April 1, 2008
Most people think that all fantasy literature is mythological creatures, dashing young heroes, and the Damsel in Distress™. But one author has made a career making fun of these clichés. Terry Pratchett is one of England’s best-selling authors because of his unique fantasy novels.
Terry Pratchett was born April 28, 1948, in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England (Smythe 1). His full name is Terence David John Pratchett (Kidby 1). He had an ordinary childhood. His interests included a love of astronomy (Wikipedia 4), but in school he was not exceptional. He thought of himself as a “nondescript student” (Smythe 1). In fact, after completing grade school, he chose to go to High Wycombe Technical High School instead of regular high school (Smythe 1).
Even though Pratchett thought of himself as a regular student, his literary abilities began showing early in his life. His first short story, “The Hades Business,” was published in the school newspaper when he was thirteen, and then professionally in the magazine Science Fantasy when he was fifteen (Smythe 2, Clute p. 783). This early success combined with his average academic performance led him to see that school wasn’t going to help him succeed in writing. With his parents’ approval, he left school at age seventeen for a job on the Bucks Free Press in 1965 (Smythe 2). In 1968, he married his wife, Lyn (Smythe 14). Their daughter Rhianna was born in 1976. Pratchett worked in various journalism jobs until 1980, when he became publicity officer for what is now PowerGen. He had responsibility for reporting on three nuclear power plants (Smythe 3).
Even while he was working as a journalist, Pratchett was writing and trying to sell fiction. His first novel, The Carpet People, was published in 1971 (Clute p. 783). For a first novel, it was very well liked. His publisher, Colin Smythe, who would later become Pratchett’s agent, said, “It was a delight, and it was obvious that here was an author we had to publish” (2). This was followed by The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981). In Strata, the idea of a flat world that eventually led to the Discworld books was played with (Clute 783). The first Discworld book published was The Colour of Magic (1983) (Clute 783). It was broadcast on the BBC radio program “Woman’s Hour” as a six-part serial. They later did Equal Rites, the third Discworld book. They got a huge audience reaction for both (Smythe 4). Pratchett’s hardcover books sold well, but his first paperback publisher didn’t market his books very well, so Smythe got him a deal at Corgi (Smythe 4). He was getting very famous very fast. For the third, fourth and fifth Discworld books, he signed a deal with Gollancz, a very big publisher (Smythe 5). In September of 1987, he decided to devote himself to full-time writing, and quit his job at PowerGen (Smythe 6).
Though Terry Pratchett has written many different books, his most famous series is the Discworld novels. This fantasy series of over 35 books is set on the Discworld, a flat world supported by four elephants who stand on the back of Great A’tuin, a giant space turtle (Clute 783). Most Discworld books fall into one of four groups, but some stand alone (Clute 783, 784). The first group is about Rincewind the inept wizard. Rincewind is often seen fleeing for his life, which leads to extensive travel. These books “show off” the Discworld (Clute 783-4). The Rincewind novels are appealing to some because they are unusual. The “hero” of the books is always running away, and yet saves the world several times. In these books, Pratchett twists the conventions of heroic fantasy and mocks its clichés.
The second group is about Granny Weatherwax the witch and her “coven,” eccentric and earthy Nanny Ogg and flighty, soppy Magrat Garlick. These are often about certain famous stories, such as Macbeth, with adaptations (Clute 784). These books are about how stories can influence our lives and can be influenced by us. Granny believes that you can live your own way, but you need to be responsible for your actions. Reading these books is like learning a lesson about life, but not explicitly.
The third group is about Death, or his granddaughter Susan. These ones are philosophical (Clute 784). Death is an anthropomorphic personification, which means he is the physical representation of the idea of death. He started out businesslike and impersonal, but over time, he became more human. This is a problem because the Auditors of the universe don’t want Death to become a personality. As Death discovers what it’s like to be human, readers also think about those questions.
The fourth group is about Ankh-Morpork’s city watch. These are usually murder mysteries (Clute 784). Like with the Rincewind books, Pratchett turns another convention around—how the city guards in other fantasy books are always being slaughtered or are generally useless. It is also interesting that he can create a convincing mystery without having to bend the rules of his universe.
Not everything is funny in the Discworld. Many of the situations are very serious (Clute 784). A running theme in the Discworld is belief. Belief is the power the Discworld runs on—gods are only gods because of the belief of their followers (Clute 784). The Discworld is in many ways a mirror of our world, showing exaggerated truths (Clute 783). Other Discworld publications include play adaptations, companion art books, diaries, video games, and a role-playing game (Smythe 19). Terry Pratchett’s non-Discworld books include Good Omens (written with Neil Gaiman), the Johnny books, and the children’s series The Bromeliad (Clute 785).
Terry Pratchett has been writing for over 25 years, and has become very successful. He has 55 million copies of his books in print worldwide, in 35 languages (Kidby 27, Smythe 29). In the United Kingdom, he was second only to J.K. Rowling in fiction sales. He sells more than 2.5 million copies in a year in the UK alone (Wikipedia 11). Even early in his career, he frequently had books in the top position of the hardcover and paperback bestseller lists at the same time; he is the only author who has done this more than once (Smythe 7). Pratchett was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for literary contributions. He thought it was a hoax at first (Smythe 16). The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, Terry Pratchett’s first children’s book set in the Discworld, won the Carnegie Medal in 2002 (Smythe 18). Pratchett has received honorary doctorates from University of Warwick, University of Portsmouth, and the University of Bath. In return, he gave the heads of these universities honorary doctorates from Unseen University, the biggest wizarding university in the Discworld (Smythe 16). Terry Pratchett also works for the Orangutan Foundation. He filmed Orangutans in their natural habitat in Borneo. The Librarian for Unseen University, a very popular character, is an Orangutan (Smythe 15).
Most recently, Pratchett revealed some very disturbing news. He announced in late 2007 that he has a very rare form of Alzheimer’s disease (Bookbrowse 5). While fans were very upset, he was more positive. About his illness, he said, “This should be interpreted as ‘I am not dead.’ I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else. For me, this may be further off than you think—it’s too soon to tell” (Bookbrowse 6). In March 2008, he donated US$1,000,000 (₤494,000) to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust (Wikipedia 16). Fans followed suit by setting up a “Match It For Pratchett” campaign to raise another million.
People like Terry Pratchett’s work because he blends parodies and original stories in his books. He publishes at least one book a year, which is very unusual. Already his next book, Nation—not a Discworld book and not going to be published until September 2008—is ranked 997th in pre-orders at Amazon.uk. Devoted fans and new readers continue to make him one of the bestselling fantasy authors not only in England, but in the world.
“Pratchett, Terry.” Encyclopedia of Fantasy, ed. John Clute and John Grant. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997, pp. 783-785.
“Terry Pratchett.” Bookbrowse. 12 Dec. 2007. Visited 22 Feb. 2008 <http://www.bookbrowse.com/biographies/index.cfm?author_number=414>
“Terry Pratchett.” Paul Kidby’s website. 1995. Visited 22 Feb. 2008 <http://www.paulkidby.com/biography/terrypratchett.html>
“Terry Pratchett.” Wikipedia. Last modified 31 Mar. 2008. Visited 31 Mar. 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_pratchett>
“Terry Pratchett: A Biography by Colin Smythe.” L-Space Web. 1996. Visited 22 Feb. 2008 <http://www.lspace.org/about-terry/biography.html>
from Fantastic Fiction