EAST GRINSTEAD ONLINE’s editor, Geraldine Durrant interviewed Terry Pratchett a number of years ago. Here is that interview in tribute to the great man.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasies have achieved international cult status but literary critics loathe his routine monopoly of the bestsellers’ list.
Geraldine Durrant reports
“Relax?” mused Terry Pratchett. “I’m sure I did that once in the summer of 1991. I was listening to music at the time, and I sort of drifted off for about 45 minutes
“It was very pleasant, as I recall, but I haven’t had time to repeat the experiment.”
These days being Terry Pratchett is a full-time job.
It’s ten years, and 15 books, since Pratchett created Discworld, his fantasy planet where mystery, magic and metaphor jostle in rib-tickling juxtaposition. The literary establishment has been somewhat sniffy about his success but Pratchett is philosophical about their attitude.
But then with four million books sold, a world-wide electronic fan club and each new book at the Number One spot before you can whisper “Wizard”, he can afford to be.
“There is a difference between people who enjoy my books, and people who Appreciate Literature,” Pratchett observed drily. “And the sort of people who read Discworld tend to describe it as `dead good’ or `brill’.”
Certainly Pratchett’s original following was among younger readers, often those, teachers told him, who “didn’t read”.
“I wish that sounded more like a compliment,” he opined wistfully.
But in the past five years he has become the cult hero of the university set – and their mothers. “At least half my readers are now women of a certain age who have been introduced to Discworld by their offspring,” he admitted. “And an awful lot of pensioners write to me too.
“I think it’s because we go through life like gob-stoppers going backwards.
“Each year adds another layer of meaning to our lives, and we see things in a slightly different way. “My books appeal to a certain type of mind, and age has very little to do with it.”
He’s right. His best-selling children’s series Truckers, which was televised 18 months ago, also shot to the top of the adult best-seller list. But the man who treats his routine success as a piece of harmlessly enjoyable fun, is at a loss to account for his almost universal appeal.
“Never ask the man on the high wire how he does it,” he says.
And he’s popular all over in Europe too, despite the intrinsic difficulties of translating his quirky punning style, littered with freshly-minted words like “neurovore” (one who lives on his nerves) and “autocondimentor” (someone who automatically salts his food without first tasting it).
“Even America is catching on,” Pratchett observed. “It’s taken a while, but then they don’t speak English and they think irony has something to do with metalwork.”
Writing comes naturally to Pratchett. He sold his first short story at the age of 12, entered journalism at 17 and still can’t think of anything else he’d rather do.
“I took three months off recently, and before I knew it, I was halfway through a new book. I didn’t mean to write anything, but there’s nothing else I enjoy doing more,” he said.
However the man whose self-written sleeve note records that he is `occasionally accused of literature’ has a horror of being taken too seriously. His books may be scathingly satirical about death, religion and other modern taboos, but Pratchett refuses to be drawn about their `meaning’.
“I rely on the clever bastards at universities to tell me what my books are about,” he laughed. “Mostly they are about hoping the reader thinks they are worth £4.99 each in paperback.
“But I think it behooves an author to maintain a modest silence about these things. Once I’ve finished a book, it leaves my hands and has to make its own way in the world. “After you’ve handed over the money for one of them, you can feel free to think they are about anything you like.”
And if Pratchett has one dread, it is that his books will turn up as texts for school children to `analyze’.
“There may be a message in them,” he shrugged “but I think you can be too precious about these things. “On the whole I go along with the crime writer who said he made his detective hero drink beer because he couldn’t spell cognac.”
Pratchett denies he is anti-establishment and claims he is innocent of peddling serious ideas along with his laugh-a-line prose. “My greatest disadvantage as a writer,” he said with just the suggestion of a twinkle in his eye “is that I wasn’t forced to go to a Catholic school and get beaten regularly. I could have got at least three books out of that.
“Of course I did get beaten at school. They just didn’t tell me it was because it was God’s will.”
Nor is he inherently irreligious. Religion is just not something he talks about off Discworld. “Wise men gravitate towards one religion, but wise men don’t say which,” he says enigmatically, fending off questions about his beliefs. “However I don’t believe a writer can entirely disguise the nature of his soul in his books. But of course, I could be wrong about that too!”
Pratchett takes a disciplined approach to being funny.
He never travels without his word processor, and he never stops writing – even if it is only is his head. He feels, he says, like a computer which is never quite turned off, and even when he is involved in answering the dozens of letters he receives daily, the literary cogs are still turning over in his mind, ready for when he can get a quick 200 words down between phonecalls. His output is prolific, and he has no shortage of ideas.
“I can’t plaster a wall flat, but I don’t find it difficult to write. If I wasn’t good at it, I’d be a bloody genius to turn out books at the rate I do.”
And he finds it increasingly easy to write about his fantasy planet, home “to 100,000 souls and ten times that number of actual people”, save only for the self-imposed restraints of its history and geography.
And he is very grateful indeed for his success, despite the demands of fans who leave up to 100 messages a day on his email.
“Being seen as a `cult’ writer, makes me a bit different from other authors, in that people who like what I do, feel they know me. And that can be difficult.
“For instance if I am at a signing sometimes, and a fan asks me to inscribe a book to Scrummybums, or Wilma, the Wild Woman of Wonga, I sometimes ask myself `are you enjoying this?’. And if I’m honest, I answer `no’.
“But then I ask if there is anything else I would rather be doing, and that answer is `no’ to that as well.
“I’m in a profession many people would give their right arm to be part of and the merest suggestion on my part that it is anything less than the most enormous fun, would be to betray them.”
And then there are the financial rewards of being “the funniest writer since Wodehouse”.
“Discworld has made me immensely wealthy, but as I am not the sort of person who goes skiing in Gstaad or who owns a yacht, I can be rich quite cheaply.
“I’ve always been lucky enough to be able to pay the bills, take a holiday each year and put a bit by, and things haven’t really changed, except that I have just moved to a bigger house, mainly because I need the office space.
“But I don’t buy big cars and the only thing I want out of life is to carry on with my writing.
“But if I carry on with my writing, it will earn me even more money, and I will get even richer. It just doesn’t seem fair.
“I suppose I could slow down a bit, and learn to sniff the roses, but I just keep writing for the sheer fun of it.
“What a sad person I must be!”
RIP Terry, you are one of the greatest modern British writers.