I was so sorry to read today about the death of Sir Terry Pratchett. And, I have a close friend who knew him, and introduced me to his books, and to him. And, I know his editor here in the U.S. I'm sure they are mourning the loss of a friend today. He suffered from Alzheimer's in the last few years, however he helped to focus attention on that disease. May he rest in peace.
In Sept. 2009, I was luckyto be able to host him at the Velma Teague Library. I only met him that one time, but I'd like to think he would prefer to be celebrated for his wit and humor than mourned. So, here's the blog post I wrote after hosting him at the library.
What an honor to host Sir Terry Pratchett at the Velma Teague Library! Actually, we expected a large crowd, so the event was held in the Glendale City Council Chambers. People stayed over from the North American Discworld Convention, including men from Switzerland and Mexico. One fan flew in from San Francisco, just for this event. And, one woman drove up from Yuma.
It was definitely a fun program, filled with laughter, beginning with his introduction. After I introduced him as Sir Terry Pratchett, he said that always bothers him to be called Sir Terry in America. Didn't we fight a war not to have to say Sir Terry? Well, actually we fought it because we owed England money, and we didn't want to pay up.
He said, when they call you and say they'd like to knight you, they're very nice about it, saying they would fully appreciate that you might not want to be knighted. But, the family gets to go. He said when he went to be knighted, two burly policemen pulled him over, and told him, park over there, and we'll come get our books signed later. He went with his wife, daughter, and mum. His mum is about the same age and same size as the queen, so they could have swapped places in the dark. They had tea, and then went off with a flunky to go through the whole kneeling bit. It wouldn't be proper to pull the queen over. It was good fun, and she whacked him on the shoulder with a sword.
He said it's nice to be a knight, usually when dealing with bullies. He said we could use a few knights in America, especially when dealing with Homeland Security. He said he hopes that the English Customs men aren't as cheeky to us when we go to England, as Homeland Security was to him. Terry asked, "Do they ever smile?" He said maybe England should send a few over to us to teach them how to smile. He said a couple of them would have made Mr. T run away. He gave his name to one of them, and, when asked, said he was a writer here for a convention. Pratchett said, you don't want to hear customs get on the phone, call someone, and say, "I got him." Another man came over, and said, "I can't make the convention. Would you sign this book for me?" So, after he signed to his "best friend, Stan", Stan went back to his own line. So, there were two lines waiting while Terry Pratchett signed Stan's book. Once Stan had left, "Mr. T" said to Terry, "I need to see your I.D." Even while pulling out his passport, Terry looked at him, and said, "Stan didn't." And, "Mr. T" gave him a little smile.
Instead of a formal talk, Terry walked in front of the podium, and said, "You know me and what I do. Ask me a question." After a few gasps that they would actually get to ask him questions, the first one was, "How are you holding up in this heat?" He responded, "You have ferocious heat and ferocious air conditioning. The air in my hotel room didn't need to be that cold. It could be brought down to the temperature of a spring day."
Someone said, "You've always said you have quite a sense of timing. You took a job in a nuclear power plant at the time of Three Mile Island. How's your sense of timing now?" He answered that he's more in control of his own destiny now.
He went on to talk about that. He said tug-of-war is played with a rope. There was a tug of war at Three Mile Island, and the rope broke. Lots of fingers were caught up in that rope. Apart from Chernobyl, the most damage ever was done at Three Mile Island.
Pratchett went on to say, they always say, we're putting in three completely independent fail-safe systems, and they're all a long way apart. However, the cables for all three fail-safe systems go in one cable in one wall.
Terry said a power station is a small town, with its own sewage system. And, naturally, the man sweeping up items there swept three pieces of radioactive iron into the sewage system. So, there's 800,000 gallons of sludge, with a small number of radioactive pieces that can't be seen. So, there's a meeting of the people who know about radioactivity, and the people who know about sewage plants. And, the sewage people say they know sewage, but they're not going to handle it when it's radioactive. And the radioactivity people say they know about radioactivity, but it's the shit that worries us. Terry said he never had to sign anything when he worked in a nuclear power station. How do you find tiny particles in great piles of sludge? Pump it out, and then take it to an enormous coal power station, and feed it carefully in there. Then beep, beep, beep. All three of the pieces were found. They got it 100% right that time. But, weird stuff happened there, including a man who was too radioactive to come in to the power station. He eventually gave his six months notice. Now, he has enough money so he never has to do another honest day's work.
When asked what he was reading, Terry replies, he's been away from books for a few days, but at home, he's reading London Labor and the London Poor. The author was a social reformer. It's set in Georgian England. The Thames was a sewer at the time. And author was appalled by what he found. London was so unbelievably awful that even Morpork was better. At times, soot was London's most valuable export. People used to forge it, fake soot. Chimney sweeps would clean chimneys for free to get soot.
London was actually, people who have jobs, and the underclass, just as right now in England. Everyone was scared, a bit like America right now since you don't have a National Health Service. One accident, and you're in the poorhouse. Charity did not come from the rich, but from the not too poor to the poorer than them. Charity rained from the lower middle class to lower class. Nothing was wasted. House dust was sold for fertilizer because it had human skin in it. Paper was recycled. Metal was valuable. This was just as Queen Victoria was coming to the throne. One thing to say for Prince Albert is that he was a reformer. The River Thames finally gave up, and it made such a great stink that Parliament couldn't sit because of the stench. Then, the English built the best sewer system ever.
Terry was asked how he got into the head of a nine-year-old girl, Tiffany, in his books, since he did it so well. He asked if we had Girl Scouts, Brownies, here. He said he had been contacted by a Brownie troop that wanted to do a spoof for a show. Can we photograph you being kidnapped? They would take that photograph, and use a stand-in to do the rest, since one girl's father looked enough like Pratchett. He said they'd have to film the kidnapping, and he wanted to coordinate it, but they had to bring a rubber chicken. He wanted to have two girls stand behind him as he was signing; then one girl would pick up his hat, and the other would hit him over the head with a rubber chicken. Hit him, and then while he slumped, they were to put his hat back on. The problem was, people saw him signing, and he would have to say, wait, I'm going to be hit by a rubber chicken. He has a plaque now, saying he is a Brownie Guide.
He said, actually, you just watch. He said girls are different, and I just watch and take notice. He could do a monograph on how people clap. An author has to be interested in people. He will talk to anyone who takes the time to talk.
Anything interests him. In Nation, they dipped a womb in a bucket of tar. Only the Royal Navy might have done that. Nation was just channeled. It pured through him.
He said the Victorians never actually covered furniture legs because they were indecent. That was a gag. The mid-Victorian period was a time of "things". People didn't own things before. But, manufacturers were making things, and people wanted as many things as possible. Terry knew a woman who lost her husband, but as he kid, when he went to her house, it was so cluttered with things that Terry thought maybe her husband was in there somewhere.
He leads an inquiring life, and it comes out as a story.
When asked if he was going to incorporate Twitter into any books, he said he doesn't Tweet because he has real flesh and blood friends. He said he was on the Internet about as soon as it was around. Then he asked, "Don't you people want me to write the books?"
A question from the audience began, your books contain a number of moral and ethical dilemmas. Are there any philosophers you admire? Terry Pratchett answered, "Jesus was pretty good." Pratchett said he considers himself a humanist. His god is the god of Carl Sagan and Spinoza. Science is a sacrament. He thinks people should abide by the Golden Rule. Terry said we should close churches, and just put up signs, "God is love. What part of this don't you understand?" He makes up his philosophy as he goes along.
Terry was asked if he had advice for someone going into the priesthood, and the man who asked the question admitted he was thinking of going into the Greek Orthodox priesthood. Terry answered, it's all work and no technique. You don't hear of priests being laid off, but no one is sinning now, so there's not much confession lately. He said one of the long-term triggers for the Industrial Revolution was the closing of monasteries by Henry VII. Craftsmen such as herbalists and carpenters were pushed out into the world. They took apprentices, and those skills were one of the long-term triggers. Pratchett went on to say the priesthood is an interesting job, one of the most interesting, other than his. He asked, Thou Shalt Not Kill should be actually read as Thou Shalt Not Murder, shouldn't it, and the audience member said yes, that's closer to the Hebrew.
Terry said people shouldn't read the Old Testament unprepared, or they come away thinking we're in the hands of a maniac. He said it's actually a guide for getting an argumentative people across the desert, filled with cooking and building tips. He wishes more people would read the New Testament.
When asked who his favorite characters to write about were, Pratchett answered Vimes or Tiffany. But, Tiffany isn't as much fun to write about now that she's older. He said witches were wise women. He knew a nurse once who admitted she had helped people die. She also said she carried shoe boxes with her because she was a nurse/midwife in rural areas with small gene pools, and babies often didn't live. The shoe boxes were just the right size for burials. Granny Weatherwax came from these stories. All those stories are tools for an author. He interviewed an elderly postman, and some of Going Postal came from those stories.
Pratchett said you must be hugely interested in people to be a successful author, and particularly doing what he does.
He said he can remember the '60s, so that means he wasn't there. He was too busy working a job, and trying to have sex. He said those who wanted rock-n-roll and drugs, didn't have sex.
He mentioned his wife, Lady Lynn, who isn't so sure about that title, but it impresses her mum. In his inimitable style, he told of his first date with her. He had no money, but Chinese restaurants were new, so he asked if she wanted to go to one. So, with his lack of money, he couldn't afford to take a taxi all the way from his town to hers, pick her up, and go to dinner, and back. So, he worked it all out. He got dressed up, then put his motorcycle gear on over that. And, it's raining. So, he rode his bike, got off in a farmer's field, dropped the bike, put his motorcycle clothes on top of it, and then ran to her house, just in time to get there when the taxi did, so she thinks he arrived in the taxi. They had a nice meal, and the taxi picks them up. They have a chaste little first date kiss. He pays off the taxi driver, then goes back to the farmer's field, gets into his wet motorcycle gear, and it takes four or five times to start the bike. Then, halfway home, it conks out, and he had to push the bike home.
When asked if Mr. Dibbler, who can sell anything to anybody is based on an actual person, Terry said as a boy he would accompany his Granny to street markets, and they were full of Dibblers, who were selling cheap crockery, "Cutting-Me-Own-Throat" to sell it. He listens to language, how people speak.
When a man died, he was lying in his coffin and people came in to have a glass of sherry, and greet the widow. The man had been on holiday, and dropped dead at his door. Terry's Granny said, "Well, he looks well." And, the answer was, "Yes, undertaker's done good."
One question concerned the editing of his American books. Pratchett said it's been better in recent years. At times, he's argued with his editors, such as when Mister should be spelled out. John Wayne never said, go for your gun M-R.
Terry reminded the audience he has Alzheimer's. He said he will not die of Alzheimer's, but he doesn't like the term assisted suicide. As a journalist, he's seen suicides, such as a woman throwing herself from a bridge. But, he's been writing and making arrangements. In his mind, that doesn't fit the frame of suicide. It's adult homo sapiens looking the inevitable in the face, and making sensible decisions.
He had problems with his books, up until the '90s, when two publishers collided, and suddenly he had an editor who knew his name, and liked his stuff, and a publicist who felt the same. Up until then, his books were poorly published and publicized. Because of the changes in wording for American books, when he would come to the United States, fans would have U.K. hardcovers semi-legally in the U.S. But, in the
'90s, the language was allowed to stand. He said he doesn't put a lot of odd language in the books, because Morpork wouldn't come out right. But, when told Webster's wouldn't allow it, he tells them what they could do with Webster's. But, for his children's books, for American kids, it's sensible to have American usage.
Pratchett was asked if he has plans for another Night Watch book. He said he's been feeling chipper, and has a dictation machine in his office. Fortunately, the people who built it are nerdy and Discworld fans. He's dictated more than 10,000 words of a book. He's speeding along with it. They dumped Discworld books into the memory of the machine, and it knows how words should sound. So, if it doesn't recognize a word, he asks for the Spellbox, and he can choose which one is correct. It's going faster than a keyboard.
He told the audience he has a rare disease. He has a large brain, which is unusual, with lots of brain cells. But, it upsets him that so many of those brain cells are used up by lyrics from '60s advertisements. Terry said we should disinvent television. He feels it's the sole excuse for what's going wrong with civilization. Babies are put in front of TV to amuse them.
But, he said the best thing you can do for a child is develop their vocabulary. The more words you know, the more articulate you can be. The better you can express yourself, the happier you are. He said kids love semi-made-up Scottish language in his books. He combines Gaelic and Glaswegian slang, and kids think it's dirty words. Kids are built to be learning.
In his new book, Unseen Academicals, Glenda is uneducated, but she taught herself to read. She reads cheap novels, but she's never heard words spoken, and doesn't know exactly what words are or how to say them, words such as boudoir or reticule. So, when a woman asks her to join her in her boudoir, and she sees forty people there, she's relieved because she didn't know what a boudoir was. Pratchett said education advances through women. They read, and shared, cheap novels. Then, they taught their daughters to read. Mothers made sure their daughters, and some sons, were literate.
So, someone asked Terry what he read as a child, and he said, nothing. He said reading was associated with pain. He had to learn words in school. He said when he was eight or nine years old, his uncle gave him a copy of The Wind in the Willows, and he was reading it in London. All the way home, he was reading it by streetlights. He was hooked by the time he got home. By the next week, he was a member of his local library, and helping the librarians on Saturday. He read children's books and adult books at the same time, with no distinction. School didn't show him reading pleasure; it was a chore. His mother did bribe him to read, offering 6 pence a page.
When asked if he and Neil Gaiman would write another book together, like Good Omens, he said neither wants to do another. He said, "He does his thing, and I do mine." He said then it was easy for two guys. Now, it would be problematical. He said it's not likely they'd do another because there is no obvious reason to do it.
Pratchett was asked if there's anything that appeals to him about America or anything that annoys him. He said Americans don't despair easily. He said people in Europe, and, particularly, England, are cynical. He loved the way we celebrated our new President, although we all know how we'll feel in a few years. He thinks America is the last best hope for mankind, because we have so many examples of mankind. Every individual person is important in America. G.K. Chesteron said, "I pity the man who believes in socialism because he believes in something that doesn't believe in him."
An audience member asked if he had plans for someone to continue Discworld after his death. Terry responded that his daughter, Rhianna Pratchett, is as sharp as a tack. She's a writer of computer games. She and his publicist will have the responsibility for Discworld. But, there's no hard and fast decision, because would she do it because of the money, or because she wanted to? He said he'll be dead, so he won't be a major player in the decision. But, he's renewing copyrights, and it would be nice if things happened. He said his daughter could do it if she wanted; she has talent. But, it's her life, and he won't put his hand on it beyond the grave.
When asked if he had the chance to see the Grand Canyon, he said not on this trip. But he went to Tombstone, and had a good guide, author Emma Bull. He said he didn't know that, basically, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place in a place the size of a phone booth. He said Wyatt Earp died in 1929, but England thinks it was in the 1880s. Pratchett said history is closer than people think. In the science of Discworld, grandfathers is a way of measuring time. Fifty years is a grandfather. Actually, measured that way, the pyramids are not that far back.
Terry Pratchett said it's far too dangerous living here on earth. There have been a number of times that life forms have been destroyed from space. He'd advise us to get off the planet as soon as possible. A Mars or moon colony would be fail safe.
He was asked if he has a recurring theme in his books, and he answered, "Smart is better than dumb." He said another book helps his characters in every book. His characters share the way he thinks of things.
He ended by telling about his books made into movies. He likes the small company that made them, because he could tell them things needed to be changed. So, after Hogfather, he had lots of leftover plastic teeth. So, he took them with him to a conference in Australia.
Pratchett said he likes Australia. Every Englishman feels at home in Australia. He never felt at home in America. But, Australia was colonized by Cockneys.
So, he went through Customs in Australia, and had the plastic teeth with him. He was asked if he had any animal products, and he said no. So, the woman at Customs asked him what he had in his suitcase, and he said, lots of plastic teeth. When asked why, he said, "I don't think it's any of your business," an answer he knows he couldn't have given in the U.S. She said, OK. And, then he asked if she wanted to know about the black box marked "Death". In it, was a statue of Death. Then, he asked her if it was the strangest luggage she'd seen all day. She said, yes, but it was only 10:30, and the the Japanese were coming next.
Thank you to Sir Terry Pratchett, the North American Discworld Convention, the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, and the staff and volunteers from the Velma Teague Library who made this a very special event for visitors from around the world.
Sir Terry Pratchett's website is http://www.terrypratchett.co.uk