It goes without saying that someone like me, who argued with the librarian who wanted to ban my 11-year-old from reading Terry Pratchett, will one day demand that the same Son comes along to chat to Terry. Into the lion’s den, and all that. It’s dark, the den, and it’s got a doorbell, which may well be standard for hotel suites. Never having stayed in one, I wouldn’t know.
We’ve met up with Terry’s PA Rob downstairs, and he takes us all the way to the top. Literally. Terry opens the door, and just to make sure, we bribe him with the Mars bar bought specially for this meeting.
Terry says ‘I’ll sit here’ and sinks down on the luridly red velvet sofa, clutching the Mars bar.
Ian – ‘Keep it for later when you need it.’
The Mars bar leads Terry to reminisce about the past, and he has the nerve (though he does sound just a little apologetic) to suggest we ‘must be of an age, or pretty much’ and I have to tell him that I’m just too foreign to share some of his memories. I don’t mention being too young.
‘So where do you come from?’
‘Sweden,’ I reply.
‘It’s not that funny.’
‘Yes, hihi, it is, it is. Let me tell you a story, to get ourselves warmed up.’
‘OK, you warm up.’
‘One of my little hobbies at the moment is; there is a game called Oblivion.’ Terry launches forth on this game and the game version of Sweden, and one of his favourite fighting companions, who appears to be a Swede called Vilja. He pronounces this the English way, with some confusion over what this lady’s name might mean. He’s keen on a Swedish accent he recalls from the 1960s, and he does sound quite convincing. Terry has enjoyed Vilja so much that he’s now in touch with her creator, who is another Swede. (I notice he doesn’t find her funny.)
‘She’s been a considerable help to me because I wanted something for the next Discworld book.’ He goes on about the game’s rainbows which also came out at night, because they hadn’t worked out how to prevent that from happening. ‘I don’t know why it enthuses me so much, but you can plant gardens, gardens which grow, there’s a farm and occasionally you have to slaughter a pig or something. It’s turning a game which is all about combat and inquisitiveness, into something that is different.’ Terry had a character making eight kinds of soap and selling jacket potatoes.
‘It sounds very Discworld.’
‘Well it is. The Luggage is in it. It doesn’t follow you around, but wherever you stop you’ll find the Luggage. Sometimes I go back to my little place in Skingrad; a happening little town. I know the lady in the alchemist’s.’ Terry returns to his thoughts of Sweden, and of clothes, or the lack of them.
‘What about your pyjamas; did you walk back to the hotel last night in your pyjamas?’
‘I got changed again. Actually, it wasn’t pyjamas, I had a nightshirt.’
‘When did you finish? We didn’t stay until the bitter end.’
‘By the time I got out it was probably getting on for two o’clock. I’ve had enough of a night’s sleep to have had a night’s sleep, but I really wish I’d had a little longer, because we had the Discworld convention from last Thursday. I’m really looking forward to going home and blacking out for about twelve hours.’
‘Was the convention good?’
‘Yes, but there were two occasions when I just had to go and lie down for half an hour. There is a limit to how long you can be “full on”, and you have to go and just sit somewhere and stare at a white wall, or play with kittens, or something.’ Terry laughs. ‘Just to remind you that there’s life out there, especially as you spend the whole time in a hotel.’
The coffee has turned up and Ian asks ‘how do you take your coffee?’
‘One of them?’
‘Please put a lot of sugar in it and just show it the milk. If you see what I mean?’
‘Yes, I see what you mean. I can definitely do that.’
I comment that it’s a good thing I came with a waiter. ‘Someone was saying that you seem to be a lot more comfortable with women than many male writers. Do you reckon that’s true?’
‘Interesting. I suppose one of the reasons,’ Terry laughs, ‘I am very happily married, and I’ve been married to the same woman for’, he stops to think, ‘forty years. No, more than that, and I’m comfortable in that marriage. But I will flirt, and because most of the women I meet are fans, they’re already flirting with me before I’ve said anything. But that’s really talking naturally to women.’ He stirs his coffee vigorously, while recalling an event at an American convention. ‘The American fans are really into costuming, corsetry that’s meant to be seen, that sort of thing. I was ostensibly looking down decolletages…’ We laugh.
‘One of the ladies was astonished and said “American men don’t act like that” and I said “well, European men do.” Later on I found that the organisers sent a notice round saying “you’ll have a lot of fun talking to Terry, and he will flirt, and so will you, and whatever you do, don’t worry. He’s not shooting for the pot, and you will never find in the world a more married man.”’
‘A good way putting it.’
‘Every year, you get new people, because going is expensive, and if you’ve got a family, then that is your family holiday. As much as 70% of my readership is female, certainly when you get beyond the teens. I genuinely enjoy the company of women, and that is it. There is no tension in it, and usually they’ve got more to say, and are more thoughtful about things.’
‘I’m very impressed with Tiffany in this latest book. She’s turned into a sort of social worker, police officer, nurse…’
’I don’t know about police officer, but nurse and social worker, and teacher, I suppose. In the case of Tiffany, she is now on her own mettle, because up till now she’s been a trainee, and now it’s all down to her. If she was in the mountains, I suppose she would still be a trainee because she would be in the presence of the others. Whereas now she has no one close at hand, and so she’s working herself nigh on to death, to make certain that she’s not getting everything wrong.
Of course she’s does get some things wrong, and she gets them wrong in the way that trainee social workers get them wrong. They think because someone is poor and bewildered, and you are educated, you know more than them, and you can tell them what to do. That is not how you approach people, and she cleans up the mess, and of course a lot of the book is her cleaning up her own mess.’
‘Did you have anyone particular in mind when you created Tiffany?’
‘No one has ever been able to draw her. At the very beginning Tiffany is a girl. An old woman has been chucked out of her cottage, her cat has been stoned to death, her cottage has been set on fire and the books burned. Later on Tiffany goes and looks in the midden to see what bones are in there, she buries the cat, and she measures the oven, to see if it’s big enough to have cooked a small boy…
She gets forensic about it when everyone else is being superstitious. Sam Vimes would have approved of her. She’s looking for the evidence. I can see her in my mind’s eye, but I find her very hard to describe.’
‘Someone I spoke to mentioned soup plates, exactly 8” across. Did you base that kind of detail on someone that you know?’
‘I’m trying to remember about soup plates…’
Ian – ‘There’s the sea monster.’
‘Oh yes, she works out how wide its eyes are. Normally you’d say it had eyes the size of soup plates, and she even measured the soup plates, just to see whether they were the same size as the eyes. There is a well of solemnity, which kind of stabilises her.’
‘Although she’s only 16 – admittedly living in a country and a time where 16 means you should be looking for a husband anyway – she is now adult, because you just cannot be a witch without adulthood dropping on you very, very quickly.’
‘To begin with I had expected there would be more about Amber, later on in the book. Did you plan more for Amber and then not write it?’
‘It comes into the great big cauldron of what you’re writing. Various other things come up, and at some point Amber is sort of pushed away into a corner, because so many other things are happening. The trouble is,’ Terry pauses to drink his coffee, ‘I write in the way of someone throwing a stone and then going to see where the stone landed. After a while, the book will develop its own momentum. In the case of Tiffany, and especially in the case of Vimes, they then drive what happens next. I might put puzzles and obstacles in their way, but in a sense the accumulative personality that I have made for them will allow them to make decisions.
Some things, and this has been especially the case with Snuff, the one I’m writing, and it was absolutely the case with Nation; I put out my hand, and what I wanted hopped into it. I normally say this is because after many years of omnivorous reading you have so much stuff there that something will go click and you will remember something that you read a long, long time ago.
I think I’ve told you before, when I was around 12 and 13 I read every bound copy of the magazine Punch. I didn’t only look at the humour and the cartoons, I read the other stuff, which had the additional advantage of me picking up a lot of Victorian vocabulary, which comes in useful. Once, in Hay-on-Wye, I saw a book and it was called London Then and Now, and it had a woodcut of Primrose Hill – when it still had primroses – and I thought this is great. It was £270, and because it had been written in 1980 the nice thing about that was, the period in which it was written is now a “then”, so you get this kind of double microscope effect, which is one of those things that send a tingle down your spine.
The man on the desk said “aren’t you going to take them all?” There was no index, nothing to say that it was whole set. It was not a bad bargain, and I found lots of interesting stuff in it. That kind of pack-rat behaviour always comes in useful.’
‘Yes, it must do.’
Ian – ‘I have a very selfish question; do you have any preference for Tony Robinson or Stephen Briggs reading your books onto CD?’
‘I think they are as good as each other. Stephen has a very good accent, but it tends to travel around England,’ he says and laughs.
Ian – ‘Yes, I’ve thought that.’
‘But he makes a very good Patrician. On the other hand, Tony Robinson can actually read the voice of Angua and make it sound sexy.’ Terry laughs loudly.
Ian – ‘You don’t have a favourite?’
‘No, I’m just glad they are doing it, you know? I’m personally against abbreviated versions , but apparently some people like them. I don’t know why.’
‘Look at that.’ Terry gestures at the television screen behind me, ‘I don’t know why hotels do this?’
‘It’s annoying,’ I say about the automated advertising.
‘It is and it’s very hard to get rid of it, because they want you to watch the pornography. And one of the two rules I’ve had in my entire life, travelling, is never, ever watch the pornography, because a big light goes on in reception, and a copy of the bill is sent to your Mum.’
All three of us laugh.
‘And the other thing is never use the minibar, because the moment you open up the door a week’s wages vanishes just like that.’ Terry’s cup clatters ominously.
‘Do you feel you have to work hard at continuing to be Terry Pratchett?’
‘I’m Terry Pratchett because I don’t have to work hard at it. The better part of sixty years has been an experience that makes me Terry Pratchett, and I don’t think I can stop being Terry Pratchett, or write in any different way. Now, as you know, I will be working with Steve Baxter…’
‘… on an sf idea, which actually I had, and indeed wrote several thousand words about before Discworld. In a different world perhaps I would have been an sf author, although I doubt it. I know we can work together, because we are both professional authors. He is far more sf orientated than I am, and he’s got doctorates and all that stuff and he knows what he’s talking about, but I think secretly he would like to do something that’s a bit like fantasy writing and I would really like to write sf. The basic idea is such a big one that it needs two authors.’
‘How will you work together?
‘We have worked out a modus operandi, and I’ve worked with a distant person before. Now we have the internet and that’s going to make things a lot better too, and there will be a couple of weekends were we just sit there and pound stuff away. I will otherwise be working on Snuff. Recently I was doing two thousand words a day, and you don’t have to do too many weekends at two thousand words a day, before you’ve really got quite a bit of a book going.’
Here Terry returns to I Shall Wear Midnight, and how he worried about the contents for young readers. Both his editors told him that ‘a kid who’s old enough to read that book will know enough to understand what’s happening on the news. The old lady who dies, shut in with her cat. That’s really happened.’
‘I was thinking how you said when I last saw you that this next book was going to be very dark, and after reading it I thought “no that wasn’t too dark” and then I thought I’m probably just jaded from all the news that we are bombarded with the whole time.’
‘Yes, but dark is a relative thing. Let’s think of it like this; the old woman died, there’s no suggestion she was being beaten to death or anything, so that’s not dark. It’s gross’, Terry displays a young boy’s excitement over things gross, ‘but nothing that’s actually bad has happened, as opposed to what happened to Amber.’
‘But you read about that kind of thing all the time. You stop feeling so deeply.’
‘It’s fascinating for me to follow Tiffany in this, because at one point she’d have let him hang, but she doesn’t, because she realises for reasons that she doesn’t fully understand, you just don’t do it. There’s a man dying horribly, she cuts him down. OK, he lands very heavily,’ he laughs, ‘it doesn’t mean she has to be nice.’
Ian – ‘As a former student of that cynical subject English literature, I tend to find I read your books thinking “yes, this is a microcosm of society and what a commentary on society!” and then I think “oh hang on, that’s complete nonsense, he probably wrote this because he thought it was a great story and nothing more”.’
‘Uhmm, my word, doesn’t that open up a…’ Terry laughs. ‘The truth is that to a lot of people, I will always be the fellow who writes funny books. I’m quite happy with this for a number of people have found out that it isn’t quite like that. And as G K Chesterton says “humour can get in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling at the handle.” It doesn’t really worry me. I put the stuff in there, and people wonder “how does someone like you know this stuff?” and that’s because I had a Mum who talked to me when I was a kid, and told me the stories that her Irish grandma had told her. On the walks to school she told me about things; she wasn’t always lying; sometimes she got them wrong, because of what she could remember about the Greek myths and so forth. Talking to kids is important and we don’t do it enough any more. Mostly because the mothers don’t know how to do it, so they let the television do it, and the television teaches them how to want.
But I’m still slightly lost on the “how to be Terry Pratchett…”’
Ian – ‘Ten handy tips for anybody who wants to follow you.’
‘I think I’ve done quite well in making Discworld – not more serious – if I say relevant that sounds weird. Once upon a time it was Rincewind running all over the place, and now you have Tiffany Aching, and I have got from one to the other without the fanbase falling off. In fact the fanbase has expanded. Whether I’ve led them into green pastures I don’t know. It’s where I wanted to go because fun though it was writing Rincewind and doing the old slapstick ones, it doesn’t take you very far.’
‘I expect most people feel that you’ve developed in just the right direction, and that’s what we like. There are so many little observations, and the way you phrase them…’
Ian – “Simple things can really be quite complicated, especially if I’m paid by the hour”.
‘Hehe, that’s the toad, yeah.’
‘You’re putting what we may have thought, into words for us.’
‘I will talk to absolutely anybody. Anyone who’s taking any interest in the world, I’ll sit and chat to them and pull things out of them. It’s all about the commonality of mankind, of using yourself as a kind of testbed. If I think this, then probably other people will, and so I tend to assume that if something strikes me, it might have struck other people. But because they’re not in my business they haven’t written it down. Just watch people. You’ll be amazed at how much snot is eaten by people who are waiting at the traffic lights.’ We laugh.
‘You did mention snot last night.’
‘Well that’s because in Snuff goblins save their snot, so they can be buried with it. They regard the nail clippings – goblins don’t have much hair, and they think the teeth are some kind of fungus – snot, nail clippings and what’s the other one?’ He can’t remember, ‘they make special pots for them, which are incredibly beautifully made. Nothing I’m saying is any more unusual than some of the beliefs that many have.’
I agree, and then I point out that our time is up, but Terry says ‘this is my last thing so there’s no great problem here, if there’s anything more you wanted to discuss? Last time I remember someone with a stopwatch…’
‘If we don’t stop now, we’ll probably go on for days.’
‘You disconcerted me last time, by asking “do children read your books?”’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘Would you like to expand?’
‘I read it again and realised it didn’t come across all that well. It was more “do you see them at events?” and last night I saw one boy the right size. When Ian and I went to your talk about Wintersmith it was just adults, and I thought “it’s a children’s book; where are the children?” Or is it just adults who read the books and who come to events?’
‘There were lots of kids at the con, because Discworld cons are very children friendly.’
‘But are they there because they are children of fans?’
‘Ah well, that might be the case. But the point I was going to make is they are like Midwich Cuckoos, because they’ve been brought up in a house where both parents read and venerate books, and they might actually not read Discworld at this point, but they are reading something.’
‘And when that happens you realise you’ve scored one for our side. I’m going up later this year to a school where the headmaster has presented every kid with a copy of Nation. The whole school have been reading it. I shall also be doing a telephone thing in the States. There I have to say, they care about teaching about reading, rather more than we do. Teachers and librarians seem to have a higher status. I don’t think enough British people care enough about what their children read.’
‘That might be true. If the Americans are different, then I’m glad.’
‘Well, the Americans who are different, are very different. That doesn’t mean to say there aren’t as many uncaring parents, but the Americans who care, they try hard. I think I told you about a mother who was reading the Amazing Maurice to her little girl and there was a very fraught bit and she was very upset about it, and wondered if the daughter wasn’t. And the daughter wasn’t. She patted her mother and said “don’t worry Mum, it will get better by the end.” Because she had a child’s belief in narrativium. That of course you have to go through the horrible dark wood, to get to the sunlight at the other side, and that’s why, and you can pull a kid through the dark wood, provided you pull them right out of it. You leave them in the dark wood, the whole book has been wasted.’
‘I was so glad that you managed to do what you did for Tiffany, and that you found her Preston. He’s lovely.’
‘I like him. I’ve already had emails from people who say “you see the colour of sounds and that sort of thing”. My Mum said when I was a kid I would categorise people by colours, but it wasn’t the colour they were. Someone who was nice and brown was someone you could cuddle, but purple people I didn’t like at all.’
‘Aargghh!!‘ I have to laugh.
‘And I don’t know what was going on in my head. The thought occurs; was there something going on in my head which was actually valid? I wonder what in the process of the brain expanding and things, that children do come up with.’
‘Children have very sensible thoughts, it’s more a case of remembering them when you’ve grown up.’
‘One of the nice things about writing Snuff is Vimes spending some time with young Sam, who is very interested in poo right now.’
There is something I really want to know (and it’s not about poo), so I put my question to Terry.
‘Can I talk to you in absolute confidence?’ he says.
For some reason my recording stops there…
Sorry about that.
(Photos by Ian Giles)
(Link here to the first Terry Pratchett interview)