Terry Pratchett tells the Irish World how he may have been inspired by his grandfather’s fairy tales – told to him as a child by his mum – and how he learned about Biddy Early too late and only after he’d invented Nanny Ogg.
By David Hennessy
He is without doubt one of the most-loved and successful authors of our time. Terry Pratchett was the bestselling author of the 1990s and his books have sold in many different languages. Loved by many, he has been honoured with both a knighthood in 2009 as well as a CBE in 1998. The writer of fantasy novels has a deep love for Trinity College Dublin and the Dublin facility presented him with an honourary degree in 2008 and made him a professor two years later.
The author and scholar remembers some of the inspirations that came from the Emerald Isle: “My Grandfather, I don’t think I ever knew his first name, was a Keane and I don’t know where in Ireland they came from but they came over with my mother when she was small. She used to tell me the stories that her granddad used to tell her and I think some of them have managed in curious ways to get into some of the books I’ve written. My mum would talk to me all the time. She thought talking to your kid was a good thing to do. I wish more mothers thought about that.
“Frankly, I could have been home schooled. It would have probably been a better thing to do. I think I’m a bit of a champion for home schooling. All the home schooled children I’ve seen have been home schooled by parents who really care and are sensible. I know in America, you tend to have parents who just want to make certain you to grow up knowing that there is no such thing as Einstein, that’s the wrong kind of home schooling. I think that the modern scholastic system is a load of bollocks. It doesn’t really work for people except for the very bright.”
Pratchett grew up in Beaconsfield but credits his education to the town’s library more than any school he attended. He is passionately opposed to any library closure such as have been seen in the Brent borough of London. “That’s like throwing away the seed corn,” he begins. “It was the library that taught me. I didn’t like my headmaster at school, he didn’t like me. A gentleman, Francis Spufford, wrote a book called The Boy That Books Built. I’m one of them. I found the library and the second hand book shop, that was it. Do not pass go, I was educated: I kid you not.
“I was reading and reading everything that looked quite interesting. Once you’ve got a kid reading and liking books, really it’s all going to be uphill from there. That’s what I think. We had our Discworld convention a while ago and the one for the kids is lovely because usually their parents are both Discworld fans, and that means that they’ve been brought up by two parents that read books in a house full of books. You know these kids are not going to be problem kids, these kids are actually going to go somewhere. People were coming up and saying: ‘Thank you because you taught my son to read’ and you get an awful lot of that. And you get: ‘My son was dyslexic and he started reading Discworld books, he’s now head of applied statistics at so and so university. That happens, I kid you not, all the time. Take away the libraries and take away the second hand bookshops, what are you going to do? Because the teachers aren’t much good. Teachers aren’t these days. I would like to see all the stupid education we have done away and replaced by something that really suits humanity. At the moment it’s for a bunch of computers: Let’s all learn this and then it would appear that we have then been educated.”
Pratchett also loves the story of the traditional Irish healer, Biddy Early, who was accused of witchcraft but wishes he had heard her tale earlier: “I came up with a character called Granny Weatherwax (self appointed guardian of her country) and about a year later when I was in Ireland, I found the book called The Secretive Biddy Early and then I thought: ‘Bloody hell, I wish I had found Biddy Early before that because I would have made her even better. Biddy Early was very good.”
Pratchett’s new book, Dodger, is set in Victorian London. A new departure for the author, he explains he had already done his homework: “I researched a lot of it mostly to steal stuff to put in Discworld books or at least get the feel of things and then one day I thought: ‘I know all this stuff and I can put it all together and it will make a different type of world and it would be nice to do something in the real world using one character who doesn’t exist’.
“My editor was a bit upset because it wasn’t Discworld but I said: ‘If I keep on doing Discworld, I’ll go nuts. Every so often, I have to do another book because otherwise it’s just a treadmill. I had a lot of fun with it all. That research I had done was enough to give me the Victorian slang and things like that.”
Charles Dickens pops up as a character in Pratchett’s new tale. Is this a homage to the author of Great Expectations and other great novels? “Well, I suppose so. I read Dickens when I was quite young. When I was in early adolescence, I found the magazine Punch and I liked it because it had gags and cartoons. I ended up reading my way through every bound volume of Punch that was ever produced. I read my way through some of the best humorous or satirical writing that ever was but that included a lot of Dickens and Jerome K Jerome and Mark Twain. Anyone who wrote got in there and besides that, it was a satirical magazine and if you look at satire, you can see what is happening outside politically. Goodbye to school, you can get more history by looking at what the satirical people are saying then you can by looking at what the teacher is. You pick up a lot of stuff that way and you don’t know when it is ever going to be useful to you but one day it goes ‘Bang!’ and that’s it.”
Although he has written about university life in his Discworld novels, the celebrated science fiction writer has only experienced it for himself since he joined the staff at Trinity: “Only in Ireland, would somebody make me a professor. It’s not really a college life because I’m a ee- I was going to say an eejit professor, that would suit. It’s called an adjunct professor. I’m there to talk to students and do anything else they would have me do.”
The author has inspired a short film called The Duel. Based on one of Pratchett’s Discworld stories, the animated short sees Trinity students collaborate with students of other creative Dublin colleges. The animated piece will include notable Dublin landmarks, including the Trinity college that Pratchett loves so well: “I will be seeing it next time I go which will be very soon.”
Although they have been adapted for television and the stage, Discworld has never made the transition to feature film despite the interest that has been shown by industry professionals. “Something’s always got in the way. On one occasion, a gentleman in America persuaded quite a large company to do a movie of The Wee Free Men, one of my best books for children, I think. The director (Sam Raimi, director of the recent Spiderman films) was all for it, he loved it. It had a very good screenwriter and I spent four days in Hollywood talking to these people: ‘Okay, this is it. We’re there’. Then sometime later I got an email from the director saying: ‘I have pulled out of this project’. I’ll explain why. What the educators and indeed I like about Tiffany Aching (main character in four Discworld books starting with The Wee Free Men story) is she wants to be a witch, mostly because her hair is the wrong colour to be the heroine. She’s never going to be the heroine because the heroine always has lovely blonde hair. He (Sam Raimi) said: ‘I would have liked to do it but the studio brought in idiots, they wanted it to be something like Disney’. I said: ‘Thank you for that, I am very glad it didn’t happen’. Something’s always got in the way. We are looking at doing something about that.”
Another director who has expressed an interest in bringing Discworld to life is Olympic opening ceremony visionary, Danny Boyle. However, this seems news to the author himself who is clearly intrigued: “I don’t think it got as far as me. I wonder what he thought he could do…”
His Discworld series now span 39 books. Could he have imagined this when he first put pen to paper on its first novel in 1983? “I always feel like a man somewhat stunned. The most I thought I would ever make was to sell a book every now and again at the very best, getting enough to get by, but it wasn’t to happen. I’ve always had a lot of fun doing it.”
Pratchett was a press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board while he was writing the first instalments in his revered series but his writing career really took off when he realised he no longer needed the day job: “I knew by then (1987), I was making enough money to leave the CEGB and then of course without working for the electricity board I was in a position to write more and more and so everything really took off at that point. I could tour every book. I was hardly ever at home, eventually starting touring all the way around the world. I was going to Australia at least once every two years because they wanted me back or New Zealand did or something was happening down there. It was very strange but very nice I must say.”
A sufferer of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Pratchett has donated a great deal of money to fund research into the condition and met Gordon Brown ( Prime Minister at the time) to ask for an increase in dementia funding. September is Alzheimer’s awareness month and Pratchett would like to see more done to combat the disease and its effects: “It gets research. It gets far, far less than cancer. It’s invidious to go around saying: ‘Cancer gets too much so let’s take it away from cancer’. From my own point of view, the way we run our society makes it difficult for people with any kind of imbalance somewhere. It’s little things. I’ve talked to other people of various disabilities, and I don’t think I have a disability, and they say: ‘it is small things that could be done’. Sometimes it is just large enough text. Fortuitously the problems I have at the moment I can solve with technology. I talk to my computer.”
He is a knight and a professor as well as a bestselling author. What is Terry Pratchett most proud of? “I think my wife and I are very proud that our daughter has made her way in the world without leaning on the fact that she’s our daughter if you see what I mean,” the author answers without hesitation. “If it was totally personal, I’d say I was very proud of making my own sword starting from the iron ore right to the end. I had people helping me and showing me how it was done but everything there was made by me at some point. I did like the knighthood because I was thinking: ‘Here’s a kid form the council houses. No it’s Professor Sir Terence Pratchett.”
Terry Pratchett’s Dodger is out now.