Chatting with Terry Pratchett

Fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, creator of the Discworld series and master of make-believe, died earlier this month after a battle with Alzheimers disease.  

His love of words and fantasy brought him a worldwide following, and it also brought him to Hamilton in 2002, where Gordonton journalist Annette Taylor interviewed him for the Waikato Times.  Here is that article.

Photo of Terry Pratchett in Hamilton
Terry Pratchett: “I like people who are constantly examining themselves.” Photo: Jeff Brass


IT’S NOT easy talking with a god.   One is slightly uneasy.  I spotted him in the Robert Harris Café in Centre Place immediately – that beard, black shirt and wide-brimmed hat.

The god, of course, is English author Terry Pratchett and the universe he has created is the Discworld, which is carried on the back of four elephants, standing atop a giant turtle which swims through space. Discworld is populated by characters such as Nanny Ogg, who’s a witch. She had an adventurous girlhood – always chaste, often caught, as she says.

And Death, who always speaks in capital letters, a traditionalist who prides himself on personal service.

There are wizards, werewolves, dwarfs and vampires – and over the years they’ve developed depths that make them far more complex than your stock fantasty characters.

Currently there are 28 books in the series, which started in 1983 with The Colour Of Magic. There are also a dozen or so non-Discworld books, and collaborations on graphic novels, screenplays, stage plays, even maps. He’s sold more than 30 million books, translated into 27 languages.

And on a lovely sunny November morning, Mr Pratchett is sitting across from me in a Hamilton cafe, sipping a fruit juice, and bracing himself for another book signing. He’s not overly fond of them. In fact, he’s considering retiring from this aspect of authorship.

“Over the past 10 years, I’ve probably done as much as six weeks per year… far more than a year of solid signing. Maybe if I did less I might do some other stuff, like get a life.”

Although he himself has previously observed that another life is something he doesn’t want, because he feels as though he’s trying to lead three already.

And the fans keep him on his toes.

“The kind of people who are science fiction and fantasy fans tend to be picky. When a new book turns up there’s an effect similar to tossing a cat over the wall into a compound full of Rottweilers. They all say, ‘we’re fans, we really love it’, but they completely tear it apart and criticise every little bit.”

His legions of fans have been cruelly described as a fashion parade of bobble hats and anoraks, sad blokes who lurk in the corners of a laboratory somewhere. Legend has it the typical Pratchett fan is a 14-year-old boy called Kevin. The truth is his fans are as varied as his characters.

He is in New Zealand promoting the latest Discworld novel, Night Watch, as well as The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. Maurice is the first book in the series written for children and has just been released in paperback. I ask if a different approach is required when writing for children.

“Yes, there is, but I’m damned if I know what it is. I know what I’m writing when I’m writing it. Sometimes it’s something as simple as sentence rhythms. I’m a great believer in extending vocabulary, because there’s no sense in saying ‘what’s the vocabulary of a 6-year-old – let’s write a book with that vocabulary’.

“If you do that the net result is gradually reducing the level of the language to Janet and John.”
The heroine in his next children’s book, Wee Three Men, is tiffany. She’s 9-years-old, and lives on a farm where they’ve only got five books.

“One of those is Diseases of the Sheep, and she reads the dictionary all the way through, because no one told her you shouldn’t… Her favourite word is susurration… And she says glint, glisten, gleam, glitter, they’re all different ways to shine, and glint is sharp, glisten is oily.”

Clearly, Mr Pratchett loves words. Ask how long he’s going to be I Hamilton, he answers five foot, eight inches (actually, only a few hours, he’s soon off to Auckland.)

He’s worked with words all his life. Born in Buckinghamshire in 1948, his first short story was published in the school mag when he was 13. In 1965 he got a job as a journalist, and spent about eight years as a sub-editor.

He was also the press agent for three nuclear power plants (“What leak? Oh, that leak”). He has said he could write a book about it, if he though anyone would believe him. This from a man who has got people believing in a world carried on the back of a turtle.

Soon after he started the Discworld books, in the mid ‘80s, there was an “implosion” of fantasy books, especially in the UK.

“There was quite a lot that owed everything to Tolkien and hadn’t brought much new to the party.”

I’d read he’d finished The Lord of the Rings in one night, an impressive feat if true.

“No, 23 hours. Basically I started reading it one evening. I was 12 or 13 and I brought it back from the library that day, it was the 31st of December and I was reading it in the car all the way and I read it all evening. I remember the click of the central heating going off and, genuinely, in my mind’s eye, my recollection is of this kid, on a settee, on a carpet, in the middle of a wood. The woods came up to the edge of the carpet, I’m not kidding. I was reading it like that. At half past two in the morning I was in bed, and I woke up and carried on.

“I wish I could read it like that now, but you can’t read Lord of the rings for the first time more than once.”

He rates the film as one of only two he’s seen that more than do justice to their book.

I ask him how the Harry Potter phenomenon has changed the children’s fantasy market.

“A lot of kids come to the Discworld now because they’ve read Harry Potter, and Discworld looks a bit similar. But to be frank, that’s only anecdotal, how do you start to sort it out?”

He has been accused “an awful lot” of stealing from Harry Potter author JK Rowling. “Kids unfortunately believe that books re published in the order they read them. So I get asked, did I get the idea of Unseen University from Hogwarts?”

He says Discworld is now big enough to be taken seriously by him as a writer.

“In The Colour of Magic large parts of the city are burned to the ground and that was funny. I couldn’t do it now because we know people who live there.”

The reason the Discworld has survived all this time, he says, is that the books have changed. The early books were light and gag-driven.

“But by the time you’ve got Men At Arms, serious stuff is happening. You have to have tragic relief. Because if nothing bad can happen, then frankly nothing good can happen in the world.”

Night Watch is dark on that basis. “IF I had to line it up with anything, I think it belongs in the category that includes Mash and Catch 22. There’s humour there, but the humour is growing in places where humour is not normally found.”

With so many Discworld books, an obvious question is where should a newcomer start. There’s so much background detail that getting into them can be daunting – the books also break the rule of most series in that the later ones are better than the earlier ones, in my opinion.

Most people, he says, start with the latest book. “And there’s only a few in the series where that would worry me. Like The Truth, you don’t really have to know very much about Discworld to get into it because it’s basically a newspaper novel. Night Watch would be a little more tricky, it does rely on you knowing a few things, but it’s a thriller. Mort or Wyrd Sisters or Small Gods is always a good start, but there’s no accounting for taste.

“Let’s go back a few decades, if you hear that Star Trek is a really cool series, you turn it on, you’re about 10 episodes in, there’s this guy with pointy ears. No one’s telling you but you say, okay, I like this, I like the Scottish engineer, all good fun. I like the way the girl at the console wears really short dresses and if I stick with it I might find out what the pointy ears are for. And in a sense I’d say the Discworld is now like that. If you’ve got the faintest idea about fantasy, you’ll be able to run with it.”

And his favourite character? “Well, Vimes. People like Granny Weatherwax, Susan and Vimes are screwed-up people who are constantly examining themselves.”

As we take our leave, on the ground floor a huge queue has formed, which snakes through Centre Place.
People are lining up, clutching their books. There are a few 14-year-olds, but even more middle-aged women, a couple of them wearing witches’ hats.

“Who’s that?” someone asks.

“God,” I answer.


Sir Terry Pratchett suffered from a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  He earned wide respect with his dignified campaign for the right of critically ill patients to choose assisted suicide.

Transworld Publishers said he died, aged 66, on March 12  at his home, ‘with his cat sleeping on his bed surrounded by his family.’

“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…” Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

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