I can tell you the exact moment I discovered Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I was about fifteen and fortunate enough to be on a trip to England with my father and stepmother. Though I considered myself to be lucky, I was also in dire straits—my Walkman was dead, I’d read all my books, and I was stuck in a car with two adults who were constantly fighting and all of my coping mechanisms had been used up. I was desperate for a book. I think any lifelong reader will understand the panic of being stuck somewhere stressful without a good book. (Or really any book, for that matter.)
We had stopped to see some famous rock circle—I can’t remember which one, only that it wasn’t Stonehenge. However, I do remember that they had a little gift shop, and in that little gift shop amongst the knickknacks and postcards was a single spinner rack of paperback fantasy titles written by a man named Terry Pratchett. I’d never heard of Terry Pratchett, and I didn’t care. I grabbed the first two and proceeded to beg my stepmother for them. Another lucky stroke in my life—both my mother and my stepmother were readers and they almost always supported my book habit. I’m forever grateful for this.
There are a few other authors that I remember discovering so clearly, though in very different ways. My stepmom handed me David Eddings thinking that I’d like his books based on the covers. My brother, Darin, introduced me to Ursula Le Guin. My Grandma Lee lead to me discovering Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books when I was stuck on yet another stressful family outing and out of books. We’d stopped in to a grocery store and she handed me The Lunatic Café saying, “This looks weird. You’re weird. I think you’ll like it.” My mom read and reread the Chronicles of Narnia to my brothers and me over the years.
I loved all of them and they certainly all impacted me as a reader and a writer, but none of them in quite the way that Terry Pratchett did, because the Discworld books were the first to really prove to me that fantasy books could be funny and smart. They were silly and deep at the same time. Since I was constantly being told to stop being silly and that my sarcasm would get me nowhere, Pratchett’s books were a validation.
Rincewind was a terrible wizard and a total coward and I understood him in a way that I didn’t understand the usual heroes that threw themselves into battle and trekked across whole countries to right wrongs. I approved of those things, but I’d never done them. I didn’t really know what being a hero felt like, but I’d been a Rincewind. Sadly, not a wizard, but I’d been afraid. I’d been overwhelmed. I wasn’t a hero and I was awkward and weird. Rincewind was a character I could get behind.
The deeper I delved, the more the books resonated for me. There was hopefulness and a kindness to the humor along with the bite of satire. To this day I read Pratchett’s books and laugh and then suddenly stop and reel at the bigger ideas that he’s thrown in with all that humor.
Up until that point, I’d been trying to write stories and most of them fell into the epic fantasy or horror genres, and they weren’t really working. I couldn’t seem to articulate the kind of story I wanted, because I was trying to be serious. I don’t know why… Serious has never worked particularly well for me in life, but there you go. Once I’d read Terry Pratchett, well, a light didn’t go off per se, but the fuse was lit. I could combine my love of humor writing and my love of horror and fantasy, and it would be okay.
As a published author, I had my very first book event in Portland at Powell’s and while I was there I happily discovered an illustrated copy of Wee Free Men, the first Tiffany Aching book. (Which, much to my horror, has since disappeared from my library.) I have a soft spot for many of Discworld’s inhabitants, but much like Rincewind, I got Tiffany in a way that made a lot of things click into place. Tiffany is a witch, not because she’s special or magic or gifted, but because she’s so very practical. The village doesn’t have a witch. Tiffany not only understands the necessity of the witch role, she wants to right the wrong made against the former village witch. There is a need to be filled, so she puts on her boots, grabs her frying pan and gets to it. This was such a wonderful departure from the Chosen One scenario or the handwringing heroines I’d been reading. Not that I don’t enjoy those, too, but there was something so appealing to me about Tiffany’s pragmatism. She reminds me of Suzette Haden Elgin’s character, Responsible of Brightwater. Responsible was practical and got things done, paying little heed to the people who told her she couldn’t. I wish I could ask Terry if he’d read those books, and if Tiffany was a hat-tip to Responsible.
In one of those rare moments of fate, I got to see Terry Pratchett speak. After my first book had come out, I’d picked up a job at a local bakery and coffee shop. We were struggling financially and I needed a steady paycheck now. The bakery was attached to a bookstore, which appealed to me for obvious reasons. One day on my break, one of the booksellers mentioned that Terry Pratchett had an event at Town Hall the next day, which had somehow passed by my radar. I wanted desperately to go, but it was a ticketed event, which means I had to purchase the new book in order to attend. I have never had any problem throwing my cash down for a new hardcover book, mind you; in fact, I prefer getting books in hardcover if I love the author, because I know they will last longer. (Also because I know the author gets paid a little more for those book sales, which is nice.) That being said, I had about enough cash for the book and nothing else. We were living paycheck to paycheck and broke, something that gets a little less charming when you have a kid. But it was a chance to see Terry Pratchett speak. Live. In the same room as me. At this point, he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I didn’t know if he would ever tour again. He had himself to look after, and as much as I was greedy for more books, I didn’t want them at the expense of his health.
So I spent my last thirty bucks on a copy of Snuff and a chance to see Terry Pratchett speak, and I don’t regret a single penny. I knew going in that Terry wouldn’t be signing anything or meeting anyone—again, the organizers were trying to protect his health; touring is an exhausting business at the best of times. To get there in time I had to go straight from work, smelling like coffee and looking a bit of a mess. I didn’t care. I got to sit in a room with people dressed as wizards and listen to one of my favorite authors speak. It was wonderful.
Then, a surprise—they announced that a lucky few would get to meet Terry Pratchett after the event. If we opened our books and had a red ticket, we were in. I opened my copy of Snuff and there it was, a glorious red ticket. I was going to get to meet Terry Pratchett.
I don’t usually get starstruck. I’m pretty good at remembering that they’re really just people at the end of the day. I had no problem meeting Julie Andrews when she came to my bookstore. She was utterly charming and we discussed my time in New Orleans after she saw the fleur-de-lis on my hoodie. Occasionally, though, it happens—I get completely and utterly starstruck. And it turns out that Pratchett in particular managed to turn my brain into pudding.
After the event, the red ticket folks were herded downstairs and into a line. I think it was one of the most freaked out lines I’ve ever really seen; people ahead of me could barely speak because of nerves. Usually I wouldn’t have cared about my own nervousness, but rather unfortunately, because I also write books, the booksellers handling the event knew who I was. They would likely see me again at events and things and I didn’t want to be the author who lost their freaking mind over Terry Pratchett. I was trying rather desperately to play it cool, and failing.
The line edged closer and I attempted to form some sort of coherent thought. What I did remember was that if I’d ever met Terry Pratchett, I’d told my friends that I’d ask him for a hug…which is funny on several levels because I’m not really a hugger. I don’t like touching strangers, generally. But I insisted that I would hug Terry Pratchett so they should likely get the bail money ready, in case I was ever arrested for what could be possibly categorized as assault depending on the enthusiasm and aggressiveness of said hug.
When it was finally my turn, I managed through many garbled words to get my story across. I was ready to be turned down. I understood that hugging strangers was weird, and that’s what I was to him; I didn’t think that he owed me anything at all. He’d already given me so much.
But Terry just tilted his head and looked at me. “You want me to hug you?”
“Yes,” I said. “If it’s okay with you. No pressure.”
“Okay,” he said, and stood up. The bookstore staff kindly asked me if I wanted a picture and I quickly handed them my phone. Terry put his arms around me and then leaned back and said, “I hope I’m not doing anything inappropriate.”
I hastily told him no, he absolutely wasn’t doing anything inappropriate at all. To which he replied, with a completely straight face, “Do you want me to?”
I cracked up, and I was able to relax a little. Making a joke was likely a reflex for him, but for me it was one more gift, because suddenly I was comfortable. The bookseller snapped the picture and I thanked Terry and left. It was an utterly perfect moment. Since I was now shaking too hard to drive home, I walked two blocks to a bar that my friend bartended at and proceeded to drink a glass of whiskey and calm down. I’m fairly certain that I babbled to her the whole time. I had hugged Terry Pratchett, and it was amazing. I’m so very glad that I went.
I haven’t read The Shepherd’s Crown yet. Despite my love for Tiffany Aching, it feels too much like saying goodbye, and I’m not ready. So I’m saving it. Someday, I’ll be ready and I’m okay with waiting.
On occasion, at my own book events, I meet a reader that’s a nervous wreck. They’re shaking. They can’t talk. They clutch my book and tell me that they can’t believe I’m there. And it’s so, so weird to be on that end of things. I’m proud of my books, yes, but I don’t see myself through the same lens. I don’t really understand why they’re so freaked out to meet me—I’m not that big of a deal. Even four books in, it all still feels too new to me. So I tell them that I understand, because every author has at least one story where we’ve met another author and lost our composure. I tell them about the time that I made Terry Pratchett hug me, and I know that in that moment, my reader and I completely understand each other. And I hug them, if they want, and it isn’t hard for me, because my brain doesn’t categorize my readers as strangers.
But even if it were difficult, I would do it, because of that photo. The picture may be poor quality because my phone was crap, and I look rough from pulling coffee shots all day, but I don’t care. I am being appropriately hugged by Terry Pratchett—savior of car trips, champion of humor, kindness, and practical witchery. Terry Pratchett, whose books not only changed everything, but continue to remind me why funny books are important. That’s all that really matters, in the end.
Originally published in August 2017.
Top photo by Flickr user Myrmi.
Lish McBride currently resides in Seattle, spending most of her time at her day job at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. The rest of her time is divided between writing, reading, and Twitter, where she either discusses her desire for a nap or her love for kittens. (Occasionally ponies.) Her debut novel, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer was named an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and was a finalist for the YALSA William C. Morris Award. Her other works include Necromancing the Stone, Firebug, and Pyromantic.