Terry Pratchett by Rob Wilkins review: the gloriously mundane magic of Discworld

Terry Pratchett in 2010 - PA
Terry Pratchett in 2010 - PA

Like most authors, Terry Pratchett had a dull life. The joy of this biography by Rob Wilkins, Pratchett’s personal assistant from around 2000 onwards, is that it spins magic from mundanity in precisely the way Pratchett himself did.

His Discworld novels may have taken place on a flat planet held aloft by four elephants and a turtle, but that’s not what matters in them. It’s not even the jokes that matter, though few writers since Wodehouse have stuffed a page with so many. What matters, in Pratchett’s world, is what he called “headology” – the commonsensical psychology behind the petty acts of cruelty and kindness that comprise most human behaviour. What matters are the uncomfortable woollen socks his hero Sam Vimes wears, uncomplainingly, because his wife Sibyl knitted them.

The son of a mechanic and a secretary, Pratchett was born in 1948 in the Chilterns (a chalk landscape that haunts his books), in a house with no electricity or running water. As a teenager, he wrote a fan-letter to Tolkien, who wrote back. Decades later, Pratchett made a point of replying to the thousands of fans who wrote to him. (I know: one was an 11-year-old me.)

He published his first story at 15, left school at 17 to work on his local paper, married the first girl who fell into his lap – literally; she tripped at a party – and for the rest of his life remained “the most married person you were ever likely to meet”. Terry and Lyn Pratchett lived not just a good life, but The Good Life: making plum and fig wine, growing redcurrants and rhubarb, keeping doves and cats and goats and tortoises and bees and a clutch of chickens who slept in a cider barrel. “We were hippies,” he said, “but hippies with jobs.” He drove a Dunkley Whippet scooter, then a turquoise bubble car, then a “fourth-hand Morris Traveller with acute radiator problems”. A month after the Three Mile Island accident, he took a PR job for British nuclear power.

And somewhere along the way he became Britain’s most popular living author – until knocked from that perch by JK Rowling. He was annoyed, but the truth is that financial success didn’t suit him. He didn’t like high advances; his agent would haggle publishers down. When offered £750,000 for a non-fiction book, he was so appalled he withdrew from the deal completely. To date, his books have sold 100 million copies – and not only to spotty teenagers called Nigel, though they may be the stereotypical Discworld fan. Wilkins points out that “just over half of Terry Pratchett’s actual readers” are women. It was Women’s Hour serialising the first three Discworld novels that made him a commercial success. The third, Equal Rites, was fantasy-spoof as feminist polemic, its young heroine modelled on his daughter Rhianna.

Writing about a comic novelist is dangerous. Try to be funny and you risk unflattering comparisons. Wilkins waffles on a bit, and his jokes are sometimes effortful, but crucially he understands the difference between humour and wit. In Pratchett’s words, humour “needs deep soil. You can grow wit on a damp flannel.”

Wilkins is excellent on Pratchett’s early reading habits, and inspirations, but occasionally seems to miss the point of the books. He quotes an interview Roald Dahl gave to a young Pratchett, in which Dahl told him that “the usual underlying [message] any writer tries to get through… is that some people are very nasty and some are very nice. Most people are very nasty, really, when you get down to it.” Wilkins, eager to present this as a baton-passing moment, says Dahl’s comments “would much later become Terry’s own philosophy”. But Pratchett’s books, again and again, reject the idea that people are fundamentally good or bad. “People are fundamentally people,” as he put it in Good Omens, co-written with Neil Gaiman (who interviewed the older Pratchett as a 25-year-old – now there’s your baton moment).

There’s a lot here on what Pratchett called the business of being “a nauthor”, but not much analysis of what made his work so popular. For that, try Marc Burrows’s biography, The Magic of Terry Pratchett. But Wilkins has two terrific sources to draw on: first, Pratchett’s notes towards an unpublished memoir of his early years, which he quotes; and second, his own experiences as Pratchett’s long-suffering aide. (On his second week of work, Wilkins was made to dig a 150-foot trench.)

It’s a tragedy that Alzheimer’s – the “embuggerance” – hit Pratchett when he was writing his very best work. Wilkins was by his side for the most difficult moments. I shed a tear at the final chapters, in which we see Pratchett use his irritability and anger – that lifelong chip on the shoulder, which not even his knighthood could remove – to fuel his tireless campaigning for Alzheimer’s research. “I intend to scream and harangue while there is time,” he said. “I’m going to make Alzheimer’s regret catching me.”

Pratchett’s other public campaign was for the right to die on one’s own terms. (He didn’t like the phrase “assisted suicide”.) Death, in Discworld, is a kindly figure who SPEAKS IN BLOCK CAPITALS and rides a horse called Binky. Pratchett faced that old friend without fear, though when his end finally came in 2015, at the age of 66, it was from natural causes. The news was announced on Twitter by Death, in a line Wilkins wrote with Rhianna: “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.”

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes is published by Doubleday at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books