Book World Live: 'Discworld' Author Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett
Wednesday, October 1, 2008; 11:00 AM

Terry Pratchett, author of over three dozen novels, including the popular Discworld fantasy series, was online Wednesday, October 1 to discuss his new young adult novel, Nation, which was reviewed in Book World. Read an excerpt from Nation here.

Pratchett was named an Officer of the British Empire in 1998 "for services to literature." His books have sold more than 55 million copies worldwide. Diagnosed last year with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, he has donated $1 million to the Alzheimer's Research Trust, and continues to raise money for and awareness of the illness.

A transcript follows.

Join Book World Live each week for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World or in the weekday Style Section.


Terry Pratchett: Hello, it's Terry Pratchett, here to talk about my book Nation, and anything else. Except cookery, or mathematics. I'd like to start by thanking the Washington Post for the wonderful review in Book World. It's nice when people spot the little twiddly bits. I was pleased to see that. The reviews have been very encouraging around the globe.


Houston, TX : How did you get the idea for Nation?

Terry Pratchett: I wish I knew, because if I did I would go back to the same place with a bucket. The initial idea and the image of Mau standing on the beach defying his gods came to me instantly, late in 2003, and it hung around for a long time.

Just as I was getting it together to start, the Asian tsunami happened, and I dropped the project because I thought, probably quite rightly, that people would accuse me of crassness in writing the book so soon afterwards. I'm very fortunate that there are people who actually know the plot was quite well advanced, so I could prove it if necessary in the court of public opinion :-) In fact, what I originally had in mind was something like the explosion of Krakatoa, and the shipwreck of the Sweet Judy is very loosely based on a real event that happened after the volcano exploded.


Woodbridge, Va.: The Washington Post review of your book says that it deals with "fundamental questions about religious belief." Are you a man of faith?

Terry Pratchett: Certainly I have no faith in Jehovah, although I think it quite likely that Jesus Christ, as a preacher and a wise man, did indeed exist. I think possibly the ending of Nation pretty much outlines what I think. Indeed, the whole of Nation outlines what I think, which is that if you do your best for your fellow man, then the issue of the gods is somewhat superfluous.


Seattle, WA: Terry,

I just wanted to say "THANKS" for all your wonderful books. Reading a Pratchett book is like putting on a comfortable shoe--only the shoe is a jester's boot with curly toes, bells, bright colors and fancy bits. Keep writing for a long, long time!

Terry Pratchett: Well, thank you very much. I wondered what it was that was jingling while I walked. Now that I know, it comes as a relief!


Falls Church, Va: Terry,

First let me say I am a huge fan. I really enjoy the Discworld books and loved Good Omens. I have two questions: What is your favorite Discworld Book? More importantly, how young an adult is your "Young Adult Novel" appropriate for? My 12 year old son is a decent reader for a 7th grader. Do you think the book would be appropriate for him?

Terry Pratchett: I would say that I have done my best writing in the Tiffany Aching series, which are technically Discworld books, although they are meant for children.

Among the adult books, Nightwatch must be my favourite.

The question of age and suitability is a hot one here in the UK, where authors are banding together to stop publishers' age-banding children's/YA books. That is to say, they want to include advice like "suitable for a child of 7 1/2" on the cover of the book. The reason this is a very hit-and-miss message is that it all depends on the child. I think I had read all the James Bond books that were available by the time I was 12, and you have to remember that a book like Pilgrim's Progress was once considered a perfect Sunday afternoon for children of 7 or so. If a kid is bright and questioning, and really interested in the world, they will find a lot for them in Nation. Equally, I imagine there's one or 2 adults that won't get it!


Washington, DC: Terry, First let me say all of the positive energy that my brain can concentrate is being directed your way. Your books have brought a lot of happiness into a lot of lives. I've pre-ordered Nation, and I'm looking forward to reading it soon, but just based on what I've gotten from the promotional material, I'm curious about where your ideas on the nature of human communities (like nations) come from. Are you an avid reader of history, or is it from somewhere else?

Terry Pratchett: It cannot be stressed often enough that before you can become a writer, you have to be a reader, and a reader of everything, at that. To the best of my recollection, I became a reader at the age of 10 and have never stopped. Like many authors, I read all sorts of books all the time, and it is amazing how the mind fills up. There is very little that I had to research for Nation. There were a few matters of fine detail, but largely it just assembled itself from bits lying around in my head.

P.S. Thank you for your good wishes.


Lusby, MD: I have a daughter named Kelda who is quite happy to discover she's a queen.

Terry Pratchett: Well, that's true. What may look like made-up stuff in the Tiffany Aching trilogy is often based on good Scottish folklore and legend.


Gaithersburg, MD: How are you feeling?

Terry Pratchett: I'm feeling good.

I think I feel a question that no one is quite asking here.

Yes, I have PCA, which is a rare variant of Alzheimer's. Right now, its main effect on me is to mess up my typing skills, and also to make my spelling inaccurate -- I mean to the point where I might actually fail to remember how to spell a simple 5-letter word just as I am about to type it. these things are a nuisance, and certainly slow down my work rate. But to some extent, technology can help. There is no cure. PCA is a strange thing, and no one is taking any guesses about how long I shall be able to keep working like this. My personal view is that the sheer grind of writing will get me down long before there's still plenty of room for me to enjoy things in life. Oddly enough, the ability to plot and invent dialogue and characters seems to be totally untouched. It is worth pointing out that Nation, in its entirety, was written by a guy with PCA. I did not know that I had it until the late fall of last year, but throughout that year I had been putting down the problems of typing, etc. to other things, senior moments and just general aging. To put it bluntly, you would have to know me very well, and possibly even be familiar with PCA, to suspect that I was anything other than an average 60-year old guy.


Kalamazoo, MI: Would you consider ever working with Neil Gaiman again? Loved Good Omens, it was a fantastic mind meld of my two favorite writers!

Terry Pratchett: Neil and I talked about this a lot back in the 90s. I think that we took the view, and it has been borne out as correct by history, that we would entertain the world rather better as individuals than as co-authors. I recall how relieved we both were to find out that the other guy had no particular interest in a sequel. We had both been acting upbeat about it because we thought the other guy wanted to do one. Gosh, that was great.


Wallace, N.C: You once wrote a short story about a female King Arthur (Queen Ursula) and Mervin (a geeky Merlin). Have you ever thought about returning to that particular story and finding out how the Table is different? (Speaking as a huge female fan of Arthurian legend, I have always wondered what would happen after Ursula pulled the sword out of the stone! She was a very impressive character.)

Terry Pratchett: Thank you! I was very pleased with that short story and had planned, which circumstances are likely to derail, to extend it into a novel. Since Merlin was a time traveller, I did wonder if we would end up with something like an Elizabethan age several centuries ahead of its time. There are so many ways it could have gone. Nevertheless, it was quite good fun doing it as a straight short story, just to introduce the idea.


Washington, D.C.: You hail from the nation that built a global colonial empire, but also wrote the Magna Carta and fought both Napoleon and Hitler. One theme that seems to run through many of your novels is the conception that good is relative but evil is the absolute inability to care about other living things, be they golems, people, or cats. Are there any specific religious beliefs, philosophical texts, or life events that shaped this conviction?

Terry Pratchett: See my earlier answer about being a reader. It was SF and fantasy that got me reading, and SF writers in particular have pack rat minds. They introduce all sorts of interesting themes and ideas into their books, and so for me it was a short leap to go from the F and SF genres to folklore, mythology, ancient history and philosophy. I did not read philosophy because I set out to become a philosopher; I read it because it looked interesting. All I am really promoting in the books is the Golden Rule, which I hope everybody knows to be "do as you would be done by." It has one or 2 flaws, but it is a good soundbite. Evil starts when you treat other people as things. There are perhaps worse crimes, but they begin when you treat other people as things.


Washington, DC (again): Terry, Veering radically off-topic, I've read that you got your start in the nuclear industry, and I'm curious to hear what your opinions on the state of things there and the role of nuclear energy in our future.

Terry Pratchett: Let me be clear that I was no nuclear physicist. I was a press officer for a whole slew of power stations, but it was the three nuclear sites that always got the public interest. I fear many things more than I do nuclear power, at least in the hands of Western democracies. I was once berated by a citizen who was worried about the existence of a power plant some 30 miles from where he lived. He lived extremely close to a automobile tire manufacturing company and I wondered if he would sleep safe in his bed if he knew all the chemicals that they used. This all segues into the global warming debate, but surely in essence it is quite simple. Either we really are homo sapiens, in which case we should be able to think, talk, and negotiate ourselves out of the problem, or we are simply still Pan Narrans, the story telling chimpanzee. It's time for us to use our big brains.


Washington DC: Death as a character is one of your most famous. After the Alzheimer's diagnosis, did you find your philosophy about the characterisation of death altered?

Terry Pratchett: Not in the least. I have no fear of death whatsoever. I suspect that few people do, what they all fear is what might happen in the years or months before death. No, my views have not changed.


Manchester, UK: When I had the pleasure of meeting you at the DWCON in Birmingham this year, you said you were a little unsure of the book on the whole - you weren't sure whether to tweak it somewhat, etc, and what the reaction from your fans was going to be with it being so completely unlike anything you've done before. After Nation was released and became a top seller (again!) and the reviews have been wonderful - Do you feel any differently towards it now?

P.S. Your signature on my arm survived 4 days in clingfilm and is now a wonderful tattoo! Many thanks Terry!

Terry Pratchett: Four whole days!

Somebody once said that books are not finished, they just escape. I probably spent five months doing the final rewrites and edits of Nation. It was so long because I tend to be very "big brush" on the early drafts. I look at it now and see places where I could have improved it, but in reality, I would probably have had to put in 100% more work for 1% improvement.


San Diego, CA: Dear Terry,

I have been a fan of your writing and humor for a couple decades now. When I first read your books, the images of Monty Python characters, as well as Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits" and "Yellow Beard" came easily to mind. I always thought that you and he could collaborate brilliantly on a film.

I understand an attempt was made unsuccessfully, and wonder what on earth, (or in Disc World), were the hang-ups, and would this 'dream match-up' ever happen?


Terry Pratchett: Our only real association with Terry Gilliam was Good Omens, and what happened is known as the Hollywood system, which largely means that for every person you deal with who can say Yes you have to deal with 99 people who can only say No. It's not as easy as you might think, and it's not as obvious to others as you might think. I have to say that a Terry Gilliam Discworld movie would be exactly that, Terry Gilliam's view of Discworld. It is a mistake to think that because you like cream and because you like gravy that they might work together :-)


Los Angeles California: Do you have in mind an ending for the various threads of the Discworld series?

Terry Pratchett: I said right at the beginning that I never intended to write the official last Discworld book. Clearly there will be one, one day, but I certainly don't intend to write the huge wrap-it-up final novel. After all, Discworld is not one story arc, but quite a few stories all going their own ways against a common background.


Washington, DC: Mr. Pratchett, I never realized that I liked fantasy novels until I discovered Discworld. You literally opened my eyes to an entire genre, and I am so thankful. Any plans to revisit Discworld in the near future? Specifically, Carrot and Angua?

Terry Pratchett: I'm writing an Discworld book at the moment, but almost all the characters in it are new!


Washington, DC: Was that really you lurking around stage left at the Gaiman reading on Saturday? Without the hat, you're practically Alec Guinness--nobody would spot you!

Terry Pratchett: No, it certainly was not me. So if you thought you were lending me $20, it's going to be tough luck for you :-)

The hat is a Zen disguise; when I take it off, nobody knows who I am. That can be very useful!


Georgetown, DE: Terry, Thank you for works that delight and inspire! My question is what delights and inspires YOU?

Terry Pratchett: Ingenuity and incongruity always cheer me up.


Stanton Park, DC: Hi Mr. Pratchett. I just wanted to thank you for introducing me to the phrase "anthropomorphic personification" at a relatively early age (14). You have no idea how often that comes up in everyday conversation.

Terry Pratchett: You must have an interesting job if this is the case!


Chadwell Heath, Essex: I noticed a reference in Nation to someone having more tattoos than Edinburgh (My apologies, I cannot quote precisely as the book has already escaped my custody!)

A look at the web indicates the tattoos have only been formally staged since the 1950s, whilst the book appears to be set sometime in the 19th century. An (dare I say it?) error? Thank you Terry, it is a wonderful, wonderful, deep and thought-provoking book. Rentawitch

Terry Pratchett: Dear Renta, If you have read to the end of the book, and I'm sure that you have, you will notice that I make a specific point about it being set in an alternative universe, where small details are different. This is known as the "get totally out of jail free card," and that's me walking through the gates now :-)


Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you have a writing process? About how long do you think about your storyline before you put it down on paper? How much of writing is rewriting?

Terry Pratchett: Good one. Nation was written in a very strange way. I was doing draft 5 of the first few chapters when I was on draft 1 of the ending. In a sense, it was written in a way more suitable to painting; in effect I was working on the whole thing all the time.

Generally I start writing when I have even the smallest idea of how a book is going to go, because the physical process of writing itself keeps the mind active and focused on the job at hand. Usually I write in about 5 drafts, but that simply means there are 5 definite times when I go in a linear fashion from the beginning to the end of the book.


Logan Circle: Hullo. I just wanted you to know that I have adopted "May you live an interesting life," in its full context, as my personal motto. Also (speaking as an occasional writer), should I ever become a zombie, I am coming for your brain in hopes that its consumption will allow me a tenth of your wit and style. That is all.

Terry Pratchett: I believe that the phrase is may "you live in interesting times," and is the lowest in a trilogy of Chinese curses that continue "may you come to the attention of those in authority" and finish with "may the gods give you everything you ask for." I have no idea about its authenticity. I would not think my brain is currently worth eating :-)


Southport UK: Looking forward to meeting you tomorrow in Southport. If you have time, whilst in Southport, I would like to invite you to tea. I'm cooking sausage, eggs and chips (in dripping) with bread and butter and would be delighted if you could join us. yours, in hopeful excitement, Donna

Terry Pratchett: It sounds delicious but I imagine my schedule would drag me away before half a sausage has been consumed. See you there. :-)


Terry Pratchett: Thank you all very much. Can I say that I look forward to seeing many of you at the first US Discworld convention, to be held next year. If you don't know how to find out about it, you're no fans of mine :-)


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