terry pratch­ett

n 2007, Sir Terry

SFX - - Terry pratchett -

Pratch­ett was di­ag­nosed with pos­te­rior cor­ti­cal at­ro­phy ( PCA), a rare form of early on­set Alzheimer’s dis­ease. He raged against the prospect of his “em­bug­ger­ance” tak­ing away his sense of self and cam­paigned for as­sisted dy­ing to be made legal. He wanted, he said, to die in his own gar­den at a time of his own choos­ing, with a glass of brandy in his hand.

But to the re­lief of those clos­est to Terry, the end came nat­u­rally and very peace­fully. Af­ter a slow and grad­ual decline, Terry’s health failed rapidly in his last few months. On 12 March 2015, in the words of Rob Wilkins, the nov­el­ist’s busi­ness manager and close friend for close to two decades, “Terry died at home with Pongo the Cat lay­ing on his bed, sur­rounded by his fam­ily, and he just went to sleep.” The mu­sic of Thomas Tal­lis played.

Some­how, against all odds, Terry re­mained bril­liantly cre­ative al­most to the end. He met Death with nine “re­ally solid ideas” for new

Discworld nov­els in hand. “I’m mourn­ing the loss of my friend, but I’m also now mourn­ing the loss of those words that I know will never be writ­ten,” Wilkins tells SFX.

He’s not alone. Speak­ing to some of those who knew Terry best for this trib­ute, in­ter­views con­ducted in the raw days af­ter the fu­neral, a re­cur­ring theme is a sense of won­der – and that’s re­ally not putting it too strongly – at the fic­tion he crafted.

A story from 2009 il­lus­trates the na­ture of his tal­ent. Two years af­ter he’d been di­ag­nosed with Alzheimer’s, Terry was at work on Un­seen Aca­dem­i­cals. Edi­tor Philippa Dickinson had pro­duced “a timeline of doom” to make sure the story worked. It didn’t: there was too much plot for the novel’s timescale. “We had to dis­sect the whole story to get a new day in,” re­calls Rob.

The two be­gan work at around 9am. Some­time af­ter 5pm, Terry, who had spent the day pac­ing his of­fice and dic­tat­ing changes, asked a “peaky” Rob whether he was feel­ing okay. Rob, who hadn’t moved all day even to visit the toi­let, went through to the kitchen – and threw up.

“I’d given my­self a mi­graine, and yet there was Terry with PCA scrolling 135,000 words back­wards and for­wards, back­wards and for­wards, and at the click of his fin­gers he could take him­self to any point within the story, and that re­call was so amaz­ing to see,” says Rob. “But he could just do that, he knew ex­actly where he had to drop some­thing in – and he knew the rip­ples that drop­ping the pebble in at that point in the story would have through­out the whole story.”

only child

As to how Terence David John Pratch­ett came to hone this abil­ity, it wasn’t via any con­ven­tional route. He was born on 28 April 1948 in Bea­cons­field, Bucks, the only child of David and Eileen Pratch­ett. As Terry told me in an in­ter­view in 2011, he was a bright kid but one who was “al­ways round the mid­dle of the class”. He couldn’t see the point in read­ing: “It was like maths, it wasn’t some­thing you re­ally needed.” His mum had other ideas and bribed him to read. Words be­came a pass­port to, ini­tially at least, the means to buy Black­jacks and Sher­bet Foun­tains.

Then a friend of the fam­ily, un­cle Don, gave him a copy of The Wind In The Wil­lows. It was “re­ally good shit”. Some­thing changed. “That was it,” Terry re­mem­bered. “I mean the line to be­com­ing a writer, you can put a ruler across my life and you can see the line.”

On leav­ing school, Terry went to work on the Bucks Free Press as a trainee re­porter. In 1968, he was sent to in­ter­view au­thor Peter Ban­der van Duren about a book on ed­u­ca­tion,

Look­ing For­ward To The Sev­en­ties, which was how Terry came to meet his first pub­lisher, and later his lit­er­ary agent, Colin Smythe. He men­tioned he’d writ­ten a novel, The Car­pet

Peo­ple, which he gave to Smythe to read. “There was re­ally no way we couldn’t pub­lish it,” Smythe re­calls. “Here was some­thing writ­ten by a 17- year- old, and it was amaz­ing.”

The novel ap­peared in 1971, but it wouldn’t be un­til a dozen years later, with the pub­li­ca­tion of the first Discworld novel,

The Colour Of Magic, that Terry be­gan to find suc­cess. In this pe­riod, Terry made his living from jour­nal­ism and, later, as a press of­fi­cer for the Cen­tral Elec­tric­ity Gen­er­at­ing Board, re­as­sur­ing the public that nu­clear en­ergy was safe. He mar­ried Lyn in 1968, and the cou­ple’s only daugh­ter, Rhi­anna, was born in 1976.

Terry worked on his fic­tion in the evenings when the nights drew in. In the sum­mer, he spent his time gar­den­ing. “He said I used to pay him ad­vances that could just about buy him a green­house,” says Smythe, who re­mem­bers Terry spe­cial­is­ing in “ex­otic things that didn’t grow quite as well in Eng­land as the com­pa­nies flog­ging the seeds said they would”.

The years in jour­nal­ism in­stilled a fierce work ethic. “He al­ways said ‘ I do not un­der­stand peo­ple with writer’s block’,” says Smythe. “He said, ‘ If you have been a news­pa­per re­porter, you have that page, that large blank page, and that’s got to be fin­ished in three quar­ters of an hour, it’s got to be filled.’”

So why did the Discworld nov­els connect in a way that Terry’s pre­vi­ous books didn’t? It cer­tainly didn’t hurt that Colour Of Magic was broad­cast as a se­rial on Ra­dio 4’ s Women’s

Hour, in 1985. Good tim­ing helped too. Just as Dou­glas Adams’ work con­nected with read­ers al­ready familiar with SF tropes, the early

Discworld nov­els found a re­cep­tive au­di­ence steeped in high fan­tasy, peo­ple who got the gags. When th­ese read­ers dis­cov­ered the books, they told their friends.

Terry un­der­stood the im­por­tance of th­ese word- of- mouth rec­om­men­da­tions be­cause he’d been a con­ven­tion- at­tend­ing fan him­self – an “ir­ri­tat­ing teenager” with “huge glasses” re­mem­bered Michael Moor­cock when I in­ter­viewed him last year. Un­til his fame made it im­pos­si­ble be­cause of the sheer weight of cor­re­spon­dence, Terry replied to read­ers’ let­ters per­son­ally. “He liked his fans. That’s the big thing, he re­ally did,” says Ja­son An­thony, who ed­its the Discworld Monthly newsletter, and some­times found him­self given in­sider in­for­ma­tion, so long as con­fi­dences were re­spected. “He used to say to me: ‘ Un­like God, I don’t for­give,’” says An­thony.

But this strong con­nec­tion with fans doesn’t ex­plain the sus­tained suc­cess of the Discworld nov­els over more than three decades. In­stead, you need to look at the way the books moved from farce – in­ept wiz­ard Rincewind run­ning away from the many sit­u­a­tions he en­coun­tered that might re­sult in his demise – to be­com­ing far richer, with morally com­plex char­ac­ters in lead roles, such as cop­per Sam Vimes and for­mi­da­ble witch Granny Weather­wax.

Farah Mendle­sohn, pro­fes­sor of lit­er­ary his­tory at Anglia Ruskin Uni­ver­sity, says we need to see Terry as a satirist rather than a hu­mourist. “When you hear peo­ple quote Pratch­ett, it’s al­most al­ways his eth­i­cal one­lin­ers,” she says. The best of Terry’s books, Mendle­sohn adds, work as ex­tended story jokes that spi­ral in­wards, a tech­nique also em­ployed by co­me­di­ans Joyce Gren­fell and Vic­to­ria Wood in their mono­logues. “The hu­mour comes from the re­lent­less logic of a sce­nario,” she says. “That hap­pens to go very well with moral ex­plo­ration. The two things go side by side, I don’t think they’re sep­a­ra­ble.”

Here is the Pratch­ett Neil Gaiman de­scribes in his fore­word to the non- fic­tion col­lec­tion

A Slip Of The Key­board, not a cud­dly fel­low, but a man driven by “anger” rooted “in an un­der­ly­ing sense of what is fair and what is not”.

The books were also clever, writ­ten by an au­to­di­dact who sup­ple­mented his own knowl­edge with a phone book filled with the num­bers of peo­ple who could an­swer ar­cane en­quiries. Math­e­ma­ti­cian Pro­fes­sor Ian Ste­wart, co- writer of The Science Of Discworld books with Terry and bi­ol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Jack Co­hen, re­calls Terry call­ing him up to ask a ques­tion about ther­mo­dy­nam­ics: “If some­thing got re­ally, re­ally hot, so hot that the tem­per­a­ture passed in­fin­ity, would it then be­come ex­traor­di­nar­ily cold?” The­o­ret­i­cally, Ste­wart replied, yes. “Oh good, be­cause I’ve got this magic sword…”

Bernard Pear­son of the Discworld Em­po­rium, aka the Cun­ning Ar­ti­fi­cer and a for­mer cop­per (“not a very good cop­per, but I grew the best crop of cannabis in any po­lice sta­tion gar­den”) whose ex­pe­ri­ences found their way into the Watch books, says of Terry: “He lis­tened like a Hoover.”

ex­pand­ing uni­verse

As the 1990s gave way to a new mil­len­nium, Terry’s fame spread be­yond genre fans. The last time any­one checked, he’d sold more than 85m books. He didn’t al­ways find this level of suc­cess easy. An es­sen­tially pri­vate and shy man, he could come across as sharp and dif­fi­cult on days when things weren’t go­ing well. He liked to test your met­tle too. If I ever hes­i­tated dur­ing an in­ter­view, a re­cur­ring re­frain was, “It’s your job to ask me a ques­tion.”

Yet he was also great fun to be around. I’d also echo TV pro­ducer Rod Brown’s words: “We would have lunch and he would re­count the sto­ries he was writ­ing, and the sto­ries in his mind, and I’d have paid money to be in those ex­pe­ri­ences.” An af­ter­noon when Terry dis­cussed both his child­hood and vis­it­ing the Swiss Dignitas clinic for a BBC doc­u­men­tary re­mains im­printed on my mem­ory.

Be­sides, if he was some­times tough on other peo­ple, his own stan­dards were equally high. Bernard Pear­son de­scribes him as a crafts­man, some­one who took “more trou­ble to do some­thing than any­body else thinks worth­while”. This is why Discworld mer­chan­dise hasn’t thus far been li­censed for mass pro­duc­tion.

Terry didn’t need the money and he pre­ferred to keep con­trol over spin- offs from his fic­tional world. He and Pear­son would con­coct ideas be­tween them, with the golden rule that ev­ery­thing had to be “real”, made prop­erly. “He held us to it,” says Pear­son. “Oc­ca­sion­ally, I’d go and see him [ with a new item], and he’d say, ‘ That’s not very clever, is it?’ And it would not be be­cause I’d cut cor­ners but be­cause… I’d tried to cut cor­ners!”

So things might have gone on hap­pily and in­def­i­nitely, ex­cept in 2007, with his PCA di­ag­no­sis, the ex­tra­or­di­nary fi­nal act of Terry’s life be­gan. He used his fame – and his in­tel­lect, money, time and sheer cussed­ness too – to cam­paign both for the right to an as­sisted death and for more re­search to be un­der­taken into find­ing new treat­ments for Alzheimer’s.

In do­ing this, he be­came not just fa­mous but a celebrity, and it’s per­haps not been re­marked upon of­ten enough just how down­right brave this was. It wasn’t a nat­u­ral role for a man who was hap­pier spend­ing time around those he knew best, let alone some­one also living in the shadow of a de­gen­er­a­tive dis­ease.

The words con­tin­ued to flow, in­clud­ing more Discworld books, the Long Earth nov­els co- writ­ten with Steve Bax­ter and snip­pets of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy that may yet, ac­cord­ing to Colin Smythe, be glued to­gether into a book.

He took care of busi­ness too. Ac­cord­ing to Rod Brown, man­ag­ing direc­tor of Nar­ra­tivia, the com­pany that now holds the rights to adapt Terry’s work, there will be film and TV shows. Th­ese are big- bud­get projects and, hav­ing an­nounced The Watch se­ries at an early stage only to hit de­lays, Brown says, “We’d rather tell peo­ple when we’re turn­ing over on [ adap­ta­tions] be­cause then they’re as real as they pos­si­bly could be.”

The fi­nal year was hard. Terry, says Rob, no longer saw how the rip­ples would play out through the whole story when a pebble was dropped. To­wards the end, Terry would dic­tate from a re­clin­ing sofa, po­si­tioned so that Rob of­ten couldn’t see him be­hind a com­puter screen. One day, as Terry was dic­tat­ing what will be the fi­nal Discworld novel, the forth­com­ing Shep­herd’s Crown, Rob sug­gested the lines he’d come up with wouldn’t quite do the trick.

“There was laugh­ter from the other side of the screen,” says Rob. “Rhi­anna was vis­it­ing, and I said, ‘ What is it?’ And I stood up and looked at them both, they were whis­per­ing be­tween them­selves, and Rhi­anna said, ‘ Dad’s just re­alised he’s work­ing for you now!’”

Terry’s hu­man­ist fu­neral was held a fort­night af­ter his death. It was a pri­vate ser­vice for fam­ily and close friends, but there will be a me­mo­rial later in the year. “He wanted horses with plumes and a clas­sic Vic­to­rian hearse, and he got that,” says Rob. I don’t think I’m alone in hop­ing that one of the horses, the nag won­der­ing why he wasn’t work­ing with the big skinny chap to­day, was called Binky.

Not a cud­dly fel­low, but a man driven by “anger” rooted “in an un­der­ly­ing sense of what is fair and what is not”

Shot with Steven Bax­ter for SFX in May 2012. Our Au­gust 2009 shoot with a smil­ing Pratch­ett. Pro­mot­ing Rais­ing Steam with us in Septem­ber 2013. A young as­pir­ing nov­el­ist, around the time of writ­ing The Car­pet Peo­ple in 1970. The early 1990s and The Hat has ap­peared!

On set of The Colour Of Magic, with fans as ex­tras, snapped by SFX in 2007. In­tro­duc­ing young­sters to the joys of Discworld.

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