|A Conversation with Terry Pratchett -- Part 2|
|Interview by Steven H Silver|
| March 2000|
For those who don't know, and past sales indicate that many Americans do not, Terry Pratchett is the author of a series
of extremely funny books about a place called the Discworld, which is very much like our own world, except that it is
flat, carried on the backs of four elephants, who in turn are carried on the back of a giant turtle, and magic works.
When I had the opportunity to speak to Pratchett in Chicago, he had literally just arrived from a science fiction
convention in Austin, Texas.
When working on new novels in the series, Pratchett finds that he does not necessarily need to refer to the
older books to find characters and places which are appropriate.
When I had the opportunity to speak to Pratchett in Chicago, he had literally just arrived from a science fiction convention in Austin, Texas.
When working on new novels in the series, Pratchett finds that he does not necessarily need to refer to the older books to find characters and places which are appropriate.
"I have a pretty good reckoning system in my head. I find going back and reading The Discworld Companion is actually more useful. In both editions of the Companion, I've written a lot of new stuff. Some of it almost amounts to notes for future books, so I go through that to jog my memory. Stephen [Briggs] wrote no new material [for the Companion]. What he did was act like a super indexer and put together for me everything I had said about individual people, drawing, at times, on as many as six books. Everything that was new was written by me. That's generally the case on most of our projects.
"Stephen, as it were, builds the scaffolding and I build the house. He winces about it sometimes because he'll do something which I'll entirely re-write, but the point is that unless he had done it to start with, I wouldn't have known what to do. And it works as a system."
Stephen Briggs became involved with Discworld by turning the novel Wyrd Sisters into a play. He has since co-written books with Pratchett, worked on the Discworld maps, and turned more of the novels into plays.
"I'm not really involved in the plays. The ones that [Stephen] does, I've gone to see all of his. And a number of others. But I don't get involved in the writing of those because Stephen knows more about producing and directing a play than I do. When it comes to the actual writing of the novels and stuff like that, I can always pull rank because I know how to do those things because I've done them for so long. But, I've never acted or put a play together, so I have to bow to him."
Another theatrical project possibly on the drawing boards is the metamorphosis of the novel Good Omens, which Pratchett wrote with Neil Gaiman, into a film. There has been talk of this project for several years.
"We know Terry Gilliam likes it, because we met him in the early 90s and discussed it with him, and he was very keen on it. We know that he's been signed up by the [Peter and Marc] Samuelsons as director. But the fact that Gilliam has signed up for the film does not, in and of itself, mean that the film is ever going to get made.
"Both Neil and I are very, very pleased because we think a bad Gilliam film of Good Omens would be better than somebody else's good film. Mort is on-and-off as a live project. Curiously enough, we have no English movie interest whatsoever. All the interest is coming from Germany and the USA. I think that's because the English film industry is made up of a bunch of wankers. When the Brits are allowed to make movies by themselves, it either has to be very gritty stuff about jobless steelworkers or airy fairy stuff with Hugh Grant in it. The idea of doing a fantasy would not occur to them, whereas the Germans quite like that sort of thing. I leave out Paul Bamborough Production, who has got the rights and has stood by them through thick and thin and definitely wants to see Mort made as Mort to a script that's recognizable as Mort. He's thought this all along. The British movie industry as a whole seems quite puzzled about this sort of thing. 'What, you mean there's no part for Scottish drugtakers in it?' 'Couldn't Mort be a steelworker and take all his clothes off?' 'There's no part for Hugh Grant? Well, good Heavens, can you make movies like that?'"
Although the majority of Pratchett's novels are marketed to an adult audience, they can be enjoyed by younger readers as well. When I commented that I would feel comfortable handing one of Pratchett's novels to my ten-year-old nephew...
"Have you actually paid attention to what Nanny Ogg is saying, sometimes? It's an old English tradition. You use a kind of code and, if you can crack the code, then you know about it anyway. And in one of the books, Nanny says something like, 'The recipe for a happy life is stand before your god, bow before your king and kneel before your husband.' But the boy understands everything she says there, then he already knows. So it doesn't really matter."
Pratchett has also written a half-dozen novels marketed to children, all of which can be read and enjoyed by adults. Pratchett does not see anything strange about this, believing that good children's fiction is a subset of good fiction which can be enjoyed by anyone.
"I would say that good children's fiction has always been read by adults. I'm slightly puzzled by the success of J.K. Rowling, only because I think people like Diana Wynne Jones's [novels] so much better. It's like the roulette wheel: it spins and a number comes up and you're in the right place at the right time. I have two more [children's books] planned. They are set in Discworld. Both of them are set in a fantasy universe, that is to say that the familiar rules of fantasy operate. Which may as well, therefore, be Discworld, although the major happenings of Discworld are happening somewhere else. One of them is taking place in a small town that's never been mentioned, but the feel is the same as Discworld, and the other will have a cast of thousands of characters, all of whom will be the Nac mac Feegle, who already appeared in Carpe Jugulum, who I really love... It could be in any fantasy universe, but it will be fun to do it as Discworld, but market it as a children's book. I will say that, even now, when I have the OBE for services to literature, mostly because I've always claimed never to write it, some newspapers persist in calling me a children's writer because they're still stuck in the groove of 'fantasy,' because children read fantasy. So if I write some deliberately children's Discworld books, it is going to muddy the waters even more."
A few years ago, Pratchett was made a member of the Order of the British Empire. Since knighthood and honours are foreign to most American's way of thinking, Pratchett has found himself downplaying the title several times on his North American tour. "I have to explain this to Americans. At best, its kind of a knighthood light. I was astonished. That kind of thing does not happen to genre authors." In fact, Pratchett feels that some of his best writing can be found in the children's Johnny Maxwell trilogy, the middle volume of which he claims is his strongest novel.
"Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb were published in America by the good old Science Fiction Book Club because American children's publishers said they were too intelligent for American kids. But SFBC is doing so well with all my stuff they thought they would publish them directly. To write any more of them, they would have to present themselves. If you force me, I could sit down and come up with the idea for another Johnny Maxwell book, but generally I wait until an idea forms. I did Only You Can Save Mankind and I didn't think I would write any more about the kid. Then I did Johnny and the Dead in remembrance of my grandfather, who fought all the way through the First World War. That was also a children's video series in the UK. It was all done of a shoestring, so they were very happy with my help. And it actually did very well because they had some very good actors who gave up time to do it. Brian Blessed played William Stickers. There's a point where death hauls up a boat in the canal to take him away and William Stickers says, 'How much do you get paid for that? It's not enough.' The actors were so wrapped up, they cooked up an extra twist to the scene which will bring tears to your eyes. It may have been Brian Blessed doing it. As the boat is being punted away, he stands up and sings the last verse of "The Internationale." Then it fades to black. It happened because one of the actors said to Brian, 'My father was exactly like this character and that's how he would have liked to go out.' They put a lot into it and it was a fun thing."
"The strongest novel is undoubtedly Johnny and the Dead. Tom Bowler was being cremated and William is sitting outside the crematorium and he sees the ghost of young Tom Bowler come out and up the path come the remainder of the battalion which all died in France. After they did that, they got members of the old guards in their uniforms and, as they did it, they faded to sepia, so it would look exactly like the old pictures. And he just falls in and it was done beautiful. Of all the things I've done, I'm proudest of Johnny and the Dead. The whole philosophy of Terry Pratchett is in Johnny and the Dead."
Pratchett does not feel limited by the Discworld because it affords opportunities to write about the entire world.
"In the last few books and the next few books, you'll notice changes. In The Fifth Elephant, a semaphore system has been set up, which is clearly having the same galvanizing effect that the telegraph or the internet have had. That's kind of changing things as well because it became a plot twist in The Fifth Elephant. I'm allowing a bit of technological innovation while still keeping it firmly a fantasy universe. The new technology isn't magic. People have taken to semaphore because they can make money using it, but only Lord Vetinari has realized exactly what it really means."
Pratchett is pushing the boundaries of Discworld. In addition to writing novels which make less frequent use of common characters, he is revisiting and expanding an idea he did with an earlier book. In the first edition of Eric, the Discworld's version of the legend of Faust, the book included several illustrations. Pratchett, and one of his frequent collaborators are working on a new project which, while it makes extensive use of illustrations, is not a graphic novel.
"Along with Paul Kidby, who isn't Josh Kirby -- it so happens that both guys have five-letter names beginning with 'k' and ending in 'by' -- I'm doing a lavishly illustrated Discworld book, to the extent that the illustrations will be part of the story. Eric was a novelette with twelve illustrations. This will be a slightly longer text but illustrated on every page. Sometimes with double-page spreads. I chose the plot to give them as many opportunities for illustrations as possible. And the guy's an absolute genius. There were things I wanted to do and Cohen the Barbarian has a major role. Having done everything it's possible to do, he's found it was not enough and he's actually challenging the very gods themselves on their own turf. The book will be called The Last Hero."
One of the things which upsets Pratchett is the conclusion that just because the people he writes about are not flesh and blood, killing them for the sake of the story is something to be done one a whim. He tries to kill characters only when necessary and tries to make their deaths and murders as poignant as possible.
"In Men-at-Arms, I didn't know Cuddy was going to be the one who died. When it happened, I realized a character you liked had to die. Its not like The A-Team with machine guns and no-one gets killed. I had to say guns kill, that's what happens. That's the thing about guns; that's what they're there for."
At the same time, death is a reality in both Discworld and the real world (although in Discworld, Death makes frequent appearances, at least once in each novel). Pratchett, therefore is open about the fact that characters do die.
"A major character, that is, one who has had a major part in one or more books, is going to die within the next year or two and you don't have to be a genius to work out who it is likely to be, especially if you remember that dying on the Discworld is not necessarily the end of your involvement. Indeed, as we've seen in Johnny and the Dead, dying may be at the heart of the first day of the rest of your life. In Feet of Clay, Vimes's interest is in the attempted poisoning of the Patrician.
"[This] suddenly redoubles when he realizes that quite innocent people, a baby and an old lady, have also been killed. He realizes that if the Patrician is killed, it is, on paper, a bad thing, but it's too easy in fantasy to kill off hundreds of people. In reality, these people are just as real as the main characters. You have to think about what it actually means to kill one person before you blithely have some battle with thousands dead. There's a character later on in Feet of Clay, one of the bad guys, upon hearing that the old lady and the baby were accidentally killed asked, 'Were they important?' And Carrot says 'Of course they were.'"
Pratchett's fans are legion and they are very vocal about their favourite novels and characters. This causes slight problems since everyone tells Pratchett which characters to focus on, but the suggestions are usually contradictory. Pratchett has taken to ignoring the advice.
"The problem is that I get requests from people who want more of the witches or don't like the witches and want more guards. You'll get what you're given, but everyone is cheering for the party of choice.
"I get a lot of e-mail on the subject [of combining series]. But the fact is that if you like pickles and you like chocolate, but chocolate pickles may not be a good idea. If you put them all together, its sort of like a super-hero league where Batman can only have adventures because Superman happens to be out of town. What a lot of people want is to see a face-off between Granny and the Patrician. It may happen, but I don't want to do it just to have the fun of doing it. I almost had Vimes and Lady Sybil meeting Verence and Magrat in The Fifth Elephant, but it got edited out because I was doing it as 'series glue' rather than because it was necessary for the book."
Although Pratchett writes his novels relatively quickly, he does take the time to put a lot of thought into what he includes, not just to make sure that the books are funny, but to make sure they have something to say about the society in which we live.
"I know what I put in; what you get out is between you and your God. You might get out more than I put in."
Steven H Silver in one of SF Site's Contributing Editors as well as one of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. He is Vice-Chairman of Windycon 28 and Programming Chairman for Chicon 2000. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is trying to get his short stories published and has recently finished his first novel. Steven is a Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer. He lives in Illinois with his wife, daughter and 4000 books.
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