Twenty-two years on from the publication of his blockbuster trilogy, His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman is finally back with a new book – and a new feminist hero.
On the day of publication for The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, stylist.co.uk sits down with the bestselling author to talk about his writing process, feminist fiction and – at last – the inspiration behind the character of Lyra Belacqua.
Philip Pullman is one of those authors; like Margaret Atwood or JK Rowling, he has created whole new worlds that transport generations, while at the same time informing world views and beliefs.
His most famous books are the His Dark Materials trilogy (published 1995-2000), all of which feature the delightfully heroic and bolshy Lyra Belacqua and have collectively sold an impressive 17.5 million copies to date.
And our appetite for getting lost in Pullman’s worlds is certainly not subsiding, with the hotly anticipated prequel to the series – The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage – predicted to be worth £8million in sales for Waterstones alone when it is released today (19 October – which, happily, also happens to be Pullman’s 71st birthday).
Pullman – like many of his peers – is also a very engaged writer, unafraid of calling out religious abuses (The Catholic Herald described his books with the line, “Evil seeps out of the very things we are accustomed to find refuge in”) while also being politically vocal (he described the former justice secretary, Chris Grayling, as “mean and vindictive” when he tried to ban books in prisons).
He’s also very tickled to hear that the school round the corner from my flat has three Lyras in one class...
Your books are often marketed for teenagers but they don’t shy away from life’s most important issues, do they?
I never say, ‘This book is for 10 to 13-year-olds’ or anything like that – I don’t believe in turning anyone away but, often, young people going through adolescence are beginning to sense the presence of big things like justice, freedom, racism, inequality, unfairness and the question of ‘Why am I here?’ These are big, big questions that strike us in our teenage years and teenagers want to engage with them.
Your female characters (such as Lyra, Alice in La Belle Sauvage, Sally Lockhart in The Ruby In The Smoke) are very feminist – they seek knowledge and experience in heroic ways. Is this something that’s important to you?
Lyra just came to me entire and complete, I didn’t consciously make her up with a list of attributes. But I had been a teacher for about 12 years working with children of her age and there were lots of Lyras – in every classroom in the country there is a Lyra or two. Or three. She’s a very ordinary child and that’s the point about her. If she’s unusual it’s in her capacity to feel affection, which she does very readily and very warmly.
I’m also very fond of Alice in La Belle Sauvage. She’s quite a nasty character to start with: she’s a bully, she’s dissatisfied and she doesn’t like herself, but by the end she’s changed – the voyage opens her up.
La Belle Sauvage is a return to Lyra’s Oxford – what made you want to revisit it?
It was the prospect of meeting some new characters but also Oxford’s canal and boats, especially the boatyard in Jericho (which Lyra knows very well), that intrigued me. Recently, a developer wanted to put a new building there and the people who live on the canal and rely on the boatyard approached me to help protect it. So I got to know them and more about the canal itself, and I thought it’s such an unusual perspective from which to see Oxford and it began to work on my imagination. Then along came Malcolm and his canoe.
The new book really reminds me of the 1955 film, The Night Of The Hunter, with two children pursued by a terrifying villain (played by Robert Mitchum). Your work is often peppered with book and film references, especially John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Is that deliberate?
I write with some knowledge of all the stories I’ve read and the films I’ve seen. I wasn’t consciously modelling [La Belle Sauvage] on Night Of The Hunter or Gerard Bonneville on Robert Mitchum – I wonder who I’d cast? That’s interesting...
But for example, in Northern Lights, the way the bears’ fight is taken from Paradise Lost and is called a “Homeric simile” which expands over several lines, but it doesn’t matter if no one recognises it. I use it because it works, not because I want people to think ‘Oh how clever he is’.
Your new villain Gerard Bonneville: he’s one of the most terrifying characters I’ve ever come across. Charming, vicious and abusing his sexual power over women especially. It was interesting reading him just as the Harvey Weinstein story was breaking…
Well, I wasn’t getting it from Harvey Weinstein because we didn’t know about that yet, but he does come from watching how people can behave with one another. You can imagine feelings and ways of behaviour that are quite horrible, and we must never underestimate where imagination can take us.
One thought that might have seeped into Gerard though is that I’ve been putting together a new version of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales for Penguin Classic. Reading them and rereading them closely, it can’t help but affect you and he is a bit of a monstrous fairytale villain. I was very pleased with him, in fact.
Your books are unique for younger readers in some ways, because they don’t shy away from the young characters’ burgeoning sexuality. For example, Lyra and Will fall in love, Malcolm begins to see Alice in a new light…
Children grow up whether you want them to or not. If we think of this as evil, as CS Lewis does, with poor old Susan in The Last Battle being turned away from heaven because ‘she’s too interested in nylons and lipstick’ or whatever the silly phrase is, that’s always seemed to me to be utterly stupid as well as vile.
This is a natural process – the girl is changing and coming to a new awareness of herself. For this to be regarded as evil and depraved seems to me to be utterly horrible.
Do you think that’s why people in their 20s, 30s and beyond love your books too, because we’re constantly evolving?
Yes, maybe. Perhaps I should start writing books about old people, too. When we come to second book in The Book Of Dust trilogy [yet to be published], 20 years will have gone by. Lyra will be 20 and people do develop, change – and die, too.
You’re very political. I’ve just read your essay on Brexit which damns every politician involved. Do you believe you can’t look to human-created authorities for direction?
You have to. If you don’t believe in god, there’s nowhere else to look but humans and human institutions. What we need to do is make them better. We have to face things like Brexit and Donald Trump and think ‘Well, that’s an unintended result of our own carelessness and we shouldn’t have let it happen’.
I don’t remember anyone but the actress Sheila Hancock making the argument on a TV debate that the EU has kept peace in Europe for 70 years. The most volatile, most warlike continent to live in the last 1,000 years had found peace and this project to live as friends and partners was a great thing. If the US election had happened the other way round, we would still be in the EU – we’d have learned from it.
What can we do to make things better?
Organise and vote. We have a parliamentary democracy which has a number of flaws in it and we must work very hard to change it. If we change the way we elect our MPs so the party system doesn’t work as it’s worked for the past century, then that’s a start.
Finally, I’ve heard you’re very superstitious…
I am superstitious about everything you can be superstitious about. It’s a very odd combination to be an atheist and totally superstitious, but there we are. I believe in it when I write because it helps. I use my lucky pen, my lucky paper, enter the room in a certain way, sit down a certain way, have ‘magic’ things on the desk – all because it helps! Utter cobwebs and nonsense, of course.
La Belle Sauvage: The Book Of Dust Volume One by Philip Pullman, by David Fickling Books in association with Penguin Random House, is out now (£20, waterstones.com)
Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling by Philip Pullman, by David Fickling Books, is out 2 November (£20, waterstones.com)
Images: Rex / Michael Leckie