On this day… 9th February, 1997
The castaway on Desert Island Discs this week is one of Britain’s best-selling authors…
“He’s created a world full of wizards and witches, and his most popular character is Death. The castaway on Desert Island Discs this week is one of Britain’s best-selling authors. Terry Pratchett has written over 30 books, and sells more than one million copies each year. But as he tells Sue Lawley this week, he will never win the Booker Prize because, in this country, fantasy fiction is frowned upon.
Favourite track: Thomas The Rhymer by Steeleye Span
Book: Edible Plants of the South Seas by Emile Massal
Luxury: The Chrysler Building” — BBC, Radio 4
Sue Lawley and Terry Pratchett’s fabulous forty minutes can be found here. Download, listen and enjoy.
Terry Pratchett’s Desert Island Discs Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 12:15pm on 9th February, 1997.
Presenter: Sue Lawley
Sue: My castaway this week is a writer; he’s unlikely to be nominated for the Booker prize; indeed critics can be rather dismissive of his work. The fact remains, however, that he is one of the most successful authors in the English language. One in every 50 books sold by W.H.Smith is written by him and he’s sold at least 10 million books worldwide. The secret of his success is the Discworld, a fantasy land of wizards, witches and other strange creatures whose antics are designed to make you laugh but also to make you think. It’s a world which has made it’s creator very rich but commercial success is not the only thing that drives him. Every book that he writes will, he hopes, be as beautiful as it is entertaining. He is Terry Pratchett – what do you mean by that, Terry?
Terry: (Laughs) It’s very hard to get across the terror with which you sit down and tackle that first page – and it doesn’t matter how many books you’ve done before. Every new book is a first book.
S: But you’ve produced so many books – how many Discworld books are there?
T: Well, there’s 20 Discworld books, yes
S: And you’ve done that, those over what, 13 years?
T: I think about 15.
S: Yes, I mean, I know that you try, on the whole to write 2 a year don’t you.
T: That seems to happen, I don’t try.
S: But that doesn’t sound like a man that has terror when he sits down to write. They seem to flow quite freely, it seems to me.
T: They’re very difficult but I know how to do them. I think that the key thing – it’s very hard to make a table … the dovetail joints .. if you don’t know how to do carpentry. If you do know how to do carpentry, it still may be difficult but it’s something you can do.
S: I’m interested in that analogy because you’ve said that you are of the school of carpentry of writing. What does that mean – that it is a craft?
T: Absolutely – I don’t know what literature is. But literature is clearly a vote taken probably after you are dead. I don’t think I write literature. I think I write – I hope I write entertaining books that are good value for money. If they are read in 50 years time that will be a bonus but it’s not something that has to worry me very much.
S: Do you think they might be called literature one day?
T: I, I doubt it. Em, I don’t think people would call P.G.Wodehouse literature, I personally would but I doubt if people would…
S: But you craft it –
T: Yes – I try to make certain that I am doing it as well as I can and there are techniques in writing in the same way that there are techniques in carpentry. But you might be able to turn out a passable kitchen chair or something that’s going to become a valuable antique – it’s how the techniques are applied.
S: Now, it just happened, it seems, that you struck a chord in a kind of mass readership and you have, as we’ve said become phenominally successful. Did you feel, when you wrote the first book about the Discworld – did you know in your bones somehow that you were writing about something that other people would find attractive.
T: No, I didn’t. I wish that I could say that I did. I wrote it as an antidote to what I called the ‘belike hero wax wrath'(??) school of fantasy. At that time there was a lot of fantasy written by the people who had been influenced by the people who had been influenced the people who had been influenced by Tolkien and it was getting a little bit silly, and everything was recursive and everything was feeding off itself and I just decided to create a world which was clearly ridiculous – designed to look ridiculous but make certain that the people reacted like people do in the 20th Century. That automatically became funny because they didn’t react like cliche fantasy characters – they had ideas of their own and much to my surprise, what started off as a parody fantasy became a fantasy series in it’s own right.
S: More of that in a moment but first of all, welcome to our fantasy land, which has no people – it’s a deserted island. Tell me about the first of the 8 records you want to take.
T: I have to say that I listen to all music as if it was pop music. I’ve always known what I liked but never known very much about it. But the first time I heard Symphonie Fantastique (sp?) I got that icy shiver which tells me that I am listening to good music, and when the Dies Irae rings out and the witches begin to dance – by then I was just sitting there in the chair, transfixed…
Music: Part of the 5th movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Dream of a Witches Sabbath.
S: Terry Pratchett, if people know about the Discworld, they seem to know a tremendous amount about it (Terry laughs) because your readers can become fanatical – to others it’s a complete mystery. So, describe it to me, where and what is the Discworld?
T: Geographically, the Discworld is a flat planet, which goes through space on the back of four elephants, what themselves stand on the back of an enormous turtle. Ah – which I didn’t make up I just stole this from world mythology – it turns up in various forms, in various mythologies. But the action takes place on the surface and for practical purposes could take place on the planet Earth if magic existed. For example there’s a .. the main city that I write about is Ankh Morpork and it is what London would be if no one had really built any new buildings since about the year 1600; no one had discovered electricity or steam; and all the trolls and the dwarves of folklore had not actually gone away but had come into the city and started to work.
S: Quite medieval
T: Oh, yeees. The structure is medieval, the politics is definitely 20th century.
S: And the language and vocabulary is 20th century
T: With … it becomes
S: …with medieval undertones…
T: … it becomes medieval when I wish it to be. Ultimately humour has to drive the whole thing.
S: But that’s the nice thing, really. It can be anything you wish it to be can’t it?
T: Well – no. Fantasy doesn’t mean that you can do anything that you want – there must be a structure, there must be limits that you cannot over step.
S: But you can set those limits yourself..
T: You can set those limits yourself but in a sense that makes it harder. If you’re writing a book set in London, in the present day, the limits are already defined and everyone knows what they are. In a fantasy universe you are responsible for the entire construction, so you must build all the underpinnings of the world even before the story can really commence.
S: And then, when your readers get to know it as well – if not better than you do, you’re in trouble, and I want to ask about them – but let’s just talk about some of the characters for a second first. First of all Rincewind – a kind of inept wizard, who can’t spell – he’s got 2 z’s in his wizard..
T: That’s right ..
S: Tell me about him because he’s, allegedly the character most like you..
T: He really is, is Joe Normal. But in this fantasy universe he is incredibly cowardly because, it seemed to me that is probably the normal response when faced with fire breathing dragons, and vast outpourings of magic. He just runs away from things. Of course he tends to run – in the best traditions of literature – he runs into worse situations than those from which he is fleeing.
S: And he is followed around by a character called Luggage
T: Well it’s not exactly a character but it’s certainly very popular. Yes, it’s a chest on legs – a typical magical accessory. You can put anything in it – it’s fiercely protective of it’s owner, quite homicidally so in some cases.
S: A psychopathic suitcase…
T: Yes, yes (Sue laughs) but it seems to have caught peoples imagination. I just invented the thing, in a couple of seconds, I thought that was a funny thing to follow him around, and it’s become some kind of icon.
S: And so has the librarian of the Unseen University who is in fact an orang utan. Erm ’cause it’s easier to get around the shelves (Terry laughs) erm, who’s become very popular with librarians around the land.
T: Yes, this is the terrible threat that hangs over an author, in the space of 15 seconds in the second Discworld book I thought of the idea of turning the Librarian of Unseen University – who was then a perfectly normal wizard – into an orang utan. There was a magical explosion and I thought what’s something funny he can be turned into? And suddenly, it’s as if he always was an orang utan. And librarians write to me saying that I have enhanced the face of the profession – being an orang utan is obviously a positive thing for a librarian.
S: Have they not noticed that all he can say is one word which is kind of ‘Ook’
T: Yes but it is a very wise word. It can mean practically anything. And he is clearly extremely intelligent. Oddly enough, characters that cannot speak coherently often can appear far wiser than the characters which can expound at length.
S: That’s one of life’s great lessons…
T: It is
S: … don’t open your mouth and don’t get found out.
T: … it is indeed.
S: Tell me about your second record.
T: I’ve always been a bit of a folky. Erm, the first folk album I ever bought was a Steeleye Span one and I’ve collected every one of there’s ever since. And I was particularly thrilled when I heard their version of Thomas the Rhymer, where Thomas the bard is taken away by the Queen of the Elves.
Music: Thomas the Rhymer, from Steeleye Span’s album Now we are Six.
S: You’ve created this fantastic soap opera which trades on humour in the main, as I’ve said, but I said at the outset you also want to make us think. How do you set about doing that? What do you want to make us think about?
T: Sometimes even I don’t know at the beginning. And sometimes the characters define it for themselves. In one of the books there’s erm … of course dwarves make marvelous metalwork, we’ve always known this. So an iron master in Ankh Morpork changes his name to a dwarf name, he grows his beard and wears an iron helmet although he’s six foot tall. But the Campaign for Equal Heights doesn’t know how to deal with him. He can sell his iron for a lot more because he’s got a dwarf name and he looks like a dwarf and it’s not really correct to point out that he’s six foot tall because that indeed would be sizeist in itself. Now it’s easier to deal with that sort of thing in a fantasy world but you can say things and do things which would be quite difficult if you tried to do it in the real world.
S: Now, you’ve mentioned Tolkien ’cause as you say fantasy and Tolkien and Lord of the Rings and so on as the first thing that people would think about but there are other comparisons that crop up in reading about you. P.G.Wodehouse and Monty Python to name but two, do you lay claim to them as anticedants in any way?
T: Only in the sense that there is a British comic tradition. I don’t know so much about Wodehouse that was a comparison that was wished on me.
S: The other comparison that’s been wished on you is with Dickens. Saying that you’re the Dickens de nos (?) jour – that’s pushing it a bit…
T: Um, yes, I think that, at a time like this that an author should go and hide behind the word processor screen and let the critics get on with it – I make no claim there at all!
S: What about when the critics become abusive because if they’re not saying deeply flattering things like that then they can be abusive and they use such adjectives as fatuous and amateur. Why do you think you attract those kinds of terms?
T: The odd thing is, bad reviews normally attack my readers rather than me. Anoraks and … erm …
S:… nerds …
T: … nerds, that sort of thing. As if nerd’s a bad word. Nerds are the only people that know how to operate the video recorder.
S: But there is a certain disdain for the genre of fantasy isn’t there? Isn’t that what it is?
T: Yes, I think so. And I think that I’d have done better had I declared that I was writing magical realism, because magical realism is fantasy in a collar and tie. But I have said that I write fantasy, and it is the oldest literature – it is the literature that underpins all the other genres, of which Booker prize winning books are a particular type of genre.
S: Record number three …
T: I heard this record when I was about 11 or 12 and it is probably in a sense, one of the ancestors of Discworld. It is just a beautifully drawn out joke, which, initially appears to be going on for too long and then, merely because it is going on for so long becomes even funnier. It is, ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ with horse racing commentary.
Music: Bernard Miles and ‘The Race for the Reingold Stakes’
S: When did you decide to become a writer, Terry, was there a moment when you thought ‘I could do that’?
T: I became a reader fairly late in my childhood when I was about 10 or 11 and I discovered science fiction and fantasy and that led me into other things. And when I was 13 I persuaded my parents to let me go to a science fiction convention. I expounded at length about the literary advantages…and I also tasted beer for the first time. Not long afterwards I was in the Gents and standing next to me was Arthur C. Clark, who was acknowledged then, and still is now I suspect, as the greatest science fiction writer in the world. And I realized that writers weren’t some distant beings on a cloud somewhere. Very soon afterwards, an opportunity arose at school, when a teacher asked us to write a short story for English and I wrote one, which she liked, and it got put in the school magazine and the kids liked it …
S: What was it about?
T: It was about … actually it was quite ahead of it’s time … the devil had got very worried that no one was going to hell any more because everyone was going to heaven. And an enterprising advertising man explained to him that he could turn it into a theme park. That the torments that people would not wish to experience for eternity, they would be very pleased to experience for about 30 seconds and would pay money. If you go into some theme parks you can see I was quite prophetic about that.
S: (Laughs) What did your parents think of this very bookish son they seemed to have given birth too because I think you were constantly in the library weren’t you?
T: Oh yes, I conn’ed the library staff. I worked there on Saturdays for no reward – at least, so they thought. But what I used to do was write myself out hundreds of free tickets. I think sometimes half the books in the library ended up on my shelves at home – they always went back. But no one was telling me what I should read and what I shouldn’t read and my parents weren’t – they thought that if I was reading that was a good thing.
S: What did they do, your parents, for a living?
T: My mother was a company secretary and my father was a motor engineer and they both got where they got by hard work because, like a lot of people of their generation, Adolf Hitler had intervened at a fairly crucial point in their lives. World war two meant that you didn’t do what you might have wanted to do. And they believed as lots of people believed in the 50’s and 60’s and were able to believe that hard work and education moved you up.
S: And they very much wanted you to move up. They weren’t particularly affluent were they?
T: No. We lived in a cottage with one cold water tap – but this was after the war where, if you had a house with a roof on it you were still quite lucky.
S: Next record…
T: When I heard the ‘Arritta Avoce Sapete’ (sp???) for the first time I just burst out laughing it just sounded so right. I have no musical vocabulary to describe why I like things. It’s just you get that white hot line searing across your brain and you know you are listening to genius.
Music: Part of the Arritta Voi Que Sapete (sp??) from Act 2 of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
S: You don’t sound, Terry Pratchett, as if you were particularly ambitious. You left school at 17, you went to work as a journalist on the local paper, the Bucks Free Press, and then, when you were 32 after those 15 years in journalism you went to work as a press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board.
T: That’s right
S: Was that exciting?
T: Exciting is exactly the right word for it. This was just after Three Mile Island which put the whole of the nuclear industry in a new light – which was a rather green and glowing one. And there were four nuclear power stations on my patch. And I was there for the better part of 8 years – all the way through Chernobyl and other more local upsets. I was more or less on call 24 hours a day which usually meant I was woken up by the early morning man on Great Western Radio saying Hinckley Point nuclear power station has blown up again, what have you got to say?
S: (Laughs) So you did enjoy your work. You did get up in the morning and want to go to work. I had the impression that actually you were always writing, as I said that that was what you really wanted to do …
T: By then I was, in fact it was then that Discworld started and it was as a release from the pressures of the day.
S: And by the age of 39, I think, you were able to give up work and part company from CEGB and write for a living.
T: That’s right, I had my farewell party at a nuclear power station.
S: Record number five …
T: This is going to be ‘Bat out of Hell’ written by Jim Steinman and sung, or possibly I should say performed, by Meatloaf. All I can offer the court is that one day I was driving along the motorway, this came on, and by the time it was over, I was considerably further along the motorway and wasn’t quite certain how I’d got there.
Music: Bat out of Hell, Meatloaf
S: Let’s talk about these fans and followers then, Terry. Who are they? They say that when you do a book signing the queue stretches out down the street and this is quite frequent because you publish two books a year. Who are they?
T: Well, according to the mail, 50% of the fans are women and, of those probably 50% again are over the age of 35. I became aware of a very strange phenomenon early on – I was getting letters on the lines of ‘Our Kevin is a great fan of yours and I wondered what he was laughing about and now I’ve started reading the books’, and it would be Kevin’s mum who was writing to me.
S: But they are deeply loyal to you. They write to you and you write back.
T: Mostly, yes. It’s getting very very hard to do that now.
S: But you obviously have an enormous sense of responsibility towards them.
T: It’s a kind of after sales service I suppose. What did have a great effect on me when I was young was that I wrote to J.R.R. Tolkien – not about Lord of the Rings, about one of his other books – and he replied. Now for all I know, it was typed out by a secretary and he signed it. But those were the days when his mailbag must have been massive. There were kids in California being christened Galadriel and Bilbo. So I do my best. What he didn’t have to cope with, of course, was email and now that accounts for at least as much mail as the post bag.
S: So it’s always sitting there waiting for you, whenever you log in …
T: There’s always another one along in a minute.
S: And there … A problem it seems to me for you now is that these fans – I think as I said earlier – almost know more about the world, the Discworld, than you do on occasions.
T: They think they do.
S: But wasn’t there an instance when you… when they knew what you’d written before you’d written it?
T: More or less. I think I’d been discussing something informally on the internet and suddenly this had gone around the world – it became a question in a quiz. They asked me this question – I said ‘How did you know this?’ And they said ‘We know everything about you’.
S: What was it?
T: It was a fairly simple little cliche that there is a creature called The Eater of Socks and this is why you can only ever find one sock in the wash. And it sort of lives at the back of the washing machine and eats socks. And I’d just mused – because I half believe that’s real in any case – and I’d mused about it and so the fans had picked this up because I’d mentioned it and it became a question in the quiz.
S: So you’d muse down the internet, is that what you do?
T: Oh yes, well you can … Actually it can often be very useful. When I was writing the book Interesting Times, which is set in the Discworld equivalent of China, I put out a plea for any Chinese speakers among you. And for weeks afterwards, I was fighting them off, because, within a day I found someone that could give me all the information I wanted about the structure of the language.
S: More music …
T: Many years ago there was a series on television very late at night called The Silk Road and I very much enjoyed the music from this. And I remember sitting down one day, putting the CD on, and just sitting back and for three quarters of an hour, I simply unravelled…
Music: Kitarro (sp) and Silk Road
S: You’ve written more than 30 books, all told, Terry, some of them for children, including the obligatory cat book. It’s not as if money is a problem any more, has your attitude changed to money now that you don’t have to think about it too much?
T: Er… I knew I was rich when I went into a shop to buy a video and I saw the video tape that I wanted and I saw another one that I liked and I was starting to choose between them and suddenly I though I could have both. And I felt quite wicked you know that I actually bought two. I’ve gone a bit passed that stage now.
S: What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever spent money on?
T: I’m not really that wild a person when it comes to money. I like to get value for money, even if it’s something as simple as a box of floppy discs, I like to think that they are worth the money that I am actually paying for them. I don’t splash out hugely with money.
S: And the work ethic is obviously very strong right down the middle of you.
T: But it’s mixed up with the pleasure ethic as well – I enjoy writing, I really do. And I would get – in fact I do get very neurotic if I am not writing, so I am not doing it out of some stern puritan ethic, I’m doing it now as a reflex action as naturally as putting on my trousers in the morning.
S: Record number 7 …
T: It took me a long time to discover this but I love deserts. And three or four years ago I went on holiday to Australia, and the piece of music which says Australia to me is Great Southern Land by Icehouse.
Music: Great Southern Land by Icehouse.
S: So, the desert island beckons, Terry Pratchett, alone, without his books or his followers. Alone with his fantasies – that’s alright isn’t it?
T: That’s fine by me. No telephone, no mail.
S: What will you do all day?
T: I’m a very practical kind of person, I’ll probably be grubbing for food and fishing in the lagoon.
S: But will you miss it? Will you miss the fame and the material comforts that all of this success has provided?
T: No. I hope it’s a nice warm desert island. Plenty of opportunities for just sitting there and looking out at sea. I think that for a writer, fame is something that happens on the outside. It doesn’t affect you very much because you’re always sitting down and things are taking place in the space behind your eyes. And the reviews and all the rest of it happen to somebody else. Some kind of outer shell. So no, I don’t think that’ll… I don’t think I’ll miss that at all.
S: Last record …
T: As I’ve said, I listen to music more or less at random. And I remember when I first heard Itzack Perlmann (sp?) playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and there’s a point in ‘Summer’ where he makes the violin sing like an angel and then curse like a demon. I got into Vivaldi just because of a few notes of music.
Music: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – part of Summer.
S: If you could only take one of those eight records, Terry, which one would you like to take?
T: I think it would be Thomas the Rhymer by Steeleye Span because it speaks to me of damp twilights and I don’t think there’s going to be very many of those on my desert island.
S: What about your book?
T: There’s bound to be something with a title something like ‘Edible Plants of the South Seas’ – now I know you disapprove, but I’m a fairly practical person and I realise that behind every plant that we now eat there are all the unsung cavemen that proved that the other ones were poisonous.
S: (laughs) – and your luxury?
T: Cheating, I know but the Chrysler Building from New York. Built in 1930 it’s a marvellous piece of Gothic Art-Deco with eagles heads, and gargoyles and a summit which looks like some kind of Essoldo cinema. It’s just this marvellous silver creation, it’s the ultimate skyscraper.
S: We shall have it shipped out immediately…
T: Thank you
S: Terry Pratchett, thank you very much indeed for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs.
T: Thank you