Article published on October 16, 2012.
The Cheltenham Literary Festival is nothing if not a Mecca for all things literary. The list of speakers is like a who’s-who of top flight authors, and none more significant than Sir Terry Pratchett. Indeed the introduction itself said it all – an OBE, followed by a Knighthood, and the sale of eighty-eight million books worldwide. The figure gives a moment’s pause – eighty-eight million. And this undoubted narrative success has been brought into sharp focus in the last few years due to the announcement that Terry himself (after reading every one of the Discworld novels it does not seem right to refer to him as “Pratchett”) has early-onset Alzheimer’s. His documentaries about the disease and assisted dying attracted critical acclaim and fuelled significant debate about the issues.
Though it was not these contentious issues that were the subject of his appearance at Cheltenham. After all he is defined by his success not by his disease. Eighty-eight million copies seem to imply that, had I not mentioned it?
So the hundreds of eager fans that waited for the workshop this week (and queued almost all the way around the venue itself I might add) were to be treated to him in conversation with his business manager and friend Rob Wilkins discussing his new Victorian era book, Dodger. Though as it turned out this was only loosely speaking the case.
The relationship between the two men was soon evident in the comfortable way they chatted, and this itself made the experience feel much more intimate than the 400-odd seater room should have allowed. Within moments of the introduction the pair were chatting about Terry’s life, his shrine to Narrativia in the office (Goddess of writers, obviously), and his life as an author.
Indeed the first half of the presentation, though such a formal name hardly does justice to the feel of the event, contained anecdotes and jokes from Terry and Rob. We were assured that not only was the shrine in the office not a joke, but Terry did indeed light candles every morning he was writing. And that at those “banging your head against the desk” moments Narrativia never failed to provide. All of this of course drew a smile from the throng of fans and each tangent embarked upon after a “oh you should tell them about…” from Rob made it all the more informal an experience.
A highlight of the story-telling included Terry’s brush with Homeland Security – having held up the debarkation from an aircraft whilst one of the security guards had books signed, he was then asked by another member of staff (who had witnessed the entire scene) whether he had any identification! The tales also followed that familiar pattern, of Terry having been thanked by countless parents whose children “never used to read, but after reading one of yours they read all of them, and now they’re off to university”.
The appeal of Pratchett’s work now spans generations as those of us fortunate enough to grow-up on a diet of Discworld novels are looking to a younger generation and nudging them towards the book shelf.
This meandering conversation was soon brought back on track after Rob noted the expression of the Random House representative, who had yet to hear the new novel mentioned in the first half an hour. Though when Rob made efforts to do a reading Terry pointed out “I’m sure they’re all capable of reading” as it seemed evident that he felt slightly awkward in sitting there having his own book read to him. Despite this Rob persevered and treated the audience to the first part of the novel, before returning to the questions and answers that were doubtless the most enjoyable part of the show.
The other aspect of the talk that quickly drew the listeners’ attention was their discussion of the production company (named Narrativia, of course) that Pratchett has now established alongside his daughter and professional producer Rod Brown. A four-part adaptation of Good Omens and thirteen-part Night Watch series are slated, the latter being based on entirely new material. Significantly this will be the first time Terry has allowed anyone other than himself write in his universe (though Rob assured the audience that Terry’s daughter will be stood over the script-writers “with a big stick”).
So after humorous and relaxed conversation, and the latest more commercial announcements, the presentation drew towards its close. During this Terry referred to his intention to retire in a few novels’ time and to spend his retirement… writing a book. Specifically his autobiography, as he wants to write this “before some other bastard does it.”
Rob concluded the questions and answers session with that most poignant question – “how are you?”. After a pithy “you know how I am, you see me every day” Terry expressed how he was still capable of writing which was all he could ask, and that there was no one he would rather be. A ripple of support crossed the audience at the statement, murmurs of “good” and “I am glad” from the loyal fans. On which bitter-sweet note the author left the stage, with hopefully the rapturous applause echoing in his head for some time afterwards.
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