“In the beginning… there was nothing but endless flatness.”
Then Terry Pratchett published his first book, The Carpet People, in 1971 at the age of 23. Marked by a launch party in the carpet department of Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road, Pratchett's debut novel follows a civilisation of people who live among the fronds of a carpet. But their existence is not a simple one: there are conflicts between the different tribes; there is the destructive force of the Fray, and there are taxes.
It’s been over 50 years now since we met the tiny Munrungs, and Pratchett didn’t stop at the far reaches of the carpet. His imagination and penchant for satire spawned the expansive and immensely popular 41-novel Discworld series (which is now available on audiobook), various standalones, short stories, as well as several unfinished works on his hard drive (which has since been crushed under a steamroller, as per the late Pratchett’s wishes).
Although Pratchett took Death’s arm back in 2015, putting a heartbreaking stop to any more tales, there is so much to forever enjoy, discuss, share and pass along from his catalogue. Here, a handful of fellow authors, editors, and fans share their thoughts about the master fantasy writer.
Neil Gaiman, co-author of Good Omens
My first encounter with Terry Pratchett was The Colour of Magic, as read on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour. I was a young journalist and I reached out to his publisher for an interview, and thus became the first journalist to interview Terry Pratchett, in Bertorelli's Italian restaurant, in Gower Street. (We remembered it as a Chinese Restaurant in Goodge Street, demonstrating either the fallibility of memory or our fondness for Chinese food.) We became friends.
I was lucky enough to read Terry's books as he wrote them, to become one of his beta readers, and then to collaborate with him. Terry had a brilliant eye for the places where reality and narrative tradition intersect: he had a science fiction writer's mind, let loose on a fantasy world, and he loved to explain and show how things came to be. The last time we saw each other he told me I had to read a book about feeding Nelson's navy – and I still wonder, had he lived, about the Discworld novel he would have written, about ships, and naval battles and all, and the lessons he would have taught us. Because at his best, Terry was a teacher. The kind who makes you laugh while simultaneously realising that everything you have taken for granted so far is utterly wrong. I miss him.
Tom Rawlinson, Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House
I read my first Terry Pratchett, The Carpet People funnily enough, when I was just getting into books. The idea of a world contained inside a carpet blew my tiny mind at the time, and it still does. I wanted to read more Terry Pratchett and read more books in general. If something could make me laugh and wonder and think about the world in such an amazing way, I had to know what else was out there.
Everything about his writing makes it stand out! It’s always difficult to compare fantasy books, but I don’t reckon anything makes me think and laugh in quite the way a Terry Pratchett book does. It sort of has it all, and I think that’s why so many people return to his worlds.
For every new fan who hasn’t tried Pratchett yet I would say don’t be afraid. The worlds can seem daunting, but you’re in very capable hands – whichever book you choose to start with, it’s like having a friend guiding you through it all and making you chuckle at the same time. You’re in for a wild ride and you won’t regret getting on.
All Pratchett’s books are wonderful but my favourite has to be the Bromeliad trilogy: Truckers, Diggers, and Wings. It’s about a group of very small people navigating a dangerous world. The characters and friendships and thoughts just make you want to read them again and again, and I can’t recommend them enough.
Indira Birnie, Senior Manager at Penguin Random House
It is devastating to think that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld stories are finite. Of course, Death comes for us all at some point (although this does go slightly wrong in Mort) so the stories had to end eventually. As someone just discovering these books for the first time I'm predictably hooked, simultaneously wanting to race through them and savour them slowly.
I recently read Equal Rites and loved the wannabe wizard Esk Smith and curmudgeonly Granny Weatherwax – both brilliantly written female characters – but more than that, I was struck by the fact that 34 years after its release, it has not aged a day. To be able to write one book, let alone 41, that condenses complex issues into an utterly glorious, ever-optimistic, and genuinely hilarious story that’s accessible to anyone… well, that's the work of a genius, isn't it?
I'm thankful for my partner and his dad, both huge Pratchett fans, who egged me on to finally read these books myself. If you haven't got an equivalent Discworld-pusher in your life or you're someone who thinks these books aren’t ‘for you' for whatever reason, please listen as I encourage you to rectify this matter immediately. As I said, I’m just at the beginning of my journey through the nooks and crannies of the Discworld but I know that, as with the very best books, even when I’ve finished, I’m going to love returning to them time and time again.
Val McDermid, author of A Place of Execution
I once had to buy a suitcase on a book tour. It had four wheels and a mind of its own. I went right, it went left. I went straight on, it veered in random directions. And because I was in America and Homeland Security searched it whenever I flew, my clothes were configured differently whenever I opened it.
Inevitably, I christened it ‘The Luggage’ after Terry Pratchett’s sapient pearwood invention. And that for me is the key to Pratchett’s fantasy. It always has recognisable reality stitched into it, so people like me who don’t read much fantasy feel at home in Discworld. Pratchett is a savage satirist, but that’s always tempered by breath-taking inventiveness, both in language and characterisation – like the Nac Mac Feegles, the belligerent blue midget warrior tribe, whose cod Scottishness has always made me laugh inappropriately in public places. I always read Pratchett on book tours – the perfect antidote to being alone and far from home.
Francesca Pymm, Social Media Editor at Penguin Random House
My dad is a big Terry Pratchett fan, and I first picked up his battered copy of The Colour of Magic when I was about 13. I was instantly hooked. It was infectiously silly, filled with adventure and magic. There are inept wizards, dragons summoned only by imagination, luggage that walks... not to mention, at least to my young mind, a genuine sense of danger. (Honestly, is there anything more horrifying than the thought of falling off the edge of the Discworld?)
It wasn't until much later, when I revisited his work in my late 20s, that I realised just how smart Pratchett was. This is a fantasy world rooted in the familiar. Assassins mix with accountants, trolls discuss pensions. His satire tackles fantasy tropes, and brilliantly so, but real-world issues too. Economic theory (Making Money), religion (Small Gods), equal opportunity employment (Men At Arms): he makes these topics accessible and toys with your preconceptions, writing always with heart, humour, and boundless imagination.
I can't believe it's been six years since his death. He was a masterful writer, and his books will always be my go-to for comfort and escapism. If you’ve never picked one up, I urge you to get involved. They are very, very, very funny. You won’t regret it.
Dave Rudden, author of Knights of the Borrowed Dark
I first read Mort at 11 years old. It wasn’t my first fantasy book by any stretch, but it was the first fantasy book I ever read where I realised the author was using their world to say something about ours. It felt like he was speaking to me – like a wise, sharp, very funny uncle reaching out to let me in on a secret – and after reading it I felt a little wiser and a little sharper too.
Saying ‘I love Death’ would normally be a cause for raised eyebrows in polite society, but only someone as smart and kind as Pratchett could turn something everybody fears into a kindly grandfather character who is nice to kittens and enjoys a good curry now and then. Death is not evil, he’s just very good at his job. But he’s also kind, and patient (very patient) and has a sense of justice that only seeing the best and worst of people can provide.
I remember once reading an article by Neil Gaiman about how everyone viewed Terry Pratchett as kind and jolly when actually he was often very angry. Angry at injustice. Angry at people. Angry at himself, or at circumstance, or at the world. We’re often told that anger is bad, which is a problem because anger is everywhere. It’s around us and inside us, and we can either pretend it isn’t (which only makes it worse) or we can use it as fuel. We can use it to help people. We can use it to keep us warm when the world is hard and cold and use it to change things so that other people don’t have to be as angry in days to come.
Terry Pratchett’s books are, without a doubt, fun to read. They’re packed full of jokes, and ridiculous characters, and silly little winks to the audience. You know that feeling you get when a friend you love is telling you a story, and the story cracks them up so much that you both start laughing too much to get to the end, even though you haven’t heard the punchline? That sense of delight?
I have been reliably informed that I have the energy of a corgi trapped in Christmas lights, and for a long time in my writing I tried to be serious, and adult, and sound important, because I was worried that people wouldn’t listen to me if I sounded like myself. Now, I try and bring the fierce joy of Pratchett to my own work. If I want to be a little ridiculous, if I want to take a chance on a description, or tell a story within a story, I trust the reader to be swept up in that same delight. I try and capture that feeling of ‘we’re in this together’ that he so effortlessly displayed.
When it comes to encouraging someone to read Pratchett, I generally let Pratchett do it for me. I tell them about the Death of Rats (Reaper Man), or the Music with Rocks In (Soul Music), or the shy banshee (Moving Pictures) who slips notes with "OOOOeeeOOeeeeOOOOee" under people’s door. I tell them about Moist Von Lipwig (Going Postal) tricking the world into thinking he’s a hero and getting tricked into believing it himself.
The best advertisement for Pratchett is Pratchett. You hear one line, you’re hooked.
Which book would I recommend to everyone? BIG question. Mort is generally accepted as the easiest entrypoint for newcomers to Discworld – Pratchett’s world-building had nicely caramelised at that point from the wilder bubblings of the earlier books. Age, for me, isn’t really a factor with Pratchett. You can start with his younger work in your 50s, or jump right into Wyrd Sisters at 10, and unlock more and more detail and meaning as you read and reread his books. It’s a gorgeous head to grow up in, believe me. I’m really glad I did.
Ruth Knowles, Publisher at Penguin Random House
I remember lying on the living room floor of my childhood home trying to imagine Discworld (it’s a flat, circular world that stands on the backs of four elephants, that stand on the back of a giant turtle, in case you don’t know. I mean! What a creation...) I found it completely mesmerising. I still do. It’s the biggest honour to be able to introduce young readers to this amazing mind, and the amazing worlds it created. Because as well as the Discworld there is a whole universe inside a carpet, time travel, witches on vacuum cleaners, and boys stuck inside video games.
It’s hard to mention the one most special thing about Sir Terry’s books so I’m going for a few special things...
They’re funny – properly, cleverly funny and in a way that goes after the powerful and celebrates the downtrodden. His humour is kind and thoughtful and he does it like no one else. Plus, bear with me, they’re not that fantasyish. What I mean is that, through the fantasy, you get real-world issues, dynamics, and ideas reflected back at you in a way that makes you think about them differently. And it works at whatever age you are – everyone spots something different in the fantastical worlds of a Terry Pratchett book. And his characters – so ahead of their time, so interesting, so vivid. Just like our much loved, much missed Terry Pratchett.
Oh, and speaking of characters, a final mention must go to Tiffany Aching – what a girl. In my opinion, her books are where you should start.
Listen to the new Discworld audiobook series here.
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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Getty Images / Illustrations by Mark Beech