I had not known that the American edition of The Amber Spyglass was ‘slightly’ censored for the publishers’ fear of our delicate sensibilites about… teenage hormones. Alexandra Schwartz, at the New Yorker:
… Pullman, who has written books for both adults and children, including the Sally Lockheart quartet, numerous fairy tales, and a reimagining of the New Testament, considers himself a storyteller first and foremost. Before becoming a writer, he taught middle school. In 2017, he returned to Lyra’s world with “La Belle Sauvage,” the first in a planned trilogy called The Book of Dust, named for the mysterious particle linked to consciousness that lie at the heart of His Dark Materials. The trilogy’s second book, “The Secret Commonwealth,” will be published in October; and an adaptation of His Dark Materials, starring James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the newcomer Dafne Keen, will appear on HBO the following month. Pullman lives with his wife and two cockapoos in Oxfordshire; he spoke with The New Yorker over the phone on a recent afternoon…
“The Secret Commonwealth” is the second in your new trilogy, The Book of Dust, which returns to the world that you created in His Dark Materials. How did you decide to come back to Lyra?
Well, in the usual way. These stories come to me. I didn’t do it on purpose. I found myself daydreaming a number of events involving Lyra and the people around Lyra. And there was always a kind of a mystery which I hadn’t settled to my own satisfaction in His Dark Materials, which is about the nature of Dust. It has something to do with consciousness, but I didn’t explore that fully, and I’m using this story, among other things, as a way of finding out what I mean by this idea.
The first book in the series, “The Book of Dust,” takes place when Lyra is a baby. She’s not enormously communicative, as babies aren’t.
And she hasn’t got any agency in that book. She’s the MacGuffin, in Hitchcock’s words, the thing that sets the plot going: the secret plans, or the unlocked suitcase, or the mysterious woman wearing a veil, or whatever it is.
And now she’s back in “The Secret Commonwealth,” and she’s twenty years old. It’s a shock, honestly, to read about her, because she’s troubled, she’s surly, she’s depressed. She’s not at all the confident heroine we remember from His Dark Materials.
Well, she’s growing up. She’s an adult. I don’t use the word “depressed.” It’s a rather depressing word. Melancholy. I think at one point Malcolm’s dæmon refers to her as bearing the mark of “Le soleil noir de la mélancolie,” which is a quotation from a poem by Gérard de Nerval which I like very much.
She’s marked by melancholy, and the reason for that, and probably one of the results of that, is she and Pantalaimon have suffered a rupture.
Yes, they’re not joined in the way that people in that world are with their dæmons.
They’re not. This was something I had wondered about for a long time. You know, we’ve had a picture of dæmons in His Dark Materials as these close beings, really an aspect of yourself. You can’t be divided. But what if you don’t like your dæmon and your dæmon didn’t like you? What would it be like then?
In the past, you’ve spoken of not so much creating dæmons as sort of discovering that they were there in your writing.
I’m sure that a very strict scientistical person would say that I did not discover anything because there’s nothing there before I make it up. But it does really feel like discovery, not invention.
If you say it, I believe it. You’re quite a rational person in spite of being an author of fantasy.
Well, reason is a good servant but a bad master. And I think it was David Hume, the English philosopher—Scottish philosopher, I should say—who said that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” In other words, reason is there to help us, but our governing passions are the emotions and feelings of human life, whether it’s love, or anger, or tenderness, or revenge, or whatever it might happen to be…
Your books were very important to my own early adolescence. I particularly remember the physical intensity of reading the end of “The Amber Spyglass,” with the love story between Lyra and Will. And I’ve discovered in the past couple of days that I actually only got half of the experience, because Lyra’s sexual awakening was pretty dampened down in America.
I’m surprised it was that much altered. I don’t think it was that much raunchier in the European version.
I think there was more explicit description of the effects of hormones!
Well, this has to do probably with the publisher that I was with. I don’t think of my audience very much. I don’t think of my readership and direct my story to a particular age. But, as it happened, His Dark Materials was published by a children’s publisher, or by a children’s division of an adult publisher. And that meant various things. It meant that it was put on bookshelves in different parts of bookshops. It was sold into bookstores and wholesalers by people who knew children’s lists, and not really by adult representatives. So it had a big children’s readership, and I think that might have governed what my American editors thought ought to be done to the text.
I don’t think very much was done, but, then, as we from this side of the Atlantic have had occasion to observe, you on that side—I mean the great big “you” of the American public—are much more easily offended. Even, dare I say, eager to be offended.
I think that’s fair.
So I think people have to be more careful. With “The Secret Commonwealth,” it really isn’t a book for children. But it’s being published by the children’s part of Penguin Random House, which might mislead people. I think the people who are likely to buy this are probably grown-up, and they probably know what they’re in for.
I certainly noticed that, in all the public events that I did to publicize “La Belle Sauvage,” two years ago, my audience consisted almost entirely of adults. Hardly any children at all…