Book review,mini-Essay & Interview: Terry Pratchett [FTL-Home]
When I first encountered the Discworld I was an avid Tolkien fan: A parody onto the master – how dare he? Disgusted I pushed the book back into the shelf. Some years later I had a boyfriend who had a whole collection and looking for something to read while waiting for him to come home I was forced to give it a try. (TV had never truly appealed to me and his Cartoons seemed to be the worse option. And seemingly we both had matured, the discworld into a true realm of its own and me into somebody more open-minded when it came to alternative forms of fantasy/sci-fi.
Some ten years later, I found a discworld novel in an airport book store and bought it - the discworld had now reached the world outside fandom (Many of the recent books became in fact instant No 1 bestsellers in Britain) - and discovered something new: Transgender, crossdressing and genderbending had found its way also into the discworld books.
To list up the major indigents: First of all Angua, the vegetarian werewolf (vegetarian in her human form only), Littlebottom, the dwarf who hates being read as male, and starts in "Feet of clay" to the shock of her androgynous community to dress in skirts, donne lipstick and high heels (made of solid iron if I remember well) and Sergeant Nobbs serve among others in the City Watch in Ankh Morpock, which is a kind of fantasy version of present-day New York, medieval kind of "dungeons and dragons" London and ancient Rome neatly rolled in one. And there is in a parallel sequence Ridicully, a wizard from the unseen magical university, who ends up in one sequel "The lost continent" in a country which resembled a lot Australia during the gay festival of Mardi Grass.
In the recent novels they seem mostly to be occupied with solving crime cases with political implication which may or not may involve diplomatic missions to foreign countries. One of those "Jingo" Sergeant Nobbs disguises as a woman and in the following books "The fifth elephant" starts to develop his "female side" further into a full-blown transgender identity.
So we asked Terry to contribute something (specifically an interview) to FTL and to be so kind to answer a few questions:
FTL: Dear Terry, ...for your convenience, as we don't want to burden you with extra back and forth e-mailing, here our questions:
Terry Pratchett: Kind of you. But it's not polite to say 'hey, yo, we want to do an interview (in fact, a simple quiz, with you doing most of the work) and, before you even
have a chance to say yes or no, here are the questions'
Since I have a spare few minutes, though...
FTL: Why did you choose transgender topics (the female dwarfs striving to become recognized as female, the drag queens in "The Last Continent" ,
Sergeant Nobbs explorations of his female side in the recent books)? Was this motivated by political activism of your side for gay or transgender
rights, personal experiences or you being witness of struggles of transgendered friends or relatives?
Terry Pratchett: None of the above. The dwarfish issue arose originally out of the established fact that fantasy/folklore rarely deals with female dwarfs and acts as if they
don't exist. Ergo, females dwarfs exist and look like male dwarfs, ergo, their society does not differentiate between the sexes once the kids are weaned, ergo
this society is going to *very interesting* to write about when it comes into contact with human society. I have to admit that unfolding it, and exploring
the issues in my own mind, has been fascinating.
Nobby? Well, Nobby...is exploring the wonderful world of being Nobby. I've never though of him as gay; in fact, given his general repulsiveness, he
probably doesn't even get much of a chance to be straight:-) And the 'Priscilla' take-off in TLC was because a) it's a really great Australian movie and b) as a frequent visitor to Oz I'm always
amused at how firmly rooted gay culture appears to be there. And there were 'run on' jokes,
since as Rincewind's complete failure to understand what's going on, and the poor girl who's joined the trio to replace her brother...
(Pricilla – for all who did not see that movie, is the story of three drag queen who travel in a old bus, converted into a camper through Australia to give a performance in some desert motel there. A movie with lots of music (mainly by ABBA, great nature impressions and also aboriginals, trans/homophobic attacks, a family reunion and at least one love story)
Terry Pratchett (cont.): The people I know who are gay (and one transgendered, I think -- like the dwarfs, I don't ask people what they're not prepared to volunteer) are mostly
within SF/fantasy fandom which appears, at least, to be quite amiable about people's sexuality so long as they don't act like a jerk.
FTL: Do you think transgender characters are more common and more accepted in science-fiction/fantasy than in other genres?
Terry Pratchett: As above. Without a shadow of a doubt.
FTL: So far all your transgender characters have been male to female oriented (or female to female if one chooses that view). Can we expect some of the other direction?
Terry Pratchett: Let's start with the fact that I would not be a good author if I sat down and said 'right, I'm going to explore the issue of [fill in issue of the moment'].
This stuff evolves from the characters. It has to.
FTL: Did any of your publishers or lectors criticizes your use of such protagonists? How about letters from fans, was the resonance more positive or more negative?
Terry Pratchett: You must have a funny idea about publishers. The DW books make them a lot of money, and no one knows why.
You think they're going to turn around and tell me off? As for the fans, those interested in what is going on write very positively -- those who aren't, don't notice.
FTL: Did you intend parallels from Angua's, the werewolf's situation, in "Feet of clay" to the coming out problematic of gay, lesbian and transgender persons?
Terry Pratchett: I invented Angua simply because I could see the character depth available with
a person who is half wolf, half human and not at home in either society. I had
no other motive, but it soon became clear how the parallels were developing.
It gets even tougher for her in The Fifth Elephant...
FTL: Thank you, Mr. Pratchett
Quotes & Mini-essay[FTL-Home]
Reading the interview I obviously pondered why the discworld is that famous – and discovered a few points: obviously T.P. can write, he learned his trade, working for newspapers, for Nuclear Power stations and to sell those well to the public one better has to write well, studied writing even at university, so to sum up acquired some practice.
Others undoubtedly have the same but to quote his publisher Colin there is more: As to his impact, he's certainly affected a lot of people - including bereaved people comforted by Mort
(some of the letters are very moving), or by the joy and humor of the other books, an Archdeacon of the Church of England sending out copies of Equal Rites as
the best argument for women priests he knew. Terry's a moral author: I think this is part of his appeal to readers.
To keep readers going the themes have changed throughout the series, from death and gods, heroics contra survival (early books) to parodies on university faculty and social bigotry, and in the recent time there is an influence of crime/diplomacy. Usually things which are ornamental in one book tend to develop their own life into major plots in books to come – no idea wasted as Colin Smythe writes:
Terry’s twenty-fifth Discworld novel, "The Truth", was published in November 2000. This novel had been started some years ago but he put it aside as for some time he could not see how the plot would develop. An idea of how long ago he started it is given by the original working title - Interesting Times - but Terry’s not one to let a good idea go to waste... It’s about Ankh-Morpork’s first newspaper, so he has been able to make use of some his experiences from his own reporting days. (Another possible title had been Printer’s Devil.) It is the first Discworld novel to have simultaneous publication in Britain and America, and is being followed by "Thief of Time", due for publication in May 2001, featuring Susan, History Monks, the Auditors, the Five Horsemen (including the one who left before they became famous) and even chocolate coffee beans....
(I haven’t read it but judging from his previous books it might be a good as well. And if you want to do something good, please be so nice to order it via our website http://www.oocities.org/fasterthanlife_2000. Thank you. Sam)
Summarizing I suggest, to answer the "nobody-knows-why-these-books-churn-out-so much-money-question" the necessary condition is an easygoing writing-style and the sufficient condition is that the novels have multiple levels: the humorous one, the action-oriented one, the one that flatters the reader in recognizing that he at least somewhere might have heard about quantum theory, Socrates and Schroedinger’s cat, the mentioned moral one, the travelogue level, and last not least the one social critical, satirical one.
The trick is that are all equally balanced, indeed most paragraphs could be grouped into more than one category, therefore readers will find usually at least two of their favorite levels on each page.
Do the characters truly develop by themselves and what can one learn from the discworld approach when it comes to writing stories?
Polish the stories, the style (I read one that T.P. writes 20 versions or more and in the end deletes them all) but also and maybe more importantly to be open to follow the character’s natural development without barriers in the mind on how he or she should end up. Fortunately for our readers there were no barriers towards transgender in the T.P.’s mind. This while keeping an eye to also the usually hidden aspects aka "what eats Conan the Barbarian when he is 80 (only soup as he lost his teeth years ago), which might be as important as covering the right clothes, medieval navigation styles and castle constructions when writing fantasy). Similar considerations will hold for sci-fi.
You can't make people happy by law. If you said to a bunch of average people two hundred years ago "Would you be happy in a world where medical care is widely available, houses are clean, the world's music and sights and foods can be brought into your home at small cost, travelling even 100 miles is easy, childbirth is generally not fatal to mother or child, you don't have to die of dental abscesses and you don't have to do what the squire tells you" they'd think you were talking about the New Jerusalem and say 'yes' (Terry Pratchett, alt.fan.pratchett)
We thank Mr. Pratchett and also especially Mr. Colin Smythe, his agent for arranging this interview.
Suzy Mc Carnas Interview: http://www.oocities.org/fasterthanlife_2000/Suzy_interview.htm