Some people you never forget interviewing. Terry Pratchett falls into this category.
In December 1992 – 17 years before he was knighted for services to literature – he came to Newcastle to promote Lords And Ladies (his new book) and Witches Abroad (the paperback issue).
I had lunch with him in an Italian restaurant (on Westgate Road, I believe) and was dazzled by his sharp and self-deprecating wit.
He was great fun to be with. I particularly remember him insisting that novel writing was easy: you just get up in the morning, write 500 words and then stop, he said. Eventually the accumulated words will be enough to fill a novel.
He said I probably wrote more words in a day than he did – therefore I must be working harder than him.
But the truth, as both of us knew, is that there are words and there are words.
Terry Pratchett put the right words in the right order impeccably. That’s why he had so many fans and why he is going to be missed.
After that lunch, in characteristic style, Terry took command of the photo shoot, insisting on lying stretched out on a bench outside St Nicholas’ Cathedral to give the impression of a lazy hobo – which he was not.
What follows is the piece I wrote and which was published in The Journal at the time.
I’m surprised it’s not longer. Coming in at just over 500 words, it appears I was acting on the great man’s advice...
Terry Pratchett sold his first story for £14 at the age of 12 and had his first novel published when he was 20 – by which time, he will tell you sharply, Mozart had composed about 150 symphonies.
In Pratchett’s case, the talent which budded early flowered late. It was only in 1987, when he was nudging 40, that the former journalist was persuaded by his accountant that he could safely give up his job as a press officer at the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB).
Even then his wife, Lyn, was not convinced he was doing the right thing.
“She became supportive when I showed her a piece of paper which proved that by giving up the job I could start earning five times as much money immediately,” he says, gazing shrewdly at me over his plate of pasta.
“I have to say,” he adds with a distinctive dash of Pratchett devilment, “that women as a whole prefer the work their menfolk do to involve a small amount of pain.”
Lyn Pratchett, to follow this line of reasoning, must be as sick as a parrot. Her husband has described writing as “the best fun a man can have on his own” and the fat cheques he receives for indulging himself can hardly lessen the pleasure.
Pratchett is best known as a fantasy writer although he rejects the idea that he has a cult following.
“It’s a put down term which suggests you’re only read by spotty students.”
The fan mail comes from all sorts of people, he insists, and the queues at his book signing sessions look increasingly like representative samples of the population.
Those waiting patiently at Waterstone’s in Newcastle seemed to confirm this.
Pratchett’s Discworld is peopled by witches, trolls and other familiar fantasy folk. What sets his stories apart from others is their humour, which is very much of this world.
I ask him if he thinks writing fairytales is really a suitable occupation for a grown man.
He replies: “Think of all the jobs grown men have to do and then put the question again.”
After billions of years of evolution, he muses, men still have to work as car park attendants.
Or even CEGB spokesmen responsible for nuclear power stations, one might add. “It taught me how to bluff the jargon,” quips Pratchett whose cod science delights his fans.
He was not a great reader as a boy until he was presented with a copy of The Wind in the Willows, after which there was no stopping him.
He went to work on his local newspaper at 17 and three years later The Carpet People was published.
Thereafter he published one book every five years and with the proceeds of each bought a greenhouse.
“After 15 years I had bought three greenhouses and had three books out.
“When The Colour of Magic came out in paperback in 1985 it became apparent that I would soon be in a position to put an entire Amazon rainforest under glass.”
After 14 Discworld novels and numerous other books, the ideas show no sign of drying up.
“There are five books I reckon I could write now,” he says, adding that living in Somerset means he is far from the distractions of city life.