Review: The Man Who Created a Funny Flat Planet—Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins

Chicago doesn’t play much of a role in Rob Wilkins’s biography of his boss, Terry Pratchett, the British mega-selling author of the fantasy-science fiction Discworld series whose life was cut short at the age of 66 by early onset Alzheimer’s. But the city’s cameo appearances come at several key moments.

In the fall of 2012, an event in Chicago—well, actually, suburban Chicago, at the Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville—was the final stop of Pratchett’s final American book tour. He was promoting his standalone novel Dodger while facing the progressive loss of his physical and mental functions.

As Wilkins recounts in Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, it was in Chicago 11 years earlier, while having breakfast at the InterContinental Hotel on Michigan Avenue, that he and Pratchett learned of the death of Douglas Adams.  A Pratchett friend and the author of the cult favorite The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams died of a heart attack at the age of 49.

Thirteen months before that, the Chicago Tribune published a story with the headline: “DISCWORLD ENCHANTS THE GLOBE, BUT NOT THE US.”

Pratchett was not pleased. As Wilkins writes, Pratchett—eventually with more than 100 million books in print worldwide—was irritated to no end that every attempt to make a dent in the American market “had merely sputtered and fizzled and failed to ignite.” Indeed, he adds, “Terry seemed to be capable of having hits almost anywhere else in the world but there.”

And that story in the Tribune with that “stark headline” seemed to bluntly sum it all up.

I remember that story.  I wrote it. 

More on that in a bit, but first: As Wilkins notes in Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, he was a big fan of Pratchett’s writing, especially the Discworld novels, before stumbling into an occasional technological fix-up role at the author’s office and then stumbling even more into the job of personal assistant.

In fact, when it came to hiring his first PA at 52, Pratchett expected to hire “a lady from the village.” Wilkins explains, “She would be someone who might respond to a card in the window of the village shop: someone, most likely retired, who was in a position to come in for a few days a week to help with the admin, do some filing…ensure there was milk in the office fridge for cups of tea.”  Definitely not a fan.  Definitely someone with “opinions.”

Instead, he got Wilkins.

It turned out for the best as Wilkins worked closely with him for 15 years, cleaning up his typing and then taking dictation as Pratchett moved away from the keyboard to create by telling his stories out loud, even before Alzheimer’s took away his ability to type. As the disease inflicted ever greater damage, Wilkins helped Pratchett to keep creating as long as possible, and now he and Pratchett’s daughter Rhianna oversee the still-vital family business of Discworld.

On the Backs of Elephants on the Shell of a Turtle

For the uninitiated, Discworld, the subject of Pratchett’s series of 41 novels, is a planet that is a huge, flat disc, balanced on the backs of four gigantic elephants who, themselves, are balancing on the shell of an even more gargantuan turtle that is swimming serenely through space. 

The denizens of Discworld are diverse and weird—dwarfs, trolls, gnomes, banshees, vampires, zombies, werewolves and, weirdest of all, humans. Major characters who rotate through the books include Rincewind, the cowardly wizard; Granny Weatherwax, the sly, taciturn witch of all witches; Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician who runs the city (think: Machiavelli); the City Watch, headed by Cmdr. Sam Vimes, the cigar-chewing cop of all cops; and Death, a skeletal figure who rides a horse called Binky, carries a scythe and speaks in capital letters.

All those years with Pratchett—all those hours of taking down his stories and then discussing them with him—have rubbed off on Wilkins. He employs a droll style that is a Wilkinesque version of Pratchett, but done with enough nuance and humility not to be off-putting.  And, like his boss, Wilkins uses a lot of footnotes—a lot.

After all, A Life with Footnotes, Wilkins’s subtitle, had been what Pratchett planned to call his autobiography. Truth be told, Wilkins uses many more of them than his boss did—maybe 300 over 429 pages—usually with a light humorous touch.

Indeed, the biography emphasizes Pratchett’s humor and curiosity and quirkiness while also acknowledging the writer was no saint. Wilkins points out that, in a foreword to Pratchett’s 2014 collection of non-fiction, writer Neil Gaiman, a longtime friend, took issue:

“with the public perception of Terry as a ‘jolly old elf’—mostly, perhaps, a misunderstanding arising from the beard and Terry’s general stature. (He was five foot eight on a good day.) This well-meaning sentimentalization of Terry, Neil pointed out, overlooked, among many other things, the anger in him. ‘The anger is always there,’ Neil wrote, ‘an engine that drives.’”

Wilkins’s book about Pratchett, published last fall, has a second subtitle The Official Biography because there was already an unofficial one published a year earlier, The Magic of Terry Pratchett by Marc Burrows. (And two others published even earlier.)

For the Official Biography, Wilkins had access to the notes Pratchett wrote for his planned autobiography and could tap into his own experiences as the writer’s sidekick, and he offers the reader a straightforward recounting of his subject’s life.

It goes into who Pratchett was without attempting to plumb great psychological depths and deals with what he did and how he did it, providing some interesting insights into the author’s working methods. His book will be a key touchstone for any future works about Pratchett and Discworld.

And you can be sure there will be future works.

Pratchett and his fictions inspired multitudes of rabid fans, many of whom are of a rather literary bent, such as English novelist and Booker Prize winner Dame A. S. Byatt.  As a result, there are already a lot of people who have written about him and his books, such as Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, edited by Andrew M. Butler, Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, published in 2000, and Philosophy and Terry Pratchett, edited by two Americans, Jacob M. Held and James B. South.

Wilkins doesn’t delve too much into such questions as Pratchett’s philosophy or his literary merit, but there is still much to be written about them.  Pratchett was a serious writer inasmuch as his humor was rooted in the oddities, inequities, and insanities of the human condition.  After all, remember: One of his characters is the personification of Death, and he appeared in all but two of the Discworld novels.

Indeed, when I came to read Pratchett’s novels—I’m in the middle of a second read-through right now—I was struck by how much he wrestled with such concepts as death and religion.

A Fun Conversation

Back in early 2000, when I interviewed Pratchett for the story that eventually ran with the headline he didn’t like—by the way, he eventually found a lot more success in America—I’d only read his newly published The Fifth Elephant, the 24th of his Discworld books, and maybe one or two of the earlier works.

We were sitting in an alcove at the InterContinental Hotel (which seems to have been a favorite of his, or his publicist) and having a fun conversation about the new book, which dealt, in part, with an immigrant problem in Anhk-Morpork (the New York City of his fictional world). 

The newcomers were dwarfs, and a lot of those who had come earlier—trolls, zombies and all the rest—were having trouble with that, a reference, of course, to what was and still is going on in the United Kingdom, the United States and other First World countries. Here’s what the top cop Sam Vimes had to say:

“In some of the alleys off Treacle Mine Road you could believe you were in another country. But they were what every copper desires in a citizen. They were no trouble. They mostly had jobs working for one another, they paid their taxes rather more readily than humans did, although to be honest there were small piles of mouse droppings that yielded more money than most Ankh-Morpork citizens, and generally any problems they had they sorted out among themselves.”

We talked about the nature of fantasy—it has to be logical to be funny, he said—and about how he, as he said, “mirrored” reality in his fiction rather than parodied it. And we talked about religious belief, of which he said he had none.

I would come to realize while going through the other Pratchett books that faith is always an important element. On that quiet morning when we sat talking, he told me that, in one Discworld book,

“Death says, in a conversation, that you need to believe in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny so you can believe in the big things, like justice, mercy, and pity.”

The thing is, he continued, justice, mercy and pity don’t exist independently, only when humans believe in them and live as if those virtues were real. They become real, in other words, when humans believe in them.

“I am a Victorian atheist—which is someone who is angry at God for not existing,” he told me.  Yet, the seemingly innate human need or desire to believe evidently fascinated him. And there was a limit to his non-belief:

“I cannot believe the universe, as complex as ours is, has not, at some level, some unifying . . . force, perhaps—I can’t think of the right word—that some people might call God.”

The Rob Wilkins biography of Pratchett provides rich insight into a lot of who Pratchett was.  But there is so much more that Pratchett says in his books that remains to be examined, debated and understood.

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes is available through bookstores and BookShop.org.

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Patrick T. Reardon
Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).

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