Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Original complete Douglas Adams interview from 1996, from original Tangents website

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 most popular books of the past 20 years. With characters such as Guide researcher Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox and Marvin The Paranoid Android, it 's one of those books that you just have to read to understand its popularity.
It's also very hard to describe the career of its author, who has now sold over 15 million books worldwide. Born in Cambridge, England, Adams did everything from odd jobs to write with Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame before he found his voice in Hitchhhiker's.
Originally done as a radio series for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio in 1978. He has since adapted Hitchhiker's into five books, a popular 1981 TV mini-series and every other form of media imaginable. With a second popular book series, Dirk Gently, now under his belt, Adams has now positioned himself at the forefront of the Computer Age, with several upcoming CD-ROMs 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 followers that 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, because I consider myself a comedy writer. Doctor Who also was a big influence from the standpoint of science-fiction. I don't know if you can imagine it now, but the impact that Doctor Who when it was first broadcast was amazing. It was so huge that the following week, they had to run the first episode again, and stagger the rest of the series back a week.
I guess on a prosaic level, I was influenced by the classics. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, P. B. Woodhouse. They were the ones that you always looked up to as a writer, and always convinced yourself that your never be as good as theirs. 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. But I think that the great one was called Dan Dare, Pilot Of The Future.
I must profess that I have a bit of a problem with a lot of today's science-fiction. I just find that it's very hard to read. In what many people think of as the "Golden Age" of science-fiction that produced [Arthur C. ] Clarke, [Isaac] Asimov 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 anywhere.
There was one great, great writer who is now, alas, largely overlooked. His name is Robert Sheckley. He was a very funny science-fiction writer, which was unusual. In fact, I'm going up in a few days' time to meet him, because we're probably going to collaborate on a little thing.

[At this point in the interview, Adams and I noticed that my new tape recorder was starting and stopping due to the machine being switched to voice-activated, a problem that Adams actually spotted. And yes, the irony of technology going awry in the middle of a Douglas Adams interview was not lost on me.]

Adams: I was a junior producer for BBC radio, and I was doing a radio show for Christmas...that was based on the story of Cinderella, and it was called "Black Cinderella II Goes East." We had a bunch of luminaries taking part in it, including John Cleese. John was, predictably, the only one couldn't turn up for recording. So I worked this out with the writers that it was written in such a way that John, who was the Fairy Godperson, was such and successful Godperson that she could never turn up to see Cinderella, but she would leave all her spells on her answering machine.
So I had to go off and record all of his bits, and it was terribly difficult finding a moment in his busy schedule when he could do this, and he finally could see me at 8 o;clock for an half-an-hour to do this. So I turned up with my tape recorder, tested everything to make sure it was all right. I did a quick test record and everything was fine, and I said, "Okay, let's go ahead."
And at that moment, John just happened to say, "Do you think it's a bit warm in here?" And I said, "Yes, it is a little bit. I'll fix that," and didn't think anything more about it. And it turned out that when I turned on this air conditioning fan, it set up a hum over the whole tape.
So I had to call [Cleese] the next day and say, 'I'm terribly sorry. I know we took weeks of work trying to find the time, but can we do it again, please?" And he was a little bit shirty, but eventually he agreed to do it, but unfortunately the second recording wasn't such a good performance, because he was a little cross about it. So I understand your frustration.

T: You came from a largely medical family.

A: That's right, yes. My mother was a nurse, and my father's father was an ear, nose and throat surgeon. My stepfather, because my parents divorced, was a doctor, and my sister from time to time is a nurse.

T: Did you expect to be a doctor when you grew up?

A: Well, I don't know about expected. It certainly crossed my mind from time to time, and there were certainly times when I thought, "Oh God, that's what I should have done." But it was never really an option, or if it was an option that I had taken, then it would have involved taking a U-turn in life, and suddenly giving up another eight years.

T: You said once that you became a writer because you couldn't think of anything else better to do.

A: Yes, that's true to a certain extent. That's funny, looking back now I would have a whole bunch of ideas about different things I'd like to do, but they weren't clear to me then. If I'd known back in 19747 which is when I left University, what I know now, among the things I would've thought of doing was being an evolutionary biologist. I guess a better time to decide this would've been before I went to University. But also a computer scientist, I would've loved to have been a rock musician...

T: Yes, you actually play some musical instruments.

A: Well, I actually play only two musical instruments, really. One is the guitar, and the other is the computer-driven synth. I'm a fairly poor keyboard player, but I can write music pretty well, so I basically write to a sequencer.

T: One of your first jobs was writing with Graham Chapman during the last season of Monty Python.

A: Well, it was something that seemed to me at the time as a young kid just 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, and I think is a matter of record, so I'm not doing him any disservice, 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 a period of mixed output, and after eighteen months of that, I really felt that I was better off taking the plunge myself.

T: What were your impressions of the Pythons when you worked with them in that period?

A: Well, I do want to emphasize that it wasn't really working with them. My actual input to the Python era was about two lines. But, to a greater or lesser extent, they're all friends of mine. I know Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, John [Cleese] I know to a small degree, Mike [Palin] to a small degree, Eric [Idle] to a small degree. But the two Terrys are great.

T: In between that and getting the radio deal for Hitchhiker's, you worked as a bodyguard.

A: Yes, for an Arab Royal Family, the Altoni of Gutar. That was strange. It wasn't what I was expecting 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.

T: The ideas for Hitchhiker's came from several different inspirations, didn't they?

A: Yes. The actual title, as I've told many people, came to me while I was lying in a field, in a capside, actually, in Innsbrook at night, and looking up at the stars. There was a book around called The Hitchhiker 's Guide To Europe, which I had a copy of, 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 this title, and that idea that folded into it.
One thing that I always want to tell people is that 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.

T: You also once said that a lot of the characters in Hitchhiker's were originally based on friends or people you knew, but then you expanded on those characters.

A: Well, I think you'll find that's common for most writers. Very often you have an idea for a character from just some little aspect of someone you know. something they do or say, or some thing about them, and then it grows into something else. It's often quite a surprise when you look back and think, "Oh, this character came from that person. It's not much like them now."

T: Marvin, for instance, came from a friend of yours.

A: Yeah, who's a comedy writer called Andrew Marshall. Hence the name in fact, because in the original draft of the script, he was actually called Marshall, because I did want Andrew to be absolutely clear that I meant him.
It was the producer who said to me, 'I'm worried about you naming him Marshall, because it has other connotations which you don't intend, but maybe the audience will pick up and then be confused by it." So I thought, "Oh, yeah. Mar, Mar-vin, then." It practically became Marvin on the way to the recording studio.

T: While you were writing the Hitchhiker's radio series, you were hired to become a writer and script editor for Doctor Who.

A: The sequence of events was that while I was waiting for the BBC to make up its mind about doing Hitchhiker, which took a long time, I needed some income from somewhere, so I thought, "Well, I've got this one script I've written that I've written for Hitchhiker. What else could I generate with this?" And the obvious place to send it was Doctor Who.
So they said, "Okay. Come in and see us." So we talking about storylines, and the inevitable happened, which is that [Doctor Who] took a long time to sort out, and the commission for the rest of the Hitchhiker 's series and the commission to write 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.

T: What's your feelings now about your work with Doctor Who?

A: Well, Doctor Who's great in all sorts of ways. I remain tremendously fond of the actual idea. I think the idea is brilliant, and it obviously got very well-worn 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 there comes a point where you're having to compromise on so many things, and rush so many things just to get to the next problem that you're no longer getting any satisfaction out of it. It's merely a collection of missed opportunities.
Now, obviously anything you're working on there are compromises, missed opportunities, things that go wrong and things that you can't quite do. But the question is at the end of the day, have you done a good job? 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.

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

A: In a kind of a 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 the party. Or even a bad party. [laughs]

T: Whereas Doctor Who would just save the world.

A: 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 I came to regret. [groans] Good God.

T: Why is that?

A: It was such a problem thereafter. It's one of those you do, like a gesture. Michael Nesmith, who was one of the Monkees, told me how there came a point when he wanted to leave the Monkees, and everybody was very down on him for that, 'cause as far as they were concerned, they were doing well, everything was going great, everyone was earning money. Why kill it now?
So somebody said to him, "Look, it's all very well for you. You've very comfortably made this amount of money. Now you just walk away from it. Is that right?" And Michael said, "No, it isn't about the money," and they said, "Oh, yeah." So he said, "All right, how much have I made from the Monkees? I'll give it all away." So he did that, and he said he woke up the following morning, and he thought, 'I've got no money now." [laughs]
That's the problem with it. 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 any good reference point thereafter, so I've made these sort of futiling attempts to bring it back from time to time, but it never quite works.

T: What's you feelings about the various Hitchhiker incarnations?

A: The top ones in my mind are the radio series and the books. The TV series was kind of a mixed blessing. I was very fond of the towel. I thought that was a good read. There was a couple of comic books over the last couple years that, well, I don't know, I'm not a great expert on comic books. It's not a media I'm really sufficient to converse with and to have an opinion, but I guess I'm old fashioned to think that it works better as a book.

T: There was also the record albums, there was a sort of musical that was done...

A: A couple of stage productions, yeah. It's kind of difficult to perform on stage. One of the reasons why it keeps on being about to be a film, then never quite becoming a film is that the whole thing is essentially picaresque, which means it's just one damn thing after another. It's the momentum with which it rolls forward, rather than sends it going anywhere in particular, and that's very, very hard to translate into a movie. A movie has to be 100 [minutes], maybe 110 at the most, but it's beginning, middle and end. I've been able to come up with a couple of scripts that observed those constraints, but somehow, it now fails to be Hitchhiker. It's become more like Star Wars or whatever. No disrespect to Star Wars, but Hitchhiker ain't that.

T: Do you think the Hitchhiker's story can be taken any further?

A: I'd like to, actually. A lot of people have not particularly liked Mostly Harmless [1993], including myself. The problem with it, and most people never notice this when they're reading books, 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. I don't want to talk about it all, because it's personal stuff, but it was a really, really bloody year, and against the background of that, I had to write a funny book.
It was tough, so there's a little bit of me that, I know I'll keep on saying that I'll never do another [Hitchhiker book], and then I do it, but I might well another one at some point because I'd like to leave it all on a slightly more upbeat ending than Mostly Harmless was. Take the thing back up again, because it seems sad to leave it at that downbeat flavor.

T: Do you ever tire of people asking you what you were working on next?

A: I got very crazed by it, actually. I'm afraid that I went through to almost a sort of parodic degree a real mid-life crisis, hitting forty, thinking, "What am I doing? I'm going round and round in circles, doing the same things over and over again."
When I started out, I did something in radio, then I did television, I did this, I did that. Then I did a book, and then suddenly, the book was such a hit 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, but there was a huge pressure on me to keep on doing that, and for years I found myself sitting in a room alone not really enjoying myself at all.
So a little while ago, I started thinking, 'I've got to do something different," and it's a hard call to make. Because you're a well-known author, everyone's expecting another book from you next year, and you think, "Well, I also have a life I have to try and sort out." Essentially, what I wanted to do was to find a way of working which could enable me to go back to doing what I did to begin with, which was moving from one medium to another, and working with people and actually having fun.
So I've set up with a bunch of very complimentary and bright bunch of people, and we've formed a company called the Digital Village. It's turning out to be enormous fun. My first project is a CD-ROM, which I'm working on at the moment, and television, and film, we hope at last. But the center of it all is going to be a huge Web presence. Everything will sort of flow into that.
I'm just having the best possible time. Suddenly, all the creative juices are flowing again, and I'm working very hard on the CD-ROM, Starship Titanic. Now that looks like it'll go on into different media, but I don't want to 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 become my own word processor. So what I'm intending to do with each of the projects that I start with the Digital Village is that I will do the first alliteration of it, and then hand it over to other people to take it to the other fields. So this Starship Titanic starts as a CD-ROM, but as far as the novel is concerned, even though a lot of people will think that I should do it because that's basically what I do, in fact I'm handing over the novel to Robert Sheckley to write, because I want to go on to these other projects.
One's called Secret Empire, which will be a television project. I want to go on to another project, which will be a film. I can't tell you what the title of that yet, simply because I can never get the right title for it. But in each case, I want to hand on to whatever else may come of it to other people to do, because I want more variety.

T: What's your feelings about the different Internet groups that follow you?

A: It's kind of weird, actually. Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. Now he would say that in the future, everybody will have their own group. There was a point where I used to go into the different newsgroups from time to time, but I found that it was an uphill battle because you get a lot of flak from people saying, "Oh, it can't possibly be you, so butt off out of here."
But the other thing is the effect of Chinese Whispers, because of the way in which notes would fall off the bottom of it. Someone would ask a question, and I would go on and answer it, and I might right a full piece. And over the next two or three days, your piece would disappear, and a lot of people would miss it and ask "What did he say?" And then you'd watch as more and more people garbled versions of what you'd said would proliferate around, and got to be 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. The other thing I have to say, and this is an important issue because the Digital Village is about to start producing some major Hitchhiker's Guide sites, and this is the tricky thing on the web, because some people who are doing fannish stuff, which is great, terrific.
And then when you see where a major Web designing group is calling itself "the hitchhiker's guide to" this, that or the other thing. No, sorry, that's my property. Back off. I'm having to start being a little bit tough about that, which I don't like. But you feel that people are saying, "Hey, he's a good, cool guy. Let's go and burgle him." [laughs]
Unfortunately, my lawyers have said, 'If you're going to preserve your right against major infringements of copyright, you've got to protect from all infringements of copyright." So I'm having to go out of the way and say, "Oi guys, stop doing that, 'cause it looks like you're starting to look like you're doing a professional thing here."

T: Would you ever do another nude scene like you did in the TV version of Hitchhiker?

A: [laughing] No! Absolutely not! They got me very drunk to do that.

My thanks to Jessica Walter of the uptown branch of the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County for setting up this interview.

NB, You can find a later version of this story, with more recent reflections from me, on this blog, as well.

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