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Read January's 1995 interview with Terry Pratchett.
Terry Pratchett sells more books than... well... a lot of people. In the United Kingdom, where he was born and now lives and works, Pratchett sells -- to put it bluntly -- more books than God. Terry Pratchett is, hands down, Britain's bestselling living novelist. And publicists are quick to point out that fully one per cent of all books sold in England -- that's backlist, frontlist and yesterday's news list -- were written by the diminutive native of Beaconsfield, Bucks, England.
A self-described fantasy author, Pratchett has penned 28 books set in Discworld, the alternate universe the author says began in 1983 with hilarity but that has lately been maturing to a more thoughtful brand of humor. Those 28 books have been translated into 27 languages and have sold over 22 million copies. There have been three computer games based on Pratchett's Discworld, a couple of non-fiction books dealing with the science of the Discworld, a Discworld convention was held in late August in Hanover, Germany, there is a music CD called From the Discworld, there have been several Discworld animations and several newsletters and there are probably more Discworld-dedicated Web sites than can be counted. And while, until a few years ago, Pratchett's following outside of the UK was small and somewhat cultish, recent years have seen the number of Discworld fans growing in other places, as well.
Pratchett is perhaps less impressed than anyone with all of these statistics. "The reason I make the sales is that everything I've written is in print and still selling very well. And every new book adds to it and the whole huge thing just keeps rumbling onward."
Awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1998 -- though he makes a shooing motion at me when I call him "Sir Terry" -- Pratchett maintains the humor and questioning way of looking at the world that has helped him build such a large and loyal readership. He describes himself as a man "who wears a leather jacket and says he writes fantasy and who believes he owes a debt to the science fiction/fantasy genre which he grew up out of, refuses to say he writes "magical realism" -- which is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy and is more acceptable to certain people -- and who, on the whole doesn't care that much. It's all stuff."
The stuff he seems proudest about these days is the fiction he's been writing for children, much of it set in Discworld. Since the time of this itnerview with Pratchett, he was awarded the The Carnegie Medal, which is the highest award given to authors of children's books written in the UK. At the time of our interview, Pratchett felt he was an unlikely candidate for the medal.
Now 54, Pratchett lives in near Salisbury in Wiltshire, "about 12 miles from Stonehenge" where, as usual, he is working on more than one novel.
Linda Richards: Was Thief of Time your 26th book?
Terry Pratchett: It was. And there have been two more since then.
This is the one that A.S. Byatt suggested should be nominated for the Booker Prize.
Yeah. And The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is up for a Carnegie Medal, and it won't get that either.
Was Thief of Time actually nominated for the Booker?
I heard [that] the judges called it in. Which is to say: Let's have a look. And that means one or two of the judges thought they should. But we never heard any more. Thank goodness, because I think my earnings would have gone down considerably if I suddenly got literary credibility. A friend of mine said: It would be impossible for you to win the Booker; all the stars would go out. The world is not constructed for that to happen.
For what? For Terry Pratchett to win the Booker Prize?
For a man who writes books with covers that look like that [He points to the whimsical UK cover of a copy of Thief of Time], who wears a leather jacket and says he writes fantasy and who believes he owes a debt to the science fiction/fantasy genre which he grew up out of, refuses to say he writes "magical realism" -- which is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy and is more acceptable to certain people -- and who, on the whole doesn't care that much. It's all stuff.
The best award I ever had -- and believe me, I've not had that many -- was in 1993 when the Writer's Guild of Great Britain voted the children's book Johnny and the Dead Children's Book of the Year. And the reason I was really pleased with that is that it was other writers who were voting. And so, therefor, I considered that book to be a masterpiece, in the proper mediaeval sense of the word.
We use the term "masterpiece" and don't understand what it means. But, in the old days of the guilds you'd become an apprentice carpenter, and then you'd become a journeyman and you were not allowed to call yourself a master until you had made -- to the satisfaction of the existing masters of the guild -- something that indicated you had sufficient skill to be considered to have mastered the art. And it might be a model piece of furniture or something but it was the master piece: the piece that you made to demonstrate that you had learned your trade.
Last year the [British] Bookseller's Association gave me a very strange award for Services to Booksellers. As a friend of mine -- I have friends like this -- said: That's like giving a painter an award for services to picture framers. But it's because I've been runner-up to Author of the Year for five years running and they thought: We'd better do something about this guy, for heaven's sake! He's too young to give him a Lifetime Achievement Award [Laughs]. And, you know, I have said: If anyone ever tries to give me a lifetime achievement award they'll have considerable difficulty swallowing on account of it being stuck in their throats.
I keep hearing that you're responsible for one per cent of all book sales in the UK.
To be honest, I don't know. The thing is that there was a recent list of the top 10 science fiction and fantasy titles in the UK. I had number one and number two. The sales of number -- I forget which title it was -- were more than the sales of numbers three to ten totaled. And I think I had a third book in there somewhere around number 10, and that was 30,000 in the year. And that was The Color of Magic, the first Discworld book. The reason I make the sales is that everything I've written is in print and still selling very well. And every new book adds to it and the whole huge thing just keeps rumbling onward.
Do you see it all of a piece: this world you're creating.
Yes. While being very careful not to suggest any comparison; everything that P.G. Wodehouse wrote more or less existed in the same world, it was the world of Wooster that you made your way into, rather than the specific stories. And I think Discworld works on that basis.
But, for you, does every book sort of fit into your own master piece, as it were? Do you see it as each one contributing to the whole that you're building?
It's an interesting thought. I don't know: you'd better ask me when I've finished. And since I don't intend to finish before I'm dead, this may involve the services of some good medium. My best books, I believe, have been written for children. Like the Johnny Maxwell series [including Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb] and The Amazing Maurice.
The Amazing Maurice is technically a Discworld book: it's set in Discworld, but it was written for children. ie: It's got war, murder, cannibalism and that kind of stuff -- genocide. All the kind of things that a good fairytale-based children's story should have. It's about rats. Rats are not rabbits. Rabbits go around having fun in the sunshine. Rats live down in the dirt. I've got that kind of sense of humor.
Writing for kids is really, really difficult if you do it properly. And so, a little book which is maybe 40,000 words long takes as long as a Discworld book which is two and a half times as long [in actual words].
What makes it more difficult?
Well, one obvious thing is, when you're writing a book for adults -- especially with the expectation that [some] of them at least will be familiar with the whole fantasy genre -- then some of your work has already been done for you. Adults posses their own film studio that will process that text into the movie.
Kids do to an extent, but you can never be quite certain how wide that extent is. So there has to be more care with every word. You can get more serious with kids. And kids are also prepared to accept any amount of weirdness if they think the story is fun. I'm talking about the average reading kid. OK, right: it's set a long way away and the rats can talk and so can the cat. And the kids are, like: Yeah, right. We know this stuff. We're familiar with this kind of territory. Just give us enough explanation for us to accept, for the moment, what it is you're, you know [trying to tell us]. And then, let's have some plot. You don't have to, particularly, give lots of backstory to some of your [characters]. Because think of the classic fairytale: In the middle of the forest lived the wicked witch. Fine. We accept that. We know forest, we know wicked witch. In fact, that's a particularly treacherous kind of fairytale because you're never given the evidence. Why was she wicked? How many ovens are big enough to push an entire adult human being into? I say that because I'm writing another children's book where a little girl is wondering about this.
"The princess was as beautiful as the day is long." Well, how long? Some days in the winter are really short. How come he's a handsome prince? Picture please. Who says she's a wicked witch? People don't like her? Why do they say she's wicked? Why is it you always find witches in the heart of the evil wood where the worst things happen? I mean, you find doctors where there are diseases, but you don't blame it on the doctors. So she's deconstructing the fairytales and coming up with her own conclusions because she's a kid that thinks for herself. And that's fun, and kids quite like that kind stuff as well.
The Amazing Maurice is a children's book?
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is a Discworld book. It's set in Discworld, but it is for children. In fact, you can read it without knowing anything about Discworld, but for both children and adults that do know about Discworld, it has all the little markers in it that say: Yeah, this is Discworld all right. Like Death as a character and other things like that. But it's quite good fun, because when Death comes to Maurice, there's a kind of plea bargaining, because he's a cat, you see. When Maurice dies, he dies in an act of great bravery and then when Death comes for him, they kind of negotiate:
Well, how many have you got left now?
I've got five left.
I thought it was four, what about that car?
No, no: it was hardly a scratch.
That's exactly it.
But because he's a cat, you can afford to lose the occasional life.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on the Discworld book that comes out after the next one that comes out, which is called Nightwatch which comes out in November. Meantime I'm working on the next one after that, which is another Discworld children's book which is called The Wee Three Men and that's going to come out in the spring of next year.
And that's the one where the girl is questioning fairy stories?
Yes, Tiffany her name is. I chose her name because it was the least witch-like name I could think of only to find that when you go through some of the sounds associated with that name, it's an incredibly good name for my character. I couldn't possibly have known it when I chose the name. Tiffany is a name that in the UK we tend to associate with big hair and hairdressers and stuff. And yet the sounds in Gaelic means: land under water or land under waves. And in the context of the story it couldn't possibly have been a better name. [Laughs] And it's lovely when that happens. That's what I call a banker moment. When you think you're just rambling along, pulling a story together out of components and you suddenly find that it starts to speak to you.
Tell me about The Science of Discworld.
That's a book I wrote with a couple of scientists [Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen] which looks at our understanding of this world as thought it were Discworld. It's not like the science of Star Trek because, frankly, Star Trek has got no science. Let's reverse the polarity of electron flow and the shit will go backwards. And time, too, if it's required in this little episode. But Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart said: Look, the way most people think about science is exactly like the way people think in Discworld. So that's a good starting point for writing a popular science book using an especially written Discworld story to move the science along. And it worked very, very well and so we've done a sequel.
There have been lots of great Discworld tie-ins over the years, haven't there? Your books seem to inspire that in people. More and more and more Discworld!
There have been three computer games, a cookery book -- that was a lot of fun to do -- the four maps and every year there's a Discworld diary.
There have been two animations for televisions. Movies are a sore point. There's always things in development heck.
When I interviewed Neil Gaiman, he told me all about...
... Good Omens.
Good Omens. Yes. The whole nightmare about that.
And that really looks now as if it's disappearing back into development heck again because I believe [Terry] Gilliam's moved off of it because they haven't got all the money. And so, I don't know, they're looking at reformatting it and God knows. But for me that's the familiar sound of opportunity whizzing straight past.
Do your books give you the forum for a really good rant once in a while?
Like the auditors in Thief of Time. They are one side of a current theme in Discworld. Discworld is full of the personification of things like death and you've got the five horsemen of the apocalypse.
The worst thing is the personification of that which has no personality: the Auditors whose job it is to see that the universe works. And they hate living creatures because living creatures are random and they make a bid -- for want of a better word -- to take over. The fun part is that they do it by giving themselves bodies. And they recognize how bodies work, but they don't understand what being a human is like. They have no concept of taste. They can tell you absolutely every possible thing about chocolate except what it's like to eat chocolate. They have no concept of senses seen from the inside. There's one bit in a museum where they're trying to catalog the entire universe and they're dismantling works of art to find out what makes them works of art. They've reduced a painting to piles of pigment and they still can't find where the beauty is.
So, in terms of a place to rant, in a sense yes, because I can say some of the things I think. Fantasy potentially gives you a lot of good metaphors to consider, because most current affairs are only ubiquitous, everlasting affairs which turn up again and again in different disguises throughout history.
Do you find your books are becoming more thoughtful?
They're becoming darker and the humor now comes out of the character and situation rather than a gag in the plot. Some of the best humor turns up purely as a result of the development of the situation.
The mother of an autistic child wrote to me once and said: Did I have an autistic child or know any autistic children or was I mildly autistic. And I said: No, none of these as far as I'm aware. And I asked why. And she said that her son, who is autistic, sometimes asks her questions like: What do you call the hour after midnight? And she'd explain how the hour after midnight is now the next day. And he said: Yes but, if there was an hour after midnight, what do you call it? And I said: Well, no fantasy writer would have any difficulty with this concept whatsoever. A secret hour after midnight that you could only access in some special way. And I don't really think of that as autistic thinking. I don't really know what kind of thinking it is.
Well, you might just simply call it whimsical thinking. But out of that kind of thinking something that isn't strictly whimsical can happen. English is a particularly good language for that kind of thinking. And it's certainly the kind of thinking you need to consider the higher mathematics these days. One you get to quantum physics, that kind of thinking isn't sufficient.
You said your books are getting darker.
Well, perhaps you could say more realistic. They're less clearly funny. Josh's [the late Josh Kirby] covers were very jolly and somewhat cartoony. I think the books over the last 10 books have gone slightly away from that. Because, if all you've got is the gags, you haven't got anything. There have to be bones under the flesh.
I think that's what Wyatt meant when he said that Thief of Time would be the one if one were to be nominated for The Booker Prize. Because there's some heavy thought in that book. It seemed to me more philosophical than earlier books. Like all of the thinking around time in this one...
But we talk about that stuff all the time. It is simply taking your metaphors seriously. We waste time, we lose time. It's like water in the Southwestern United States, it's exactly the same thing. We just move it about.
But Thief of Time seemed more thoughtful to me than earlier Pratchett books. Less pure hilarity.
I suppose so, but it's like wit and humor. Humor comes out of a deep soil. Humor puts down roots. Now wit: you can grow wit in a windowbox. And what Discworld now has is more humor, less wit. I didn't paste the jokes on top, but you could see them as part of the book. The point is, you have to develop one way or the other. I would not have the readership I have if I'd written effectively in terms of style, the same book 28 times.
But you're evolving as a person, as well.
Oh: I'm evolving as a person. [He mocks, self-deprecating.]
But you are. Of course you are.
What you're probably getting is the merest trace of the development of wisdom. I've noticed, for instance, that as you get older, you take less interest in pop groups. There's always another one of them along in a minute. It's not actually worth knowing the names because you've seen so many and on the whole, the music sometimes changes and every now and again one comes along that really impresses the world and you'll find out. But you realize that the same shit comes in different bottles. And also you find that you can deal with success. By the time you hit 50, you're either sort of comfortable with yourself or you're not. I'm not at all unhappy with that. | August 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.