T E R R Y P R A T C H E T T
Interviewed by John Connolly
In July of this year, a letter appeared on the correspondence page of the Sunday Times. The subject of the letter was one J.K.Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, or more particularly an article written about her latest novel in the same newspaper the previous week.
"Why," the correspondent asked, "is it felt that the continued elevation of J.K.Rowling can only be achieved at the expense of other writers?. . . Now we learn that prior to Harry Potter the world of fantasy was plagued with 'knights and ladies morris-dancing to Greensleeves.'" The letter went on to point out that this was not the case, and that the best of fantasy writing has always been edgy and inventive, with writers constantly reinventing and subverting the genre, bending it to reflect their own times and the issues of the day. Finally, in reference to Rowling herself, it took issue with her claim that, prior to the publication of her first novel, she didn't realise that she was writing fantasy. "I'm not the world's greatest expert," the correspondent concluded, "but I would have thought that the wizards, witches, trolls, unicorns, hidden worlds, jumping chocolate frogs, owl mail, magic food, ghosts, broomsticks and spells would have given her a clue?"
The letter writer in question was Terry Pratchett, author of over 40 fantasy novels, recipient of the Carnegie medal for children's literature, and, Rowling apart, the most successful genre writer in Britain, so his claim not to be "the world's greatest expert" was slightly disingenuous. While the letter was mistakenly interpreted in some quarters as an attack on Rowling, it could more accurately have been described as an attack on a certain attitude towards fantasy, a kind of intellectual snobbery that Rowling herself initially appeared to share by attempting to distance herself from the genre, and that Pratchett wittily punctured in his final paragraph.
There is no escaping the f-word when it comes to Terry Pratchett's work. The majority of his novels take place on the Discworld, which floats through space on the backs of four elephants, who are supported in turn by the great turtle, A'Tuin. The busiest city on the Discworld is Ankh-Morpork, ruled by the less-than-benevolent Lord Vetinari and patrolled by the good men, women and assorted other creatures of the Watch. There are dwarfs (never "dwarves"), trolls, vampires who have taken the Pledge against bloodsucking, reluctant werewolves, and the wizards of the Unseen University who behave much as academics everywhere behave, except with the added danger of potentially fatal magic being used to solve disputes over tenure.
The fantasy elements in themselves might be enough for some to damn Pratchett as unworthy of critical attention, but the fact that his work is also very funny renders him doubly problematical; quite simply, the Discworld is the most perfectly realised comic universe since the glory days of P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings Castle. Add to that his massive commercial success - in its first week at number one in the UK top ten best-seller list, his latest novel Thud! sold nearly 40,000 copies, more than half as much again as the other nine titles combined - and Pratchett is open to that most grievous of accusations: a lack of seriousness. After all, wit and popularity still tend to be frowned upon in certain literary circles.
"It used to bother me more up until about five years ago," he says. "Now my philosophy can be summed up as 'What the hell.' It's just the way the world works."
So he's funny, he's popular, and he still answers his own, not inconsiderable, fan mail. He is heavily involved with the Orang-Utan Foundation, a consequence of making the Unseen University's librarian an orang-utan; he sponsors the Sagittarius Prize for the best first novel written by an author over 60; and a bookseller friend of mine, who was going through a difficult separation some years ago, suspects that he rigged a raffle in her store so her daughter would win the first prize of an enormous cuddly toy.
That said, I have to confess to being a little wary of interviewing him. I'd met him twice before when I was a young journalist, and neither was a particularly satisfying journalistic experience for me. (On the second occasion, he answered my perhaps over elaborate opening question with a look of bewilderment and the words "That's for clever buggers like you to figure out", and that was pretty much the end of that.) I suspect that Pratchett once had a slight, if perfectly understandable, chip on his shoulder towards the media. While his work had hardly been ignored by the mainstream press, and he had certainly been well reviewed, it was clear that he owed his position in large part to the consistent and prolific production of solid work that was loved by an ever-increasing number of fans. Now that he was achieving a measure of success he seemed reluctant to indulge reporters who were trying to make up on lost ground.
Thankfully this encounter is happier than the last, perhaps because my questions have become a little better, or at least intelligible to the person being asked them, which is always an advantage. Pratchett is very good company indeed for our entire time together, a treasure-trove of little facts and details. In the first five minutes he moves from the precise meaning of "cornucopia", through the Battle of Marathon via his mother's naming habits, and on to the greatest difficulty facing 18th- and 19th-century women who joined the army by pretending to be men. (They found it hard to swear, apparently.) I also learn that he once banged his head after carefully hiding away his first decent sized cheque - for #250,000 - and promptly forgot everything he'd done in the previous minute or two, including where he'd put the cheque. He never found it again.
Pratchett, now 57, is a former journalist who, in his thirties, jumped ship to become publicity officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board, with responsibility for putting a positive sheen on the activities of four nuclear power stations. "I can say, even though I'm not being paid anymore and I never signed the Official Secrets Act, that we had journalistic emergencies rather than real nuclear emergencies," he recalls. "After Chernobyl, anything that happened at a nuclear power station was automatically a nuclear holocaust unless you could prove otherwise. Showing them that the power station was still standing with people working in it sometimes did the trick. While I was there we tried a new technique of telling the truth as soon as possible instead of waiting until the last minute. After the press got used to it, it worked out very well. After all, the stations were all run by guys called Jim and Bert and Sid who smoked pipes and, on the whole, weren't particularly anxious to irradiate the place in which they lived."
By then he had already published a number of novels, but it was not until 1983 that The Colour of Magic appeared, the first of the Discworld novels that would make his name. Since then, he has written 30 Discworld books for adults, using the series to explore topics as diverse as opera, the birth of popular music, cinema, organised religion, and the continent of Australia, known as XXXX in the books. (Think about it.) Certain characters have recurred throughout the series: the incompetent wizard Rincewind; the no-nonsense witch Granny Weatherwax; Death himself, who always speaks in capital letters; and, as in Thud!, Sam Vimes, the Commander of the City Watch.
In common with a number of Pratchett's later novels, Thud! is actually rather more serious in intent than it might at first appear, using as its starting point the murder of a black-garbed extremist dwarf who has been inciting hatred against the city's trolls. Quite clearly it is dealing with fundamentalism, albeit by using dwarfs and trolls instead of Christian, Jewish or Muslim extremists, but it's hard to pin down precise modern corollaries. Pratchett is actually far too subtle and clever a writer to fall back on such easy comparisons. Similarly, in recent years the shadow of war has increasingly fallen over the Discworld. Again, it's not hard to see where this might be coming from, but you will look in vain for direct equivalents to Blair and Bush. The Discworld functions less as a mirror of this world than as a kind of prism, refracting our experiences and allowing us to see them in new and slightly curious ways.
"Whether or not people are trolls, dwarfs, vampires or humans, as a matter of course they will in some understandable way behave like humans," says Pratchett. "They're all people, and in certain circumstances people act in a certain way, so you get, as in Thud!, a situation that you could map onto modern preoccupations such as fundamentalism. But just because you can map it doesn't mean that that's what it is. It's saying that you get idiots and clowns everywhere, and have done for a long time: Northern Ireland and southern Ireland, Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Jews, whatever. The same kinds of dynamics are involved."
It's Pratchett's humour that allows him to slip complex ideas under the wire, enabling him to examine issues like interracial conflict, diplomatic manoeuvrings, the media, the postal service, even modern warfare without ever losing sight of his mission to entertain. In the end, the humour in the books enables him to be more serious while appearing less serious than he is.
"SamVimes fails to see why war isn't murder," says Pratchett. "The fact that it's happening to lots of people, and the state is involved, doesn't, in his simple mind, mean it's not murder. We kind of agree not to ask questions of fantasies and fairy tales, but Discworld works because those questions are asked, and it's embarrassing that they should be asked, and so they're made funny, or more interesting, so that they can be asked."
The next adult novel, Unseen Academicals, will see a return to a more straightforward humorous style, tackling as it does - if you'll excuse the pun - the brief history of the Ankh-Morpork soccer league. Nevertheless, for those who have forgotten it, or who never quite believed it was true to begin with, Pratchett's work offers continuing proof that serious and funny are not mutually exclusive concepts.
"G.K Chesterton once said that the opposite of 'funny' is not 'serious'; the opposite of 'funny' is 'not funny", says Pratchett simply. "They don't interact in the way people think."