The L-Space Web: Interviews

Interview on Sydeny's Child
Feature - by David Witt

Article reprinted, with permission, from Sydney's Child.



Terry Pratchett is one of the most prolific authors in English today - and one of the most popular. His appeal spans generations, and his books have appeared on both the adults' and children's best seller lists at the same time. Terry has produced an average of 2 to 3 books a year for the last seven years, including 19 novels in the Discworld series, the Truckers trilogy and three Johnny Maxwell books. One of these - Johnny and the Dead - won the British Writers' Guild Award for Best Children's Writer Of 1993.

But despite his undoubted success as an author, Terry Pratchett wasn't a bookish boy. He disliked school and didn't read anything more substantial than a 'Beano' comic until he was 11, when an uncle gave him a copy of 'The Wind In The Willows'. That novel changed his life, and afterwards he read everything he could lay his hands on. In Australia recently, Terry Pratchett discussed his work and explained why his love of literature came so late.

"In those days - we're talking the fifties here - not every teacher tried to instil a love of reading," says Terry. "It was far more a case of getting a wallop if you didn't read. Besides which, we lived in idyllic countryside and there was a gang of us kids that used to run around playing and there were lots of better things to do than read. (I would actually say that if you are seven or eight years old there are better things to do than read. Reading is very interesting, but by God, if you're not actually out there getting your knees scabby, there is something wrong with your life, I think.) There weren't as many good children's books around when I was a boy as there are now, and they weren't so readily accessible. My interest in reading coincided with the opening of a local library which gave me a source of books."

At 17, Pratchett left school and began working as a journalist. He also started writing his first novel, The Carpet People, which he recently re-wrote and re-published. Even with his first novel, the Pratchett hallmark of imaginative fantasy was evident. (The story is about a tiny race of people who live in a carpet.) Since then, Terry Pratchett has written about an alien world carried on the backs of four giant elephants, about tiny people who live between the floorboards of a department store, and about a time-travelling adolescent. If writers are supposed to write about what they know, what does this say about Terry Pratchett?

"Writing what you know is one of those bits of advice which is a pit lined with spikes for the unwary," says Terry. "It is technically true, but that doesn't mean to say that because you work in an insurance office, you should write about an insurance office. What it does mean is that if you have a reasonably good empathic memory for details and for people - and a reasonable skill at observing the people around you - these are the things that you know. You may well choose to set your story on an alien world or a hundred years ago or whatever. Those are the things that you can make up. But you are a human being, you have had lots of experience being a human being - this is what you know and this is what you can draw on.

"I remember in one of the early Johnny Maxwell books I described a Halloween party for kids, which was going wrong. Someone bad had turned up too early, and was hanging around, and some kid got completely drunk on non-alcoholic beer and the punch was all full of horribly manky bits of orange and no-one was having any fun... And my daughter said, 'Well, how do you know all this stuff?' And I said, 'Because it's always like that! The generations change only superficially.' The thing is, if you wish to set a story on Mars, the scientific facts might be something you don't know, but they're very easy to find out. How to be a human being and how to react with other human beings - these are things you know."

Terry continued to write novels part-time until as recently as 1989, when the success of the Discworld series enabled him to quit his day job as a press officer for a power company. Since then he has sold more than 7.5 million copies of his books - almost all of them involving either Discworld, the Truckers characters or Johnny Maxwell. Why is Terry Pratchett so drawn to the series format?

"Well it didn't do P.G. Wodehouse any harm," says Terry. "And in fact, the Discworld books are a series in the same way that, say, the Jeeves books were. Most of the time, you can pick up any one of them and it's a story. The fact that there are stories that happened afterwards and stories that happened before it are by the by. It's not like Book Seven in the Chronicles of Something-Or-Other. The Discworld novels are a sequence of stories. The only unifying thread is that they all take place on the same fantasy world - in the same way that nearly all of P.G. Wodehouse's output took place in a fantasy version of England.

"Also, there are some advantages in having existing characters with a history. And this again is very well established in the world of children's books, going all the way back to Billy Bunter, Richmal Crompton, Famous Five, Secret Six, Nauseating Nine and so on. A number of books involving the same characters is a very familiar part of children's literature. It helps the writer if you have the characters reasonably well realised in your own mind. It's very beguiling for a writer to use existing characters, because you are interested to see what happens to them next. You have to be the first person interested, before you can make anyone else interested."

Terry Pratchett's novels are published in paperback by Transworld Publishers. The 'Truckers' books - Truckers , Diggers and Wings - are suitable for reading to primary school age children and older. The Johnny Maxwell books - Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb - are suitable for pre-teens and older. The Discworld novels are probably most suited to adolescents and older.

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