The L-Space Web: Interviews

Terry Pratchett's Discworld
On Soul Music; dealing with fame and weaving fantasies.


By Linda Richards (scribe@smartypants.net)

Published by January Magazine (http://www.januarymagazine.com/). Reprinted by permission.

My introduction to Terry Pratchett startles me. I had expected this author of over thirty popular fantasy books to be somehow larger than life. The PR photos I've seen of him have reinforced epic proportions. In these photos he is always behatted, usually astride a large motorcycle and generally looking formidable in a friendly sort of way.

In person Pratchett is not less as much as he is different. I am struck initially at how very pink and silver he seems. And his voice is not the booming well-modulated British accent I'd expected: echoes of Jean-Luc Picard. Pratchett's voice is closer to an English Elmer Fudd than Star Fleet.

The revelations of his actual appearance are not disappointing. He looks, in fact, very much like a character he might have written himself. One of the funny inhabitants of Discworld, the land that Pratchett has created and that has been the home base for over 20 of his 30 novels.

The novel he is promoting when I interview him is Soul Music, the 16th of the Discworld novels, it had just been released in paperback. Since the book's hard cover release Pratchett has completed several more Discworld novels, including Interesting Times and Maskerade.

Soul Music follows the adventures of Susan, the natural granddaughter of Death. At 16 years of age, Susan is taken from the forgetfulness of boarding school on a huge, powerful and magical white horse named Binky. The horse, together with the Death of Rats, have searched her out because Death has disappeared and left no one to take his place. Binky brings her to her grandfather's home where she begins to remember her past and quickly finds that she must take up Death's duties, for there truly is no one else.

Described by some as a less serious and more hilarious Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the Discworld is a semi-mediaeval society that is positioned on a flat world -- the Disc in question, of course -- that rests on the back of four giant elephants which in turn rest on the back of a giant turtle who walks endlessly through the interstellar night.

Sound preposterous? It is. Entirely. Which accounts for a large portion of the Discworld novels' charm and popularity.

Born in 1948, Pratchett lives with his wife Lyn and their 20-year-old daughter Rhianna in a "small manor house," in the village of Wiltshire in England. "I have to specify 'small' when I say manor house when I'm in North America. It's not a castle." Castle or no, the structure is a six bedroom home that is "about 1000 years old."

The move was a good one, for many reasons. At least one, though, is that it's more off the beaten track than the house they used to live in in Somerset. "I'd get people on my door with bags of books and such. It was sometimes unnerving."

Between regular mail and e-mail, Pratchett gets about 60 letters a day from his fans. "Most of it is wonderful. I enjoy it very much. But one in every 100 letters or so makes me realize I'm not sorry to be a little harder to find. Although my publishers tell me that the mail I get is a lot tamer than most of the stuff that goes to your average romance novelist."

Despite these gentle protestations, Pratchett acknowledges that he loves his fans and enjoys meeting them and hearing what they think of his book. "I get paid a huge wad of cash to do what I like to do anyway," Pratchett says of his work. "My fans are everything to me."

And there's a lot of fans. There have been over six million Discworld books sold in 15 different languages worldwide. Each new title sells in excess of 400,000 paperbacks and 40,000 hard cover copies in the U.K. alone. Pratchett regularly holds the top slots in both the paperback and hard cover lists in Great Britain where his sales rank him alongside the likes of Catherine Cookson and Frederick Forsyth. His sales in North America are less awe-inspiring, but he has cadres of fans among whom he has practically been canonized. Fan clubs, usenet newsgroups on the Internet and a half score of Internet Web sites dedicated to him and his books have contributed to making Pratchett's Discworld an international phenomena.

Luckily, his prolific tendencies keep his fans fueled with tales of the Discworld. "Writing is my base state of being," he says. "I just got myself in the habit of writing," and though he finds his life too hectic to manage a writing schedule these days, he "writes when there isn't anything else I have to do."

He talks easily about his art and the way he's managed to make the inhabitants of the Discworld -- a place that is entirely unbelievable -- believable to so many people.

"You describe a character by the shape they leave in the world," says Pratchett. "It's not the way they look. It's their looks. Their silences. The character description is not the color of the eyes as much as the way they turn their heads."

Pratchett tells me that the six children's books he's written -- all published by Doubleday and Corgi -- were done to gain legitimacy as a writer. "I wanted to be invited to the best class of writer's functions," he explains seriously though it should be understood that Terry Pratchett is seldom more than half serious. "It pisses me off that fantasy is unregarded as a literary form. When you think about it, fantasy is the oldest form of fiction. What were the storytellers of old doing when they talked about the beginnings of the world? They were weaving fantasies."

Weaving fantasies is just what Pratchett does best. "The Discworld was created as an antidote to all those trilogies whose worthy heroes stagger across three volumes in order to do whatever it is that the fates have decreed that a hero must do." The first of the series was The Colour of Magic which came out in hard cover in 1983. This was followed quickly by The Light Fantastic in 1984. These earliest Discworld novels, Pratchett maintains, were farces. "I guess you could say that the history of the Discworld is my own history as a writer."

Finer points in plot structure, characterization and timing was something Pratchett developed as he went along. Pratchett feels this is something that is apparent in the books themselves. "The earlier books were fun. There is more skill in the later books. Though, they're still fun, of course."

The later books, including Soul Music, deal somewhat more maturely with their topics than the earlier novels did. They still bear the mark of Pratchett's humor, however. "An awful lot of our existence is funny," he says. "But there's no good having comedy if there's no tragedy, is there?"

The obvious question is -- of course-- the one that gets no proper answer. There have been 20 Discworld books in 14 years. How many might we expect to see? "Let's see," Pratchett says thoughtfully with just the hint of a smile. "My father lived to be 97. I figure I've got time for a few more. Though really, sometimes I think there will come a time when the Discworld is simply filled up. If that happens, I'll stop.

Thus far, there doesn't look like there's a great danger of this happening.

 


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