Terry Pratchett: 1999 A new Discworld novel from Terry Pratchett is always a major publishing event. The series shows no sign of faltering as its 24th novel, The Fifth Elephant, heads for the bookshops and – as always – the bestseller lists. This time Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch visits sinister Uberwald (Discworld’s version of Transylvania) on a diplomatic mission among scheming vampires, murderous werewolves, and hot-headed dwarfs whose most sacred relic, the Scone of Stone, has just been stolen…. For Amazon.co.uk, Terry Pratchett talked to David Langford about his latest book – and others in the pipeline.
• Which aspect of The Fifth Elephant are you most pleased with?
Terry Pratchett: There’s always an element of surprise for the author when a complex character moves through the plot. I liked the way Vimes reacted to Uberwald and the way he’s desperate to work within the framework of the law because he’s so afraid of what he might do if he didn’t. I like Sam Vimes. He knows that whatever he does, the lords, kings and politicians will run the show, yet he plods on nevertheless. But in truth I enjoyed writing the Igors….
• Are you consciously exploring Discworld race/species relations in increasing depth, or did it just work out that way in the writing?
Terry Pratchett: It’s just been a case of sitting back and thinking about what I’d already written. You know … we have this, and this, so what follows?
• So although vampires have had a bad press in the series, Vimes finally meets one he can grudgingly respect (and she’s on the wagon like him). Werewolves have had it good because represented by the lovely Angua, and now The Fifth Elephant shows the dark side. It’s also interesting that what surely began as a throwaway line about the difficulty of telling dwarfs’ sexes has built into a key factor in their society.
Terry Pratchett: It’s really been a case of applying to the other races the same rules I’d apply to humans; it’s dumb to think in terms of “good races” and “bad races”, and nail characteristics to them without considering how these would work in a society. All races are “complex”.
• Would you say that Tolkien, for all his virtues, has been a bit of a bad thing here – imprinting fantasy with this default assumption of whole races of genetically programmed bad guys, like the orcs?
Terry Pratchett: Hmm. Does it start with Tolkien? All he was doing was echoing a very definite human trait: classify them as orcs (or gooks, slants, towelheads or whatever) and you can kill ’em easier, ’cos they ain’t human…. But he certainly impressed on the public consciousness, against the run of history, the idea of elves as Good Guys.
• A notion that was given a trouncing in your novel Lords and Ladies. Do you plan further rethinking of unloved Discworld minorities like the vampires?
Terry Pratchett: In the next book, currently known as The Truth, I pick up one of the ideas expressed in The Fifth Elephant: that vampires who successfully go “on the wagon”, and therefore free up a lot of intellect which up until then has been concentrating on getting the next meal, might be quite formidable creatures. But somewhat obsessive about whatever they do….
• Ten years or so ago, I seem to remember you muttering that you might soon move on from Discworld. Obviously you’re still finding it fruitful! Was it a matter of getting your second wind, or of consciously deciding to take more risks and push at the boundaries, or …?
Terry Pratchett: The second. And finding whole novels in throwaway lines. Take Uberwald – a huge empire has crumbled, a lot of political certainties have gone, there are new alliances … there are a lot of resonances there which I didn’t realize existed when I put it on the Discworld map. While I hope to do a non-Discworld fantasy in the near future, I know there are more Disc novels, several of them with (mostly) an entirely new cast. In The Truth, for example, the main characters are all new and the City Watch are all background characters. This makes it fun, I think, for old readers – we know how Vimes and Co. think, so seeing them from someone else’s perspective gives a fresh twist.
• So there’s no end in sight?
Terry Pratchett: You know I’ve said I’ll never knowingly write the last Discworld novel. But it has to evolve to keep going. If I’d written 25 versions of The Light Fantastic by now, I’d be ready to slit my wrists.
• But some fantasy authors, whom we’d better not name, have done more or less exactly that. What would have really happened to you, I wonder, along that leg of the Trousers of Time?
Terry Pratchett: Hmm. Interesting. Maybe I’d have sold a few more books, been considered a moderately-successful author, kept the day job and by now would have had early retirement from National Power. Or something even more weird may have happened.
• Can you tell me anything more about that next book you mentioned?
Terry Pratchett: So far it’s at charcoal-sketch level. But, in short, The Truth deals with the opening of Ankh-Morpork’s first newspaper, whose reluctant editor has almost immediately to become an investigative journalist (and what is the truth? Will you know it when you see it? And what if it’s the wrong kind of truth?) There are no “printers’ devil” gags, but I’m rather pleased with King of the Golden River; people will have to read the book to find out what he does for a living….
• Was it difficult to shed all the much-repeated stuff about Discworld wizards’ implacable opposition to movable type?
Terry Pratchett: Not when Archchancellor Ridcully realizes how much the engravers charge. As Vetinari says, history doesn’t flow, it jerks forward (I quite like his vague strivings towards a New World Order). He gets the priesthood on his side, too, by pointing out how much Good News is being turned out by the presses of Omnia….
• Coming back to The Fifth Elephant, I enjoyed the impossible-crime mystery thread. Were you consciously nodding to Poe, John Dickson Carr, the whole detective tradition? Presumably there are nostalgic influences back there.
Terry Pratchett: Only insofar as it’s in the very air we read. What I wanted to do was get Vimes involved in what is ultimately a political crime, where he’s out of his depth (until, in his head, he can turn it back into the kind of crime he can deal with). I liked the idea of a locked room mystery where they left the door unlocked.
• Yes, Vimes spends a lot of time out of his depth and being relentlessly chased by werewolves. That chase sequence is nicely broken by a farcical Russian-drama interlude – but how many of your fans will get all the “Cherry Orchard” and “Uncle Vanya” allusions? Does it matter?
Terry Pratchett: No. Probably a lot of younger readers won’t spot them, but so what? It’s still funny, I hope; it’s just that there’s two levels. You can’t write a series like this with the idea that every single reference must be caught by everyone, you just try to give people a sporting chance. I’d bet, incidentally, that far more people have acquired a vague shorthand idea about Russian drama (“gloomy people in big houses going on about how much better things used to be”) than have ever sat through a Chekhov play.
• You’ve said in the past that the fans always ask for more appearance of the wizardly supercoward Rincewind: has he now been retired? Bearing in mind the extremes to which you keep pushing Vimes and Granny Weatherwax, do you think you’ll ever take the big step of killing off these or other long-running characters?
Terry Pratchett: In the next couple of years a major character (that is to say, “has featured in the forefront of at least one novel”) will die. I know this, because I’ve written it. But wait, ’t’will not be what you expect…. Rincewind will probably be back, alas … it’s hard to make him more than two-dimensional, though. I have not given a lot of thought to killing off the seriously big characters, and it’s quite hard to see how you could kill Granny. But I can see them gently retiring.
• Why “alas” to the thought of Rincewind’s return? You’re the master of Discworld, after all. Will the fans send you dead rats if you fail to give Rincewind another outing?
Terry Pratchett: No, I quite like him, and he’s useful, but it’s hard to do a lot with him. He’s basically an observer. He’s shallow all the way to the bottom…. He makes a useful appearance in The Last Hero, which will be a book mightily illustrated by Paul Kidby – I mean seriously illustrated, the art taking as much or more room as the text. I’ve written the story, and the artwork I’ve already seen is very, very good.
• In your own view of Discworld cosmology, was there “really” a Fifth Elephant whose mighty fall from the sky caused the coveted Uberwald fat deposits, or do you have some other private theory of their formation?
Terry Pratchett: All tribal myths are true, for a certain value of “truth”.
• Do you still manage to deal with all your fan mail?
Terry Pratchett: Ahahaha. Yes. It’s noticeable that the fan mail has levelled out now and the fan e-mail has increased. Sign of the times, I suppose.
• Have you any favourite anecdotes from your trip to Australia for the World SF Convention in September?
Terry Pratchett: It turned out that the parents of one of the guides at a rainforest lodge in Far North Queensland were fans, and they invited us to visit (which meant walking along the beach at low tide, keeping a look out for crocs, because they live in a little valley otherwise accessible only by boat or a long, long slog through the forest). Imagine a garden containing every tropical fruit you can think of and some you can’t, a waterfall cascading into a turtle-haunted pool behind the house, and a house full of books. We drank passion-fruit wine and ate custard apples, and came back by boat on a glassy sea while the stars were coming out. You couldn’t buy it for quids.
• Many thanks, Terry … and I hope you survive the marathon Fifth Elephant autograph sessions without too many bruises.
David Langford. From Crosstalk. Ansible Editions. Kindle Edition. Reprinted with permission.