Terry Pratchett, bestselling author of the Discworld fantasy novels, tells Thorn Dibdin about his latest offering.
Out there somewhere in the inﬁnity ofspace, in amongst all the alternative and parallel realities, there is a turtle. A pretty damn big turtle. So big that it carries four elephants on its back and they, in turn, carry a whole planet: Discworld. ‘Out there somewhere‘ is actually inside the head of Terry Pratchett. ex-Central Electricity Generating Board press officer, keeper of insectivorous plants and author of ﬁfteen Discworld novels over the last ten years, most of which have made it onto the bestseller lists.
For the uninitiated, the ﬂat-as-a-soup-bowl Discworld is the setting for a satire in the much- maligned fantasy genre. Satire which rivals even the great Hitch Hiker s Guide To The Galaxy in its wicked piss-take of anything that cares to regard itself too seriously. Satire which bugs the back teeth out of those pompous fantasy fans who can‘t get past the fact that the humour is so obvious. Especially if the person next to them on the train can‘t stop laughing out loud at it.
‘I deal logically with an illogical world,‘ says Pratchett. ‘lt‘s a fantasy universe but it‘s a long, long way from Middle Earth. The people on Discworld are real, it‘sjust that the world they live on isn't.‘ Which isn't to say that the various witches, dwarves, trolls, wizards, common folk and even the occasional orang-utang actually exist. It is just that their sharply elucidated human characteristics and emotions recognisably do.
‘I hate the term “magical realism“ because it‘s a cop-out. it means “fantasy written by someone I was at university with“.‘ says Pratchett. ‘But the Discworld has got that sort of magical-realism feel. Tolkien invented Middle Earth, he dreamed it up in its entirety — its geography, its language — and wrote the story that‘s set in it. As far as I‘m concerned, Discworld itself is subservient to the stories that take place there. so I can kind of bend it in different directions to suit the stories I want to write.‘
The bending in Pratchett‘s latest novel, Men At Arms, enables him to place what turns out to be a police procedural within the conﬁnes of a medieval city, Discworld‘s largest. with the typically silly name of Ankh-Morpork. ‘When I say there‘s a parody ofa lot of cop movies in the book, I‘m not parodying specific movies, I'm parodying what you might call the assumptions of that genre,’ explains Pratchett. ‘There must have been dozens of movies about a couple of mis-matched cops who start off hating each other and end up on the same side, it‘s just part of the Hollywood mythology, and the Hollywood mythology creeps over into our real world. People actually go off to war because they
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think it‘s going to be like Rambo. Hollywood creates mythologies and we fall for it: we bend real life to fit them. So that‘s an area which I think is always worth exploring.‘
Pratchett is very concise about the language used to describe his books, in keeping with someone who previously spent five years defending the merits of four nuclear power stations to the media. Particularly distasteful to him is the blanket description of his work as ‘parody‘; those who use the term, he points
‘The people on Discworld are real, It’s just that the world they Ilve on lsn’t.’
out. tend to be hard-pressed to say precisely what it is all supposed to be parodying. Then there‘s the ‘graphic novel’ label used to describe the illustrated versions of the Discworld books. ‘1 would term them big comics,’ he says, ‘because it‘s honest. I don‘t like “graphic novel“, it‘s like Magical Realism. I‘d much rather that people stuck to the term “fantasy” on the one hand and “comic” on the other, and rehabilitate the terms. rather than build a separate phrase someway off and say “Oh we‘re nothing to do with that lot." You ought to stick to the original genre.’
As you might expect of someone who creates such characters as Sergeant Colon, a troll called Krysoprase and an architect by the name of Bloody Stupid Johnson, and who depicts the riders of the
apocalypse playing bridge with a tourist, Pratchett finds humour and irony everywhere. ‘I laugh like a drain now because down in south—west England there‘s nothing but complaints about wind farms,‘ he says. ‘People complain about the noise and that they look unsightly, and I say, “You didn‘t like nuclear power, did you? na na na na na. You said how nice windmills would be and good lord they make a noise!“ Good heavens!‘ Not that he sees this as some sort of vindication of nuclear power — ‘itjust tells you an awful lot about human beings.‘
However, there is more to the Discworld than pure humour and poor puns. ‘If you want to write a funny book it‘s not enough to strap a load of one-liners and puns together.‘ he explains. ‘What I‘m against is getting too pretentious about it. The important thing is to produce a book that people are going to enjoy, and which may open their minds in one or two directions. But the last thing you want to do is go on The Late Show with that lady with the red-rimmed spectacles and wave your arms about talking about the messages and the iconography. The thing to do is to write the book the best way you can and then let some clever buggers tell you what you actually means.’
Men At Arms is published by Victor Goilancz at £14. 99. Corgi have just reissued Lords and ladies (£4.99), A Mapp of Anklt-Morpork (£4. 99) and The Light Fantastic (£7.99).
The List 5-18 November 1993 09