As he starts his thoughts might be as vague as, “I think she should go north” or “It would be rather nice if she went to Central Asia.”

He loves maps, and for one of his earlier novels, “The Ruby and the Smoke” (another novel I love) he sourced ordnance survey maps of London in 1872.

I myself have a giant map of Warwickshire which I plan to put up on the wall near my working area. It helped me for my book “Paranormal Warwickshire” (due to be published by Amberley 15 November 2020) and I hope it will be useful for my next book too (more of that later).

Philip Pullman came over as a genial, laidback, engaging schoolmaster-like character – after all, he was an English teacher in an Oxford school for several years – and his approach was helpful and encouraging.

I enjoyed his reply to the question: “Do you have a particular age group in mind as a target audience when you begin to write?”

His answer was:

“No. I don’t. When you write a book you should do what you want to do; ignore everybody’s advice. It’s none of their business. When your book’s out, it becomes democratic. Then, everybody’s totally entitled to think exactly what they want to about the book.”

He told us that, before starting “His Dark Materials”, the concept of the daimons (which may be defined as ‘the external physical manifestation of a person’s inner self, that takes the form of an animal’) was in his mind for a while but he had no idea what to do with it.

Then one day he was wandering in the garden and near a rock when he thought, “Children’s daemons change, adult’s daemons don’t.”

“That was the most exciting moment I’ve ever experienced as a storyteller.”

It was (just like the idea about the boy wizard that came to J K Rowling on that train journey), the key to unlock his unconscious – and, for him, all the characters and actions and events of Lyra’s alternative world followed.

There is a powerful lesson for authors here: we must listen to that first instinctive prompt, hold onto it, and follow through, even if other voices try to break in and interrupt it. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t feel it’s wise to seek other people’s opinions on a work-in-progress. Finally, his most practical answer came in reply to the perennial question posed to authors:

“Where do your ideas come from?”

“I don’t know where they come from but I know they come to my desk, and if I’m not there they go away.”

Characters in Mystical Circles – Meet Craig, Charismatic New Age Guru who Leads the Esoteric Group The Wheel of Love

Craig McAllister leads the New Age spiritual group “The Wheel of Love”. Here, he promises, “you may take your subtle knife and cut a window into heaven.” (with apologies to Philip Pullman). Personally, when I was investigating New Age philosophies, groups and lifestyles, I would have found it hard to resist that promise. I heard many alluring promises during my years of spiritual research. And I discovered that inspirational speakers, gurus & esoteric teachers are, first of all, skilled in the use of words. 

EXTRACT FROM “MYSTICAL CIRCLES”

The buzz of conversation from the other side of the inner door increased. Juliet knew the group were already taking their seats at the dining table, ready to start the meal. She glanced through the doorway, entranced by the many candle flames. How sensuous the room looked in this light; the gleaming timbers held even greater depth and richness. And the fragrance of the roses and apple logs in the fireplace seemed more intense.

At that moment, Craig appeared before her, hand outstretched, a smile of greeting on his face. She stopped short, disconcerted by a tingling sensation in her stomach. If not for the evidence of her eyes, she could have sworn she’d just brushed against a lightly charged electric fence.

“Welcome to your first evening meal with us, Juliet.”

“Thank you.”

“Come in, come in,” he said robustly. He took her arm. “Do sit here, close to me.”

Juliet was still recovering from her initial reaction to his appearance. She wondered whether her being invited to sit near Craig would upset Zoe. But not at all. Instead, her sister touched her shoulder. “I’ll slip in, opposite you.”

“Sure,” said Juliet. She looked for Don. Perhaps pinpointing his location would ease her mind and her nerves. Then she saw the Yorkshireman, near the top of the table. Zoe was already seating herself.

Juliet followed Craig past The Lady and the Unicorn. Craig moved with a fluid grace. For her part, she hoped her manner gave no clue to the insecurity she felt. This would be her first official introduction to the group. As she glanced around those sitting at the table, it suddenly occurred to her that the only non-speaker was the large, hand-carved wooden Buddha which sat in the chair opposite where she stood. How bizarre, she thought.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

She struggled to settle her inner turmoil. But, instead, whilst groping towards some kind of exit from the fog gathering around her, she slipped further in. Now she felt a curious instability, as if she was on a jetliner that had flown into an air pocket. In the next moment she received the impression that Craig’s features had melted and realigned themselves.

Instead of looking at him, she believed she faced someone infinitely old and wizened, and Peruvian in appearance. The image of an ancient carved face on a rock in an Inca city, presented itself to her. It shifted again, and a new face emerged, that of a shabby, travel-stained New Age traveller.

With a desperate effort of the will, she regained her awareness of Don beside her. But he was set into a freezeframe. His hand had risen, perhaps to admonish Craig, but had then been arrested in mid-air. He wore a glazed expression.

Craig smiled, and as he did so the spell, or whatever it was, lifted. All returned to normal. Don’s hand dropped to his side.

Juliet realised she’d held her breath for several moments. She gasped the air back into her lungs. Her heart was pounding. Craig had done it again. Changed appearance. What was it with him? How did he do it? It frightened her. Her eyes were fixed upon his face. She hardly cared if he thought her rude to stare at him.

Then Don spoke. “Well, Craig? What’s your answer?” It was as if nothing had happened. Hadn’t Don noticed? She was astounded.

Craig interlocked his fingers, and laid them lightly upon his knee. “I believe we must learn to live at a high level of uncertainty,” he said.