Terry Pratchett was in Australia promoting his Discworld novels, Night Watch and the Carnegie Award-winning children’s book The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. I caught up with him in the lobby of a hotel in Sydney .
TC: Why do you think Discworld has become such a phenomenal success?
TP: Any answer I give you is based on post-facto reasoning, and I always fall back on the line “don’t ask the man on the tightrope how he keeps his balance”, because after a while your body just keeps its balance and the last thing you want to do when walking the tightrope is think about keeping your balance. One fan wrote to me and said that reading the Discworld books is like being a member of an exclusive club that anyone can join. I’m not entirely certain what she meant, but it was a nice line. It’s successful, and it’s fantasy, which I think is a fairly accessible genre in any case, especially these days, but there’s a sufficiently healthy injection of reality – or at least something that can pass for it in a poor light – to make it interesting.
TC: Will you ever get tired of writing about it?
TP: Oh yeah, probably. If I do, I’ll stop, but that hasn’t happened yet.
TC: I read somewhere that you keep a journal when you’re on tour. Does that help?
TP: It certainly helps when I’m on tour, yes, and well, it helps for the next tour: “I won’t go back there again, they were a bad lot!” I make a few notes, it’s part of the discipline of the tour; who I was interviewed by and so on, but mainly because if I don’t do that life just becomes a porridge of slush. If I go to a hotel, I write that I’ve been there, although they all look exactly alike. “What can you remember about the hotel?” “Well, it had staircases.” It can be pretty bad sometimes, but I got the jet lag out of my system this time when I did the tour in New Zealand last week, but on, say, an American tour it’s another night, another hotel. You become completely detached from reality, which my wife points out when I get home. She keeps getting woken up in the middle of the night because she can hear me creeping about the room when I get up to go to the bathroom – and I’m completely lost, scrabbling at cupboard doors. “That’s the wardrobe. Left! Left!” “Oh, right, there’s the handle!”. It can screw you up for some time when you’re travelling. You become quite focussed on what you’re doing but when you look back at it, it becomes a blur. My first visit to Australia was in 1990 and I’ve come an awful lot since then, it must be my seventh or eighth visit, plus the fact that we also come to Australia on holiday. In fact famously on one occasion I bought a pair of trousers and left them to be shortened and when we came back three months later, I picked them up and thought I was so cool, “Hey, he comes to Australia to get his trousers!”
TC: You have written some science fiction but fantasy is clearly your medium. Is there a reason for this?
TP: It depends. I’ve done a lot of interviews today and people are even disagreeing as to whether Discworld is fantasy. One lady said, “It’s fantasy for everybody else”. No, that’s not right, what was it? That’s it. She said “fantasy for the rest of us”.
TC: You mean versus Tolkien and the latter-day fantasy mush that’s out there?
TP: I would like the record to state that you said mush. In a sense Tolkien doesn’t count because he stands outside the genre. There are plenty of people that read Tolkien but wouldn’t pick up a fantasy novel on the end of a pair of tongs. I suppose in a sense that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a bit like ‘Sci-Fi for the rest of us’.
TC: I’m sure you’re pleased with the success of your created world, but do you ever worry that it will run away from you, or that you will lose, say, editorial control?
TP: There’s no sign of me losing editorial control, so I don’t quite see how that can happen. In fact, a little more editorial control would be welcome.
TC: I suppose I’m thinking, going back to Tolkien, of the controversy that has occurred with the release of The Lord of the Rings movies, and the various plastic figurines and movie-related merchandise that has come out, all of which he would have despised.
TP: OK, but the significant point there is that he is dead. Classically, that is not a period of your life where you have much say in what happens. After my death, who knows, but while I’m alive it’s mine, and it stays mine. There isn’t anything out there that I haven’t said either yes to, or in most cases had some involvement in. You know about the various CDs and games that have come out, but it’s actually quite small stuff, you can walk down the street and never know there was any Discworld merchandise; it’s not in your face, it’s for fairly keen people that want to locate it.
TC: For all your humour there is clearly a serious and even moral side to many of your books, and your latest novels Night Watch and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents are no exception. Is this incidental to your plot and character development, or are you consciously using humour to get a deeper message across?
TP: I think – soggy as it sounds – the whole thing moves forward as one thing. It’s probably true since it’s inception Discworld has got shall we say a little more gravity and a little less levity, although the humour is still there. But I would say that certainly the humour of Night Watch is in places more of the style of M.A.S.H or Catch 22 than the lightweight stuff of The Colour of Magic or The Light Fantastic. Partly that’s because I’m a better writer now and because of the nature of the situation. I mean, you can be funny about big wars involving thousands of people, but when you’re dealing with, for example, a secret police, to suggest that they use soft cushions and comfy chairs makes a very good Monty Python sketch, but in a book, the page would just crack in half, you can’t do that, and you’re betraying people if you do. The situation is dark and desperate and you’ve got to portray that, certainly for a character like Vimes. If I was writing for Rincewind, he’s always got a way out, he’s always going to run away, but Vimes has got to deal with things and you’ve got to make it serious; you have to have the darkness so that the light shows through.
TC: If we stay with this idea in The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents for example, do you really care about the rights of rodents, or are we to read something more into it about human rights and animal exploitation?
TP: It is interesting that we routinely inflict on rats the kind of tortures, which would have a medical research facility burnt to the ground if they were inflicted on mice. It’s absolutely true; we use poisons that effectively burn rats alive from the inside out, so I suppose I care as much for their rights as Richard Adams cares for the rights of rabbits.
TC: I was particularly struck by your observation that Ankh-Morpork is “not a city but a process”. Is this a comment on the nature of industrial civilisation?
TP: I’m glad you liked that bit, because I’ve always thought that. For that part of the book I actually undertook some research into what a city – in this particular case, with a population of half a million people – would need in a day. I got hold of some research about medieval food requirements, adjusted this for Ankh-Morpork and added a bit. In fact, yes, we don’t realise how our own civilisation works; for example, what’s the size of Sydney?
TC: About five million people.
TP: Multiply all those figures I gave you by a factor of ten, and all that food has to come in on a daily basis. All those lobsters, all that pepper, all that stuff; it has to keep coming in, and there’s one hell of a lot of it if you think about it.
TC: You seem fairly pessimistic regarding our own human and planetary condition, yet good often triumphs over evil in Discworld – even if by accident. Do you think Discworld is doomed like our own planet?
TP: Yes. We’re doomed, we continue to be doomed, and we go on being doomed for century after century; we have actually turned being doomed into a state of normality. In terms of Night Watch where you’re obviously drawing a lot of this from, one fan objected to the darkness of central part of the book, compared to the beginning and end, which is set in bright, sunlit, modern-day Ankh-Morpork. But it’s actually run by a dictator, admittedly a democratic dictator – he’s the man who got the votes – but Vetinari maintains power by letting people do pretty much what they like and takes the consequences. He doesn’t mind if you rock the boat, just don’t drill holes in the bottom. It’s interesting that in contrast to the old-fashioned Ankh-Morpork I’ve described, the modern-day Ankh-Morpork looks like a sort of liberal, pleasant place to live! I don’t think it’s a case of good triumphing over evil, because that rather suggests that there is some kind of white figure on a horse for good, and another for evil. What actually happens is that people find a way to survive and accommodate things.
TC: You’re on the record as saying that your writing is influenced by moderately current affairs. How do you think the current situation might affect your future work?
TP: I don’t know, but I won’t invent some psychopath in a dress or anything like that – that’s just too crass. It’s more a way of thinking. It’s just as well that we do think about the situation we’re in and the things we have done. We live like gods, certainly by the standards of many people and generations. Most people in what might be loosely termed the western world don’t only have enough to eat, but all together far too much and kinds of freedoms no one dreamt about 300 years ago – access to just about all the music ever written, access to more or less every movie ever made, we are awash with stuff – and I’m not necessarily saying we shouldn’t be, but we should be aware, and locate ourselves in time and space and understand a bit of history and a bit of geography and world politics. This is not a revolutionary concept.
TC: You published your first short story when you were fifteen. Do you have any tips for aspiring young writers?
TP: Actually I was 13 when my first short story was accepted and I was 15 when it was published. It took time mainly because the editor of the magazine, John Carnell, more or less just bought stuff and eventually put it in the magazine when there was a hole of the right length. I started writing my first novel when I was 17, and it wasn’t published until I was 22 I think, but again that was because it took the publisher more than a couple of years to fit it into his schedule. As far as I was concerned it was no big deal, I was just having some fun.
TP: Yeah, get another job, but everyone says that. In my case I found that a job in journalism did help, but even then it’s possible that if the writing hadn’t taken off I would have gone on being a journalist that wrote the occasional book, and I’d now be looking hopefully towards the possibility of early retirement, something which I doubt is going to happen to me now. But journalism helped, and I know a lot of authors that it did, and I think you’d find quite a large number of popular authors – certainly male popular authors – were journalists. It knocks off the rough edges and you don’t get scared of the blank paper. You know, it’s the obvious stuff. Plus you get to see different kinds of people, get into different kinds of situations and see lifestyles that you’re not entitled to, that sort of thing, so that helps. But the other thing is that before you write, you have to learn to read and I mean read a lot and try and understand what you’re reading. I get a lot of kids who want to write fantasy, but what they’ve read is lots of fantasy, and I say that’s a recipe for disaster. All you’re really going to do is recycle what you’ve read, whereas if you read history you’ll get on the way to reading enough stuff that you can cherry pick what you want. What I’m really saying is get an education. Unfortunately, the school system is not set up to get you an education; it’s set up on the whole to get you through exams, so really it’s up to you to supplement, shall we say, the basic ration.
TC: Do you think fantasy will ever become a “respectable” genre? What do you think it would take to become one?
TP: Serious question: what is a respectable genre? What makes it respectable?
TC: Probably because it’s on the shelf marked “Literature”.
TP: Interesting. I’ve said before that I once went into a bookshop that had all the works of Margaret Attwood on the shelf marked “Literature” except The Handmaid’s Tale which is “soft” science fiction, not about ray guns, but that was in the SF section. Iain Banks is a guy that worries bookshops because they don’t know where to put him – sometimes his non-SF stuff reads like SF and I don’t think Ian gives a stuff about it, and good on him for that – but it won’t be on the [literature shelf] because of cherry-picking. Tolkien is kind of OK now, because he was successful and made publishers a lot of money. In the same way people have been making comments when they interview me that “it’s not really like fantasy writing, because it’s fantasy for the rest of us”. What we’re seeing here is actually: “OK, we think you might be good, so we’re going to cut you away from the herd, so then you’re not really a fantasy writer.” There’s a saying you must have heard, “If it’s science fiction it can’t be good, if it’s good it can’t be science fiction”. I just say: “I’m a fantasy writer, live with it. If it’s not what you think fantasy writing is, I suggest you broaden your horizons.”
TC: A personal question coming from my environmentalist background. Are you still doing your work with The Orang-utan Foundation? Is that your main conservation interest?
TP: Basically, what they do is get money from me sometimes. They get the proceeds of the Discworld plays, and I think that’s great, it’s a nice continuous earner. In terms of conservation interests yes, but we have other more traditional charitable interests. The question is, did I want it like this? I don’t know, I got it like this. The Orang-utan thing was purely by accident. I was gaining money by giving talks and things and I thought “I don’t really need this, but I think I should be paid”. It seemed logical that I should, because what people don’t pay for isn’t worth anything and so I funnelled it off to The Orang-utan Foundation because the Discworld librarian is one. Up to that point like everyone else I thought of Orang-utans as rather flabby, funny apes.
TC: Finally, do you feel you have an opportunity with your books to spread a message? It strikes me that many authors care very deeply about many things and they use their books as a platform, in a sense. Is that the same for you?
TP: Yes, but I wouldn’t own up to it. “Gosh, I feel very strongly about this” is a writer’s recipe for disaster, but there are ways perhaps of gently steering the way people think about things.
TC: Terry Pratchett, thank you very much.
TP: Thank you.