The L-Space Web: Interviews

Arena interview
'Arena' insert in the Western Mail - Saturday 22nd November 1997

Provided by Iwan Lamble (, with some comments by him in square brackets.

The 'cover' of this insert has a large picture of the Small Gods cover (without the words) which really stands out against the white background (especially since it fills over half of the tabloid-size page). Underneath that it says:

cover story [in case you hadn't guessed :-)]

Love affair with another
WORLD... [the word 'world' is big and in red]

Welcome to Terry Pratchett's realm of fantasy

The story is on the first and second page of the insert (marked, helpfully, 'cover story' again). There are three pictures: a large one of a fed-up looking Pterry's face (maybe its just my copy but his beard appears to be green) with the words 'HAT TRICK: Terry Pratchett wears his trademark black steton' underneath it.

The next largest picture is of the massive signing cue with 'FANTASY FILE: Discworld devotees form an orderly cue to meet the author' under it (I think thats meant to be a joke).

Finally, there's a picture of a hand (presumably Pterry's) signing a copy of Jingo with the words 'HANDIWORK: Terry Pratchett signs another book'. The side of the picture looks quite odd with some letters and a library ticket (?) covering the other half of the book which isn't being signed.

Anyway, onto the actual text (after another two sub titles):

Terry's all-gold touch has fans queuing down the street

A fantasy world on the back of a turtle has turned fantasy booklists upside down. Mario Risoli [master of stating, and asking, the obvious] asked Terry Pratchett how he created a cult.

Barely half-an-hour into his signing at Blackwell's bookshop, Cardiff, author Terry Pratchett leaped from his chair and grabbed a fan - a young male in his twenties - by the collar of his black jacket.

'Don't say that!' shouted Pratchett. 'Don't say that!'

While the author was signing the fan's book they entered into a chat about Pratchett's work. The fan obviously said something disagreeable.

There were several worried faces in the shop. Had Pratchett, a millionare and one of Britain's best-selling authors, lost his temper? Was an embarassing fracas about to follow?

Thankfully not. After a few anxious seconds it became clear Pratchett was not being serious. He was just being melodramatic, a bit over-the- top.

Soon everything returned to normal and the author carried on signing his books and posing for photographs for the hundreds of people who had turned up to meet him.

Trying to discuss Pratchett's novels with him is not easy. He tends to stray off the point.

He can be extremely spikey - the publicist says this is down to him being nervous - and, most frustratingly of all, it is almost impossible to tell whether he is talking frankly about his work or not.

Then again, someone who has created characters such as Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Oggs [sic], as well as an imaginary world called the Discworld which travels through space on the back of a giant turtle, was never going to be straight-forward.

Sneer at Pratchett's comic novels all you want, but they are massively successful.

A large slice of the population does actually seem to enjoy reading about an imaginary city called Ankh-Morpork, a wooden chest which eats people and cleans clothes and an orang-utan librarian who works at the Unseen University.

In fact Pratchett's Discworld has become a phenomenon, just as big, if not bigger, than Tolkien's Middle Earth and CS Lewis's Narnia.

'Terry's popularity comes close to Tolkien when he was at his height,' says Lesley Bennett, manager of Blackwell's city centre store in Cardiff.

Who can disagree with her. Each Discworld novel sells 500,000 copies and his two latest titles, Hogfather and Jingo, are number one and two in the bestseller chart.

'I think Delia (Smith) sells more,' replies Pratchett uncertainly, when asked if his books are the nation's highest selling.

The queen of television cookery may deny Pratchett the outright honour, but when it comes to fiction he is undeniably number one.

He is the only author to have topped both the adult and children's chart at the same time. He is book chain Waterstone's best selling living author. He accounts for one per cent of all fiction sold by Dillon's bookshops and The Bookseller magazine made him the biggest selling author of 1996.

His popularity also extends abroad. The Discworld series has been translated into 21 different languages including Hebrew, Polish, Russian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Greek and Croatian.

There is even a 'very enthusiastic' fan club in the Czech Republic.

'Something like Discworld started out of world mythology,' says 49-year old Pratchett when asked how he got the idea for the bizarre setting for his novels.

'And I got ideas from general knowledge, you know, that thing kids used to have.'

His first Dicworld novel, The Colour of Magic, appeared in 1983 and was an immediate hit. Pratchett, then working at the Central Electricity Board as a press officer, saw his second Discworld book, The Light Fantastic, published three years later.

It was after Mort, the fourth in the series, was published in 1988, that Pratchett could afford to give up his job and write full-time.

'Of course I didn't know Discworld would be so successful,' says Pratchett rather brusquely (a sign of nerves?) when asked if he knew his novels would become so popular.

'When I wrote the first book, like all other authors I wondered if the book would sell. Making the bestseller list never crossed my mind.'

At first glance the bearded Pratchett, rarely withour his black stetson and cowboy boots, could be mistaken for a country singer.

'I recently returned to this bookshop in England. I did a signing there in 1988 and it lasted 40 minutes. I went back this year and it lasted three-and-a-half hours.'

And that is how long every Pratchett signing lasts. The Blackwell's advertising board said he would be at the Cardiff store on Wednesday, November 19, from 4.30pm - 5.30pm. His fans started queueing at 3.15pm and the author did not leave until after 8.40pm. [which I make to be 5 hours 25 minutes so so much for the always 3 and a half hour idea...]

The queue stretched down half the length of the entire shop - and Blackwell's in the Morgan Arcade, Cardiff, is the longest bookshop in Britain - and spilled, to the amazement of passers-by, on to St Mary Street. The queue stretched to the Fatty Arbuckle restraunt 10 doors down from Blackwell's.

Most of the Pratchett admirers were, as expected, students, but also in attendance were mothers, young children and the odd pensioner.

'I'm very pleased it's all happening,' he says of the Discworld cult. 'It doesn't get too much for me. There are very few writers who can make a living just from writing novels. Most have to combine it with journalism or teaching.

'Being a successful writer is like winning the Lottery. And you don't complain if you win the Lottery, do you?

'If you think about some of the jobs other people are doing I'm quite lucky.'

He is a prolific writer. Since 1983 he has written 21 Discworld novels, an average of two every year.

'No, I don't find the Discworld hard to write. They are no harder to write now than they were in the very begining.

'I can't say how I do it. How does a plasterer do his job? The plasterer has his techniques, I obviously have mine.

'I'm not running out of ideas. I have lots of ideas and the do all seem to fit into Discworld.'

He no longer counts the amount of fan mail he recieves. There is so much he is unable to.

The Internet is dominated by correspondence among Pratchett afficionados.

Of course, there is the inevitable Discworld memorabilia - models, t- shirts, greetings cards, maps, quiz books, scarves, ornamental candles and even beer.

And what usually follows memorabilia? Conventions.

The first Discworld convention - oversubscribed, naturally - was held in Manchester last year. Nearly 900 people atteneded. The next convention will be held in Liverpool next September.

'My wife Lyn wishes it would all slow down. I don't have a personal assistant but I might have to get one pretty soon.

'Lyn helps out at the moment but she shouldn't have to.

'At the moment Discworld is me. If a plastic saber breaks on a Star Wars toy, George Lucas (the film's director) won't get to hear about it, but if something to do with the Discworld bereaks people e-mail me to complain.'

He is not bothered by the fanaticism of his Discworld followers. For instance it does not bother him that people wear Discworld t-shirts or dress up as Discworld characters.

He once famously said that someone who followed Star Trek was seen as 'a nerd' but someone who wore Manchester United pyjamas and woke up to a Manchester United alarm clock was 'a fan'.

'I don't see much difference,' said Pratchett, 'except Trek fans have never trashed a train.'

Has he come across literary snobbery of his books? Fantasy, after all, is not really taken seriously.

This was shown by the derision which greeted the news earlier this year when it was announced that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings had topped the Waterstone's Top 100 books of all time survey.

'There is far less negative critisism than you think,' says Pratchett. 'Today critics are saying more and more 'I don't like it but if you like this sort of thing'...'

Incidentally, Pratchett has a big fan in AS Byatt, a Booker prize winning author.

She claims to be 'addicted' - yes, addicted - to the Discworld series.

'There is a literary establishment of about 2,000 people but it does not really matter. It's not something I come up against,' explains Pratchett.

This subject, literary snobbery, appears to be something he wants to talk about. The spikiness has gone. [perhaps because its not an obvious and stereotypical question?]

'This establishment talks about style and this and that. You put professional authors together and they end up talking about word processors.

'Professional authors get on OK because they are professional authors.'

Despite the incredible success of his books, Pratchett has not won much silverware.

He has been shortlisted for the author of the year award three times at the British Book Awards and twice by the Booksellers Association.

With his children's books, he has twice been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, twice the Guardian's Children's Ficton Award and once for the Children's Book Award.

He did, however, win the science/fantasy Author of the Year award at the 1994 British Book Awards and the 1993 Writers Guild Award (children's books) for Johnny and the Dead.

He says he may consider calling it a day with Discworld after he has written the 25th in the series.

That is in four books time.

If he keeps up his current pace it could all be over for the giant turtle and his friends by the year 2000.

'I've got some children's book ideas.

'And I've got some ideas which I want to keep under wraps,' he says.

Terry Pratchett was born in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, in April 1948.

He became interested in books when he was 10, after being given a copy of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows.

When he was 13 he sold his first short story for 14 and spent the winnings on a typewriter.

At 17 he made the inevitable move into journalism.

His first novel, The Carpet People, was published when he was 20 and he continued to write as a hobby.

However, his life changed after the first Discworld novel 15 years ago.

He tries to hide it with confidence and eccentricity, but like every other best-selling author he seems worried the bubble will one day burst.

'They say in the trade that you are allowed two actual stinkers. I'm anxious to make certain I don't write one,' he says.

Then follows the inevitable question, one he has surely been asked a thousand times. [unlike all the others in this article...]

Does he have a favourite Discworld novel?

'It would probably be Guards! Guards!

'But it's like saying which is your favourite child?'

'I like them all.'

-Hogfather (Corgi paperback, 5.99) and Jingo (Gollancz hardback, 16.99) both by Terry Pratchett

Also on page 7 of the insert was a bestseller list:

1. Jingo
T Pratchett
2. Hogfather
T Pratchett
3. Alien Bodies
Dr Who
4, Walk In The Woods
B Bryson
5. Roundheads
Dr Who
6. Discworld Dairy [sic] 98
T Pratchett
7. Europe a History
N Davies
8. Dolls House
H Ibsen
9. Christmas Mystery
J Gaarder
10. Wild Road
G King

This chart had me confused (I mean three in the top ten is pushing it a bit, don't you think) until I noticed the bit at the bottom 'Supplied by Blackwells, Cardiff' :-)

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