The place: High Wycombe
The man: Terry Pratchett, author
I DON'T remember making a coherent decision but always knew I would make a living with words. I was a fairly bookish but bright enough to know that it would be foolish to assume that I could pay the bills that way; at that time the number of people in the UK making a success out of writing science fiction could be numbered on the fingers of one hand after a bad industrial accident.
Journalism was rather unfashionable and as we did not have "the media", there were few jobs on offer. The classic way was starting on the Pig Feed Advertiser and working your way up. However, being quite good at quick writing, I decided it was my best option. So at 17 I sent a letter off to the editor of the local paper informing him that I hoped to leave school next year, with three A levels, and asking if there would be a job going. He wrote back that he didn't know about next year but he had one right now.
It would have been nice if the Bucks Free Press had been in a grand office with oak panelling, but it was a fairly nondescript Sixties high-rise, though the phrase hardly applies in High Wycombe, it probably had five or six storeys.The editorial offices were at the top, with the front office downstairs, next door to a Chinese restaurant. But it took me all of 0.5 seconds to decide not to finish my education and leave a year early. I hated school, it was the Sixties after all - although in High Wycombe we were having the1950s reheated. My parents were supportive; after all, the paper was one of the pillars of the local community.
As a trainee on pounds 8.50 a week, I worked incredibly hard. Anyone who aspired to practically anything in South Bucks would sooner or later find my moped coming up their drive. Sometimes I was out seven nights a week. I would work all day Saturday with my only free time during the day on Sundays. Swotting for A-levels, I would have spent three hours a night doing my homework, so bogging off to cover Seer Green Parish Council seemed easy in comparison - and I got paid for it.
The chief reporter had the oldest typewriter I have ever seen, made out of cast iron, with cherub-like shapes coming out of the sides. The newsroom was all a bit low-rent, because with journalists how can it be anything else? It was full of characters, one of whom had been off to fight in the Spanish Civil War but got on the wrong boat and ended up in Hull. I'd discovered a world into which I fitted perfectly.
I soon had the formula for how to cover a murder, a big court case, a row - indeed, how to start one. The residents of the estate are not going to be "up in arms" until you've phoned them up. Life became a series of cliches because it is a series of cliches. I finally found that I knew how to do this - there was no more fear. The revelation was that here was something that I was good at, I hadn't had many opportunities before. For years I had struggled with maths and school work. By the time my school friends were leaving university, I was inordinately proud of not only feeling competent with the English language, but proven competent - people were paying me money every week to continue.
On a local newspaper there is a complicity between the writer and the reader. Both of you take for granted that High Wycombe, for example, is an important place and the centre of the universe. You learn that the reader is an integral part of the process. We had some first-class photos of the Earth taken from the moon during one of the Apollo missions. Westminster Press, which owned us, sent down an order to use them before everybody else. There were important local stories that had to be moved off the front page, but the editor, Arthur Church, came up with what we considered a marvellous Solomon-like judgment: I suppose the moon shines on High Wycombe just like everywhere else.
There is probably a similarity between Discworld, the setting for my books, and High Wycombe, although the second does have an independent existence, just off the M40. Both sets of readers are taken into a world about which they have a lot of background knowledge. Discworld started, and became successful, because I took a variation on the classic post- Tolkienian fantasy universe but wrote it as if I was on the local paper. Or perhaps, I'm still reporting on the real world through Discworld. A reviewer who wanted to be critical of my books claimed they encourage a cosy mindset between the writer and reader. I thought I could live with that.
Writing for local newspapers has made me very disciplined, I'm used to turning in my copy on time. The Bucks Free Press burnt out any desire to believe that writing was something you did when the muse caught you, otherwise there would be a large hole on page 3. There was no theory of journalism, like they teach today, the only theory was: could we have 400 words by 3.30pm. What's more, I discovered things I would have never learnt on a literature course: a word that is not read is a word that is not worth writing. It has now become part of my psyche. I am fairly superstitious - I will start a new book within a week of finishing the old one. Although much of it will probably never see the light of day, I've dug a small furrow in the next field. A bit like local journalism; if you're not writing something you don't exist - you're just some berk hanging around.
A journalist makes himself invisible because we're told it is the facts that matter. My amused detached ironic tone of voice, which has been one of the keys to British humorous writing for the last 100 years, most probably comes from the same source.
In the next book, which I'm working on, I bring back a character, Agnes Nitt, who is a fat witch. When she was a child she had an invisible friend; although now older, she still she has this companion who is now more of an invisible enemy - the thin girl inside every fat girl - who comments on everything she does. I've always assumed that everybody has their own internal editor, who looks over their shoulder and comments and stands back dispassionately even at moments of supreme joy. I've become aware that I'm a natural observer and I suppose that's why I felt at home in the newsroom - and there was always an editor on duty!
Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel, `The Last Continent', is published by Doubleday at pounds 16.99.
Interview by Andrew G MarshallReuse content