n 2007, Sir Terry
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.”
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.”
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.