Monday, 11 November 2013

Sir Terry Pratchett in conversation: Virtual WCF 2013

The Oxford hall is crammed for Terry Pratchett's talk; the reverential quiet makes it feel more like a cathedral than a convention room. Into the silence, Pratchett cries, "Hello!" and the audience roars back "Hello!" in joy and applause. As soon as he's introduced, the applause bursts out again. This convention is full of authors that are admired, swooned over, celebrated, but right now, the mood is pure love.

31 October - 3 November was the World Fantasy Convention 2013 in Brighton, filled with very good writers saying interesting things to each other about writerly topics. For those who missed it, this series is your own virtual WFC 2013.
On Pratchett's right is Rob Wilkins, Terry Pratchett's assistant, who's hosting the conversation. On his left is Rod Brown, who's working on The Watch. This is the first time Pratchett's allowed anyone to use his characters and world to write new material, but Brown can tell us almost nothing about it - only say to "look out for developments" and constantly drop tantalising hints. Wilkins persistently tries to get some detail about it, but Brown is bound by vows of silence and won't divulge a thing. Every ten minutes, Wilkins starts, "Are you allowed to say...?"
     "No," says Brown.


Pratchett starts by talking about his new book, Raising Steam. "I wanted to do this for such a long time," he says. "I thought it was low-hanging fruit. When I was a child, I loved railway trains... I don't know if there's still a generation that puts pennies on the track." So the question became, "How can I put steam in Discworld? How can I make it work in Discworld? If I'd done it too soon, a lot of other things I wanted to to do couldn't have been done.  The nice thing is, I've got the whole of Discworld to work with."  As well as getting the steam train into Discworld, "I'm giving the goblins a boost as well," he says.
     He's a marvellously generous boss, Wilkins assures us: "If something goes well in the office, Terry says, 'You can have a half-day at Christmas.'" The office itself sounds marvellous, with chickens to feed and life rolling around it. Of course such wealth as half-days can't be added up and used together; that would be absurd. Pratchett nods sagely and begins to talk about his approach to writing.
     "Are you telling me you just make it up and write it down?" demands Wilkins.
     "Yes," says Pratchett.  "You get a nice idea, and then... you just make it bigger."
     Wilkins relates Pratchett's metaphor of storywriting as a hangglider: you strap it on, start running down hill, and at a point you find you're taking off.  "And sometimes," says Pratchett, "You get to the bottom of the hill, and there you are." The audience laughs.
     Unseen Academicals was one such struggle, until he realised that it wasn't about football at all but about the people who love football. Certain characters in his books he can rely on absolutely. "If I have a scene with Commander Vimes, I know I don't have to worry about the dialogue. ... I, as it were, watch them talk. Clearly there I am typing away, but they just turn up. It's kind of weird."


Ideas that haven't taken off or found their way into stories yet are kept in a folder called "the pit", which Wilkins has vowed to destroy at a point of Pratchett's choosing or on his death. Pratchett exacts this promise again, from him; Wilkins gives it, again. We all feel the tug of not wanting "the pit" to be destroyed; we all, I think, feel that we too would do as Pratchett wished.
     These ideas can come from any source. "The thing is, as an author, you pick up all kinds of stuff as you go along, you never know when it's going to be useful. It's stealing, really..." says Pratchett.


Wilkins will read the excerpt from Raising Steam, but this means he has to adopt a northern accent.  "I'm certain that there are some Americans here, yes?" says Pratchett.  "I'm sorry for you, really," and he explains the northern accent, which Wilkins can't do, and apologises, in advance, to the north.
     During the reading, it's not immediately clear if Wilkin's northern accent has Pratchett in stitches of laughter or tears. Wilkins interrupts himself at one point to say, "I don't know what that accent was... We'll end up in Scotland, in a moment." His voice veers wildly around the north, occasionally dipping into Brummie, and re-emerging in the safe south, then lurching forcibly northwards again, as the audience fights giggles.
"Your grandfather was - slightly - a bit of a pirate."
Terry Pratchett listening to Rob Wilkins read Raising Steam
After the reading, they discuss Pratchett's PCA (posterior cortical atrophy, an atypical variant of Alzheimer's) and how much the illness varies from person to person. For him, thankfully, it hasn't affected his creativity. As writing has become physically more difficult, Pratchett now uses Dragon Dictate, which does't always get it right. In The Long Earth, "pioneer" transliterated as "pie on ear".
     Pratchett is straight into his next book, which is centered on Tiffany Aching. "What you get for doing a book is doing another book," he says. Then adds, "And they give you money."

With one minute left, Wilkins offers the audience just one question and asks, is it possible to ask a question that Terry Pratchett has never had before, in any interview? A woman calls out, "What are the names of the chickens?"
     She's done it. No-one has ever asked this before. Everyone applauds her success heartily. And for the record: one is called Biggles, because she can fly. She climbs a tree, then takes off. The only problem is that she can't land. The other is called Houdini, for obvious reasons. And while we're at it, the three tortoises are Mr Big, Masher and Big Spotty.
     With the talk at an end, the audience rises in a standing ovation. Dear god, we love this man.

Next talk in the Virtual WFC: Women Writing Martial Fantasy panel, aka the regrettably named "Broads with Swords", with a kick-ass reading list

The virtual conference is created from my own rapid scribblings at the panels and talks and paraphrased - all as accurate as possible, but if you take exception to anything or I've got any details wrong, contact me. Direct quotations are my transcription of someone's exact words as best as I can.

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