Happy Birthday to Terry Pratchett!

by Laura Davis

Beloved Discworld author, Terry Pratchett (Sir Terence John David Pratchett, OBE) was born on this date in 1948, in Buckinghamshire, England. As a young man, Pratchett wrote on his website, he wanted to be an astronomer, but, “I never succeeded in my ambition, because astronomers have to be good at math, and I’ve never been very good at math. I thought astronomy was a really cool job, because you got to stay up late at night. But I have to say I’m very pleased that now, because of the success of my writing, I’ve built my own observatory?”

Pratchett went on to discuss his early relationship with books: “[When I was a kid], I read dictionaries all the way through: dictionaries, thesauruses, dictionaries of slang, all that sort of thing, for the sheer fun of doing it. I think I was a rather weird kid, to be frank … I’m the actual archetypal example of an only child, so I had plenty of time to myself. My paternal grandmother has a very special place in my heart … because when I was a kid I was allowed to read from her bookshelf. It was a very short bookshelf, but it contained every book you really ought to read, like the complete short stories of H. G. Wells, and the complete short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I just worked my way along my granny’s bookshelf and didn’t realize that I was getting an education.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Terry Pratchett at a southern California book signing, shortly before the public announcement that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He was so approachable, friendly, and funny and he made a huge impression on my young daughter who, by the way, is now in college and planning a career as a writer. At the time, we were reading the Wee Free Men books. She asked Pratchett what his advice would be for a young person who wanted to become a writer, and he said, “Read. Read everything.” He went on to explain that it didn’t matter if what you read was good, bad, or in between because there is always something to learn from it. I think his generosity with his time, personality, and thoughts is one of the things that make him a perennial favorite author. Well, that and the fact that his books are just plain brilliant!

Pratchett’s most recent Discworld novel, Raising Steam, is not, as many had hoped, a steampunk novel set in the Discworld universe, but, rather, a novel about actual steam, as in trains, and the development of “modern” transportation and the accompanying economic changes that trains brought.  This could have been really dull material, but this is Terry Pratchett we’re talking about! The story begins in earnest with:

“Dick Simnel was ten years old when, back at the family smithy in Sheepridge, his father simply disappeared in a cloud of furnace parts and flying metal, all enveloped in a pink steam. He was never found in the terrible haze of scorching dampness, but on that very day, young Dick Simnel vowed to whatever was left of his father in the boiling steam that he would make steam his servant.”

 Though Pratchett has lots of help these days in writing his books, his imagination and voice shine through as clearly as if he’d done it all alone. And in his inimitable style, this is no mere alternate history with some fantasy characters tossed in for good measure. Even with this fortieth Discworld novel, Pratchett manages to find ways to surprise and amuse readers who’ve been fans of the series since 1983. We were hooked from the moment we first read about this flat world, traveling through space on the backs of four giant elephants, Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, who in turn ride on the back of the Great A’Tuin, “swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust.” We keep reading because somehow, Pratchett always manages to find something new for us in this weird and wonderful universe of his.

Pratchett is currently working on a collection of children’s stories, entitled Dragons at Crumbling Castle, which is due out in September 2014, and has stated that he plans to write additional Discworld books, as well.

Today, we’re pleased to send Sir Terry our best wishes for a wonderful birthday, and our thanks for his having shared the contents of his “pack rat mind” and incredible imagination with all of us: for years of entertainment and inspiration. Happy birthday, Sir, and many more!

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