Review: A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s a long-time Pratchett fan, I found A Slip of the Keyboard surprisingly harrowing. Pratchett may be famous for his joviality and the light touch of his humour, but this book opens with a sober foreword by Neil Gaiman, Pratchett’s long-time collaborator and friend. “Pratchett is not a jolly old elf at all,” he writes. “There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing… And that anger, it seems to me, is about Terry’s underlying sense of what is fair and what is not”.

A Slip of the Keyboard is Pratchett’s 99th book and his second non-fiction collection. A compilation of essays, letters, anecdotes and journalistic paraphernalia, some of its pieces were written very recently and others are more than fifty years old. This book acts as a functional biography of Pratchett’s life as a writer, from the six-year-old boy deemed too stupid for the Eleven plus exams to the seventy-year-old billionaire he has become.

terry pratchett - flickr myrmiThe first section, ‘A Scribbling Intruder,’ is a collection of Pratchett’s experiences as a writer. The opening essay, ‘Thought Progress,’ describes his typical writing routine in neurotic detail, with no distraction, diversion or despairing thought ignored. This process will be instantly-recognisable to anyone who’s tried to write anything, ever.

Pratchett slips a surprising amount of writing advice into this first section – surprising because Pratchett doesn’t normally approve of writing advice, which he considers to be like requesting “the coordinates to the holy grail.” This attitude is best exemplified by “How to be a Professional Boxer,” the gist of which is to eat right, to practice every day, and to learn what works by watching the pros. Writing is essentially the same, minus the boxing.

The second section, ‘A Twit and a Dreamer,’ is a far more general biography. This starts with Pratchett’s early life in the 1960s, when reading Mad Magazine was the height of adolescent rebellion and the only reliable source of Science Fiction was the little old lady in the porn shop down the road. He includes a number of festival speeches and forewords he’s written to other people’s books, as well as some affectionate descriptions of his love affair with reading, particularly Science Fiction and fantasy in his early teens.

‘A Twit and a Dreamer’ could be said to be as much about his reading as ‘A Scribbling Intruder’ is about writing, but Pratchett covers plenty of other ground here as well, including his previous careers in journalism and as a PR man for a nuclear plant.

Like any other writer, Pratchett recycles images and experiences from his own life to be used in his books

A couple of parallels will immediately jump out to the well-versed fan of Discworld. His description of his daughter’s dollhouse and its incongruous occupants is very reminiscent of Tiffany Aching’s in The Wee Free Men:

“Old Kraak has been hanging out in there since his batteries ran out and his mega cannons fell off. Mr T has been there for a couple of years, ever since she found out he could wear Barbie’s clothes.”

I giggled my way through most of the book, but the last section, ‘Days of Rage,’ sobered me considerably. ‘Days of Rage’ is comprised of the most recently-written essays and, as the title suggests, it was thinner on laughs than the previous parts. Here Pratchett really lets rip about all the things that make him angry, refuting his jolly elf persona once and for all. He casts his critical spotlight on the insidious ramifications of the dismantling of the NHS; the inadequacies of the education system; and, of course, the continuing advancement of his Posterior Cortical Atrophy. Pratchett’s Alzheimer’s is a spectre which overshadows much of the book.

His anger is precise, lucid and quiet

A-Slip-of-the-Keyboard - terrypratchettbooks-comPratchett continues to turn out novels with such speed and finesse that it’s easy to underestimate the severity of his condition, but he has a close and personal understanding of it himself. He speaks frankly about its toll, societal attitudes to death, and his campaigns for the legalisation of assisted dying in the UK, ensuring that by the end of the book his readers understand it all very clearly. And it’s heartbreaking.

A Slip of the Keyboard never shies away from acknowledging the imminent death of its author and, as Gaiman says in his foreword, the loss of such an intelligent, talented, and kind man is going to be devastating. We need more people like Pratchett in the world, and we need more people who will carry his influence and ideas into their own lives after he is gone.

And that’s why you should read this book.


Image Credits: Header (Flickr/Alex Dixon), Image 1 (Flickr/Myrmi), Image 2 (terrypratchettbooks.com).

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