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.”

Unconscious Research and Dream Yoga

What might walking backwards through the Australian rainforest have to do with a mystery romance novel set in the Cotswolds? It was all part of my “unconscious research”. And it was a long research journey too, I admit. If you’re intrigued, go to Martin Willoughby’s blog to read my guest post on how “Dream Yoga” played a role in the creation of the story of “Mystical Circles”.

The Novels We Love and Carl Jung’s Theory of the Collective Unconscious

Among his many theories, Carl Jung includes “the Collective Unconscious”. This “collects and organises personal experiences in a similar way with each member of the species.”  If we consider a book to which millions have responded in a similar positive way, for instance Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, we may then see that the story touches upon areas of human experience which are universal. This may be described as an author “touching the Spirit of the Age.”

Recently (and probably through the workings of synchronicity!) an explanation from Quantum Theory fell into my hands, from a scientist who told me he spent a lot of time in the past with a group of fellow-scientists discussing “Life, the Universe and Everything”.  He concluded that we have free will but are limited in what we do; using the analogy of a chess game, each piece has a limited freedom of movement. We are not aware of the existence of the laws which infuence our every action, and each individual in limited in a unique way.  Tolstoy understood this principle perfectly, reminding us in “War and Peace” that when we  learned the earth orbits the sun we had to surmount the sensation of unreal immobility in space. In just the same way he says, we must renounce a freedom that does not exist and recognise a dependence of which we are not conscious.

How can we see this working out  in some well-known stories? Let me suggest a few examples from my own fiction reading. 

1.  A thirst for truth – as exemplified by Winston Smith in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Winston Smith is a clerk in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth; truth is the central issue in this story and the reader instinctively knows it is being subverted. And that is why Winston Smith’s struggle to undermine the Party’s monopology on Truth has struck such a deep chord with so many.

2. A craving for intimacy – the 5-year old boy narrator of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room shares an intimacy with his mother which is ultimately broken after their escape from captivity. To me this paradox is central to the power of this novel.

3. A fear of death or the unknown: It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more, says Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter. It is worth noting that JK Rowling said she could never have written the Harry Potter books if it wasn’t for the fact that she loved her mother, and her mother died. This was clearly a persistent theme throughout Harry’s story.

I believe authors achieve this kind of power in their stories by working with the limited freedom of movement in their own lives and trusting themselves to the unconscious.

SC Skillman