Terry Pratchett on travel, writing and swearing at a PC

The Discworld author chats to SFX on many other topics including how to teach the word “arsehole” to a computer

SFX is on sale now for just one more week. In it you’ll find an interview with the hugely popular novelist – and one-time guest editor of SFX - Terry Pratchett, in which we put your questions to him. But we spent a lot of time with Sir Terry this summer, and here are some of the other fantastic things we talked about:

Sir Terry Pratchett

Read Terry Pratchett's answers to your questions in SFX 200 on sale until 22 September.

On the most influential SF and fantasy writers

‘My head is full of so much stuff I read as a kid! Remember all the names it would be unthinkable to leave out of any list of greats. Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Philip K Dick. And then there are people like Jack Vance who used to move backwards and forwards between science fiction and fantasy, although it was all written in the same tone of voice. The Dying Earth was very, very influential because he kind of invented a lot of the language that fantasy was written with subsequently. I read JRR Tolkien aged about 13 I think, but I had read many other things before him!’

‘Stories are based on other stories, that’s what we all do. And if everybody is stealing off everybody else then it all works quite well. Because what happens is that stuff is bouncing around and getting better, as people explore how to do things! Even Dungeons & Dragons changed the language of fantasy because they wanted to do certain things – and then writers were influenced by D&D. Everybody influences everyone else – it’s better to say that than “stealing”…’

On dictating his novels

‘At the moment it’s a wee bit difficult to listen to music when I work because I have to dictate to the computer, my typing is so bad now. I use Talking Point, which goes on top of Dragon Naturally Speaking.’

‘It learns you – not the other way round. I spent 45 minutes reading from a book. Arthur C Clarke as it happens, probably a bad choice in the circumstances! Uncle Arthur is difficult to read aloud. He’ll put in equations! The software knows what all those words in that piece should sound like. It knows that’s how you pronounce the syllables. I’ve got a voice like David Bellamy with his hand stuck in an electric fire, but it knows how I pronounce particular syllables. Then we dumped all my Discworld books into the computer over night and it chewed them up and it has algorithms which enable it to work out broadly what most of the words would sound like. Simply because it knows how certain letter formations are supposed to sound. The upshot is that seldom do I have to introduce it to a new word. I had to teach the computer the word “arsehole”. Typed it in, highlighted it, and repeated “arsehole” about three times.’

‘It has it’s funny little ways. I try not to go too fast for it, because if it gets something wrong going all the way back to change something can be a bit of a pain. I speak in long thoughtful sentences. It’s fine, it feels natural, you learn to play it.’

On looking after his famous hats

‘I did a signing once in a little town where you might not normally sign. It was a self-sufficient little place. And the bookshop had been a haberdashery and gents outfitters initially and it still had, in the manager’s office, the hat stretching machine! And I just had a new hat and it was slightly tight. I offered to buy the machine off him but he didn’t want to sell it – but he did bring it down, and while I was signing I got the hat on it, and every now again I gave it a little twist. You don’t want to burst it! Just a little turn. I told the local paper’s photographer that seeing all these people was making me so swollen-headed that I’d better make my hat larger!’

On book tours of America

‘My first US publisher gave me bad covers, bad printing, my name spelt wrong on every other page… you couldn’t give my books away in the US! I’d be going to conventions and I’d have huge queues… with people having their British hardcovers signed. Things started to change when I got Ralph Vicinanza as my agent.’

‘Early American tours worked like this: you go from one city to another by yourself, and you’re picked up by a minder when you arrive at the city. And the minder knows the bookshops and places where you’re going to do your signing, and at the end of the day they just decant you back onto the plane. Once you’ve got through check-in you’re by yourself! I always thought, “This is ridiculous. It means if anything goes wrong after that, if the plane’s delayed, I’m stuffed.” About 1996 I did a signing tour from hell, absolutely nothing to eat, most of the time flying from hub to hub, getting into hotels late and finding no help.’

‘But later, with a new agent, new editor and new publisher and new covers, the books began to move. In 2000 they invited me to come over for another book tour, and that worked incredibly well. The worst leg of the 2000 signing tour was better than the best leg of my previous 1996 experience. Seattle has always been a great gig for me. Always. I always get the most people there, more than New York! The bookshop that does it, run by Tall Dwayne, always just draws the customers in from the whole of the state. Microsoft people from Redmond perhaps! The US generally is now very good for me. I was WorldCon guest of honour a couple of years ago in America and the fans were superb.’

On the inspiration for standalone book Nation

‘I came up with the idea about six months before the first big Asian tsunami. And that’s on record because I have a witness! Sarah LeFanu (who wrote a book on how to write science fiction and fantasy) introduced me when I did a signing in Waterstone’s one time. And it was on the day that I said, “I’ve got to write this book!” and she said, “Sounds great, hope you do it.” And she’s my witness that I didn’t base Nation on the terrible 2004 tsunami. It’s all based on Krakatoa of course – there are certain similarities. After the tsunami I put it on one side for a while because I didn’t want people to think I was taking advantage. And then that lasted for about a year or so and I thought, “To hell with this I’ve got to get it down.” I just identified with it in some way! I don’t quite know why. Mau is such a good character, you spend all the time in his head, and you know that this kid is one step away from actually going insane – that’s good material to work with.’

Thank you Terry!

For more like this, don’t forget to pick up your copy of SFX 200 (the massive 208-page anniversary issue of the world’s number one SF and fantasy mag) while it’s still in stores. The next issue replaces it on Wednesday 22 September! And of course you can see Terry Pratchett at the next SFX Weekender.