Sir Pterry and His Struggle Against the Wordless

by Chaz Brenchley

Sir Terry Pratchett

In the interests of full disclosure: I knew Terry Pratchett best back in the long-ago, before ever he was Sir Pterry or a megaseller or the orang-utan man or the embodiment of looming tragedy or the assisted-suicide activist or any of the other things he eventually became. It’s a commonplace in-genre that we all have convention friends, whom we only ever see at events; in those days pre-internet, it may have mattered more, because most of us weren’t in touch much otherwise. Terry and I would see each other every year or so, I guess, at some occasion either genre- or writing-related; it was never arranged and almost random, except insofar as two people busy in two overlapping communities are quite likely to run across each other quite often.

The first time we met—or at least the first that I remember—was at a weekend writing conference, somewhere in the Lakes, maybe. He and I were thrown together somewhat, because I was writing thrillers at the time and he was doing comic fantasy, which made us both “genre” and hence almost the same thing, while everyone else was engaged with poetry or serious literature or at the very least mainstream fiction. We talked somewhat in the pub that night, when we were just two voices in a crowd; and we found each other next morning at breakfast, for a tête-à-tête. Insofar as we had a friendship, that’s when it began: when there were just the two of us, amid the unhurried processes of coffee and bacon and toast and talk.

We talked about writing, of course; and books, naturally; and theatre, to nobody’s surprise. And then we talked about tech, because we were both early adopters, seizing the first chances we could to move on from typewriters and filing cabinets, notebooks and pens. He rummaged in his shoulder-bag and pulled out—well, something I had no word for. I still don’t know what it was called: but it was a clamshell device, maybe ten inches by four by one and a half when it was closed. When it was open, there was a keyboard below and a screen above. I’d never seen anything like it, and I wanted one so badly right then. This was back when portable computing was still more “luggable” than laptop, so certainly it was no more than a dedicated word processor. But it had some memory capacity, and it could output to a printer, and what more did he need when he was on the road? Terry was the consummate professional even then, that early in his career. He still had a day job, but he wanted to lose it; he’d calculated that 400 words a day would give him two books a year, which he thought would keep bread on the table and his daughter in shoes; and so 400 words was what he wrote, each and every day.

Watching the progress of Terry’s career in real time, year by year and book by book, was an object lesson in how to manage the various roles of a writer, the demands of the industry and the media and the readership. And, of course—because fantasy was his chosen realm—the fans. SFF comes with opportunities and obligations that other genres don’t, and Terry was an exemplar here too. Looking at the exponential curve of his sales, his long history of fan service, and the charm of his public persona, you could think that it had all been planned from the beginning and meticulously achieved at every step. If he ever put a foot wrong, I never saw it.

Not to call him a slow starter, but Terry did in fact have a slow start. There was a children’s book in 1971, then a couple of comic science fiction novels for adults, at five-year intervals. And then, of course, came Discworld.

Again it started slowly, though; the first couple of books were a few years apart. But that’s when he began to see the possibility of a full-time career, and when he made the two-books-a-year calculation, and when the nature of his work began to shift. The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic are funny, to be sure—but they’re not much more than funny. They satirise the genre they inhabit, which is an entertaining exercise but something of an ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail; it doesn’t conspicuously lead anywhere.

The following year we got Equal Rites and then Mort in quick succession, and everything changed.

Terry quit promoting the nuclear industry, and started promoting himself. For the next decade or more he was the busiest pro I knew, and must have been one of the busiest in the business. He was on the road for months out of every year, doing book tours and conventions and talks and lunches and anything else he could dig up—and, as mentioned, still writing two books a year. And the sales figures got better and better, and blessedly so did the books.

Discworld stopped being an opportunity simply to poke fun at the absurdities of fantasy fiction, which must have been unsustainable in the long-term, and became an instrument to poke fun at the world that Terry saw. Here is his love of Shakespeare, embodied in three witches and a tiny mountain kingdom; here is his vision of Death, which is really a meditation on the values and purposes of life. But then, what Pratchett isn’t?

That was Terry’s secret, his tell, his scatter of stardust. He started out by writing comic novels, but soon enough he was writing real novels with a comic edge. He took on all the great themes of literature, and found serious things to say about them, albeit cased in a humorous framework. There’s an emergent wisdom at the heart of Discworld, which is also at the heart of its success: a wisdom that’s compassionate, warm, insightful, and deliberately and entirely human. Whatever the particular target of any individual book—the newspaper industry, the postal service, Christmas with all that that implies—his eye is as benevolent as it is acute, and his pen likewise. Beg pardon, his keyboard.

Me, I’m a city boy, so it’s the Ankh-Morpork books I love, and if I could only have one, it would be Night Watch every time you asked. I think it’s his masterwork: complex without being complicated, ridiculously clever, satisfying more of my separate itches than I would normally expect within a single book—and doing all of that in the context of a time-travel story, which I notoriously Do Not Like. There’s an achievement, now.

The last time I saw Terry to talk to, it was coincidentally at another breakfast—or not so coincidentally, given the nature of conventions and people and such. It was happenstance, at any rate; neither one of us was looking for the other. And when I saw him, it wasn’t Terry Pratchett that I saw. He was already famous enough—which in con terms means mobbed enough—to have adopted a second persona. He had two name-badges, and so long as he was wearing the real one then he was on duty and approachable, welcoming to all. When he swapped them over (was it Silas T. Firefly, that second name? I think it was; I know that the T stood for The, for he told me so), it was a silent plea to be left alone to recharge.

That was the badge he was wearing, and indeed he was honourably being ignored by everyone in the room; and I didn’t even try to catch his eye, but cast about for an empty table in pursuit of my own solitary breakfast. And he looked up and saw me, and called my name, and beckoned. So there we were again, coffee and bacon and all, and the same easy flow of talk. His career path was already stratospheric—he sold more books in the 90s than any other British author, and yes, that includes J.K. Rowling—and I treasured that hour even at the time, aware there weren’t likely to be too many more.

As it turned out, there weren’t any more at all. Sometimes happenstance can work that way around, that you keep continually missing each other. And then came the difficulties, and the diagnoses, and the slow cruel inevitable decline, and now everybody gets to miss him equally. He did at least leave us his books, though, and there’s a cameo of the man in every one.

Chaz Brenchley has been a professional writer all his working life, publishing science fiction, fantasy, horror, mysteries, thrillers, and more.