Best-loved author Terry Pratchett shares his wit, wisdom and writing advice with Writing Magazine
‘Go on then, you tell me, smart boy.’ His face twinkles with mischief. ‘Describe the typical Terry Pratchett reader to me.’
But there isn’t one. Sir Terry’s books might be shelved into not one but two publishing niches, fantasy and humour, but his readers certainly aren’t. You don’t get the UK’s third fastest selling novel ever (behind Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol and Thomas Harris’s Hannibal) by appealing only to fourteen-year-old boys called Kevin.
‘If you’d said fourteen-year-old boys called Kevin I would have smacked you in the gob.’ The twinkle gives way to mock outrage. ‘I was hoping you’d put a foot wrong.
‘Almost overwhelmingly, I have more female readers than male, which is not unusual because more women read than men. In Seattle [on tour for his latest book, Snuff] they were lining up, saying things like, “Thank you very much for writing about sensible women”.’
He speaks slowly, composing each sentence with care and punctuating with a dry chuckle. He rocks forward conspiratorially when pet topics and serious points merit emphasis, but visibly relaxes when discussing his fans.
‘You’ve actually got me bang to rights guv, you can’t tell who is a Terry Pratchett fan until they say, “Do you think Commander Vimes is really cool?”. They’re just all kinds of people. Many of them never read any other fantasy at all. They might read some fantasy here and there but they wouldn’t have thought of themselves as fantasy readers.’
Part of this appeal surely comes from the strong sense of the familiar that runs right through his fantasy Discworld. ‘There are very few that things can be sorted out by pointing your fingers and going “Kazaam”, it just ain’t gonna happen.
‘I make considerable use of fantasy, but I also make considerable use of reality and indeed, every time Bilbo Baggins takes a quaff of ale, Tolkien makes considerable use of reality.
‘There’s not a lot of magic actually used. The wizards hardly ever use it because they know how dangerous it can be. There’s magic in the sense that gargoyles can move about and speak. But that isn’t exactly magic, it’s just not reality as we know it, which is actually quite a nice thing to do.
‘There are broomsticks that fly, but that’s more to do with the technology of the dwarves, and we don’t quite know how that works. And they’re sharp little bastards so they’re not going to tell us.’
His characters, too, start out a lot closer to home. Tiffany Aching, the teenage witch who first appeared in The Wee Free Men is, ‘just another verse from my childhood – the scenery, the landscape, the ambience of The Chalk. It’s amazing how much I pillage from my childhood.’
How did he put himself into the mindset of a teenage girl? ‘You might as well ask, how could I put myself in the head of a 70-year-old woman – I’ve written plenty about Granny Weatherwax. That’s what authors do. It’s about the commonality of mankind.
‘We’re all human. We all get up. We all go to the toilet in the morning. I know everything. I’m a married man. I know everything that boys, or even girls, do. The older you get, the more you understand about the commonality of mankind. The more people you see, the more you realise. Sometimes I think there are only about 200 different faces in the world. Once you’ve got round the real changes – say, the ethnic features or whatever – the number of faces you have is not that many.’
So has getting older made writing easier? ‘It gets easier to get inside their heads. I couldn’t have written Snuff in the way that I have when I first started writing. I don’t think I would have been able to do it. I don’t think I had the depth or breadth. I didn’t know what life is like in a long-term marriage, for example.’
Terry’s fiftieth novel overall, and 39th in the Discworld series, Snuff takes City Watch Commander Sam Vimes into the countryside for some rest and relaxation, with healthy doses of class war, sleuthing and even an encounter with a Jane Austen-esque young writer.
‘It’s mummer-set, really. It’s basically a big bit of Middle England, and I just put Vimes in it, who doesn’t really like to take his foot away from cobblestones, in there, a different world, where you do have people who genuinely think other people are beneath them. There isn’t much of that in Ankh-Morpork.
‘At one point as we working on Snuff, my editor said to me, “You know usually in a career like yours, round about now would be the time that you would kill off a major character,” and I said, “Says who?” What, that’s a reason for killing a major character? Because round about now you should kill a major character. That’s insane. If I really thought a major character needed to be killed then they could be killed, but at the moment I don’t see any reason why I should.’
Writing the Terry Pratchett way
Despite his discipline as a writer, Terry doesn’t plan, so how does he approach his books? ‘Gingerly. I believe in the goddess Narrativia. Generally I don’t have a plan but I do have an instinct. If I put Commander Vimes in a situation that has gone very very bad, a lot of interesting things will happen. I know some things I’m going to put in, like in Snuff I knew about the goblins, and the bit about the unggue pots [goblins’ ‘religion’ requires that they are buried with all the bodily fluids they have ever produced, in unggue pots], which has got some origin in real things that happen in the real human world.
‘And with that amount of planning, I just let it run, because you can always rewrite, check things, find the right way to say things. If you sit and plan, you get stuck in the planning. When you’re writing a book, I find my fingers just start doing it. It sounds like magic. It works for me, but I won’t say it would work for anyone else.’
Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere, particularly, it seems, offbeat non-fiction. ‘Neil Gaiman’s exactly the same, which is why we had so much fun doing Good Omens. Anything that looks vaguely interesting is worth reading. It could be the history of washing up. Something in there would make it worth reading and it would pop up someday when we needed it. I’ve read histories of false teeth, anything.
‘And all these things have something, and it’s not what you might expect, just something oblique. I put them on my shelf, with a little note to myself saying this is useful.
The humour, he says, ‘tends to come of its own accord’.
‘Sometimes I’ll put characters together, so that I know there’s a situation that’s going to be funny.
‘For example in Snuff, I knew the whole thing about when Vimes’ child becomes very interested in poo. It’s a forensic interest and like all good parents do, you can’t slap him down for it, he’s actually spotting that poo isn’t generic, there are types. It’s when a kid shows some interest in the piano, you hope he’s going to be some great pianist some day. You want kids to work things out, that’s what bright parents do. But I knew that would be funny. And I knew a boat called Wonderful Fanny might raise a little titter.
‘And that goes well among the dark bits, because there are some quite harrowing bits in this book.’
Finding a writing routine is not as easy as it once was. His increased media profile as a campaigner for assisted suicide and Alzheimer’s research, and his posterior cortical atrophy itself, mean he is unable to write every day. ‘It’s impossible to do that in my world. There are so many demands on my time, emails want answering, people want this, you kind of just keep going,’ he says.
How to write like Terry Pratchett: Don't.
Terry’s advice for other writers is simple. ‘To write good SF and to write good fantasy, like anything else, you have to have actually studied it. Not just thought, ooh this looks good, I know how it goes. You have to know what works. You have to know what’s gone before. You have to know how Poe wrote, how everybody wrote. You have to read Brian Aldiss. But you have to read everybody, not just the SF guys. It’s just following the masters. See how the best are doing it. Don’t just try to copy me.
‘I can tell when someone’s trying to write like me, they get it not-so-subtly wrong. They try to be funny when funny isn’t working. There’s no formula for it. It’s like playing tennis: you just have to hit the ball in the right place.’
The full interview with Sir Terry appeared in the January issue of Writing Magazine, available for e-reading on your PC, Android and Apple devices