Rob Wilkins’s biography of Terry Pratchett seems, to me, to be the best choice for fans who want to learn more about the life of Terry Pratchett, from his early school days, his earliest publications, his life as a journalist and later as a publicist for an energy company, his career as one of Britain’s most successful authors, and finally, his illness and death. The book is written from the personal experiences of Wilkins, based also upon his access to Pratchett’s family, along with the autobiography Pratchett, himself, was attempting to write prior to his death.
As a fan of Pratchett’s, this stands in contrast to the only other book I have read about him. Craig Cabell’s Terry Pratchett: The Spirit of Fantasy, was written after Pratchett announced in 2007 that he was suffering from a rare degenerative form of Alzheimer’s (PCA, Posterior Cortical Atrophy). In his Acknowledgements, Cabell thanks Pratchett’s long-time agent, Colin Smythe, for offering comments on the finished manuscript, but nowhere does he mention anyone closer to Pratchett providing input for the book. Cabell clarifies that “this is not an official biography and not a Discworld companion. It is a tribute . . .” The statement serves to highlight that the book struggles to define its purpose. It has some biographical details, it discusses some of the novels in Pratchett’s oeuvre, and offers a very subjective response to Pratchett’s work.
Rob Wilkins’ biography is better than that. Near the end of the book he describes how he removed the hard drive from Pratchett’s computer after the author’s death and had it destroyed by running a steamroller over it. It’s a dramatic flourish Pratchett would have approved of. Pratchett had not wanted any of his unfinished fiction to be made public. The act demonstrates for those who are yet to read this book and may not yet know, that Wilkins was personally close to Pratchett. He was Terry Pratchett’s personal assistant from 2000 (and worked for Pratchett’s agent prior to that) and later his manager. Unseen Academicals is partly dedicated to Wilkins, “who typed most of it and had the good sense to laugh occasionally”, as is Snuff. Raising Steam, Pratchett’s last adult Discworld novel, is dedicated to the memory of Pratchett and Wilkins’s fathers. Wilkins worked daily with Terry Pratchett, helping fix and install technology to help Pratchett write, acting as a typist, as a sounding board, as a manager, and later still when Terry Pratchett’s disease progressed, Wilkins travelled with him, looked after him, and even performed readings and interviews in Pratchett’s stead when he was no longer physically capable of coping with these demands. As a result, Wilkins had a close relationship with Pratchett’s family – after so long as an assistant and manager, he had become a friend – and was entrusted with dealing with Pratchett’s business interests in his decline and after his death. He now manages Pratchett’s literary estate and his production company, Narrativia, in partnership with Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna.
This long discussion of Wilkins may seem off the mark, but this is a review of Wilkins’ biography about Terry Pratchett rather than a discussion of Pratchett, per se. The point is, Wilkins was in a position to know Pratchett personally, and the life he led. He had access to his family and information about his past life, and was sympathetic to Pratchett as a person while at the same time close enough to understand and acknowledges his foibles. Wilkins is clearly aware as he opens his book that he has to thread the needle between introducing himself, since who he is is relevant to understanding how the book came to be written – and since he cannot pretend he is not part of the story –at the same time ensuring that the book is not self-serving, but a sympathetic and honest account of Pratchett. In the last years of Pratchett’s life he relied more and more heavily on Wilkins to get the novels written, a fact reflected in Pratchett’s dedications in his later books. Pratchett was experimenting with voice recognition software or relying on Wilkins to type the novels as Pratchett dictated them. And his impending death made Pratchett keen to produce an autobiography, which Wilkins had been helping him shape before he died. Wilkins admits that there was only about 24,000 words completed, but he uses those words as a basis for his own account of Pratchett’s early life, sometimes quoting Pratchett’s own words as part of the finished biography.
This unusual genesis for the book, I think, affects how Wilkins writes Pratchett’s biography. Wilkins was a fan of Pratchett’s before coming to work for him and was immersed in his writing style. This fact is apparent in many instances of the book, which have echoes of Pratchett’s humour and thinking. And of course, the subtitle, A Life With Footnotes, means exactly what it says. Many pages of the biography have footnotes – far more footnotes than Pratchett ever used, in reality – that provide interesting factual asides or, as Pratchett often employed them, as comedic adjuncts to the main text. In fact, the number of footnotes is exceptional, which might be off-putting for some readers. But I think it works, especially for fans who understand Pratchett’s use of footnotes, as well as because the footnotes often have genuinely interesting factual asides.
In his opening pages, Wilkins describes how Pratchett dismissed the idea of writing a biography before he fell ill:
What could possibly be interesting for a reader, he would argue, in the tale of a bloke who got up, had breakfast, wrote some words, had lunch, wrote some more words, had supper, watched a film or some television with his wife and went to bed (possibly having sat up a little longer to write a few more words)?
Wilkins, however, is acutely aware that this prosaic account falls short, and that Pratchett’s real story is “of the journey that took a kid from a council house in Beaconsfield to a knighthood and a mansion near Salisbury by the sheer power of his imagination alone”. Wilkins’s account of the living conditions of the early Pratchett household, where even electricity and hot water were unavailable, is compulsive reading, not just for fans, but because Pratchett’s life as Wilkins writes it conforms to the kind of Hero’s Journey he might have given a character, rising up from nothing to become somebody. It’s clear in Pratchett’s fiction that he admires the Machiavellian sleights of hand performed by the Patrician, or the rise of Sam Vines through the social circles of Ankh-Morpork, or even the wily, if somewhat ineffectual, cunning of a man like Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler. The no-nonsense Granny Weatherwax is one of his most admirable and enduring characters. Pratchett clearly admired characters who lived by their wits, and I think this is what Wilkins draws from Pratchett’s own life story. He’s not just a bloke who wrote words, but was a boy who, at the age of fifteen, had published his own first short story, ‘The Hades Business’* in Science Fantasy, a small periodical, alongside other great writers like J.G.Ballard and Mervin Peake, and went to the UK Science Fiction Convention by himself the following year: who had the courage to eschew the safer path that continued education seemed to offer, but instead took up a job at a local newspaper, and eventually gave up the certainties of paid employment altogether, to live by sheer talent alone as his Discworld novels began to gain popularity. Broadly speaking, Pratchett’s life reads like triumph and tragedy, a hero raised up and torn down, which sounds horribly clichéd when described so broadly, except to say that the story is specific and tangible, and presents a real, fallible human being of exceptional talent, rather than a type.
There are also some great anecdotes, too. Like the story of a young Terry Pratchett standing next to Arthur C. Clarke in the urinals and realising that even great achievers are also merely human beings. Or of his failure to properly meet Douglas Adams, an author Pratchett much admired, whose death he lamented. Or how he interviewed Roald Dahl at his house before Dahl became insanely famous. And less glamorously, of the story of Pratchett’s first day in the field as a local news reporter, faced with the corpse of a farmer who had jumped from his tractor and landed on the rotten boards covering a forgotten well, just beneath the surface of the dirt. As readers who admire Pratchett, we are in turn reminded that Pratchett was moulded by experiences and meetings, and we sometimes sense, knowing the trajectory of his life and fiction, that we are reading of formative moments.
Other anecdotes reveal much about Pratchett’s character. His refusal to accept inflated advances for books suggest his caution and concern for reputation. He refused to accept advances he thought a book would not earn back. And as he settled into the Discworld series he would only sign contracts for two books at a time, usually when he already had another written and another on the way. But Pratchett is also revealed to be pragmatic. Pratchett is initially impressed by the offer to write an essay for £8 a word, an offer he feels he must accept. Wilkins, however, does a calculation to show Pratchett that he is currently earning £10 a word for his Discworld novels, which leads Pratchett to reject the essay offer because it would not be “an economical use” of his time.
But the book is most effective and poignant in what is Wilkins’s own personal story of Pratchett’s decline and death. Wilkins recounts experiences of travelling to Switzerland to watch Peter Smedley’s assisted death. Wilkins records how disturbed he is by this, despite Pratchett’s enthusiasm for assisted dying, which he campaigned for in the last years of his life. Pratchett also allowed three documentaries to be made about him to raise awareness about the issue, which required film crews to follow him into his personal and working life. Pratchett wanted more funding for Alzheimer’s research. But his story is affecting not just for the details of his struggle, but for Wilkins’s personal account: of his watching the decline of his friend; of his own shifting role in Pratchett’s life to help him maintain as much of himself as he could through his writing; and of several harrowing experiences of Pratchett’s mental and physical decline. I remember wondering, as Terry Pratchett continued to produce excellent fiction in the years after his diagnosis, whether his disease was as severe as I first imagined. Wilkins’s account shows just how debilitating it was. How tenuous the work became.
Like thousands of others, I met Terry Pratchett in book signings. I first knew of his works when I discovered two senior students giggling over one of the Discworld novels at the back of my classroom one morning. I first saw him at Dymocks in Sydney before I started reading him. I began reading Discworld around 1995 when Interesting Times was the latest book in the series. I began with The Colour of Magic and then barrelled through the whole series, as it then existed, with glee. I met Terry Pratchett in a signing again in a Science Fiction and Fantasy bookshop (that no longer exists) in Penrith when he was in Australia promoting Hogfather. I can say that both times he said very little. He was a man with his head down and intense, with his publisher minders watching over him, careful of the time. That’s kind of how I would have imagined a man who produced so much excellent fiction in the time that he had, and it’s kind of how Wilkins presents him. Pratchett is an intense worker, with little time for fools, sometimes brought to anger and fuelling his satiric comedy through his anger. Yet he is also intensely humane and, ultimately, frail. This is not just a factual account of Pratchett’s life, but an intensely personal one that captures Pratchett’s humanity. It’s well worth a read by fans and non-fans alike.
* ‘The Hades Business’ can be found in a collection of Terry Pratchett’s shorter fiction, A Blink of the Screen, published in 2012 by Transworld Publishers.