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SFBC Interview
An SFBC exclusive interview with Terry Pratchett

To celebrate the publication of Hogfather--the 20th Discworld novel released in the U.S.--we thought it'd be fun to get Terry Pratchett to talk a little about his work. Staff writer Joyce Wiley rang him up at his home in Wiltshire, England.

SFBC: The Science Fiction Book Club has been around for 45 years, but new members may not be well-informed about the Discworld. Would you like to tell them a bit about it?

TP: Well, I think if they haven't heard a bit about it now, they've been living down at the bottom of a hole. There've been 22 books about the Discworld in the U.K. and I think there's been about 19 or 20 in the U.S. and the last 15 of them in the U.K. have all got to number one on the best-seller list--the national best-seller list. I believe this week I'm off number one after eight weeks. (Some guy called John Grisham. Gotta give him a chance.)

SFBC: How many countries has the series been published in?

TP: It's a little difficult to say now because new countries turn up all the time. But depending upon how you define country, probably between 18 and 23.

SFBC: So you truly are an international bestseller.

TP: (A bit of hemming and hawing) Ah, well, yes!

SFBC: You're being modest now.

TP: I think it's a strange phrase anyway, but they do sell very well off in places where you wouldn't expect them to.

SFBC: It must be kind of strange reading about the Discworld in farsi or some other odd language...

TP: The Hebrew version is sort of old testamenty, but yes, I've got a whole bookshelf full of strange texts.

SFBC: How did the idea of the Discworld come about?

TP: I simply began it in the early 1980s as an antidote to all the bad copies of Tolkien that were around, and there were such a lot of them. There's still a few now but I just thought it was time to have a laugh at some of the more bloated clichés.

SFBC: The Discworld itself is a flat planet spinning through space...

TP: A flat world. The look of the Discworld is firmly based in world mythology, I didn't really have to make up very much in order to get the actual physical look of the place.

SFBC: Right. I think the Native Americans have this world spinning on the back of a turtle.

TP: The idea that the world is flat and goes through space on a turtle is one of the most pervasive myths on the planet. You find it somewhere on every continent.

SFBC: Have you modelled anyone in the series on someone you know?

TP: Yes, but I'm not going to let on.

SFBC: Which character is your personal favorite?

TP: There are so many, and I like them for various reasons, and the kind of character that an author may like is not necessarily the one that a reader may think he would like. I like the characters that are a little bit screwed up. Because a screwed-up character makes a better character from an author's point of view. A well-balanced person is difficult to write for. I like Granny Weatherwax who turns up in a number of the books, but I also like Commander Vimes of the City Watch. He's a good guy, and when you're a cop, especially a cop on Discworld, there're all kinds of special problems you have to face. But he's a decent man in a difficult job.

SFBC: Our editors have noticed that the characters have been gaining in depth and the series is taking on a more serious subtext. Is this deliberate or just a natural function of your familiarity with the series?

TP: I don't set out to say, "Gosh, I am going to be saying this in this book", they become like that. I think Esther Friesner sums it up very well. She says you have to have some tragic relief.

I just could not have written 22 books with nothing but gags in them. It just wouldn't work. I think the key thing is a book has to work even if it's not funny. It should be possible to write it so that it would work even if it had no jokes in it. If it's simply relying on the jokes all the way through, its sole reason for existing, then it's not likely to achieve very much.

SFBC: Would you care to tell our members a little bit about Hogfather?

TP: It's impossible to summarize it very succinctly, but it has something to do with the magic of childhood. And the interesting thing about the magic of childhood, it's a phrase that only adults would ever dream of using. Children know the world is a far more dangerous place than adults can possibly believe.

It's a book which features, among others, Death, the Tooth Fairy and various other similar occult personalities, including Jack Frost, the Cheerfulness Fairy--who I rather enjoyed writing--and all kinds of other mystical creatures, and, of course, the Hogfather himself, who is the Discworld equivalent of Father Christmas.

It's also a book about winter, and the mythology of winter. As I'm sure you know, a lot of the things that we celebrate around the dark of the year, and a lot of the decorations, and even some of the songs, had their roots in a tradition that goes all the way back beyond Jesus Christ and possibly even back beyond the building of Stonehenge. We are meddling with dark magic at the dark time of the year.

SFBC: I also noticed a subtext about belief.

TP: That's one that's been woven through quite a few of the Discworld novels. Belief is a very potent force on the Discworld. Of course it is here. If you run out of a bank very, very, very fast and a policeman shouts to you to stop and you don't, you're dead. And you're dead because he believes that you're a bank robber. Belief can be a strong force, but on Discworld, it really is stronger than it is here.

SFBC: Another thing in the book brought up an unexpected echo of a quote I have in my office about how the American Indians believe that by the telling of stories and the singing of songs, they exist. When Death tells Susan that humans need fantasy to be human...

TP: There's no metaphor there; that's absolutely true. The hope is that they will be true. I do talks on this anyway, more serious ones. We started off telling stories about thundergods and eventually we got into the habit of inventing things like justice and mercy which have no existence in the universe outside of our imagination, and yet we have made them true.

SFBC: I've always believed that humans, from the dawn of time when people sat around campfires talking about their latest kill...that that's one of the reasons why we need television so much. It's just inbred in us that we need these stories to exist.

TP: Yes, I think that's true. We certainly need a fantasy life. Because it is imagination rather than intelligence which distinguishes us from the animals. There are plenty of intelligent animals. Probably the most intelligent ones are the ones that don't let us know how intelligent they are. Look at the poor dolphins. Say that you're intelligent and next thing you know you're swimming under boats sticking mines on the bottom. A really intelligent animal wouldn't let us know. But you see, our ability to imagine what things could be other than they are, I believe, has been the spur of our evolution.

SFBC: You were recently on a book-signing tour of New Zealand...

TP: And Australia.

SFBC: Care to tell us a little bit about the trip?

TP: It was a very busy trip, because this was a trip for The Last Continent [an upcoming Discworld novel]. I do an awful lot of research all the time. I don't do the research directed to any particular end. I just read voraciously. I came across a reference in a book about the exploration of Australia, and it suggested that some of the early explorers actually entertained the idea that Australia had been created separate from the rest of the world. That, if you like, God had created the world in seven days and on the eighth day, with the bits left over, he created Australia. Because it was so different from anything they'd seen, there was nothing that they recognized.

Now, if you're a European exploring America, you see things you recognize all the time. Trees, birds that are similar, things like that, but there was simply no similarities in Australia, and I thought, what a lovely idea. I can use that in a fantasy book. And the Australians have liked it, and so have the New Zealanders. The New Zealanders because they like laughing at Australians, and the Australians because they like laughing at themselves.

And it was a very, very crowded tour. It was odd. It's also a day's flight from the U.K. so the jet lag was the reason that I was dozing off because the jet lag hadn't fully gone yet.

SFBC: Did you talk to fans?

TP: Oh yes! Every evening. My tour was very busy because I do maybe three signings during the day and a talk in the evening and catch the first plane out in the morning. That's how signing tours go.

SFBC: What's the one question fans keep asking that you wish they'd stop asking?

TP: "What's the next book going to be about?" It's always slightly worrying; you meet your fans and "Oh, I loved the book. I read it in two days! When are you doing another one?" I worked six months for this!

It would be a very unwise author that did not listen to his fans. It would be an incredibly stupid author that did everything the fans suggested. Because what the fans often want is the same book you've just written--again!

SFBC: I'm curious about the plays (theatrical adaptations of Mort, Wyrd Sisters, Guards! Guards!, and Men At Arms).

TP: There are about six or seven plays now based on Discworld books, recently a very successful professional one of Guards! Guards! But Steven Briggs, who did the adaptations, has made over the Amateur Dramatic Life to the Orangutan Foundation. Quite seriously, they could really do with the money, especially with events in Indonesia recently. And at any one time, there are about 50 Discworld plays in production somewhere in the world. In fact, when I was in Australia and New Zealand, there seemed to be one on in every city. I have to say there aren't as many in America.

SFBC: I've never heard of any.

TP: Well, there are occasional ones, and they've caught on in Australia suddenly in a very big way. I think it's partly because we just kind of say, "Ok you send us..." (there's a scale of fees which goes directly to the charity, so they probably think we're making money) "and we give you permission." We send you a little letter saying you've got permission to do this play. And Americans find this very hard to live with. They want contracts and things signed by a notary public in the state of Maryland. I've had to kind of rant at people, say, "Look, I've given you permission, we've sent you a letter, you can do this, you can do five performances, thank you for the money and that's it." It's just a permission. They get very nervous that if they go ahead we might find some way of suing them. They get so formal when we're dealing with the States, I'm afraid.

SFBC: I see that there are a couple of animated Discworld videos. Are they available here?

TP: (laughing) On the black market, yes. I have to say, the publisher knows this to be the case. For various reasons. One was some very bad marketing on the part of ROC who had some of the first Discworld books. And then a sudden sliding in the production schedule in the U.S.. Sometimes fans have to wait maybe 18 months for the same title to appear in a U.S. edition. Of course, we now live in a global economy, and we did some research, and the amount of U.K. editions which get imported into America is rather large. What with the Internet as well, the whole issues of copyright and national boundaries begin to get a little bit blurred.

SFBC: Will there be a Discworld movie?

TP: Well, we keep talking to guys. I think probably one day, but I don't think anyone's come up with the right kind of combination yet.

SFBC: If Hollywood came up to you right now, and said let's make a movie, who would you like to play Commander Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Death...

TP: Here in England we have any amount of ladies of a certain age, generally Shakespearean trained, ladies like Maggie Smith, who could simply wear that role [Granny Weatherwax] like a coat, who could know exactly how to do it, but they're probably not international stars.

SFBC: Yes, but who would you pick, internationally known or not?

TP: Well, one thing I'm quite certain of, the voice of Death would be played by Christopher Lee.

SFBC: Excellent.

TP: Well, you know who he is, because he hasn't got as much trans-Atlantic presence as he has here. I always think of him as the English equivalent of James Earl Jones. In the sense of such a distinctive voice. I'm afraid with all the others, my preferred "toff" list changes every time I see someone on the screen. People say Clint Eastwood would make a good Vimes, and actually he might make a good Vimes now because he's older and he's slowed down. (laughs) It's a game that the guys on the Internet play all the time. And I try and keep out of it, really.

SFBC: Let's talk about writing. A lot of Science Fiction Book Club members aspire to write fantasy and science fiction themselves. First off, who are some of your influences?

TP: Well, I'm 50 this year. I cannot possibly say who my influences are by now because when you've been alive for 50 years you've probably forgotten. It is the nature of the universe that practically anything is an influence.

SFBC: What did you read as a child?

TP: I didn't read anything as a child. I didn't really start reading until I was about ten or eleven. And then I read absolutely everything, but I started off reading fantasy and science fiction.

SFBC: Do you remember any book that made you say, gee, I want to be a writer, I want to do that?

TP: Yeah. There was--alas, I find it a shame that he has been so easily forgotten--a writer called James Blish.

SFBC: Star Trek® books, right?

TP: Well, that's actually like saying, "Oh yes, I remember the Queen. She was the lady that opened the school."

He wrote a trilogy--in fact, in the best tradition of trilogies, there were four books in it--known as Cities in Flight. But he also wrote rather heavier books like Black Easter--I think he wrote A Case of Conscience--and The Day after Judgement, but Cities in Flight was such "gosh-wow" science fiction, it enthralled me. The premise was beguilingly simple, that a very cheap space travel had been found, that people had zoomed off to all the stars so you had a universe of more or less agricultural planets, and what they needed was manufacturing capability. So the cities of Earth, especially those on bedrock, using antigravity drive, actually lifted the entire cities off the planet and flew them from planet to planet. They'd land, they'd mine your coal and make your steel on a contract and then they would take off and go somewhere else. Like gigantic hobos, the adventures of New York. Covered in a dome, zooming through space at light speed, I mean it would make a marvelous movie. It was just the sheer scale of the thing that fascinated me.

I read so much science fiction and fantasy in the '60s, I just used to devour it.

SFBC: How did you start out as a writer?

TP: Well, the point about the whole science fiction and fantasy field is that there is an implicit encouragement to write.

I know of no other field that has the equivalent of a science fiction convention. There you go, you mingle on fairly easy terms with writers and you see that they are human beings just like you, and if they are human beings just like you and they can write, then presumably you can write as well. That's how the message gets home.

And so, because of this implicit encouragement to write, I tried my hand at a few things. I wrote a story, I sent it off to a magazine and it got published. It was as simple as that.

I'm very pleased to meet people that don't want to be writers. (laughs) Unfortunately, most of the people I meet don't exactly want to be writers--they want to have written. They don't really want six months of spending every free moment writing. What they want is a book with their name on it.

SFBC: With lots of money.

TP: Not even necessarily with lots of money. But it is a slog, it really is, and you have to be fairly singleminded about it, and you do have to learn that grammar, spelling and punctuation are not things that happen to other people. This often worries me because if some people wanted to be an athlete or a boxer or a mountain climber, they would understand you have to train, you have to think about it, you have to be fairly focused. You have to work out in the gym and you have to do road work and you have to eat right and you have to do all these things, which is what you do in order to become good at what you want to be. And yet they don't necessarily feel that to be a writer you also have to be a reader to a very large extent. You actually have to discipline yourself. You have to live your life in a certain way. Unfortunately, that is true.

SFBC: Do you experience writer's block, and how do you get over it?

TP: There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.

It's actually an American thing, but it's one of the nicer parts of your culture. Built into the American mindset is the idea that there is no reason why anyone should not be able to do anything. That if you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything. And that is absolutely great because it's the kind of thing that gets you to the moon.

But some people just are not naturally good at writing. I'm not naturally good at plastering walls; I just cannot do it properly. And the bloke in my house at the moment plastering walls lovely and flat isn't any good at writing. That's fine. He plasters walls, I write the words.

I think that true writers do not suffer from writer's block. You trick your way out of it, you find ways around it, you examine what you're doing to see why it is you're blocked. In the same way that real writers don't wait for inspiration, you have to put yourself where inspiration is going to strike. Once it's called writer's block, that's giving it almost the status of a disease. And it isn't really.

SFBC: Is there anything that you'd like to write that you haven't, or is there anything that you stuck away in a drawer a few years ago and said, "Nah, not yet?"

TP: Just a few Discworld ideas that at the time I didn't think would work properly, and I saved them for later on. I'm now working on the 24th book, and this one's getting a bit closer to the 25th. I'm going to slow down a little bit because I have been writing a lot of them.

I'm not going to give up writing Discworld. I have been doing other things over the years which have been very successful.

SFBC: Lots of childrens books, I noticed.

TP: Yeah. The Science Fiction Book Club bought them, but the more mundane publishers didn't think they were suitable for American children. Well, you know they are, um, intelligent. (laughs)

SFBC: Well, it depends upon your idea of children. Fifteen-year-olds would understand the jokes.

TP: I think that is a comment about American publishers rather than American children.

They've won all kinds of awards. I'm very glad the book club picked them up, because I was getting lots and lots of letters and e-mails about them.

SFBC: And we keep getting letters for anything else you possibly have written. Anything. We've got Johnny Maxwell.

TP: I think you're running out of books of mine. You've got everything now.

SFBC: We need the videos and audiobooks now.

TP: That's really up to the companies that do them. The Discworld is a fairly large thing now, and I can't control every bit of it.

SFBC: You can't? You created it!

TP: Yes, but on my kitchen table is a load of Discworld Beer. The breweries produce two types of Discworld Beer. And the Discworld cider. You can buy Discworld shirts, pottery, figurines, cross-stitch embroidery kits...this is new rock and roll.

SFBC: The models, too.

TP: Oh, the models, yes, which are very expensive but incredibly well-made. I mean, there is such a lot of kind of low-key cottage industry spin-offs to Discworld. It's altogether too much.

SFBC: Yes, it is starting to sound like Disneyworld, a little bit.

TP: Well, yes. Except that if your Mickey Mouse ears fall off, that nice Mr. Disney is not unduly perturbed. If someone buys a Discworld t-shirt and the colors run in the wash, I am the person who gets the email.

We're just working on the third Discworld game. It really is difficult to keep track of everything that's going on.

SFBC: Our members are always curious to know what their favorite authors read. Do you read much science fiction and fantasy, and who are your favorite authors?

TP: I don't read very much science fiction or fantasy now. Deliberately, because there's always a terrible tendency to recycle, to get influenced. What I always say to authors is that you should always read outside of the field where you write so that if you're influenced, at least you're influenced by another genre. I read a lot of hard-boiled cop novels. I like police procedurals. He's not quite so well-known here, but you must have heard of Carl Hiassen? I very much like him; I very much like Tom Robbins. Donald Westlake is a long-time hero of mine.

I also read lots of history. For the really long-haul airline trips, because I go to Australia about twice a year, I would take a Tom Clancy. The thing about Tom Clancy is that you can start reading a Tom Clancy book when the plane takes off in London and you're still reading it when the plane lands in Sidney. And then you can use it to beat snakes to death.

SFBC: Where can your American fans get in touch with you, and do you have an official fan club?

TP: There is an American fan club. The address is The North American Discworld Society, Joseph Schaumburger, 18205 SW 94th Avenue, Miami, FL 33157. The e-mail address is

But no one has any difficulty getting in touch with me via e-mail. I've never kept it a secret. If they do a search on the Web, they'll find lots of pointers to my e-mail address. It's I don't have a Web site because I haven't got enough time. And I've worked out that these days there's only two ways of being really cool. One is to have the best Web site you can possibly get, and the other is not to have one at all. (laughs)

SFBC: Is there anything else you'd like to tell your fans in The Science Fiction Book Club?

TP: Well, I'd like to say Thanks!

SFBC: Well, thank you!

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