Today, I was going to write about some good news, but then the sad news arrived: Terry Pratchett died.
I have written about Pratchett before in these pages because he is one of my best-loved authors. He was a fantasy writer who was also a brilliant satirist and humorist of the highest order. Reading a new Pratchett book was for me as richly satisfying as artisan chocolate, and it lasted a good deal longer. (Plus I can go back and re-experience the books, which is hard, not to say disgusting, when chocolate is involved.)
Pratchett used his fantasy creation, the Discworld, to satirize our absurdities in this world. Nothing was off-limits for him. Personally, I think one of his finest pieces was “Monstrous Regiment,” which satirized bias against women and the absurdity of religion, which are deeply interconnected. Unlike fellow satirist and countryman Evelyn Waugh, Pratchett never indulged in invective; instead he made you laugh. And when you laugh, you become more open. And becoming open to new perspectives is how hearts and minds get changed.
There are, according to Wikipedia, 41 novels in the Discworld series. Pratchett also wrote several other novels, including “Good Omens” with the luminous Neil Gaiman, a series of children’s books, “The Long Earth” series with Stephen Baxter, and numerous handy guides to Discworld, short stories, and more. There’s a lot more to say about this man. He was awarded an O.B.E. and later knighted, so he is officially Sir Terry Pratchett. He suffered from a particularly vicious form of Alzheimer’s disease for eight years, and bore it with humor and bravery. He was deeply knowledgeable about the folklore of the British Isles, and commented to a meeting of folklorists that he viewed folklore much as a carpenter views trees. Wikipedia has an exhaustive amount of material on Pratchett and also his novels, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here–but he was a man of many parts.
I enjoy everything Pratchett wrote, but Discworld holds a special place in my heart (me and millions of others). He created a world so rich in detail, teeming with fascinating characters and creatures, that a return to Discworld was a richly enjoyable experience every time. I love his witches, especially grumpy and wise old Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, who had a lively girlhood and likes her pint or two. I love brave Captain Carrot, the 6 foot-plus dwarf who is the unacknowledged King of Ankh-Morpork, Discworld’s largest and (probably) most noisome city. And Lord Vetinari, the ultimate politician who always manages to keep things on course without too much bloodshed. And Death, who always SPEAKS IN CAPITALS (and has the last word). In Discworld, you meet hundreds of characters who are so beautifully drawn that they leave the mark of their personalities with you forever.
But the real reason I cried when I heard he had died is because he was kind to me once. I have related this before, but here it is again:
You see, I met Connie Willis first. I was in the vendors’ hall at Worldcon when it came to San Jose, CA several years ago. I happened to glimpse her nametag. Connie Willis is also a favorite author, so I introduced myself—and proceeded to commit every rabid-fan sin it is possible to commit in attempting to praise her work. Even as I heard the vapid words burbling out of my mouth, I knew I was doomed. The expression of pain on Ms. Willis’ face only confirmed my gauche blundering. I attempted to extricate myself by saying, “Well, I’m starting to drool on you, so I guess I’d better go now.” Ms. Willis nodded mute agreement, and I slunk away with my tail between my legs, feeling like a complete moron.
I was standing at a vendor’s stall wondering if it is possible to actually die of embarrassment when a tidy gentleman with a gray beard and a black fedora walked up. I thought he looked familiar, but when the vendor called him “Mr. Pratchett,” my suspicions were confirmed. He stood right next to me as the vendor handed him a CD, saying, “I’ve been saving this for you, but I was afraid I might come across as a rabid fan.” (Like me, I thought.)
Pratchett took the CD and said, “I adore rabid fans!”
I turned to him and said, “Well, then, would you mind if I drooled on your shoulder?”
Pratchett responded, “Not at all—but would you mind drooling on this shoulder”—he patted his right shoulder—“as the other one is already rather damp?”
Instantly, the oppressive cloud of feeling foolish lifted and disappeared. I will never forget how Terry Pratchett’s humor and kindness brightened my day and turned my embarrassment into laughter. (Not that I mean to say Connie Willis made me feel bad. I made myself feel bad. I should’ve kept my mouth shut.)
And now this kind, brilliant, prolific and amazing writer is gone. There will be no more tales of Discworld to anticipate with glee. His brilliance continues to shine in his work, which will live for a long, long time. He set a high standard for humanity. I only hope that someday we live up to it.