|A Conversation with Terry Pratchett -- Part 1|
|Interview by Steven H Silver|
| April 2000|
For those who don't know, and past sales indicate that many Americans do not, Terry Pratchett is the author of a series
of extremely funny books about a place called the Discworld, which is very much like our own world, except that it is
flat, carried on the backs of four elephants, who in turn are carried on the back of a giant turtle, and magic works.
Although Pratchett is considered the best-selling living author in Britain and is extremely popular in Australia, his American readers seem to be something of a cult following. With the release of The Fifth Elephant, Pratchett is undertaking a lengthy tour of the US in an attempt to introduce more people to his humorous, but very cogent, view of life.
When I had the opportunity to speak to Pratchett in Chicago, he had literally just arrived from a science fiction convention in Austin, Texas.
Bad weather delayed his flight so I had arrived at his hotel slightly before he did. Once he had checked in, we sat in the bar and talked over a couple of Goose Island beers. Despite a long day of travel and bad weather, Pratchett was amiable and had even taken the time to call the hotel from the airport to make sure I knew about his delay (the hotel, however, failed to pass along the message).
While Chicago is a world class city with many attractions, Pratchett noted that there was not a lot of"free time" on a book tour, but he had seen "Lower Wacker Expressway," noting that "the Blues Brothers drive down it in, well, The Blues Brothers." The rest of his time would be spent in interviews, book signings and an online chat. Mostly, of course, he was in Chicago to promote the 24th Discworld novel.
As Pratchett has written more novels, his writing style and view of the books has changed.
"The first couple were just gag books and I wasn't really certain too much of what I was doing. I was doing it for the fun to seriously parody a lot of bad fantasy, and, indeed some good fantasy, which nevertheless is worth parodying. Since that time, I've discovered the joy of plot and the books have tended, over the years, to become a little deeper and sometimes, especially in the last few years a little darker."
Even writing "darker" books, the Discworld novels are humorous novels.
Pratchett includes many jokes which are based on specific cultural references which may not be familiar to all his
Because Pratchett is writing in Britain for a largely British crowd, this means, of course that much of the humour
is dependent on a knowledge of British culture; however, as Pratchett is quick to point out, much of British (and
indeed world) culture is based on America.
Pratchett includes many jokes which are based on specific cultural references which may not be familiar to all his readers."It really worries people. Not everything in the books is a pun or a joke. In fact, there are very few puns. It looks as if there might be more." Much of the humour is derived by lampooning common cultural references.
Because Pratchett is writing in Britain for a largely British crowd, this means, of course that much of the humour is dependent on a knowledge of British culture; however, as Pratchett is quick to point out, much of British (and indeed world) culture is based on America.
Nevertheless, sometimes Pratchett's material is specific to a region. A case in point is the novel The Last Continent, which is set on the continent of XXXX, the Discworld equivalent to Australia. The Last Continent is filled with enough Australian cultural references that it caused a reader to ask on the alt.fan.pratchett newsgroup if the Americans and British readers missed many of the jokes.
"The references you missed you didn't notice. Or, you thought that was just funny. For instance, there is a whole series where Rincewind is riding around on a little horse that is so sure-footed that it can run up slightly on the roofs of caves. There's a whole sequence there that is based on the Australian poem 'The Man From Snowy River.' I don't know if there is an American poem that has quite the same place in the nation's heart. That's one that all Australians will know and if you don't then it's all just Rincewind running around, having fun. And there are other things, like the XXXX ministers are put into prison as soon as they are elected and Rincewind asks why and they say it saves time.
"Australian politicians are notorious for getting put in prison. But the point is it probably is still funny even if you don't know some of the background."
As the series progressed, Pratchett moved away from parodying fantasy novels and began to satirize daily existence in the real world.
"I suppose if the truth were known, I found how sterile the opportunities of the classic fantasy universe were. Because the classic fantasy universe doesn't change very much. A lot of humour has to do with familiarity and there is little about the classic fantasy universe that is real to us. Take Lord of the Rings. Big battle. 'Hurray, we have a king again. Let's all go home.' What happens next day? What happens is all these armies are scattered around the place. There's thousands, millions of defeated warriors a long way from home. The elves will have got their green cards and buggered off to the west. The landscape has taken a severe beating. Who's going to take out the trash? What happens tomorrow? And you never hear that sort of thing. And afterwards, then the politicking starts. We know that history doesn't stop when a war is completed. It was kind of these things which led me to turn my attention to what we might call non-traditional fantasy targets, but in the classic fantasy universe."
Pratchett draws parallels between what he has done with the Discworld and the traditional English pantomime, a traditional form of entertainment dating back more than a century.
"Don't run away with the idea that I knew what I was doing. This is post facto reasoning.
"You have no tradition of pantomime here. And sometimes I wish we had no tradition of pantomime in England, but, pantomime kept going year-in, year-out. And the classic story-line of the pantomime tends to stay the same. Everything else becomes modern. The references are modern.
"Often television stars and other well-known people will be part of the cast and the pantomime and aspects of the script will be built around them. So the pantomime keeps going because it has these modern references all the time. I suppose Discworld can be the same sort of thing."
In any event, the Discworld has changed over time as Pratchett honed his skills as a writer. In early books, Pratchett referred to several characters only by their title. The Archchancellor of Unseen University or the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork. As time progressed, the characters acquired names and more definable personalities.
"In those days, the Archchancellor would change at least once per book. I'm a little uncertain about [whether the Patrician changed or has always been Lord Vetinari]. Sourcery actually marked the boundary line. The books before that were 'Old Discworld'; the books after that were 'New Discworld." They are the same place, but written by a better writer.
"Because the early ones were written in the fantasy tradition. You populate, apart from your heroes, with rogues, beggars, vagabonds, lords, whores... you don't think of them as characters. But I find it much more fun to bring them forward as characters."
Discworld has spawned a large number of auxiliary products, not least of which are a series of four wall maps depicting the Disc was a whole and three regions associated with the Disc. At one time, Pratchett declared that the Disc and Ankh-Morpork (two of the mapped regions) were unmappable.
"The reason I said it was unmappable was in those [other, traditional] fantasy books, the map was clearly drawn before the event. What we did was, after twelve, thirteen, fifteen books, then we mapped it. But the point is we mapped what was in the books. In other words, the landscape was created, then the landscape was mapped. We didn't map and then, as it were, create the landscape based on the map. And indeed, the very act of mapping gave me fresh ideas and locations and the nature of the city of Ankh-Morpork. Even the Lancre map, the third map, Paul [Kidby] would be drawing a few things in the corners as it were that interested him, and I thought, 'That's good. I know how that bit's going to fit in the story.'"
With four maps published, it is reasonable to expect more to come.
While Pratchett indicates that there will be more, he does not want his fans to start bothering the local bookseller just yet.
Several computer games have also been based on the Discworld. With all those hands working on the world he created,
Pratchett does not seem to have qualms about having other people play with his world.
While Pratchett indicates that there will be more, he does not want his fans to start bothering the local bookseller just yet."It's going to take me a few years to define some more undiscovered countries." The Discworld has been featured in two animated series which aired on British television based on the novels Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music.
Several computer games have also been based on the Discworld. With all those hands working on the world he created, Pratchett does not seem to have qualms about having other people play with his world.
"The animations and the games people have drawn things their way, but they've generally stuck to the map. But that's because they've got limitations of the medium. That's how you have to cartoon it. I'm still in charge of the novels. I can't be in charge of the animation because I'm not an animator, and that's a very vital thing. The spin-off thing is not really big. It only seems big because it is unusual for something which is largely a book-based thing to have this amount of spin-off. By comparison to media spin-offs, its minor."
The movies and plays which are based on Discworld serve to increase his readership where they are available, but in the US, Pratchett needs to increase his readership among people who have never heard of him and do not consider themselves science fiction fans. However, the book industry has changed with a small mid-list and stores tending to pull books from the shelves faster, before they have a chance to find their target audience.
"Then and now, it is only possible to start off and begin to build up a readership and build up a readership and build up a readership and then you get noticed. It is much harder to do that in the book industry in the US. Because unless you are an instant bestseller, the books are not going to stay on the shelves long enough to build up a readership except in a small number of specialty shops.
"I think now, with the recent Avon-Harper merger, there is a sense that people have gotten behind it and the books from now on will be published simultaneously in the US and the UK, until something goes wrong."
Although the UK has turned out several authors who write quality humour, Pratchett was quick to point out that the British don't corner the market on humour.
"You have guys like Donald Westlake, who I believe is an American national treasure. You should re-carve Mt. Rushmore with his head. And yet he seems to be neglected. He sells okay, people have heard of him, but he's not like a bestseller, as such. And I think he's very very funny. So is Carl Hiassen in a dark sort of way.
"I like thrillers. I like modern, dark, humorous is the wrong word, wry might be a better word. Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, Joseph Wambaugh, Carl Hiassen. There is an occasional lightness of touch that may well resemble humour. I read all kinds of stuff. I'm quite omnivorous when it comes to reading."
One of the first characters Pratchett created for the series is the Wizard apprentice Rincewind, who has been appearing in Discworld novels since The Colour of Magic first appeared in 1983. Pratchett is on-record as not being overly fond of Rincewind because there is little character development involved with him.
"He's not my favourite character because it's hard to give him any depth. Rincewind is just the eternal 'reasonable' character. Therefore, he's a coward. He doesn't see the point in being kicked about. And he's surrounded by idiots and fools who often do want to get killed. And it occurs to one that he's probably decent under all. But, from my point of view, someone like Vimes or Granny Weatherwax is a far more interesting character. We can see far more going on inside their heads. They're more screwed up."
Most of the books set on the Discworld are set in one of four subseries (the City Watch, the Witches, Death and Rincewind). However, there are a couple of books (notably Small Gods and Moving Pictures) which stand on their own. Pratchett indicates that he will begin writing more books which do not rely as heavily on his known characters.
"As a new departure, starting with the next book, which is The Truth, my main characters are all new characters, but some of the characters who, in the past, have been main characters, are now small characters. If you are doing a journalism novel, a newspaper novel, the police are always going to be involved because that's how a newspaper works. So Vimes and company are in there; we know them because we've seen them before, but the main characters don't and the view my hero, my main protagonist, has of Vimes is different from the one we have because we've seen inside his head. That's refreshing. Seen from the point of view of someone who is something of a libertarian, Vimes does not always act in the best of ways, because he sees things like a policeman does. There may be a couple of books there where all the major roles are filled by people you've never met before. If in that book they go to Ankh-Morpork, we know that's the Patrician over there. We know that's Dibbler selling sausages. We know the wizards in the University, all of whom they may or may not meet. If it is necessary to meet someone in that position, that's who they will meet, if you follow me. I want to bring fresh characters into the series."
Steven H Silver in one of SF Site's Contributing Editors as well as one of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. He is Vice-Chairman of Windycon 28 and Programming Chairman for Chicon 2000. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is trying to get his short stories published and has recently finished his first novel. Steven is a Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer. He lives in Illinois with his wife, daughter and 4000 books.
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