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Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes by Rob Wilkins

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Terry Pratchett, author of more than fifty books, most of them set in the ever-expanding Discworld universe, died of complications of Alzheimer’s in 2015. His death sent shockwaves through a broad community that had long admired Pratchett for his humor, his inventiveness, his indelible characters, and the deeply-felt humanist philosophy that ran through all his writing. Rob Wilkins, author of A Life With Footnotes, was Pratchett’s personal assistant from 2000 to his death, and continues to manage his literary estate, and his production company Narrativia, with Pratchett’s daughter Rhianna. The book can therefore only be taken as an “authorized” biography, part of a project—which also includes new adaptations of Pratchett’s work and a star-studded array of audiobook productions—to keep Pratchett’s name and his work in the public consciousness. In this, it seems to have been successful. Earlier this year, the book won the BSFA award for best nonfiction, and—barring some hard-to-predict behavior from Chinese voters—it will almost certainly win the Hugo award for best related work next month. But it is not a good biography.

The core problem of A Life With Footnotes is one that felt easy to predict before even turning the first page. Terry Pratchett, to be perfectly blunt, did not live a particularly interesting life. He was the precocious son of working class parents in post-war England, who fell in love with science fiction and fantasy in his teens, fooled around with writing them with only moderate success, did some creative-adjacent salaried work (journalism, then PR), and then hit on a concept that ballooned into a world-class success with remarkable speed, after which he was very rich and very successful for the rest of his life. In other words, the life story of quite a few midcentury authors (give or take the stratospheric success). What set Pratchett apart, like most writers, was what was going on in his head.

To be sure, there are stories along the way that distinguish this journey from all the others that are broadly like it, some entertaining—Pratchett was a lifelong tinkerer and home electronics enthusiast, and Wilkins lingers over projects they collaborated on, such as digging a communications ditch between his two home offices, constructing a defense system against lightning strikes, or (most shockingly to me) replacing parts in the office printer—and others sweet—Pratchett met his wife, Lyn, when he was twenty and she was twenty-one; she appears to have been his first girlfriend, and they dated for only a few weeks before deciding to marry; they remained together for the rest of his life. But there’s not 400 pages worth of stories here. (In contrast, Stephen King’s On Writing, whose autobiographical chapters describe a life very similar to Pratchett’s, albeit in the US rather than the UK, is barely 300 pages long, and much of that is taken up with King’s musings about the craft of writing.)

We did not need, for example, minute descriptions of every British-made clunker Pratchett ever drove while insisting that he could keep it road-worthy. Or a whole chapter dedicated to his frustrations with the hotels and bookstore staff he had to deal with while on tour. Or another chapter explaining why none of the planned Hollywood adaptations of Pratchett’s works got off the ground (spoiler: for the same reasons as usual). A better model for a Pratchett biography might have been UIP’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series (whose entry on Iain M. Banks, by Paul Kincaid, we discussed here several years ago), which tend to clock in at around 200 pages.

In between the car and movie talk, however, there is some material here that sheds a light on Pratchett and his era. It’s fascinating to observe how much Pratchett’s career owes itself to the specific circumstances of growing up in post-war England, in ways that are both negative—upon his entry into primary school, he was assigned by the principal to the track that would not take the Eleven-Plus exam, which would have locked him out of secondary education; it took foot-stamping from his mother, and private tutoring, to change that fate—and positive—with a bit of help from their parents, newlyweds Terry (an apprentice journalist) and Lyn (a shop assistant) were able to put down a mortgage on their own “starter home”, which they later traded up to a cottage. Oh, and “apprentice journalist” was a thing back then, a job that Pratchett could be accepted to without even having completed his A-levels. The world described in A Life With Footnotes is one where bright, curious young people can chart their own path and explore their talents. It’s heartbreaking to consider how many groundbreaking writers, and other artists, we’re missing out on because those pathways no longer exist.

Science fiction and fantasy fans will also enjoy the chapters that explore a young Terry’s first forays into fandom in the mid-60s, attending Eastercons and Worldcons where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Brian Aldiss and Christopher Priest, sending letters of comment to the BSFA magazine Vector, submitting stories that were edited by Michael Moorcock, and once ending up at a urinal next to Arthur C. Clarke. These chapters also remind us how authors of Pratchett’s generation were a bridge to what now feels like a distant, long-dead past. He once sent a fan letter to J.R.R. Tolkien and received a reply, and as a journalist he was assigned to interview Roald Dahl, then best-known for a few film scripts and for being Patricia Neal’s husband. On the whole, however (and with the obvious exception of Neil Gaiman), Pratchett does not appear to have been the sort of author who is recharged or inspired by the company of his peers. A whole segment is taken up with his failure to meet, for more than a brief exchange, with Douglas Adams.

But then, one of the most startling choices in A Life With Footnotes is how little it has to say about Pratchett the author. Wilkins delves into the very early stages of Pratchett’s career, the short stories he sold to professional science fiction magazines while still in his teens, and the genesis of his first novel, The Carpet People (1971; revised edition 1992). But his next two publications, the science fiction novels The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981), rate barely a mention, beyond noting that their long gestation seemed to represent a stuck period in Pratchett’s career. When it comes to Discworld, he has little to say about its initial inspirations as a fantasy parody (Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser come up only as a pair a cosplayers encountered by Pratchett at a convention). Nor does Wilkins observe that an important influence on Pratchett’s writing would have been the flowering of British comedy in the mid-20th century, or that as an author of comic novels in the 80s and 90s he was part of a movement that also included writers like Robert Rankin, Tom Holt, and Sue Townsend.

Wilkins’s focus seems, instead, to be on the business side of things. How did Pratchett get an agent (once again, this seems to have been something he almost fell into, having encountered Colin Smythe, then an independent publisher, in his capacity as a reporter); how did he land on a publisher who was able to understand what they had in him and market him successfully. There are some interesting stories here. The push that helped make the first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic (1983), into a success was a radio dramatization on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour, a by-no-means obvious choice that nevertheless paid great dividends.

The further one gets into Pratchett’s career, however, and the more Wilkins has to say about advances, sales figures, and publisher relations, the more it feels as if something is missing. An entire chapter is dedicated to Pratchett’s relationship with Bernard and Isobel Pearson, the craftspeople who developed a line of Discworld-themed figurines and memorabilia. But almost nothing is said about how Discworld itself developed, how Pratchett moved from parody to his own stories, how he developed characters like Sam Vimes and Granny Weatherwax, and how he chose the direction that his imaginary world moved in. There are some tantalizing details about Pratchett’s authorial process—the way that his work was often a collaboration with visual artists like the Pearsons and cover artists Josh Kirby and Paul Kidby; the fact that he would often write his novels in pieces and then stitch them together into a whole. But these discussions are invariably quite vague. We get more detail about, for instance, Wilkins trying to source the technological solutions that would allow him and Pratchett to work with Kidby on the illustrations for The Last Hero (2001).

In some cases, readers can draw connections themselves between the events of Pratchett’s life and what later turned up in this fiction. His experiences as a fledgling reporter for a regional paper have very clear analogues in the journalism-themed Discworld novel The Truth (2000). The fact that Terry and Lyn spent much of the seventies in the grips of a self-sufficiency craze, growing vegetables, spinning wool, and keeping goats, chickens, and bees, explains much of the English pastoralism that turns up in several Discworld sub-series, while the Tiffany Aching books are drawn from Pratchett’s experiences in his final home on “the chalk”, where he bought his own shepherd’s hut just like Granny Aching’s. The streak of anti-authoritarianism, of class-consciousness, and of disdain for institutions that runs through all of Pratchett’s writing obviously has its roots in experiences like that of being deemed unfit for higher education by a primary school principal, and in later clashes that a teenage Pratchett had with his educators. But Wilkins leaves most of this for the reader to unravel. He seems much more interested in the mechanics of Pratchett’s career than in the substance of it.

Perhaps the most puzzling elision in A Life With Footnotes is that of Pratchett’s politics. More than his humor or the breadth of his fantastical worldbuilding, I’d argue that the political weight with which Pratchett invested Discworld—the ideas he placed in it about leadership, policing, religion, prejudice, class, gender, and many other concepts—are the reason for the franchise’s success and longevity. People who discovered the series in their teens continue to return to it and quote from it because it so clearly articulated ideas like “a politician is a servant of the polis”, “a policeman is a civilian”, or “evil is treating people like things”, in many cases for the first time in their experience. And yet the issue of how Pratchett related to politics in the real world, how his perception of politics affected his writing, and how conscious his decision was to introduce political concepts into his fictional world simply do not occur in the book. Wilkins, for example, cites Night Watch (2002) as Pratchett’s masterpiece. But in his subsequent discussion of the book (a fairly rare occurrence in itself), he mentions the darkness of its tone and its deepening of Sam Vimes’s character, and completely leaves out the fact that it is a story about a people’s revolution.

It’s perhaps for this reason that Wilkins’s portrait of the man himself seems partial. Neil Gaiman famously described Pratchett as a profoundly angry person, but without a strong sense of what he was angry about, he comes off as merely irascible, and sometimes even mean. A man who complains a lot about service workers like incompetent bookstore employees or lazy shop attendants. Who used to get debilitating panic attacks in stressful work situations, and then turns around and plays cruel pranks on his own employees. Who berates and sometimes even screams at editors, agents, and TV producers when he thinks they haven’t done right by his work. It’s hard to know whether Wilkins realizes the effect of his emphasis—he is perhaps too close to his subject, too charmed by things like Pratchett’s sudden, laser-like obsessions with a new toy or a topic of interest, to realize that the man he’s describing sometimes comes off as an inconsiderate asshole. As someone who has heard many stories about Pratchett’s profound kindness and generosity to fans (and who experienced a tiny bit of that kindness in a Chicago bookstore in 2001), it feels as if Wilkins is showing us snapshots of the man he knew and loved, without stopping to consider their cumulative effect.

The one place where Wilkins’s depiction feels convincing (and also tracks with impressions I formed already in my teens) is Pratchett’s profound anxiety. He seems to have had a deep fear of it all suddenly going away. With his net worth well into the millions, he would bargain down advances for fear of not being able to deliver the next book, or of it suddenly failing to sell. He found book tours increasingly depleting as his fame, and the lines of autograph-seeking fans, increased, but would not consider forgoing their promised sales boost. It genuinely bothered him—in a way that he tried, not at all convincingly, to play down—when he was eclipsed as the UK’s bestselling author by J.K. Rowling. He had a huge chip on his shoulder over not winning awards for his writing. A particularly hard-to-read scene sees him hopefully attending the Smarties award ceremony in 2007, having been nominated for Wintersmith (2006), only for the prize to go to (shudder) Ricky Gervais. Subsequently, he would not agree to attend an award ceremony unless he’d been assured ahead of time that he’d already won.

Again, though, Wilkins’s elision of Pratchett the writer leaves this picture feeling only partial. Why did Pratchett care about sales figures and being the UK’s top writer, unless he felt that this was all he had accomplished? Why did one silly book award matter so much, unless it was the fact that he had received so few others? Throughout his career, Pratchett never quite got the respect he deserved as a writer. The combination of being a fantasist, and a humorist, and a mega-bestseller, left mainstream critics unable to cope, too blinded by preconceptions to engage with what was actually in front of them. And the glut of material meant that genre institutions quickly came to take Pratchett for granted. While there are books by him that could and should have won a Hugo or a Nebula, the timing was never quite right for it. But Wilkins leaves this part of the picture out of frame. He mentions that the author A.S. Byatt was a rare voice within the British literary establishment who championed Pratchett’s work. But again this seems, to him, to be about respect for his friend, not the work.

The final chapters of A Life With Footnotes are an unsurprisingly heartbreaking read. The initial diagnosis is followed by a flurry of activity and publicity—Pratchett made several documentaries, about Alzheimer’s and about end-of-life care, including assisted suicide. He was knighted, an honor that seems to have pleased him immensely. And there is, of course, a mad rush to get out as many more novels as possible (“Work is Terry’s last defense against this cruel disease which is stripping him of himself. For as long as he writes, he is still Terry Pratchett”). There are triumphs and good days along the way—honorary degrees, public tributes, visits with friends. But eventually, these chapters become a list of lasts: the last trip abroad; the last public appearance; the last meeting with this or that creative partner; the last day at the office; the last good day. Anyone who has lost a loved one to dementia will recognize the horrifying inevitability of this process, and Wilkins’s grief, and his profound love for Pratchett, shine through his descriptions of it.

And that, perhaps, is the reason for the weirdness of this book, the choices it makes in where to place its emphasis. This is not really a biography. It’s a memoir by a man who not only loved Pratchett, but whose life was indelibly and irretrievably changed and shaped by him. And, perhaps not unlike Pratchett, Wilkins seems to have an anxiety about his friend being forgotten or discounted—see him, in the midst of arranging a sold-out tribute to Pratchett in London’s Theater Royal, pausing to mention the stratospheric sales figures for Snuff (2011). There’s a palpable sense in these chapters that he wants to prove that Terry Pratchett was important and worth remembering by pointing to all of the many ways he was feted and celebrated. But—even leaving aside, again, the fact that 400 pages is too long for this sort of reminiscing—surely it’s obvious that anyone who has picked up a book-length biography of a comic fantasy author has done so because they already agree with this premise?

The best literary biographies—books like Julie Phillips’s James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, or Hermione Lee’s bricklike Edith Wharton—weave together the author’s life and their work, and draw connections between them. They show us how the life of the mind was fertilized (or, in some cases, blighted) by what was going on in the world, and how the words on the page were rooted in what the author experienced in their life. Terry Pratchett, I believe, deserved no less. It wasn’t his sales figures, or the number of film adaptations his works received, or the number of honorary doctorates bestowed upon him, that made him a remarkable writer who is worth discovering and discussing. It’s a shame that A Life With Footnotes did not choose to explore this aspect of him.

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