Interview With an Author: Rob Wilkins

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Terry Pratchett and his biography of Terry Pratchett
Authors Rob Wilkins and Terry Pratchett and his biography of Terry Pratchett

Rob Wilkins worked with Terry Pratchett for more than twenty years, first as his personal assistant and later as his business manager. He now manages the Pratchett literary estate and Terry's production company, Narrativia. He is the author of the only authorized biography of Terry Pratchett, Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes, and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What inspired you to take on the challenge of writing Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes?

Alzheimer's disease is traumatic for everyone concerned and Terry's passing affected me deeply and I knew that I wouldn't be able to turn my thoughts to his biography until the right brain space became available on the conveyor belt that is my life. However, I never realised back in 2015 that it would actually take more than five years before I would have the courage to open a blank document and start writing. In truth, at that point in time I was more concerned about what I might leave out than put in as the task seemed insurmountable, but the support I have received from Terry's family, my publishers and loved ones has kept me afloat and I have thoroughly enjoyed the process from beginning to end.

Were you intimidated by the prospect of chronicling Sir Terry's life?

Yes! Of course! Terry was—and I use this word with extreme caution—a genius and he casts a huge literary shadow across everything I do, but that intimidation keeps my pencil sharp and having Terry Pratchett looking over your shoulder can be no bad thing.

When and for how long did you work for Sir Terry as his Personal Assistant?

My diary blurs around the answer to this question because there was a significant amount of time when I was working for Colin Smythe—Terry's original publisher and agent—in the mid-nineties where I found myself working four or five days a week for him and then four or five days a week working concurrently for Terry! I think the best way to answer would be to say more than two decades, but I am undeniably still working for him now.

In the Introduction, you describe Sir Terry's ideal Personal Assistant as someone who was not a reader of his work. Yet you admit that you were a long-time fan. Do you have a favorite novel (or maybe a favorite two or three if you can't pick just one)?

My love for Terry's work is indelible. I cannot think of a time where I haven't had at least one of his books on the go and while I was privileged to be sitting at the keyboard as the latest novel was dictated to me, I would still find time to read his books for pleasure. And I am glad you acknowledge that picking one novel would be impossible, but picking two or three or more would be equally as impossible, so this is my list; Mort, Guards! Guards!, Night Watch, Unseen Academicals and the whole of the Tiffany Aching series. And when you've read all of them, go back to the very beginning and read everything from the Colour of Magic onwards.

You describe that Sir Terry was working on an autobiography when he passed, leaving you with invaluable material to draw from for Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes. What was your process to write your book about him, incorporating the material he left and your own research and recollections?

Terry left more than 20,000 words toward his autobiography, all of them dictated to me, but when I returned to them after he had passed I realised with great horror that I couldn't hear his voice; neither the authorial voice from the books or the voice of Terry Pratchett, my friend and this left me with a problem. The first solution was to paste these fragments exactly as they were dictated, and then I would pass comment and narrate through footnotes, but for so many reasons this didn't work. And so after much pondering and a few false starts it was actually my editor who came up with the most elegant solution, "Terry Pratchett should be the biggest contributor to his own biography." Brilliantly simple and oh-so effective. It meant I could quote Terry liberally throughout, but in a way that perfectly preserved his voice and which maintained my voice as the narrator.

Do you have a favorite television or motion picture adaptation/interpretation of Sir Terry's work? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one, and if that is the case, please don't. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)?

Eek! Put it like this; what do I think the reason is behind Terry's lack of exposure thus far in Hollywood? Well, I think that is undeniably down to Terry Pratchett himself. He was such a perfectionist and adapting his words cost the author blood and so the ideal adaptation for Terry would be to have Stephen Fry in an armchair, facing Maya Angelou in another, and listen to them read the whole novel without the unnecessary distractions caused by actors running around on set. However, if I really did have to pick one adaption it would have to be four; Going Postal, The Amazing Maurice, The Abominable Snow Baby and, of course, Good Omens, which Neil Gaiman brought to the small screen with aplomb.

Do you have a favorite memory of your time working as Sir Terry's Personal Assistant?

Imagine, if you will, sitting beside not only one of the most successful and influential authors of his generation, but an author whose work I was an avid follower and dedicated fan of, each and every day. Now try to pick your favourite out of all of those! It was an honour and such a privilege to spend so much time in Terry's company and every word I typed to his dictation a masterclass.

What's currently on your nightstand?

Bono’s Surrender: Forty Songs, One Story. After my father and Terry, no one has influenced my life as much as Bono.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Terry Pratchett
Neil Gaiman
Diana Wynne Jones
Jack Higgins
Ursula K. Le Guin

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

Examine your subject through a microscope, with forensic accuracy, study their DNA, but don't just rely on your own memories; listen to everyone who offers advice or an anecdote, however random, but learn to filter and compartmentalise as necessary.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins, for so many reasons, not least of which being that it was set in an around Norfolk, my childhood home, which made it feel so incredibly real and I could see Jack's words leaping from the page. It was the first 'adult' book I ever read and is still a much-loved favourite even now.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Yes! Motorcycle workshop manuals, describing in great detail how to make my two-wheeled machines fly even faster!

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Anna Russian.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Lots! The jacket art is a vital part of the whole book-buying experience for me. It's been a privilege to have worked closely with Paul Kidby—Terry's—for so many years and my admiration for his depictions of Terry's world is immeasurable. I often go back to the cover while I'm reading so I can bury myself in that image.

Is there a book that changed your life?

We're once again we're back to The Eagle Has Landed because I not only read it, I dissected it in minute detail, trying to work out and emulate how Jack Higgins conveyed the narrative. If he could do it, why couldn't I? That might sound somewhat pretentious for a ten-year-old child, but that's how my brain worked. It didn't matter if it was a Vespa scooter, a Sinclair ZX81 computer, or a novel; I had to lever the top off, peer inside and find out what made it tick.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

A Slip of a Keyboard—Terry's non-fiction anthology, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman that lifts the lid on the myth that Terry was a jolly old elf. In the most respectful, but nail chewingly truthful way, Neil describes the anger that powered the engine that drove Discworld. Without that introduction I couldn't have written A Life With Footnotes and I want everyone to experience the heart-wrenching moment when you first read the line, "At the imminent loss of my friend…" So incredibly truthful and so incredibly powerful.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Any and all of the Discworld series. I am so jealous when I hear someone is just starting out because I know how many treats await them.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Bono talking about his book at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. Wow! That's how you promote a piece of art.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Studio One Abbey Road, April 1, 1967, sitting in the control room with George Martin while the Beatles record Sergeant Pepper. Either that or Hill Valley, California, 5 November 1955, assisting Dr. Emmet Brown to invent the flux capacitor, or February 10, 2003, simply because. Actually, standing at the school gates of Holtspur Primary School, Beaconsfield, 1974, passing a note to a six-year-old Terry Pratchett, telling him it was all going to be okay and to keep dreaming.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

To this very day, I cannot believe that I have never been asked whether I really steamrollered Terry's unpublished works and whether they were backed up. My answer; yes, and no they weren't.

What are you working on now?

There is always a vast amount keeping me busy. We have recently finished filming the second season of Good Omens and The Amazing Maurice will be hitting the screens in December, but there is always a document open on my machine where I pour fresh ideas and so who knows, I might just pull all of those strands together for a companion volume to A Life With Footnotes.

Book cover for Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes
Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes
Wilkins, Rob