The L-Space Web: Interviews

The Colour of Pratchett
Neil Gaiman talks to the author of fantasy's most colourful new book.

Terry Pratchett is the author of a book that ought to appeal to most Space Voyager readers. It's called The Colour of Magic and it's an attempt to do for the fantasy field what Hitchhiker did to science fiction - send up all the conventions, and generally have a fun time doing so.

He's written three other books in the SF field. (His last novel, Strata, was described by one reviewer as 'restlessly inventive, which in the space of a fairly short novel, manages to enough ideas to keep most SF writers happy for a trilogy of trilogies.' All right, I admit it: I was that reviewer.) His first SF story, however, was published when he was the unbelievably young age of thirteen.

"It was a terrible thing to happen to someone," he told me. "The very first thing I ever wrote got accepted, which is quite the reverse of the normal procedure. So then I spent five or six years learning to write - as if by sheer chance the first dart I had ever thrown had hit the bullseye. My next books were The Carpet People, The Dark Side of the Sun, Strata and The Colour of Magic. Sourcery was good - I had fun writing that."

Like The Colour of Magic, Strata mostly takes place on a flat Earth, which is treated as a kind of parody of Larry Niven's Ringworld. "Well, Larry Niven is a very easy writer to copy, all his characters speak in exactly the same way. No-one ever stops to think about things, they just go out and do them. Ringworld was really good (taken apart it doesn't stand up at all, but it's jolly good fun). I liked the way everything in Ringworld worked like clockwork, so I said 'Right! No-one's ever put together a universe that doesn't work at all, where the whole thing ticks over solely due to a remarkable input of power.' That was Strata."

The Colour of Magic is the story of a fairly useless wizard who finds himself acting as a rather unwilling minder to a tourist and a somewhat supernatural paradimensional walking traveller's chest. In it Pratchett borrows from and pokes fun at authors as diverse as Fritz Leiber, Ursula K Le Guin, H P Lovecraft, Robert E Howard and Anne McCaffrey - to name but a few.

Having said that, I was totally at a loss when confronted by the cover blurb, which reads 'Jerome K Jerome meets Lord of the Rings (with a touch of Peter Pan)'. Could he explain it?

He shrugged. "Don't ask me to explain what publishers say!"


Aren't the wizard and the tourist a little reminiscent of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect? "You can go a long way by having two characters, one of whom is streetwise and the other who is innocent and a lightning conductor for trouble. And you stick them together - which is what Douglas Adams and many other people have done, it's what I did - and you get a sort of sword and sorcery Laurel and Hardy.

"Twoflower (the tourist) really believes that because he's not really involved because he's a tourist, even though he could be in the middle of a battle the thought that something could actually hurt him doesn't enter his scheme of things."

There are points in the book where it almost reads like Douglas Adams. "Well, I write like the last author I've read. I've really had to stop myself writing like Larry Niven; for someone who's a bit of a comedian, as I am, he's such an obvious person to copy. Now, I've got to admit that while I hate and despise Trekkies (A Dr Who fan can walk under a snake, while a Trekkie can walk under a snake wearing a bowler hat!) Hitchhiker's Guide fans are a great bunch of guys.

"The only trouble is that sometimes people take it seriously, and then you begin to panic. I was so impressed by Hitchhiker that I've got the world's only talking door. Very easy, microchip, processor, got a bloke to write me some software and as you go through it, it says "Glad to be of service" "Please enjoy your trip through this door." It's a lot of fun. But I get uneasy when people take these things too seriously."

Isn't he worried that some people could take The Colour of Magic too seriously?

"I don't imagine that anyone could take it seriously. I don't take it seriously. If World War Three actually happens, I want to be the one to say, as the mushroom cloud erupts, "Well, that about wraps it up for this lifetime!" If you've got say something that's a great deal better than saying 'Aaaaarrggghh!'

"But you know, a lot of the fun is in taking something dead seriously, and thus exposing the funny side of things - like The Law of Conservation of Reality, which says that you can make a wineglass move, or appear to move - as long as all you're doing is moving photons, but you've got to be very careful if you're really lifting the wineglass by magic in case the Law of Conservation of Reality cuts in, and your brain is forced out of your ears. That's a dead steal from The Wizard of Earthsea."


"But The Colour of Magic is the stand-up comic of fantasy - there's never been one in fantasy before, it's so humourless. Conan is so humourless - I loved the film, but the book - what a load of trash! In the book I'm doing now (the sequel to The Colour of Magic) there's a direct steal from the film. Do you remember that scene where they're all sitting around a campfire going 'what is the best thing in life?' 'The wind in you're hair and the lamentation of the womenfolk!'" I nodded. "Well in my book there's Cohen the Barbarian, who's eighty-seven, and when his turn comes around he says 'Good dentistry and soft toilet paper'. A lifetime of sleeping rough has taught him that what really matters are hot-water bottles, dentistry and soft toilet paper.

"I suppose that by and large I think the books are a homage to the people who have given me so much enjoyment - I just go for the soft underbelly."

Besides writing fantasy and science fiction, acting as dungeon master to his local Dungeons and Dragons group, and casting bees and locusts in precious metals (all of which he does) Terry is currently employed as a PR for the electricity board, and has been a journalist for many years.

He still feels himself more a journalist than a writer. "A journalist," he explained, "has a rapist's mentality. Get in there, get what you want, get out again quick. An interview needn't last more than fifteen minutes. A good quote for the middle, a good quote for the end, and the rest you make up back at the office."

(Editor's note: Not all of us!)

Interview © Neil Gaiman, 1985.

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