IN A WORLD OF HIS OWN

Writer TERRY PRATCHETT talks with
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Terry Pratchett sports a rather fetching fedora, but it might just as well be a tin helmet. Despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that the fantasy author's books account for a breathtaking one per cent of all fiction sales in this country, Pratchett is a regular target for snooty shell-fire from the critics. "There's always going to be snobbery," the writer sighs. "The feeling is that I should be pigeonholed in the category of `good books for people who can't read'."

The most shoplifted author in Britain, the creator of the phenomenally successful Discworld novels has little need to worry about snipers from the press. "I cry all the way to the bank," he declares. "What annoys me is when the critics attack my readers rather than me. `Suitable only for menopausal adolescents,' they say. If you don't like Jeffrey Archer, you don't attack his readers. It's good journalism, but bad practice. Plenty of readers are enthusiastic, so I'm not going to complain if some people don't like Discworld. It doesn't figure. I was a press officer for the nuclear industry. There you develop a shell so thick you could bounce neutronium off it.

"There is a tradition that after every Booker Prize, journalists phone me and ask for my reaction to the winner," he continues. "What I'm supposed to say is, `Bloody hell, what a load of poncey rubbish.' But what I say is, `Good job Roddy Doyle got it,' which is the wrong thing. They want me to start some sort of war."

Pratchett really has no need to. Sipping a glass of white wine at the launch of Channel 4's big-budget animated versions of Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music, two of his Discworld cycle, he is now in the happy position of being able to do what he damn well likes as a writer.

He can certainly do no wrong in the eyes of his devoted readers, many of whom bombard him with e-mail on the "alt.fan.pratchett" Web site. One aficionado interviewed for Terry Pratchett's Discworld: A TV Rom, a Channel 4 documentary about the author, asserts that "He's much better than Dickens".

Pratchett is proud of his fans' loyalty. "It really began 10 years ago," he recalls. "If you were a 15-year-old called Kevin then, now you're a teacher called Kevin teaching my books.

He explains his close relationship with his readers. "I began as a local newspaper journalist. Local journalism is a conspiracy - readers and journalists are inextricably bound. Get it wrong and they'll be round the next day. Readers aren't foreign, outside; they're part of the process. A word not read is a word not written."

Some of his readers could be seen as bordering on the obsessive. One has had a large picture of a Pratchett character tattooed on his back. "Some books establish a rapport between the readers and the writer," he carries on. "If that happens, you go with it. Dickens faced the same thing. Lots of people wanted to know about the death of Little Nell."

When Pratchett turns up for one of his frequent book-signings, queues invariably go around the block. "It gratifies me that on the last tour, this lady said, `Can you sign this for Sister Mary Joseph?' She was a nun in a closed order and wasn't allowed out for the signing. Another time, a queue was taking hours and when an elderly lady finally reached me, I said, `I'm sorry you've been waiting so long'. `I don't mind at all, dear,' she replied. `I've been talking to some Hells Angels, and they're really nice boys.' If she'd seen those two guys on her street, she'd have phoned the police."

So just what is it about his writing that has wowed so many fans? Lucinda Whiteley, the Channel 4 executive who commissioned the Discworld series, reckons that people are drawn by the books' humour. "It's in the best tradition of comedy like Red Dwarf," she opines. "A lot of the humour comes from anachronisms. It doesn't have any boundaries."

Pratchett's work is not, she stresses, exclusively for anorak-clad, no-life, no-girlfriend Internerds. "The genre of science fantasy is traditionally associated with teenage boys and dismissed," she says, "but that's not the case. I'm a fan. It sounds banal, but sometimes his books make me laugh out loud, and few books do that."

The other great selling point of his books is, of course, their fantasy. "That gives him the freedom to break rules," Whiteley observes, "that's what's such fun. It's a compressing of history, almost a debunking. Teachers would be horrified by it."

Pratchett himself calls fantasy "a toolbox. You can do anything with it. Fantasy is a traditional genre. Ten thousand years ago when men sat around the fire, you can be sure they did not tell each other stories about lecturers going through the male menopause on the campus of a Midlands university. Fantasy is the basic form of literature from which all others flowed."

Habitues of "alt.fan.pratchett" will be delighted to hear that their hero's inspiration shows no signs of drying up. "The human race keeps coming up with weird things," he muses. "Even I wouldn't have thought up this business in the USA where an affirmative-action hiring process means that if you have a Hispanic name you get accelerated promotion.

"I merely fill in the background," he concludes. "The idiosyncracies of the human race provide the raw material. I have the fantasy metaphor so I can make points but diffuse them at the same time. No one's going to set fire to me. I can invent my own world and do what I like with it. Even Adolf Hitler couldn't manage that."

Terry Pratchett's `Jungle Quest', following the author in search of the orang-utan, is on tomorrow at 5.30pm. `Terry Pratchett's Discworld: A TV Rom' is on Sunday 11 May, and the six-week series of `Wyrd Sisters' begins on Sunday 18 May, all on Channel 4

EYE TEST

1948: Born in Beaconsfield. Discovered love of reading aged 10, when someone gave him a copy of Wind in the Willows. At 12, he sold his first short story for pounds 14 and spent the money on a typewriter. Left school at 17 to work in local journalism

1968: Had his first novel, The Carpet People, published, but carried on working in journalism until in his thirties he became press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board

1983: The Colour of Magic, the first Discworld novel, published

1987: Took up writing full-time. He pens one in 50 of all books sold by WH Smith. Translated into 23 languages (including Icelandic and Slovenian), his novels have sold 5.5 million copies in the UK alone. The Discworld spin-off industry has spawned a fanzine (`The Wizard's Knob'), puzzles, jewellery, college scarves, beer, soap, candles, and 40 to 50 stage plays. There is the prospect of a theme-park. His book signings have taken on epic proportions Fans - many come dressed as characters from the books - fly in from round the world

1994: Won the Science/Fantasy Author of the Year Award

1997: First screen adaptations from his Discworld series

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