An edited transcript of a conversation with the best-selling writer Terry Pratchett in which he tells John Gardner some of his views on jokes, death, literary reputations and strange diseases.
No. I'm working on the next Discworld after the next one after Nightwatch because there's one coming out in May – what is officially a young adult Discworld - and we're just seeing it through its proof stage. In fact I'm in one of those what I call a node – they're one of those very strained periods of time because it's when there's a book about to come out and there's the PR for that I have to get involved in. Then there's a book just going through the final editing and proof stage which is quite intense. So I'm involved in that, plus around the time I'm trying to get the next book well and truly on the road.
So it's a fairly busy time. There's about six weeks when everything is a bit panicky and then it settles down and there's just one book I have to think about.
There is something to be said for that. But there is an upside which is that you get a lot of readers and you get paid quite a lot of money.
But there is something in that view and it would probably be better for me in the long run to slow down but I was trained as a journalist and so putting words in an acceptable order in exchange for money is kind of built in
(In journalism) the concept of writer's block never crops up. Unsympathetic men come and shout at you. It takes a week for any posing attempt at writer's block to be burned out of you.
Yes, of course there are times when you're stuck. But that's a bit different. That's when you've gone down the wrong alley – you need to rethink things. You have to go back and start to tinker. You have to find out what's getting in the way but that's not writer's block. In fact that's the time when you're working at your hardest. The flow is not coming so you just sit down and graft until you bend the story the way it has to go.
I look forward to them and I remember them with pleasure. I believe that signing tours are part of the whole thing, though if you then ask me 'what is the whole thing?' I'd say I'm not quite certain. But probably it boils down to 'it's not rock'n'roll until you take it on the road'.
It's certainly good to get out. This is, on the whole, a profession where you're encouraged to stay indoors and, indeed, not meet people.
I think that also the fact is that I grew up at least as a science fiction and fantasy fan and within that genre – and it's unlike any other genre I know - it's quite easy to get to meet on a social level some of the best writers around and indeed there's a tacit encouragement that you could be a writer yourself.
If you go along to, say, the World Science Fiction convention there will be writers' workshops and advice from senior writers and panels and so forth. So there is a communication, which you don't get, I think, in any other genre.
Yes, I was, obviously. When I was 13 I persuaded my parents that a science fiction convention was very literary and learned with things for me to go to and I didn't mention the beer. And I met Arthur C Clarke - that was when you could meet him, the days when gods walked the earth – and I met quite a few other UK authors and I came away thinking 'these authors are people, I am a person, therefore I could be an author', which was a reasonably important revelation, I think.
It's called paying forward, not paying back. Maybe you can write the kind of book that will have the same effect on some kid now that a book had on you 40 years ago.
Oh, yes it is and I do an awful lot of that. The feedback is interesting. It would be a troubled author who tried to follow the advice of every single letter from the readers. And occasionally you get one that makes you sit and stare at the wall for half an hour and that's good for you as well. It's important.
(They have been) in some of the pieces that have been done. And there have been a great many of them over the years and on the whole they have been pretty favourable. But if you call them fans you can disenfranchise them because (the suggestion is) they are fans and they will put up with anything because they are fans.
There have been some calculations about this. If I've go, let's say, possibly three quarters of a million readers in the UK we suspect that about 10,000 of them are fans in the classic "we'll buy the T shirt, we'll buy the body splash, we'll buy the talcum powder, we'll buy the cake mixes" in that really serious way.
The people that talk like this have got stuck in round about in the 1970s. There are grandparents, if not great grandparents, who are walking the streets who are Star Trek fans and you can't spot 'em because they look like everybody else.
Things like fantasy and science fiction have just entered the mainstream even if only unofficially as the success of Tolkien demonstrates, as the success of the movie (shows). The readers were out there and they went to the movie. But there are some that persist in thinking that people who read in these genres are all 14-year-old boys called Kevin and don't really count as readers.
That's true. The thing is that probably most readers of just about anything apart from the "books for men" - the Tom Clancy's - are probably female. When you think about it, 50 doesn't seem like a bad bet. Fantasy fiction is generally believed to have a higher female readership than male.
It's kind of puzzling the whole '14-year-old boy called Kevin bit'. What's the problem exactly? It can't be that he's a boy because about 50 per cent of the population are that. It can't be that he's 14 because that's a disease, which generally clears up after 12 months. So it must be that there's something wrong with the name Kevin.
Quite apart from any other considerations since they've been around for 20 years the readership has had a chance to smear. I've gone to do a talk at a school and the headmaster recalled standing in a queue to have a book signed by me when he was at university. Things have now spread out and if I'm doing a talk and there's a grey haired lady with a 14-year-old boy sitting next to her in the audience I have got no idea who is accompanying who.
The last time I came to the Antipodes, which was to go on holiday in Australia last year, the lady who disinfected my boots - because, of course, we come from a farming area - was a Discworld fan and I signed something for her – this was still jetlagged while my feet stank of Dettol or Jeyes fluid or whatever it was. And on the way out the lady in immigration recognised me as well. That's kind of nice because they're not people given to displays of emotion.
Can I just nail something here? I'm not actually certain that there is all that much literary snobbery. What I'm fighting against here is – you're a journalist and I have been and it never actually leaves you. …And we know how things come in what you might call story shape.
It's ever so nice to think here is this rich author with loads and loads of readers but no literary street cred and everyone is very snobbish about him. It doesn't actually work like that.
Most of the reviews I've had over the years in the posh papers have been pretty favourable. They genuinely have and, believe me, I'd say if they hadn't because you always remember the bad reviews. I get on very well with loads of authors and I've been the chairman of the Society of Authors.
Yeah, there are some snobs out there but no one really bothers that much about them because the river just divides and flows around them. Unfortunately they tend to be in positions of power in some newspapers but I'm pretty content with things as they are, I have to say.
I'm not complaining, is what I'm really getting at.
The Discworld style is clearly for adults but it's readily adaptable. Let's start with the fact that fantasy is any case uni-age – it is the great cross-over genre because it owes something to fairy tales. They are beguilingly easy to get into. I get letters from schools where they've been reading – have you read The Truth? – (and there's) a bunch of 11-year-olds and Mr Tulip is their hero. And I thought 'I did not write this book for kids'. Nevertheless, while he is indeed a drug-taking, raving swearing madman it's presented in – for want of a better word – the right kind of way. He doesn't actually swear on the page and he never actually takes drugs and so there's just enough of a pantomime element to him for me not to feel too guilty about it.
Well, yes, the poor guy – clearly his upbringing left a considerable amount to be desired. He's obviously come from a war zone. He was too stupid to know what he was doing while Mr Pin deserved everything that came to him.
(So to return to writing for children) it is a question of rhythm. It is a question of vocabulary but I believe that the best way to learn new words is to experience them in context and that is, in fact, how we learn.
There are some other little things that you have to be careful with. A throwaway line in a children's book can often be thrown away because the kid isn't old enough to see what you're getting at – that you're making a reference to a movie that was very popular 30 years ago or something like that. It's genuinely thrown away.
But I've got used to handling those kind of asides in such a way that I hope that those who get them, get them while those that don't, don't realise that an aside has actually been made.
The English writer G.K. Chesterton said a number of very wise things but one of the wisest was his definition of fantasy which I won't quote verbatim. But roughly speaking it was that the role of fantasy is to take that which is commonplace and therefore no longer seen and lift it up and turn it around and present it to the viewer from a completely new direction so that they see it once again for the first time. And marvel at the wonder of it.
We know about and accept newspapers but how strange it is, though, that the man with the printing press and the notebook more or less does what he likes.
One of the things that the people in Ankh Morpork come to terms with is that nobody is actually telling him what to write and yet no one can actually see why anyone should let him.
And the character himself, as I did when I was a kid of 17 and given a notebook and pencil, suddenly realised he has this terrible power, which he hadn't actually earned and possibly doesn't deserve. And you learn the very strange magic of writing things down.
When you (JG) started out was it a notebook and pen? Did people, as you were writing, edge round to see what you were writing? You kind of move your notebook and they can't actually tell you not to put it in the paper although they will attempt to do so sometimes.
Everyone accepts this. While there is some little legal backing to it is actually accepted because that is how it's done.
Though these days you are far more likely, I think, to find people of the sort that William encounters towards the end of the book that have actually worked out how journalism goes and start talking in journalese: "I am shocked and disappointed. I am Mrs Mavis Battle, 34, mother of three."
People respond in stressful circumstances in the way that society has taught them people will respond in those sorts of circumstances – soap operas, experience and the movies have given them a kind of script to follow,
But I can tell you that there a number of people in The Truth that I personally have met and what is interesting is that many journalists I've spoken to have met them, the same people, including the steeplejack threatening to jump. I didn't have to look far for characters in that book.
We have signed up and, indeed, only yesterday did I have a good thumping big wad of money for the Truckers trilogy. They've given me money which they can't have back which is normally a sign of things going ahead. Nothing is certain in movies but on the other hand this is something we've been negotiating about – talking about for two years. A guy actually flew in a private jet across the Atlantic to come and talk to me about it initially. There were some various contractual difficulties we both had to overcome. I think it's gone on the backburner slightly because, after the success of Shrek, they'd got to get Shrek 2 at least under way.
But, yes, insofar as one can ever say this about the movies it's going to happen. After all, DreamWorks is largely composed of the talent rather than the suits. What they pick up, on the whole, tends to happen.
(Not benign) Understanding, I think. He doesn't go out of his way to be nasty but he has a job to do.
It's my hope, if you like. I am a disappointed atheist. I feel upset on the whole that I've had to resort to atheism. I'm kind of angry with God for not existing.
Put it this way: if you're going to conceive of death as some kind of animate character the Discworld death is a pretty good one to do and it makes him more interesting and it makes him more funny. But the humour has that rather nice poignant quality which gives it an extra something, I hope.
What is nice is that I've tried to make Discworld, at least for the first 15 books, accessible in the sense that even if you start on book number 15 you'd work out what was going on. But it's not one series all the way through – there are story arcs involving various characters – the only commonality in the books is that they are all on the Discworld.
Up to about book 15 I tried to make certain I was explaining everything to new readers but suddenly I thought I just can't do this because the whole book is going to be full of 'now read on' and I just continued evolving the world. And it hasn't actually reduced the take up of new readers at all.
I get letters from people who started with something like Thief of Time which was pretty intense. They say they got this and they were skimming fast over the bits which relied on you knowing a little bit about Discworld because they wanted to get to the next bit. And now they've gone out to buy the series and that cheers me up.
If I had done – and this is getting back to what we were saying about fans – if I had taken the advice I'd been given I'd have written - or probably failed miserably to write - by now some 30 books about a wizard and his humorous travel accessory. Because everyone liked Rincewind and the Luggage and they wanted more. But I started ringing the changes and doing new things and the series progresses and I think has become more – grown up would probably be the wrong word, darker would probably be the wrong word - but it's certainly evolved into something stronger than it used to be.
Because I keep applying changes. There's a world of difference between the first book and the last.
Up to about Mort I was getting into gear. What I like about, say The Fifth Elephant is that people would clearly pigeon hole this as a funny book although there are not actually that many jokes in it, as jokes. There are situations which are, among other things, funny although they may not be very amusing for the characters involved in them. And the book I'm writing at the moment is certainly funny but it's serious as well.
That's why I quoted Chesterton earlier on. Because he also famously said that people get confused about funny and serious. They think that serious is the opposite of funny. In fact, the opposite of serious is not serious and the opposite of funny is not funny. A politician can be serious and funny and it is quite possible to be funny and serious at the same time. The two pairs are quite separate things.
What I really enjoyed, and it's something I shall be doing again, was in The Truth Vimes became a minor character and something of an annoyance to the major character. In fact, he played the traditional copper's role with his suspicions of a newspaper story. What was nice about that was that I knew the bulk of the readers would be familiar with this annoying suspicious strait laced policeman as someone they were sympathetic to. That's because in other books they could see inside his head.
Now they have to see him from the point of view of someone who cannot see inside his head and it throws a different light on him. People wrote to me and said it was very strange because the scene that contained both of them was disturbing because they wanted to shout at one or other of them "It's Ok, you can trust him. He's a good guy."
The nice thing about this job is you get fans in all kinds of places and one of them smuggled me into the Royal Opera House just for an hour and every minute I spent there was worth a golden guinea. Seeing behind the stage. It was not just the anecdotes about opera, because everyone gets to hear them, but the little asides and comments which the person concerned didn't realise were important but which were hugely important to a writer.
The thing that really struck me because I'd never seen it before, for example, was the big mirror that everyone walks past so they can titivate themselves up before they go on stage. The likes of you and me, we can grow old and ugly and it doesn't really matter so long as we can still actually hit a keyboard. But for the actor and the dancer and the singer - they know that they've a clock ticking and that long before their number is up they're probably not going to be as good as once they were and that mirror is going to tell them. So that went in the notebook.
It was definitely a writer. I went to Hay on Wye, a little town on the English-Welsh border which is the second-hand book capital of the world, and spent about eighty quid on books at the weekend. And it was money well spent for the very first item I read, which was in a book about the American Civil War. I was idly leafing through it because I thought it would be interesting and came across a quote which absolutely told me in what direction a plot of mine should be going. What you have to do is have fun and that sort of thing turns up.
I've been to Auckland more times than I've been to Edinburgh. What I do like is the flight. Because it's the better part of a day out of the reach of telephones. You're entirely enclosed, as it were in your own personal space, and if anything goes wrong it's the pilot's fault.
It is gruelling but you're going on the whole to places where people want to see you. You live in a little bubble of time which is completely divorced from the rest of the world and you get strange diseases.
I'd better explain about the strange diseases, hadn't I? It happens especially around Christmas time. Here's an author who sits by himself for most of the year, well for months on end, and you go out and ten thousand people breathe on you. I always come back from a signing tour with strains of flu hitherto unknown to mankind.