Monday, September 19, 2011

Douglas Adams interview, 1996

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Douglas Adams
by Daniel Coston
originally published November 1996 issue of Tangents
Additional comments written for the Tangents website, 2010

There is no way to describe Douglas Adams’ sci-fi comedy opus “The Hitchhiker ‘s Guide To The Galaxy,” and accurately capture why it has become one of the popular books of the past 20 years. With characters such as Guide researcher, Zaphod Beeblebrox and Marvin the Paranoid Android, its one of those books that you just have to read to understand its popularity.

It’s also very hard to describe the author, who now has sold over 15 million books worldwide. Born in Cambridge, England, Adams first introduced “Hitchhiker’s” as a radio series for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1978. He has since adapted the story into five books, a popular TV mini-series and every other form of media imaginable. 

With a second popular book series, “Dirk Gently” now under his belt, Adams has positioned himself at the forefront of the Computer Age with an upcoming CD-ROM and other projects now in the planning stages. 

During his stay in Charlotte last month for the Novello festival, I sat down with Adams to talk about “Hitchhiker’s,” his experiences with Monty Python and “Doctor Who,” and the numerous “Hitchhiker’s” followers who fill the internet. 

Tangents: What were some of your early influences as a writer?

Adams: I’d have to say that Monty Python influenced me a great deal from a comedy standpoint. There were a few science-fiction comic books in England when I was growing up. They were the rather sort of upper-crust comic books that were there, I think, to instill good Empire values into young boys.

I must profess to have a bit of a problem with a lot of today’s science-fiction. I just find it very hard to read. In what many people think of as the “Golden Age” of science-fiction that produced [Arthur C.] Clarke and [Issac] Azimov and those guys, they were all working for voracious editors. You always read them complaining about how much their editors beat them up, but it produced very clear, clean, lean storytelling. If you read science-fiction nowadays, everybody’s been to creative writing classes, and you get page after page, after page of “creative storytelling” without it ever actually going somewhere.

Tangents: One of your first jobs was writing with Graham Chapman during the last season of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

Adams: Well, it was something that seemed to me at the time, as a young kid out of University, like this was having the clouds opening. “Wow! I’m working with all the Pythons.” It wasn’t quite as straightforward as that... Graham was a very, very heavy drinker at the time. He wasn’t working with John Cleese anymore, and he was working with a lot of different people, but an awful lot of work really wasn’t being done. So it was a period of mixed output. 

Tangents: In between that getting the radio deal for “Hitchhiker,” you worked as a bodyguard.

Adams: Yes, for an Arab royal family, the Altoni of Gutar. That was strange. It wasn’t what I expected to be doing at that point, but like anything that happens to you in life, it turns out useful in some way or another. I think some of the weirder ideas that carried me through the next couple years after that came from long nights sitting opposite the elevator shaft at the Hilton Hotel, while I was trying to keep my sanity. 

Tangents: The ideas for “Hitchhiker’” came from several different inspirations, didn’t they? 

Adams: Yes. The actual title came to me while I was lying in a field in Innsbrook at night and looking up at the stars. There was a book around called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Europe,” and it occurred to me that somebody should write a “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.” I then promptly forgot about the idea until six years later. I was intrigued by the idea of doing science-fiction as a form of comedy, and it was only while I was at work on the story that became “Hitchhiker” that I suddenly remembered the title.

People always described “hitchhiker” rather carelessly or loosely as being a spoof on science-fiction, and it isn’t at all. Basically, a spoof or parody might give you enough material for a couple of pages, but that’s about it. So it was very much using science-fiction to enable one to parody everything else, but there’s no, or certainly hardly any, attempt to actually parody science-fiction.

Tangents: While you were writing the “Hitchhiker’s” radio series, you were hired to become a writer and story editor on “Doctor Who.” 

Adams: The sequence of events was that while I was waiting for the BBC to make up its mind about doing “Hitchhiker,” I needed some income from somewhere, so I thought, “Well, I’ve got this one script that I’ve written for “Hitchhiker.” What else could I generate with this?” And the obvious place to send it was “Doctor Who.” And the inevitable happened, which is that the commission for the rest of the “Hitchhiker’s” series, AND four episodes of “Doctor Who” came in the same week. So it was pretty hectic. I really had hardly a day off for four years after that, until I finally decided, “That’s it,” made the escape from London and holed up in a hotel in New York for a month, and tried to figure out what to do next.

Tangents: What’s your feeling now about your work with “Doctor Who?”

Adams: Well, “Doctor Who” is great in all sorts of ways. I remain tremendously fond of the actual idea, and it obviously got very well-worm and tired over the years. I think the problem with it was simply that we were doing 26 episodes a year on a very, very small amount of resources, and you’re having to compromise on so many things that you’re no longer getting any satisfaction out of it. It’s merely a collection of missed opportunities. And I feel on “Doctor Who,” there was just too much. Too much expected from too little in the way of resources. So at the end of the day, you feel, “Well, we didn’t even do a good job, I’m afraid.” So it was a little disappointing.

Tangents: The character of Ford Prefect in “Hitchhiker’s” was originally conceived as a sort of anti-Doctor Who, wasn’t he?

Adams: In a kind of way, yeah. One of the keynotes of Ford was that given the choice between saving the world and going to a good party, he’d go to the party. Or even a bad party. (laughs)

Tangents: Whereas Doctor Who would just save the world.

Adams: Yeah, he was that kind of boring guy about saving the world over and over again. That’s why I thought with “Hitchhiker,” “Let’s just get the world out of the way from the word go.” Boy, that was a decision that I came to regret. (groans) Good God.

Tangents: Why is that?

Adams: It was such a problem thereafter. It’s one of those things you do, like a gesture. You make this grand gesture at the beginning, and you give up the earth and you think, “Damn. Now where’s the thing going to be set?” You haven’t got a good reference point thereafter, so I’ve made these ... attempts to bring it back from time to time, but it never quite works. 

Tangents: Do you think the “Hitchhiker’s” story can be taken any further?

Adams: I’d like to, actually. A lot of people have not particularly liked “Mostly Harmless” [1993], including myself. The problem with it was the year in which I wrote that book was just full of terrible problems at home. Professional problems, family problems, a sad death in the family. It was a really, really bloody year, and against the background of that, I had to write a funny book. I know I keep saying that I’ll never do another [“Hitchhiker” book], but I might well d another one at some point because I’d like to leave it all on a slightly more upbeat ending than “Mostly Harmless” was.

Tangents: Did you ever tire of people asking you what you were working on next?

Adams: I got very crazed by it, actually. When I started out, I did something in radio, I did something in television. I did this, I did that. Then I did a book, and then suddenly, the book was a hit, [which] meant that the next thing I did was another book, and the next thing after that was another book. And that wasn’t the kind of life that I really wanted.

So I’ve set up with a bunch of very complementary and bright bunch of people, and we’ve formed a company called the Digital Village. It’s turning out to be enormous fun. I’m working very hard on a CD-ROM, “Starship Titanic.” Now that looks like it’ll go on into other forms of different media, but I don’t want ot do what I did with “Hitchhiker,” which was, “Okay, now I’ve done the radio series. Now I’ll do the book of it, and now I’m gonna write the television series,” and this and that, and virtually became my own word processor. 

Tangents: What’s your feeling about the different Internet groups that follow you?

Adams: It’s kind of weird, actually. Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Now he would say in the future, everybody will have their own group. There was a point where I used to go into those different newsgroups, but I found that it was an uphill battle because you get a flak from people saying, “Oh, it can’t possibly be you, so butt off out of here.”

But the other thing is ... someone would ask a question, and then I would go on and answer it, and maybe write a full piece. And over the next two or three days, a lot of people would ask, “What did he say?” And then you’d watch as more and more garbled versions of what you’d said would proliferate around, and it got to be such a full-time job just trying to keep it under control. So I thought, “I’ll duck back out of this now,” and wait until I can do my own web site, where I can keep control of things.


This is still one of the better interviews I’ve ever done, and almost completely in spite of myself. I was frightfully young, on the late side of 23, but still in the first few months of knowing how to interact with other people. I had only been doing interviews in April of that year, and while the questions I asked aren’t bad, I can hear the overeager edge of my voice, trying to be funny and “cool” around a guy whose work I had just recently gotten into. On top of which, I had bought a new tape recorder for this interview, which unbeknownest to me was set on Voice Activated. So, I start the interview, and the tape recorder is cutting on and off. It rolled intermittently for the first few minutes while Douglas told me a great story about a similar problem he’d had while recording John Cleese for a BBC pantomime. Eventually, we both picked up the tape recorder, and Douglas figured out what the problem was. Not only did the machinery go heywire during a Douglas Adams interview, but Douglas then fixed it. Even back then, it seemed absolutely brilliant. After the interview was done, mind you....

What it did establish in my favor was that I literally had no airs about myself. I was the innocent fan with some half-decent questions, and Douglas really went out of his way to give some very in-depth answers. I kept running into him the rest of the day, as I had to stay at the library until Douglas’ speaking engagement and signing. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t bugged him as much (at least I feared I did), but it was such a cool day, it was hard to let it go. I also hate that I never got the chance to talk to him again, and tell him how much it had all meant to me.

And how that we get this interview? Tangents was the only one that wanted to interview Douglas in person, while he was in town. All of the papers only wanted pre-show interviews before that week (all of which Douglas was doing at the time via email, or internet chats, which was still in its dodgy infancy), and I wanted to meet him. A few weeks before the interview, the Main Library had temporarily banned our magazine from the building, as someone got scared by our “content.” And then, there I was, representing the media through the Main Library of Charlotte, and we were back in the library. Even then, it struck me as bizarre, and hilarious. 

This gig also became notable for other reasons. It was one of the first events I ever photographed, as our photographer at the time didn’t show up. I took photos from my seat, sitting next to the girl that had dumped me the week before, as we’d had already gotten the tickets weeks ahead of the show. I then took photos at the signing, which were the best pics of him I got that night. I would soon discover the combination of music and photography at Farm Aid the following week, and I was off on another adventure. 

My last question to Douglas was actually this, which we originally cut for space.

Tangents: Would you do another nude scene, like you did in the Hitchhiker’s TV series?

Adams: Dear God, no! They got me horribly drunk to do that!

-Daniel Coston, February 2010  

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