Philip Pullman chases memories of Australia in new book

Author Philip Pullman has a single abiding memory of the year or so he lived in Australia.

Sixty-one years ago torrential rain in Queensland and NSW swept down the powerful Darling and Murray, breaking the river banks and inundating townships, farms and plains across South Australia.

It was the same year as the Melbourne Olympics and Pullman, about nine years old at the time, remembers listening to the Games on the radio along with Dick Tracy serials in the family home in Adelaide.

Pullman's stepfather, a former RAF pilot posted in Woomera, had taken him to high ground where, before the thunderstruck young boy, water stretched for as far as the eye could see.

The largest flood ever recorded in South Australia's history informs the central plot line of Pullman's first volume in a long-awaited companion trilogy to his global bestselling His Dark Materials series.

"I vividly remember the sense of immense power," Pullman says. "It looked like a sea of grey water, lashed by the wind, whipped into waves and speeding across this huge, whole landscape with irresistible force and it made a tremendous impression on me. I suppose part of the genesis of this book happened in Australia. It's part of the inescapable memories I have of my childhood."

The young heroine of His Dark Materials isLyra Belacqua, an ordinary but enterprising child trying to reclaim her world from oppressive church authorities.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage takes the story of Lyra back to her infancy, to the seeds of struggle between totalitarian forces and liberalism and freedom and the quest to discover the mysterious elementary particle, Dust, said to be somehow connected to human consciousness.

The first volumereads like a thrilling boy's own adventure with the protagonist, an 11-year-old publican's son Malcolm Polstead, inn servant Alice and the baby Lyra chased across flooded Oxford by a murderous scientist with a deformed hyena daemon.

"Everything is underwater as it was wherever it was where I saw the flood in Australia," Pullman says. "So landmarks vanish, old ways of doing things vanish, ancient things are brought to the surface and whole things are changed by the flood."

From the day the new trilogy was announced, Pullman has insisted The Book of Dust series is not a prequel or sequel but an "equal", standing beside the original fantasy trilogy. In any case, it is a moment of high anticipation in the publishing world.

Pullman is regarded as a peer of that rarefied circle of Oxford-educated children's and young adult writers including J. R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The Amber Spyglass won the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year prize, Northern Lights the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in Britain in 1995. A BBC television adaptation of His Dark Materials is under way.

Fans had implored him in the years since the publication of The Amber Spyglass in 2000 to return to the story of Lyra and her beau Will Parry, heartbroken that the author had left the young lovers separated by realms.

"I'd write back and say as politely as I can, 'Thank you very much, I'm so glad you enjoyed it and I hope you enjoy whatever I write next'," he says.

"I've got to have my freedom. You can't put demands on your imagination. A publisher can commission a book from an author but an author can't commission a book from his or her imagination."

But as time went on, Pullman began to think of Lyra and the characters with whom he had once kept close company.

"I found myself drawn back irresistibly to that world, but not to the continuation of that story. That story is over, hence the full stop at the end. It ends with Lyra's name, as Lyra's name is the first word in the first trilogy."

The Book of Dust:La Belle Sauvage starts before His Dark Materials begins and the two forthcoming books will revisit afterwards, when Lyra is aged 21.

"I thought it was going to be one book and it grew into two books and then it inevitably became three. The first book is published, the second book is written but not yet edited, and I'm hoping we are going to get that up next year and as soon as I finish that, I'll start the third book."

Pullman's alternative world of Oxford is not too dissimilar in appearance to pre-war England but humans are accompanied by daemons, animal embodiments of their inner selves, and there are seers, witches and ancient prophecies.

"I've been convinced for some time that my daemon is a scruffy, scrawny, shabby old bird with dusty feathers and a cynical voice and snapping beak if you get too cheeky. A magpie or a raven. That family of birds are famous for stealing bright shiny things and it doesn't have to be a diamond, it could be a tiny scrap of aluminium foil, and that's what storytellers do with stories."

Common to His Dark Materials and La Belle Sauvage is Pullman's preoccupation with the emotional passage of a child into early adolescence, reinforced by 12 years of teaching primary school English and raising children of his own.

"William Blake sets out the process," Pullman says. "We are born innocent and then during our lives we begin to acquire experience and it's a big change and it begins to occur in puberty, in adolescence, and I remember my adolescence very well and I think it was an exciting time of life, a time of intellectual discovery as well as emotional growth."

All his protagonists, even Malcolm Polstead, are ordinary children perched on the cusp of an awakening. "He's ordinary, he's not special, he's not divinely gifted or anything like that. The Lyras, the Malcolms, the Wills as well, they were in every school I taught at and in every class, so I'm celebrating the strength of the ordinary kid."

His Dark Materials is a retelling of John Milton's Paradise Lost based onthe idea that the world is saved by original sin.

In La Belle Sauvage, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene provides Pullman with his "perfect" ending. On the sea voyage to Australia via the Suez Canal, Pullman was introduced to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and he has been a devotee of poetry ever since. (He also says he has Australia to thank for his love of comics, having been introduced to Batman and Superman in Adelaide.)

"Not only the subject matter of poetry but the way poetry works, the sound of it, the rhythm, the music, the things you can't translate."

Pullman writes his first drafts longhand with a ballpoint pen, watching the pages pile up as the months pass: "It doesn't use any electricity, it's silent and if I don't write anything for 10 minutes, the page doesn't flicker and come up with a screen saver and wipe everything away. And I can draw on the back of the previous page and sketch out the part of the room where everybody is sitting and where the light is coming from."

It was while trying to get La Belle Sauvage finished that he formed the superstitious idea that his book would be good if, Samson like, he didn't cut his hair.

"Once an idea like that gets into your head, it's very hard to get it out," Pullman says. "So I found my hair growing and growing and I had to tie the bloody stuff in a ponytail, and I hadn't got any hair on the top of my head so it looked ridiculous.

"I was so glad I reached the words 'The End'; I came straight down the stairs and said to my wife Jude 'cut my hair', and she cut it off. I've never been so relieved in my life."

The first reviews are in and La Belle Sauvage has been described by The New York Timesas a "book of wonder".

The clipped ponytail is in a plastic bag in a drawer and Pullman plans to donate it to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. "They are going to have all my papers, so they can have that as well."

This story Philip Pullman chases memories of Australia in new book first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.