An interview with Terry Pratchett, from Death Ray #08.
He’s among the best-selling fantasy authors of all time, he’s been called a significant contemporary satirist, his blend of sly observation, subversion of narrative convention, wit, wild invention and literary slapstick is adored by millions… Straight off the plane from a book tour in the States, fans to greet, a load of scripts to read, a book to finish, Terry Pratchett nevertheless has time to talk to Death Ray.
Terry Pratchett Fact File
Born: 28 April, 1948, Buckinghamshire, England
Where is he to be found? Wiltshire, England
What does he do? His first book, The Carpet People (1971), was a wainscot fantasy. He published two SF books, The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981), but it is with the Discworld series, begun in 1983 with The Colour of Magic, that he’s had the most success. This flat earth began as a pastiche of the then nascent consensus fantasyland. However, it’s always had elements of contemporary satire to it, and this has only grown over time. His diverse targets have included the postal service, quantum physics and fairytales. Pratchett also delights in subverting cliche in narrative.
Other works include the Bromeliad Trilogy (1988-1990), about Borrower-like gnomes, and Dark Omens (1990) written with Neil Gaiman.
Who is he influenced by? Pratchett grew up on a diet of SF, though The Lord of the Rings had a big impact. Mark Twain, Tom Sharpe and P.G. Wodehouse are other influences. Factual subjects inform a lot of his Discworld themes.
Awards: An OBE, four honorary degrees, three Locus Awards, and a Carnegie Medal are his. He was also the only novelist besides Dickens with five books in the top 100 of the BBC’s Big Read in 2003.
Terry Pratchett is in the basement staffroom of a bookshop in Bath, not far from the Death Ray office, waiting to begin a signing session. He sits like a some kind of good-natured satrap, diffidently munching coconut and sipping gin, as a hushed, scurrying activity goes on all around him.
Outside stand cast members of a stage adaptation of his book The Witches, dressed in costume, eyes shining as they await the blessing of their hero. Round the corner from them stands a big steel door, behind which a crowd of fans are corralled, clutching copies of the latest Discoworld novel. There’s a palpable excitement in the air, all centred on this unprepossessing man.
As pleasant as he is, a cloak of invisible yet very evident power lies easily about Pratchett’s shoulders. He’s the behatted eye of the storm, an alpha male author, with a troop of fans most writers would give their eye-teeth for.
Terry Pratchett has written “approximately in the region of roundabout” 34 Discworld books “It depends what you call a book,” he says. He regularly top the bestseller lists, he’s sold around 50 million books worldwide, translated into over 30 languages… But you don’t need to be told that, he’s Terry Pratchett…
This awe that pulses out from those waiting to meet him was won through solid graft. He sold his first story when he was 13, his first novel when he was 23. He publishes two books most years, and spends much of his time writing – only touring seems to get in his way. “You might think this is my life,” he says, waving a hand at the bustle around him “It isn’t. It’s sitting in front of a word processor with a nice cup of tea…”
Two of your first books were SF, which was your first love, was it science fiction or fantasy?
Oh, it definitely was science fiction, absolutely. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Gollancz did a wonderful hardcover SF line. And there was no messing about, the covers were a kind of dirty yellow with magenta lettering on them, but the advantage was you could see them from the other side of the library. And you just knew if you took down something that was Gollancz SF, that it would be good.
There was also an SF book club at the time, which was also my source of ther good stuff. I mean we’re talking the seriously big names here, so that covered the main authors.
You have to bear in mind that in those days if you went to an SF convention, in the early 1960s, the chances are that everybody there would have read all the books that you’d read. It was quite possible to read all the hard cover SF that had ever been published, you might have had to work a bit, but it was easy enough to do. You might have not have caught up with all the magazines, but everyone had a pretty good in depth working knowledge of the field.
There was a third source for me. Not far away from my old school, on a piece of old wasteground, was what looked like a rather large garden shed, and it was called ‘The Little library’. Now mostly it sold eye-watering porn. Eye-watering by the standards of the sixties. I mean, you’re far too young for this kind of thing, but your grandfather will probably tell you that up in his attic he’s probably got pile sof something callled Spick and Span. Do you ever hear of that? God help us, we’re talking of the age where the Carry On Movies were the cutting edge of the silver screen, so it was not very racey, usually young ladies showing their suspenders. It was smut, good old-fashioned English smut.
Maybe I was a slow starter, but I discovered the place when I was about ten or eleven. In order to have something to put in the window, the lady who ran the shop somehow acquired vast quantities of good quality English and American SF magazines, I mean, tons of them. I’d go in at least twice a week, and there was a turn over of the stock, and I never found out where they came from. In fact, I didn’t really ask, it was like finding mana from heaven. You don’t care where it came from, you just grab it. Analog and Astounding and New Worlds and Science Fantasy, there was Science Fiction Adventures… People would probably see me walking out with my full satchel, and knowing what else was for sale there, they’d wonder how the hell does he finish his homework? But though I was aware there was a sort of pinkness in the shop, I was more thinking ‘There’s some bloody good Brian Aldiss here!’ There was always a bloke or two hanging about in there, and they’d immediately freeze and look shifty when I came in and start burrowing through these boxes on the floor. If there was some I couldn’t afford, something I really wanted, I’d shove them at the back. An almost complete run of 1959 Analog. I picked up so much stuff there. It was all so cheap, because it wasn’t really how the lady made her money, I bought it by the shovel load: the good, the bad, the short lived, the absolutely fantastic, and it was a lovely introduction.
Then, as everybody knows, I got a job on my local library so I could get more library tickets. And I read all the SF they’d got there. Then, one day the head librarian handed this string wrapped bundle to me and said, ‘You’ll probably be interested in this stuff’. It was The Lord of The Rings, and I read that. It wasn’t my first introduction to fantasy, but it was the big one, and I wanted to find more stuff like it. So I did all the things you did, like reading Icelandic sagas, which actually, unless you’re a real student of that kind of thing, are a bit dull. They’ve got runes, but that’s about as far as it went.
I’d read anything that I’d consider was going to be interesting, and at that time there was far, far more good SF than there was good fantasy. Mind you, the fantasy that was around, Fritz Leiber, particularly Jack Vance, was good, and all of it was original, there were no similarities between them. The consensus fantasy universe hadn’t come into being at that point. But I drink to the consensus fantasy universe, because if it hadn’t come into existence I wouldn’t be able to go into it and set up stories.
The funniest SF book ever written was probably Bill the Galactic Hero, published in 1961, I believe. Fans all laughed at it, but it had no mainstream outlet, the population at large didn’t know enough about SF to find it funny. When Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy came along in 1976, by then you’ve practically got grandparents who can speak Klingon. Stuff out about doors whooshing and talking and all that stuff, you could crack the jokes. Well, it was the early 1980s when I could start cracking the jokes about fantasy because it was on every heavy metal album cover.
And everyone was playing Dungeons & Dragons…
Oh, I have rolled a few dice in my time…
Would you have preferred then if your big breakthrough had been with SF rather than fantasy?
Let me put it another way. I suspect that, these days, it’s easier to get a bigger audience, and indeed bigger royalties, writing fantasy. Fantasy has kind of broken out. And so, in a way, has SF, but no-one calls it SF. Everyone steals from SF now, and every mainstream author, as it were, feels quite happy going into the SF enclosure. They just say it isn’t SF, just that they are using science fiction, ‘But it’s not all about rockets… um, well, actually it is all about rockets, but not in a science fiction sense, and they’re on this other planet, but obviously it’s not a science fiction planet, it’s just another planet with people on it.’
And so you say, ‘That’s alright then, just as long as there’s no confusion here.’ The mainstream has discovered all the fun of parallel universes, and time travel and so on… and things that were once entirely the province of the SF writer are now fair game for everyone else, who will of course deny that that’s what they write.
I’ve even seen your books, on things like Late Review, getting a pounding. But that was years ago, things have changed…
You saw one book! According to them I’m a complete amateur because I don’t use chapters. Well, I am a complete amateur, but not for that reason!
Things have changed now though. You’ve had so many plaudits and awards…
No! Everyone says I’ve had a lot of awards, go on, what were they?
Well, there’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents…
Oh, I got the Carnegie Medal for that…
And you’ve garnered yourself a couple of honorary degrees.
And the OBE for services to literature, that’s pretty big!
It’s pretty weird. Okay. I’ve had some, yeah. But people always assume I’ve had far more. What I tend to get from America all the time are these odd ones. My editor, bless her, phones up and says, ‘You’ve won the Amelia Bloomer award. Again.’ That’s for feminist writing, for strong female characters. Actually, I’m very bad at weak female characters, so they tend to be strong. I pick up awards from readers’ groups and teacher/librarian associations for books that represent witchcraft in a friendly light, and I think, this can’t help my career at all!
So you don’t see the bigger awards perhaps as a broader acceptance by the arts establishment of the kind of thing that you write?
The arts establishment! Oh dear, it doesn’t matter. There isn’t really a problem. I mean, it’s very strange. Journalists always preface interviews with ‘His books are seldom reviewed’. They get reviewed all the time! They really are. I’ve got wodge of them, hang on (Terry reaches for a smart black leather bag). Trust me, I don’t tend to carry reviews around with me all the time, but I was given these yesterday. I’ve got them in here somewhere… I’ll never laugh at women and their handbags ever again. Ah! Here! Making Money reviews! And they’re all good ones. But it’s almost as if you’re not allowed to be in that state of acceptance, it doesn’t fit the picture. Scorned by the establishment! Not true. Lots of quite nice people write quite nice reviews. There is this kind of person who wants to construct a separate reality that isn’t really there. But I go oh, the books sell. You occassionally find the unreconstructed critic, but it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t actually make any difference.
I think it is out and out elitism. Part of it’s jealousy.
But it’s weird how it happens. I’ve met and enjoyed meeting people that the establishment would think of as ‘real authors’. You don’t get it from other authors, because all authors know it’s a bit of a crap game anyway, and luck plays a part, though of course, the harder you work the luckier you become. Back in the sixties it was not unknown for newspapers to tinker with the lists, to remove the undesirable bestsellers. I think they’ve gone past that now, because the publisher would be down on them with an axe, so when you do get this weird stuff, it’s all very strange.
Like, I did some signings a good few years ago now, in Southwest England. One of my books was at number one, had been for some time. This bookshop had a rack of top ten best sellers, and my book wasn’t in there. So I said to the manageress, ‘Something must be wrong, my book isn’t in your top ten’. And she said, ‘Well, you’re not exactly bestseller material are you?’ And yet I was there doing a signing, and there was a big, big, big queue!
That’s ridiculous. How’s that work?
It does not compute, does it? The publicist who was with me picked up exactly what this was all about, and took her aside quietly, and suddenly all the books were being moved. Actually, my first reaction was just laughter, because nobody ever pretends that the bestseller list means good, it’s about numbers. It means nothing else but a lot of sales, and I never pretended it meant anything else. But if you’re going to take away from a bestselling author the acknowledgement of the numbers, then what else have they got?
You’re obviously still not tired of the Discworld, then.
How many books could you write about London? It’s the same. Actually, it’s going to be a bit embarrassing next year, because that marks 25 years of Discworld, but the book I will publish will not actually be a Discworld book.
It’s a children’s book and it’s a fantasy in a way, but remarkably true. It’s set on Earth, or what might well be Earth. Periodically you have to go and do something else. The fans, if you listen to them, would like the last book you did done again, totally differently of course, but exactly same.
You’ve written an awful lot of children’s books over the last decade. Do you prefer writing for children or adults generally?
A quarter of my output is children’s books. The book I’m writing at the moment is proving very hard because it’s not Discworld. I can reach for the old Discworld toolbox, and it’s like a carpenter’s toolbox, there’s my name on every hammer, everything has been shaped to exactly my hand. So if I were to start a Discworld book now, if I were to rummage around, I would have enough to get going. Not enough to continue, because I’d have to stop and think, but you just know how to work with the material. This is something totally new, and so I’m having to think more about what I do.
It’s a good idea to go and do something because it’s not easy. In general I like writing children’s books because I do have to think more. It’s the simple things, like if you put a throwaway line about the Beatles in, it really is thrown away because perhaps even their mum and dad won’t know who you are referring to, and you have to think about vocabularly, what the kid’s world view is likely to include, what they might know. And you have to think about what you have a duty to do. The last thing you should do is give a kid of ten a book suitable for ten year olds. You should give them a book suitable for 12 year olds. That’s how we grow up. What I mean is, on the tour, there was a lady whose boy of eight reads the adult Discworld books – she reads them as well. – so I said to her, ‘Well, read Making Money carefully before you pass it on…’ One thing that fans have liked is the dog, Mr. Fusspot, who has a selection of rubber bones. Regrettably, the deceased husband of his deceased former mistress used to entertain young ladies, and he had what used to be called ‘novelty items.’ Discworld of course has no electricity, so this novelty item was powered by clockwork… I think you’re with me, you’re working with me here…
I see where you’re going!
And the little dog enjoys it no end. No-one quite works out who winds it up for him, but with it in his mouth, he’s driven sideways across the marble floor, and he thinks this is incredibly good fun.
Well, firstly the kid is going to encounter this soon enough, if he’s going to be going out into this world. And encountering things in books, privately, in the inside of your own head, this is what we all did. I mean, I read the James Bond books when I was about 11 or 12, which is about the right age. So what, there was a lot of squelchy stuff in there, but you kind of deal with it at your own level, then you pick up more information as you go. That’s how you build yourself. That’s actually different to seeing it on the television when you’re dad’s watching. It’s not so graphic, it eases you into an understanding about such things. So we had an interesting little discussion, because American parents tend to be far more careful about what their kids read.
The other thing is, if the kid young, and they’re reading an adult Discworld book, they are so brainy that there’s not much you can do. If the kid gets the joke, then the damage, in inverted commas, if there is any damage, has already been done. If they don’t get the joke, they don’t realise it’s a joke and they just pass onto the next bit with Rincewind in it.
So you think there’s a careful moral responsibility you have when writing for kids…
Doesn’t don’t terrible when you put it like that? That’s why I didn’t say there’s a ‘moral responsibility’. But you have to keep it in mind, about what you’re doing.
Doesn’t that make it more difficult than writing for adults?
No, because there are so many models to follow. People have said of some of my newer books that they’re very dark. And you think, well, The Lord of the Rings was very dark. In fact, The Lord of the Rings was dark nearly all the way through. And even when the good guys had won, they’d won at a huge cost. All the Elves had got greencards and gone off to the States, and the whole of the continent is pretty well ravaged. It wasn’t like Tolkien just snapped his fingers and everything was okay.
There are ways and means of dealing with darkness. You don’t end on despair, not when you are writing for kids. Like it is in Amazing Maurice, you have to go through the dark wood… But have to actually have gone through the dark wood to come out the other side. One American woman said she was reading the Amazing Maurice to her daughter, and she couldn’t go any further because it was making her cry, and her daughter just patted her on the knee and said, ‘Don’t worry mum, it will all turn out all right.’ The kid had absolute trust in how a narrative would go. But you have to show people how bad things are before you can make them better.
One thing that’s of great interest to you is the structure of narrative and the way stories work and the power that they have on people…
I’m not one to give away a plot, but I was writing recently. The hero has a kind of feud, this ongoing religious argument with this really annoying, very elderly priest, and they come to a part in the plot where they discover something very germaine and possibly very unwelcome to do with their religion. And I thought we’re in the bit, now, where the fight happens. So I thought because we’re in the bit where the fight happens, there isn’t going to be a fight. That’s just too simple. We’re now in the bit where the guy who, if you think in a certain way, you would consider the bad guy, is going to pick up a handy stick and belt my young man over the head. But that’s not how it would really go under the circumstances, and I would only be doing that because I’ve got to point A so you put in cliche number three. So I don’t. You think, what would real people do, not characters who are being pushed around by an author?
And that’s how you keep the stories fresh because you don’t fall into the trap of treading the road that everyone’s trodden before?
Much to my amazement, not having the fight is turning out to be an incredibly good decision, because I got far more interest in plot out of it than I would have had I done it by the cliches. But the cliches are not bad to start with because you can use them as a kind of scaffold.
The thing is, if you insist in thinking everything is a metaphor, then the metaphors come along and kick you in the arse. It’s just so easy to say you’re up against the evil empire, and everyone thinks in terms of Star Wars. But what you’ve actually got is say, a load of perfectly decent Russians who have been kicked in the face by their overlords for the last several hundred years, who are all queuing up for their turn to hold the bullet…
I like to play with the cliches in order in to point out that cliches is exactly what they are, and if you think in cliches then you’re going to get cliches.
Do you find that level of narrative precision difficult to maintain, when you have an increasing number of plays, TV adaptations and films orbiting round Discworld now?
There isn’t that much stuff. The nice thing about working with Mob films, who make the TV adaptations – and this isn’t actually a sour grapes thing, because I spent about three and a half hours in Hollywood with Sam Raimi, talking about how the Wee Free Men film could get done – the thing about TV is that you’ve got time, and from an author’s point of view, that is vitally important.
With a movie, it’s like driving a big car into a small garage. Lots of small things are going to get knocked off the side of it in order to get it in, whereas you can kind of park outside with TV. With Hogfather we effectively had four hours. You can get in the texture, the things that make it Discworld rather than the naked plot.
We’ve just finished production on The Colour of Magic/ The Light Fantastic. And some stuff had to go, especially from The Colour of Magic. The joke here is a tourist who doesn’t understand what a terrible pit he’s actually in, he thinks it’s all wonderful and exciting, and he’s very innocent. There’s a limit to how many times you should repeat that gag in a TV serial, so you can cut out quite a lot from one book, and even more from another, and it will still work perfectly. There was not as much room as I would have liked, because there’s never as much room as you would like, but there was certainly enough.
That’s why I’d like to do some more – the money is not bad – but with TV you get to talk to people and actually make a difference. I mean genuinely make a difference. They actually asked my advice on the patrician, saying we could get X,Y and Z actor. When they said one of them and I said, ‘Yes! Oh, yes, yes, yes!’
I’m not allowed to say who it is… A well known English actor. The nice thing about England is that we’re knee deep in Shakespearean trained actors… I actually wrote some extra lines for him to say. And I’m not going to say what the lines were, because although they didn’t give anything away about him, in the sense of, you know, ‘I wash on the shubmarine Red October’, or anything like that. But when I said to a friend in America and I gave her the line, she said ‘I know one British actor who could do justice to a line like that,’ and she’d got it absolutely right.
And so, it’s being able to get involved. They showed me the arch-chancellor’s study they’d made. And it was absolutely beautiful and fine in every detail, but I said ‘It’s not dusty enough. It’s got to be dusty.’ So they went and got a special dust machine. You get that much… it’s not power… it’s involvement, with TV.
And then a couple of days ago my PA Rob went up to Pinewood in a big lorry with a crowbar and a toolkit, and took away all the props they’d let him take away, so you get to keep some good stuff too!
Who’s playing the leads in The Colour of Magic/ Light Fantastic?
We have David Jason as Rincewind, and Sean Astin who was Sam in The Lord of the Rings is Twoflower. David Jason, so you think what you’re going to get is ‘David Jason’, but no, you’re not actually going to get Del Boy, you’re not actually going to get Scullion, from Porterhouse Blue. Actors act, so now he’s done Rincewind. Rincewind in the TV show is sarcastic and everything, because he is in the book. And David Jason takes a fall very well doesn’t he? When it comes to passing out hilariously… But my god the things they’ve had to do, him and Sean! They were at Pinewood, in the big water tank there, he has to have a sword battle hanging upside down, and I don’t think he uses a stuntman for that. I think David Jason’s older than me, but he has a stunt runner.
I keep saying we about this production, I have to constantly keep reminding myself that I am officially only the man that wrote the book, but the fact I tend to talk about the whole thing in terms of ‘we’, shows what a nice bunch they are. At least, a nice bunch until we get to see the rushes, then I’ll shout at them. But they did one thing wrong that the fans will all point out, for when Twoflower turns up in the first book, it’s the first time that spectacles are seen in that part of the Discworld. I hadn’t realised this until we were shown a lovely piece about Lord Vetinari and a fan, who’d been allowed in, said, ‘He’s wearing specs.’
I thought, It’s a movie one of the things the make-up department can do a lot with is different kinds of spectacles. There is no way you can take that away from them, it isn’t important. And Lord Vetinari is in tiny, little, evil spectacles…
Interestingly enough – this might not be known to others – fans appear as extras. People from Mob Films came along to a Discworld event and they actually liked it. The fans were pleased with Hogfather. Mob brought some of the work in progress and got a standing ovation. Generally the relationship between movie people and fans is a bit odd, but I think it was about four o’clock in the morning when the director went to bed, because he’d been at the bar talking.
So he said, ‘These fans like doing masquerade stuff, we could use some extras,’ I was a bit nervy, because fans in movies has in the past got some negative vibes associated with it… Not my fans, I mean the whole thing. And the old worry, well, are you going to get performances out of them? But you don’t really need to go to RADA to walk along the street and buy an apple. So, we ended up with about 50 fans in a Victorian folly near Guildford, and that seemed to go very well. The fans enjoyed themselves no end…There was a modern bit of paving outside, so the film crew filled it full of chipped bark like you get in garden centres. And that got stamped on and rained on over the days, and when the came time to break set, people were just sweeping it up. It was kind of recursive fandom, they knew that this was what fans were supposed to do, but it was fun. ‘Look at me, I’m so fannish, I’ve got soil from the homeland!’
Then Mob Films came back a few weeks later saying, ‘We’d like the fans back, we think they’re the best extras we’ve ever seen. They know the material, they take orders, they enjoy being there, they’re getting something out of it. So we need them for a fight in the Mended Drum.’ If you’re a Discworld fan, do you want to be involved in a fight in the Mended Drum? Of course you do! The mere fact that you can have a drink in the Mended Drum and then someone will beat you senseless with a mallet – yes please! If I hadn’t have been in the States believe me, I would have been there with a big false beard on. I sent them a box of champagne so they could have a drink in the Mended Drum, and they were there when it blew up. They didn’t want to go home. And they actually put in good performances. They got proper extras rates, when you actually knew, absolutely knew, that they’d have turned up for nothing, in fact some would have paid. The first lot we had in from seven countries. People flew from the States to run around in costume, to be part of the movie.
I did actually suggest for versimilitude that we leave all the people in the Mended Drum when it was blown up. But the health and safety people… they just couldn’t see the artistic necessity.
As you may gather, I was a fan as a younger man. One of the very nice things about, I have to say SF fandom, because I never think about fantasy fandom as being organised in the same way, was when I went to my first con as a kid, there they all were – Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison… all the big name SF writers. And it’s still the case, if you go off to a Worldcon even now, in addition to the guests of honour, there will be there, on their own dollar, guys who could easily be guests of honour themselves. This is part of paying that back.
On Making Money…
Pratchett’s words on his latest book
The first few Discworld novels were out and out pastiches of heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery. But, over the years the Discworld has increasingly become a backdrop for all kinds of clever satire, and has begun to undergo the beginnings of an industrial revolution, allowing Pratchett to tackle more and more modern day issues. But it’s all still fantasy, and Making Money, his latest, is fantasy in more than the traditional sense, as Pratchett explains.
“The fantasy is about the fact that we agree that gold is valuable,” he says. “Gold has no real value, apart from in electronics. You can’t cut things with it. It’s shiny, it’s very heavy and it’s very rare. Lead is actually rather more important because there’s enough of that to put on roofs. What a pound coin is actually worth is defined by our willingness to pretend that it’s worth a pound. And, this is indeed fantasy. Finance is a fantasy, banking is a fantasy. People believe that you put your money in the bank, and it’s there, but in fact you take your money out of your pocket, put it in the bank, and the bank puts it in somebody else’s pocket. Because it’s a loan, see. ”
Pratchett points to this consensus reality failing as being the root cause of the recent Northern Rock affair.
“I can sit here being a bit smug about that. Every now and again, something bad happens to banks. I read up on some Victorian history, when you did have runs on banks. When anyone hears a bank’s failing it instantly fails because everyone goes in and tries to take their money out.” Which, of course, isn’t really there.
Thankfully, in Discworld things work out a bit better. In the book, conman Moist Von Lipwig, the hero of Going Postal, is given the job of running Ankh-Morpork’s bank.
“Basically he introduces the idea of modern banking where you take accounts from poor people. You don’t have lower limits on what you can put in. The bank is very successful by having lots of small accounts rather than being for rich people which is what they used to be. He can carry the poor along in the dream.”