Remembering the Wizardry of Terry Pratchett
The beloved author, who died yesterday, will be remembered for his insane work ethic and being one of the nicest men to ever put a pen to paper.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
When he was knighted for his contribution to literature, Terry Pratchett said he suspected that this contribution "consisted of refraining from trying to write any" more books. He was, of course, being facetious, but his comment couldn't have been further from the truth; in their subject matter, Pratchett books always felt like fringe concerns, yet their massive success actually put him at the center of public taste.
There's never been a Hollywood film of any of his stories, and pushing out two books a year meant that there was no single totemic best seller he could hang his reputation on. So in a funny kind of way, it was only as his death was announced yesterday that it became totally clear what a crater he'd smashed into readers' lives.
Time will continue to appraise his literary merits, so what is there left to do but pick out some of the more interesting, unusual, and amusing moments from his life?
HIS MOTHER PAID HIM TO READ
A penny a page. As a child, he didn't give a damn about books, preferring the outdoors and fiddling with machinery. Until one day he read The Wind in the Willows and books crawled up his trousers and bit him hard in all the right places. He worked through the Beaconsfield library, before discovering a pornographic bookshop that also sold small quantities of hardcore sci-fi. Then he went on to become one of the most beloved British authors of all time, suggesting he ended up being quite into reading.
WE FORGET NOW THAT PRATCHETT WAS ROWLING BEFORE ROWLING
At his peak, Pratchett was selling 3 million books a year. Before J. K. Rowling, he was on course to be the best-selling British author of the 1990s. He'd do two new books a year. More than 40 Discworld books. More than 80 million copies sold in total. In 1997, booksellers estimated that 6.5 percent of the entire trade in books in this country were Terry Pratchett novels. Whether or not you ever read any of his books, there's no doubt you know his name.
NO ONE SEEMS TO BE BE ABLE TO FIND A SINGLE BAD WORD TO SAY ABOUT HIM
Honestly, we'd tell you if we could find one, but we can only conclude that the grinning wizard bloke was one of the nicest men anyone ever met. Early on, he made his name giving avuncular speeches at fan conferences and seemed to be a guy who genuinely loved meeting his fans. He'd do legendarily long book-signings. One fan reminisced on Twitter yesterday about sitting around patiently, waiting for Tez to finish signing every single of his 40-volume "complete set" of Discworld books. Some joked that an unsigned Pratchett was more valuable to collectors than a signed one.
HIS FIRST BOOK STARTED AS A KIDS' NEWSPAPER COLUMN
Pratchett's first proper job was as a newspaper journalist at the Bucks Free Press in High Wycombe. It was there that he took on the lowest job on the ladder—compiling the kids' section: a list of child birthdays and a short-story column. Pratchett wrote the stories, turned his column into a serial, turned the serial into a book, and sold it as The Carpet People. A bit like The Borrowers, The Carpet People features tiny people living on the floor of a house who cross the carpet world in search of a new home after their village is destroyed.
HE DIDN'T GIVE UP THE DAY JOB UNTIL HIS FOURTH BOOK
"Local journalism is journalism," he told the Guardian. "If you get it wrong, they know where you live. You see more things and do more things than you would ever see or do on a mainstream newspaper. I saw my first dead body on my first day at work."
After the Bucks Free Press he went on to the Western Daily Mail, and by 1973 he'd jumped across the fence to be a PR man for the nuclear-power industry—a decent early test for his powers of imagination. Only when he bought his mother a house did she finally relent in her requests that he keep up his day job to "have something to fall back on."
HE READ ALMOST EVERY COPY OF PUNCH THAT EVER EXISTED
Despite the magazine folding in 1992, that's still 150 years of the stuff. "I didn't only look at the humor and the cartoons. I read the other stuff, which had the additional advantage of me picking up a lot of Victorian vocabulary, which comes in useful," he once said, also crediting Punch with shaping his particularly whimsical satirical worldview.
As a boy, Mad Magazine and Private Eye held a bigger sway, and he was also a big fan of 1066 and All That, W. C. Sellar, and R. J. Yeatman's deliberately flimsy history of England.
HE WAS VAGUELY WORRIED ABOUT BEING "THE RIGHT-TO-DIE GUY"
In recent years he campaigned for a greater awareness of assisted dying, but the thought that it had begun to overshadow his books in the public mind troubled him. At the same time, he was powerfully committed to changing the law. At one point, he kept a photo of fellow right-to-die campaigner, the late Tony Nicklinson, on his desk. "I put his picture [there] because I don't want this guy forgotten," he said. "He was very clear about what he wanted, and you cannot tell me that two doctors helping him to go to sleep would constitute murder."
He also did the TV show where a man killed himself at Dignitas in full view of the BBC's cameras, one of the more astonishing TV moments of the past decade.
HE WANTED TO TALK ALL HIS BOOKS
By 2010, Pratchett could no longer type efficiently, so he installed six screens in his office and used Dragon Dictate to keep going via voice recognition software, plus a human assistant who'd help him with revisions. His publisher reckoned that the shift had changed his writing style, mainly because of the difficulty with revising. Far from feeling set back, Pratchett thought the new way was more natural: "If it all came back, I would probably stick with talking," he said. "Because we're monkeys. We chatter. It's easy to do. It's mutable."
HE WAS THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF DOUGLAS ADAMS
While Adams operated in a similar parallel satirical universe, the Hitchhiker's author was the worst for actually writing. He sometimes had to be locked in his hotel room by his publishers when the deadline for a new novel drew near just to get him to stop procrastinating.
Pratchett, by contrast, couldn't stop the words. After he left his full-time job, he often felt bereft because he'd done all of his work in the mornings, then still had to fill his day. Later on, he'd start work at 10 AM, take a few hours off in the afternoon, then return to his desk until nearly midnight. The pace of his writing drew down a bit in the early 2000s, when his novels became more considered, less gag-led. When he went on his annual holiday to Australia, he boasted, he'd write even more than when he was at work, waking at dawn and putting down a thousand words before breakfast.
HE WROTE WITHOUT ANY REAL PLAN
He compared it to woodcarving: "You start cutting the shape you want it to be. But you find, if you do it right, that the wood has a grain of its own. If you're sensible, you work with the grain, and if you come across a knot hole, you incorporate it into the design."
HIS DAUGHTER WRITES STORIES FOR VIDEO GAMES
Rhianna Pratchett wrote scripts for the Tomb Raider reboot and Overlord. She was also co-writer on the BBC's Discworld series, The Watch. There's still a question mark over whether she will take over the Discworld series in at least a creative-director role.
HE TURNED DOWN MORE MONEY THAN THE GDP OF BURUNDI
They made 15 stage plays, nine radio adaptations, and seven TV ones of his books. But however loudly Hollywood called—and for a property second only to Rowling's, you can assume that was VERY, VERY LOUDLY—Tez never replied. He demanded creative control over whatever was put out under his marque, and hence the LA moneymen could never come to any proper deal with him.
HE EXPERIMENTED WITH ALTERNATIVE TREATMENTS FOR HIS ALZHEIMER'S
These included a helmet that sent light bursts at a particular wavelength into his skull. He was skeptical of its powers, however. "But it has become a kind of totem—an act of faith that the disease can be controlled, if not by this, then by some other development," he said.
HE HAD A LONG TIME TO PLAN HIS END, AND IT SHOWED
His death was announced to Twitter with three messages. "AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER." / "Terry took Death's arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. / "The End."
HE BELIEVED DEATH IS NOT ENTIRELY 100 PERCENT THE END
As a card-carrying humanist, Pratchett was against the idea of there being any afterlife. Though he did delight one Telegraph interviewer by singing a hymn to her from the darker recesses of his hymnal: "Over the world there are small brown babies / Fathers and mothers and babies dear / They do not know the love of Jesus / No one to tell them that he is near..."
His views on what happens next were simple and neat: "No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away," he wrote in 1991's Reaper Man. It's a safe bet that he'll keep rippling out for a long time to come.
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