Terry Pratchett on his latest novel, his medical diagnosis, and more
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Until J.K. Rowling came along, Terry Pratchett was Britain’s bestselling author; his website reports that he still sells 3 million books a year worldwide, with more than 70 million overall sales. He’s written 50 books and collaborated on many more, from children’s picture books to adult science fiction to Good Omens, a humorous book about the Antichrist, co-authored with Neil Gaiman. But he’s best known for the Discworld series, which currently numbers 39 stand-alone novels following a wide variety of witches, wizards, and ordinary people trying to get by in a rapidly modernizing fantasy world. His most recent titles include Snuff, the latest Discworld book to focus on hard-edged cop and reluctant aristocrat Commander Vimes; The Long Earth, a collaborative SF novel about characters navigating a seemingly endless series of parallel worlds; and Dodger, a young-adult novel centering on the adventures of the boy who inspired Charles Dickens’ Artful Dodger character in Oliver Twist. Dodger features Dickens as a prominent character, and brings in many other real-life figures, including reformer and Punch co-founder Henry Mayhew.
In 2007, Pratchett revealed that he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and he gradually became a right-to-die advocate in his native Britain, with two documentaries studying his positions: Terry Pratchett: Living With Alzheimer’s and Terry Pratchett: Choosing To Die. His diagnosis has since been revised to posterior cortical atrophy (PCA), a rarer variant of Alzheimer’s that has given him difficulties with typing or reading, but has left him still capable of producing dense, playful, deeply felt novels at his usual quick rate. Earlier this year, he also announced the formation of Narrativia Productions, a company named after his personification of his muse, and designed to produce new adaptations of his rarely adapted work. On a brief U.S. tour in support of Dodger, Pratchett sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about Narrativia, his new working methods, why he wouldn’t want to go back to the old ones, and his lack of regret over going public with his condition. Oh, and also a really mean way to play laser tag.
The A.V. Club: When I first interviewed you 12 years ago, I asked, “What’s next for you?” and you promptly rattled off the plans for your next eight books. Do you still have that kind of backlog in your mind?
Terry Pratchett: Was it really eight books, or was that exaggeration for effect?
AVC: No, you really did lay out a plan for your next several series, and you definitely followed it.
TP: All right, let me think. If I am spared… That’s a thing my granny used to say. Does your granny ever say things like that? If I am spared, when I get back home, I’ll be carrying on working on my half of The Long Earth 2. As soon as that’s finished, I’ve got a large amount of the next Discworld to come. As everybody knows, most of the work is done in the second draft. But I like doing that, because I do the second draft very fast. And some people, including me, would like me to then go on to do a sequel to Dodger, because I know there’s at least one very good sequel to be had.
But at the same time… A long, long time ago, I thought I’d like to do a Discworld football book—soccer, obviously. And I worked on it for a long time, and I realized I couldn’t… I don’t really plan. I’m almost intuitive about things. I just see how the whole thing can happen. And very, very often, that really works. Some of the best ones. If I let Commander Vimes loose by himself and let him tell us what he thinks, it’s much better than me putting words in his mouth. In Snuff, Vimes is on the screen the whole time. All I’m doing is painting in what Vimes will do. We know what he is, we know how he thinks, we know what kind of person he is. So all I have to do is push his little piece around on the playing board, and Vimes will be doing all those things. And occasionally come out with things I hadn’t thought about until the very moment the time came for it to be said. “I thank my Lady Narrativia for favors bestowed.”
And so, going back to the football one, I chucked it away with, oh, about several thousand words done, then a lot later, something in my head went “Ping!” and I said, “I know how it goes! I know where the plot is, and it isn’t where I thought.” I was looking in an obvious place for the plot, and it wasn’t there; it was hiding somewhere else. And that became Unseen Academicals. Right now, I have, on what I call the naughty shelf, another one of those things. There is a lovely Discworld one, and a lot of it is done, and it’s got some elegant characters, really infested ones, and some wonderful things in it. [Whispers.] But there’s no fecking plot. There’s no fecking plot! I’m having such fun with the interactions of these people.
AVC: Is that typical for you? Usually, do the characters come before the plot, or which way does that generally go?
TP: Well, the characters are the plot. What they do and say and the things that happen to them are, in a sense, what the plot is. You can’t take character and plot apart from each other, really. Actually, the day before yesterday, I was able to sit down with my agent and she said, “Tell me about this month and how it’s going.” It was like being put in front of your teacher, and I started to garble. And the garbling was, “All right, and I know how it goes, because that one, then that, and that bit there, which I didn’t think was important, now becomes increasingly important. And then the gentleman will be helping him to do this sort of thing, and…” [Excited garbling noises.] It’s all there, mostly, but I have to change a lot of what I’ve done, so it’s not quite so done as it sounds. My wife says I plot in my sleep.
AVC: It sounds like you’re working on four things at once in your head most of the time. Is it necessary to have that subconscious help to keep it all straight and to make parts progress?
TP: Shit knows, I don’t. That’s just how I do it. Working with Steve [Baxter] on Long Earth, there were only about three occasions when we were together. Because we would decide, “You do this bit about this, and you do this other bit,” and then something very nice happened. I was very pleased about it, because it happened in the same way when I was working with Neil [Gaiman]. When we were doing the last Friday of Long Earth, we really wanted to get it to the editor that day, and the editor was standing there, and somehow, in that last afternoon, we did a lot of work. It seemed to us that all the bits… It’s like an explosion, but going backward. And at one point, Steve said, “That’s a good bit.” He really liked a particular phrase I’d put in. And I said to him, “I thought you’d put it in.” And almost exactly the same thing happened when [Neil and I] were working on Good Omens. We were actually titivating each other’s work as it got past us, so sooner or later it became both of us.
AVC: You said most of the work is done in the second draft. How do you do revisions these days, given how you work?
TP: Not the second draft. I mean, the first draft may have quite a lot of intricate bits in. Often I sort of work up and down the manuscript. I sometimes used to go ahead of myself to see what was going to happen next, to make certain it fits what was going to be happening soon. I’ve still got the whole concept as one thing in my mind. How do I do it now? First of all, using TalkingPoint and Dragon Dictate, I knock it out on the computer. You know about Dragon Dictate? It’s text-to-speech.
I’ll sit there with my eyes shut, listening to Rob, my PA, or someone from the agency, reading what I’ve written. That, if you can afford to do it, is one of the best ways. It comes alive in the speech, and it picks up other things. Small errors you haven’t noticed. Even if I could get my typing back, I wouldn’t go back to typing. We are monkeys. We like to chatter. Chattering doesn’t cost us anything. So you can do a whole page, look at it, “Didn’t get that quite right.” Scrap it, do it again, put in the little bits that you think are necessary. Doesn’t matter. It’s only talking. Doesn’t mean a thing. Whereas after a while, bashing a keyboard can get up on your nerves.
And in that second draft, that’s most of the work of the book. Because now I’ve got it smooth. And a lot of the third draft comes down to making the ending good. I’m often not sure what the ending is going to be, because I like it to be a surprise. If I’m doing this right, it will come out on the right ending. And so far, it’s never let me down. This sounds like the man sitting in the dustbin and playing a trumpet underwater. And it just works. It absolutely works. I think Snuff was one of the best books I’ve ever written. And all I really did was know exactly the mindset of Commander Vimes, wind him up, and present him with a problem. Go to Central Casting for the other people, and then Lady Narrativia throws in the little extra things along the way that you haven’t expected.
AVC: Was there a process of preparing to write Dodger? Did you revisit Charles Dickens, or Henry Mayhew, or any of your other inspirations?
TP: Oh, good question. In my early teens, I read every bound volume of the magazine Punch. Every writer of any distinction in the English language, and I mean including America and England, at some time wrote for Punch. Jerome K. Jerome, who wrote Three Men In A Boat, I loved. I was very impressed when I read a piece by Mark Twain in Punch, and realized that despite the fact that they were on different continents, Jerome K. Jerome and Mark Twain had the same kind of laconic, laid-back, “The human race is damn stupid, but quite interesting” attitude. They were almost talking with the same voice.
And when you’re an adolescent and you notice this, this is like great, good stuff. So I was looking through Punch all the way from the beginning of the Victorian era to about the 1960s, and that meant I read the best works of some of the best satirists, and indeed best writers, that were out there. And, you know, if you want to be a blacksmith, you go and watch the blacksmith working, and you work out what the blacksmith does.
But on top of that, I picked up an awful lot of Victoriana, which put me in very good stead for Dodger. And in the days when Neil was almost always in England, we would often go to old bookshops. I’ve got shelves of books of Victorian slang, that sort of thing. Miscellaneous books of the Victorian era, which tell you things that are amazing, that you’ve never heard of before. All these things, you just pick them up, as picking up clams. Because of Lady Narrativia, you whistle and they turn up. For example, St. Nevers’ Day, that’s been in the English language for quite a long time, certainly in the Victorian era. “Can you lend me a sixpence? I’ll give it back St. Nevers’ Day,” which obviously means never. And that was useful for Dodger. [The character] Mrs. Holland is based on a real woman who ran a brothel. I dug out what I knew about her and put in other things that would actually fit, and there she was. Dickens was easy, because it’s easy to pick up Dickens’ tone of voice once you read it. He has a clear tone of voice, and actually, he was a reporter; he was a journalist. There’s a bit in Dodger where Dickens makes certain that Dodger isn’t going to talk to any other journalists [about his story]. That’s the kind of thing a journalist says, and Dickens would have said it in those certain places.
AVC: Was it all just living in the back of your head, or did you go back and review any of it when you were putting the book together?
TP: Nearly everything there was stuff I knew. I think we looked up some things like where did Mayhew live at one point, who were the governors of Bedlam at that time. But mostly, I pretty much remembered things. It’s a whole lot of fun; when you’ve got a lifetime of walking along the seashore picking up clams, you suddenly find one clam that’s actually got a clam in it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Some people have called Dodger a form of fan fiction, because it brings together all of these characters—
TP: Isn’t fan fiction saying, “Oh, I like Mr. Spock, so I’m going to write about him”? Tell me why it’s fan fiction.
AVC: Well, you’re bringing together literary characters and real-world people in a story, because of your own fandom.
TP: Well, you’re very nearly right on that, but I would put it in a different way. Let me line this one up: We lose the past at our peril. A lot gets lost. Lots of words get lost, wonderful words like “firkytoodle.” “Don’t you ever firkytoodle.” Well actually you can, if you’re married. I’ve got a lot of Victoriana. The main reason I wrote Dodger was that as an adolescent, I read London Labour And The London Poor, and that’s great source material. It doesn’t matter if dragons are flying overhead or whatever—a lot of Victoriana is still cut in the frame of fantasy. I was talking to various people, and said, “Do you know about London Labour And The London Poor? “No, no, no, no.” Mayhew, he talked to everybody. He wrote it all down. And you see the level of privation for these people. Nobody in the United States could live that way, even slaves. But people forget.
I once told some kids that my father could have shaken hands with Wyatt Earp. And they said, “No! Wyatt Earp’s from the old days.” I said, “So’s my father.” My father was 9 when Wyatt Earp died. Admittedly, my father never got to the United States. But it doesn’t sound like history. It sounds like “some time ago.” But it’s not like the Battle of Agincourt. So I wrote Dodger, really, for Mayhew. To get that wonderful book—it’s always around somewhere. Being Victorian, he isn’t explicit about what he wants to say, but you recognize what he’s talking about. It’s so much fun. I brought them together for the love of bringing them together. To say to folks that “Actually, everything in this book is real, except the plot.”
AVC: What about Sweeney Todd?
TP: What I have done there is make him considerably more real than he was.
AVC: Where did that particular interpretation of him come from?
TP: Do you [get Bernard Cornwell’s] Sharpe series here? Sharpe is excellently researched. Might get on very well with the author. Toward the end of the Napoleonic Wars, men were actually being thrown against walls. Men would end up running up a whole load of other dead men to get to the top of a wall. That’s how wars were fought in those days. And then you think, “Here’s a doctor. His job is not to kill people, but on the battlefield, he would kill men, because these men were blown apart by cannon and were shrieking, and so the knife was there to help them die.” And then you think, “He would have seen horrors on the battlefield, as bad as Vietnam at least.” Even worse than that, because there is no real medication. But he’s a doctor. That’s not what he set out to be. He did not want to be taking men to bits; he was there to get them better. Well, these days, we can see how that could drive a decent person nuts. And that’s what happened to him. He was getting flashbacks all the time of the dead men that he had killed.
AVC: This is all very dark source material, but Dodger winds up being a fairly romanticized story.
TP: Not that romanticized. Remember, my romanticized character actually has to deal with a corpse. But what he’s got going for him is that this corpse he’s working on, he didn’t kill her. She will get a good burial, and hopefully another life will be saved.
AVC: What initially inspired you to explore Dodger as if he were a real person instead of this side character in a novel?
TP: I think the thought just occurred to me, “Why don’t I write a book about the boy that gave Charles Dickens the idea for Dodger?”
AVC: Did you see yourself in Dodger, or did you see your experiences in what he’s trying to do?
TP: If parallels are there, other people will see them. I don’t. I can see myself in Commander Vimes, because I actually used bits of myself in him, because I’m a kid from the council houses, the tenements. So first of all, I get the OBE [Order Of The British Empire, a high British honor. —ed]. Ka-ching! Not too long afterward, an elderly lady is behind me bringing down a big sword—I got knighted. It’s the Queen. She’s quite small. When it was being done, my mother—I’m so glad she was alive to see it—she was in a wheelchair so close to the Queen, with the same kind of hairstyle. I thought, “I really hope we don’t mix them up when it’s time to go home.” [Laughs.] It would have been much more interesting for the future of the world. You think, “How did I get from there to here? Who am I to have got from here to here? What happened?”
And Vimes is doing all this as well. He’s quite nobby now. He’s got lots of money and wealth, and he’s not the boy he was. He feels somehow ashamed that that is the case, which is actually rather dumb. That’s what we do, to our shame, us writers—you grab from out of your stomach somewhere what’s really on your mind, and you put it on the mouth of the character.
AVC: You’ve been gravitating toward more and more Vimes stories over the years, leaving some of the other characters behind.
TP: The next one going out, I hope, will be a new character. Good to do one of those every now and again. I think a lot of fans would like me to write about Vimes all the time. But I haven’t got a Vimes one on the immediate list. I’ve finished Tiffany Aching. If I do continue Tiffany Aching, she would then be part of the witches’ books. She’s adult enough now. [The Discworld books centering on young witch Tiffany Aching have been marketed as young-adult, while the books about Granny Weatherwax and other adult witches are nominally adult books. —ed.] In the U.K. at least, no one gives a shit who I’m supposed to be writing for. They’ll read it anyway. The kids read the adult books, and the adults read the kids’ books. Of course, they’re both accessible, which is the nice way of fantasy fiction.
AVC: Do you write any differently for a book that will be marketed to young adults, vs. an adult title?
TP: Young adult is so close. I was surprised that both my editors gave me a thumbs-up on a lot of the parts of Dodger, saying “Today’s kids know about vampires and all kinds of stuff.” They aren’t the kids that were kids when I was a kid. I really enjoyed Dodger disguised as the old lady coming to get the corpse, especially the way he beat up the guy who tried to jump an old lady. That had to be there for the movie. I thought the consensus was, it all depends on the outcome. Like The Amazing Maurice [And His Educated Rodents], for example. There’s a lot of darkness in that. One American mother wrote to me and said she read The Amazing Maurice to her little girl. There’s a really nasty bit where rats are fighting one another and getting killed. She is upset, and the little girl isn’t. The little girl taps her on the knee and says, “Don’t worry, Mom, it’ll all get better.” Because she knows that that’s the compact. You’re allowed to grant people into the darkness, but you must allow them to come out again.
AVC: Your adult books do that too, though. Your protagonists have to really fight for their victories, often through a lot of darkness, but they always emerge in the end.
TP: Well! I suppose I’m that kind of guy, right?
AVC: Do you think of young-adult books any differently in terms of style, or is it just a content question?
TP: Initially, that bothered me a lot. The typical thing. Suppose you made mention of the Fab Four. What kid knows who they are? They might these days, mind, but you can’t be certain. You have to assume that kids of some age are not going to know some things, or some words. When I was quite young, I used to work in the local library. One day, I was carting books around. A lady asked me what kind of book would I suggest for a child of 6? I said, “A book intended for a child of 7.” She said, “Why?” I said, “You want them to grow.” When you were a kid, you undoubtedly read books you were not suited for. Did you tell your mum about them? Did you understand all the words at that time? “Pederasty,” I had difficulty with. “Ogre,” I thought was “ogg-ree,” because I’d never heard it said.
I read grown-up literature because I could in that library. I could run around and do what I wanted. I read stuff that kids shouldn’t know about, but because it came in when you weren’t sitting with mom and dad side by side, very embarrassed, you’re just, “Ah, that’s an interesting word. That’s an interesting thing they’re doing.” So that just gets locked up there, and sooner or later it will lock into its right place. I don’t think you can say, “Oh, this isn’t for kids” with the written word, where you might with other things.
AVC: You mentioned the scene of Dodger fighting a mugger while wearing women’s clothing as being in the book for the movie. Do you hope to see a movie made out of Dodger?
TP: One always hopes. And now we’ve got our own production company. We might be able to do something.
AVC: Your production company has been billed as handling TV series—are you going to do movies as well? Or do you want to do Dodger as a TV series?
TP: If it was possible do it, I think I would. Yes, of course I would, because we could keep some track of it. Hollywood is famously known for buggering up stuff. With something like Dodger, it has to be done right. Sam Raimi was going to do The Wee Free Men, you know about all this?
AVC: Yes, and Terry Gilliam was going to do Good Omens. There have been a lot of options over the years.
TP: Yes, but actually Sam Raimi came in because the studio wanted it to be not what I wanted. I spoke to Sam for four hours, and he really got The Wee Free Men. What he wanted to do was more or less what I wanted to do. According to Sam, the studio wanted to kind of Disney it. Every time Tiffany Aching did something good, she got a star. I think it was in The Wee Free Men where one of the older witches says, “If you wish upon a star, a little fool is what you are. The stars are far too far away, and they can’t listen anyway.” Tiffany gets it hard until the end, when she gets the rewards of working. It isn’t because you’re good. It isn’t because you’re particularly nice. It’s because you just got down to the problem and sorted it out.
AVC: Whatever happened with Raimi’s version? Is there any chance of that going forward?
TP: Pam Pettler [Corpse Bride, Monster House, 9] had done a very nice script. I don’t know. It’s in there in the ether. We had some difficulties with my agent, Ralph Vincinanza. He was somewhat secretive. I’m not one to blacken his name at this point, but what can you make of somebody getting a contact from Disney, who wanted to do a book of mine, and he didn’t tell me, to the point that they actually—not exactly crashed, but arrived at a convention in England so they could talk to me. That was six months after they contacted him. That was the beginning of the end of the relationship. He in fact, not too far long afterward, died anyway. And it wasn’t me, I promise you. We just wondered how many other things he didn’t do. Had he had a long-term illness? It didn’t sound like it. Were there other things, little things forgotten? Put it on the side, think about that later on. We are working on, if you must know, The Watch for television. I love the hell out of the idea. Rhianna [Pratchett, his daughter] and myself thought of it together. She’s a bloody good writer. She wants to do something with it as well, and I would like to see it happen. It’s not going to interfere with the rest of the book series. It’s just going to pick up from where we are now.
AVC: Do you want to be personally involved with the TV series? Do you have time?
TP: I will be personally involved with that. Oh yes. Like hell. But I think I know the people who are going to be doing it, and they are trustworthy people. And they get it, too. I’ll tell you how close in thinking myself and my daughter are. When she was in her early teens, I took her to a convention. Part of it was outside. It was summertime. People were playing laser tag. People in charge of it asked me and Rhianna whether we’d like to be on one of the teams. So we did that. There we were, lined up to go into action. There was Rhianna and myself, and two other guys on our side, and four guys on the other. The rules were that if anyone was dead, you could pick up their weapon and use that. They blew the whistle for the start, and Rhianna and I exchanged eye contact for a fraction of a second, then shot the other two guys in our team and picked up their weapons, so we could fight with multiple weapons as a team. In my mind’s eye, it can’t possibly be as good as I think it was, but I remember seeing Rhianna in front of me charging the citadel of the other side, just going for it madly. I thought, “That’s my girl.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have an ideal person in mind to play Sam Vimes?
TP: There are actors I see occasionally and think, “Can they do the whole thing?” You have to have that inner bitterness. There is a layer of that. There’s a layer of— in a sense, he doesn’t like himself much. Good actors can get this sort of thing in. You never know. There clearly is an actor that can do it.
AVC: Your Alzheimer’s and your right-to-die advocacy have become a major focus when the media talks about you. Are you concerned about it overshadowing your writing?
TP: I get pissed off when they initially start with it. It’s all been very hectic, and I’m rather tired of it. I say, “Most of the problems I have these days are from being 65.” Certainly from reading the last eight books I’ve written, with Alzheimer’s, or PCA, no one would have noticed. They all became bestsellers. People are misled. That’s because I misled them, because I was misled as well. PCA is a different kind of Alzheimer’s. It’s quite slow. It took away my typing ability first. Go figure. You’d expect the fingers to keep going, know what they’re doing. I know lots of people with PCA much older than me, still going strong. Bits knock off, but it doesn’t seem to be that much different than your granddad saying, “Where did I put my shoes?” It’s that kind of thing. It’s not standing in the street and not knowing where the hell you are, or anything like that.
AVC: Do you ever regret going public?
TP: Absolutely not. Apart from anything else—I have to tell you this, and I’m ashamed to say it—my profile went up hugely, you know, because now I was the man on the television. Never been the man on the television much. Indeed, sales actually went up and went up. When I went ahead and was actually arguing for assisted dying in the U.K.—actually, most people who aren’t absolute God-botherers are in favor of it. Especially working-class people who might not have the money to have a really good death anyway. Doing that even helped me more. I didn’t expect it to. I don’t even really want it to. If I make any money out of it, I give it to charity. Tell the truth at all times in these matters is what I say. Otherwise, it would seem that I was ashamed.
AVC: If you could only have one legacy, would you rather it be “He was a tireless advocate, who changed the world for people who want to die,” or “He was a really great writer”?
TP: I’d go for “really great writer.” Although I don’t think I am. I know I have a style which is recognizable. I think you can see Terry Pratchett in every book. I like doing it. I was once a journalist. And I think of myself as a journalist, and that’s it. You tell the truth. I even wrote a book called The Truth.