On Death

Ten days ago I woke to find that Terry Pratchett had died, surrounded by family and with his cat on the bed.

I’ve read stacks of Discworld but I certainly can’t claim to have read them all. When I’m in the library and feel in need of wisdom, wit and lolz, I usually head for “Pr” in the fiction section and choose at random. To me, Discworld books read like nutritious comfort food — that one soup recipe your mum always made when you were sick that was somehow both delicious and good for you.

Despite all this I was surprised to find myself waking to the news of Terry’s death at 5.30 am and weeping. And sobbing and weeping. A fairly stoic friend texted me to say they were sobbing at their desk at work. It felt like the collective sense of loss in the world had magnified itself and everyone affected by Terry and his work was swept up in this shared grief. It was a weird experience.

terry DEATH

I got to meet Terry once, at a signing in a school hall. I asked him what must have been a very tiresome question about getting stuck on a plot point — I was drafting a fantasy novel at the time — and he told me about a scene in Monstrous Regiment he couldn’t puzzle his way past, where the main characters are all imprisoned. His advice to me — to himself — was to let the characters figure it out. You’ve given them personalities and strengths; they’ll know what to do. I went home and read that book and that scene, and had the profound backstage experience of imagining Terry at his writing desk giving real agency to the people he’d created.

This was a major revelation to me as both a writer and a reader: writers have the power to create people who themselves have the power to invent and to love. As a reader, I thought about this throughout The Hunger Games recently travelling with Katniss as she develops and uses her singularly irreverent problem-solving skills. I remember struggling with shame as a nine-year-old whose only friend was Buffy; looking back — thinking of the team of writers and the actor who gave that character life and agency — I was bloody lucky to have such a resilient friend. Terry changed the way I thought about fiction.

At that signing, I gave Sir Terry a copy of a zine I’d made at school called Schrödinger’s Shoe. It was a collection of poems, comics and drawings by me and my school friends (including Bettina Marson). He took it very graciously and I always presumed it’d find its way to the recycling. Years later, my friend and fellow poet ReVerse Butcher travelled from Australia to the UK and visited London College of Communication’s Zine Library. Upon her return, she contacted me with a bizarre story: the very first thing she’d pulled from the huge sliding shelves, at random from thousands of zines, was Schrödinger’s Shoe.

Terry saw enough value in our work — made by 16-year-old girls in Macromedia Freehand — to donate it to a library.

Terry did not go gentle into that good night — and rightly so — but Death is very, very good at his job. Like millions of others, I’m grateful for Sir Pratchett — for the world and people he created and nurtured; for his irreverence; and for the 10 influential minutes he gave me a decade ago.

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