Oct 14, 2008

The Turtle Moves! by Lawrence Watt-Evans (with Q&A and giveaway!)

Lawrence Watt-Evans, a fantasy author himself, is very clearly a big Discworld fan. Which is why he decided to write The Turtle Moves! Discworld’s Story. This book is a guide to the series written both for established fans and for the curious. Although those who aren’t familiar with Discworld are less likely to be eager to read about it for 270 pages, Lawrence Watt-Evans avoids spoilers unless they are absolutely necessary for the discussion (which, as far as I remember, doesn't happen more than two or three times). And there's even a section that attempts to answer the eternal question: which Discworld book should you start with?

The Turtle Moves! doesn’t try to be a book of scholarly literary criticism. It’s written in a humorous and accessible style, but that doesn’t stop it from looking at the series with intelligence and insight. Although I found myself occasionally disagreeing with Lawrence Watt-Evans, namely about the subdivisions of the series (and he’s the first to acknowledge that some fans undoubtedly will), for the most part we look at Discworld in a very similar way. We agree that the fact that Discworld is hilarious doesn't mean it's not serious or that it shouldn't be taken seriously; that The Last Continent is the weakest book in the series and the Tiffany Aching books are among the best; that The Colour of Magic is very far from being the ideal starting point; that the series got better, not worse, as it went along. Most of all, I agree with him when it comes to What It’s All About.

And what Discworld is all about, Lawrence Watt-Evans says, is mostly people and stories. The central theory he presents in The Turtle Moves! is that Discworld is a series of stories about stories. This is fairly obvious in books like Witches Abroad, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, Hogfather or The Wee Free Men, but Lawrence Watt-Evans argues that storytelling is a theme that permeates the whole series. And he makes a very good case for it.

I very much enjoyed The Turtle Moves!, but I have to say that it probably helps that I’m the kind of person who could talk about Discworld all day, for several days in a row. Slightly less obsessive fans will probably find this a book to dip into every now and again rather than to read back to back. The Turtle Moves! is divided into several sections, some with general commentary, some about each sub-series, and one with an essay on each of the Discworld books. And because there are several books that deal with the same or similar themes, there is only so much that can be said. It would be pretty much impossible to write an essay on each Discworld novel without ending up saying similar things several times.

But repetition aside, The Turtle Moves! is a very enjoyable read. It’s funny, it’s written by someone who is obviously passionate about Discworld but nevertheless manages to be critical, it’s clever and it’s perceptive. And one of my favourite things about it was that it not only comments on Discworld, but on the genre of fantasy as a whole, offering a bit of history along some insight about what makes it work.

I had the chance to ask Lawrence Watt-Evans a few questions about this book:

1. Could you tell us a little about what the writing process for this book was like? What was the most difficult bit? And the most fun bit?

"It's really tempting to just answer the first part of that with "No," because I've never been very good at explaining how I work, but that wouldn't be fair.

I started off by collecting all the Discworld books and stories, and as many of the spin-offs as I could find, and reading through them all in the order they were written (which was not the order they were published in the U.S.) I'd initially had only a vague idea what I was going to say, but reading through everything gradually brought the whole project into focus -- re-reading the stories in quick succession led me to notice things I'd missed before.

Early on I was taking detailed notes on each story, but then I looked back over those notes and realized most of that stuff wasn't stuff I was going to use, so I switched to just noting a few important features of each. I also started writing up the individual chapters right after finishing re-reading each book.

And when I'd gone through everything, I started rewriting and expanding, and kept at it until I felt I'd said everything I wanted to say.

It took a long time -- more than two years, all told. Enough that three more Discworld novels came out (Thud!, Wintersmith, and Making Money) while I was working on the book, each of which had to be incorporated.

The most difficult part was the sheer volume of the material.

The most fun -- well, a lot of it was fun, or I wouldn't have done it. The most fun, though, was probably writing the first introduction, where I allowed myself to be utterly silly. That was also where I went from the researching and thinking and planning to actually writing, so there was a real feeling of accomplishment."

2. The central theory of The Turtle Moves! - that Discworld is essential a collection of stories about stories - is one that really appeals to me. Would you like to tell us how you arrived at it? Also, do you think storytelling was a theme that was deliberately picked from the start, or something that was always reflected in the series because Terry Pratchett believes in it, and that became more noticeable as the series progressed?

"I arrived at it from reading the three Science of Discworld books, which have never been released in the U.S., but which I obviously needed to include, so I got them from Amazon UK. In those, Terry Pratchett and his co-authors set forth the idea that storytelling is what makes us human, and when I read that the penny dropped, as it were. I'd already decided that one of the outstanding features of the series was its humanity, and had noticed how often the power of story was important, and The Science of Discworld crystallized the whole thing for me -- I realized that all the Discworld stories were, on some level, about stories.

I don't think Mr. Pratchett deliberately set out to write a series about the nature of stories; I think it's a fundamental part of his understanding of the world that gradually became more and more visible in his work."

3. In The Turtle Moves! you don't hide the fact that you are a very big Discworld fan. Was Terry Pratchett's possible reaction to the book at the back of your mind while you were writing it? If you did get a reaction and wouldn't mind sharing, I would love to hear about it.

"Oh, his reaction was indeed at the back of my mind. It was both a relief and a disappointment to learn, not long before I finished writing The Turtle Moves!, that he makes a point of never reading any books about his work.

I did make sure that his agent, Colin Smythe, knew the book was coming -- while it was indeed unauthorized, as the title says, we didn't want to risk any legal problems. Colin did read it in manuscript; he even offered some suggestions, and a few factual corrections that were incorporated at the last minute. He's said some generous and flattering things about it since. That's not quite the same as hearing from Pterry himself, but it's still been very welcome."

4. Another reviewer said that reading this book made her wish you would write a book about the history of the fantasy genre, and now that I've read it I wholeheartedly agree with her. Not only because you know fantasy well and write about it in an intelligent and accessible manner, but because you realize what the genre's full potential is. You mention that the Watch subseries follows what you call the science fiction mindset, which includes going beyond fake medieval settings, simplistic battles between good and evil, and one-dimensional heroes and villains to deal with all sorts of relevant issues. Would you ever consider a project of this sort? Why or why not?

"I'd consider it, but I can't say I'm wildly enthusiastic about the idea. There have been a few previous books about the history of fantasy, by the likes of Lin Carter and Darrell Schweitzer, and I don't have the impression that they were very successful financially. I write for a living, which means I need to choose my projects with an eye to commercial viability; I can't afford to devote a lot of time to something that won't earn any significant money.

Of course, from a purely economic point of view, I probably shouldn't have written The Turtle Moves!; I'm not motivated entirely by money, by any means.

Also, the history of fantasy is a huge field. I know more about it than most people, probably more than most fantasy writers, but there's a lot I don't know, so there'd be lots of research to do. Fun research, true, but a lot of work, all the same.

On the other hand, the popular image of fantasy as all pseudo-medieval Tolkien imitations gets very annoying sometimes, and anything I could do to dispel that myth is tempting.

If a publisher were to approach me to write one for a reasonable sum of money, I'd probably do it. Lacking that, I probably won't."

5. You mention several times in the book that one of the reasons why the Discworld novels are so enjoyable is the fact that Terry Pratchett writes stories about real, complex people with convincing motivations - he follows what you called the Laws of Fantasy. Other than Terry Pratchett, what other fantasy authors, contemporary or classic, do you think are really good at doing this?

"I like to think I fall into that category myself, of course -- might as well get that out of the way immediately.

I'm not sure anyone else is as good at it as Terry Pratchett -- there's a reason I thought he was worth writing a book about -- but I can think of a few other candidates. Fritz Leiber, Jr. comes to mind. Peter S. Beagle, Mervyn Peake, T.H. White. Sometimes Roger Zelazny, but he could be infuriatingly uneven. George MacDonald when he wasn't being preachy. Joel Rosenberg.

I'm dismayed that those names are all male, and would love to include, say, Ursula K. Le Guin, but I'm afraid it wouldn't be entirely honest. Dodie Smith, perhaps?"

6.Finally, would you like to tell us about the writing projects you are currently planning or working on?

"I've just delivered to Tor Books the first book in a new fantasy series -- we haven't agreed on a series title yet, unfortunately, but the first book is called A Young Man Without Magic, and it's very tentatively scheduled for November 2009 publication. I'm well into writing the second, Above His Proper Station, and several more are planned These are inspired by classic swashbucklers, rather than the more usual sort of fantasy. They're a lot of fun to write; I hope they'll be as enjoyable for readers as they are for me."

I kind of hope a publisher does approach Lawrence Watt-Evans with a reasonable sum of money, because the fantasy stereotype does get very annoying, and I think he'd do a great job at helping dispel it.

Also (and although my heart broke a little with the non-inclusion of Ursula Le Guin), the authors I've read among the ones he mentioned are indeed excellent at writing fantasy stories that are relevant and human. Which means I should read the ones I'm not familiar with, not to mention his own fiction.

You can visit Lawrence Watt-Evans' website here.

Read a guest post at Fantasy Book Critic.

And read another review of this book at Adventures in Reading.

Now for the giveaway:

If you're interested in winning a copy of this book, leave me a comment saying so and I'll enter your name once. Help me spread the word about the giveaway and you'll get two extra entries. I'll announce the winner in a week, on the 21st of October.

Also, as I will not be the one to send the book to the winner, the giveaway is only open to North American addresses. My sincere apologies to everyone else.


  1. Great interview! This sounds like a fabulous book. I love the whole stories about stories idea - it's perfect, although that never occured to me before.

    Please do enter me in your drawing. I'll certainly spread the word over at my blog, too!

  2. I would love to win this! Love! Love!

  3. This sounds like a great book and you did a great job with the interview!

    Too bad I cannot participate in the giveaway, but good luck to the others!

    I have a giveaway too and it's a magazine subscription called Ladies' Home Journal.

  4. I must agree that the series gets better! I started with Guards! Guards! and then read The Colour of Magic. I enjoyed The Colour of Magic, but I just about busted a gut laughing when I read Guards! Guards!

    Hey, I like the turtle on the cover of this book. I think the turtle with the world on his back is a great image!

  5. Great review and interview, Nymeth! :) This sounds like a great book! And of course I'll have to start reading Terry Pratchett's books as well. ;)

  6. Darla and Christine, you're both in! Glad you liked the interview, Darla :)

    Alice: Thank you :) I'm really sorry you can't participate! My next giveaway will definitely be worldwide.

    Terri B: Guards! Guards! is just great, isn't it? And I enjoyed The Colour of Magic too, but it just pales in comparison with what was to come. Except The Last Continent :P And yes, that is a nice image of good old Great A'Tuin :P

    Melody, thank you! And indeed you do :P

  7. Great interview!
    ...like you, I'm surprised at his specific exclusion of Ursula Le Guin, that seems odd given the other writers he listed...this looks like a must-have, please enter me in the drawing...

  8. Wonderful interview, Nymeth! Both your thoughtful questions and his very generous answers!

    I wish so much that I could break through my absolute obsessiveness with organization. I really, truly, very much want to read the Discworld books...but it's that whole "what order?" thing that stifles me. I will start with The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, because you told me that would work well. (In fact, after reading this post, my excitement's renewed and I think I must add it to my read-a-thon list.) But then where do I go?!! One time you gave me a link to a chart which I printed out, but even that doesn't actually give a precise order. I wish someone would just tell me that the order really doesn't matter at all... Oh my, it's hell to haunted by these mental defects of mine. ;)

  9. Great review/interview!

    I've only read Color Of Magic and 3 of the kids books, but I love this series so far and already own 11 of the books. My only hesitation was in knowing how to read them and what way the off-shoots would fit best. So The Turtle Moves seems like an excellent intro to the series for me.

    This book is on my wishlist and I would love to be entered in your giveaway.

  10. Ken: He did say "not entirely true", and I have to admit that there have been books of hers I simply couldn't get into. But I still love her and still list her among the best, because I think that when she's good, she's mindblowingly good. Your name is in the hat!

    Debi, thank you! I'm glad you liked it. Maurice is a brilliant book and I think it's a great starting place, but Lawrence Watt-Evans says exactly that in the book: the problem of starting with it is that then you don't know where to go next. The three Tiffany Aching books are a good choice too, and so is Small Gods, and then the other subseries can be read in order of publication. Discworld is tricky because order both matters and doesn't matter. Its inner logic matters more than publication order, so if you follow the order of the subseries I think you'll be fine! I understand how you feel because I like reading things in publication order and I'm a bit ocd about messing it up, but the normal rules just don't apply to Discworld :P

    Joanne, your name's in! I hope you continue to enjoy Discworld :)

  11. what a fun book cover!
    great interview too, it sounds like a great read.

  12. This books looks fascinating - I'd love a chance to win it.

  13. Interesting that Pratchett doesn't read anything about his works. I'm not sure if I could either but I don't know if I could help myself...know what I mean? I'd love to be entered for the giveaway--and great questions, Nymeth!! Sounds like you had a lot of fun with this.

  14. Naida: That's Great A'tuin, the turtle that carries the four elephants that carry the Discworld on their backs :P

    ikkinlala, you're in!

    Trish: Somehow I wasn't surprised to learn that. I think I probably wouldn't either if I were a writer. I bet I'd be really curious, but at the same time I'd probably want to separate myself from what critics were saying about my books. So yes, I know what you mean :P And your name's in!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.