The L-Space Web: Interviews

Isis Interview

This interview with Terry Pratchett was conducted for Isis Publishing by Peter Johnson between the months of April and June 2000. To view Isis's complete range of unabridged Discworld titles, visit our website at:

Reprinted by permission from Isis Publishing.

Isis - When you began writing the DW books, did you realise that you'd found a medium that allowed you such scope to write about a huge range of characters, events, processes and issues?

TP - Er...what do you think?

Isis - Well, I think you might have realised it as the series progressed or you might have sat down at the outset with the intention of creating this whole mirror-world with all its opportunities for cross-references; I'm wondering how much of a game-plan you had, really...

TP - There are a few long-term sleepers. But I'm just not cold-blooded enough to plan that far ahead. Friends say that I have got a plan and just don't know it. Who can tell...

Isis - Does the 'parallel universe' conceit present in the DW books make you feel that you have to say something about every issue that is important in the real world - religion, race, class and so on?

TP - No, that sort of thing just turns up. Ankh-Morpork is a big open city which is acquiring a population made up of different species, and some of those species classically do not get on well back in the 'wild', and some of them have customs which don't easily melt into the 'melting pot'. It'd be hard to avoid issues of class and gender.

Isis - But dwarfish feminism seems to parody 'our' feminism.

TP - Possibly! But it's also logical given what classical fantasy stories have told us about dwarfs. My female dwarfs started out by becoming more overtly 'feminine' as a means of empowerment, but in The Fifth Elephant Cheery Littlebottom is beginning to realise that this really is not in wearing some kind of badge or uniform but in getting your mind right.

Saying that, though, I think you've hit on something about the series. Yes, there's a lot of what looks like parody, because we're seeing it from here, but often it makes perfect sense within the story.

Isis - Do you ever consciously shy away from a particular issue because you know it will get 'translated' back to apply to this world and come back to haunt you?

TP - Oh, yes. As someone once said, there are not a lot of laughs in child abuse. You've got to remember, by the way, that the stories aren't funny to the characters involved

Isis - What is your take on 'political correctness'? (I can imagine some PC Americans taking you task for 'stereotyping' dwarves in your books.)

TP - I think it's a shame that it's come to replace old-fashioned terms like 'courtesy' and 'common decency'. As far as stereotyping' dwarfs is concerned, I suppose you mean 'dwarfs' in the real-life sense of 'short humans'? The only answer there is that dwarfs have been a staple of legend and fairy tale for centuries, and we're quite good at not getting confused.

Isis - Although you've always avoided any explicit statement of your spiritual beliefs, you've been labelled a 'humanist' by those who detect in your work a kind of agnostic faith in the essential goodness of Mankind. In Carpe Jugulum however, you - through the medium of Granny Weatherwax - seem to argue in favour of a sort of muscular fundamentalism; you seem to be urging a return to the more certain positions of Old Testament faith . . .?

TP - Ah, interesting. But you're really suggesting, aren't you, that my characters' beliefs are the same as mine? That was how Granny thinks. I can think like her, I can think like Nanny Ogg, the long winter evenings just fly by...

Isis - You've often distinguished between your readers and your fans. Does recognition of these distinct groups affect how and what you write?

TP - Not really. A 'fan' is likely to have read all the books and know a lot of fine detail; a reader might be a little less engrossed. I try to avoid in-group jokes.

Isis - You've said that you are considering having one character die in the near future. I know you're not going to tell me who (though, with Granny Weatherwax almost expiring in Carpe Jugulum, it's hard to see how she can go on much longer. . .) I once heard an author fulminating, really fuming about the way in which her readers took her to task for daring to kill off one of 'her' characters; how do you react to the 'fans' who feel that they own a personal stake in the fate of characters?

TP - I react by thinking: if they think like that, I must be doing something right. Better that they should care than not care. I've always been aware of writing as ultimately a co-operative process - the story isn't finished until it's in someone else's head, and on the way it picks up something extra as the reader fleshes out the narrative from their own experience and perceptions. I just say: I think I know what I am doing. I doubt if it'd be possible now to kill Granny Weatherwax with a shovel!

Isis - It seems pretty clear that quite a few of the fans want to make you, the author, in their image: you ought to conform to their view of what you like and don't like. Do you have to grow a hard shell to protect yourself from being manipulated by others in this way?

TP - No, I have a very soft shell. But it has to cover a centre made of solid neutronium.

I'd be dumb not to listen to fans, but I have to make the decisions. Only one person is there when the cursor is winking.

Isis - I'm often struck by the fact that your approach to telling a story is essentially cinematographic rather that narrative; you make use of so many film techniques (establishing 'shots', atmospheric interludes, rapid-fire 'edits' from one scene to another, cliff-hanger scenes etc.) Are you conscious of this?

TP - Well, we could get lost in definitions here, but I'd say that cinemagraphic and narrative don't have to be alternatives. The 'filmic' devices you mention are used by story tellers, but not so obviously. All this being said, the cinemagraphic form of story telling is now hallowed by time. It's around for the best part of a century. We understand it. I didn't start out consciously using it, but I can't easily think of a story as one narrative thread. If the cavalry turn up at the last minute and you didn't even know there were cavalry around, then that's a bad story. But if you cut to the cavalry, and then cut back to the hostages, and then back to the cavalry being attacked, and then back to the hostages getting really worried by now...then things grip our attention. Let me put it another way: a symphony wouldn't be much fun if they only allowed you to hear one instrument at a time.

Isis - I've heard more than one author say that they don't conceive their characters as images at all - they hear them as voices; How about you?

TP - I get full sound and vision. I thought everyone did.

Isis - Leading on from that, you know this theory that one's imagination is either fundamentally pictorial, semantic or theoretical; how would you describe your own imaginative processes?

TP - Confused, probably. But given the options, I'd plump for 'pictorial'.

Isis - A lot of comparisons have been made between your own work and that of other great twentieth century comic writers - Waugh, Wodehouse etc. . . Do you see yourself as writing within a tradition?

TP - Oh yes. Everyone is influenced in some way by people who have gone before. But I never comment on those comparisons. It's nice of people to make them, but I keep my head down.

Isis - It's difficult to identify one common feature of most great British comic writers, but it seems to have something to do with the use of very precise but understated and ironic English to describe events which, in ordinary descriptive writing would be depicted in highly charged, dramatic language. By bringing a cool, almost detached eye to bear on the outrageous, the writer 'tricks' us into laughter; is this a fair description of your own prose technique?

TP - It could be. I never try! But you're right about that certain 'tone of voice'. It's not peculiarly British. though. Mark Twain certainly used it.

Isis - I've a few specific questions to ask you about the future development of the series, but I must ask one question that has been occupying my mind (and doubtless other readers' minds) . . . are there any more major characters, around whom whole series of stories will be written, waiting in the wings?

TP - There may be. The Truth and Thief of Time represent a little research in that direction.

Isis - Your current book The Truth is about journalism (in a sense) Did you want to take on some the topical issues regarding that fine profession - 'dumbing down' of content, privacy, cheque book journalism, and so on?

TP - No. You see, these are secondary issues. You have to have newspapers for some time before they arise. I deal with some of the basic ones, such as: how and why can some lad with no more obvious qualifications than a notebook and access to a printing press decide what is, and is not, news? What gives him the right? Mind you, by the end of the book members of the public have already learned to speak 'newspaperese', as in "I am Mrs Mavis Smith, (32), blond mother-of-three, and I am shocked and disappointed."

Isis - However, the movies in Moving Pictures were quite modern.

TP - Yes, but in fact the 'real' movies went from short little essays with titles like 'Watching Paint Dry' to the Hollywood star system in quite a short space of time, while newspapers have been around for several hundred years and only went rotten in the last thirty years or so. In fact we're shuffling titles a bit to align all the schedules, now that, with any luck, the Americans are up to speed on the Discworld titles. The next title is likely to be Thief of Time, a Discworld title that I'm bring forward. The one after that will be, in theory, for children. But I'm not talking about it yet.

Isis - Most people have their favourite 'set' of DW characters - the witches, the Watch, and so on - when you devise your plots have you always decided which group of characters they will involve - and do you have your own favourites?

TP - Granny Weatherwax and Commander Vimes are fun to write for because they are screwed-up characters - self-tapping screws, too. So are Susan and Angua. Sad to say, messed-up heads are more interesting. As for 'favourite', though, I do like Nanny Ogg.

Isis - Have you ever published or been tempted to publish something wildly removed from the Discworld books, perhaps under a pseudonym?

TP - No, I'm far too arrogant for that.

Isis - A lot of your characters display a kind of dogged optimism, often in the face of a world that doesn't always deal them the best hand, and even the villains of your book (the vampires in particular come to mind) are not shown as entirely beyond redemption. Is your 'worldview' essentially optimistic?

TP - I'd say it's resignation rather than optimism - you know, the kind that makes you pick yourself up and get on with life despite the knocks. Vimes, for example, goes on doing what he does because he simply can't imagine doing anything else. He'd probably say 'You just got to get on with things'. And Granny is a pure pessimist, but she goes on fighting because fighting is what she is.

Isis - I wonder if many of your readers know about the obsessive care you undertake to research your books' content (including everything from arcane points of medieval alchemy to details of historic architecture and costume); why do you insist on this kind of accuracy?

TP - Er...I don't, you know. For any given book, the amount of direct research I do can be done inside a few hours, and it mostly consists of trying to remember where I read some reference years ago. I enjoy crossover books - not books about Science and History and so on, but about, say, the History of Science, the Geography of Chemistry or whatever. Boundary conditions, in other words, where you get the interesting stuff. And over the years I just remember things. I hardly need to invent stuff. Even something as weird as the exploding billiard balls in Moving Pictures is based on some real events in the early history of the development of celluloid. It was touted as a replacement for ivory billiard balls, and some of the early batches were a bit unstable...

Isis - You certainly seem to have a compendious store of self-taught knowledge - is this indicative of a fundamental curiosity about life?

TP - About people, certainly. But really, all I am is someone who has read books for pleasure every since they were ten. Science fiction - at least, written sf - can be quite educational. The writers tend to have packrat minds, like mine.

Isis - 'Packrat', right. You seem to have picked up a great store of fairly obscure American slang; where do you hear it, and what's the appeal?

TP - Have I? I suppose I could have said 'magpie mind'. Authors tend to build up an idiosyncratic vocabulary, though. And SF readers of my age, who read a lot of US imports and authors in the Sixties, probably just picked up the slang as part of general education. I don't use it consciously, I just use it!

Real education happens when you pick up a fact here, and another fact there and put them together and get an insight.

Isis - There have been a number of 'next Terry Pratchetts'...

TP - Five, I think. But that's not the fault of the authors, it's just publicists getting sloppy, A couple of years ago someone called Neil Gaiman 'the next Terry Pratchett', which came as a shock to those of us who thought he'd been the Original Neil Gaiman all these years.

Isis - I was going to ask 'but what about J K Rowling?' Has the success of Harry Potter had an effect on your sales?

TP - Yes, I think so. It's a bit anecdotal, but the Discworld readership had gone up quite a lot in the last couple of years and I just wonder if young Harry is giving the kids a taste for fantasy at an early age.

Isis - She was ahead of you in the Popular Author poll, though!

TP - Sure, but we were both behind Roald Dahl and well ahead of J R R Tolkien. And Dickens. Try and figure that one out.

I think people want me to say (adopts Nanny Ogg voice) 'That J K Rowling, all hype in my opinion', and that's dumb - Harry Potter was immensely popular among kids for several years before journalists noticed anything. I know I've been extremely lucky, so I'm sure as hell not complaining if someone else is, too. I bet Joanne Rowling catches sight of her expression in the mirror sometimes and says to herself 'What the hell just happened?' I did that a lot. Sometimes I still do!

Isis - I notice you being referred to as a children's writer more and more.

TP - Yes. Just sloppy journalism, I think. It's hard to get away from the tired old equation that fantasy = children's books. Being a children's author is a slightly more honourable profession than writing for adults, but if Discworld is a children's series then Nanny Ogg had better mind her language.

Isis - You do have a lot of younger readers, though.

TP - Sure. But I don't have them in mind when I'm writing the books. Perhaps that's why they like them.

Isis - There's occasional talk about literary snobbery against your work. Do you really think it exists?

TP - Look, it's like this. I sell a lot of books to people who get enthusiastic about them.

On the whole, I got without anyone noticing, except for the readers. I didn't go to university, so I never got a bunch of chums in the media, and I don't live in London. And I clearly get a lot of enjoyment out of what I do. That sort of thing annoys a certain kind of person. But the nice thing is: it doesn't make any difference at all.

Isis - There seems to be a considerable drive to break you in the States: what is your current status there?

TP - It think you mean 'break you out'; the drive to break me happen earlier! Aaanyway...thing are lot better, all of a sudden. The Fifth Elephant just about sold twice the numbers of Carpe Jugulum, and the reissued backlist titles had walked out of the shops. HarperCollins have suddenly got behind the books, and it shows.

Isis - British people always complain that the Americans 'just don't understand irony'; is this true, and do you think there are any barriers to your work being understood and enjoyed there on the same scale as it is in the UK?

TP - The important thing is: do 'enough' Americans understand irony? Mark Twain used irony all the time, and they never seemed to have much difficulty with it. I think all that business is one step away from being a myth, anyway. Look, the US is simply bigger, which means there's more of everything, including more morons. And because the morons shout, they tend to drown out the intelligent people, which the USA 'also' has more of. Unless you believe the Hubble telescope was built by the audience of the Ricky Lake show, that is.

Isis - On the vexed subject of a Discworld movie: I've heard authors say that the only reason to allow a film to be made of your work is to make money; do it in the hope of seeing your work brought to life, and you'll be disappointed - if not horrified at the liberties taken with it. Is this why so far there has been no film of your books (excepting cartoons)?

TP - Oh, it's not vexed. It's just that in the last few years 'Mort' has been on the point of emerging from development hell at least twice, and then sunk back again. It may never happen. Since, last time I saw it, the script was still substantially mine, I'd like it to - but I don't lose any sleep over it, because life is too crowed with other things.

Isis - ...and is really true an American film company wanted to do Mort without Death, because viewers would find it depressing?

TP - I'm afraid that is substantially true, yes.

Isis - Your view of characters obviously changes and develops (Rincewind, for example: You used to say he was closest to you in temperament, but of late you seem to find him shallow and passive); do you 'engage' with the characters only in the context of writing the books, or all they there with you all the time?

TP - Well, not 'all' the time...I mean, talking to imaginary people in your head can land you a lifetime of Care in the Community. But I can, as it were, think like them when I need to. Rincewind is really just a viewpoint around which other, more interesting characters develop, and he very seldom initiates anything. But he has his uses.

Isis - You're rumoured to be quite closely involved with the work of Paul Kidby: does that mean his depiction of the characters is as close as we can get to seeing what you visualise?

TP - Pretty much!

Isis - ...Even Vimes? PK obviously sees the guy as a kind of ur-Clint Eastwood; I had him pegged as older, less handsome and in only averagely-good physical condition; he's a recovering alcoholic with a taste for fry-ups, isn't he?...

TP - Well, he's mid- to late-forties and I've always thought of him as a wiry kind of guy, the sort who can put away a lot of food and not show it. He's also pretty physical - all that running and rolling in gutters must keep you in some kind of shape. I wouldn't say Paul's Vimes is canonical - unlike his witches, which are definitive - but he's a pretty good impression.

Isis - Do you ever think about posterity? What does it do for someone to know that their name is certain to 'live on' after they have shuffled off their mortal coil, and perhaps for centuries after?

TP - I doubt if it will. Better to write for today and take a chance on tomorrow than consciously write 'for posterity'. Remember Dickens. He wrote for the people awaiting the next instalment, not for us.

Isis - And again: one of the things that has allowed Tolkien to date so well is the absence of contemporary references in his books - they exist in a timeless world. Yours, by contrast, make playful reference to all kinds of modern phenomena: how much of the enjoyment of the books will be lost to future generations of readers who may not pick up on these references?

TP - Hmm. Certainly some of the detail is 'contemporary', but I hope it generally works even if you don't know the reference. For example, the protestors against the dragon in Guards! Guards! chant 'The people united Will never be ignited'. That's funny enough even if you don't know about the miners' strike back in the 80s. Anyway, see my earlier answer. I can't second guess future generations!

Isis - You've spoken a great deal about the pleasures - and occasional pains - of writing. In the final analysis, is there anything else you'd have enjoyed as much? And if the muse hadn't blessed you, what might you have been doing to earn a crust?

TP - I'd probably still be working for whatever rump of the old CEGB that was left, and looking forward to early retirement. But I can't imagine not being a writer; it'd be like imaging not being me. It wasn't any Muse, by the way, unless it was the Muse of journalism - and you wouldn't want to meet that old vampire on a dark night.

Isis - Do you ever think that it's all going to stop suddenly?

TP - Occasionally. But writing is still fun. I still promise myself that, as a reward for finishing this book, I'll let myself start a new one.

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