An interview with Sir Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's latest book, Snuff: A Novel of Discworld, is out now. Don't miss Cory's review. — Boing Boing

Neil Gaiman: Where did the idea for Snuff originate?

Terry Pratchett: I haven’t a clue, but I think I started out by considering the character of Sir Samuel Vimes, as he now is, and since I find his inner monologue interesting I decided to use the old and well tried plot device of sending a policeman on holiday somewhere he can relax, because we all know the way this one is supposed to go. And then I realised that moving Vimes out of his city element and away from his comfort zone was going to be a sheer treat to write.

NG: The Watch fascinate me. You get to do hardboiled police procedurals while still writing funny smart books set in a fantastic world.

TP: On a point of order, Mister Gaiman, the world in which Sam Vimes finds himself is hardly fantastic. Okay, there are goblins, but the overall ambience is that of the shires of Middle England. It’s all about the commonality of humankind. Shove Sam Vimes into a situation that has gone toxic and away he goes, as realistic as any other policeman and thinking in the very same ways and being Sam Vimes, questioning his motives and procedures all the way through.

NG: Do you remember the initial inspiration for Sam Vimes? How do the real police react to him and to the Watch?  

TP: I have three policeman’s helmets lined up in my study, gifts from policemen who are fans of Sam Vimes. I remember when I was touring, there would occasionally be the copper turning up in the book shop; they would never come through the front door, but via the staff entrance, and with a nod to the manager, after the queue had finished. And what they would say to me was so predictable that I could have almost said it for them. They would say things like, “Oh, yes, [scathing laugh] we certainly have a Nobby Nobbs alright, and every nick has got a Sergeant Colon,” although I must report that the policeman who told me that was quite clearly a Sergeant Colon in his own right. I know loads of coppers and dealt with them a lot when I was a journalist – coppers are easy to write for; they tend to run on rails.

NG: Did you really say in a previous interview that you’d like to be like Sam Vines? Why?

TP: I don’t think I actually said that, but you know how it is and ‘how it is’ changes as you get older. The author can always delve into his own personality and find aspects of himself with which he can dress his characters. If you pushed me I would say that ever since I stood up and talked about my Alzheimer’s I have been a public figure; I visited Downing Street twice, wrote angry letters to the Times, got into debates in the House of Commons, and generally became a geezer to the extent that I sit here sometimes bewildered and think to myself, “Actually, your job is to sit here writing another book. Changing the world is for other people . . .” and then I come back to myself with, “No it isn’t!” And so, bearing in mind that these days, people call a kid from the council houses “Sir” allows me to create a mindset for Vimes.  

NG: When you put your Vimes-writing head on, is there a difference in the way you view the world to, say, when you’re in your Rincewind-writing head, or your Granny Weatherwax-writing head?

TP: Oh, yes, surely you know how it is. Once you have your character sitting right there in your head, all you really need to do is wind them up, put them down, and simply write down what they do, say, or think. It really is like that. It verges on the weird; you know you are doing the thinking, but the thinking is being driven by the Sam Vimes module. There is also a fully functioning Tiffany Aching module, too, which is rather strange.

NG: You’ve written enough books now that you must have some odd favourites – the ones that other people might not understand why you like them so much. Can you pick favourites? Are there any books of yours you’d like to point people to that they might otherwise miss?

TP: That’s a good question, but hard to answer. I really did enjoy writing Monstrous Regiment, which in a way became very close to becoming mainstream. With minimal changes it could have been set in the Peninsular Wars in the real world. I know you and you know me and we both know that while sometimes you do some research, at the same time you automatically do some research without knowing what you are researching; simply reading books on any subject that takes your fancy, and it is amazing how all those little things you read in all those second-hand books suddenly turn up and hand you a plot. As a matter of fact I did a lot of interesting work for Monstrous Regiment in lesbian book shops.

NG: Are there any Discworld characters you expected to return to, but haven’t yet?  

TP: Somewhere in the back of my mind there is a plot where the hero is Evil Harry Dread, not exactly cut out to be a contemporary of Sauron . . . but saying that has made me think that I should polish that one up again.

NG: On a piece about writing in the New York Times, Carl Hiaasen (a writer you started me reading on the Good Omens tour), wrote, “Every writer scrounges for inspiration in different places, and there's no shame in raiding the headlines. It's necessary, in fact, when attempting contemporary satire. Sharp-edged humor relies on topical reference points. . . . Unfortunately for novelists, real life is getting way too funny and far-fetched.”  Does the Discworld as a setting allow you to escape from that? Or is it a tool that lets you raid the headlines in ways people might not expect?

TP: I think that’s the commonality of humankind again. I hope that everyone in Discworld is a recognisable and understandable character and so sometimes I can present them with modern and contemporary problems, such as Mustrum Ridcully getting his head around homosexuality. In truth, I never have to go looking for this stuff; I turn to find it smacking me in the face. I was very pleased when Making Money came out just before the banking crisis and everyone said I had predicted it. It was hardly difficult.

NG: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the last thirty years in the way that the genres you’ve worked in – primarily humour, science fiction, and fantasy – are perceived and received by the world? Or has anything really changed?

TP: This is a debateable one. My perception is that these days, fantasy and science fiction are effectively mainstream. You, Neil, must surely see the same thing. When I first started touring, the people that you met were, for those of us with the right radar, typically fans. These days, my Discworld books and most of my other stuff seem to be out there for what I might call ‘the general reading public’. Certainly, when we were in Australia earlier this year, Rob and I seemed to float on the wings of fandom. Went into a shop to buy a pair of RM Williams boots, the saleslady is a fan. Went into David Jones in Sydney to buy a pair of Calvin Kleins and the first woman we met is a fan who became our personal shopper for the morning. And then so was the man on the till, and so it went on. People at airline check-in desks were fans, and on one flight, halfway through lunch, a very nice bottle of wine was put down in front of me and the attendant said, “The captain’s wife is your biggest fan.” However, there’s still an assumption that it’s all a bit nerdy; the died-in-the-wool perception of the readers of my books is that they are still that fourteen-year-old boy called Kevin. But you know, that boy has grown up and is still reading, and so are his kids.

NG: Have you discovered any wonderful Victorian Reference Books recently?

TP: I rather believe that I have very nearly all of them, and it’s strange you should ask because in spare moments before the finishing of The Long Earth I am working on an early Victorian book, just to use up all of that stuff that you and I picked up in those days when we trawled the bookshops off the Tottenham Court Road in London. I still pick up that stuff even. Did I not tell you that in Hay-on-Wye I picked up a collection of very large books with the series title ‘London Then And Now’ and realised that the ‘now’ was in fact 1880? There was even a lovely woodcut of Primrose Hill when it had primroses on it. It really is wonderful stuff. Small things that people might not notice but to me are like a fly to a rising trout.

NG: How has the Discworld changed over the years?

TP: I suppose the simple answer is that there is still humour, but the gags are no longer set up; they are derived from characters’ personalities and situations. These days the humour seems to arrive of its own accord.

NG: How has writing the Discworld novels changed how you see the world?

TP: I think it more true that getting older changes how you see the world. There is stuff in Snuff, for example, that I couldn’t have written at twenty-five. Although I had written things before Discworld, I really leaned writing, on the job as it were, on Discworld. I think that the books are, if not serious, dealing with more serious subjects. These days it’s not just for laughs. My world view had changed; sometimes I feel that the world is made up of sensible people who know that plot and bloody idiots who don’t. Of course, all Discworld fans know the plot by heart!

NG: How has writing the Discworld novels changed how the world sees you?

TP: Has it? My agent pointed out one day that I had been quoted by a columnist in some American newspaper, and he noted with some glee that they simply identified me by name without reminding people who I was, apparently in the clear expectation that their readers would know who I am. I have quite a large number of honorary doctorates; I am a professor of English at Trinity College Dublin and a fellow of King’s College London, on top of all the other stuff, including the knighthood. However, when it gets to the sub-editors I am always going to be that writer of wacky fantasy, though I have to say that dismissiveness is getting rarer and rarer.

NG: Are you respectable?

TP: Is this a trick question? If so, then I shall say yes. Generally speaking I try to obey the law, pay my taxes (of which there are an enormous lot), give to charity, and write letters to the Times that they print. It’s a weird term, respectable; isn’t ‘respek’ what every street kid wants and might possibly expect at the point of a knife? I certainly get involved with things and shortly after finishing this interview will be annoying my local MP. It’s fun. Discworld and the Alzheimer’s together have given me a platform.


    1. Small Gods actually made me laugh and cry during the scene when Brutha was bargaining with the Great Om on what his commandments should actually be. And just plain cry at humanity and compassion shown in the final passages.

  1. It was a good read.  There is a lot more visibility into what’s going on inside Sam Vimes’ head this time around, and conversations with other well known cast members, who have only played bit parts until now.  The writing style was also a little different from what I am used to, from pTerry.  Not in a bad way, but different enough to make you sit up and realise that this man’s brain will never stop working, adapting to the ever changing world, and making it a better place.

    If you didn’t pre-order your copy earlier in the year, do so now before they all run out.

  2. I think, all interviews with Sir Terry have to begin and end with genuflection the sword he forged out of thunderbolt iron. Even if it was done by internet or phone, you must bow in the direction of Terry. Heh!  I hope he’s doing well enough (as far as things go).  I’ll always drop whatever I’m reading at the moment to read the latest Pratchett.

  3. One of the (many) things I love about Terry’s writing is its re-readability.  There are many other novels that I loved but have had no desire to revisit subsequently.

    A Discworld novel, however, is one that I can happily re-read or listen to as an audio book every couple of years with enormous enjoyment; almost equal to that of the first experience.

  4. “Terry Pratchett’s latest book, Snuff: A Novel of Discworld, is out now.”

    Or out tomorrow, if you’re in the States. I assume the writer of that comment is well east of New York. And lucky. ;-)

  5. I love interviews between artists, rather than a press-junket talk between two contractually-obliged people. A nice insight into the novelist’s creative process. @Lodewijk Gonggrijp ; SG is a fave of mine too, I find it much more substantial than many other Discworld books. Anyone who hasn’t read Gaiman’s American Gods should do so ASAP

  6. Is he respectable?  Sure, it is always easy to dismiss anything that appears to fall into a genre, and that does tend to happen to Pratchett.  But consider that A.S. Byatt, a true doyenne of literary fiction complained that (NYT, July 7, 2003):

    “[T]hey do not now review the great Terry Pratchett, whose wit is
    metaphysical, who creates an energetic and lively secondary world, who
    has a multifarious genius for strong parody as opposed to derivative
    manipulation of past motifs, who deals with death with startling
    originality. Who writes amazing sentences.”

    I think that counts as respectable.

  7. Just a reminder, he’s speaking at Town Hall Seattle tomorrow night. 

    I’ll be there, as will everyone I know and respect.

  8. What irony. One of my favorite authors interviewing another of my favorites. I just wish they would have done the oppose as well, with Sir Pratchett interviewing Mr. Gaiman. That would have made it trice the treat :)

  9. I find it interesting that even great artists and good friends who know eachother’s minds well, ask The Question in interviews.

    “Where do you get you ideas?”

  10. I was under the impression Mr Pratchett was unable to speak exactly anymore or type.. I assume this interview was done prior to then?

    1. I don’t think so. He’s commented that he can tell he’s slipping away and some folks have said that his writing isn’t as tight as it was (though that’s debatable), but he’s still up and about causing trouble. He just did a documentary for the BBC on assisted suicide a month or two ago.

    2. He did say he’s lost the ability to type, and I remember him saying somewhere that he’ll forget people’s names occasionally. I don’t know if he’s started having any episodes of complete agnosia yet (I hope not).  But since he’s still touring and speaking left right and centre I assume he hasn’t or they’re very rare. I hope he keeps defying his disease for a long time yet.

      Pratchett always struck me as a very cool and down to earth dude. When my dad first brought home a humble 33.6kbps modem 17ish years ago, one of the first things I did was discover the Usenet group devoted to his books. Imagine my surprise when I realised that, despite being richer than Zeus and having such unnumbered swarms of fans that their stampedes leave entire savannahs barren of all vegetation, he was there, on Usenet (posting as pterry), taking part in all sorts of pointless conversations and being all chummy with his fans, completely oblivious to the fact that he was basically our living god. The internet was a very wild, scary and unregulated place back then (full of not just trolls, but also Balrogs winged AND unwinged!), and it was astounding that someone as successful as he was even back then took so much time to talk to his fans. (AND still publish 2 books a year!) He’s truly one of the most likable and humble celebrities on Earth.

      He’s also got a lot of profound wisdom and common sense though, which people who dismiss him as just a comedy writer tend not to realize, and it’s fantastic that he’s getting the recognition he deserves. 

  11. I’ve realized that I’ve been reading Pratchett for over 20 years now. Over two decades worth of smiles, smirks, out-and-out laughter, as well as poignant moments and quotable turns of phrase. I don’t think any other author has brought me as much sheer pleasure as Sir Pterry over that amount of time. And yes, like a previous commenter, I frequently re-read my stacks of Discworld novels – they never seem to lose their charm.

  12. I discovered Monty Python in 8th grade, Douglas Adams in college, and Terry Pratchett as an  adult and I’ve passed my love of these geniuses to my two teenage children. At the heart of Sir Terry’s work is that to be weird does preclude you from being good, to look beyond the surface to the wonder underneath. 
    Thank you, Sir! 

  13. Terry Pratchett is a wonderful writer and human. And I say this as an utter snob seeking an advanced degree in literature.

  14. Sir Terry Pratchet has given so many , delivered so many to the fantasy world , and God knows we all hope, I hope he, continues to do that, and it’s just simply amazing how his books inspire people to read, people to create, to expand their knowledge and fantasy, and hell even write their own stories,inhabit their imaginary worlds ! Thank you Sir, it’s a journey through your magnificent mind and talent that no one can ever replace . 

  15. As always, when Terry is bought back to my life (Thanks NG) I have to go read something by him again.

    Much love for his work.

  16. What a fun interview! If Sir Terry is losing things around the edges, this interview is only another sign of how much more he had to start with than the rest of us. He uses witty in pursuit of humble, which isn’t normally how it’s used.

    I used to look forward to each Discworld novel with unfettered glee, but now my glee is tempered by the realization that each one could be the last — something I can’t quite fathom even as I type it. I wept while listening to his Alzheimer’s announcement, and I’ll certainly do so again when he’s gone. In the meantime, however, it’s sex, drugs, and Music With Rocks In.*
    *Well, one of out of three ain’t bad.

  17. I was interested in some of the comments about Sir Terry’s abilities and the advance of his Alzheimer’s.  He said in one of his interviews – possibly the documentary he did exploring dementias or possibly the recent assisted suicide one, that Rob does most of his typing now, and the book that followed that comment was dedicated to Rob (another cool dude). 
    I work with people with a dementia every day, and even right at the end stages, living in care homes, there is a huge difference in how each individual experiences their dementia.  I have one lady who describes herself as ‘confused dot com’ :)  People can retain their essential humour and world view right the way through their experience of the disease, if supported well, even if they are unable to express this coherrently.  I hope maybe this helps?
    Also, re-reads every few years?! Sorry, every few months for me!  And as a lesbian, it cracked me up to read his comment about research for Monstrous Regiment!  Oh gods! Long may it continue, Thankyou Terry!

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