|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #84, November 2001|
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Once upon a time in 1995 I had a fit of total insanity and wall-to-wall obsession with Terry Pratchett. The terrible reason was that I'd signed up to write the official Discworld quizbook, The Unseen University Challenge, and had to invent what turned out to be 850 challenging questions about our author's work. All of them – and this was the hard part – different.
These things start out soothingly enough, when you're doing gentle introductory stuff like "What's the missing word in The Colour ** Magic?" or "WHO ALWAYS SPEAKS IN HOLLOW CAPITALS LIKE THIS?" ... but the 800th brain-teaser is mysteriously harder to come up with than the first or second. It was a limp, exhausted Langford who delivered the book to Gollancz in 1995 with the famous last words, "Never again!"
So here I am doing it again, for the loftiest possible motive: lovely editor Jo Fletcher at Gollancz smiled sweetly at me [You crawler, Langford – Ed.]. Also of course for the usual reason, which Terry Pratchett himself inserted as the cod-Latin motto for a baker's heraldic shield in Feet of Clay. QUOD SUBIGO FARINAM. Because I Knead The Dough. After all, that first quizbook shifted over 60,000 copies, exceedingly modest in Pratchett terms but pretty good for humble me.
Happily, this sequel more or less named itself. For some reason it took me and Gollancz a long while to devise our first title The Unseen University Challenge, but with TV quiz shows in mind it seemed immediately and hideously inevitable that book two could be called nothing but The Wyrdest Link. "I like the title," said Terry at once. Phew.
Enter that hero among artists Josh Kirby, who grumbled a bit at not having any opportunity for an interestingly crowded picture composition, but rapidly dashed off a portrait of Unseen University's orangutan Librarian – embellished with the dreadfully unmistakable glasses, red hair, lipstick and wink of Anne Robinson. But she won't sue, said Josh optimistically, because he and she both come from Liverpool ...
Coming up with the needed hundreds of new questions means considerable strain on the brain, but if you look on the bright side the research means I'm being paid quite well to put my feet up and reread the complete works of Terry Pratchett. Especially those that appeared after quizbook 1 in 1996, from Feet of Clay to Thief of Time and The Last Hero. The fans are no doubt madly envious.
It was more or less accidental that I became a tiny part of the ever-growing Discworld entourage. When Gollancz first wondered about publishing the Discworld novels in hardback in the 1980s, the fickle finger of fate picked me to write the reader's report which said that accepting Mr Pratchett's Equal Rites would seem to be rather a good idea. Somehow I've had a finger in the Discworld editorial pie ever since. Almost, it begins to worry me.
This means, oh doom-laden responsibility, that I've become a semi-official authority on the works of Terry Pratchett – a notion which will no doubt make the great man chortle uncontrollably. When David Pringle edited the massive, scholarly St James Guide to Fantasy Writers (1996), the fell hand of Langford was responsible for the Pratchett essay, and then I had to concoct a different version for Pringle's Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1998). When John Clute and John Grant published the even more monumental Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), guess who was conscripted to write the lengthy entry on our Terry?
Though knowing little about art, I was told to provide the learned commentary for Josh Kirby's art book A Cosmic Cornucopia (1999), crammed with obscure Discworld goodies. Not having any academic qualifications either (except in physics, which doesn't count among the literati), I thought I was safe when the SF Foundation planned its learned critical tome entitled Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature – but when this appeared in 2000, it had an introduction by one David Langford. Another moment of weakness. I'm trying to give it up.
Still, it's nice to be invited to Discworld conventions, and it'll be nicer still when the madness of compiling The Wyrdest Link is over and I can add it to my list of finished books. But not yet, not with only 150 questions drafted, and well over 800 needed, and a cruelly tight deadline ... argh!
David Langford says bugrit, bugrem, millennium hand and shrimp, I told 'em, blewit the grawney man, this quizbook work isn't affecting my mind the least bit, tuppence more and up goes the donkey ...
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