I’ve never felt so guilty over interviewing someone before. Here I am at the National Theatre in London, waiting to speak to Terry Pratchett, a favourite of the son who’s unable to come along and be my photographer. To make my feelings of guilt even worse, the meeting is taking place on his 21st birthday. But other than that, I’m happy to be doing this. Although, as you will have to admit, a photographer would have been a good thing.
While Random’s Clare fumes over the late running interview in an adjoining room, I’m setting my stuff up in the stark little room where I’m waiting for Terry. All furnished by IKEA, as is the norm these days. Clare brings a jug of water and looks round and then beats the cushion in the chair I’m intending for Terry.
I can hear him laughing outside in the corridor, and Clare introduces us, ‘Terry, here is Ann.’
‘Are you a witch in fact?’
‘Sort of, yes. And you’re more used to witches than the average author, I believe.’
‘I have visited concentric circles in my time,’ says Terry and laughs.
‘And she has a broomstick’ says Clare, before disappearing to loiter outside and keep track of the time.
‘Oh, she’s gone’ (he pronounces it gorne), ‘I hope she’s going to come back. Something like a Mars bar would actually pick me up at this time… Right, let’s go!’
As my main interest is in children’s books, I say that I’ll leave the adult Discworld books, and also Nation, which he’ll be talking about on stage later.
Terry seems preoccupied with the time. ‘We’ve got up until someone comes and gets me. I don’t think it’s that bad. I think we’ve clawed some time back, got rid of some dumb stuff.’
‘When my son was about eleven I used to borrow “adult” audiobooks for bedtime listening, Agatha Christie and that sort of thing, in the mobile library, when one day the librarian said I couldn’t. Despite me pointing out I was his mother, I was told it wasn’t right, and feeling puzzled I asked for an example of something really unsuitable for under sixteens, and she said “Terry Pratchett”.’
‘What? A librarian actually would… You say unsuitable?’ Terry’s flabbergasted.
‘Yes, have you ever come across this sort of thing? Have you been banned anywhere?’
‘Oh heavens, please, tell me I have!’ His voice rises and he sounds childishly happy. ‘Actually, the Carnegie medal, although children are, as it were, part of the judging process is, erm, voted for by librarians.’
‘I think you must have got…’
‘… a really bad one?’ I’m aware I’m putting words into the mouth of Terry Pratchett!
‘Yes. A really bad “may there be a circle of hell for such people” librarian. Did you ask her why?’
‘I didn’t. I was so stunned. I’d just been looking around the secondary school library which had a whole shelf of Discworld books.’
‘Right, I get a lot of letters like “Dear Sir, We thought our son was dyslexic and he wouldn’t read anything at all and then we gave him Terry Pratchett and he read all the way through Terry Pratchett and now he is professor of comparative philology at the University of Oxbridge.” And I’m not kidding, because I’ve been around for long enough now that the boys have grown up and have got kids and in some cases grandchildren.’
‘So you’re quite keen on promoting reading?’
‘I would really like to meet a librarian that didn’t like my style, and debate with them. I really would!’ Terry sounds excited at the prospect. ‘I know the books have their heart in the right place. And I know that for example, the books themselves are generally venerated, and one critic said that “at the heart of every Terry Pratchett book you’ll find a book.” He wasn’t exactly right, but I know what he meant and he came close to it.’ Terry switches track again. ‘So Agatha Christie would be OK?
‘Well no, barely.’
‘So I wondered what would be even worse, and that was you.’
‘Well, Agatha Christie; you have to get her out of your system sooner or later. Same with James Bond. And then you realise that not all murders happen in one house containing seven people.’
‘In the library.’
He laughs. ‘We nearly.., well we looked at a house about twenty years ago. We were moving to the West Country. We thought of buying an old rectory, which we called the Cluedo house, because it was laid out like that, and it had a secret passage diagonally across. We thought “wouldn’t it be nice if we got sculptures made of all the (murder weapons), like the lead piping and put it in each room.’ Here Terry laughs excitedly.
I ask him if he has any child fans, and describe an event for a children’s book I went to, and how there were only adults there.
‘Was it for a children’s book?’
‘Yes, it was Wintersmith, and there were about four hundred adults there and half a child. I somehow find that your children’s books feel more profound than the adult books.’
‘Yes, I think that tends to be the case. You can actually address, in children’s books, issues that you probably wouldn’t attempt to address in adult books. There appears to be a kind of freedom, which is fine but at the same time there are certain shackles. Erm, when you say “do children read your books?”…’
‘Of course they do. I think it was more whether they actually come to events, or are your children’s books really books for adults?’
‘Let’s address that one, then. Nation won the Printz Award in the States last year, which is the highest Young Adult – they insist on Young Adult – book award that you can get if you’re not an American. Well you can if you live in the States, and generally speaking the librarians that vote for this are a tough lot, and the same goes for both my editors, and indeed librarians here, and they are,’ Terry speaks slowly, obviously thinking how to put it, ‘they don’t want to see an adult book go on the market as a children’s book. But there’s an interesting, more practical point about that; the gap has narrowed these days, but traditionally you get a smaller advance for a children’s book, irrespective of the size of the book, than for an adult’s, so’, he laughs, ‘if money was the issue you probably…’
‘Then you wouldn’t.’
‘You wouldn’t, I think… There appears to be no shortage of fans coming up. I would say that fantasy is uni-age, because at one end of the scale it’s got fairy tales, which sometimes are woven into my books. Enough people of both ages are reading enough of my books for me to feel very happy. I started as you probably know, because you’d have read this somewhere…’
‘I never started writing, reading rather, until I was about nine or ten, when I discovered the library, and wanted to read every damned thing. I went absolutely through it. I went not knowing they were sexy novels, but read sexy novels and Tove Jansson and Just William. I read anything that I saw, and I think among children that read, differentiation between adult and children’s gets really quite blurred. Certainly with Discworld, because it looks jolly. And with any luck there’s a librarian that will tell you it’s not suitable for them,’ he says and giggles.
‘I have been asked…’
‘Can I just say something in passing on that? I’m just on the way to finishing I Shall Wear Midnight, which is the last Tiffany Aching, and that is more adult than,’ here Terry hesitates, ‘than young adult because she grows up. And so there are matters there of death, not matters of sex. And I wondered; there were some things that are very very scary, in the sense of monsters, and I was, I’ve been talking to… Have you met Philippa Dickinson?’
‘Yes I have.’
‘Yeah, well Philippa knows her stuff, and Anne Hoppe in the States, she’s likewise. I occasionally check the boundaries, to be on the safe side. But generally speaking, no matter how fearsome the monster is, the important thing is the fact that that the monster gets defeated.’
‘The betrayal is if the monster wins. Because Tiffany has had a relationship, which is clearly over, and she thinks kind of bitchy thoughts. She realises she’s doing it, but there are little things… Part of the beginning is set on the Discworld version of the Cerne Abbas giant, and there is a bit where you’re reading her thoughts, she’s trying to describe what she sees. Describing the giant, because to put it politely, without unseemly language,’ Terry laughs, ‘just saying he had no trousers, is not, is simply just not sufficient to describe his lack of anything in what might loosely… and I thought the kids will know exactly what we’re talking about, and I’m actually doing this kind of Victorian, trying to shy away from what you might call the largeness of what we’re dealing with. But I thought this could probably work because the thing she’s talking about of, glory be…
I watched my daughter grow up and she was a great kind of marker for me. You know, how she got on with her friends, and what they did when they were around the place. Because I have no grandchildren, yet. It seems to me children are getting older.’
Here Terry is interrupted by the National’s publicity lady who points out we have five minutes left.
‘Do we have to move away, or what?’
‘No, we’re all right.’
‘Was that lady wanting you to..?’
‘She was just saying we’ve got five minutes.’
‘Have we really got five minutes?’ Terry sounds incredulous. ‘What I mean is, I don’t know how much time there is until I’m now on.’
‘On the other hand, I’ve got to have something to eat…’
‘So, any more questions you want to ask?’
I say that a friend of mine wrote Terry a fan letter over twenty years ago, asking if he was going to bring Granny Weatherwax back, and in his reply Terry said no. ‘She is wondering what made you change your mind.’
‘That would have been after Equal Rites.’
‘I think so, yes.’
‘Because when I decided to write Wyrd Sisters, I thought, well, Granny Weatherwax is out there, and so, why not? What happens now is quite interesting, with characters that are small in one book, and later on they turn up and we see them in the street or they become the main character. In fact what is “quite profound” in I Shall Wear Midnight, Tiffany goes to Ankh-Morpork and there are a number of people we already know who she meets. It doesn’t matter as far as the kids are concerned, but it feels quite nice.
This is going to be the last Tiffany, and it’s probably true to say there is not a massive difference between my children’s books and my adult books. I mean, there is no explicit sex. Never been any good at that sort of thing, you know’ says Terry with an embarrassed laugh. ‘“It’s his poor wife that I feel sorry for,”’ Terry mutters under his breath. ‘It’s the way it goes. The books go out there and I’ve always been aware that fantasy is uni-age and the kids who read, read anything, and the kids that don’t; it’s amazing how many you can persuade, actually. Or who appear to be persuaded by Discworld.’
The door opens and our time is up, so I quickly ask Terry for one last thing. ‘Could I just ask you to sign this book (Good Omens) for my son, because Neil Gaiman said that there is a space reserved for you?’
‘Oh, jolly good. Have you got a pen there?’
‘Yes,’ I say, feeling like the good girl guide I’m not.
‘Uhmm, “why have we match…”’
‘Ah, you remember what you’re supposed to write do you?’
‘More or less. My handwriting is now so bad, I have to say.’
‘Thank you very much…’
‘I’m actually, there may be a squiggle there that looks like a signature, let me just double check that I have put it there.’ I hand the book back again. ‘There we are, that fat thing at the bottom which looks like someone’s… After a while you’ve done your signature so many times, it becomes a chop and you just don’t…’
‘Yes, I know what it can be like.’
‘Thank you very much. I’m sorry we haven’t got longer.’
‘It’s been really good meeting you. Thank you for taking the time.’
‘Thank you for caring about children’s books. You do don’t you?’
‘I do, but then you write them so well.
‘I think that our job is to turn children into adults, not encourage children to remain children.’
‘A bit like Mau?’
Terry is halfway out the door, but stops and thinks; ‘well, Mau is turned into an adult by force of circumstances.’
‘But we’re getting into a subject which is not fashionable to talk about now, that’s good pedagogy, really.’ He laughs as he is led off to face the National’s audience, and maybe some food.
(Added ten months later, a link to my second interview with Terry.)
PLATFORM, with Sara LeFanu
Terry Pratchett is a star. The audience at the National Theatre who have come for his platform talk before the evening’s performance of Nation, certainly think so. And after Sara LeFanu tells us how many million copies his books have sold, Terry leans towards her and says ‘I think they know that!’
The talk starts with Nation, which was a story Terry just had to write, no matter what it said on the contract for his next book. ‘This one wrote itself and dragged me after’, as he puts it. He feels the adaptation for the stage is fairly good. As he says, it’s a pity you can’t have everything, but that is nobody’s fault. The heart and the soul of the book survive. In some respects Terry reckons the dramatised version may be better, since the National have all their ‘props and tricks’, while all he had was ‘one lousy alphabet.’ And one thing you can’t have in a book is a Greek chorus.
When it comes to the Q&A session someone asks why Death is different in Nation from what he’s like in Discworld, and basically it’s because he isn’t the same character, if that doesn’t sound impossible. Death in Nation is more like Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, says Terry.
The reason Terry set Nation in a parallel world, albeit one so similar to our own, is that it’s his ‘get out of jail free’ card, which means he can have whatever he likes in the story, without someone pointing out that he got it wrong.
Even so, he knows exactly what Mau’s island is like, having seen it in Australia. He went so far as to make a model of it in plasticine. And he took the trouble of finding out what happens to bullets fired under water. He says he quite likes islands named after the calendar, and has a special fondness for the Mothering Sunday Islands as a name.
While speaking of dramatisations, Terry feels that Wintersmith would ‘make a damned good play too.’ Tiffany Aching is his favourite Discworld character, with Commander Vimes coming in as number two. And every town has a Nanny Ogg.
Someone wants to know if there might be more books about Johnny, and ‘it depends’. Terry likens it to a Quaker meeting where you sit in silence until you’ve got something to say.
Terry may be a star, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously; ‘crikey, I’m getting literary about it’. And the audience go wild(ish) as he leaves, and the cameras snap.