On Friday, October 14, I was able to see Terry Pratchett at the National Press Club. The format was a combination of reading, discussion between Pratchett and his longtime personal assistant Rob Wilkins, and a Q&A session (Pratchett was diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, Posterior Cortical Atrophy, in 2007, making reading and writing difficult. Since that time, Pratchett writes by dictating to Wilkins. As part of his treatment, Pratchett is also known to drink quite a bit of brandy, so a snifter also accompanied Sir Pratchett on stage). It made for a very relaxed and funny evening.
The room was packed with fans, eager to meet the author perhaps best known for his humor and satire. Pratchett is the author of 50 books, including his latest, Snuff–the 39th in his Discworld series. I have to admit that I felt like a bit of a fraud sitting among them. I have only read Good Omens (co-written with Neil Gaiman), The Color of Magic (the first Discworld book), and The Light Fantastic (the second). While I have enjoyed all of those books, I have yet to read more of him. Looking around, I heard people discussing characters and references that flew miles over my head. I saw a woman dressed in costume (more about her later). And I realized I was missing out on a very well-developed world.
For those unfamiliar with Discworld, it’s the setting for many of Pratchett’s books. It started out largely medieval in nature (like most fantasy books), but has since taken on more of a Victorian feel. The books are not sequential in nature, but tend to focus on characters or institutions, depending on what Pratchett wishes to satire. The characters do tend to age in near real time over the span of the books though. Here’s a chart that groups the books by story line. I believe Snuff would fall amid the Watch novels.
Anyway, back to the evening. Here are some of the more interesting moments. On a recent trip to New Zealand, Pratchett and Wilkins visited Hobbiton–the set of the upcoming Hobbit films. Although Wilkins was forced to sign an agreement keeping his photos private for now, Pratchett did let slip that he was most intrigued by the idea that “Hobbits don’t shite.” He didn’t see a single outhouse or bathroom in all of Hobbiton. Who knew? Pratchett also talked about how Good Omens (a hilarious novel about the End Times and the Antichrist) came about. Apparently Gaiman had written the first 20 pages, but didn’t know where it was going, so he sent it to Pratchett for comment. The two ended up mailing pages back and forth, and the novel was born. Gaiman has even thought up a name for a sequel that will never happen: “Jesus Christ!” (to be read as an expletive). There have been rumors that Pratchett recently met with Steven Moffat, show runner of Doctor Who, leading some to think that, like Gaiman, Pratchett will write an episode. Pratchett and Wilkins said that such a meeting never took place (although they admitted to having met recently with Jeffrey Katzenberg of Dreamworks…hmmmmm). Pratchett did say David Tennant was his favorite Doctor because of his emotional performances (Pratchett especially like when Tennant got angry), but he has fallen out of love with the Doctor due to its, as Pratchett said, “make-it-up-as-you-go-along-yness” that has made it overly complicated.
Back to the woman in costume. With red shoes, striped stockings, and a witch’s hat, the fans knew immediately that she was dressed as Discworld character Nanny Ogg. I had to do some Google-ing. But she brought a goodie basket for Pratchett, including a jar of Scumble (thanks again, Google). Scumble is apparently a high-potency apple brandy and favorite of Nanny Ogg. Wilkins took a sip and started coughing immediately (maybe even letting a choice phrase slip, too). But that didn’t stop him from going back for more.
Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that for a man actively contemplating his own death, Pratchett did say his favorite character was Death. He fondly recalled a fan letter saying, “I very much enjoy your character Death. I should like to meet him some day.” For those lucky enough to be chosen by the National Press Club to attend a meet and greet (the first 100 people to pre-order Snuff), they had their books stamped with Pratchett’s Arms (note the motto: “Noli Timere Messorem,” which translates as “Don’t fear the Reaper.”), and have their photo taken with Pratchett:
Lastly, let me speak briefly about Snuff, the real reason for the evening. The story is about Sir Samuel Vimes reluctantly going off to the countryside on holiday with his wife. Like many great detectives before him, he finds himself out of his comfort zone, and out of his jurisdiction, and in the middle of a great criminal conspiracy. I started reading it Friday night, and I hope to post a review soon. My thanks to Terry Pratchett, Rob Wilkins, and the National Press Club for hosting such an entertaining evening and letting an outsider like me take part. I’m sure Snuff won’t be the last Discworld book I read.