Philip Pullman divulged ill health delayed his writing of the much-anticipated La Belle Sauvage, released today (Thursday 19th October), but revealed the second volume in the The Book of Dust trilogy was already complete. He also said the work was “darker” than His Dark Materials because he feels “more cynical and closer to despair” than he did 22 years ago.
The author told a packed global press conference at the Bodleian Library’s Convocation House in Oxford on Wednesday (18th October), that the last few years of ill health had affected his output and delayed the highly-anticipated book, but he did not go into detail about the illness. “I have been ill for a number of years but I am a lot better now,” he said. “There was a surgical operation… which is why [the book] took some time. I have felt concerned for my health but I am feeling a lot better now.”
However, fans might not have to wait long for the next volume after Pullman revealed he had already completed the second book.
The author said: “It continues in the next two books, the first of which is already written but not yet edited, with a big leap of time. We leap over the intervening 20 years which contains the story of His Dark Materials and the second book shows Lyra as a 20-year-old, as an undergraduate in fact, and the story that is set in motion in this book, will continue after that long interval the seeds which were sewn will start germinating and flowering in the second and third books." PRH said there is no planned publication date as yet.
La Belle Sauvage is set in Pullman's home city of Oxford, also the home of Lyra Belacqua in Northern Lights, but opens 10 years earlier when she is a baby. Her father, Lord Asriel, is prevented from seeing her by the high court.
During the press conference Pullman disclosed that the regime of Soviet Russia had influenced an “evil society” in La Belle Sauvage.
When Bodley Librarian Richard Ovenden quizzed Pullman about the "slightly more adult themes” in the book, referring to “slightly darker elements that relate to the children”, the author said: “I think that is true… I’ve got older too… perhaps more cynical and closer to despair...Yes, It is a darker book, I can’t deny, but that’s the book that came to me and need to be told."
He also spoke about the malevolent society called the League of Saint Alexander in the novel. “This [league] institution is newly-created in the book, a way of recruiting children to spy on their neighbours and parents and friends,” he said. “What set that up in my mind was the atmosphere of Soviet Russia where children were encouraged to do that… if you look after them you’re a bad boy, if you betray them you’re a good boy…it’s a horrible notion.”
The novel is jointly published by Penguin Random House UK Children’s and David Fickling Books. Francesca Dow, m.d of PRH Children's told The Bookseller that one of the hardest aspects of the process was making the publishing event a "special moment".
"It is about the readers which is why keeping it under wraps was actually quite a challenge," she said. "We have managed that balance of teasing excitement.” She dismissed any negative impact of leaked copies in a bookshop in the Netherlands earlier in the month, saying the issue had “quickly been dealt with and it was fine," adding "it shows the alacrity of booksellers to get the book out there."
Dow also highlighted the “detail that went into creating the book as a physical object and making that exciting too”, praising illustrator Chris Wormell’s cover design.
Pullman's longtime editor, David Fickling, agreed making the book a desirable physical object was vital. “Making the book a physical object is so important, to the whole process… it massively changes the reading”. He added: "It’s a very peculiar thing for a tiny, independent publisher to be twinned with a massive, enourmous one such as PRH, but we met and said it was going to be great."
PRH children’s publisher Ruth Knowles meanwhile revealed that the reaction to the announcement in February had “blown away” the publishers. Since then, Pullman has sold 98% more backlist books than in the same period last year, according to Nielsen BookScan – a total of 85,460 titles.
Bookshops around the country held midnight openings to mark the publication of the book last night, including Blackwell's in Oxford and 15 Waterstones stores.
Kate McHale, Waterstones’ sci-fi and young adult buyer has previously said the chain “fully expects La Belle Sauvage to be one of the biggest books of the year”.