Author One-to-One: Neil Gaiman Interviews Terry Pratchett
Neil Gaiman’s best-selling novels include Neverwhere, American Gods, Coraline, Anansi Boys, and Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett). He is the creator of the Sandman series of graphic novels and author of the short-fiction collections Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things.
Neil Gaiman: Where did the idea for Snuff originate?
Terry Pratchett: I haven’t a clue, but I think I started out by considering the character of Sir Samuel Vimes, as he now is, and since I find his inner monologue interesting I decided to use the old and well-tried plot device of sending a policeman on holiday somewhere he can relax, because we all know the way this one is supposed to go. And then I realised that moving Vimes out of his city element and away from his comfort zone was going to be a sheer treat to write.
Gaiman: The Watch fascinate me. You get to do hardboiled police procedurals while still writing funny smart books set in a fantastic world.
Pratchett: On a point of order, Mister Gaiman, the world in which Sam Vimes finds himself is hardly fantastic. Okay, there are goblins, but the overall ambience is that of the shires of Middle England. It’s all about the commonality of humankind. Shove Sam Vimes into a situation that has gone toxic and away he goes, as realistic as any other policeman and thinking in the very same ways and being Sam Vimes, questioning his motives and procedures all the way through.
Gaiman: Did you really say in a previous interview that you’d like to be like Sam Vines? Why?
Pratchett: I don’t think I actually said that, but you know how it is and ‘how it is’ changes as you get older. The author can always delve into his own personality and find aspects of himself with which he can dress his characters. If you pushed me I would say that ever since I stood up and talked about my Alzheimer’s I have been a public figure; I visited Downing Street twice, wrote angry letters to the Times, got into debates in the House of Commons, and generally became a geezer to the extent that I sit here sometimes bewildered and think to myself, “Actually, your job is to sit here writing another book. Changing the world is for other people...” and then I come back to myself with, “No it isn’t!” And so, bearing in mind that these days, people call a kid from the council houses “Sir” allows me to create a mindset for Vimes.
Gaiman: On a piece about writing in the New York Times, Carl Hiaasen (a writer you started me reading on the Good Omens tour), wrote, “Every writer scrounges for inspiration in different places, and there's no shame in raiding the headlines. It's necessary, in fact, when attempting contemporary satire. Sharp-edged humor relies on topical reference points... Unfortunately for novelists, real life is getting way too funny and far-fetched.” Does the Discworld as a setting allow you to escape from that? Or is it a tool that lets you raid the headlines in ways people might not expect?
Pratchett: I think that’s the commonality of humankind again. I hope that everyone in Discworld is a recognisable and understandable character and so sometimes I can present them with modern and contemporary problems, such as Mustrum Ridcully getting his head around homosexuality.
In truth, I never have to go looking for this stuff; I turn to find it smacking me in the face. I was very pleased when Making Money came out just before the banking crisis and everyone said I had predicted it. It was hardly difficult.
Gaiman: How has the Discworld changed over the years?
Pratchett: I suppose the simple answer is that there is still humour, but the gags are no longer set up; they are derived from characters’ personalities and situations. These days the humour seems to arrive of its own accord.
Gaiman: How has writing the Discworld novels changed how you see the world?
Pratchett: I think it more true that getting older changes how you see the world. There is stuff in Snuff, for example, that I couldn’t have written at 25. Although I had written things before Discworld, I really leaned writing, on the job as it were, on Discworld. I think that the books are, if not serious, dealing with more serious subjects. These days it’s not just for laughs. My world view had changed; sometimes I feel that the world is made up of sensible people who know that plot and bloody idiots who don’t. Of course, all Discworld fans know the plot by heart!
Gaiman: How has writing the Discworld novels changed how the world sees you?
Pratchett: Has it? My agent pointed out one day that I had been quoted by a columnist in some American newspaper, and he noted with some glee that they simply identified me by name without reminding people who I was, apparently in the clear expectation that their readers would know who I am. I have quite a large number of honorary doctorates; I am a professor of English at Trinity College Dublin and a fellow of King’s College London, on top of all the other stuff, including the knighthood. However, when it gets to the sub-editors I am always going to be that writer of wacky fantasy, though I have to say that dismissiveness is getting rarer and rarer.
Gaiman: Are you respectable?
Pratchett: Is this a trick question? If so, then I shall say yes. Generally speaking I try to obey the law, pay my taxes (of which there are an enormous lot), give to charity, and write letters to the Times that they print.
It’s a weird term, respectable; isn’t ‘respek’ what every street kid wants and might possibly expect at the point of a knife? I certainly get involved with things and shortly after finishing this interview will be annoying my local MP. It’s fun. Discworld and the Alzheimer’s together have given me a platform.
“This account of Unseen University’s entry into the world of soccer (or, as they occasionally call it, “foot-the-ball”) pushes past the usual conventions of satire to offer equal parts absurdist philosophy and heartwarming romance....A witty addition to the long-running fantasy series” (Kirkus Reviews)
“A triumphant effort.” (The Independent on Sunday)
“Like Pratchett, [narrator Stephen Briggs] loves the comic rhythm, sound, and very taste of words-just for their own sake. So order up a tuna-spaghetti-jam sandwich (with sprinkles) and be prepared for a wonderful time.” (AudioFile Magazine)
“Thirty-seven books in and ... Discworld is still going strong...and doing so with undimmed, triumphant exuberance. ” (The Guardian)
“…[SNUFF is a] lively outing, complete with sly shout-outs to Jane Austen and gritty police procedurals.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“The humor is sharp and the characters are charming, and the plight of the goblins creates moments of genuine pathos that are the highlight of the book.” (Tor.com)
“Brilliantly complex.” (The Straits Times)
“In the history of comic fantasy, Mr. Pratchett has no equals for invention or for range. ” (Wall Street Journal)
“Series followers will delight in this latest entry. . . . Pratchett’s fun, irreverent-seeming story line masks a larger discussion of social inequalities and the courage it takes to stand up for the voiceless.” (Library Journal)
“Funny, of course, but with plenty of hard edges; and, along with the excellent lessons in practical police work, genuine sympathy for the ordinary copper’s lot. A treat no fan of Discworld—and there are boatloads of them—will want to miss.” (Kirkus Reviews)