Hello and Goodbye to Terry Pratchett

This is a guest post from S. Zainab Williams. S. Zainab would like to think she bleeds ink but the very idea makes her feel faint. She writes fantasy and horror, and is currently clutching a manuscript while groping in the dark. Find her at szainabwilliams.com or on Twitter at @szainabwilliams.

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Wyrd-sisters-coverIt must have been the second flight of my life. I’d like to say we were in England visiting my aunt, because it would be in theme with this story, but we could just as easily have been in Singapore. All that really matters is that my sister had her much-abused stuffed raccoon, Squeeker, to comfort her on a long journey from somewhere, and that I needed a book. I furtively judged the mass market paperbacks by their covers in the airport’s bookstore. A pre-teen, I was loyal to Goosebumps and the Mage Winds trilogy, but I was on this new kick. I only wanted books about witches: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Witch Saga series; Diana Wynn Jones’ Witch Week; The Letter, the Witch and the Ring, by John Bellairs, all that sort. So when I picked up Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, and met Josh Kirby’s fury of witches and chaos on the cover, I handed the book to my mother and informed her that this was the one.

But a strange thing happened minutes after takeoff and a few pages in. I didn’t get it. I closed the book and stared at the cover. I, a self-professed word worldly member of the Order of Bookworms, open to all genres and age ranges, (neophyte that I was) didn’t know what to make of this Granny Weatherwax. Old, grumpy witches weren’t main characters–they were supposed to be peppered into stories about young, hopeful protagonists. But I quickly decided that this book wouldn’t focus on up-and-coming-witch Magrat because now here was Death and some king clattering into the story before I’d even learned much about her. What was this Pratchett up to? Who did this guy think he was? And where was that Fear Street novel I brought, just in case. The Wyrd Sisters were interred in my bookbag and forgotten.

Being the kind of kid who lived part-time in the Fantasy section of bookstores and libraries, Pratchett and I met again and again but I would again and again half-remember my reaction to that witch book and reshelve his books–anyway Austen and Brontë were shaping up to be a thing. It wasn’t until my mid-20s, and Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, that I gave this author another chance. I had heard much of Gaiman and thought I would pick up a book of his. After putting down Good Omens, I was inclined to throttle anyone who shrugged at my raving proclamations and obnoxious demand that they buy a copy now. So I read Gaiman’s American Gods and then moved on to other books.

But many years later, while bemoaning, yet again, the struggle of The Creative and the wearying pursuit of good writing with a friend, I brought up American Gods and he countered with Small Gods. When I shrugged and said, “Haven’t read it, don’t know anything about it,” I was almost asked to pack up my things and leave the bibliosphere immediately. Instead, a copy of Small Gods was thrown in my direction and therein did I learn that I had robbed myself of one of the richest worlds this side of the elephant’s back: Discworld.

The good news is that books don’t vanish in a final puff of magic upon initial rejection. And so began my ravaging of the Discworld series. From book one (well, book thirteen, technically), I wanted to travel to this wholly tangible, imagined place and meet these believable, unreal people about whom I was reading. Death does get his horse shoed in Lancre. The librarian of Unseen University is an orang-utan. Me and my friend, the narrator, are having a casual, yet philosophically insightful conversation. How was a human capable of casting so many paper miracles? Who did this guy think he was?

I looked him up. I read his opinions on writing and banana daiquiris. I idolized. I learned about his struggle with Alzheimer’s and how he continued to write even as the disease persisted.

But before the author comes the writing, and Pratchett had style: great humor, limitless imagination, honesty, sharpness, and wit. He has become the personification of everything I love in books–my Hogfather of storytelling.

Pratchett passed away this March. I wish we could have shaken hands. I wish I could have told him in person how his books make me want to be a better writer (and how I hated Granny Weatherwax before I loved her). I’m still on my journey through the Discworld novels, and good thing because I’m not ready to reach Raising Steam, the final installment. But while I may not be ready to say goodbye, the good thing about books is that they don’t vanish in a final puff of magic when their writer does.

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