Enough To See Here — October 1992
On the heels of the publication of Mostly Harmless, the fifth volume in the increasingly oddly numbered Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, Scott had the opportunity to interview Douglas Adams for Vancouver's Georgia Straight newspaper. The profile he wrote was no great shakes, but the transcript of the interview offers some interesting insights. Also, an awful lot of "you know".
I’ve just read the new book [Mostly Harmless], and i have to admit i’m amazed and i’m also a little bit distraught at the ending. I was taken completely by surprise.
Um, yes… Well, basically what I felt was in writing this book, I mean one of the reasons I wanted to write it was because I had left an awful lot of loose ends lying around, and I thought ‘Well, I can actually tidy some of them up’. And I’d had a few ideas as to how I could do that over the years, and having tidied them up, I thought ‘Well, just to make sure absolutely that they stay tidy, you’d better round this whole thing off there, I think.’
I guess i was a little bit upset. I mean, i’ve been reading the Guide for so long, i feel like i know these people, it’s like these are my friends, and all of a sudden there’s something… they’re not at all well all of a sudden. I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say that they’re dead, but it was quite a shock. Is this it as far as you’re concerned?
Well, it was a very… I mean, when I ended it like that, it was a very, very sort of conscious bid to say ‘Right, that is it…’ but I must say, it’s been very interesting for me the last couple of weeks, that… I mean, I’ve been astonished at the sort of degree to which everyone has… because, I mean, the last Hitch Hiker book was so long ago, and… the degree to which, you know, it sort of seems to have sort of remained alive in everybody’s minds, and the degree to which people have responded to the book I must say has actually taken me considerably by surprise, and… now, a lot of people have been upset by the ending, and it’s… the odd thing is… and I found it a very, very, very hard book to write, and people always assume that, you know, because you’re, you know, a successful author, a sort of best-selling author, that it takes… people don’t always understand that very often, when you end up writing, you end up with some sorts of terrible, dreadful sort of crises of confidence, which I certainly did, actually, when… while I was writing this book, and I always do anyway, but it was particularly bad on this one. And suddenly, when everybody’s been reacting the way they have been to it, you think ‘Well, hang on, I can actually do this. Why am I so tough on myself?’, and then thinking ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t have killed them off like that anyway…” but… anyway, I mean, I’ve said many times before I’m not going to do it… do anymore, so when I say right now I’m not going to do anymore… you know, we shall see.
It seemed like the longest chunk of time was probably between Life, the Universe, and Everything and So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. I mean, I was perfectly content to believe that it was, in fact, just a trilogy, that that was it.
Well, there was a long gap then, because I actually went to… I went and spent the best part of a year in California working on a movie that then never happened, so that was just a sort of, you know, completely wasted year. That was why there was such a long gap then.
With regard to the movie thing, just because you mentioned it, is anything in the works still?
No. I mean, basically no, I shall believe it when I see it, you know. I mean, I went… during… a while ago I actually went through the motions of trying to buy the thing back, but… it took a long… yeah, obviously, and there’s a huge amount of money involved, you know, because of, you know, they paid quite a lot of money for the film rights—whatever it was—eleven years ago, and the operation of compound interest has made the amount of money it would cost to buy them back really rather considerable. But at the beginning of the process we went into, the chances of making the money back again from it were… quite quickly seemed to be quite good, but in the year that it took to negotiate the deal, which is a very, very simple deal, but you know how Hollywood lawyers work, you know, the recession began to bite deeper and deeper, and I gradually began to feel more and more anxious about whether we would be able to recoup the money or not, so in the end I didn’t, because I thought, you know, it was either that or sort of, you know, re-mortgage the house.
Who controls the rights now?
Was there a director involved at the beginning?
Ivan Reitman, who bought it originally, then he sold it on to Columbia.
In a Time Out piece from a little while ago, there’s a line where you talk about not wanting to have to be funny, but you’re obviously noted and lauded as a writer of extraordinarily funny books. Does that bother you?
Well, what I think I mean by that is that, it’s not so much that I want to be not funny, but that I think I should let myself off the necessity of doing it, because… I suppose the thing is that… I mean, it started out as specifically wanting to write a comedy. I found that, you know, you don’t always particularly want to be funny, but there’s an obligation you’ve imposed upon yourself to do it. And I’ve found going back and re-reading the early Hitch Hiker books, when the humor comes naturally, it’s great and it works very well, but I can tell very, very clearly the points where I felt ‘Oh, God, I haven’t done anything funny for half a page, I’ve got to shoot another joke in here,’ and they really sort of… and to my mind, you know, there’s the sort of uncomfortable moments that stick out like a sore thumb, when in fact, I could quite easily, you know, have just trusted, you know, the reader to be interested in what was going on, you know, without feeling that you’ve got to pull a gag out again. So that’s what I’m saying. I mean, I think if I was told that I had to sit down and write a serious novel, I mean fairly soon, I mean I think it would come off the rails and I’d end up… you know, it would end up being at least, you know, partly funny. I mean, my history master at school used to berate me for putting jokes in my history essays. So I mean, the point is… what I’m saying is I would quite like to feel I don’t have to be funny, because I’m going to be… I’m going to want to be funny part of the time anyway, but let’s not force the issue when I don’t have to.
You don’t want it to be the end in and of itself.
I found reading the last three books, SLATFATF especially, I think I got a sense of what you were talking about. There’s very little of what you would consider to be forced humor. Especially in the last two books, the writing seems to be a lot more self-assured, a lot more mature than the earlier stuff.
Well, I’m glad you think that. I mean, certainly, that was what I was hoping for… that was what I was hoping I was achieving. I mean, I think even the Dirk books, and I still… I mean, I can still see points where I’ve thought, ‘Oh, God, better put something funny in here.’ And… you see, what you forget as a writer, you know, because it takes you however long it takes you to write a page, you know, and supposing it takes you the best part of a day to write a page, and, you know, you’re getting towards the bottom of the page and you think ‘God, I haven’t written anything really sort of interesting or funny or, you know, startling, you know, for hours, and you forget that, you know, the reader’s read that page in a minute, you know. And so I think, you know, it’s just a question of letting oneself sort of relax a little bit more as you write. I mean, what I’m… I’m not trying to say, you know, I’m going to go off and write Hamlet. All I’m saying is that, you know… it’s just a note to myself not to force it.
The first two Dirk Gently books — what was your reaction to them in terms of critical success, how well they sold, that sort of thing.
Well, it was… it’s interesting that… I mean, the books did very well, I mean, not quite as well as the Hitch Hiker books, I mean, but they sold very, very nearly as well, but nevertheless, Hitch Hiker is the thing that people always remember, rather than Dirk. And… but I’ve… but the odd thing is, I mean I found doing this tour, I mean everybody’s sort of welcomed this book but a lot of people are saying ‘Oh, when are you going to do another Dirk book?’ So I’m sort of quite pleased about that, because I really like the Dirk character. And I think parts of the success of Hitch Hiker must come down to the fact that, you know, a lot of people’s first experience of it was on radio or television, and that, unfortunately, in the way our sort of culture works does sort of give everything an extra sort of cachet and obviously, you know, the Dirk books didn’t have that. I don’t know, this may be special pleading on my case, I don’t know. But I think… they’re certainly a slower burn, if you like to put it that way. I mean, I actually… when I’ve gone back to them I’ve been really sort of quite surprised at how sort of dense they are and how much sort of stuff I managed to sort of pack in, and I found more and more people who’ve sort of responded to them who didn’t sort of go to them immediately because they thought ‘Well, I liked Hitch Hiker but I’m only interested in Hitch Hiker,’ and then they eventually went to Dirk and found they did enjoy it after all. But in fact, I mean, the book… of all the books that I’ve done, I mean the one that means the most to me, that I’m sort of most pleased with and sort of proudest of if you like is my one non-fiction, which is LCTS.
Tell me a little about that, the genesis of the project.
Well, it’s… I mean it would depend on… how far back can we go… I suppose, I mean, going back twelve, thirteen, whatever it was years, I remember being extraordinarily sort of engaged by David Attenborough’s programs on television, Life on Earth and so on. And kept on sort of feeling ‘There’s something here I want to be doing, there’s something here I want to know about, there’s something here I want to be involved in in some way and I don’t know what to do or how to do it.’ And then… I can’t feel I can get the sequence of events right… I remember I think on one occasion I’d just been to Australia, and on the way back stopped in New York and went to a dinner at which various of my publishers were at, and was… I had been to Toranga Park Zoo in Sydney, and at this dinner I was just sort of describing the animals to people, I was describing the kiwi, and the kangaroos, and so on, and suddenly found that I was sort of holding the table sort of reasonably sort of spellbound. And my publisher said, you know, you ought do a book about animals at some point, and I thought, ‘Well, great, okay,’ but didn’t really sort of think anything more about it. Then a little while later, I was phoned up by somebody at the Observer Colour Magazine in London. And… now what they were doing at this time was just sending sort of relatively arbitrarily chosen writers who were known in some field or another off to various parts of the world to… you know, where there was some ecological problem or whatever just to see what they made of it, and write something about it. They sent Tom Stoppard to the Arctic, I think. I think they sent Margaret Drabble to Kenya, Gore Vidal to the Gobi Desert, and they sent me… asked me if I wanted to go to Madagascar and I said ‘Yes please.’ Didn’t know anything about Madagascar, didn’t know anything about the lemurs, didn’t know anything about the aye-aye which is the animal I went to look for, but, you know, the two weeks I spent there looking for this animal, the aye-aye, which was thought to be nearly extinct at that time, were… I mean, remain, I mean, two of the most extraordinary and sort of revelatory weeks of my life, I think, and I just thought ‘Okay, I’ve, you know… I’ve had a look through the door now, and, you know, I want to know much, much more about this.’ Now, that expedition was sort of set up for me by a guy working at the World Wildlife Fund who is a zoologist called Mark Carwardine, so a little while later, I got in touch with him and said ‘Look, I would love to do, you know, a whole project, you know… go and look for rare and endangered animals around the world,’ and so we joined forces and that was… LCTS was the result.
There’s the one really brief section at the end of MH where Ford’s in the process of buying Regent’s Park Zoo and ordering pâté de foie gras which I thought was just brilliantly, savagely ironic. That’s the attitude, I think, that a lot of us have—there’s so much we’d like to do and we realize that we’re very powerless. Is that your attitude? Is that you in Ford?
Yes, in a way… it’s funny, it’s hard to say in a scene like that precisely what point it was I was making, I mean because very often one of the things about sort of fiction is it enables you to… it enables you to do things that you wouldn’t quite know how to do if you were just standing there and explaining your point because you’re not exactly certain what your point is. Because it’s a mixture of… it’s a mixture of desire and… to do one thing and guilt about another and powerlessness, and it’s… there are all sorts of things mixed up in there that sort of suddenly come out as an idea when you’re writing a story—that have to come out when you’re writing a story because if you knew what point it was you were making, you’d probably make it in some other way. Do you see what I mean?
Definitely. I want to jump way, way back for a little while here. You were working on Doctor Who when HH took its initial steps, and Doctor Who and Arthur Dent seem to spend a lot of their time doing exactly the same sorts of things. Is Dent a sort of Everyman Doctor Who?
I hadn’t seen it that way, I must say. I’d be interest… I mean, DW is always this sort of all-knowing, all-wise person who you can’t… who’s also sort of cryptic and unknowable. Arthur Dent, I would have thought, was almost exactly the reverse of all of that.
Yeah, exactly. Dent is the sort of person that I would certainly become if I were dropped into the situations that DW ends up in.
Well, that was certainly the intention. I mean, I think… I mean, a much clearer… I mean, the reason why I was doing Doctor Who and Hitch Hiker at the same time is actually a very practical reason, which was after I had written the first episode of Hitch Hiker, and remember in these days, you know, it was just a little radio script I’d written, I had no idea that, you know, all this was going to happen. And the BBC was taking a long time to make up its mind about whether it wanted to make the series or not, and I needed to find some other work, and… some other writing work, and I thought ‘Well, I’ve got a script here I can show people—who’s the script going to mean anything to?’ You know, I’m not going to… I can’t show it to somebody doing a… who’s doing a sort of police drama, it’s not going to mean anything to them… I can send it to the script editor of Doctor Who to see if he wants to give me a job. So that was… and then, of course, I mean, what inevitably happened was, you know, I got involved with discussions of sort of storylines with Doctor Who people and they then took quite a long time to make up their mind, and what happened was that Doctor Who didn’t sort of fill in the gap while I was waiting for BBC to make up their mind about Hitch Hiker, the commissions for both finally came through in the same week. So I was then working like absolute stink and crazy to do them both at the same time. So… but oddly enough, I mean, the feel of both, even though they’re both ostensibly working in the same area, in that sort of robots and space ships and alien planets, there was a very, very, clear dividing line in my mind between the two, and hardly ever at all did I have an instance where an idea that I’d thought of for one went in the other. I mean, there was no idea that one could conceivably have thought of for one that would then go into the other, it just didn’t work. Except, in one instance, where there’s one character who was in a Doctor Who show I’d written and that got abandoned half-way through production because the BBC was riven by strikes for months and the project was just dropped. And… so there was one particular character in that that I rather liked, and I rescued, and used, in fact, used in Dirk.
Which character was that?
It was the character of Professor Chronotis. Who is definitely a Dirk character and not… you know, he fitted in Dirk but he wouldn’t actually have fitted in Hitch Hiker in an odd kind of way. So there was a very, very sort of water-tight membrane between the two.
The Guide has taken a radically different direction than the original, both in terms of the actual writing of the books, which have become a little more somber. Do you have a favorite part of the entire story, in terms of the multitudinous conflicting plotlines from the various different versions?
I think… my… I mean, each of the books has their own particular strengths and weaknesses. One particular book that’s sort of my favorite in all sorts of ways is Life, the Universe, and Everything. Now this one… oddly enough, I had a much, much better, more clearly worked-out plot for that than I had for any of the others, and then was completely unable to stick to it as I was writing it. In a way… in ways it was actually… I mean looking back at it, it drives me crazy to think, I mean, ‘I could actually have stuck to the plot, instead of which the plot, having… that I worked very, very hard in working out, almost disappears in this sort of great ramble. But that book has my… has all my… most of my favorite passages in Hitch Hiker are in Life, the Universe, and Everything, even though, you know, it seems rather sort of badly fractured as a structure. I mean, I think the scene with Agrajag, you know, the guy who’s been reincarnated over and over again and keeps on getting killed by Arthur, I mean, that’s one of my favorite things in all of it. And, oddly, I mean, this one… this… yes, the mattress scene is also a great favorite of mine. And, what’s the other one… oh, yes, well in fact, the first couple of chapters of Life, the Universe, and Everything, which I labored over and labored over and labored over and labored over until it looked as if it was just a quick and neat way of getting the story going again, you know, when Arthur and Ford meet up again on prehistoric Earth, and end up at Lord’s cricket ground. I mean, that… apart from everything else because I know how much work went into writing that section and I’m very fond of that.
Was it a tough decision for you before writing LTUAE to branch out into completely uncharted territory?
Oh, it made me very nervous, sure, because I mean… I mean, I’d never expected to be a novelist, you see, and… I’d always anticipated… you know, my aim in life was to be a scriptwriter, and… you know, because I’ve always been reasonably good at doing dialogue and didn’t know if I was actually going to be any good at sort of prose. I mean, I think part of that feeling is actually self-consciousness, because when you’re writing dialogue, you’re writing stuff for other people to say, whereas when you’re writing, you know, the bits in between, this is supposedly your voice. And I found that rather a daunting prospect. Obviously writing the first two books, because it was based absolutely on material I already had done… I mean, half your job’s already done for you when you sit down to write the books, so I was slightly less nervous about that. But, yes, I was extremely nervous starting Life, the Universe, and Everything.
Do you have any desire or inclination at this point to do script or radio?
I mean, the problem with radio is that… I mean, it’s two-fold, I mean, I love radio and I would adore to do more work in radio, but… I mean, we managed to do Hitch Hiker because… I mean, it was very much a sort of guerilla operation to do it anyway, because… having to… I mean, I wanted the thing to sound like a rock album, and, you know, the producer who got… you know, who did a wonderful job on it, Geoffrey Perkins… and he and I, you know, worked on this program sort of day and night, and we kept… in order to get all the editing time we needed, you know, we had to keep on pretending to be other programs. You know, we had to sort of sign on as Women’s Hour or Gardener’s Question Time in order to get, you know, another afternoon in the studio. You know, over and over again, it was sort of completely crazy. And you can do that kind of stuff when you’re, you know, sort of being a guerilla against the system. But the problem is… you know, I don’t think one could do that these days, I mean, the thing would be much more sort of high profile, and you know… and you wouldn’t actually get the same… you know… oddly enough, you know, even though, you know, you’d go in, you know, with all this sort of, you know, reputation and this and… you wouldn’t get the facilities that previously you stole. Do you see what I mean? And the… and apart from that, I mean, I simply couldn’t afford to work in radio, you know. I’ve got… uh…
A lifestyle to maintain.
Well, it’s not just that, it’s… it is, but I mean… I mean not everything you do you do to earn money. I mean, when I did Last Chance to See, which took, I mean, about three years out of my life, and it cost a huge, huge amount of money to do that, you know, with all the sort of, you know, huge amounts of sort of travel and everything, and you know, taking a sound engineer and so on with us, because the BBC wasn’t paying for that… and, you know, split the book down the middle with my partner Mark the zoologist. And so at the end of three years, you know, you’ve done something which is actually very important to you but in fact you’ve had zero income for three years. And, you know, whatever level you’re earning at, you can’t…
Zero is a long way from anything…
Your other hat that you wear frequently is that of a sort of guerilla computer guru, which is something you’re obviously quite comfortable with. What are you doing with that right now?
Well, I do a lot of lecturing… well, not a lot of lecturing, I do a little… I do a fair bit of lecturing which I enjoy, you know, just on the sort of computer conference circuit in the States, which is fun. I’m… as much as anything else, I mean, my interest in computers is almost… is almost sort of philosophical, it has to do with… I mean, basically the computer is a modeling device, it’s a thing that enables us to investigate and understand and… by modeling aspects of the world that have been almost invisible to us up till now. I think it’s come at a very interesting stage in our career as a species, because we… one of the aspects that was particular to us as human beings, the thing that distinguishes us from other animals was the ability to conceptualize, to try things out in our head, to try things out in software before we try them out in the real world, and that has led to us being tool-makers, the fact that we’re tool-makers has led us to change the world, to adapt the world to suit us, rather than continuing for us to be adapted to suit the world. The result of that is that we’ve now created a world that now outstrips our ability to understand it. But at the same time, we have created this tool that’s an extension of our ability to model the world in software and do, you know, do ‘What If’ in software before we try it out in the real world. So, I mean, there’s a sort of very interesting symmetry to that that I find quite fascinating, and I’m very, very interested to know, you know, where this is going to take us, and what the effects are going to be, because I think that there’s a possibility that, you know, if we don’t simply destroy ourselves, which is always a possibility, that we are… you know, we’ve hardly glanced at the foothills of something quite, almost sort of geological that’s going to happen in the… in terms of the, you know, scale of changes that’s going to take… that’s going to bring about in our lives. I am looking at doing, beginning probably towards the end of next year, I’m hoping I’m going to do a sort of large-scale television series that I shall write and present which will be, if you like, a sort of layman’s guide to the universe. And it will involve a very great…. to a great extent, I think, some of the perspectives that the ability to model what we understand and what we know in the computer will have a great deal to do with the way the program works, or the series works.
Is that for British television?
It’ll be made in Britain, but, I mean, I think it’s… I mean, the aim is it’s going to be a very large-scale thing indeed, so it’ll certainly… if it doesn’t sell internationally there’ll be a lot of very upset people.
A general question on the ethos, or the mythos, behind the HHG—it seems you’ve written always about a universe which exists in the throes of absolute, utter, stupefying chaos, but which somehow manages to sort of plug along nonetheless. You have all these people sort of jumping in and out of situations that they have no control over. Is this the way that you see whatever we consider real life to be?
I think stupefying chaos is a good key phrase. I… Actually, there’s a passage right at the end of Restaurant at the End of the Universe that is another one that I sort of particularly like here, which is when Ford and Arthur having been sorting out the stuff with the Scrabble board, and I think Ford throws the letter Q into a privet bush, and it gets found, I think, by a rabbit or something that runs off with it, rabbit gets attacked by a fox, fox eats it, chokes on the… oh, yes, and they’ve just met a couple of girls and Ford is rather… they’re both rather interested in one of them, and anyways the fox goes off, chokes to death, dies in a stream that then gets poisoned as a result, girl drinks from the stream and is poisoned by it and dies. And at the end of that little sort of paragraph, I say, you know ‘What conclusions can we draw from this?’ and it’s that you shouldn’t throw the letter Q into a privet bush.
One of life’s small lessons.
One last question and then I’ll let you go. A sort of an off-the wall thing that I was thinking about this morning, that I tried to apply to myself and realized I had absolutely no idea how I would answer. If you had the opportunity to write for the Guide, what would you do?
To write for it… heavens. I think… it’s funny, I mean, you know, I perfectly well, you know, if one was offered the opportunity to sort of hitch a ride on Mariner and… or Voyager and see… I mean, you know, the fly-bys that we’ve seen of, you know, of the moons of the outer stars of the solar system, extraordinary… I mean, just absolutely mind-boggling things when you see… you know, seeing the photographs that came back from those space craft… just… it’s almost unbelievable that we’ve got them and that we can see what’s going on on the surface of these… of these planets and moons, and… you know, the idea of actually being able to be out there and actually having a look at that is… you know, if one was given the opportunity, even if you thought you weren’t going to come back, I think I’d take it. But, I mean, more sort of realistically… I mean, I… you know, I’m more and more aware of everything there is to be seen on this planet. I’ve just been off… for the first time for years, I’ve had time to go and do some scuba diving, I’ve just been scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, and it is just utterly, utterly extraordinary down there. I mean, one day I went down and was sort of following around a manta ray, which is sort of this eight foot wide great sort of magic carpet just sort of wafting through the sea, and then at one point it picked up another two behind it and so the three of them were going off like a sort of roller coaster, and these were… it’s sort of more extraordinary than anything in sort of Close Encounters. It’s just sort of these strange unearthly creatures that we share this planet with that none of us know anything about, or they sort of see, or take any notice of, it’s… I mean, I think there's enough to explore here, myself, which sounds a rather sort of mundane and boring thing to say from somebody who supposedly invented a galaxy, but, you know, there’s enough to see here.