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Sweet Fantasy - 25 years of Terry Pratchett's Discworld

Terry Pratchett

For 25 years the wizards, witches and wee free men of the Discworld have delighted millions. Terry Pratchett looks back over an incredible career, with Neil Gaiman.

Terry Pratchett's Discworld is 25 years old, which means I've known him for 24 years. We met when the first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, came out in paperback. At the time, I was a young journalist in an unbecoming hat and Terry was the press officer for the South Western Electricity Board. It was his first interview and we had a Chinese meal, arranged by the publisher. Neither of us was certain who was meant to pay for it.

The first couple of Discworld books were fundamentally parodies of fantasy, romps featuring the hapless wizard Rincewind. 'The Colour of Magic is the stand-up comic of fantasy,' Terry told me 24 years ago. 'There's never been one in fantasy before. In the book I'm writing now, The Light Fantastic, there's a direct steal from a Conan film. Do you remember the scene where they're all sitting around a campfire musing, "What is the best thing in life?" and Conan says, "The wind in your hair and the lamentation of the womenfolk!"

I nodded. 'Well, in my book, there's Cohen the Barbarian, who's 87, and when his turn comes around he simply says, "Good dentistry and soft toilet paper." A lifetime of sleeping rough has taught him what really matters. 'I think my books are a homage to the people who have given me so much enjoyment. I just go for the soft underbelly.'

That attitude - of homage and parody - lasted for two books, and then the parodies became novels. Starting with Equal Rites, the story of the first female wizard, Terry was writing actual Discworld novels. Over the next few years (with occasional lapses back into madcap romp) he became our foremost comic novelist and then a genuine satirist, willing to tackle real issues - war and prejudice and what it means to be human. The stories, meanwhile, were all set on the Discworld: a flat earth on the backs of four elephants, themselves riding on the back of an enormous turtle.

A quarter of a century after his first book was released, Terry has become a much-loved and bestselling author of fantasy fiction for adults. He wrote a book with me (called Good Omens, a funny novel about the end of the world and how we're all going to die), won the Carnegie medal for his children's book, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, and has been awarded an OBE. He has also been chairman of the Society of Authors and has a box-load of honorary doctorates. Yet when we spoke last week, he seemed proudest of a most unlikely award.

Terry Pratchett

'Not many men can say this,' Terry says, proudly, 'but as a result of The Wee Free Men I was made an honorary Brownie for writing a proper girl in a book. I've got a woggle and everything. No kidding.

'Anyway, the Brownies wanted to kidnap someone famous and they decided on me because they liked Tiffany Aching. But they didn't know how to go about it. And I thought, "All we need is a signing queue, two little girls and a yellow rubber chicken." (I don't know why it hasn't been established before, but a yellow rubber chicken is the secret of all humour.)'

'So, it's all set up and I tell the two little Brownies, "You stand on one side of me and you on the other and just look at the camera, all sweet and innocent. Then without looking at me, one of you must raise my hat and the other has to hit me over the head with the rubber chicken. Then the first Brownie should place my hat back on my head as I slump down in the chair."

'The only problem was that people saw me apparently doing a signing and a massive queue built up. So then we had to explain to everyone that I wasn't in fact doing a signing, but I would sign their books if they wouldn't mind waiting until these two little girls had knocked me out. It was one of those surreal moments that you just treasure.'

I wonder how people's reactions to his fiction have changed in 25 years, and I remind him of something he once told me about readers: that what they want is whatever they liked last time. 'Yes... that's why you shouldn't give it to them. If I'd had to write 25 years of Rincewind novels I would have cut my throat.'

Terry Pratchett

What about 25 years writing his Death character, I ask him. 'Death can only interact to a certain point. He's like a small atom bomb, useful to use occasionally but people would get bored if you had him in all the time.'

But the books have changed. 'Well, yes. They make themselves more complex. I think that is me trying to keep myself amused.'

We start to talk about PG Wodehouse - a writer to whom Terry has been compared. I tell him I never felt that Wodehouse's characters became deeper, richer and more interesting as Terry's characters and stories have, particularly the Guards novels.

'That's nice of you. Yes, they got older, and I got older. The difficulty with all these things...' he hesitates. 'You never sit down and say, "I'm going to make this book deeper, richer, more interesting." It's just something you do while you're writing.

'I spent the better part of a year working on Nation (out this autumn), which is a non-Discworld children's book. It was a hell of a job because it wasn't Discworld and it wasn't Johnny Maxwell. It wasn't something I have envisioned myself writing but it absolutely needed to be written and I had to learn the toolkit for it. Currently, I'm writing Unseen Academical, which people will think is ostensibly about football on Discworld, and then will turn out to be about something else, which you could see all the time but didn't notice. That's the best kind of story.'

I ask him how much happens on the page and how much happens in the planning. 'Planning, planning, planning,' he deadpans. 'It's more like those guys in the desert who pick up a handful of loam, or sand, and taste it, and they know whether there's any oil nearby. It's the same thing with writing: you can tell where the legs are in an idea but don't know where the idea comes from. I think it's some kind of alchemical thing, made up of lots of other things. Your apprehension of the world around you. Your knowledge that you are one of the few people that use the word "apprehension" in that last sentence in exactly the right way. Which doesn't mean to be fearful about something. I hope you noticed this.'

I tell him I had noticed that. 'And I bet you were quite impressed by it,' says Terry. 'I stopped being impressed by your accurate use of words about 22½ years ago,' I reply.

He stops. 'I don't know how much is planned and how much isn't, really, and nor do you and this isn't the sort of question that one writer should ask another writer because we both know it doesn't work like that. I can't explain why one invents a character who is quite interesting but not particularly important, or writes in a little event that, towards the end of the book, turns out to be exactly the right thing, exactly the right person required yet at first you didn't know why you'd invented them.' To be a writer is to read - and whenever Terry and I talk we compare reading matter. 'I'm reading A Midwife's Tale: the Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812 edited by Laurel Ulrich,' says Terry. 'Martha Ballard was a real-life Granny Weatherwax. She was a good midwife but you don't read it for that. You read it for the other things you can learn from it: about how a colonial settlement was run by the women while the men were away at war, and the men thinking that they were making all the decisions and running the country when in fact they weren't. I'm also reading Six Thousand Years of Bread: its Holy and Unholy History, and a history of false teeth.'

In December 2007, at the age of 59, Terry announced that he had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. I was concerned that I'd find myself talking to a Terry who was less sharp, less smart, than the friend I'd known for quarter of a century, and was relieved to find him as bright as ever. I asked about the Alzheimer's. 'If I look at the table to see if my mobile is there, the chances are I won't see it even if it is actually there. But if I know it is there, I will see it. Sometimes the brain will overrule the eye and say that something isn't there, even though it is. And because that something could be the little girl in the pink dress on the zebra crossing, I don't drive a car any more.

'I type badly, worse than I ever did, and that's a big drawback, as you and many journalists will appreciate, because the process of typing is the process of thinking: one activity drives the other, so I find myself hunting and pecking and that makes the thinking and the flow jerky.

'Beyond that, I'm at a loss to know what other effects there are. I was upfront about this right at the start because I could see no reason on God's earth why I should be anything else. Let's put it this way, I've never been 60 before so I don't know if some of the problems I have are Alzheimer's problems or "being 60 years old" problems. I have the suspicion that if you put me in the airport and I had to make a quick change of planes, I might get to the point when I would just sit down and wait until someone helpful tells me where to go. But frankly, I've always tended to feel like that, especially in American airports and when I've got a particularly serious change to make. It's all a bit of a puzzle.

'Readers' feedback on Nation is that it's the best book I've ever written - not the funniest book, but the best book, because it explores questions about religion, reality, sex and the nature of cultural conditioning, all on a little island that's just been hit by an enormous tsunami.'

He's pleased that, because of his £500,000 donation to the Alzheimer's Research Trust and willingness to talk about it, Alzheimer's received more media coverage than Madonna did in March.

'I have no idea how long I'm going to last but then, you've no idea how long you're going to last, either. It is given to none of us to know when the end cometh, and all that. I certainly don't want to take credit for this, but I have a lot of friends in laboratories and the researchers are starting to walk with a bit of a spring in their steps. Perhaps in a few years’ time they'll have, if not "The Cure", a regime that would let people who have Alzheimer's live in the same way that people can live with HIV today.'

It would be nice to think so. And in the meantime, he has books to write.

You can read more about both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman on our author pages.

Exclusive images by Paul Kidby, who has illustrated Terry Pratchett's book covers for more than ten years.

Terry Pratchett

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