Terry Pratchett on the Old and the New

or… What a fantasy author has to teach the public service.

The family went down to New York for the latter part of last week and the weekend. My wife had a table at the New York City Comic Con. It so happened that, while we were there, Terry Pratchett was, too. He was at an event at the TriBeCa Barnes & Noble on October 13, for the launch of his new book, Snuff. My son Toby (11) and I went, as we’re both fans.

For those who don’t know him, Terry is a prolific author of humorous fantasy. Most of his novels are set in the “Discworld” fantasy world. The first couple were fairly light and shallow, as one expects of fantasy humour. Then they started getting deeper. They deal with rich themes: responsibility and accountability, diversity and innovation, leadership and making the right, hard choices. Doing the right thing. Themes that matter here in the public service, too. He does a good enough job at dealing with these themes that he got an OBE in 1998 “for services to literature” and was knighted in 2009. The fact that he was the UK’s best-selling author of the 1990s and has sold over 75 million books may have had something to do with the honours, too.

If you want to check him out yourself, I recommend starting with Guards! Guards!.

In any case, Toby and I attended the event. There was guaranteed seating for the first hundred people to buy a book. We were 63 and 64.

It started with a brief introduction saying who Sir Terry is. Then there was an interview, followed by a brief reading from the book and questions from the audience (with answers from Sir Terry). At the end, there would be an opportunity for those first hundred people to get a photo with Sir Terry Pratchett.

By the time they got to the Q&As, there was only time for three questions from the audience. They called for the first question. Toby’s hand shot right into the air, but someone else was picked. They called for the second question. Again Toby’s hand shot right up but it wasn’t to be him. The third question. Same thing.

But Sir Terry asked the organizers for the opportunity to take one more question and they acceded. this time, when Toby’s hand shot up everyone in the seats around us turned and pointed at Toby. They had to pick him. Toby asked his question (“When you first started writing, what was your main inspiration?”) and got his answer. They started getting ready for the photos.

Then he came back to the stage. He asked if the boy who had asked that final question could join him at the side for a bit of private conversation. Toby made his way over. I took a bunch of photos and then made my way over for better, closer photographs.

I was called over, too and Sir Terry indicated that he was giving Toby a private master class in fantasy writing. The gist of the part I heard was recommending that Toby voraciously read good, older writers (Tolkien, Lieber and Vance were mentioned), figure out what he liked in their stories and ask himself “How would I tell this story today – in today’s context for today’s audiences?”

Which brings us back to the public service. Here in the public service we struggle with innovation. We value it. There’s no question of that: it’s in our listed values; it’s a category in most of our awards. But we still struggle with it. The old way is familiar. It seems safe. It is comfortable. The new is strange. It seems full of risk (and we are not fond of risk). It is uncomfortable.

We tend to break into two camps. There are those who embrace innovation. They value the new. The old is always just an obstacle. Others say they want innovation but mean “as long as it doesn’t change anything”. They value the tested and true. They count on what has worked in the past.

I think Sir Terry may have found an approach that bridges these groups. He values the past and what has worked there. He wasn’t recommending that Toby read new authors, but old ones. He knows that the best of the old has timeless lessons and value that does not diminish. But he also recognize that changing times change things. That what worked in the past needs to be changed to reflect the current context.

It’s not a matter of demolishing the old to make way for the new. Nor is it replicating the old unchanged. It’s renewing the old and adapting it for the new.

I think that’s a lesson that goes beyond fantasy writing, so I’m sharing it here. What do you think?

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