On Death, The Loss of a Great Writer, and Immortality: Version 2.0

Terry Pratchett
©Alastair Levy

Let’s start here: I have a pen pal in England.  We started writing each other when we were probably 10 or 11.  Somewhere thereabouts.  We’ve never met, because I’ve never been outside the country and she’s been to lots of places but never where I am.  We have a habit of sending each other fun books to read for birthdays and Christmas.  It’s just what we do.

This year, for Christmas she gave me a book called Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  I took AP English Literature this year, so I didn’t have a lot of time for books that I chose to read.  I just started reading Good Omens a couple weeks ago, and I just finished it today (usually, I’m a much faster reader, but life happens).

Here’s what I’ve read by Terry Pratchett: All the Tiffany Aching books that are out so far (The Wee Free MenA Hat Full of SkyWintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight) as well as The Carpet People.  I have loved everything I’ve read of his—even the parts that made me slightly uncomfortable with their…shall we say inappropriate themes.  It has made me laugh, and think, and I believe that his writing is some of the most honest writing I’ve ever read.  Not because it’s true—it’s not.  Not because it talks about things that are realer than anyone cares to admit—it does.  It’s honest because his writing is purely, essentially him.  It is what I strive to do every time I put a word on the page—to reveal myself like that, so you’re totally free and it’s the most wonderful and the most terrifying thing in the world that everyone knows you and no one cares and it’s okay.  I can’t (yet).  He did.  And so I know him forever in ways I never thought someone could know another person.  I met him even though I never laid eyes on the man.

Here’s what I’ve read by Neil Gaiman: Nothing, because I saw Coraline on a shelf in the library once when I was a little girl and something about it scared me deep in the core of who I am, and I haven’t been able to pick up another book by him since without seeing that book cover and shuddering.

Here’s what I read in Good Omens: Life is impermanent.  There is Death in everyone, and the world contains its own Armaggedon.  The world doesn’t make sense.  The world’s ending is dictated by an 11-year-old Antichrist whose will is done by three other 11-year-olds and a tiny mangy mutt who’s just starting to figure out cats, because who else could do such a perfect job of saving everything?

I read Life in that book, in the same way that I read Life in every syllable that Terry Pratchett has ever typed because it is his lifeblood that gives the book breath.  I read Death in that book, because there is no Life without it.

I read two guys sitting in different places talking over each other excitedly about what next can happen.  Laughing at each other and themselves and maybe knowing and maybe not that they were putting everything they were into a couple hundred pages.

Believe it or not, I’m not here to talk about Good Omens.  I’m here to talk about the pages that Neil Gaiman wrote to attempt to describe Terry Pratchett in the back of the book.  It was written long before Terry Pratchett died, hasn’t been changed since, but I read his obituary in those pages.

I haven’t really mourned Terry Pratchett yet, because, like I said before, he’s not really dead.

But he is.  And more than ever now, I wish I really could have known him in ways that even his books can’t give me.  I wish I had met him.

Here is how I know Terry Pratchett, now, through Neil Gaiman’s eyes:

Terry knew a lot.  He had the kind of head that people get when they’re interested in things, and go and ask questions and listen and read.  He knew genre, enough to know the territory, and he knew enough outside genre to be interesting.

He was ferociously intelligent.

He was having fun.  Then again, Terry is that rarity, the kind of author who likes Writing, not Having Written, or Being a Writer, but the actual sitting there and making things up in front of a screen.  At the time we met, he was still working as a press officer for the South Western Electricity board.  He wrote four hundred words a night, every night: it was the only way for him to keep a real job and still write books.  One night, a year later, he finished a novel with a hundred words still to go, so he put a piece of paper into his typewriter and wrote a hundred words of the next novel.

There was something else that was obvious in 1985: Terry was a science fiction writer.  It was the way his mind worked: the urge to take it all apart, and put it back together in different ways, to see how it all fit together.  It was the engine that drove Discworld – it’s not a ‘what if…’ or an ‘if only…’ or even an ‘if this goes on…’; it was the far more subtle and dangerous ‘If there was really a…, what would that mean?  How would it work?’

He constructs novels like a guildmaster might build a cathedral arch.  There is art, of course, but that’s the result of building it well.  What there is more of is the pleasure taken in constructing something that does what it’s meant to do – to make people read the story, and laugh, and possibly even think.

Satire is a word that is often used to mean that there aren’t any people in the fiction, and for that reason I’m uncomfortable calling Terry a satirist.  What his is, is A Writer, and there are few enough of those around.  There are lots of people who call themselves writers, mind you.  But it’s not the same thing at all.

In person, Terry is genial, driven, funny.  Practical.  He likes writing, and he likes writing fiction.  That he became a bestselling author is a good thing: it allows him to write as much as he wishes.

-Neil Gaiman on Terry Pratchett (Good Omens, 408–411)

Cara Kennaway

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4 thoughts on “On Death, The Loss of a Great Writer, and Immortality: Version 2.0

  1. This is really nice, Cara. I especially like what you said about putting yourself fully onto the pages. I think one of my favorite feelings is reading a book and suddenly realizing that I know for a fact that if the author and I met we would be friends. That’s the kind of feeling I want to inspire in other people. I think that’s why most writers, or at the very least why I, write.

    And now I’m thinking I might have to rearrange my summer reading list a bit so I can fit Good Omens in.

    Lastly – if you can, you should read Coraline. It *is* quite creepy, but I really liked it. As long as you read it in broad daylight and you don’t have any small, unexplained doors in your house, I think you’ll be okay. It’s certainly nowhere near as creepy as the movie, which is pure freakazoid nightmare fuel and which I don’t recommend at all.

    1. Thanks, Pearl! I always love that feeling too. Or when it just hits you all the sudden, and you’re like, “I wish my brain worked like that.”

      You totally need to read Good Omens. Do it. Now. :-D

      I probably ought to read something of Neil Gaiman’s at some point. I don’t know if it will be Coraline or something else, but it’s on the list somewhere. I just…I dunno. There’s something about childhood fears that just don’t ever quite go away, you know?

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