Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter Interviewed

As Sir Terry Pratchett diverts from a story about Skagit, an area of Washington DC famed for its tulips, purely because he’s spotted the chance to make a gag about a wholly fictional “Dutch girlfriend”, his Long Earth writing partner shakes his head. “It’s like working with Tommy Cooper,” says Stephen Baxter.

“You’ve got to make the guys laugh,” protests Pratchett.

In truth, Morecambe and Wise is closer to the mark. While Pratchett is ever prone to flights of fancy, Baxter plays the straight guy to perfection, manfully trying to answer questions about a collaborative SF novel that imagines what might happen if people were suddenly able to step from our version of the planet to endless parallel Earths, but also finding time for deadpan gags of his own.

It’s a terrifically entertaining double act to witness at first hand, a glimpse, you’d guess, of their working dynamic. This, after all, is a duo who can happily bicker over whether unk! or clop! comes closest to describing the noise a large predatory fish makes as it closes its mouth, only to segue to an idea so good that it urgently needs writing down for their next novel together. “Can I have a piece of paper?” says Baxter, and SFX apologetically resorts to ripping a ratty-looking sheet from a notebook.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Firstly, fortified by the bacon sandwiches and coffee that constitute the Pratchett rider, it’s time to talk about the current novel. It’s a book based on an idea Pratchett initially came up with when he’d just sent The Colour Of Magic to his editor.

Sir Terry Pratchett: “I had the basic idea  of quantum Earths, and I thought of trying out one or two short stories and then doing a full-on book. And that might have happened, but The Colour Of Magic was very successful and I thought, after all I was a journalist at heart, ‘If I can make fantasy sell, I’d better get cracking and do some of this stuff.’

“So I put [The Long Earth] to one side and I thought, ‘One day I’ll do it.’ It wasn’t until a few years ago now that I pulled it out and thought, ‘You know, there’s some good stuff here, we could take it further and I could certainly do it better now than I would have done then.’ I thought, ‘I certainly need someone else with me, someone that can use the word quantum with a straight face.’”

Stephen Baxter: “From my point of view, it kind of emerged more organically. We’d see each other at conventions and I knew Terry was a hard SF reader, having written hard SF himself with Strata and so on. So we’d see each other at dinner parties given by our publishers, and they’d stick us together and Terry would always say, ‘What news of the quantum?’”

TP: “Have you found boatswain Higgs yet?”

SB: “Yes, well I’m looking… At one of these events a couple of years ago we started talking about this project and it came out of Terry’s memory. Maybe he’d recently been looking at the manuscript. The notion of collaborating emerged there. By the end of the evening we were running away with the idea: ‘How about this, how about that?’ To the extent that our hostess got annoyed because it was one in the morning, and a cab had come for me already and left. There she was doing a sort of Alex-Ferguson-with-the-watch thing: ‘Do you want me to call you another cab, Stephen?’ But it came out of that basically.”

From here, the two men kicked around ideas over the phone and at the 2010 Discworld Convention before, eventually, Baxter visited Pratchett at his home.

SB: “I came down to Wiltshire for a weekend, and we sat and thrashed out a rough outline
of who was going to do what.”

TP: “And this man turned up with a spreadsheet.”

SB: “We’ve got different but overlapping styles, I’ll put it that way. I’d say what Terry likes to do is characters, situation and stick them in a room and let them talk and you’re off. And you kind of discover the story that way. With the hard SF I do, what I tend to do is maps and timelines, and try to get some idea of the universe I’m going to explore, which changes as you work your way through, depending on what the story needs.”

More of this interview on the next page…