Terry Pratchett: Up to Snuff

The Discworld author is still on top with his 39th novel

Once described by his publisher as having “so much to say about the world in which we live”, now Sir Terry Pratchett has confided that a major key to his writing success and cult-like popularity is partly due to conquering an art rarely mastered by men – knowing how women think.

“I think that’s one reason there are far more female fans than male,” Sir Terry said. Dressed head to toe in black with his signature dark hat, the bestselling author joins me in Waterstone’s flagship London Piccadilly fifth floor cafe the morning after his official book launch party, and just two days after discovering his new work Snuff had become one of the fastest-selling novels since records began.

Un-phased by the accolade, Sir Terry puts the success of his 39th Discworld title down to holding his readers in suspense for the latest series instalment, and also: “I tend to be in the public eye more these days”. Since being diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease called posterior cortical atrophy in 2007, and following documentaries made for the BBC, Pratchett has gained widespread media coverage for his campaign to raise awareness of the condition. As a result of his diagnosis, he now dictates his novels into a machine, as opposed to typing the words by hand. However, far from being a hindrance, Pratchett says he prefers this method of writing, and any fans of the science fiction legend would confirm you could not notice the effect on his latest work. “For me it suits how I work exactly right,” he said. “I think about it in my head silently. It is easy, if it has any effect it is to make my writing more conversational.”

Pratchett also puts Snuff’s striking success down to Discworld being like a “disease”, with the afflicted readers becoming addicted to the absorbing flat world balanced on the backs of four elephants which stand on the back of a giant turtle called Great A'Tuin. They (the readers) become entwined in the unfailingly comical lives of its many eccentric and varied inhabitants – goblins, witches, Death, dwarfs and wizards to name just a few, which could be why many were unable to resist a pre-ordering a copy of his long-awaited latest book.

In Pratchett’s landmark 50th novel, the author returns to focus on a Discworld stalwart – and his own personal favourite character - Commander Sam Vimes of the Ank Morpork City Watch. Alongside other of Pratchett’s pet protagonists like Granny Weatherwax who has ten books to herself and Death who has four, Vimes is another recurring Discworld favourite with eight novels devoted to his gravelly, take-no-nonsense attitude, especially when it comes to enforcing the law. So why is Pratchett hooked on Vimesy? Well, “I think he is one of the best characters I have ever done and he is fun to do,” he said. “In a sense he generates plot all by himself. If you put Vimes in a situation he will generate a storyline.” In this book the hard-nosed and instinctive policeman finds himself begrudgingly whisked away for two weeks’ holiday in the countryside with his wife and son, only to stumble upon a horrendous crime involving the abuse of a weaker Discworld species, which requires his professional expertise and the mandatory mentoring of a budding new copper, Feeney Upshot, to put the very wrong “to rights”.

The novel’s form is that of a straight police procedural, but in his eighth Discworld novel appearance, taken out of the comfort of the structure of the Ankh Morpork City Watch and having recently married the richest woman in town, “Vimesy”, the boy from the streets, begins to show signs of cracks appearing in that self-assured exterior as he starts to question who he really is. It is not a process Pratchett is unfamiliar with, and while Vimes is the 63-year-old’s favourite character, he is also the one Pratchett identifies with the most. “I think everybody as they grow older have to figure out exactly who they are,” Pratchett, who was born to two “incredibly good parents” in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, said. The family had no running water, gas or electricity when he was growing up, but it was just after the war when Practhett said you were “lucky to have a house with a roof.”

“When I got my knighthood, behind me there was a gardener a mechanic and a farrier,” he said. “Now I am an OBE and a knight and quite wealthy and a professor. Vimesy is in the same kind of position. He came from the streets, married the richest woman in Ankh Morpork- which was a late marriage for both of them, because each of them never thought ever meet anybody - and that in a way is how my life is. I met a nice girl, (his wife, Lyn, whom he met at a party and married in 1968); it all went together quite well.”

A main train of humour in Snuff is in describing the intricacies of the interaction, power and word play between man and wife, played out with cynicism between Vimes and Lady Sybil, and as one reader insightfully commented to the author “only someone who has entered into a long term marriage could have written some of the pieces in Snuff.” So, how much does Pratchett draw on inspiration from his family when formulating his characters and crafting his prose?  “No author can disguise who they are,” he said. “Someone said ‘unhappy is the family that breeds the author’ because everything about the family will be scavenged, and you do, you scavenge your own life.  You can’t help it, because you are writing about human beings and you have a grade one human being right where you are.  It’s not inspiration but more what I call ‘the commonality of my life’.”

However, Pratchett said he can thank strong women who have influenced him, such as his wife, mother and daughter, for a success rarely achieved in writing. “After a while you start working out – what is very difficult for a man – how women think,” Pratchett said. “It is one reason there are far more female fans than male. When I write the likes of Tiffany Aching, Granny Weatherwax, Lady Sybil – a woman came up to me in America last week and said ‘thank you for writing practical women. Women are practical, more practical than men.”    

And so what is the future for Pratchett? His next book is The Long Earth, a collaboration with Stephen Baxter and his first collaboration since Good Omens (with Neil Gaiman), and a children’s book he’s writing with a Dickensian overtone. Following Snuff’s great success, one thing he definitely won’t be doing is any dramatic shake-ups of the now tried-and-tested Discworld formula, not for fear of upsetting his committed die-hard fans.

Pratchett said: “Some fans come up to me and tell me ‘I am feeling really bad.’ Sometimes it is like testifying… At one point my editor said out loud around about this time in any kind of series, an author should kill one of his major characters. I said ‘I wouldn’t dare’.”

Snuff by Terry Pratchett is out now, published by Transworld.

Image copyright Rob Wilkins.