Book Review: Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins

This week, it’s a reviewing first for the blog, in the form of some non-fiction! Don’t worry though, it’s still highly appropriate, as it’s the biography of one of the most beloved fantasy authors ever. Yes, it’s Terry Pratchett: A LIfe With Footnotes by Rob Wilkins. Let’s get into it.

This fair and unbiased review was conducted based on a limited edition proof, which was kindly sent to me by Penguin.

From the Waterstones website:

At the time of his death in 2015, award-winning and bestselling author Sir Terry Pratchett was working on his finest story yet – his own.

At six years old, Terry was told by his headteacher that he would never amount to anything. He spent the rest of his life proving that teacher wrong. At sixty-six, Terry had lived a life full of achievements: becoming one of the UK’s bestselling writers, winning the Carnegie Medal and being awarded a knighthood for services to literature.

Following his untimely death from Alzheimer’s disease, the mantle of completing Terry’s memoir was passed to Rob Wilkins, his former assistant, friend and now head of the author’s literary estate.

Drawing on his own extensive memories, along with those of Terry’s family, friends, fans and colleagues, Rob recounts Terry’s extraordinary story – from his early childhood to the literary phenomenon that his Discworld series became; and how he met and coped with the challenges that ‘The Embuggerance’ of Alzheimer’s brought with it.

It’s fair to say that Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes offers unprecedented insights into both the life and death of the much-loved author. As Terry’s assistant, Rob Wilkins spent some fifteen years providing technical support, taking down Terry’s dictated stories, digging trenches (not a euphemism, you’ll have to read the book) and helping to answer the bags and bags of fan mail Terry regularly received, as well as much more besides. If you are thinking that the two must have grown close, well, you’d be entirely right. If you are thinking that this is going to be an emotional read, you are, of course, also right. 

From the off, however, it’s clear that this isn’t intended to be a sob story. Yes, there is a degree of “What could have been” at points – Sir Terry was just sixty-six when he died, after all. No age at all really, and the extraordinarily good run of form just a few years earlier would naturally lead anyone to speculate that his best work could still – incredibly – have been to come, were it not for his diagnosis. But these moments are brief, with Wilkins thankfully more concerned with giving us a mostly unvarnished account of Terry’s life and his extraordinary career. There are plenty of instances, particularly early on, where his subject is quoted extensively too, making things feel more collaborative than perhaps one might expect; by the point at which the pair “ran out of time,” they had reached 1979, thus covering the first thirty years of Terry’s life and including his formative experiences with writing and literature. Terry’s own notes and diaries, as well as the accounts of friends and family, also help fill in the blanks.

Of course, every life has its ups and downs, as well as plenty of moments which are neither an up nor a down, more just a passage of relatively uneventful but perfectly contented time. Which is to say, some of the anecdotes here don’t have quite the zing of others, whilst the minutiae of Terry’s life is probably only going to be appreciated by someone choosing him as their Mastermind specialist subject. But they’re still presented lovingly and with good humour by Wilkins, who – despite being very much in the shadow of greatness – proves more than equal to the task of chronicling the life of one of our greatest satirists. He maintains a clear respect for the man who was obviously his hero, without straying into hero worship. And, of course, he peppers his writing with footnotes, because it would be patently absurd to even think about writing about Terry Pratchett without resorting to the use of footnotes.*

Managing to be exhaustive but never dull, emotional yet never maudlin, this serves as a fitting tribute to a much-missed titan of genre fiction. Pratchett fans will find plenty to enjoy, and will undoubtedly discover hitherto unknown facts about their favourite author.

Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes is out on the 29th of September, published by Doubleday.

*Case in point. Also, A Life With Footnotes was Terry’s intended title, and a perfect one it is too.

Currently reading: Cold Storage, David Koepp
Currently listening: The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead!, Megadeth

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