Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.
Whip-smart and funny, the writer was adored by his Pakistani fans
EVERY few months during the seven years I hosted a book show on Pakistani radio, I would ask listeners to tell me who their favourite writers were, the names of the books they chose to read repeatedly and the genres they enjoyed the most. A few themes came up each time. Pakistanis love crime and they love high fantasy (it makes total sense, really), and a few names came up every single time. One of them was that of Terry Pratchett, the much-loved British writer of comical fantasy adventures who died at age 66 on March 12.
This never came as a surprise to me — crime and fantasy, remember? Pratchett’s Discworld novels were wonderful comical adventures that contained both of those elements, and Karachiites would say how much the city of Ankh-Morpork with its Guild of Assassins and it’s Guild of Fools and it’s Guild of Thieves felt like home. And it was. Discworld is a familiar home to many, many millions of people across the world, Pakistanis included. Pratchett wrote over 70 books, which were translated into 37 languages in a career spread over 44 years. He’s reported to have sold over 85 million books, writing three a year during his very busy period and slowing down to one a year in the last decade or more. His work has been adapted for radio and for theatre — though he held back from handing over film rights to studios.
His is a pretty hefty legacy, even if you didn’t consider the vast, immense love his fans have for him and for his books; many willing to fight you tooth and nail if you don’t consider Pratchett’s work as influential as Shakespeare’s, which, in a great many ways, it really is. From the very first story he published at 15, to the novels that were immediate bestsellers, Pratchett’s writing is like no one else’s, though of course, dozens of writers have learnt to write by reading his books, and by trying to recreate the wonderful mix of humour, adventure and sharp wit that he seemed to come to so effortlessly. And the puns — you’d be wise to not trust a person who didn’t at least giggle at a Pratchett pun.
Pratchett did what he wanted to with his narrative style: his wasn’t a voice that had come from anywhere but his own relentlessly, uncontrollably imaginative mind, though now it would be easy to find many, many, many writers trying to write the way he did. If Pratchett felt like an aside was needed, he put it in footnotes. Sometimes he gave those footnotes footnotes too. If he wanted to ignore chapter breaks, he did (Homer didn’t write in chapters he once said). If he decided Death was an anthropomorphic character who spoke telepathically (seen in text as capitals, to boot), that that’s what he went with. If he decided to mix up historical or mythological references or characters he did, if he felt the need for someone called Ghengiz Cohen (a version of Conan the Barbarian and Genghis Khan) then who would stop him? If he wanted to make up a colour of magic, the eight colour on the spectrum, he went for it (it’s called octarine, in case you’re interested, and it’s sort of greenish-yellow purple). If he thought a librarian should become an orangutan, so it was, and if he wanted to stick some submarines or a steam engine or even rock music in what was ostensibly a medieval setting he did it with aplomb. And we loved every cheeky, impertinent creative word of it all.
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007, Pratchett campaigned for the disease constantly, saying “it steals you from yourself”. Though he was a great supporter of assisted dying, it is reported that he succumbed to a chest infection, passing away in his home surrounded by his family and his cat. Pratchett had struggled with physically writing his stories in the last few years and took to dictating his last novels. A final novel from his Discworld series was completed in 2014 and is due to be published posthumously this year.
The Discworld novels, starting with The Colour of Magic in 1983, are probably Pratchett’s best known. Set in a world that exists as a flat disc resting atop the backs of four elephants who themselves stand on the shell of a giant turtle swimming through space, these are the bestsellers that earned him the sort of celebrity, respect and love that most writers can barely dream of.
With an evolving cast of characters and multiple story arcs that were each as imaginative as the other, the interconnectivity in the Discworld novels is enough to leave a reader’s mind boggling at how Pratchett could keep track of everything he created: a single joke somewhere could grow into a substantial arc; a minor character could become a major reoccurring one (sometimes jumping across to standalone novels like Good Omens, which he wrote with Neil Gaiman). It was such a wonderful, organic growth of a world created to live beyond one man’s imagination, a world that would take root in the minds of millions of people.
Whether it was fairy tales, witches, vampires, politics, religion, technology, music or even economics and business, the growing wonders of Discworld allowed Pratchett to create incredible journeys for his many memorable characters. Pratchett knew how to keep a tight grip on his plots even as he exhibited a master class in world-building.
The irreverent parodies he created spared no one from his wit: he’d make fun of organised religion just as easily as he would atheism, he’d tear apart socialism just as easily as he did capitalism, and yet there was nothing bitter about him or his writing: Pratchett made it seem that this was what fantasy was made for — this complex mix of intelligent humour and satire and this great, overwhelming love for the absurd. Preaching was not something Pratchett ever did: he wasn’t shy about offering his opinions on society, religion or humanity but he made sure his readers were laughing and entertained throughout.
“You can’t map a sense of humour”, he wrote in The Colour of Magic, “Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons? On the Discworld we know that There Be Dragons Everywhere. They might not all have scales and forked tongues, but they Be Here all right, grinning and jostling and trying to sell you souvenirs”.
Pratchett never tried to sell us souvenirs. He didn’t need to pander to his audience, he never once believed that his readers were any less smart than he was, that they may perhaps not have the sort of esoteric knowledge he had collected in his head. There may have been little Easter eggs and secret jokes and hidden meanings in his stories, but there was never any condescension in his voice or manner. From what other writers who knew him have told me, he seems to also have been a very nice man: affable, kind and self-deprecating. A T-shirt he often wore to conventions read “Tolkien is dead. J.K. Rowling said no. Phillip Pullman couldn’t make it. Hi, I’m Terry Pratchett.”
The thing is, Pratchett wasn’t just a good writer, Pratchett was cool. He was everything you’d want your favourite writer to be: whip-smart, wise and funny in real life as well as in his books, just shockingly nice and geeky-quirky in the best of ways. When he was knighted by the Queen, he forged his own sword out of iron ore and a meteorite. He has an asteroid named after him. He never sold out to Hollywood. He attended fan conventions no one expected him to come to because he wanted to meet his readers. He spoke openly about his disease, donated money to Alzheimer’s research and continued to help generate further funds. His Twitter feed announced his passing away in a series of tweets that had his best known character Death lead him away “onto the black desert under the endless night” — poignant and perfect. He even had a personal coat of arms: it’s motto is ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’.
“Fate can be one mean god at times”, wrote Sir Terry, and fate was. But he also said “no one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world fade away”, and Terry Pratchett caused some mighty strong ripples that probably won’t ever fade away.