Book Review – Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes by Rob Wilkins

books, reviews

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

How much do we ever really know about the authors we love? It’s not as if we must learn about their lives to appreciate their work. Of course, some writers become more than their books. Terry Pratchett is one of those people. Over the course of his career, Pratchett was responsible for creating Discworld and all of the colourful characters we’ve come to love. He became seen as a jolly, bearded man in a fedora. However, there is so much more to him than that. As Neil Gaiman once wrote, “Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly. He’s angry”. As great as this snippet might be as a headline, it’s definitely not the full picture of the author but there is certainly more to the author than meets the eye. So, when I got the chance to read his official biography, I jumped at the chance to learn more about Terry Pratchett’s life outside of Discworld. Of course, that was months ago and I’ve only just finished it. Do I feel guilty about it? Yes but better late than never, right?

 Terry Pratchett was a writer who often wrote about death. He was a very familiar presence in the Discworld series and spends much of his time trying to come to terms with the behaviour of human beings. As we know, Death is also a central figure in Rob Wilkins’s biography. Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 and died in 2015. Before his death, the writer had been working on his biography but he didn’t get the chance to finish it. Instead, the task was taken up by his long-time assistant and friend assistant Rob Wilkins. Wilkins goes through Terry’s life from his childhood to the author’s final days. It’s an intricate and intimate look back at the writer’s life. Everything is written with the utmost care, attention and love. Wilkins is putting everything he can into telling this story as Pratchett would have wanted it.

The fact that he was s close to the writer means that the book is so full of emotions. I spent most of my time moving between absolute joy and deep sadness. You can find yourself laughing one minute and then sobbing the next. The end of the book is particularly rough because of the sad way that the author’s life ended. The subject is given more emotional depth because you not only witness the effect the disease had on a talented writer but you see the experience through the eyes of someone who was in the thick of it. As Terry’s assistant, Wilkins was one of the closest people to the author during this time. This isn’t just the story of Pratchett’s battle with the disease but Wilkins’s own experience of Alzheimer’s from the outside. The disease creates a shadow over the whole narrative but the book is rarely maudlin. Pratchett was, after all, a human being with many complex emotions. He was much more than a sad and untimely death.

Terry was a complex man and often had a temper on him. Wilkins doesn’t attempt to create the image of a saint or go along with the idea that Pratchett was a “jolly old elf”. We get a good idea of what it must have been like to be his assistant and get to grips with his sometimes brusque manner. He would get frustrated with the world and the way that people saw him It also took him a while to find out what he was meant to do. He always knew he enjoyed writing and spent his early years writing for various local newspapers. It was his love of fantasy and science fiction that encouraged him to write fiction and, as we now know, push him to literary fame. Obviously, his early days as a journalist were interesting to read but it is Terry’s life as a full-time author that is the most fascinating to fans of his books. Seeing how he processed the popularity of his books or the way he approached writing the series. One of the most weirdly emotional moments of the book comes when Wilkins lists the titles of the unwritten Discworld novels. The books that Pratchett didn’t get the time to put down on paper. 

As Neil Gaiman once wrote, Terry’s writing was driven by anger. His anger fuelled him as he wrote and can be seen so often in his books. It can also be seen throughout this biography. However, the impression that you really get from reading this is that love was more prominent in his life. His life was full of friends and loved ones who supported him throughout his journey as a writer. He had such a strong support system and so many people helped him get to where he needed to be. You can’t escape from the fact that Pratchett was not only well-loved but loved well. Obviously, Wilkins himself was close to the writer but we also hear from Terry’s oldest friend, his former colleagues and fellow writers, including Gaiman. Some of the loveliest moments in this book come from Terry’s family. Both the story of how he met his wife and the description of his daughter’s birth are truly beautiful to read. 

I’m very bad at reading non-fiction these days, so it took me a long time to finish this. However, I’m really glad that I pushed through to the end. Not only did I get the chance to find out more about Terry Pratchett but it was a really lovely book to read. It is a well-written and very intimate look into his life. Knowing about the end of Pratchett’s life, I was worried that the book would be too tinged with sadness but there was life here. So much humanity within these pages. As John Lloyd said at his funeral, “Of all the dead authors in the world, Terry Pratchett is the most alive.” He’s certainly alive within the pages of this book thanks to Rob Wilkins’s writing and careful storytelling. I’m so grateful that I got the chance to read it. 

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