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Terry Pratchett’s 2009 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Award Speech for Nation

by Terry Pratchett

I am sure that there are writers out there who are capable of telling the world, clearly and succinctly, why and how they wrote the books on which their names and likenesses now twinkle.

These would be real writers, who keep things in filing cabinets rather than in piles. They will have desks, quite probably glass-topped, which, unlike mine, are not infested with mice.

Yes, I know, this should not be possible, but it is an old Victorian desk with secret compartments in it; secret, that is, to me but not, alas, to the mice. Patch, the office cat, occasionally unleashes a pogrom, but what we have now is a stalemate at best. I cannot bring myself to poison them in situ, because of the thought of the little bodies moldering in there somewhere among the mislaid wills and long-lost maps to hidden treasure.

I have met real writers. They make lists. They plan out their books on file cards. They do proper research, with notebooks, and, unlike me, they don’t get totally sidetracked by a wonderful book about the frozen water trade on the US seaboard in the late eighteenth century.

It would be hard to describe my usual way of working, but I suspect it would look to a bystander, at least in the early stages of a novel, like the activity of a man who does not know what he is doing. That would be reasonable to surmise; generally I do not, and the purpose of writing the novel is to find out. Fortunately, this usually happens about halfway through the first draft. I tinker with ideas, invent characters, try out lines of dialogue, and generally play around with it until I have found a way to let myself know what I am thinking; often, one of the characters says something that tells me what the story is about.

Nation was not like that. It arrived like a tsunami; it took me over, more or less.

This happened about six months before the dreadful Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and when I saw the terrible news I told my editors that there was no way I could write the book at that time. It would simply be wrong.

But the story banged away at me nevertheless, to the point where I had to give in. It was that or go mad. And the first thing I did was to write the song.

It seems to me that I have always known that the tidal wave after Krakatoa sent a steamship a couple of miles into the rainforest. It is one of those things that you remember. And ever since I heard it, I have cherished the word calenture, a condition that affects becalmed sailors who begin to hallucinate green fields around their stricken ship. I wondered if the first man who looked over the side of the boat when it had been thrust into the jungle thought he had gone crazy. So I wrote the extra verse of “For Those in Peril on the Sea” for poor Captain Roberts to sing as the Sweet Judy plowed through the canopy, scattering birds and leaves. Here, indeed, was a sailor no longer in peril on the sea but suddenly — and urgently — in peril on the land.

And there it was, hanging in my mind like a vision, the white-sailed ship plunging out of the darkness, from the Old World to the New, with a near-deranged captain tied to the wheel and making up, as his vessel disintegrates underneath him, a postscript to one of the finest Christian hymns. I sang it quite a lot while I wrote the book.

But all the time there was another vision squatting there, too. It is so clear in my mind that I can taste it even now. There was a boy, his back to me, holding a spear and screaming at the sea. I knew that he had lost something, and instantly realized that he had lost everything.

There had to be a girl. She would be a Victorian girl, with all the baggage that the word brings with it. She would have to be prim and, by the standards of the trouser-wearing peoples of the Northern Hemisphere, well brought up. But under those stiff Victorian clothes she would be as tough as nails. I took that as a given, because my creativity always fails me if I try to write a soppy girl. I just can’t. You could poke me with sticks, and it would have no effect. Oh, a girl character sometimes starts out soppy as anything, but as soon as she finds that it doesn’t work, she tends to become a reasonably close relative of Miss Piggy.

And so on. In short, I nearly drowned under the force of this book. In my mind, it is still totally visual, a sequence of images rather than words, as if I was getting a glimpse of the movie that was yet to be made. (And probably never will be; see later.)

Authors tend to have packrat minds as a matter of course, and I suspect that my mind packs more rats than most. Nation became a happy dumping ground for the hoarded junk of fifty years of joyfully undirected serendipitous reading. Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s Story of the Pacific gave me a good background. Various accounts of the Krakatoa explosion and its aftermath were dredged up. A whole three shelves of accumulated world folklore got distilled into the affairs of one island. Scientist friends dug out esoteric information on how you can measure the age of glass. And — this was a real coup — I found myself at a dinner sitting next to a man who not only knew that bullets can be slowed very, very rapidly by water and also that in some circumstances they might even ricochet off the surface but who was able to set up some tests in his big tanks, just to check for certain. Blue Jupiter — viewing the giant planet in the daylight — is something I discovered for myself, one evening in early autumn, when I spotted Sirius just visible in the sky and realized that the highly sophisticated go-to function on my shiny new telescope would be able to use this data to locate Jupiter right at that moment.

And, five minutes later, there it was, blue and white like the daytime moon and with three of its own satellites visible.

They keep the universe turned on even during the daytime! I had always known that to be true, but it was a moment of epiphany — by whom, from what, and why I don’t know, but any epiphany is worth having.

Even now, more than a year since the deed was done, I am still not sure what Nation is, because it seemed to me that I channeled half of it. I have a reputation, or possibly a crime sheet, as a comic writer, and indeed humor does break out sometimes in the book and a smile will force its way through. Yet it begins with a boy burying the corpses of almost everybody he has ever known. I admired Mau’s dilemma as he single-handedly invented Humanism, railing at the gods for not existing, while at the same time needing them to exist to take the blame. I find it difficult to remember that I invented him: he seemed to create himself as the book progressed.

At this point, people say, in a kindly voice, the novel was clearly influenced by the fact that I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease during its completion.

That would be interesting if it were true, but it is even more interesting because it is not true. The first, and quite complex, draft had already been finished when I was diagnosed, and Posterior Cortical Atrophy, which is the official term for my variant of the disease, is quite hard even for an expert to discover. From what I have been told, the disease may have been quietly and unobtrusively taking over the territory for very many years before I had an inkling that anything was wrong.

All authors must occasionally wonder where the magic comes from, and sometimes I wonder where the strength of Daphne came from, and about the source of Mau’s almost incoherent rage. Wherever their origins, I believe that Nation is the best book I have ever written or will write.

Finally, or perhaps I should say climactically, I must thank my editors on both sides of the Atlantic, who got the best out of me with Nation by pushing needles under my fingernails, an ancient skill of the craft. I know it was for my own good, and I am grateful. Sincerely grateful, and this time I’m not kidding.

I would be astonished and gratified to be standing in front of you today, if indeed I was, in fact, standing in front of you today, because it would mark something very special — a second chance that worked.

Up until the mid-1990s I was barely known in the United States while selling in great numbers almost everywhere else in the world. The publishing situation was woeful. I remember that one of my books, in a paperback edition, went out across America with my name spelt wrong on every other page. And yet, when I went to US science fiction conventions, I would be faced by a huge queue of fans, all burdened down with imported UK editions — hardcover ones at that.

My agent did some calculations and presented the publisher with figures to show how much their sloth was costing them. Things began to move. Not long afterward, my publisher either took over somebody else or got taken over themselves; in practice it’s always a little difficult to be certain in these matters, because publishers tend to collide like galaxies, and you are never quite sure who ran into whom, only that some stars have exploded and some constellations have gone freelance.

But, in short, I ended up with bright star editors who knew my work and cared about it, and even with publicists who knew my name, which is always useful in a publicist.

Strange things began to happen. I began to get royalties; I began to get big crowds at events; at one signing a few years ago, when the independent bookshop was stripped of all my titles within minutes of the beginning of the event, the crowd surged down to the nearest Barnes and Noble and did the same thing there. Who would have thought it?

Am I proud? Well, I am English, and a knight, and, of course, properly modest and diffident. Hooray! Bingo! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!

I have always treasured having one of my novels named to the Amelia Bloomer list by the Feminist Task Force of the ALA, because there is something heartwarming about a man with a beard receiving accolades for strong feminist writing. But this is the Boston Globe–Horn Book award. I am truly honored to receive it, especially so as it is given by people who, if they are not librarians themselves, are often in league with librarians.

Not long ago I was invited to a librarians’ event by a lady who cheerfully told me, “We like to think of ourselves as ‘information providers.’” I was appalled by this want of ambition; I made my excuses and didn’t go. After all, if you have a choice, why not call yourselves “Shining Acolytes of the Sacred Flame of Literacy in a Dark and Encroaching Universe”? I admit this is hard to put on a button, so why not abbreviate it to “librarians”?

As I am sure some of you know, I boast of the fact that for a couple of years I was a volunteer librarian, working weekends for no more reward than a cup of tea, a sweet biscuit, and a blind eye to the enormous number of books that I was taking home.

It seemed to me, even in those days, that librarians and their ilk were not mere “providers.” Information sleets down on us like confetti; we are knee deep in the stuff. I saw my fellow librarians as subtle guides and givers of context, a view that must have taken root when, one day, one of them pushed across the counter three books bound together with string. He said, “We think you might like this.” It was The Lord of the Rings. Now that’s what I call real librarianship.

Postscript: Nation has done the rounds of Hollywood, but apparently is not of interest because it does not leave enough room for hilarious, wisecracking animals. We must be grateful for small mercies.

From the January/February 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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