Talking with Terry Pratchett
Tiffany Aching has decided she
wants to be a witch when she grows up. What did you want to be when
you were Tiffany’s age?
When I was Tiffany’s age, I wanted to be an astronomer. I never
succeeded in my ambition, because astronomers have to be good at
math, and I’ve never been very good at math. I thought astronomy was
a really cool job, because you got to stay up late at night. But I
have to say I’m very pleased that now, because of the success of my
writing, I’ve built my own observatory.
Tiffany read the dictionary straight through because no one had
told her she wasn’t supposed to. Did you ever read the dictionary
Ha! Yes, I did it when I was a kid. I read dictionaries all the way
through: dictionaries, thesauruses, dictionaries of slang, all that
sort of thing, for the sheer fun of doing it. I think I was a rather
weird kid, to be frank.
Tiffany is also an expert cheesemaker. Have you ever made cheese?
Yep. Goat’s cheese. We used to keep goats, which are really just
like sheep, but a lot more intelligent and much, much more
bad-tempered. I was pretty good at goat cheese, I have to say. I
could make goat cheese again if someone wanted me to.
The landscape Tiffany grew up in is clearly based on the English
chalk country—you’ve said there is amazingly little you had to make
up about her home. What can you tell us about this part of England?
A large area of southern England is on the chalk; in fact, the White
Cliffs of Dover are chalk. I live on the chalk, about twelve miles
from Stonehenge. I even own about forty acres of the chalk. You
always to see sheep on the chalk, it tends to be very high country,
and you don’t see too many trees. It’s really the center of all our
mythologies in England. There’s Stonehenge there, and strange
ancient carvings, and the burial mounds of dead chieftains. Back in
the days when the valleys were just all flooded and swampy, the
chalk uplands were how people moved around, and, in the heart of it
all, was Stonehenge.
Is Tiffany’s family in any way based on your own?
Well, I grew up on the chalk. I was born in the Chiltern Hills,
which is another chalk outcrop. And a lot of the things that Tiffany
thinks and sees, in fact, I thought and saw when I was her age; a
lot of the way Tiffany comprehends the landscape is based on my own
experiences. I don’t come from a farming family, but I spent a lot
of time among farmers and their families when I was a kid. I’m the
actual archetypal example of an only child, so I had plenty of time
to myself. My paternal grandmother has a very special place in my
heart, just as Tiffany’s grandmother, does, because when I was a kid
I was allowed to read from her bookshelf. It was a very short
bookshelf, but it contained every book you really ought to read,
like the complete short stories of H. G. Wells, and the complete
short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I just worked my way along
my granny’s bookshelf and didn’t realize that I was getting an
In Tiffany’s world, being a witch means, in part, to have certain
duties and responsibilities. How did you decide to include these
obligations as part of your definition of witchcraft?
Certainly witchcraft for Tiffany has very little to do with magic as
people generally understand it. It has an awful lot to do with
taking responsibility for yourself and taking responsibility also
for the less able people and, up to a certain point, guarding your
society. This is based on how witchcraft really was, I suspect. The
witch was the village herbalist, the midwife, the person who knew
things. She would sit up with the dying, lay out the corpses,
deliver the newborn. Witches tended to be needed when human beings
were meeting the dangerous edges of their lives, the places where
there is no map. They don’t mess around with tinkly spells; they get
their hands dirty.
And then there are the Nac Mac Feegle. They’re the most feared of
all the fairy races, and yet they’re also loyal, strong, and very
funny. How did you come up with the Nac Mac Feegle?
I thought it very strange, and very sad that the fairy kingdom
largely appears to be English. I thought it was time for some
regional representation. And the Nac Mac Feegle are, well, they’re
like tiny little Scottish Smurfs who have seen Braveheart altogether
too many times. They speak a mixture of Gaelic, Old Scots,
Glaswegian and gibberish. And they’re extremely brave, and they’re
extremely small, and extremely strong, and there’s hundreds and
hundreds of them, and they just are automatically funny. You can’t
help but love them, at a distance.
What happens to get you to sit down your desk and write the
opening words of a new novel?
I’m not sure. I start with a handful of semiformed ideas and play
around with them until they seem to make some sense. Actually typing
is important to me—it kind of tricks my brain into gear. I’ve got a
pack-rat mind, like most writers, and once I starting thinking hard
about a new project all kinds of odd facts and recollections shuffle
forward to get a place on the bus.
Do you know where a story is going when you start writing, or do you
let the story take control and see where it takes you?
This answer deserves one sentence or an essay! I’ll try to summarize
it like this: writing, for me, is a little like wood carving. You
find the lump of tree (the big central theme that gets you started)
and you start cutting the shape that you think you want it to be.
But you find, if you do it right, that the wood has a grain of its
own (characters develop and present new insights, concentrated
thinking about the story opens new avenues). If you’re sensible, you
work with the grain and, if you come across a knot hole, you
incorporate that into the design. This is not the same as “making it
up as you go along”; it’s a very careful process of control.
The fantasy genre is often thought of as escapism, but is it
escapism with a firm root in reality?
Fantasy IS escapism, but wait...why is this wrong? What are you
escaping from, and where are you escaping to? Is the story opening
windows or slamming doors? The British author G. K. Chesterton
summarized the role of fantasy very well. He said its purpose was to
take the everyday, commonplace world and lift it up and turn it
around and show it to us from a different perspective, so that once
again we see it for the first time and realize how marvelous it is.
Fantasy—the ability to envisage this world in many different ways—is
one of the skills that makes us human.
Your Discworld novels are fantastically successful. Now you’re
writing Discworld novels specifically for younger readers. Why?
I think my heart has always been in writing for children. My first
book was written for children, and a few years ago I realized that
if I wrote a few books for younger readers I could approach
Discworld in a different way. There’s a lot of difference between
writing for children and writing for adults, and it’s almost
impossible to tell you what it is, but I know it when I’m doing it.
You have more fun, and I have to say, it’s a little bit harder,
especially if you do it right.