The L-Space Web: Interviews

MILLION article: Throwing People to Stories - Terry Pratchett, perhaps the best comic novelist now working, has some strange notions in his upcoming books - as Brendan Wignal discovers.

Through the fathomless deeps of space swim the star turtle Great A'Tuin, bearing on its back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld. A tiny sun and moon spin around them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.

Exactly why this should be may never be known. possibly the Creator of the universe got bored with all the usual business of axial inclination, albedos and rotational velocities, and decided to have a bit of fun for once...

Magic glues the Discworld together - magic generated by the turning of the world itself, magic would like silk out of the underlying structure existence to suture the wounds of reality.

(Wyrd Sisters)

The Discworld.

One can only wonder what Great A'Tuin thinks about as he swims the seas of space. Is he aware of what is going on on that tiny Disc with a circumference of only 10,000 miles? As Terry Pratchett remarks in Pyramids, "Much that is weird could happen on the back of a turtle like that."

Is it possible that Great A'Tuin is aware of the gods of the Discworld, cosily ensconced in their bijou home "Dunmanisfestin"; of the Kingdom of Djelibeybi, two miles wide and one hundred and fifty miles long; of the Ramtops mountains where magic is thick and the witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat - the New Age witch - make their homes?

Does he know that he is carrying the great twin city of Ankh-Morpork upon his back: a city "of a hundred thousand souls...and ten times that number of actual people"; a city divided by the great Ankh, a river so viscous it doesn't flow but oozes, although despite this the citizens are proud of it: "Ankh-Morpork's citizens had always claimed that the river water was incredibly pure in any case. Any water that had passed through so many kidneys, they reasons, had to be very pure indeed."

The city is home to Unseen University, premier school of magic on the Disc, where the magician Rincewind has been "read" by one of the great spells and is therefore incapable of learning even the simplest magic; where the Librarian has been turned into an orangutan, but wishes to remain so, since it helps him to get around the shelves and reduces the philosophical problems of life to the level of wondering where his next banana is coming from.

Ankh-Morpork is ruled by a Patrician who has licensed the Thieves' Guild, making it responsible for theft, so that only an acceptable level of crime - controlled by the rigid system of quotas and receipts - is permitted; where the wealthy may arrange to be mugged in the comfort of their own homes and so get the business out of the way at the beginning of the year; a city patrolled by the four-strong Night Watch and visited at various times by The Luggage - a loyal but psychopathic wooden chest on legs which eats people *and* magically cleans clothes; Cohen the Barbarian, famous hero who is a lifetime in his own legend and a martyr to his back; and Death, who likes cats.

Is it possible that Great A'Tuin is aware of what he carries? Who knows? Perhaps one day we will find out.

Terry Pratchett had his first short story published in the Sixties in Science Fantasy magazine while he was still at school. His first novel was a fantasy for children, The Carpet People, published in 1971. This was followed by The Dark Side of the Sun (1976), a space opera comedy, and Sourcery (1981), another comic space opera which concerns itself with the search for a mysterious flat world, which is eventually found complete with tiny orbiting sun - just like the Discworld of his later fiction. This world, is seems, is some sort of cosmic joke, so it is not just its shape that it shares with its literary descendant.

The Colour of Magic (1983) is the first of the Discworld novels and it is with this series that Pratchett has made of himself something far more significant that a science-fiction and fantasy parodist: taken as a while the Discworld series is the best sustained body of humorous writing in the 20th century.

Comparisons with other humorists tend to miss the point. The cover blurb for The Colour of Magic mentions Jerome K. Jerome and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Although there are superficial similarities between Pratchett and Douglas Adams (principally, or perhaps solely, they both work against a background of science fiction or fantasy) the differences are considerable. Both are undoubtedly funny, but there is a quality of engagement with the character in Pratchett's writing which Adams isn't even particularly interested in achieving. The comparison with Jerome is in some ways more relevant, but unlike Adams and Pratchett he was limited by his realist context.

Comparisons with other 20th-century humorists also serve principally to show what Pratchett is not. He lacks the (admittedly engaging) vacuity of P. G. Wodehouse, and the savagery of Evelyn Waugh or Tome Sharpe is completely alien to him. Indeed a notable feature of his writing is that even at his most parodic - and his later books are not primarily parodies - the parody is gentle and good-natured.

He is sufficiently different from those who have gone before him to cause problems from reviewers and publicists alike who wish to pigeonhole him by comparison wit other writers or by use of certain trigger words. One can only sympathize with his note in the dedication of Equal Rites:

I would like it to be clearly understood that this book is not wacky. Only dumb redheads in Fifties' sitcoms are wacky.

No it's not zany, either.

His biographical details are presented humorously and then sketchily in the paperback copies of his books and suggest a pleasingly normal life. Is there really nothing more to be said than that he chose journalism as a career because "it was indoor work with no heavy lifting," and grows carnivorous plants as a hobby?

"I left school when I was seventeen to get a job on the local paper in Buckinghamshire, and between then and 1980 I did almost every job that it was possible to do in provincial journalism: I've done the women's page and the children's corner, I've subbed sport - never reported sport, but even vultures will throw up at something. If I really had to I could bring out a newspaper, I know how to do it.

"That's it really: I once said that people like the Society of Authors should have a special course you could go on to give you impressive jobs which you could talk about later on - for a fortnight you could have two-day slots of working on a tramp steamer and so on, and after the fortnight you could say you'd done all these things. But that's it, it's primarily journalism."

In 1980 Pratchett left journalism to work for the Central Electricity Generating Board.

"I left my job with the Bath Chronicle Group not because I didn't like it, but because I suddenly realized that if I didn't make the break I could programme my life all the way up to the golden handshake. Initially the job with the CEGB was a lot of the arranging of words into certain significant patterns; I drifted there in a fairly gentle kind of way, and then the whole PR side of the industry grew - because of the nuclear component and the growing awareness that there was a power generating industry - I seemed to go along with it. I didn't start immediately as press officer; I got that job a couple of years after I started there and stayed with it until 1987."

A number of readers have assumed that because he worked for a hi-tech concern like CEGB he must have some scientific background which would explain the "scientific" concerns of his early novels, Sourcery and The Dark Side of the Sun.

"I saw one review which had me as a physicist. I think there's a certain amount of confusion in that I have worked for an industry in which physicists are employed, and it may be that I've gained some 'contact' qualifications by working there, but I have absolutely no scientific background whatsoever. We take New Scientist and I try to keep abreast of things; if you ask yourself 'What is news?' you find that basically on the whole what most politicians say isn't news, but about half the stuff which turns up in New Scientist is news."

How easily did Pratchett make the transition from salaried employee to full-time writer?

"I left work in the autumn of 1987 just before the Mort paperback tour. Basically what happened was that I signed a big contract with Corgi and Gollancz which I knew for a certainty was going to give me at least five years' reliable income. There's no conceivable reason why anyone in their right mind would keep on the day job. If it were just writing, purely writing, the it could be done. Unfortunately the whole authoring business has so many other aspects to it that you actually have to do it full-time."

While Pratchett's output grew throughout the late Eighties the last two years have seen an enormous increase in his output (publications in 1989 and 1990: Pyramids, The Unadulterated Cat, Guards! Guards!, Good Omens (with Neil Gamian), Truckers, Diggers, Wings, Eric, and Moving Pictures). Is this anything to do with publishers' lead times and his becoming a full-time writer in 1987, or has it more to do with his well-known enthusiasm for computers?

"Well if you add the cat book (The Unadulterated Cat) and the three children's books (Truckers, Diggers and Wings) which were quite short it looks a lot, but that's principally due to a concatenation of publishing dates.

"As regards to computers, the two things coincided: I started to use the Amstrad 464, the first of Alan Sugar's Amstrads, a games machine in, I think, 1984 when it first came out. I suppose it is true that the growth of Terry Pratchett writer paralleled the gradual growth of wordprocessing, but I can't necessarily say that there's any sort of cause and effect; when I wanted to do the stuff there was machinery available to do it on. I just couldn't work the way I work now if I was winding bits of paper into a typewriter: it would just not be possible. I hate bits of paper. I don't work in chapters or in segments, and there's just something very comforting about having this huge lump of test which is the story, which you can go backwards and forwards in. It's not that much that I'm heavily into computers but that I'm into wordprocessing in a big way. You know, it's the old gag: I don't love computers, I just say that to get them into bed. They represent the means by which I can work. because I work quite a lot, and basically because I can afford it, I indulge myself in them to some extent, but I think wordprocessing can be a mixed blessing; you only have to look at the size of some American books to realize that."

Although recent years have been the most productive Pratchett has been writing for some time and sold his first attempt at a short story to a magazine in the sixties.

"Oh yes, it was the classic thing: I sold my first story when I was thirteen and all that sort of stuff. But all this is really so much marsh gas because there was never any plan of action, any kind of gentle escalation. Until The Colour of Magic came out, occasionally I'd write a book; by without me really thinking about writing. I'm a great believer in force of habit - I think you can turn anything into a habit - and I turned writing into a habit. Over a period I got myself into that frame of mind where you feel that if you're not writing you're wasting time. I'm just coming out of that now. Now I believe that if you're not writing you're possibly wasting time."

When asked once if he was the stand-up comic who yearned to play Hamlet, Pratchett replied: "No, I'm the stand-up comics who yearns to play Las Vagas." How serious is he about his work?

"Never confuse a quick glib answer with the truth. There are things that it's possible to do. I think if I ever stood up and declared that I had some really serious points that I wanted to get across in a Discworld book, I might just as well dig a hole in the ground and drag the shovel in after me. There are some things I can do within the Discworld sequence. I came fairly close to doing some of the things I wanted to do in Guards! Guards! for example.

"I'm working on an untitled novel about the Discworld religions; the basic idea works very well. Somewhere on the Discworld there's this huge monolithic religion, one of the 'big beard in the sky' types. About every five hundred years a prophet turns up, and generally he - and it's always a he - comes out of the desert having spoken to the god, and his saying and so forth change the course of the church. It's very clear what happens: basically every five hundred years the church in effect selects the guy - after all, you don't want to leave anything to chance. And it just so happens on this occasion that the god, for the first time in any real sense, actually has spoken to a member of the church only he isn't the guy who is going to be the prophet. There's lots of fun involved; he's a lowly kind of priest who doesn't want this god talking to him the whole time. I came down on certain things about religions and about gods, but hopefully I can do it in a reasonably funny way.

"Lots of things happen to Brutha, the lowly priest, who is a very serious lad; the difficulty is that the way the church has gone on for the last four thousand years has got really nothing to do with anything the god has ever actually said. But now the official prophet and Brutha are trying to get different kinds of message across. I can parallel lots of things that happened in the Reformation: it tends to be the case in any church that whenever the arrival of a prophet is imminent people tend to busy themselves about what they consider the church's business, which usually consists of setting fire to people.

"The problem is that quite often this is exactly what the god does require. I think we let gods get away with too many things. People say, 'Oh well, it's a shame that the church does this, this and this, but whatever god is involved can't be held responsible for the actions of his followers.' Well, I think he bloody well can. Good grief, I don't see why we shouldn't apply to gods exactly the same things that we apply to human beings. If politicians are held responsible for what their followers do, I don't see why gods can't be.

"These are the kind of things which it is possible to examine. Similarly I look at how belief can almost create the object in which it believes. You need a few thousand years of believing in a god and whether or not that god existed at the start he certainly exists by then, simply as something distilled out of belief."

As has already been noted, Pratchett is doing things in humorous fiction which no other writer has attempted; how far does he think this difference is due to his setting of the Discworld?

"The nice thing about fantasy is that you can examine this kind of thing. It gives you a tool kit which enables you to do this sort of examination. Only in fantasy can you examine that kind of idea. For example in Witches Abroad, the one that's coming out this autumn, I've come up with the idea of narrative causality; stories could be thought of as almost sentient things in their own right. Within the chaos of history there are certain patterns of events which repeat themselves again and again. There are some myths which are common to all cultures; why is this? In Witches Abroad the conceit is that this is because they actually have an independent existence, they are bits of shaped history, in the same way that if water runs down a hill eventually it will carve a channel, and all other water that runs down that hill will find it easier to follow the channel and the channel will get bigger. Therefore if you're in the right place at the right time, to be there when a story starts you are forced to tread the path of the story. I use various analogies in the book, but they're almost a predatory lifeform because human beings are forced again and again to do the same thing. You only need to look at the myths to see how this happens. If you see any story where the king has three sons and the first two brothers have gone out to seek their fortunes and not returned, you know that the third son is going to go out and succeed, because that's what the fairy tales tell you. It's impossible to conceive of the fact that he wouldn't because that's the shape of the story.

"I'm being quite heavy about this, but in Witches Abroad I go into some detail with the idea: I have a character - as close to a baddy as I can ever get - who actually gets power from throwing people into stories, seeing that stories happen. Unfortunately they happen to real people.

"This gives me the opportunity for retelling the Cinderella myth as if it were real and as if real people were involved, because unfortunately the problem with Cinderella is that it's only delightful as a story if all the people involved are tailors' dummies with no emotional lives of their own. As soon as you start thinking about real people being involved in a fairy tale context these are all horror stories.

"The three witches from Wyrd Sisters are tracking this character who throws people to stories, by following the stories across the country. They come across Red Riding Hood, and there's an examination of Little Red Riding Hood as a real story: the only person who comes out of it with any kind of kind of honour is the big bad wolf.

"I also look at these things like the tendency to replace action with desire: it's easier to wish than to work. The character who throws people to stories does it because she likes happy endings; she's a great believer in them regardless of whether or not the people involved actually want happy endings. Granny Weatherwax speaks at length about the impossibility of creating happy endings; the impossibility of using any kind of magic to make life better for people.

"I have to say that I've talked about this seriously, but this is just the framework to enable me to get these three baggages around the place in a moderately pleasant way. I hope it's the plot that's driving the story. I can invent narrative causality which has a certain resonance with morphic resonance and I can then get on with the plot. But within fantasy you can actually do such a thing, and you can't really do anything like that in another field."

Five of the nine books published in 1989 and 1990 were non-Discworld. Is this a sign that he feels limited by Discworld?

"Anything has limits and I'm happy to work within the limits of Discworld. Sometimes I feel limited by people's expectations. I've never quite gotten to the bottom of this, but the question I often get asked is, when is Rincewind coming back? If I say to people, what's your favourite book, then usually it's either Mort or increasingly these days it's Guards! Guards! I think Rincewind has about a page and a half in Mort and doesn't appear in Guards! Guards!; so there's no correlation. I've got nothing against Rincewind as a character, he's dead useful in his own way, and he will be coming back; but I don't actually feel called upon to produce books with him in. People seem to like the books which haven't got him in, and I get slightly bothered; I think: 'Hang on, if I'd listened to all this when-is-Rincewind-coming-back stuff when I started out there'd have been about nine or ten books about Rincewind, it'd be like some kind of American series.' I'd never have written Mort or Guards! Guards! or Moving Pictures or any of those.

"There are certain things which have to appear in a Discworld book simple to make it a Discworld book, and I don't just mean physical things, but if you listen to fans you can - if you're too impressionable - end up writing what they want, which isn't necessarily what the readers want and isn't what you want. That's the only limitation I suppose and I don't have to take any notice of it anyway.

"There is no shortage of anything to write; I like doing Discworld books, the publishers like publishing them, the readers like buying them; so it seems a bit stupid to consider stopping. It would be wrong to say that no effort is involved - a lot of effort is involved - but it's not painful, I'm not doing anything I don't want to."

There has been a steady development in the Discworld books: The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic provide an introduction to the Discworld, but unlike the later novels they have more in common with traditionally-conceived fantasy, and are principally parodies of their source material.

"Parody is the wrong kind of word, for say, Guards! Guards!. They're not parodies in there but resonances, I think. If you write something akin to a police procedural novel it resonates. It has to. There's no way you can avoid it happening. So all you have to do at times is simply tell people that that's exactly what does happen. In the same way that I'm doing the Discworld religions one, it has to resonate with lots of things which have been going on in the last few years, lots of things that people know about the Christian religion and Mohammedism and things like that. There is no way you can avoid that so you have to take it on board.

"An example of resonance in Guards! Guards! is Lady Sybil Ramkin (a breeder of miniature dragons, who sports a 'whinny if you love dragons' sticker on the back of her carriage and is a great supported of 'The Sunshine Sanctuary for Sick Dragons'): anyone who has ever kept any kind of animals which require showing knows where she's coming from. There's no parody as such; you could slot her in anywhere. She's a certain type and that type exists in vast numbers in the world, everyone can recognize her.

"On the other hand, a gag that no-one's ever said they've got is the Patrician's name, Lord Vetinari. I always think of the Patrician as a vaguely Florentine prince, a sort of Machiavelli and Robespierre rolled into one. And of course there was Medici. So I thought if you had the Medici then you would have the Dentistri and the Vetinari. The Discworld is full of things which don't look like gags but are gags if only you can work out what the intervening step is which I haven't given.

"I think in a few years' time Guards! Guards! will at least as popular as, if not more popular than Mort, which up to now in terms of fan mail and things, has appeared the most popular."

One element of the development of tone within the Discworld novels has been a growing sense of something akin to wistfulness. Guards! Guards! closes with two dragons flying over the edge of the Discworld away into space:

On the far edge of the Disc the sun was rising. The light of the morning began to flow across the patchwork of seas and continents, but it did so slowly, because light is tardy and slightly heavy in the presence of a magical field.

On the dark crescent, where the old light of sunset had barely drained from the deepest valleys, two specks, one big, one small, flew out of the shadow, skimmed low across the swells of the Rim ocean, and struck out determinedly over the totally unfathomable, star-dotted depths of space.

Perhaps the magic would last. Perhaps it wouldn't. But then, what does?

A similar quality can be found at the end of Moving Pictures when Gaspode the Wonder Dog loses his faculties, reverts to normal doghood and the colour drains out of his world as he limps off into the monochrome sunset.

"If you take on board the fact that from about the age of 13 to 15 I was incredibly impressed by G. K. Chesterton, you may see one of the motors that drive some of the aspects of the Discworld books.

"For example, how much of a gag is this? In Reaper Man (the most recent Discworl novel), Death is going to die - a certain usurpation has taken place - and he has got two months of life which is a kind of gift to him like a retirement present before he dies. And it's about what he does in that time, and what he learns about human beings and certain decisions that he makes - one of which is that he does not want to die. That works extremely well as a plot. The interesting bit was then doing the coda, where - because it's Discworld - he survives, he overcomes the threat and he's back at being the Death we know and love, but now knows things; he hasn't got feelings but he remembers the feelings that he had, because for a period he was close to being a human being. He then has to deal with these facts.

"Now there doesn't appear to be a single comic element that you can possibly get out of this, but it's actually possibly to find comedy in unlikely places.

"I'm less afraid now than I used to be about putting serious things in, mainly because you have to have them. The problem with some American fantasy writers is that they're either too keen on listening to the elves singing and looking at unicorns, or they fo for unrelieved humour: the whole thing is completely gag-driven from first to last. Something Americans have grasped far less readily than Europeans - and it may even be that Americans as writers actually can't grasp it - is the fact that although dragons may explode sometimes and crap all down your back and are a nuisance, that doesn't make them any less magical or interesting: it makes them more magical and interesting because it gives them an extra dimension to them. Similarly the fact that Ankh-Morpork is knee-deep in slurry half the time doesn't make it any less a fantasy city."

Pratchett began his career as a writer quite clearly within the categories of fantasy and science fiction, but as he has progressed he appears to have left both some way behind.

"I read a fair amount of fantasy, enough to know what's going on in the field, because I'd be remarkably stupid not to do that; but I don't actually look upon it as the field in which I operate. For one thing - and this can sound remarkably crude so I have to be careful about it - I sell a large number of books; they must be selling to people other than straight fantasy fans, and I'd better keep that in my mind. That is why the Discworld has broadened out a bit. With Moving Pictures the film industry is common to everybody; fairy tales are common to everybody; with Wyrd Sisters everyone knows Macbeth even if they've never read or seen it. So I've expanded away from the normal concerns of fantasy.

"The other difficulty I have with 'fantasy' is that is has tended to come to mean the consensus fantasy universe; I'm astonished at how many books still get churned out in that vein: the wizards, the dragons, the swords, the heroes - it seems the same myths can be retold again and again. Clearly that has to happen and it works because these things are so powerful, but there's got to be more to fantasy than those sorts of things.

"Eighty or ninety years ago 'fantasy' would include The Time Machine and all other things which would be thought to be in exactly the same kind of category. They wouldn't be judged fantasy because they had wizards, swords or dragons in them: it would be down to a particular way of looking at the universe. Now, because of the way books get put on shelves fantasy has come to mean something very specific.

"I suppose you can 'blame' Tolkien: Lord of the Rings was so powerful it set an image. Let's face it, how did things happen? Well, lots of people read Lord of the Rings as their first introduction to fantasy; then there's this brief period where you go and dig up lots of Icelandic folk tales and find that they really are dull and boring; you read Njal's Saga or something and think 'cor, bloody hell!', because it isn't what you think, thought when you get a bit older you realize that sort of thing has other aspects which you didn't particularly notice - there's a Guards! Guards! where Beowulf is very fleetingly alluded to when one of the heroes is saying, 'only the other day some bloke killed this monster and his mum came and complained.' Then you go an read Lord Dunsany and stuff like that, but you find that nothing quite compares to Tolkien. Unfortunately you're given a mind set, but there are other things out there - not that I'm knocking Tolkien.

"I've done a story for American Tolkien centenary anthology and it's basically the meeting up of an ancient troll and an ancient barbarian hero - and you can guess where I'm coming from, it's the old gunfighter meeting the old sheriff - ant they realize they've fought , and what the hell? 'We've fought each other, we got nothing out of it except scars, and the hobbits have filled the wilderness from one side to the other with farms. I fought for the king and no-one even told me what his name was...' And so you can actually get this out of the classic things, you can find new directions to go."

If Pratchett is no longer a fantasy writer - and clearly it makes more sense to see him as primarily a humorist - which writers have influenced him from that tradition?

"I recently read that 'comedy' comes from a Greek term meaning 'going around the villages,' i.e. these were the actors that weren't allowed in the cities: every time I load up the car because I'm off to Colchester or Hounslow or somewhere to give a talk I think of that.

"I get nervous with this sort of question: too much introspection is bad for you. I was extremely fortunate in that when I learned that reading was a fun thing to do there was a second-hand bookshop a few miles away that I could bike over to once or twice a week. I don't know if it had all the comic writers of the 20th century, but it had quite a good comic section, and I just read my way through it. I didn't know what was good or bad. I read lots and lots of stuff that people won't have heard of any more, lots and lots of stuff that would now be thought of as classic: Jennings, Sellar and Yeatman, H. F. Ellis, all the Beachcomber books...they just got read; anything vaguely interesting got read.

"So all I can say is real a lot. Beyond that I suppose the biggest influence is actually just being alive and warm for x number of years. It's hard to say whether the job gives you this or whether you can hover around taking it all in, and after a little while you write it all down again.

"I've already mentioned Chesterton. He lived in the same town I did when I was young - not at the same time, I hasten to add, he died in 1936 - but I think that's initially why I took an interest in him; there are various places named after him and so forth. It's worth pointing out that in The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill he gave us two of the most emotionally charged plots in the 20th century; one being that both sides are actually the same side; it doesn't matter which sides we're talking about, both sides are the same. This has been the motor of half the spy novels of this century. The other plot can't be summarized so succinctly, but the basic plot of The Napoleon of Notting Hill is that someone takes seriously an idea that wasn't intended to be taken seriously and gives it some kind of nobility by doing so. He was a good sunsets man, G. K. Chesterton: when it came to sunsets no-one could describe one better than him - he just used to spill a paint box on the page and that was it. If you read lots and lots of Chesterton after a while it becomes extremely tedious, but in small doses taken regularly he's good for the soul."

The most recent Discworld novel, published in May, was Reaper Man, to be followed by Witches Abroad in the autumn. How does Pratchett see the future shaping up?

"I had a bad period in January and February when I'd finished a book and hadn't started the next one, and I had about three or four ideas of what I wanted to do. I must have written about 100,000 words on various starts of things then realized that what I really wanted to do was the Discworld religions story that I'd put at the back of my mind saying to myself that I'd do that as the next one; but I realized that I'd get that one written."

I suggest that like Detroit in Loren Estleman's Amos Walker stories, Ankh-Morpork is one of the unsung heroes of the Discworld books.

"I'm fighting shy about setting another novel in Ankh-Morpork because it's too easy to do Ankh-Morpork. One of the books that has gone into abeyance is about Ankh-Morpork's first newspaper; I had to tread particularly carefully so that I wasn't doing Moving Pictures all over again. It's gone into abeyance not because of any similarity to Moving Pictures but because it needs the yeast."

There have been rumours that there is to be a sequel to his collaborative novel with Neil Gamian, Good Omens which takes as its starting point the idea central to The Omen, where the devil's child is exchanged for the child of a US senator; unfortunately due to a mix-up Mr and Mrs Average of Tadfield, West Midlands, get the son of Satan by mistake.

"Oh yes, 664: The Neighbour of the Beast. I doubt whether that will ever be written. Curiously enough while I don't think Good Omens cries out for a sequel, there is a sequel built into the very plot premise of it. However, it's looking likely that there's going to be a film. You're never certain until such time as you're sitting there on the first night and even then it might not happen, but we have a treatment which will work; we had to Americianize it to some extent but nothing like as much as we feared we might have to.

"Mort is looking quite a good prospect as a film. The current plan is that where the Discworld is involved it will appear as a given: the world as seen from space is on the back of a turtle and people either know what it is or it's just a fantasy image. Mort is a story which stands alone: it doesn't have to be set anywhere in particular - it could be set in 16th-century Germany quite happily.

"Mort is more advanced as a film in that I've been paid for a draft of the script, but it's now going through that long dark tunnel known as development hell. Good Omens hasn't gone that far, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if it overtakes Mort. It won't be a huge surprise if they both make it through production; it would be a disappointment if neither of them did. I think one of them ought to struggle on."

Perhaps what Great A'Tuin knows of the Discworld will always remain hidden; we should simply be glad that he looks as though he will be continuing his journey through space for some time to come, and look forward to more of Pratchett's particularly uplifting comedies. To say of such a best-selling author that he is remarkably under-rated seems perverse, but that is exactly what should be said of Pratchett: with his blend of fantasy and humour he has taken the comic novel into entirely new territory, giving it a range of reflection and compassion which is wonderful and unique.

I won't say that he gets better with every book, because he can't: I don't believe that there could be a better comedy that Guards! Guards!, for example, but I relish the prospect of reading Pratchett's efforts to improve upon it; long may they continue.

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