Terry Pratchett’s debut turns 50: ‘At 17 he showed promise of a brilliant mind’

Written while he was a teenager, published when he was 23 and rewritten when he was 43, The Carpet People is being honoured with an anniversary edition

In November 1971, a debut novel from a young author was published, to a small but not insignificant splash. Set in a world of tiny people who live in a carpet, it was described by the book trade journal Smith’s Trade News as “one of the most original tots’ tomes to hit the bookshops for many a decade”, while Teachers’ News called it a story of “quite extraordinary quality”.

The unknown author was Terry Pratchett, and the book was The Carpet People. This week, publisher Penguin Random House Children’s is releasing a 50th-anniversary edition, with Doctor Who and Good Omens star David Tennant reading the new audiobook.

“Terry would have loved knowing that David was going to do it,” said Rob Wilkins, Pratchett’s former assistant and friend who now manages the Pratchett estate. “David was a Doctor Who that really mattered in the Pratchett household, so he would have been so thrilled.”

Pratchett dreamed up The Carpet People as a teenager; a 1971 interview revealed that he was “putting the world to rights … with a friend one evening when the friend got up to emphasise a point and started to pace across the room. ‘Don’t do that’, said Terry suddenly, ‘You’ll disturb the carpet people.’”

“He was,” said Wilkins, “writing early versions of The Carpet People in short stories when he was at school, so this goes way back. He was noodling around with ideas even then. He was thinking about this as a nano world. They’re much smaller than The Borrowers. They couldn’t wield needles as weapons; they would be ginormous to them. He was absolutely fascinated by a small, flat world.”

“In the beginning … there was nothing but endless flatness. Then came the Carpet, which covered the flatness. It was young in those days,” writes Pratchett. “Then came the dust, which fell upon the Carpet, drifting among the hairs, taking root in the deep shadows … From the dust the Carpet wove us all. First came the little crawling creatures that make their dwellings in burrows and high in the hairs. Then came the soraths, and the weft borers, tromps, goats, gromepipers and the snargs.”

Pratchett left school in the middle of his A-levels when he landed a job as a reporter at the Bucks Free Press. There, he wrote news as well as more than 60 children’s short stories over 250 weeks, signing them as Uncle Jim.

The Carpet People manuscript was picked up when he interviewed a local publisher, Peter Bander van Duren, and mentioned that he was working on a book. Van Duren’s co-director Colin Smythe took a look, and ended up becoming Pratchett’s first publisher, and later his agent.

“This was written by a 17-year-old, and seemed to me to be showing great promise of a brilliant, if not yet genius, mind – a kid at 17 who was writing so well must logically get better as he improved with experience,” said Smythe. “His imagination was second to none.”

One of Pratchett’s illustrations in the original edition of The Carpet People.
One of Pratchett’s illustrations in the original edition of The Carpet People. Photograph: Terry Pratchett

Around 3,000 copies of the novel, featuring Pratchett’s own illustrations, were printed in 1971, when Pratchett was 23. It sold fairly well, said Smythe – after a launch party held in the carpet department of Heal’s in London. “We were discussing at the time whether he would write a sequel. He thought it would be a good idea but he was talked out of it by a friend, who said that sequels didn’t do well. I disagreed with that,” said Smythe. “Nevertheless, he decided to try his hand at science fiction.” A letter from Pratchett to Smythe, discussing the possibility of a follow-up, is included in the new edition of The Carpet People.

Pratchett’s sci-fi novels The Dark Side of the Sun and Strata were published in 1976 and 1981; the first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, followed in 1983. Pratchett revised The Carpet People in 1992 when the Discworld series started to take off and readers began looking for his early work.

In his author’s note for the revised edition, Pratchett wrote that the original story “had a lot of things wrong with it, mostly to do with being written by someone who was 17 at the time”. Rereading it, the then 43-year-old Pratchett thought: “Hang on. I wrote that in the days when I thought fantasy was all battles and kings. Now I’m inclined to think that the real concerns of fantasy ought to be about not having battles, and doing without kings. I’ll just rewrite it here and there.”

Pratchett described The Carpet People as “not exactly the book I wrote then. It’s not exactly the book I’d write now. It’s a joint effort but, heh heh, I don’t have to give him half the royalties … This book had two authors, and they were both the same person.”

Wilkins said: “It’s such an important novel, because we know now what’s standing on its shoulders. I asked him, ‘What would you have said to your younger self about your early efforts, the 1971 edition?’ He said, ‘Must try harder.’ I thought that was a little bit harsh, but that was very much Terry, with his tongue in his cheek … When you look at master craftsmen like Terry, always honing their skills, they do get better. But, for me, The Carpet People is timeless.”

The Carpet People is reissued by Penguin Random House Children’s Books on 22 April.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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