Almost two decades after Philip Pullman completed the fantasy series "His Dark Materials," the celebrated British author has begun a new trilogy titled "The Book of Dust." The first volume, "La Belle Sauvage," arrived this week with an enormous first printing in the United States of 500,000 copies. The story takes readers back 10 years to when the prior heroine, Lyra Belacqua, was a foundling baby. When disaster strikes England, a brave boy named Malcolm Polstead is determined to save her.
Pullman spoke with The Washington Post about his new series via Skype. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to revisit Lyra's story?
A: I suppose it was about the year 2005. That was when I wrote a little book called "Lyra's Oxford," which showed Lyra at the age of about 15 or 16. I discovered some interesting things in that story that made me want to explore her world a bit more. So that set the scene for it. And that was a little — I don't know how to put it — a little ragbag of a book, a book full of bits and pieces, and one of the bits and pieces that I put into that book was a fake shipping advertisement, for a shipping line, advertising a voyage to the eastern Mediterranean. And, I thought, "There's a starting point for something." So, that's where we're going to go in the second book. And, eventually to central Asia.
Q: You gave Lyra your old room at Oxford. Did you give Malcolm anything of yours as well?
A: Malcolm is very good with his hands. He's very interested in mechanical things and how things work, and that's something of me. He's braver than I am — certainly braver than I was when I was his age. And I never had a boat. I'd liked to have had a boat, but I never did. So I gave him some qualities of mine that I've had and one or two things that I haven't got.
Q: Who were you most excited to revisit besides Lyra?
A: Hannah Relf is someone who appears near the beginning and near the end of "His Dark Materials." She's a woman whom I like very much and someone I respect a great deal. I was glad to give her a part that's important in "La Belle Sauvage." She lends Malcolm books, and she's interested in his life, his thoughts, his education. Her character pays tribute to an old lady who had a big house in the village that I used to live in when I was a boy. She took an interest in me, and she let me borrow books from her library. She had books on every wall — bookcases all through her house. She very generously allowed me to come and borrow a couple of books every week. She didn't tell me, "Oh no, you can't have that, dear. That's not for you." She said, "Take anything you like. Read anything you like. We'll talk about it when you bring it back." I thought that was so nice, so I gave that part to Hannah Relf.
Q: How does it feel to write about trust in a time when it seems as though honesty isn't the most important quality?
A: These are strange times, aren't they? We're in a political world like nothing I can remember — where the very concept of truth is just jettisoned and made a mockery of. There's a very good little book by the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt called "On Bullsh--." He explains in this book the difference between truth and lies and bullsh--. The person who tells the truth needs to know where the truth is so he can tell the truth. The person who is a liar needs to know where the truth is so he can avoid it. But the bullsh--ter doesn't care because it's a performance — it's all an act. He doesn't care if people believe him or not. He just says it because it's fun and it's an act. That's the world we're in now, and it's a very strange kind of world.
Q: As in "His Dark Materials," each character in "The Book of Dust" has a daemon, a mystical animal counterpart. What's your daemon?
A: My daemon is a raven. She's a bird of the crow family. Could be a magpie or a jackdaw or a jay, I suppose, but I think she's a raven. She's a scruffy, grim-visaged old bird that's cynical and sharp-beaked, but she's quite wise, and she's seen a lot, and she's fundamentally kind underneath. But she'd never let you know that.
Savannah Stephens works for the Style section of The Washington Post.
By Philip Pullman
Knopf. 464 pp. $22.99