Somewhere on Earth there may be someone who has not come across the work of Terry Pratchett. His books regularly grace the upper reaches of the bestseller lists and each new title is received with even more acclaim than the last.
For Terry, however, writing has always been in his blood. "I started writing," he explains, "because when I was about twelve, a teacher at school asked us to write a short story as a project. I got twenty out of twenty for mine and it was printed in the school magazine."
Inspired by this success, Terry polished the story up a bit, got his aunt to type it out, and sent it off to a magazine called Science Fantasy who bought it. "I got paid fourteen pounds for it and bought myself a typewriter with the money. My mother was so impressed that she paid for me to have touch typing lessons, leaving me with a typewriter and the ability to use it quickly."
Terry's first novel was The Carpet People which he started when he was about seventeen and finished when he turned twenty. By this time Terry had started working for his local newspaper as a journalist and became friendly with a small press publisher called Colin Smythe. Colin saw the manuscript for The Carpet People and published it in 1971, followed by four other books: The Dark Side of the Sun (1976), Strata (1981), The Colour of Magic (1983) and The Light Fantastic (1986).
With this last title, it became apparent to both Terry and Colin that there was a bit of a problem. "It was a bit embarrassing with the publication of The Light Fantastic," Terry reveals, "because we realised that Colin had got hold of something which a small press publisher dreads: a best selling book. Colin was not set up to cater for a national demand and it was clear to both of us that sooner or later things would have to change and so we decided to do something while we were still friends. We reached an arrangement whereby he became my agent and he arranged for Gollancz to publish hardcovers of the next three books; Equal Rites (1987), Mort (1987) and Sourcery (1988)."
Corgi had previously published paperback editions of The Colour of Magic (1985) and The Light Fantastic (1986), using an artist called Josh Kirby to provide the covers. Kirby was contracted by Gollancz to do the hardcover jackets as well, while Corgi continued publishing the paperbacks. "And the rest," Terry smiles, "is geography!"
The books in question are now known generically as the Discworld novels, and they feature a world, not totally dissimilar to our own, in which magic works and people go about their business in their own way, and cope with all that life throws at them.
One major difference is that the Discworld is flat and is held up by four giant elephants which are in turn standing on the back of Great A'Tuin, a giant turtle which swims eternally through space.
"Ludicrous though that concept may be," Terry admits, "the idea that the world is flat and goes through space on the back of an enormous turtle is one of the great commonplace myths of mankind. The four elephants were a kind of Indo-European subset of that myth. I embroidered it an awful lot, but the basic shape of the Discworld is straight out of mythology."
While the world they inhabit may be somewhat fanciful, the characters are anything but. Terry delights in creating recognisable people. His popular band of players include Rincewind the wizard, his faithful Luggage (a packing case on legs which is devoted to Rincewind and follows him everywhere, barging into people and things with no regard for decorum), Granny Weatherwax, a warts-and-all witch who deals with the rigours of the modern world in the only way she knows how (rudeness and bluster mainly) and the Librarian of the magical Unseen University who has been accidentally transformed into a large orangutan.
One of the more popular characters is Death. Death is an entity who speaks in hollow capitals, who everyone meets at least once, and who has made an appearance in every book so far.
"Death came about because I needed to get a particular gag in The Colour of Magic and he had to be a mobile creature. So I introduced him, and subsequently realised that there was a lot of mileage in the character as well as being fun to write for. After a while I realised that the readers were more or less waiting for him to turn up somewhere in the proceedings too, so he tends to have a walk-on part in most of the books."
Terry reveals that he tends to think of his characters as "film stars under contract" and he uses them as and when the idea is right for them to appear. As he dryly comments, "If I listened to feedback I would have written thirteen books about Rincewind and the Luggage. I occasionally aim to go in new directions so that maybe the reader can't be one hundred per cent certain about what Terry's going to write next.
"Rincewind hasn't appeared since Eric, and he will not appear again until I have a book which I know will be a suitable vehicle for him. Rather than re-use old characters, I prefer to invent new ones to do different things with.
"Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler [a salesman who appears whenever there is a large crowd of people, with a tray around his neck, laden with inedible pies, suspect sausages and various other partially cooked animal parts on sticks] very clearly turns up in Small Gods, although his name in that book is Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah. His appearance was like Sidney James turning up in a film and basically playing Sidney James - as he did. It's a signal to the readers that this is a character we know and love."
Moving onto the subject of humour, I commented that it seemed apparent that while Terry took writing very seriously, he was not necessarily serious about what he was actually writing about. Terry is quick to point out that I am completely wrong in my assessment.
"I am quoting almost verbatim G K Chesterton," he admonished, "who said that it is quite wrong to think that 'serious' is the opposite of 'funny'. The opposite of 'serious' is 'not serious'. The opposite of 'funny' is 'not funny'. Now there are some people who are both 'funny' and 'serious'. Ben Elton might be considered to be one of those. And there are some people who are both 'funny' and 'not serious' and we might put Benny Hill in that category. There are even some people who are 'not funny' and 'not serious' and we might put John Major there ... the point is that these things are no more opposites than 'black' is the opposite of 'triangular'. So there are some things in the books that I take very seriously indeed but you have to work out which bits they are!"
Terry revealed that he was happier with the later Discworld books. "For example, the subject of Moving Pictures always fascinated me. One of the things that has happened in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that people have been given opportunities where there were previously none. The central myth of Hollywood is that some good-looking waitress can go off to Hollywood and become the most famous woman in the world. We know it didn't work for nine hundred and ninety nine thousand of them but it did for one or two and that's all you need to build up the myth. Moving Pictures makes that point. It was about fame and dreams; I don't like Hollywood but you can't help but recognise the incredible pull it has."
So far, the Discworld novels have been appearing at the rate of two a year but the rate is going to slow down to one a year following publication of the next book, Lords and Ladies in November. "There will not be a Discworld novel published in the spring although there will be another young adult novel (Johnny and the Dead) which isn't finished yet."
Terry went on to say that the reason behind this was in no way due to a lack of ideas. "It's simply that two things are happening. One is that for five years I've been writing an average of close to three successful books a year, and I thought it might be nice to spend six months just enjoying myself; and the other thing is that the business of being Terry Pratchett is beginning to occupy more and more time. There is the mail, of course, there are talks, and requests for signings and to attend conventions all over the world. All this takes up time and I need to have the time to manage it all."
As Terry is relatively prolific, I asked whether writing came easily to him, or whether he really had to work at it. "Yes," he replied with a smile. "Both the statements you have just made are correct. I find it easy to write and I have to work at it. Sometimes thousands of words will come spilling out effortlessly onto the page, but there are other times when you sit there and you just cannot work. But yes, I enjoy doing it. It seems a natural thing to do, because throughout my life, by and large, I have had to assemble words in a certain pleasing way in order to make a living."
Lords and Ladies, "bears the same relationship to A Midsummer Night's Dream as Wyrd Sisters bore to Macbeth," hints Terry. "It has the witches in again. The one after that won't appear until November 1993, and that will probably be set in Ankh Morpork and feature the guards [from Guards! Guards!] and the Fresh Start Club for the Newly Undead [from Reaper Man], and possibly even Gaspode [from Moving Pictures]. It's going to be what you might call an Ankh Morpork-intensive one.
"Some people might like me to kill off all the Discworld characters and run the turtle into a black hole, but I like them too much. It's obviously going to end one day - they'll probably put the last manuscript on my coffin - but it is going to slow down for the moment because there are other things I want to do."
With thanks to Helen Connolly at Transworld Publishers, and, of course, to Terry Pratchett.