Philip Pullman reveals inspiration behind Secret Commonwealth at sold-out launch

Philip Pullman reveals inspiration behind Secret Commonwealth at sold-out launch

Philip Pullman officially launched The Secret Commonwealth to huge cheers at a sold-out Alexandra Palace last night, where the author appeared in conversation with journalist Zing Tsjeng on stage and revealed the inspiration for the highly-anticipated sequel. 

The novel—which is jointly published by Penguin and David Fickling Books today (3rd October)⁠— is set 20 years after the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One (Penguin/David Ficking Books, 2017). Pullman’s second novel in The Book of Dust trilogy has been hailed as a "global cultural moment celebrated by readers and bookshops alike" with the trilogy set in the same universe as Pullman's bestselling His Dark Materials series, and marking the fifth outing of heroine Lyra Silvertongue, who is now a 20-year-old student at Oxford University.

The 800-strong audience enjoyed dramatic readings from special guests including actors Anne-Marie Duff and Raffiella Chapman (who star as Ma Costa and Annie, respectively, in the Bad Wolf/BBC One adaptation of His Dark Materials) with the evening culminating in a Q&A with Pullman hosted by author and executive editor of VICE UK, Zing Tsjeng.

The event, which was also broadcast via a live video link, began with a series of atmospheric spotlit readings by Niamh Cusack, Helen Aluko and Dinita Gohil from books across the two series. Actors Duff and Chapman acted out a scene from The Subtle Knife in which Lyra meets Dr Mary Malone, before Duff read from the start of The Secret Commonwealth.  

Anne-Marie Duff and Raffiella Chapman performing at The Secret Commonwealth launch

Pullman then took to the stage to cheers from the audience to answer questions from fans and Tsjeng. He revealed that he was inspired to return to Lyra’s world after imagining “ideas and images” relating to her growing older. He said: “It must’ve been very frustrating for her to have the greatest adventure in her life and then go back to normal, I don’t think she’d like that. I was also intrigued by Dust and what it is, and there were places I wanted her to go.” 

He said that he chose to portray Lyra aged 20 because he wanted to show her “as a student, discovering new things”. He also revealed that The Secret Commonwealth depicts “a growing estrangement” between Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon. He explained: “In The Amber Spyglass, her and Pan learn to separate, which comes at a cost. A daemon is not a pet, it’s part of yourself. The story that evolves in The Secret Commonwealth shows the growing estrangement of Lyra from herself.”

Asked about the older feel of the book, he said: “It’s more grown up because the characters are grown up. Lyra’s 20 and Malcolm’s in his 30s⁠—it would be absurd to have them reacting as children or to put them in childish situations. I saw with La Belle Sauvage that most of my readers have grown up too.” Of his passionate fanbase, he said: “I’m very gratified to have told a story that has touched people and meant something to them, or helped them understand things.”

Bestselling writer Sir Philip Pullman, pictured with journalist Zing Tsjeng and actors Anne-Marie Duff, Raffiella Chapman, Niamh Cusack, Helen Aluko and Dinita Gohil at Alexandra Palace Theatre, ahead of the launch of The Secret Commonwealth

He also spoke about Lyra’s growing rationalism in the book, saying: “I think it’s a necessary process⁠—we have to leave behind the things we believed unquestioningly as children and look at things in a reasoned, rational way”. However, he added with a reference to Brexit: “Reason on its own is a kind of devilish thing. Any political power that rules without being questioned is dangerous⁠—the will of the people.”

Hinting at the subject matter of The Secret Commonwealth, Pullman said he “stole” the title from a book by Scottish clergyman Robert Kirk, written in the late 17th century about encounters of country folk with supernatural creatures. He said: “We’ll find out more in the third book about The Secret Commonwealth organisation and how it works and where it is.” Regarding the final volume in the series, which is yet to have a publication date, he added: “We can see where the story is going in this book. It’s going towards central Asia, it involves roses and it involves Dust. That’s all I can tell you⁠—I don’t even have a title for it yet!”

The author also spoke of how his earlier career as a schoolteacher helped him develop his craft as a storyteller and inspired the characters of Lyra and Will, as well as sharing his writing tips with the audience (“Get into the habit of writing, don’t rely on inspiration⁠—it doesn’t matter if it’s not good”). Pressed about whether or not the popular character of Will Parry from the original His Dark Materials series will make a reappearance in The Book of Dust, he said with a wry smile: “I can’t give that away but I know what his career will be⁠—he’s going to be a doctor.”

Philip Pullman in conversation with author and journalist Zing Tsjeng

Through BookScan, Pullman has sold 7.15 million books for £50.2m, with his bestseller Northern Lights' 1998 edition (Scholastic), at 976,471 copies sold. La Belle Sauvage sold 335,165 in hardback in 2017 and 99,458 in paperback.

With The Secret Commonwealth hitting bookshelves today as a major Super Thursday title, around 1,800 fans will attend sold-out events hosted by Waterstones and Blackwell’s during publication week for the book with more than 100 Waterstones across the country hosting celebrations. Blackwell’s in Pullman's hometown of Oxford and a key setting for the books - will host a second major publication week event at the Sheldonian Theatre on Sunday 6th October. A 900-strong audience will have the chance to listen to Pullman in conversation with self-confessed fan and fellow author Sophie Dahl in an event recorded live for the Penguin Podcast.

The publication of The Secret Commonwealth  will be closely followed by a primetime television adaptation of Pullman’s acclaimed His Dark Materials series. The eight-part drama, produced in Wales by Bad Wolf, will have its global premiere on Sunday 3rd November on BBC One and BBC iPlayer.