The impostor, the science writer, and Terry Pratchett

People ask me if I feel naked without my hat. The answer is no. I feel naked without, say, my trousers, but if you walk down the street without wearing a hat, the police take very little interest at all. But, yes…I’ve grown very attached to the hat, over the years. — Terry Pratchett, A Slip of the Keyboard

Matthew Francis with the Universe (in beach ball form). Photo by Tony Hitchcock.

Portrait of the con-man, with his trademark bowler hat. [Credit: Tony Hitchcock.]

I wear a lot of hats. If you see me at a conference or other event I’m attending professionally, it’s likely I’ll be wearing my bowler hat, which is sort of my trademark. My hats are even in my standard biography, the one I supply to places I write. Though the bowler is my signature as a science writer, it’s too warm and heavy for daily wear, so my usual choice is a fedora[1] or flat cap. I even own a few baseball caps, most of which I got for free, but you won’t see me in those unless I’m really aiming to go incognito.

The bowler hat, though: that’s on my business cards, and in my professional photos.[2] If I take it off during an event, people ask me where my hat is. Sometime I should try the experiment of showing up to a conference without it, to see how many people recognize me rather than my headgear. (Not that I’m at all well-known, hatted or not.)

But if the hat is an identity, it’s also a bit of camouflage. Not in the sense that it makes me invisible (quite the opposite, of course), but that it advertises a persona: the Bowler-Hatted Science Writer. That persona isn’t me, or rather isn’t exactly the same as me, but while I’m inhabiting it, the persona camouflages the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing. That subterfuge seems to be working reasonably well these days.

Feeling an impostor is part of professional life, I think. We aren’t supposed to talk about it — “don’t show any weakness, don’t let them see you sweat” is a common bit of advice — but it’s there. On balance, I think a little insecurity is a good thing: overconfidence leads to more mistakes than not, and doubting yourself slightly can help you safeguard your work against error. Too much, of course, is another problem: you can be immobilized by doubts to the point of mistrusting your ability to do the work at all.

It’s reassuring to know that others feel similarly:

My next book out is Going Postal. It’s about a fraud, a criminal, a con man, who to some extent becomes redeemed through the book, and learns that in addition to fooling everybody else that he’s a nice guy, he can even fool himself. And a friend of mine who read a draft copy said, “There is a little bit of autobiography in all books, isn’t there?” Only friends will tell you that.

And, indeed, I think I am a fraud. I am a Guest of Honour at this convention [WorldCon, one of the leading science fiction/fantasy literature conventions]. When I was a kid, Guests of Honour … were giants made of gold and half a mile high….I’m five foot seven and I’m never going to get any taller.[3]

Sir Terry Pratchett (1948-2015), wearing his signature Louisiana broad-brimmed hat.

So said Terry Pratchett, who wrote a very popular series of fantasy-satire novels taking place on an imaginary flat planet known as Discworld. These stories ranged from pure humor to anti-nationalist satire to explorations of gender identity to what it means to grow up. If a brilliant writer like Pratchett, who died earlier this year, can admit to feeling like a fraud, then an unknown like me shouldn’t feel so bad about it either.

Pratchett was well-known for wearing hats, too. His signature style called a Louisiana, similar in crown structure to a fedora but with a much broader brim. (The taxonomy of hats is complicated.) He mentioned that if he wanted to go around incognito, he would take the hat off, which allowed him to avoid autograph- and photo-seekers: “sometimes a man just wants to go out to buy a tube of glue and some spanners.” Obviously, I don’t have that problem.

The main character of Going Postal, the novel Pratchett mentions in the quote above, is Moist von Lipwig, an arrested and convicted con-artist. The ruler of the city offers him a choice: he can take a death sentence, or he can take the job of postmaster. The reasons for that strange offer become clear as the book progresses, but it’s the character of Moist who’s most interesting to me.

He’s as literal a fraud as you can get: he has no administrative experience, his only work before becoming postmaster was defrauding banks and tricking foolish people into thinking they were taking advantage of him, only to take their money instead. In his role as postmaster, he wears a shiny gold suit with wingèd hat (there’s a hat again!). The outfit becomes his public identity, the thing people see instead of him.

Moist is one of Pratchett’s best characters, worthy of inclusion in the ranks of famous fictional frauds, scoundrels, and tricksters: Harold Hill of The Music Man, half the characters in Mark Twain novels, even Loki from Norse mythology (and Marvel comics). Real con-artists aren’t that much fun: they’re just thieves by another set of means, who can ruin the lives of they people they defraud. But fictional frauds? In some ways, they’re us: people who have to pretend to be functional adults, professionals, competent individuals, while we know inside ourselves that it’s a show.

And of course, there can be a bit of wish-fulfillment in these characters too. Moist starts off a convict and ends up a genuine hero, self-consciously fooling himself into thinking he can be a good man and pulling off the con. Maybe that’s the best we impostors can do, too: fooling ourselves into thinking we can be good writers, responsible grown-ups, functional people. If we’re good enough at the fraud, maybe we’ll become what we pretend to be — with or without the hat.


  1. Fedoras have developed a bad and undeserved reputation recently, thanks to the loose association of misogynists known as “men’s rights advocates”, “red pillers”, “mennists”, “pick-up artists”, etc. who have adopted the style as their symbol. (Their hat of choice is a similar style known as a trilby rather than a fedora, but honestly that’s a bit of hair-splitting. People should be able to wear trilbies if they want, without any assumption that they have screwed-up ideas about gender relations.) Since I’ve been wearing fedoras for longer than that crowd, and I’m older than most of ’em anyway, I don’t feel like changing.
  2. My friend Lou Woodley deserves the credit for getting me started using the hat as my professional badge. Don’t blame her for what I’ve done with it, though.
  3. This quote comes from the speech “Straight From the Heart, Via the Groin”, published in the Pratchett essay anthology A Slip of the Keyboard.

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