Review: A Life with Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins

Rob Wilkins and Terry Pratchett, via Wilkin’s website, photographer unknown

For more than 15 years, Rob Wilkins worked as the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s personal assistant. Outside of Pratchett’s immediate family, no one knew Sir Terry better. More than seven years after Pratchett’s death in 2015, Wilkins has finished the autobiography that Pratchett started and didn’t or couldn’t complete. The last hundred pages are wrenching, as Wilkins describes Pratchett’s doomed battle with post cortical atrophy (PCA), the obscure version of dementia that killed Pratchett at age 66. But as a series of insights into Pratchett’s approach to writing, as a collection of intimate glimpses into Pratchett’s life and as a nearly unparalleled success story, Wilkins’ efforts are unmatched.

Terry Pratchett was told, at age 6, that he would never amount to anything, that he just didn’t have the smarts. In the British school system at the time, in Wilkins’ phrase, that put Pratchett with the goats and not the sheep, among the class of students who would be tradesmen, not college students, not professionals. In one way, you can see Pratchett’s story as a life-long effort to prove his first grade teacher wrong.

Pratchett’s career began as a cub reporter for his small, hometown newspaper. It ended with him as one of the world’s best-selling authors, with a collection of ten honorary degrees, multiple international awards and a devoted, international fan base. At the same time, he struggled with critical disdain. His life is compelling. And Wilkins tells it well.

Wilkins offers wonderful insights into Pratchett’s writing technique. The metaphor Wilkins uses is that Pratchett wrote small fragments – the metaphor Wilkins uses is those 12 inch carpet squares – and then assembled the fragments into a story. Not all the pieces written in the course of “writing” the current book might find their way into that book; some were used much later. But the “carpet squares” of characterization and plot, scenes and threads, might be shuffled and re-shuffled to find the very best fit.

Wilkins also describes – or includes one of the autobiographical segments Pratchett got written – reporting Pratchett’s first experience at a science fiction convention. Pratchett’s experience with the authors in attendance at that convention set the framework for the future best-selling author’s interactions with his fans. WC was active in the Pratchett on-line community for a number of years, and it wasn’t unusual to “meet” Pratchett there, hanging with his fans, answering questions, teasing the next book and making time for the folks who were buying his books. When a newbie would thank Sir Terry for one of his books, Sir Terry would usually respond by thanking the fan for his or her money.

Neil Gaiman, at Pratchett’s invitation, wrote the introduction to A Slip of the Keyboard, a collection of Pratchett’s nonfiction writing. In that introduction, Gaiman is at pains to refute the popular image of Pratchett as a “jolly old elf.” Pratchett, across dozens of book tours, conventions and public readings, had worked to create such a public persona. WC saw that persona first hand at a reading and book signing in Seattle. It was obvious that, exhausting as Pratchett’s extended book tours and book signings were, he found real delight in interacting with his fans.

Yet there was also a streak of anger there, anger at the inhumanity of the world, at treatment of people as “things,” and precious little tolerance for fools and folly. Wilkins’ reveals Pratchett could be mean, even cruel. Among other things, he “fired” Wilkins more times than either could count. Neil Gaiman was exactly right. there is a “foundation of fury” evident in the Terry Pratchett Rob Wilkins describes.

Following the diagnosis of PCA in December 2007, Pratchett managed to write five more novels. It wasn’t easy. No, that’s not strong enough. It’s astonishing. PCA made it impossible for Pratchett to type – his increasingly damaged brain would forget where the keys were, or make it impossible for him to even see them. As the intellectual deficits piled up, it became harder and harder for Sir Terry to write, to be, as Wilkins puts it, Terry Pratchett. The struggles, as Wilkins reports them, are heartbreaking. If there is anything crueler than a disease that, while you watch, takes away your mind, tears apart who you are, you can spare WC a description of what that disease might be.

WC supposes some comparison to Marc Burrows’ earlier effort has to be made. But that’s really unfair. Burrows was an outsider, who never met Pratchett. Wilkins was, literally, in the room. For fifteen years.

But at the same time, Wilkins makes no real effort at analysis. Wilkins offers reporting, detailed, well-presented reporting. He’s especially good at the interaction between Pratchett and Wilkins. That’s interesting, if necessarily one-sided. But Wilkins doesn’t really examine some of the intriguing parts of Terry Pratchett. For example, it turns out that Pratchett’s mother, who had an outsized influence on the young Terry Pratchett, couldn’t stand Pratchett’s writing. To the point that she refused to read or listen to it. What’s up with that? The definitive, analytic biography of Terry Pratchett still remains to be written.

Sir Terry made Rob Wilkins co-administrator, with Pratchett’s daughter, Rhiana, of Pratchett’s literary estate. Clearly, this is someone Terry Pratchett liked and trusted with the Pratchett legacy. And Wilkins does a very good job; the book is chock full of anecdotes, great stories and views of how the magic was done. The first three-quarters are a delightful read, and the last quarter a wonderful. if excruciating, view of a man crippled by an advancing disability who still managed to write wonderful books.

Maybe the qualified endorsement is unfair. WC finds it impossible to get past his anger, his rage at the utter unfairness of Sir Terry’s illness, the nature of the illness and the premature death. It’s not just selfishness – Pratchett’s PCA cost us at least another 10-15 books, full of old friends and new, of intense humanity, joy and laughter. Every Pratchett book is such a delight.

But, as Pratchett argued more than once, if you took the entire universe, ground it fine, and filtered it all, you wouldn’t find a single molecule of “fairness” or “justice.”

WC just wishes it were not so.

4 thoughts on “Review: A Life with Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins

  1. I came to Sir Terry late in life and have now read 1/2 of his books. When I start reading a new one, there is such wonderful anticipation – will I see Granny? Luggage? Moist? Vetinari? someone new? – and such sadness that I am that much closer to the end of his writing.


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