Books

Remarkable way Terry Pratchett's lost stories were found by fans: 'A million-to-one-chance'

When Terry Pratchett died in 2015, we thought we'd never again get another story from the Discworld creator. But there were secrets to be unearthed

Terry Pratchett standing in a field, wearing a black hat

Previously unseen stories by Sir Terry Pratchett have been discovered. Photo: Rob Wilkins

By the time Sir Terry Pratchett died in 2015, at the age of 66, he had completed 53 novels (one of them twice), co-authored another six and written close to 100 short stories. It represents a writing career that had begun in 1963 when he was just 14. But those wonderful words eventually dry. Following the posthumous release of his final few novels, there could never again be a new Terry Pratchett book.

Until now.

A Stroke of the Pen: The Lost Stories, published this week, compiles short tales written by Pratchett for newspapers in the ’70s and early ’80s and not republished since. It’s not the first such collection – before he died, Pratchett himself approved several volumes of his early tales, originally published in the Bucks Free Press newspaper where he wrote children’s stories under the inherited nom-de-plume ‘Uncle Jim’. The Lost Stories are different, though – until last year, nobody knew they existed.

Colin Smythe, Pratchett’s friend and publisher, in a bowtie
Pratchett expert Colin Smythe

“It always puzzled me why his inspiration for writing short stories dried up in the mid ’70s”, says Colin Smythe, Pratchett’s friend and publisher, who would become his literary agent when the Discworld novels found success in the ’80s. “It turns out it had not.”

Smythe is probably the leading authority on the works of his friend and client, maintaining a superbly detailed website that lists every known piece of Pratchett writing, stretching from a contribution to his school magazine in 1962 to the last public comment of his lifetime in late 2014. But even he was surprised when a fan, Chris Lawrence, got in touch in early 2022 to say he’d found clippings of a short story carrying Pratchett’s byline.

The story, The Quest for the Keys, which had been serialised across several months, was snipped from the pages of the Western Daily Press where Pratchett had worked as a reporter in the early ’70s between stints at the Free Press. Unfortunately Lawrence, who had taken the cuttings as a teenager, hadn’t included the dates of publication, which the meticulous Smythe needed for his records.

Enter Pratchett fans, husband and wife team Dr Pat Harkin and Dr Jan Clarke. The pair were dispatched to the British Newspaper Archive on a quest for The Quest, hoping to pin down the origin of the story.

And this is where it gets interesting. “Chris Lawrence said he remembered the story being from ‘about 50 years ago’,” says Harkin, “which would line up with when Terry worked there. We knew the earliest it could appear was the early ’70s, and the absolute latest would be the mid-’80s, so we started going through every issue of the Western Daily, starting in 1970.”

In terms of finding The Quest for the Keys, that turned out to be a bad move – the story had actually run in 1984; Pratchett wrote it shortly after the publication of the first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, which makes sense given that its very close in tone to that story. However, starting that early led to another significant discovery.

husband and wife smiling
Dr Pat Harkin and Dr Jan Clarke

Being experienced in academic research, the two doctors were extremely thorough and tracked every piece of fiction in the newspaper, regardless of whether it was written by “Terry Pratchett” or not. (“I’ve learned the hard way,” says Harkin, a former staffer at the University of Leeds, “that it’s better to collect information and not need it, than to miss something and then have to go back.”). Which is how they found Patrick Kearns.

‘Patrick Kearns’, it seemed, was a regular contributor of short stories for the Daily Press from 1972 onwards – the year Terry had moved on. It was a Kearns story called The Blackbury Thing that tipped them off. Blackbury was a fictional town Terry Pratchett often used as a setting for his stories. Further examination of stories by ‘Patrick Kearns’ revealed other Pratchettisms, and a warm and fantastically silly tone that was consistent with his children’s stories of the period.

When the pair took their suspicions to Colin Smythe, he added another piece to the jigsaw: Kearns was Pratchett’s mother’s maiden name. And once you know that, Patrick and Pratchett are too close together for coincidence. Patrick Kearns and Terry Pratchett were one and the same. (“I suspect it was some journalistic etiquette,” Smythe speculates, since the Patrick Kearns stories in the Western Daily cover periods Pratchett was officially working for other newspapers).

The discovery of 20 previously forgotten Terry Pratchett stories was, of course, a huge deal. And, excitingly, enough for a book. It was time to call in the author’s literary estate.

“I was shocked! Amazed and delighted!” says Rob Wilkins, the man often described as ‘Terry Pratchett’s Representative on Earth’, as well as his former PA, business manager and the day-to-day caretaker of his Earthly affairs. “Genuinely, I didn’t think there were any more stories to be found.”

Rob Wilkins: ‘Terry Pratchett’s Representative on Earth’
Rob Wilkins

“It’s a huge event,” he continues. “We’re talking about [someone who was] Britain’s best-selling living novelist, and we’ve just unearthed another several thousand words we didn’t know existed. That’s monumental. It’s important for Terry’s family and for his fans. And it’s not scraping the bottom of the barrel, either – these are quality stories from an emerging Terry Pratchett; not yet the master who wrote [Discworld classic] Night Watch, but still a version of him filled with genius, even if it’s an embryonic genius.”

So what would Pratchett, dead these eight years, make of the fuss around his new, old stories? “Honestly, he’d probably wonder why anyone cared, because he knew that he got so much better,” says Wilkins, “but then he felt pretty much the same way about [the first Discworld book] The Colour of Magic, and he still understood how much it meant to other people. He’d absolutely understand how much these stories would mean to his fans and he’d be delighted that they got to read them.”

Colin Smythe agrees – “In his introduction to [previous collection] Dragons at Crumbling Castle Terry said he kept his old stories hidden away. That certainly turned out to be true. I’m delighted. I think Terry would be too.”

Despite their creator’s departure, Terry Pratchett’s worlds remain remarkably alive – a second season of Prime Video’s Good Omens, based on the 1990 cult classic he wrote with Neil Gaiman, was a huge hit this year, and Rhianna Pratchett, Terry’s daughter and a respected author in her own right, has co-written a new Discworld spin off, Tiffany Aching’s Guide to Being a Witch, due next month. But as far as “new” books from the pen of Pratchett himself are concerned, Wilkins and Smythe agree that this really is it. After all, this is an author who insisted that a hard drive containing all of his unfinished work be crushed by a steamroller after his death.

“I want to make this absolutely clear,” says Wilkins. “We’ve checked everywhere, and there are no more lost manuscripts hidden down the backs of sofas. These stories have only come to light because, quite genuinely, we didn’t know we were looking for them.”

Dr Jan Clarke, whose diligent research is the reason we have this book, agrees. “If the right people hadn’t gone on the right day with the right knowledge we’d never have found these stories. It was a million-to-one-chance.”

A Stroke of the Pen: The Lost Stories by Terry Pratchett is published on 10 October (Doubleday).

Marc Burrows will be performing his acclaimed one-man-show about the life and work of Sir Terry, The Magic of Terry Pratchett, at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London on 12 October, and heading out on a UK tour in 2024. Find dates and info at marcburrows.co.uk/live-dates

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