Philip Pullman Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman

How to pronounce Philip Pullman: As it looks: pull-man

An interview with Philip Pullman

An interview with Nancy Siscoe, senior executive editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers about Philip Pullman's new trilogy, The Book of Dust.

Nancy started at Knopf in 1996, not long after the publication of The Golden Compass. She began working with Philip Pullman in 2010.

How did this second trilogy come to pass? Who brought it up to whom? How long has it been in the works?

The idea for The Book of Dust began many years ago--not long after the publication of The Amber Spyglass. Philip Pullman had been wanting to tell the story of how Lyra came to be living at Jordan College, and in thinking about that, a longer story began to take shape in his mind--one that would begin when Lyra was just a baby, and would end with her as an adult. The idea began small, and has grown over the years into something truly magnificent.

How did you prepare to work on this new trilogy? Did you revisit His Dark Materials?

The Golden Compass was published just before I started at Knopf--it was a big part of why I wanted to work here! I was utterly enthralled with the world(s) Philip Pullman had created. And, of course, I awaited The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass with incredible impatience. Joan Slattery, Philip's Knopf editor at the time, knew how obsessed I was and allowed me to read both books in manuscript as they progressed. The stories are so complex and grand that it's essential to have someone to discuss them with, and it was my pleasure and privilege to be that person for her. (I also give my profound thanks to Marisa DiNovis, who played that same role for me with La Belle Sauvage.)

I've read all the books many times, and I did read them again recently when I knew La Belle Sauvage was imminent. But over the years I've read every scrap of writing that related in any way to His Dark Materials over and over--I'm that kind of fan.

What was it like "fact-checking" this work? How did you and Mr. Pullman maintain continuity between the original works and this one?

As a rabid fan, I felt it was essential to make sure all the story lines and facts and details of the world mesh seamlessly between His Dark Materials and this new trilogy. I'm exactly the reader who would notice if it didn't! When we knew the new story was coming soon, I asked our copy editing department to create an exhaustive guide to His Dark Materials. The document proved invaluable.  

This work repeatedly brings the readers back to the "real world," with diaper changes, stops for food and comments on being unbathed. It's rare to see "realistic" asides like this in adventure stories. As editor, how did you feel about those pieces?

I love them! It's exactly those details that make the story so real and grounded. You feel you are on the journey with Malcolm and Lyra and Alice in a very physical way. Philip Pullman often denies that he's writing fantasy--he likes to say that he's writing stark reality, just about a different place. And that's the quality you've picked up on, I think. It's part of what makes the books appeal to fantasy lovers and non-fantasy lovers alike.

La Belle Sauvage takes place in Lyra's world, which appears, at least to those of Will's world, quite full of magic. But there are some notable magical additions in this work. Where did the idea for the flooded, through-the-looking-glass Britain of fair folk and river gods come from? How do you think it works with the original three books?

Yes! Isn't it exciting? The Gyptians call that sort of phenomenon the Secret Commonwealth. Some people in Lyra's world believe in such spirits, while others clearly don't. And I love how that aligns with the idea of Dust--another phenomenon that is not well understood and hence feared. Are these kinds of things fantastical or real? The domain of the church or scientists? Or are these distinctions even useful? Is there some other way of understanding the world? These questions are at the heart of what Philip Pullman is exploring.

La Belle Sauvage is a strong stand-alone; how are you inviting in readers unfamiliar with His Dark Materials?

The wonderful part of this book's taking place before the events of His Dark Materials is that there really is no barrier to new readers. It's a brilliant story that does stand alone. And one that will surely send readers on to The Golden Compass if they haven't read it already. But I've also been hearing from many people who are either re-reading the trilogy before this new book comes out or using this as the impetus to finally read the books they've been meaning to for years. Any approach is fine by me! Whatever brings new readers to this remarkable writer's works is a good thing.

What is Mr. Pullman up to?

He's working on the second volume of The Book of Dust, of course! When he's not doing interviews and signing copies of La Belle Sauvage for us, and for his many publishers around the world, that is. But I've seen an early draft of the next book, and I am quite desperate for him to get back to it.

Are you allowed to hint at who we'll be seeing in the next book?

It's been revealed that the next story takes place when Lyra is 20, so there's quite a leap between this book and the next. But the connections will be clear when you read it, I promise. I wish I wasn't sworn to secrecy! The places Mr. Pullman will be taking us--oh! It's just mind-blowingly good!


Nancy Siscoe was interviewed by Siân Gaetano. This Q&A first ran in Shelf Awareness on October 19, 2017 and is reproduced with permission.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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