UNLIKELY isn’t the word for it. Yet a series of adventures, set on a flat planet which rests upon four huge elephants who in turn stand on the gigantic space-faring turtle called Great A’Tuin, have made Terry Pratchett Britain’s best-selling living novelist.
Welcome to Discworld, a realm in which the natural beauty of the Ramtop mountains gives way to the desert land of Klatch and the sprawling metropolis of Ankh-Morpork - a city of a million inhabitants and no sewers.
This is a world populated with dwarves, werewolves, zombies, trolls, gnomes, vampires and humans, and one in which strong magical fields feed a host of witches, wizards and even the odd orangutan librarian. Bizarre is perhaps a better word for it.
So it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that as a boy, the 55-year-old author - who is due to make a rare appearance at Ottakar’s on George Street next Wednesday to sign copies of his latest book - first discovered the magic of reading through Richmal Crompton’s slightly more down to earth Just William stories.
Recently he recalled: "Pretty soon after I discovered reading at the age of ten, neighbours and relatives had to scour their attics for Just William books. I consumed them. It was the first time I was consciously aware of irony, even if I didn’t yet know the word.
"I wangled a Saturday job at Beaconsfield Public Library (a relaxed attitude to the number of my tickets being the reward) and my reading was wild, fast and undirected. There was Wodehouse and Chesterton - a local lad - and vast amounts of Gollancz science fiction in those virulent magenta and purple covers that you could spot across the entire length of the fiction section.
Terence David John Pratchett (born in Beaconsfield on April 28, 1948), has credited that very same library as the major source of his education, although he did concede that school must have been of some little help as well.
Either way, after passing his 11 plus exams he opted to attend High Wycombe Technical High School and it was there, at the age of 13, that he had his first story - The Hades Business - published in the school magazine.
Two years on, the fledgling scribe could be found honing his writing skills as a reporter with the Bucks Free Press and although it would be another decade before his first book saw the light of day, it was while working as a journalist in 1968 that he got his break.
Part of his job involved reviewing books published by Colin Smythe Publishing. One day, having just interviewed Peter Bander van Duren, one of the publishing company’s directors, Pratchett mentioned that he’d written a book called The Carpet People and asked if Bander van Duren would consider it for publication.
That first novel finally graced bookshops across the land in 1971, but only after a launch party thrown in the carpet department of Heal’s in Tottenham Court Road.
However, it’s been his regular visits to Discworld that have secured Pratchett more books in the BBC Big Read’s Top 100 than any other living author - his publicists are also quick to remind anyone who will listen that one per cent of all books sold in the UK come from Pratchett’s pen.
The Discworld saga itself began 20 years ago. While working as publicity officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board (with responsibility for three nuclear power stations) Pratchett wrote The Colour of Magic and his alternative universe was born.
That, and subsequent Discworld novels have since been translated into 27 different languages and sold in excess of 22 million copies.
Pratchett, though, has always remained modest about his success. "The reason I make the sales is that everything I’ve written is in print and still selling very well. And every new book adds to it and the whole huge thing just keeps rumbling onward, a typical reply when asked about his ongoing popularity.
Nevertheless, that rumbling won the author, who lives near Stonehenge in Salisbury, Wiltshire, an OBE in 1998 - and it was even suggested in some quarters that his 26th Discworld book, Thief of Time, be nominated for the Booker Prize. Something the author appears to be in two minds about.
"I heard the judges called it in. Which is to say: let’s have a look. And that means one or two of the judges thought they should. But we never heard any more. Thank goodness, because I think my earnings would have gone down considerably if I suddenly got literary credibility. A friend of mine said: It would be impossible for you to win the Booker; all the stars would go out. The world is not constructed for that to happen’.
That’s just that sort of fanciful imagery that makes Discworld so popular, however, and Pratchett believes that the setting - the flat planet itself - is integral to his books’ success. Influences of his childhood days Beaconsfield Public Library perhaps?
"While being very careful not to suggest any comparison, everything that PG Wodehouse wrote more or less existed in the same world. It was the world of Wooster that you made your way into, rather than the specific stories. And I think Discworld works on that basis.
In his latest escapade, Monstrous Regiment (number 28, according to his publisher, for those who are counting), Discworld goes to war and so does Polly Perks.
Set in the tiny land of Borogravia, a country, which despite its size, has declared war on all its neighbours over the centuries, Polly must transform herself into a boy to fight for the cause.
She cuts her hair, borrows some of her brother’s clothes and then takes on the more difficult challenge of learning to fart and belch in public.
That accomplished, she practices walking like an ape before enlisting in the army where she finds herself fighting alongside the most artful sergeant in the forces and a vampire with a lust for coffee.
The critics have loved it, hailing Pratchett’s "spectacular inventiveness and describing him as "a satirist of enormous talent. A reflection that each new novel is becoming more thoughtful than the last. Something the author himself has acknowledged.
"They’re becoming darker and the humour now comes out of the character and situation rather than a gag in the plot. Some of the best humour turns up purely as a result of the development of the situation.
So does Pratchett see each book contributing to the whole alternative world he has created?
"It’s an interesting thought. I don’t know. You’d better ask me when I’ve finished. And since I don’t intend to finish before I’m dead, this may involve the services of some good medium.
• Terry Pratchett, Ottakar’s, George Street, Wednesday, 1.00pm, Free, 0131 225 4495. Monstrous Regiment is published in hard back by Doubleday. 17.99
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What was the name of the first Discworld novel?
Answers on a postcard please to: Discworld Competition, EH Entertainment, Edinburgh Evening News, 108, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh, EH8 8AS. Closing date: Tuesday, October 21.
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