YA Wednesday: Cory Doctorow and Terry Pratchett: Authority and Underdogs
Best-selling author Terry Pratchett wrote The Carpet People at the tender age of 17. Now, many years later, Pratchett has re-written the story and it's being published in its new version on November 5th. In the author's note for The Carpet People, Pratchett refers to the novel as a joint effort between his 17-year-old self and his 43-year-old self. I couldn't help but picture a sci-fi moment after reading that...
When Pratchett sat down for a chat with one of our other favorite authors, Cory Doctorow, the result is as funny and interesting as you might expect from these two, as they discuss The Carpet People, authority, and the underdog:
Cory Doctorow: The Carpet People was your first novel, and now the fortieth book in your Discworld series is about to be published. Do you think you could have kept us in the Carpet for anything like forty books?
Terry Pratchett: I was about to say, “No,” but right now I wonder. . . . If the idea had taken, I don’t know. I really don’t. But how would it be? People in the Carpet are more or less tribal. What would happen if I . . . You’ve got me thinking!
CD: You took a bunch of runs at building a world where a million stories could unfold—The Carpet People, Truckers, and, finally, Discworld. Is Discworld’s near-total untethering from our world the secret of its staying power?
TP: It isn’t our world, but on the other hand it is very much like our world. Discworld takes something from this world all the time, shows you bits of the familiar world in new light by putting them into Discworld.
CD: You write a lot of feudal scenarios, but you also seem like a fellow with a lot of sympathy for (and suspicion of!) majority rule. The Carpet People is shot through with themes of who should rule and why. Where does legitimate authority spring from?
TP: The people! The only trouble is the people can be a bit stupid--I know that; I’m one of the people, and I’m quite stupid.
CD: What should the writer’s relationship with authority be?
TP: My personal view is that you look askance at authority. Authority must be challenged at every step. You challenge authority to keep it on its toes.
CD: The Carpet People concerns itself with many questions of infrastructure and public works. Now that we’ve arrived at a time of deep austerity, what do you think the future of infrastructure is?
TP: To crack and fall away, I sometimes think. From what I see around me, it’s people doing it for themselves. We know the government is there, but we know they have no real power to do anything but mess things up, so you do workarounds.
CD: Ultimately, it comes down to the builders, the wreckers, and the free spirits.
TP: Sometimes things need tearing down—and that might be, as it were, the gates of the city. But if we talk without metaphors, I would say that building is best. Because it is inherently useful. My dad was a mechanic; maybe it starts there.
CD: One thing I’ve always enjoyed about your books with feudal settings is that it seems you get something like the correct ratio of vassals to lords. So much of fantasy seems very top-heavy. Do you consciously think about political and economic considerations when you’re devising a world?
TP: I’ve never been at home with lords and ladies, kings, and rubbish like that, because it’s not so much fun. Take a protagonist from the bottom of the heap and they’ve got it all to play for. Whereas people in high places, all they can do is, well . . . I don’t know, actually: I’ve never been that high. If you have the underdog in front of you, that means you’re going to have fun, because what the underdog is going to want to do is be the upper dog or be no dog at all.
CD: Damon Knight once told me that he thought that no matter how good a writer you are, you probably won’t have anything much to say until you’re about twenty-six (I was twenty at the time). You’ve written about collaborating with your younger self on the revised text of The Carpet People. Do you feel like seventeen-year-old Terry had much to say?
TP: That’s the best question you’ve asked all day! I think that he had a go at it, and it wasn’t bad, but that when I was younger I didn’t have the anger. It gives an outlook. And a place from which to stand. When you get out of the teens, well out of the teens, you begin to have some kind of understanding: you’ve met so many people, heard so many things, all the bits that growing up means. And out of that lot comes wisdom—it might not be very good wisdom to start with, but it will be a certain kind of wisdom. It leads to better books.