Philip Pullman tells Dionne Christian about his return to the world of Lyra Belacqua.
It's been 22 years since English author Philip Pullman published Northern Lights, the first in his multi- award-winning and best-selling His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy. Those books caused controversy with their perceived criticism of Christianity - "atheism for kids", said one critic - but now Pullman's back with a new trilogy likely to be just as fun and thought-provoking.
The first novel, La Belle Sauvage, was published this week, with Pullman describing it as a the start of a companion trilogy to His Dark Materials. Once again, it centres on plucky Lyra Belacqua.
Q:What is it about Lyra Belacqua and her world that compelled you to embark on a second trilogy?
PP: I thought it was such an interesting place. Besides, Lyra is about 12 at the end of His Dark Materials. She's going to grow up, go through adolescence and youth and have an adult life. I was intrigued to see what would happen to her.
Q: Why not do something completely different - or does staying in this fantasy world offer more freedom?
PP: I've done several things since His Dark Materials - my book about Jesus, my version of the Brothers Grimm stories, a story called The Scarecrow and His Servant - I thought I'd earned another journey to Lyra's world.
Q: How have the changes our world has undergone since you finished His Dark Materials trilogy impacted on this story?
PP: Well, one thing that hasn't happened is the discovery of what Dark Matter is; I'm very glad that's still a mystery. But the world seems to have headed further towards totalitarian ways of thinking, which is a bad thing. We can see it very clearly here in Britain, about Brexit, where those who want us to remain in Europe are being denounced as "traitors".
Q: Obviously His Dark Materials was hugely successful - do you feel the weight of expectation and how do you deal with that pressure?
PP: Yes, I do, and the only thing to do is try to ignore it. I'd be writing this book even if no one in the world was interested.
Q: Only one film was ever made - The Golden Compass, based on the first book - were you disappointed by this? Is there the potential for a screen adaptation of this trilogy, particularly in light of modern "blockbuster" television, like Game of Thrones? (And really does screen success matter?)
PP: It was a pity they didn't go on and make three films, I agree. But there's now a long-form TV series in preparation which I hope will allow the story to unfold at its full length.
Q: You've said "I'm not in the message business; I'm in the 'once upon a time' business" - how, if at all, is that a difficult undertaking especially given the world we live in? When you're writing is there any hint of activism involved?
PP: Well, I think that when you take on a task that lasts several years and covers more than 1000 pages, you simply can't do it frivolously. It's not a trivial thing to undertake. So, as with anything we take seriously, it'll involve our moral being as well as our intellect and imagination (if there's any clear distinction between those). Your moral views will come through whether you intend them to or not.
Q: You've always loved fairy tales; what do you think is their enduring appeal and is there any "right" age for children to be allowed to read them in all their "un-Disney-fied" (gore) and glory?
PP: The charm of fairy tales for children is that the good people are always rewarded and the bad people always punished. Justice always prevails. That's a great consolation for children who feel frightened about something, or anxious, or unfairly treated in one way or another. And I don't think children take things as literally as adults do, so the gore is part of the fun.
Q: What were the books - or art forms - that lit a spark for you when you were a child?
PP: Poetry, actually; all kinds of poetry. I didn't understand it but I loved the sound it made, as Thomas Beecham said of the English and music. I also loved comics, music of all kinds and things that made me laugh. Those statements are still true, except that I now understand a little about poetry.
Q: Does the world need more fairy tales and, if so, why?
PP: The world badly needs to get to know the great fairy tales that already exist. Every child should read them (or hear them) when they're very young. The same is true of nursery rhymes, which are the best foundation that ever existed for a later enjoyment and mastery of language.
Q: What is the greatest threat to reading and story-telling and how do you contribute to the fight against it?
PP: The greatest threat is education - at least as presently organised. In my country, there is absolutely no place for delight in the curriculum. I believe passionately that children should have access to books and stories and poetry of all kinds, and should be allowed to read and write without being graded and judged and measured.
Q: Has your daemon changed over time and, if so, why?
PP: No, she's still the scruffy, cynical, sharp-tongued old bird that she always was. I hope she never changes. [A note for the uninitiated: in Pullman's fantasy world, a daemon is the animal spirit that shows a person's "inner-self".]
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
(Penguin Random House, $35)