A Conversation With Terry Pratchettby Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, April 2000
Category: Fiction Writing
For the past ten years, fantasy author Terry Pratchett has continued to be the bestselling living fiction author in Britain, his novels accounting for 6.5% of all hardcover fiction sales in Britain's general retail market for 1998 alone. Twenty million copies of his many Discworld novels have been translated into twenty-seven languages worldwide, the past ten of which have been the number one bestsellers in the United Kingdom. His most famous novels are set in a fantasy world called Discworld. Discworld, as the name implies, is a world shaped like a flat disc which rests on the back of four elephants. The four elephants stand on the back of a giant turtle which floats through space. Discworld is peopled with Pratchett's beloved and imaginative characters: the bumbling and astoundingly incompetent wizard Rincewind; the Luggage, the magical and many-legged suitcase which is fiercely loyal to its owner and completely homicidal to anyone it perceives to be a threat to said owner; Death, WHO SPEAKS IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS and whom everyone meets sooner or later (he's really not such a bad guy when you get to know him); Captain Samuel Vimes, the beleaguered head of Ankh-Morpork's City Watch whose subordinates include a dwarf, a werewolf and a troll; the Igors with their interchangeable body parts and their perfect servant's manners, and many, many others. The Discworld novels are brilliant parodies of many of the more absurd things which exist in our world, and it is Pratchett's unique way of looking at our world which gives the books their witty style and laugh out loud funny humor.
Terry Pratchett is the author of more than thirty novels, including the apocalyptic farce Good Omens, which was co-written with Neil Gaiman. He received the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) in Queen Elizabeth II's New Year's Honours List for 1998 and an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Warwick in 1999. Terry's love for words began at an early age; he published his first short story, "The Hades Business," commercially when he was fifteen. After graduating from school, he went on to a career in journalism which in turn led to being appointed publicity officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board (now PowerGen), where he was responsible for four nuclear power stations. He has said that he would write a book about his experiences if he thought anyone would believe it. It was while he was working there that he wrote and published the first of the Discworld novels, Colour of Magic, in 1983. He says he used to grow carnivorous plants, but now they've taken over the greenhouse and he avoids going in. He lives in Wiltshire, England with his wife Lyn and daughter Rhianna.
Terry says writing is the most fun anyone can have by themselves. He is fond of computers (never being caught without at least a laptop nearby), cats, books, Texas barbeque, traveling (especially to Australia) and spending time with his family (not necessarily in that order). Known for his kindness and accessibility to his numerous fans, he still answers all his voluminous fan mail. He seems to take his overwhelming success in stride. Unassuming and self-deprecating, he is devastatingly funny to talk to -- even after he's just spent an excruciating afternoon at the dentist. It's clear that writer's block is not something with which he really has an acquaintance -- in fact, he seems to bubble over with funny ideas.
Terry spoke with us about his latest Discworld novel, The Fifth Elephant and how he got his start as a writer. He also gives some straight from the shoulder advice to aspiring writers, and gives us the inside scoop as to how he was introduced to his favorite cocktail: the banana daiquiri.
Let's talk about the latest book in the Discworld series, The Fifth Elephant, which will be released here in the United States in April, 2000. Have the release dates for the American and British dates been synchronized yet?
There have been various attempts in the past to do so. At one point, some years back, HarperCollins made what was then a sensible decision to leap forward in the series, skipping a few books in the series in order to "catch up"; later on, it could bring out ones that had been missed. But at least this way the new titles would be released at the same time as the ones in the U.K. Unfortunately, there was some slippage, and things ended up even worse off than they were before. But I think that things have gotten back into some kind of order now. Certainly, it is everyone's intention to bring the books out as closely together as is possible. In fact, for the very next book, my manuscript has gone off to HarperCollins and to Transworld in the U.K. at the same time. That would be The Truth, which will be out in November, 2000, both in the U.S. and in the U.K. So, there should be general rejoicing.
The Fifth Elephant brings back Captain Vimes and throws him in up to his neck in conspiracy, diplomacy, vampires and werewolves. Let's start with werewolves. Why werewolves?
Well, why not? Werewolves are -- I was going to say a
Vimes gets into a great deal of trouble in this book. I especially liked the chase scene. It's sort of The Most Dangerous Game, but played out in the background of a Chekhov play.
Well, I'm glad you noticed that because I get fan mail from some of the younger fans and they say, "What was the bit with the three old ladies?" And I say, "Haven't you heard of Chekhov?" "Yes, wasn't he the first officer on the Enterprise. And I think, "Oh, dear me. I'm an old man, I'm going to have to kill myself!" In my story, it's not Chekhov really, but it's what people that don't know much about Chekhov think Chekhov is. I put that sequence in the story as sort of an Easter egg: the little treasures (literary or other jokes) hidden throughout the story. I didn't want to do just a straight chase scene, and I thought, "This is the right kind of landscape, it's the right kind of weather, so let's have a couple of pages of mock Chekhov." The nice thing about Discworld is you can do that kind of thing.
I wonder what percentage of the readership actually catch all the jokes? Perhaps each person gets a different Easter egg, so to speak.
That, I think, is one of the keys to the success of this world, although I never set out to do things like that. I don't think anyone gets everything. But I think nearly every one gets 80% - 90% of the references in the book. But I hope that the things that they don't get they don't notice that they're not getting, if you follow me. There is a character mentioned in the book, (although he's never appeared because he's dead) called Bloody Stupid Johnson, who is the opposite of a genius. He is kind of the negative image of Leonardo de Vinci. He's built various things which don't work, and they all failed to work in a most spectacular way. One of the things he built is the Mighty Organ at the Unseen University, which can make the most astonishing array of sounds. There is a scene in one of the books where one of my characters is at the Ankh-Morpork Opera house. The Opera House's organ has been busted and needs some spare parts. So the character says, "Well, I've been in touch with the University and it's a marvelous thing. It turns out that our organ is a Johnson." Now, no one in England is going to get that line, but most Americans probably will. But it doesn't actually matter to me that no one in England will, unless they've watched a few American movies, because they're not going to notice it. Ultimately I put those things in because I think it will be fun at that point.
The Igors ("ee-gors") are great fun. Or perhaps you call them Igors ("eye-gors")?
It seems to be pronounced both ways in the classic horror movies. I've always thought of them as "ee-gors". I rather like their philosophy, really. I'm so pleased with the Igors that I've made certain I've got one ready for a future book.
Another theme that makes for some great reading is what happens when two dissimilar cultures clash. Is that a theme you are interested in?
Well, yes. I can say to you that Ankh-Morpork is probably a cross between 17th century London and 20th century New York. Captain Vimes thinks like both the British and Americans think, i.e., you go to some other country but you bring with you your own cultural baggage. Despite the fact that Vimes really doesn't like people acting the way he himself is acting, nevertheless he still does it. He simply lays down the law. If you remember, there's a scene where he stands up for Detritus when they are in Überwald. Even though Detritus is a troll, Vimes is simply not going to have one of his officers treated as a second class citizen in a different country -- and that's that. He just puts it right on the line. And yet, at the same time, he makes a fool of himself. He gets it all wrong about the food. He's a little bit obscene. We can see in him aspects of ourselves, I think -- and of our own culture, I have to say.
Readers who are mystery fans are going to get a special kick out of this book. He's trying to solve this crime and then it turns into this dreadful political thing.
Right. I write what used to be called thrillers. The fun thing about writing something like this is that I know that a lot of the fans are trying to get ahead of me all the time. They're trying to get to the end of things -- to see where it's going. Vimes isn't daft, you know. When faced with an apparent crime of that nature, he immediately starts thinking of all the various possibilities. He doesn't take things at face value. Never mind about the destination; it's the journey that's going to be fun.
It seems to me that the Discworld novels have gotten a touch darker, perhaps with a few more serious bits in them. Is that an accurate statement of how the series has evolved?
First off, I have to say that I simply hate it when reviewers call my work "wacky" or "zany". Those people are going to be hunted down by the
A theme that also seems to run through the books is the effect of people's beliefs actually shaping reality. Is that true? Have our beliefs and stories and fantasies made certain things "come to life"? How?
If I was late for an appointment and came running out of a bank just at the same time as the alarms accidentally went off, I might well get shot by someone. Certainly if it happened in America I might find myself shot by a policeman who believed I was a bank robber. Beliefs do shape reality. We know this to be the case. Thousands of people every year die because of what they believe. Becoming dead after being alive is a fairly major change in reality, I would think.
I was also thinking along the lines of your book Small Gods and the idea that a God's powers were directly related to how many people actually believed in him.
Well, sooner or later a fantasy writer invents something because it's going to fly, and you want it to fly for the length of a book. I don't pretend that that is my take on how the universe really works. But it is a useful tool.
Generally, I get pretty good feedback from academics, I have to say. I get quite a lot of feedback, in fact. Sometimes they argue with me and sometimes they don't. I get quite a lot of feedback from ministers of religion, as well. I get quoted in sermons and things like that. It must be very puzzling to the people in the church. I do get quite a lot of letters from senior people at universities saying that, except for the magical elements, it is pretty much how life is in the universities.
Going back to what you were saying about the horrible word "wacky". I must say I've never really thought of your work as wacky. What makes it so funny to me is that it's actually quite logical and accurate. Maybe you just say what people won't say.
Well, I had a letter recently from a very well-known mathematician who said that the way the wizards solve problems is exactly the way mathematicians solve problems. You'll find half a dozen mathematicians clustered around the blackboard, all arguing with one another, all fighting for the chalk. Some of them will be rubbing out part of the equation that another one of them has just written. And out of this kind of creative hubbub comes a solution. That is exactly how the wizards work, as well.
I'd like to talk a bit about the practical side of being a writer. You've said you are from the Carpentry School of Writing. And you think it's very important that writers work on their craft. Could you expand on that a bit?
Okay. I have to say that I change the metaphor about once a week. But it may help if I give you an idea of how I go about writing.
Well it seems to me that you must be an amazing observer. Do you think that's true that you must be a good observer to write really great parody or satire?
For many years I was a journalist, and so I was trained to observe in a journalistic way. What I always say to people is that when it comes to inventing characters, don't base a character on someone you know. But it may be a good idea to base the character on a type of character that you know, because lots of other people will know people like that. And if they know people like that, then half the work has been done for you. People say, "I know someone just like Granny Weatherwax!" The reader is simply inserting that person that they know into the story. A great deal of character work lies not in describing the characters, but in describing the shape that they leave in the world. How they react to other people. How they face things. When they keep silent. The manner in which they say things. Character does not consist of telling the reader what color a person's eyes are and how tall he is. You do not need pages and pages of physical description to get a character. You can get nearly all the physical description you need by one thing that character says that makes people think, "Aha! I know exactly what kind of person would say something like that!"
What do you love most about your job?
(laughing) Well, I get paid shitloads of cash...which is good. I really do love to write. The curious thing is that during the last month or six weeks of a book, when I am editing, rewriting, refining and polishing my work, I say to myself: "If you're a good boy and finish this before the deadline, you're going to be allowed to write another book!" Because during the first month or two when you're working on a book (when a lot of options are still open) you don't have to be too disciplined. You're writing a lot, going down a lot of blind allies, you're finding out how the plot is going to work etc. That is a fun period, and I look forward to it. What I like doing is the actual writing itself. Once you've bought yourself the biggest word processor you can and you're living in the house you're going to live in, and you've got a nice desk, you're kind of running out of things to buy.
There's always a new computer!
Well, yes, there's always a newer computer. This house has computers like other houses have mice. In a month or two, I'm going on a holiday in Australia. We go most years. I always take a portable computer with me. When I am on holiday, I write twice as much as I do as when I am at home in my office. I'm relaxed, I'm having fun, I'm sitting out there overlooking the sea, with a nice glass of something beside me. The telephone isn't ringing; I haven't got any letters to write. I get up at six in the morning when it's light, and do some work before breakfast. Later on, we go out and have some fun. You go to bed when it's dark. It's as simple as that -- there's no electricity. My wife and I like holidays where you go and relax. You just lie there in a chair with a big drink in your hand. The big decision is whether you should go for a walk, or just lie there some more.
Would that be a banana daiquiri in your hand?
Let me tell you about banana daiquiris. Years and years ago, there was a world science fiction convention
|"What seems to be happening more and more (and I don't know why this is so) is that a lot of people labor under the misapprehension that if they cannot write it's because some kind of outside influence is preventing them from doing so -- as if the universe itself is conspiring against their natural destiny of writerdom."|
Let's talk a bit about the book you collaborated with Neil Gaiman on: Good Omens. That was before email, so how did it work on a practical basis? What was the most challenging aspect of writing with someone else?
I'm sure what I have to say will echo what Neil has said. When two people work on a book, it isn't a case where
Where did you meet Neil? How did you become friends?
The Discworld books were just beginning to come onto the market in a big way. Neil was doing some journalism at the time. He interviewed me. We got on well, and kept in touch. We're continents apart now. I think he's in the States permanently, I would imagine. Most people think Neil is American, anyway. Although he is firmly English, that's where he gravitates.
If you were forced to go live on Discworld for a year, where would you go?
Probably as deserted an island as I could possibly find. I would live in the back of a cave for an entire year. Although, I have to say as I get older, Unseen University sounds like the perfect habitat. No one expects you to actually do any work. You just show up for meals, which are quite good. You just find an office somewhere and move in. There used to be offices in Cambridge and Oxford which were a bit like that. In fact, some of the feedback from academia tells me that it was not so long ago that there were other universities where it was like that. If you turned up, and appeared to know what you were doing you could almost fit into the university. You wouldn't be paid anything, but you could find an office somewhere that wasn't being used and everything was so disorganized that no one knew whether you should be there or not. Things have changed now, you know. People actually expect results. Someone who knew what he was talking about and was an interesting speaker could get by with it. I was told a story that unused offices were nailed up, which meant they weren't subject to what you would call property taxes. So all you would have to do was go and pull the nails out of the door and move your stuff in. No one knew whether you were supposed to be there or not. But if you were there for long enough, especially long enough for some staff turnover to take place, you were there permanently. I just love that idea. You can't run a university as if it was a business, in any case. It cannot work like that. Some of the best ideas have come from people standing around in a common room shouting at the tops of their voices. You cannot regiment ideas.
Do they Americanize your books, either the adult or the children's books? For example, the Harry Potter books are Americanized.
They have Americanized my children's books. I think that there is an argument for preventing confusion.
It's not as well known over here, unfortunately.
Well, no, because the books have never been published in America as main titles. One publisher said the books were too intelligent for American children! (This was pre-Harry Potter.) But, the books made it to number one on both the children's and the adult bestseller lists in the U.K. So somehow I don't think they can be too difficult for children to understand.
Well, it looks like you've got a US tour coming up soon. Do you like touring or do you dread it?
Yes, at the end of March. In the last ten years I've spent something ike over 17 months on the road.
Just like a rock musician.
Yes, except I don't get any sex. I don't get any drugs. I can listen to as much rock n' roll as I like, though. To say I like
|"When it comes to inventing characters, don't base a character on someone you know. But it may be a good idea to base the character on a type of character that you know, because lots of other people will know people like that. And if they know people like that, then half the work has been done for you."|
Are there any indispensable items that you always take with you on tour, or that you've learned to take with you?
Yes, there are several items. I now take a Palm Pilot, but I used to just take a note pad. The most important thing about the Palm Pilot is that it allows you to write directly on the screen. I take that and I take a small torch. The reason is that every night you wake up in a different hotel room and you can't find the light switch. I make certain I write down in big letters the number of my hotel room. Because you always check in late or you're always in a rush, you throw your bags on the bed and you rush off again. Naturally, when you return you can't remember what the hell your hotel room number is. You can't remember where your hotel is, half the time. The last item is a bottle of some indigestion medicine which is absolutely essential on any tour. Touring is a strange kind of life. It's only after it's over that you work out whether it was fun or not. On the last American tour, what I particularly enjoyed was when the guys from the Adventures in Crime and Space bookstore in Austin took me out for some Texas barbeque. They said to me, "Now we'll only give you a small plate, because we know that you Brits can't eat as much as we Texans." But after about twenty minutes, I was the one that wanted another plate. Yes, I really fell for the old Texas barbeque. I'll be in Austin for my tour in April for the book. I do hope I won't be doing too much radio, though. You always go on a radio program called, "Good Morning City Whose Name You Can't Remember." The announcer says, "Hey, you've done a book. That's great! ... and now, traffic news..."
When Neil Gaiman and I were doing the Good Omens tour it was great fun because I was suffering with one other person. We
Can you give us a preview of the next Discworld novel, The Truth?
Certainly. Actually, it was very fun to write because it's almost the story of my life. It's about a man and
And the longstanding objections to moveable type?
As Lord Vetinari says, "History is a bit like earthquakes. The strain builds up and builds up, and then overnight a whole field of turnips has moved six feet along the fault line." From a practical standpoint, the moveable type is used by the Dwarves. Politically, it would not be a good idea to fall out with the Dwarves, just at the moment. There are a lot of little reasons why it is in everyone's best interest to allow this to happen. Lord Vetinari's main objection to moveable type is that it makes it much easier for a lot of people to actually know what's happening. But he realizes that if you own the newspapers, then you can prevent large numbers of people from knowing what's really happening.
Rumor has it that a major character will be killed off in the near future. Is that true?
That rumor came from an off-the-cuff comment I made in an interview which got repeated all around, with more and more speculation. I am happy to let that speculation continue.
I understand that you interact a great deal with your fans. How much fan mail and email do you get?
It's overwhelming. I don't count it any more. I don't get as neurotic about handling it as much as I used to. I used to really worry about it. Especially if someone's return address wasn't very well-written. I would try to track down the correct address. These days, if I open a letter which begins, "I bet you won't read this letter..." I now think, "Well, fair enough then. I'll put this one back on the heap." But I do my best to answer it.
Do you use the Internet a great deal? I notice you don't have an officially sanctioned website yet.
That is going to change very soon. My agent is setting one up. Have you heard the saying, "Rumor runs
|"Why is it that we always use these really machismo words, like 'surfing'? What surfing really means is sitting there, getting hemorrhoids, staring at a screen while clicking on a mouse. It's not surfing at all; it's just being a kind of couch potato."|
I do use the Internet. It's like the telephone or the fax. It's very, very useful, but I don't go to bed with it. I can think of a lot better uses for my time than surfing the Internet. Why is it that we always use these really machismo words, like "surfing"? What surfing really means is sitting there, getting hemorrhoids, staring at a screen while clicking on a mouse. It's not surfing at all; it's just being a kind of couch potato. I do buy stuff off the Web, and I use it all the time. I download software and order things. It's amazing how much stuff I order from the United States. But it's just another thing to use. It is not my hobby. It's something that makes life much more complicated, in many respects.
I can't imagine that you have a great deal of free time, anyway.
It depends on how you define free time. I recently said to a relative of mine, "We're having a holiday this year." And she said, "From what, exactly?"
When you love your work, maybe you don't need as many holidays.
Yes, that's the point. Either you're working all the time, or you're not working at all. It's very hard to define it when you're writing. I spend a lot of time in my office every day.
You have a home office, right?
We seem to be accumulating offices these days. I have the office that is full of mess, then there's the office that's full of books and not too much paperwork, where I actually sit and write. I write directly on the computer.
Are there any misconceptions about you that you'd like to set straight? Or about writing, in general?
There is one thing that I get asked all the time -- on a daily basis actually -- by aspiring writers who contact me. They say, "I keep starting things; I don't know how to finish them. I don't seem to be able to find time to write. I don't seem to be able to get my ideas down on paper." What I always say is, "Consider, just consider for a moment, that although you want to be a writer, being a writer may not be where your particular genius lies." When I was a kid, I really, really wanted to be an astronomer. I have no real mathematical abilities whatsoever. I'm fine when it comes to the numbers, but when you show me a quadratic equation I'm completely lost. What I wanted to do was to stare in wonder at the universe, which is not exactly what an astronomer has to do. I think that what a lot of people who want to be writers really want is to have written. That is harder. What I tend to say is, "Look, if you wanted to be a boxer you would listen if someone like Mike Tyson said to you, 'Ok, you've gotta go down to the gym. You've gotta eat the right kind of stuff. You've gotta do your road work. You've gotta work at it for years and years, and it's going to be quite hard.' You'd say, 'Yes, Mike.'" So to writers I say, you're going to have to read a lot -- shitloads in fact. So many books that you're going to overflow. You've got to hook into the popular culture of the 20th century. You've got to keep your mind open to all sorts of influences. You've got to sit down for hours at a time in front of the computer. And you must make grammar, punctuation and spelling a part of your life.
People actually start arguing with me at this point. They think it should be easier than that. But it's not easier than that. After a while, it becomes less difficult because you've developed your own technique. But it is every bit as hard as quite a lot of other things. What seems to be happening more and more (and I don't know why this is so) is that a lot of people labor under the misapprehension that if they cannot write it's because some kind of outside influence is preventing them from doing so -- as if the universe itself is conspiring against their natural destiny of writerdom. People