The Big Idea: Rob Wilkins
Posted on September 29, 2022 Posted by Athena Scalzi 17 Comments
Rob Wilkins was close enough to beloved author Terry Pratchett that the two of them shared the same Twitter account. From that vantage point Wilkins was able to see Pratchett as a friend, as a writer and as a human being – one who had a thing for hats, magical, metaphorical, and material. All of this comes together in today’s Big Idea for Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes.
Terry Pratchett had a magic hat. In fact, he had a collection of them, assiduously acquired over many years from the stores of some of the world’s leading milliners, from London to New York, and from Sydney to Burford, in England’s Cotswolds, where a shop called Elm offers a good selection. In my fifteen years as his personal assistant, I shopped for hats with Terry a lot because he considered it one of life’s reliable axioms: ‘Any day with a new hat in it is a very good day indeed.’
And if it was a magic hat, then even better.
True, his collection included hats that were not magic. For instance, there was the John Rocha-designed mortar board lavishly decked with black feathers, a sensationally gothic headpiece presented to Terry in 2010 on his accession to the post of Honorary Professor at Trinity College, Dublin.
‘Is there any type of hat associated with this position?’ Terry had asked when Trinity first rang him in his office to sound him out about the role. The College indicated that there could well be a hat, thereby clinching Terry’s acceptance.
And then there was the battered old hat in which he would venture out into the grounds of his Wiltshire manor house when the rain was coming down in stair rods but the tortoises still needed feeding. And no doubt somewhere at the back of a cupboard – because Terry threw very little away – there was the peaked leather cap he wore when he worked in the press office of the Central Electricity Generating Board in Bristol. It was a garment which, in tandem with his beard, inspired his co-workers to call him ‘Lenin’ – though only when he was out of earshot.
And then there was the top hat he bought in Manhattan on a whim, and the bowler I bought him for Christmas. There were, as I say, many hats.
But none of those were magic. The magic hats were the black, broad-brimmed Louisianas for which Terry was famous. People would insist on referring to them as ‘fedoras’, but Terry would sigh and, with varying degrees of patience, correct them: it was not a fedora, it was a Louisiana. Such distinctions mattered to the true hat aficionado.
Then came the slightly awkward day when the staff at Lock & Co. in St James’s Street in London explained to Terry that the style of hat he had been favouring was a fedora, and not a Louisiana at all. And Terry had to take their word for it, because those Lock & Co. people really knew hats: they supplied Winston Churchill with his Homburg and Charlie Chaplin with his bowler, and even Admiral Nelson with the tricorn he wore when he came to a sticky end on the deck of HMS Victory. And since 1988, they had been supplying Terry Pratchett with his Louisiana which was in fact a fedora.
Ah well. Terry still favoured it. And it was still magic.
And this was the magic: he only had to put it on his head and he became Terry Pratchett, the author. That hat gave him, with almost absurd ease, an image. In his earliest days on the road, he would team the hat with a black Levi’s jacket – Levi’s made such a thing in those days – black Hugo Boss jeans and a black leather satchel, but it was the fedora that was the key. It instantly turned him into Terry Pratchett, the public figure that he was increasingly required to be.
And, by extension, when he got home he could take off the hat and be all the other Terry Pratchetts that he was, including, incidentally, Terry Pratchett the writer, which, by the way, is a different thing from being ‘an author’ – or ‘a nauthor’, in Terry’s self-mocking coinage. As he discovered when success came his way, the duties contingent upon being ‘a nauthor’ – the tours, the readings, the book-signings, the press interviews – frequently threatened to prevent you from doing the thing that had turned you into ‘a nauthor’ in the first place, i.e. writing books. The hat was a useful way to enforce the distinction. Hat on: nauthor. Hat off: writer. Terry referred to it as ‘an anti-disguise’.
All of which means that when I came to put together Terry’s authorized biography, a task which fell to me after his death at the cruelly early age of sixty-six from a rare variant of Alzheimer’s disease, I knew one thing with absolute clarity from the very outset: that if this book ever made it into print, it would have on its jacket a photograph of Terry Pratchett without a hat on.
That single gesture, it seemed to me, would send the clearest signal about the book that I was in a unique position to write, if I could manage it. Because, yes, of course I would want to write about Terry Pratchett the author, the public figure whom people knew. But I would also want, and even more urgently, to write about the Terry Pratchett who would be less familiar to people: the Terry Pratchett I saw every day, at his desk, without his hat on – Terry Pratchett the writer.
The publishers took a little persuading, because having a hatless Terry Pratchett on the jacket of a book is a little like opening a McDonalds and not using the arches logo on the store-front. We went back and forth on this, amid some frank exchanges of view and with some wide eyes occurring in the marketing department. But I stuck to my guns and I managed somehow to prevail. And that’s why on the jacket of the UK edition of Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes, Terry is entirely hatless.
So that was the jacket sorted, exactly as I had imagined it. After that, all I had to do was write a book to go inside it.
Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Follow Terry and Rob’s account on Twitter.
GNU Terry Pratchett.
I’m very excited to read this book. And this is a great Big Idea, Rob!
Looking forward to my signed copy of the book coming from Discworld.com. I had the honor to chair the first North American Discworld Convention in 2009 and worked with Rob quite a bit on that. It was an unforgettable experience.
Oh, I am absolutely going to have to read this. As soon as I possibly can. I imagine that it is going to be a bit of an emotional ride for me. Just thinking about Terry Pratchett is enough to make me well up and realize that there’s something in air that’s getting in my eyes.
GNU Terry Pratchett indeed!
I was at the Tempe Discworld convention, got to shake the man’s hand and get a couple of things signed.
I am quite looking forward to reading this book. I began reading the DW books when you could count the number of them on one hand!
Amazon in its infinite wisdom proudly announces this book is a #1 Bestseller in the category of … Regional and Cultural Literary Criticism.
I rarely buy biographies or autobiographies. This will be an exception.
When I ordered it, Teh Amazzon page said #1 in Medicine.
I’ve ordered this from my local indie bookshop, and I am eager to lay my eyes upon it.
GNU Terry Pratchett, and thank you, Rob!
What a beautiful Big Idea.
GNU Terry Pratchett, and I look forward to reading the book.
I want to know where he got the glasses.
I am quite nervous about getting this book as, in a way, Terry Pratchett raised me… not to throw shade on my own parents who are fantastic and intelligent, but When I discovered Pratchett way back in the mists of time at the tender age of 13, it changed me forever.
Of course, I didn’t realise it back then, but Terry taught me how to think, how to be be accepting of people of all shapes, sizes and species, how to be a good person.
I’ve spent more than 35 years having my moral code shaped by this man.
When I learned of his death it is the only time I’ve cried for the loss of someone outside my immediate family. I miss him and his angry rhetoric, and lament that my collection of books isn’t going to get any bigger.
Sadly, I’m going to have to wait until my parents come to my adopted country at the end of the year before I can read it.
I’m impressed with Rob’s style of writing, his voice comes over really strongly and, importantly, I can also hear Pratchett in the background metaphorically shouting improvements over his shoulder as he wrote.
Thank you, Rob!
there are only 43 books in the DiscWorld series… not enough
every time someone loses their focus clicking links on wikipedia (or other reliable sources of stuff including baen bar flies & https://www.antipope.org/) and simply absorbs knowledge for sake of knowledge… you’ve crossed over into Terry Pratchett’s L-space… critical to bring string to trace back to your originating reality…. and be prepared… a sack filled with PB&J sandwiches for yourself…. and ripe citrus fruit for any other patrons who’d been lost so long in L-space scurvy having set in…
When I retired in 2013 I spent the first months of freedom from “The Man” by reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s entire Vorkosigan saga (at the time maybe 19 novels). After doing that I thought, “Why not?” and I read the entire Discworld series one after the other, which at the time totaled 40 books. Good times!
I am verklempt. I will probably read this biography, but I will do it with a box of tissues at hand. Sir Pterry taught me how to be a Good Witch. He is one of the Immortals.
In case anyone else is curious about Sir TP’s bespoke mortarboard, a picture is available at
Wonderful!! I love hats myself and am looking forward to the book!
Thank you, thank you Rob. Looking forward to reading this book. I met TP at a local book signing in my home town in Cheshire, and you could feel the magic. I have a tattoo of Death smoking his pipe, on my left shoulder. Close to my heart.