Novelist Terry Pratchett enjoys colossal fame in his home country as one of Britain's most prolific and best-selling authors. And there's no doubt that Sir Terry (he was knighted in 2009) and his fantastical Discworld novels have caught on across the pond.
Next weekend, the Madison Concourse will host the North American Discworld Convention 2011, an event that should attract nearly 1,000 fans of Pratchett's satirical fantasies. Many of his books are set on Discworld, which is, essentially, a disc that rests on the backs of four elephants. And the elephants happen to be standing on the back of a giant turtle.
The Discworld books are fantasy, yes, "but they're a parody of our world," said Emily Whitten, the coordinator of the Madison convention. "Terry has immense insight into human nature and how people work, and he writes it extremely well," she said.
In addition to his 38 Discworld novels, Pratchett, 63, has numerous children's and young adult titles to his credit. In 2007, he announced that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and since then he has advocated for further research and filmed a BBC documentary on assisted suicide.
Pratchett was reached by phone at his home in England, where he spoke about his ties to Madison, the mundane business of being a werewolf and the unexpected side effects of his Alzheimer's medications.
Q: You're coming to Madison for the North American Discworld Convention. That happens every other year here in the States, since 2009?
A: Yes, it's a tradition. In Discworld terms, a tradition is something that you've done once before.
Q: What do you think about your American popularity?
A: It took a long time coming because, way back when I started, my American publishers were not particularly good and didn't really know how to sell me. The upturn began when my agent, the late Ralph Vicinanza - he was Stephen King's agent - worked out how many UK copies of my hardcovers were being sold as imports in the United States. And then two publishers merged and out of the merger I got a new publisher who knew my name - always a good thing - and a new publicist who had read my book - always a good thing - and that's when the thermometer started to rise. And pretty soon I was doing signing tours, and in fact one of the first ones I did was in Madison.
A: Yes, heaven knows why. I think I had about 26 people. For a first-time signing tour anywhere it wasn't too bad. I've been to see the House on the Rock. You have to go and look at things, you know. I bought a cheesehead, too, I'll have you know. You all wear them in Madison, don't you?
One of the things you might not know is I'm working with a science fiction writer called Steve Baxter on a book called "The Long Earth," and part of it is set in Madison. Partly because the convention is going to be there, but also partly because, and Steve knows more about this than me, there's something interesting about the geology around Madison, isn't there? He thinks that might be quite integral to how the book works. One of the things we'll be doing there is walking about and making certain where the major police station is and things like that, so we make sure we get the details right.
Q: Your books often parody modern topics, like movies and sports. Are there any other topics that you see as suitable for the Discworld treatment?
A: By parody, and I think we use that term in the sense that G. K. Chesterton used it, we're exploring something that is familiar by looking at it from a different direction, a different frame of mind. Certainly "The Long Earth," the book we're working on, is going to be rather more pure science fiction than the fantasy that the Discworld books are. They look at the commonality of mankind. People are still people, even if some of those people are trolls.
The next (Discworld novel) out is called "Snuff." It's not about killing people, it's about tobacco. It's a police procedural; you can do that with fantasy. There are vampires and werewolves, but they're all people. These days, we're getting used to this idea of taking heroes and villains of fairy tales and saying, "What do they do in the evenings? Have they got a hobby? If you're a werewolf in the city, what is it you do?"
I've got one character, a werewolf, who always has to carry, on her neckband, a small container with a nightdress in it. You know how, if there's a full moon and your clothes get ripped off when you're changing, and then you come back again, well, it's best to have something on.
Q: You've got some practical werewolves.
A: Because the books get practical, about things that you don't expect to be practical, the incongruity leads to a certain amount of humor.
Q: You speak openly about your Alzheimer's diagnosis. Will there be a book about it in the future?
A: I did a documentary for the BBC on assisted dying. The documentary looks at what's available in Europe, where it happens in some countries. But not, right now, in England. I would rather like to see it happen. That was televised a couple of nights ago, to, shall we say, more acclaim than dismissal. Where that's going to lead, I do not know.
Because I've been out talking about it, and real about it - oh my word, I've got a list here of people who want to have an interview with me about the documentary. But as it were, I'm talking about it just by being alive. I have an unusual variant, which isn't exactly like what you'd call "normal" Alzheimer's. Although all Alzheimer's becomes Alzheimer's at the end, if you see what I mean.
Q: But you seem to be handling it well.
A: I've had some problems with medication at the moment, but I think the medication is working, and we think that we've now found a way of dealing with some of the side effects.
I will tell you this little anecdote. I was on this medication recently that might have done something for me, but it turned my urine blue. And in Britain, there are some men's restrooms where it's just a long gutter, do you get me?
Q: I get you.
A: So there I am, minding my own business as it were, getting on with the matter at hand, and I am aware of a certain stare from other men who are going about their business, when I realize that a trickle of bright blue is drifting down the trough. At which point I raise my hat and say, "I'm really enjoying my visit to your planet."
Q: I'm sure that got some interesting looks.
A: In England it gets a big laugh.