In the alternative world created by Philip Pullman in the trilogy His Dark Materials, people need to be careful about what they are seen reading in public, from fear of a repressive, religiously driven regime called the Magisterium.
Theresa May’s administration, whatever its faults, is more tolerant. But, in recent weeks, it was risky to be caught in public with Pullman’s new book, La Belle Sauvage, which returns to Lyra, hero of His Dark Materials, 17 years since the release of the final book in that series.
Such was the anticipation over the publication– which begins a new Pullman trilogy, The Book of Dust – that a journalist with an embargoed advance copy was almost mobbed and robbed when reading it on a train. After a warning from the publishers, I took the precaution of covering La Belle Sauvage, on my journey to meet Pullman, with the dust jacket of a Jeffrey Archer novel, which successfully deterred interest.
“The original plan was to finish all three of The Book of Dust novels before publishing them,” says Pullman, at his home in Oxfordshire. “But that fell apart because it was taking me so long to write them.” He is editing the text of the second book for publication next year, and will soon resume work on the final volume.
One reason that Pullman writes slowly is a desire to imagine every detail precisely. “Seeing the scene is tremendously important to me. I always have in mind a little checklist: where are we? Where’s the light coming from? What’s the weather like? Who’s there? Is the door open or shut? Things you’d want to know if you were directing the scene for the screen, I suppose. But I find it helps to build atmosphere on the page.”
The teenage years of Lyra – a child of illustrious parentage who becomes involved in a fight against the Magisterium – are well known from the bestselling Dark Materials novels, a stage adaptation of the series, which ran at the National Theatre from 2003–5, and a 2007 movie version, The Golden Compass.
Nicole Kidman played Mrs Coulter alongside Dakota Blue Richards’ Lyra in 2007’s The Golden Compass
But The Book of Dust will show Lyra’s life before and after the existing stories, and is described by Pullman as “neither a sequel nor a prequel, but an ‘equel’”.
Partly because the Magisterium was one of the historic titles of the Catholic Church, His Dark Materials was perceived as an attack on the Christian churches. But in La Belle Sauvage Pullman seems to be more broadly critiquing ideological intolerance and tyranny in society and politics.
“That was the idea in the first trilogy,” he says. “But it is going to be much clearer in the new books. One of the things I’ve got in my sights is what William Blake called ‘single vision’: the idea that there is only one answer to any issue. Which is a terrible thing to go through, whether you are forced to believe it, or suffer from the consequences of other people believing it.”
Pullman was first categorised as a children’s writer, but achieved a huge crossover adult readership. He attributes this broad appeal to writing end-of-term plays as a school teacher: “They were cliché-ridden, deliberately hackneyed things. There was a gothic one, a London East End play, an Arabian Nights script. But what I discovered was that I liked writing within a tradition because of what I could do with it. When I wrote the novels, I discovered that I was coming home to that part of my imagination.”
Literary traditions played with in La Belle Sauvage are spy and crime stories, suggesting an interest in John le Carré and Agatha Christie? “Le Carré is a gigantic presence in post-Second World War literature. I stole from him whatever I could find. As for Christie, I’d never really read her, until I had a spell in hospital recently. As literature they’re nothing, but as plotting they’re very clever. And she gets in some social comment and historical atmosphere.”
He read the Christies while recovering from a major operation, in March, to solve a chronic health condition. “I haven’t been well for a number of years,” he says. “I’m on the way back, but I have no stamina. The operation ended the problem I had, but it left me much weakened. I’m rather dreading all the touring I’ll have to do with this book.”
Ageing and illness draw some people towards religion. Did that happen to him? “No. I know people say there are no atheists on a plane when the engines fail. I haven’t been in such a situation, so who knows what I would do? But nothing yet has moved me towards God.”
Although the stories of Lyra Belacqua and Harry Potter were published almost simultaneously, Pullman has not kept much of an eye on JK Rowling, the other English children’s author to become an entertainment super-franchise.
“I only ever read the second Harry Potter book because it was up for a prize where I was a judge. But otherwise I haven’t read her. I’ve seen bits of the films when the grandchildren were watching. I haven’t wanted to… Why? I don’t know… But our simultaneous success is very curious. And was very useful to me, especially in America. Harry Potter got all the flak and banning from school libraries, and I flew beneath the radar. Maybe one day I will read her. I’ve met her twice: both times, oddly, at Buckingham Palace during receptions for the publishing industry.”
Rowling, so far, has been luckier with screen versions. Pullman thinks that The Golden Compass, starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, was “very well cast. But the problem with the film came because they didn’t want to tell the whole story. They chickened out, you could say.” The irony was that Hollywood seemed to fear the reaction of the religious to a story about the fear of religion? “Yes. That’s what it amounted to. I hope we can be a bit more daring in the TV version.”
In 2015 the BBC announced a multi-season adaptation of His Dark Materials; Pullman is pleased that it is projected to stretch to 40 hours across five seasons.
“They used to talk about movies ‘opening out’ a book and would spread their arms wide to show the breadth of the picture. But that isn’t the point. What matters is length of time, not breadth of screen. The TV screen isn’t very broad, but the length of time that can be made available now to a story is extraordinary.”
Philip Pullman reads his own Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling on Book of the Week, Monday—Friday 1.45pm Radio 4