After waiting 17 years for his follow-up to the His Dark Materials trilogy, fans of Philip Pullman wonâ€™t have to wait as long next time, he revealed on Wednesday. He was speaking ahead of Thursdayâ€™s midnight launch of La Belle Sauvage, the first volume in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, where he told press the second volume was already complete.
Speaking in the Oxfordâ€™s 17th-century Bodleian library, which itself features in his hugely anticipated â€“ and heavily embargoed â€“ novel, Pullman also told press that La Belle Sauvage is a darker book than its predecessors.
Quipping that novel, the first in The Book of Dust trilogy, should be called â€œHis Darker Materialsâ€, Pullman said that as an author, â€œIâ€™ve got older and perhaps more cynical, closer to despairâ€.
â€œIt is a darker book, I donâ€™t deny that, but thatâ€™s the story that came to me and wanted to be told.â€
La Belle Sauvageâ€™s publication is being marked with special late openings, parties, signings and read-alongs in bookshops around the UK. It is expected to be one of the yearâ€™s biggest sellers, after it topped Amazonâ€™s charts when it was announced in February and been tipped by booksellers to head the bestseller lists this Christmas.
The novel â€“ which tells the story of how his heroine Lyra came to be living at Oxfordâ€™s fictional Jordan College in Northern Lights â€“ has been awaited by fans since The Amber Spyglass was published in 2000. As well as the 11-year-old Malcolm Polstead, his daemon Asta and his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, who become Lyraâ€™s protectors after a huge flood, Pullman also introduces a range of new characters to the story, including alethiometer specialist Dr Hannah Relf and the villainous Gerard Bonneville. Returning old favourites include Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon, her father Lord Asriel and mother Mrs Coulter, and Farder Coram.
â€œLyra is a baby, and being a baby, she is not able to speak or walk, she hasnâ€™t got very much agency, but sheâ€™s certainly at the centre of the action. Her very existence forms one of the central McGuffins of the plot,â€ said Pullman.
The author has described the novel as an â€œequelâ€, rather than a sequel or prequel, saying that it â€œdoesnâ€™t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside itâ€. On Wednesday, Pullman said that the story would take a step into the future in the next two novels of The Book of Dust trilogy, as well as sharing that he has already finished writing the second, as-yet unnamed instalment. â€œIt continues with a big leap of time, a leap of over 20 years, so in the second we see Lyra as a 20-year-old undergraduate. In the second and third books the characters are adults, so itâ€™s probably natural that it has a bit more of an adult tone,â€ he said.
Asked by a reporter from the Daily Mail how many instances of swearing there were in La Belle Sauvage, Pullman replied wryly that he didnâ€™t know, but â€œperhaps we ought to have a little insert in the front saying â€˜swearwords on page 456, watch out, swear word approaching next page, turn it over very quicklyâ€™â€.
He was clear that, swearwords or not, the novels were open to all comers: â€œI donâ€™t specify my audience. I have never wanted to do that. Iâ€™m grateful to have any audience at all,â€ he said, adding that he would never give an age range for readers. â€œIâ€™d much rather launch it on the flood and see what happens to it.â€
Pullman revealed that the book continues to tackle the question of â€œthat mysterious and troubling substanceâ€, dust, with the trilogy hanging on â€œthe struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and enquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be freeâ€.
â€œItâ€™s the question of consciousness, perhaps the oldest philosophical question of all: are we matter? Or are we spirit and matter? What is consciousness if there is no spirit? Questions like that are of perennial fascination and they havenâ€™t been solved yet, thank goodness,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™m still very grateful that scientists have not discovered what dark matter is. I was holding my breath and crossing my fingers they wouldnâ€™t while I was writing His Dark Materials. They still donâ€™t know and Iâ€™m very happy about that.â€
As he began to tell Lyra and Malcolmâ€™s story, Pullman said he drew from his own experiences walking Oxfordâ€™s rivers and canals, as well as â€œlooking at maps of the city, which is laced through and through with waterâ€. Malcolm, who is the son of an innkeeper and set to leave school at 13, is introduced to literature by Dr Relf. â€œShe does for him what somebody did for me, when I was 10,â€ said Pullman. â€œAn old lady in the village took an interest in me and invited me to borrow books from her library. I read HG Wells and Tarzan. That was a very generous thing to do and I thought of her when I was writing about Hannah.â€
The League of St Alexander he said, which recruits children to spy on their parents, neighbours and friends, draws from Soviet Russia, where children were encouraged to do the same, while Oakley Street, his version of the secret service, has a more literary source. â€œAll I know about the secret service, I got from John le CarrÃ© â€“ Iâ€™ve stolen it from him.â€
He revealed he had particularly enjoyed writing the villainous Bonneville. â€œIs he a psychopath? Heâ€™s a nasty piece of work. I enjoyed him very much. Thereâ€™s nothing more fun than writing about villains. I loved writing Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials and greatly enjoyed him in this,â€ he said.
Just like Lyra, said Pullman, Malcolm is an ordinary child. â€œThereâ€™s nothing divinely gifted about them. Theyâ€™re not special children. When I was a teacher, there was a Malcolm in every class and a Lyra in every class. I didnâ€™t base them on actual children, but I based them on the notion of children that I formed during that period. Children are capable of extraordinary feats of courage, of affection and determination and I was glad to discover Malcolm wandering in my mind.â€