The author of the Discworld series — most recently, “Raising Steam” — read “The Wind in the Willows” and “just exploded”: “I thought to myself, This is a lie, but what a fabulous lie!”
Sell us on your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer.
G. K. Chesterton. These days recognized — that is if he is recognized at all — as the man who wrote the Father Brown stories. My grandmother actually knew him quite well and pointed out that she herself lived on Chesterton Green in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, here in the U.K. And the man was so well venerated that on one memorable occasion, he was late in sending a piece to The Strand Magazine and a railway train actually waited at the local station until Mr. Chesterton had finished writing his piece. When she told me that, I thought, Blimey, now that is celebrity.
Who are your favorite fantasy novelists?
O.K., I give in. J. R. R. Tolkien. I wrote a letter to him once and got a very nice reply. Just think how busy he would have been, and yet he took the time out to write to a fan.
What makes for a good fantasy novel?
The kind that isn’t fantastic. It’s just creating a new reality. Really, a good fantasy is just a mirror of our own world, but one whose reflection is subtly distorted.
Which books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
Right now I am looking at a very good book called “Feeding Nelson’s Navy,” having just browsed through another on the usage of arsenic through the ages. Mostly, my shelves are full of nonfiction with interesting titles such as “The World of Snot.” A writer never knows where he’s going to find those little gems.
What kind of reader were you as a child? And what were your favorite childhood books?
I barely read a book for pleasure when I was at junior school and got into reading only because my mother promised me a penny for every page I read to her properly. That cost her some money in the beginning, and then I found a book called “The Wind in the Willows,” by Kenneth Grahame, and I just exploded. There were rats and moles and badgers and they were all acting like humans, and I thought to myself, This is a lie, but what a fabulous lie! After that I scoured the local library and read everything. I even got myself a part-time job there so I could legitimately have multiple library cards.
Whom would you consider your literary heroes?
I would have to say that Mark Twain is up there with the gods and probably cursing it. “Life on the Mississippi” blew my mind. And, of course, reading him meant that I got to read “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” I hope it’s still read and that people read the book he wanted people to see, because I know that some editions leave out the fact that the Yankee boy killed most of the famous Knights of the Round Table using electricity. Now that is fantasy.
Which novels have had the most impact on you as a writer? Is there a particular book that made you want to write?
It has to be “The Wind in the Willows.” It fascinated me. He had toads living in great country houses and badgers and moles acting like British gentlemen. I read the pages so often they fell apart, and God bless him for leaving in the pieces called “Wayfarers All” and “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” I am sorry to say that certain publishers, who really should know better, have produced editions with those pieces cut from that wonderful book, stating they were simply too heavy for children. I scream at stuff like that. After all, “The Pilgrim’s Progress” was a book written for children. A good book, no matter its intended audience, should get people reading, and that’s what started me writing. And once I started, I never stopped.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? And the prime minister?
Well, it would have to be “The Man Who Was Thursday.” It’s a damn good read that I believe should be read by everyone in politics.
You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton and Neil Gaiman, because he’s a mate who knows how to order the most excellent sushi.
And if you could bring only three books to a desert island, which would you choose?
“Boatbuilding for Beginners,” “Poisonous Plants of the South Pacific” and a very good seafood cookery book.
What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?
Probably the first draft of the first one I ever wrote, but I think I’ve got better since then.