Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Origins of L-Space: Terry Pratchett returns to where it all began.

by Catriona Troth

As any reader knows, there something powerfully magical about large concentrations of books. As Terry Pratchett wrote in Guards! Guards!:
A good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read

Libraries and bookshops are entries to L-space, and in L-space, anything can happen.

July 17th, 2013

Beaconsfield Library may not be big, but it’s special to Pratchett. As he tells an audience of around 70, crammed in on the hottest day of the summer, he didn’t like school; so he came to the library to read. A lot. Wycombe library down the road was bigger, but it was full of ‘fierce women in leather corsets’ who wanted to tell him what books were ‘suitable.’ At Beaconsfield, he could read what he liked. And he did.

He read his way through all the bound volumes of Punch, learning from the masters of humour. (“You’ve taken them away? Where did they go?” he protests, when one of the librarians admits they no longer have them.)

Before Punch, it was The Wind in the Willows. (“I read that three times, one after the other. I realised it was made up. It was one big lie. And it was better than the truth.”) And Moomintroll. And 1066 and All That.

“You grow up when you start to read grown-up books. Always read books that are a little bit too old for you,” he tells the children in the audience.

He wrote his first short story for a supply teacher, which was then published in the school magazine. “The kids loved it and the headmaster hated it. It was great!” Not long after, he ran away from school, became a journalist for the Bucks Free Press, and had the story published in Science Fantasy Magazine. “And I was down the slippery slope. You read until your head is full to bursting, then God puts a finger on you, and you’re a writer.”

These days his illness necessitates that he uses dictation software (Talking Point and Dragon Dictate) to write his novels. He and his assistant, Rob, (“some days I feel like Drumknott, other days like Willikins...”) swap stories about training the American-written software to write arse not ass.

“We created our own command in Talking Point,” Rob tells the audience. “Get the Cleaners is supposed to remove all the formatting from a piece of text. Sometimes I can hear Terry’s voice in the office. ‘Get the cleaners. Get the cleaners. GET. THE. CLEANERS.”

“I’m not so sure computers don’t have souls,” says Pratchett. “They might be arse-souls...”

Someone from the audience asks who Pratchett’s favourite Discworld character is, and the answer comes back without hesitation:

“Tiffany Aching. I fell in love with her.

“It’s when a character starts acting as if they were living. That happened with Granny Weatherwax too. And Sam Vimes. If I wind him up, he’ll keep going so long as I keep him fed.”

Another Lancre resident had their origins not far away. “The lady who became Nanny Ogg came from Beaconsfield Old Town. She’d been a foundling and her life had been hard, but she was always cheerful. She had a laugh like a drain. My parents would take her out to dinner and she’d always go with them, even if she’d just had her dinner. And she sent my Dad girly pictures at Christmas.”

Writers are pack rats, he says, always picking up interesting things. But there is a darker side to it too.

“It’s what I call the Black Mill. When my father was dying and my mother was weeping and I was comforting her – there was a part of my brain that was going ‘so this is what it’s like...’ It’s all grist to the Black Mill. It’ll be used sometime.”

People write asking where he gets his ideas from but there really is no shortcut. (“You did once write a letter back saying, ‘there’s this little shop in Basingstoke...’” Rob reminds him. Pratchett chuckles. “He’s probably still out there, looking for it.”)

A young audience member asks what his advice for young writers is. “WRITE!” comes back the answer. “And have a second string to your bow so you can make some money.”

What does he do when he’s not writing? “What’s ‘not writing’?” he retorts, which leads off into stories of the gadgets he has used over time so he can write even when he away from his desk. A Toshiba Libretto. Palm Pilots. Blackberries. Toilet Rolls... (“I keep everything,” Rob confesses.)

Would he like to live on Discworld? “It doesn’t exist,” he stage whispers – and then he relents and says, yes, so long as Vetinari was his friend (which sounds entirely reasonable).

Having just emailed Pratchett’s current work-in-progress, Raising Steam, to their editor, Rob has an extract on his phone. He reads a page or two, from where the residents of Sto Lat witness the inaugural journey of Discworld’s first steam train. In the front row is a young boy with a steam train on his t-shirt, who seems to embody all the small boys in the story who stand goggle eyed while “the bystanders become by-runners and they by-stampeders...”

Then Pratchett returns to libraries and to L-Space.

“I came here because I support libraries and I support librarians. Google is good. We Google like nobody’s business. But Google is only good if you already know what you want to look up. You can’t browse Google.”

He looks sternly at one of the librarians.

“Libraries should be full of books. Old books.”

The money raised from ticket sales is go, at Pratchett’s request, to the library. “And not some central pot. This library. You can buy back some of those copies of Punch!”

Clearly those missing volumes are a sore point. But until they’re retrieved, any budding writers in the library could do worse than learn from a modern master– Terry Pratchett, creator of the Discworld.

You can read Catriona Troth’s personal exploration of Discworld in Travelling Widdershins.


  1. Always delightful, not to mention instructive, to listen in on Mr. Pratchett. I share his passion for libraries.

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