Full transcript of interview with Terry Pratchett in 1994. The interview formed the basis of a “Meet the Author” feature in The School Magazine, where I was working at the time of the interview.
Given the success the Discworld books have had with younger readers, in my experience, particularly boys around 12, 13 years old, I wonder why you chose to write specifically for children, given that they were already reading your work.
The Discworld series was never intended for children, and I have to say that you perceive them to be very popular with young boys. That is a trick of the light rather than the actual demographics of the readership. I know from the fanmail I get that an awful lot of my readers are the mothers of those young boys, and we find this at all the signings; the whole family comes and very often it’s because mum got interested because the kids were reading them. My wife actually analyses our fan mail. Now, obviously it’s limited to letters, so you can’t say exactly what readership survey it is, because it’s limited to those people who are actually going to write to you, but more than half of them are from females. Somewhere between 30 and 50% of them are from, to use that lovely phrase, “women of a certain age”. I think that basically, firstly, mum keeps quiet in public, if she reads Discworld books, and 13 year old boys, if they like something, tend to be noisy about it, so they kind of show up. Same if you go to signings; a signing in the middle of the day is basically gonna have those people who can actually afford to stand in a line for a couple of hours in the middle of the day, and if there’s a university in the town, the creaking of the leather jackets will sound like a tea clipper going around Cape Horn. But I did a thing last night at the Mary Ryan bookshop in Paddington in Brisbane, and it was a family thing. There were lots of adults and there were lots of kids and there were lots of people there as families.
Yes, my boss reads the Discworld books with his 12 year old son.
So that’s point one. The children’s books, of which I suppose I’ve now written six, in a sense, I have to say, that they became children’s books purely because of the way books are currently marketed. In the case of the Truckers trilogy, it’s as if Gulliver’s Travels had never existed. If you’re going to write a series about humanoids six inches high, then “he’s-a going to be a children’s book” or at least it’s going to be slipped on to the market disguised as a children’s book, because the way books are currently marketed and sold, you don’t really stand a chance of doing it any other way.
So you didn’t write the Truckers trilogy specifically with children in mind.
I did, but it’s very hard to say… I knew that I could deal with quite big, important things, and that meant it was going to be a book for children. Because if was a book for adults, you deal with things like the problems of going through the male menopause while being a university lecture who’s been passed over for promotion. But for kids you can actually deal with big sky topics, and do the big brush. Curiously enough, it’s much easier to do that for kids, because they’ll cut right through the crap to the important stuff. So I knew it was going to be a book for children, but I, I though it would be… this is all post facto reasoning, I mean, I don’t actually think consciously like this when I’m doing it. But afterwards I can that what I’ve actually written was an onion skin book, so that you could go back to it a little later on, maybe, and see whole aspects to it. I mean, doubtless this would be purely of interest to you, and I doubt it would be of interest readers, it’s clear for example, in the Truckers trilogy, you have Gurder, who actually believes, but secretly suspects that what he believes isn’t actually truth. And you have Angalo, who’s the nearest thing they’ve actually got to a free-thinking atheist, and yet it’s very clear that all he’s done is found science, and his belief in science is quite as irrational as Gurder’s belief in “Prices Slashed”. I did the quotes from his book, I forget what it’s called now, The Young Nomes Encyclopaedia of Science; it’s full of things like “we do not know why this happens, but because of science we will”. “Planes stay up in the sky because of science”. They have no real idea what it is, and while kids can enjoy the joke with this, when you’re a little older, you can see some of the mechanisms that are taking place. So those three books and the two Johnny Maxwell books, yes, I kind of had children in my sights, but I think what I really had in my sights was more a type of mind-set, which maybe is more common among kids, but is also to be found among fortunate adults.
Well, you’ve actually brought me really neatly and nicely to my next question.
I do, I give you quotes!
There is an assumption by a lot of people who aren’t terribly involved in children’s books that there must be enormous restrictions on writing for children in terms of content and form, but in fact a lot of children’s authors I’ve read about or discussed this with…
There are thoroughly “politically correct” restrictions. God knows how you get around this…
You’ve been working on it!
But I’ve had a long argument — discussion — with my editor who was aghast, not aghast, because she’s far too intelligent for that, but she was perturbed by the use of the word “nigger” even though it was in a context to make it clear why this was such an offensive word. It was almost like magic. The mere putting down of the word regardless of any of the context surrounding it was a bad thing, and Philippa Dickinson, who is my editor, is very very bright and very on the ball in this sort of thing. But this was OK, because I then could use it as a bargaining counter to get some other things that I wanted past!
Well, the same could be said about when Johnny (Only You Can Save Mankind) says the business about girls not being able to play computer games, and girls don’t have the part of the brain that allows you to play computer games, and we had this session at school when they told us to be nice to the girls at school about the things that they can’t do…
“If you pretend they can, they might”. Yes… what was the point you were going to make about that?
Putting that in could have the same effect as putting the word “nigger” in, that it could be offensive if you read it just…
But the thing is, I can’t really be responsible for what people think if they read part of a book, and this is very clear in Truckers; the Stationeri, and it’s also clear that Grimma is really the motor who holds the whole thing together. She plods Masklin along, she can read faster, she’s brighter than most of the others. I don’t really have to point up the moral. And also in Only You can Save Mankind it’s very clear, I mean, it’s abundantly clear to Johnny that Kirsty is cleverer, luckier, in practically every respect except one, she’s superior. But frankly, that’s how 12 year old boys think. And I’m not going to make them think in a different way.
The third book in the series…
There’s going to be another Johnny book?
There will be eventually. One of the working titles was Johnny and the Devil, and as Philippa said, 10 000 sales get lost. Actually, in the UK, that probably isn’t the case, because I’m probably a big enough bulldozer to drive a title like that through the dirndl-mafia. But in the same way “witch” in the title can now cause hands to be thrown up. I think somebody’s going to actually have to confront that sort of thing, and just engage four-wheel drive and surge forward. It depends on the context, how you actually deal with it. And in the case of Only You….. you can see, and also in Johnny and the Dead, that the kids are trying to think, they know they should be thinking politically correct, but they can’t actually do it. Is a film racist, if Yo-less, who is black, actually enjoys it? White people worry about that sort of thing.
What you’re actually doing is allowing kids to think about those things without saying “this is the way to think about it”. You’ve got Johnny’s perceptions and point of view, and then you’ve got Kirsty who’s contradicting that, so within the same book you’re giving them the room to think about it.
She also had a lot of wrong things with her character, like not listening to anyone else in any way, shape, or form.
And her bloody-minded determination to kill people!
Well, a bloody-minded determination to win, whereas Johnny is far too wet to ever have a very clear opinion.
Those “politically correct” issues aside, I’m thinking particularly of an article Diana Wynne Jones wrote about a book for adults she was writing, and how she thought, “yippee, I’ve got a book for adults, I can do what I like”, and in fact found it far more restricting than she’d ever found writing for children. So are there things that you can do in children’s books that you can’t do in adult’s books?
Remember, I write in a field — the genre with which I am associated, I pick my words with care — is fantasy, and there’s always historically been a huge cross-over between children’s books and fantasy to the extent that they’ve often been confused. To some extent they both use the same tool kit, so that if in a Discworld book, in order that, apart from in order to amuse people and to hurry the plot along, if I want to look at human frailties from a different perspective, I can have an intelligent talking dog, provided within the context of the story I can make that stick. If the readers are approaching the books with the right mind set, they will accept this, provided you’ve got some explanation that fits.
Internal logic. I have some difficulty with the Americans with these books. For example, they don’t touch the two Johnny Maxwell books. Partly, one of the reasons is the absolute horror at the political incorrectness of Johnny. They’re not allowed to think like that in America, even if the whole point of setting up that thing is to make them look foolish, which bodes badly for their culture. I had a long argument with an American editor, who said about Only You… “Look, what’s really happening. Are aliens really contacting him, is he really a disturbed child with it all happening in his head?” It is both of these things. This is merely the world as seen from his viewpoint, and the whole point which is surely being made is, it was the Gulf War, was it real or was it a video war? What’s real and what isn’t real.
It’s a lovely juxtaposition.
And kids are quite happy — they don’t even think about this. They’ll accept the whole thing as a given. They’re quite capable; kids can understand that life is a wave and a particle at the same time, they have no problem with that, but when you get older, you start labelling it. And the same with Johnny and the Dead. Can Johnny really see the dead? Is he really terminally disturbed? Well, you’re terminally disturbed when you’re twelve anyway, that’s what being twelve’s is all about. But it really doesn’t matter. He thinks he can see the dead, and acts as if this is the case, and that’s how it works.
So adults would ask too many questions about the whole premise of the book, where kids just accept it and read it in whatever terms you offer them.
With kids you can say “Once upon a time”. With adults when you say “Once upon a time”, and someone puts their hand up and says “When, exactly?” With the kids, you do have to get around to the “When, exactly?” at some point, but they will allow you to get that first mouthful out.
We’ve talked a bit about the tools of fantasy, and also questions of “political correctness” — I hate that term, but that’s the one that we’re all familiar with! Fantasy is generally, at least, sort of traditional fantasy, has been for a long time basically plot-driven, and writers like yourself and Diana Wynne Jones, who I’ve done a lot of work on, while plot is still very important, character is becoming far more important in fantasies than they were in perhaps traditional fantasies, where characters were basically archetypes; the hero, the princess, etc. I feel that part of this is because you’re deliberately manipulating stereotypes to raise the kinds of issues we’ve just talked about, is there anything else about character… Your characters are so interesting and involving; Granny Weatherwax…
I knew Granny Weatherwax was lurching towards the conversation… The thing is with fantasy, well, you have to be very careful. I am now allowed to go to literary festivals…
You’re studied at post-graduate level!
Oh yes! Once I was perceived as writing for children as well, a big sigh of relief, “now we can invite him to all the best dos”. All fiction is fantasy, and of fiction, how can I put it? The perception is, there is Literature, and there are these things budding off around the side, called “westerns” and “police procedural crime”, whereas in fact, there is Fantasy, and off this main stem has budded off… and one of these things is known as the “Literate Novel”, which was invented, what, about 150 years ago? And it’s got a subset known as “Potential Booker Winners”. I am sorry to say that I represent the mainstream. It’s not the Literate Novel, and I use that term with a certain amount of disparagement. People will always need heroes, no matter how politically correct we become, the charismatic male, with his big sword is always going to… I’ve just in fact finished a Discworld book where Cohen the Barbarian, who is very very old, and politically totally incorrect, everyone likes him. They all follow him, they do as he says, because he just blows like fresh air everywhere he goes.
Is it just to keep you interested…?
It’s quite easy to say, “ok, here are all the clichés of classic fantasy, let’s turn them over”, but if you do that and all you’ve done is turn them over, then you haven’t really done anything. If you just turn them over, all you’ve dome is just destroy things. But when turning them over raises all kinds of questions; what kind of witch is it that actually dislike magic? So as you do your characters they automatically become important. If all you do is kick over the table and say “look at me, aren’t I clever?” you’re just being some spoilt kid. But certainly there are some characters that I’m very pleased with, and the three witches quite definitely are becoming quite central to the series. I’ve yet to meet an intelligent woman who wouldn’t long to be Granny Weatherwax, would settle for Nanny Ogg and secretly suspects that she’s really Magrat. It’s a big problem, because Magrat is now married, which, without drawing too much attention to the symbolism of the three of them, one may assume that her prime requirement for membership is no longer possessed, so I’m not quite sure what the other two are going to do about it. What’s fun about Granny Weatherwax is, she’s a bully, she’s autocratic, she’s, on paper she’s a bad witch, she just happens to be on the right side, in fact, I think, in Lords and Ladies, she says something to Nanny Ogg along the lines of “Just because I’m right doesn’t have to mean I’m nice”. You get your characters right, and everything else happens.
The four boys in the Johnny books, too, in terms of character; you tread a really fine line with them in terms of an ironical adult look at their pretensions and their foibles and their sillinesses, and at the same time keeping them real and still attractive to children.
The point is, I can’t speak for Australia, but kids in England now suffer from this terrible ersatz Americanism, so they walk around trying to look like a kid from South Central (L.A.). What the hell, they live in Taunton, Somerset, you know, and you can’t hang out at the shopping mall, because there’s only that silly shop, and the weather isn’t like Southern California. It’s a bit like we were in the 60’s. The 60’s only happened to about 250 people in London, everyone else pretended they were there as well. And they don’t know what the slang now is, and there’s this horrible feeling that everyone else knows and you don’t, and that you’re not doing it right. There’s a terrible uncertainty, you definitely want to fit in, but you don’t actually know where the “in” is you’re supposed to fit.
And the goal posts shift all the time.
I think that’s common to every age, all we have to do is remember what it’s like.
Your brand of humour is frequently satirical; extended puns and…
I pun far less often than people think.
OK! The Book of Nome, the elevated biblical language, a lot of your humour is based on political theory, philosophy, all these kinds of things, and you do that in your kids books too, you don’t assume that kids don’t know about these things. We often assume that kids’ sense of humour is often pretty unsubtle and pretty earthy, but you’ve assumed a degree of sophistication in kids.
I’m not entirely certain you’re right. I think you are, how can I put it? You may feel that something I’ve got is based on a political theory, or is parodying… Now, kids might not even see that, they’ll just go for the underlying truth.
This isn’t a criticism, in fact…
No, no, no… I’m saying that, curiously enough, a lady trying to translate Truckers into Russian said there were two problems she had to try and overcome; a small one and a big one. The small one was that Russian children would simply not be familiar with the concept of biblical language, so they wouldn’t recognise (the parody). The second was, it’s set in a store full of merchandise, and they would have no concept of that idea at all. It may be that kids understand things that they don’t vocalise very well.
Yes, I think that’s right.
I get the same thing from my Japanese translator. They say “this theory you’ve got from T.H. Robinovitch in his book….” and I think, I’ve never heard of this fellow, if I did, I thought he was a harmonica player! All I’ve done, to be honest, I’ve done what the story wanted, as Granny Weatherwax would say. The fact that it may fit in with someone’s theory of archetypes is a lucky shot, that’s something to give the Ph.D’s something to write about!
Well, yes, but say, the philosopher’s scene in Small Gods; you don’t have to know about philosophy to get the humour of that…
But remember, Small Gods wasn’t written for kids.
No, I know, but I think that it’s great that you don’t underestimate kids and say, well, they’re not going to get this, so I won’t put it in, that in fact you allow whatever needs to be there to be there, and if they get the reference, great, and if they don’t they’ll get something else from it, and take it with them anyway.
Well, something like the philosopher’s scene in Small Gods, I based it on the old principal, “That’s all the big philosopher’s you can remember”. Well, OK, what can I remember? Some guy had a bath, and said “Eureka!”, and they used to argue a lot, and if you’re slightly more advanced, you know, for example, in Pyramids I have the philosophers again, and one of them’s called Endos the Listener, and his job is just to sit there and say “yes, you are entirely correct”, and “indeed, that is absolutely right”. Because they’re all busy talking, and he actually charges money for listening, because no one wants to listen, and he charges money to do it. And also, if people are slightly more advanced, up to student level, they’d be familiar with the symposium, which is supposed to take place over a dinner party, and so in Pyramids, I did what it would really be like if you tried to have philosophers at a dinner party. What I often do, and again, this is post facto reasoning, the humour is based on everything you vaguely remember — we’re very thinly educated these days — everything you can vaguely remember about Greek philosophers, and I use that as a starting point. Even now, although less so than when I was a kid, kids pick up a lot of information on an osmotic basis; they certainly don’t do it from school. I have unfortunate views about education.
I wanted to ask you some specific questions that will be of interest to the children who are readers of School Magazine, and they’re pretty like the questions kids would ask you when you go into schools. It seems to me from reading your books that you must get a lot of pleasure out of writing. Are you a disciplined writer? Do you have a regular routine?
I would like to be. It doesn’t actually work like that, and this sounds awfully pseudo, but writing is my ground state of being. It’s what, on the whole, I think I should be doing, so everything else that I’m doing is time filched from writing. Increasingly, I think this is a slightly unhealthy way of living, and maybe I ought to get a life as well! I like writing, and I resent it if I can’t do it. I’m not disciplined, but if left to myself, I’d do a lot of writing every day.
What are your inspirations, who are your inspirations, do you read other children’s writers? Other writer’s generally who inspire you? Does reading other writers’ work interfere with your own writing?
Everyone, not just kids, think ideas lie around like little nuggets, and you just wander around… and what they want you to do is tell them the way to the Holy Grail. It’s the same with inspiration. If you tell us where you get your inspiration from, we’ll go and stand there. I make up my ideas in my head, and that’s where the inspiration comes from as well. Yes, sometimes I can see, in the real world, unusual juxtapositions, or there are little triggers which happen to set something off in my mind, but usually I get my ideas by thinking logically about things that you’re not supposed to think logically about.
Do you start with story or character?
It might be a story, it might be a character. Weird Sisters began with a joke, which was the joke at the beginning, and I knew very little about the rest of it. The witches; well, Granny Weatherwax already existed, and the other witches just sprang fully formed. I’m a great believer in the silent writer inside. Back in the 60s I experimented with dope, because people did in the 60s, and I remember saying, “well, this is supposed to make me very creative”, so I had a little smoke, and I thought “Well, OK, I’ll sit by my typewriter. If Huxley is allowed to do it with mescalin, I thought, at least I should be allowed to do it with… So, I thought, I’ll type what is going on. I remember looking at the key and thinking, “That “a” key. What a superb “a” key that is. That’s a great “a” key. Wow, look at it! And there’s all these other keys! And there’s numbers as well! Anything I want to write, it’s all here, all contained in this keyboard is anything I want to write.” And I sort of drooled like an over-grown setter. You wouldn’t know what I’m talking about, of course. And because nobody can stop me from saying in public what I think, I say to kids, “This is why you shouldn’t take drugs, not because they’re bad for you, because some of them aren’t that bad for you, but they’ll turn you into a hippy!” But what sometimes is necessary is to find a way of allowing — I always say the sub-conscious writer — but allowing the ideas that are floating around looking for a place to settle, find a way of switching off sufficiently to allow them to do so. That’s why, and I’m not the only person to say it, you often get ideas when you’re driving a car, because various parts of your mind are actually taken up with the job in hand, which actually means that something comes through from the back. Listening to music can do the same sort of thing.
In fact, it boils down to what I always tell kids, if you want to be a writer, try and do something else. A., because you should try and look for an alternative means of making a living, and B., because no one ever went straight from school into “being a writer”, I mean, that’s ridiculous. You should get a life, fill yourself up, and you start to overflow. But also sometimes you have to fool yourself to allow the ideas to come through. That’s why I mow the lawn. I’ve got a big lawn, it’s one of the shortest lawns in Yorkshire. I’ve got a ride-on mower, and I sit on there with my hat singing American revivalist hymns at the top of my voice, because no one can hear me. I often get the ideas, because everything’s switched off, and it’s noisy. That’s why kids do their homework in front of the television. Kids do their homework in front of the television because it actually provides white noise, to allow things to happen. I often write with music on.
Back to the Johnny books — and I have to say that I read Johnny and the Dead just yesterday, and I think it’s one of the finest kids’ books I’ve read in a long time. I just think it’s wonderful…
It’s up for a Carnegie, but it won’t get it.
Because it’s funny?
Yes, it’s partly that, but also because I’m, how can I put it. This is the second one I’ve had for that award…
What else was up? Truckers?
Truckers. And Truckers was up for the Smarties award. Johnny and the Dead’s won a couple of awards. No, Johnny and the Dead’s won one award, the Writer’s Guild award. That was very nice, because it’s actually fellow writers. Because I have a small suspicion that in the UK I am thought of to be personally politically incorrect, even if I sit there being absolutely quiet, and saying the right things, people say, “Yes, but he’s thinking politically incorrect thoughts. He’s not really a proper children’s writer, you can see, inside. He might be sitting there, but any minute if we’re not careful he’s going to do something.”
The whole argument I think is really unfortunate, because of course it’s good to be nice to people regardless of whether they’re one thing or another, but when it starts restricting people’s creativity…
Well, I don’t mean it like that. I use the term “dirndl mafia”, with whom I have sort of love-hate thing. I think it’s really great that around the world there are people, probably like yourself, there’s this loose association of librarians, and teachers and the adults involved in the book business who are keeping the guttering flame alive, usually in the face of total media disinterest. When you think books for kids in the UK get in the mainstream newspapers get minimal reviews, and there’s usually a little teddy bear at the top of the page to show that it’s not really that important. Given the vast forces ranged against them, I’m just incredibly gratified that there’s anyone out there doing that kind of job. The fact that they sometimes annoy me is almost a minor consideration.
It’s a very vexed issue at the moment, isn’t it. Anyway, back to Johnny. The Johnny books are more in the realist mode, and again, this is broad generalisation…
I think they are exactly in the realist mode if you are about 12 years old.
They also deal — now, I think that all your books have serious ideas lurking around — but I think you’ve brought them more to the front in the Johnny books. Do you agree? What prompted the change of approach anyway to a more realist mode, was it just that’s what the story needed?
That was what the story needed. I’m quite viciously straightforward about that. I couldn’t have written — Johnny and the Dead had to be set in a world which appeared to be the real world to have the effect it could. on Discworld, in Ankh-Morpork, the dead have a perfectly everyday role to play in the normal civilisation. Your milk may well be delivered by a zombie. As I say, in Ankh-Morpork, the fact that I have the classical races of horror and fantasy actually playing roles as citizens has its own pleasant connotations. The fact that your local butcher might be a vampire has no more or less comment than him being a Muslim. So there had to be a framework of conventional reality for both those books to work. In Only You…, for example, I actually was up late working when the Gulf War started, and I was also aware of how much an effect it had on kids, that despite apparently being inured by years of video games and Schwarzenegger movies, this is a real war, and they seem to understand it was a real war, more than adults did. They were actually afraid it was going to happen here, maybe because they were a bit locationally challenged, as far as the Gulf was concerned. And the thing that triggered Only You… was that I was having all the normal wishy-washy things that it’s not a nice idea to say “wow, look we can drop this bomb straight down this chimney” because 38 people you might like if you’d met in person have been laminated against the walls inside, but we don’t want to show you that, we’re going to show you the video. And then there was an interview, I think it was by CNN, with two pilots who’d just come back from over-flying the desert, and they were Americans. If the Brits had been interviewed it would have been “well, yes it was very regrettable, but yes, it was a successful flight.” Because we’ve learned the stiff upper lip. But these Americans pilots come out like “Woh, it’s like a turkey shoot out there, we really kicked some butt, it’s like shootin’ cockroaches.” Everyone was raising their hands in horror, and I watched this and a lot of people were saying how disgusting it was, to show this, and I thought, “They’re soldiers.” And despite the fact that there was more or less air supremacy, I mean there were ak-ak guns, and they’d been doing what civilisation had been very specifically training them to do for years, and at any moment when they were out there there could have been a bang and their manhood could have gone past their face on a little column of white-hot metal, and they were at least sub-consciously aware of that. And when they came back, they were drunk, they were drunk with relief and testosterone, as soldiers always are after a battle. The only difference is that, after the Trojan wars or whatever, we never saw it television. And I thought it’s silly, I mean, what do you think soldiers are like? They’re humans, they come back and they’re safe, and that’s why in the book there’s a scene where all the kids in the class are discussing it, they’re all taking a view, and Johnny says, “Look, it’s more complicated than that. When they go up there they’re soldiers who might be dying. It’s just a whole lot more complicated than you think.” That’s what war is, it isn’t so nicely clean-cut. And all these things sort of came together, and I thought I can do this in a children’s book, because children seem to be involved in all that. Children all seem to live between video games and video war very readily.