INTERVIEW / The view from an elephant: Martin Wroe meets Terry Pratchett, a comic fantasist at home with elves and wizards

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The Independent Culture
TERRY PRATCHETT'S middle name is David. This sets him apart from the average writer of fantasy literature, whose middle name is more often Earnest. But Pratchett's fantastical creation, Discworld - a disc-shaped planet borne through space on the back of four elephants, which are themselves on the back of a 10,000- mile-long turtle called Great A'Tuin - is a barrel of laughs.

In Discworld, the librarian at Unseen University is an orang- utang (so much more expert at getting around the shelves), dogs go 'woof-bloody-woof' and The Luggage, a loyal but psychopathic wooden chest, eats people and magically cleans clothes.

But if Pratchett is funnier than most of his peers in the Tolkien family tree, he invariably suffers the collective fate when it comes to critical appreciation. Mostly, he is ignored ('Terry who. . .' said one newspaper headline), and sometimes he is slammed. The 44- year-old author recalls one review, last year, of his novel Witches Abroad: 'The writer described me as talentless, unable to draw characters, unfunny, and ended up by suggesting that the world might be a better place without me.'

The creator of the twin-city of Ankh-Morpork and its eccentric cast ('a hundred thousand souls and ten times that number of actual people') would normally brush off such damning judgements. The sleeve biography for Witches Abroad says: 'Occasionally he gets accused of literature.' But the tone of this particular review snaked deep into Pratchett. At a book-signing later in that same week Witches Abroad entered the hardback betseller list at number one, while another of his book's, Moving Pictures, held top spot in the paperback chart.

Whatever the critics think of Pratchett, the reading public think the world of him. Originally a local newspaper hack ('Indoor work with no heavy lifting') he graduated to press officer for a clutch of nuclear power stations while writing, on the side, about his other world of witches, gods and dragons, a world where to be dead was only to be 'dimensionally disadvantaged'. In 1987 his accountant muttered something about not needing to bother with the day job any more.

Pratchett returns the favour of his fans' devotion by pumping out books from Discworld with shocking speed, giving the impression that writing best-sellers remains a bit of harmless fun, not at all the hard slog that literature is supposed to be.

His most recent book is Small Gods (Gollancz, pounds 14.99), his 13th Discworld novel in nine years. He's knocked out eight other titles in that time too. There will be two more books - Only You Can Save Mankind (Doubleday) and more news from Discworld, Lords and Ladies (Gollancz) - in the autumn, and all this despite a growing reputation demanding lengthy trips abroad.

But where Terry goes, his word- processor goes too. Writer's block, he says, is an illusion invented by the Americans to fit their philosophy that anyone can do anything: 'If you can't actually do it, it's not your fault. It's writer's block - if only you could get rid of that.' With his wife and teenage daughter, he lives in what to all appearances looks like an idyllic writer's rest - old stone house, doves on the kitchen window, hidden in a tiny hamlet lost somewhere in Cheddar Gorge country.

He has sold nearly four million books. Truckers, his childrens series, has been successfully televised, theatre groups dramatise his stories, film producers fight for his rights. Readers send him fistfuls of letters daily, some of them quite moving. 'Auntie Masie was a great fan of your work,' he improvises. 'She read them all while she was in the hospice and we buried her last week.'

He meets his besotted public at hugely popular signing sessions. 'I do get the 13-year-old kids in leather jackets with NOZZER or SCAZ on their T-shirts but I also get an awful lot of women - Nozzer's mum - who say, 'Kevin laughed like a drain over your book so I started reading them and could you sign this one for me?' That's nice.'

If Terry Pratchett is sometimes accused of literature, mainly he is accused of humour. 'It's hard to think of any humorist writing in Britain today who can match him,' said Dominic Wells, the editor of Time Out. Pratchett knows where his bread is buttered. If he started as a fantasy writer with gags and without the earnestness, his reputation is increasingly as a comic writer whose subject happens to be elves or wizards.

'I think if I lose out on the funny stakes, I've probably lost out on everything else,' he says in his breathless, animated way, like David Bellamy on laughing gas. 'The key message in a paperback is: 'I hope you think this book is worth pounds 4.99'.'

But with the publication of Small Gods he might even start getting accused of peddling serious ideas, of having notions above his station. It tells the tale of the lowly Brutha, chosen by the formerly great god Om to become a prophet. This is difficult for Brutha to accept, because Om has come to him in the incarnation of a tortoise, paranoid about being plucked off for lunch by hovering eagles. Brutha wants peace and justice, wants to get rid of a corrupt Church, wants a philosopher who has challenged the accepted religious world-view not to be persecuted - but most of all he wants his god to Choose Someone Else.

It's an intriguing satire on institutionalised religion corrupted by power, crackling with one-liners while obliquely suggesting that maybe gods are only as powerful as the beliefs of their followers.

'Metaphors,' says Pratchett the humorist, wriggling uncomfortably over his literary intent, 'are very useful for understanding the world. But the trouble is that we forget about that which we are using the metaphor to understand, and start believing that the metaphor itself is real.'

His own upbringing in Beaconsfield, he says, did not plant the seeds of the apparently anti-religious atmosphere of the novel. 'Terrible, isn't it,' he muses, 'that as an author I wasn't forced to go to a horrible Catholic school and get beaten? You could get about three novels out of that.'

Another dig at the literary insiders? 'Without making any claims for myself, Dickens, Twain, Chesterton were all best-sellers - just because people have lots of readers doesn't mean they're not actually any good.'

Anyway, with royalties like Pratchett's, who needs critical acclaim? 'I'm not going to say I hate all those bastards with their posh dinners and literary awards, but I went to one recently and I'd rather have been down the pub.'