I'd say, 'How's it going?' And he'd say, 'Fine--fine.'
September 18, 2023 1:00 AM   Subscribe

Douglas [Adams] enjoyed being a famous writer, but he loathed the process of becoming one. That entailed writing. He just hated doing it. It was hard work and lonely. He was a man who coped badly on his own; he needed company. Without it, he could fall into a kind of listless vacancy. from The Berkeley Hotel hostage [The Bookseller; ungated]
posted by chavenet (37 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I'm trying to figure out whether to interpret "Douglas was in Dire Straits mode at the time," figuratively, literally, or a bit of both.
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:33 AM on September 18 [6 favorites]

As much as I love the two prior books in the "trilogy", So Long and Thanks For All The Fish and the subsequent books certainly do read like they were written under extreme duress.
posted by Optamystic at 2:26 AM on September 18 [17 favorites]

I seem to recall that the original novel ends so abruptly because the publishers just said "Look, just send us over whatever you've done so far" and then published it.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:26 AM on September 18 [7 favorites]

I used to ride my bike to the mall hoping the sequel to this would be on the shelf under A at the Waldenbooks sci-fi section, but it took years.

It was always tragic to me that Douglas Adams got so sucked into the success of his Hitchhiker’s thing that it became this huge weight. I guess the game rescued him from being a ship broker, an accountant or a software engineer. But he didn’t like the fans, he went through hell for years in L.A. with blood pressure problems (as depicted in his game “Bureaucracy”) struggling to get a movie version off the ground and then people didn’t really like it, etc.

I wonder if in some alternative timeline he could have found camaraderie and stayed regularly employed writing and producing a bunch of comedy shows like his co-writer John Lloyd did. That or branch out more successfully into writing a variety of other kinds of books and stories like his one-time biographer Neil Gaiman did. But I guess that’s just not the type of guy he was.

I got mad when I went to a real party in Islington and heard some Brits saying of my favorite book series from 8th grade that “it doesn’t hold up.” It’s still brilliant and I still love it but i do wonder if he’d stuck around, if Adams would have gone all Dawkins after 9/11 with his buddy Dawkins. Some of the Internet Atheist stuff from the Bush years has dulled my love for the Hitchhikers approach to making fun of religion, by using a similar technique of making sweeping generalizations dismissing people’s religious lives.

Roughly around this same “So Long” period he loaned his name to the Infocom “Bureaucracy” game, which turns out to have mostly been written by other people. Revisiting it lately, the game has some troubling attitudes towards service workers and Africans. That’s been tough to swallow too.
posted by earthstarvoyager at 3:40 AM on September 18 [8 favorites]

The thing Adams was doing instead of the fourth novel was collaborating on the probably-better-loved Infocom HHGG game, similarly prone to procrastination, as chronicled on The Digital Antiquarian (This article also speculates that Adams' interest in Dawkins stems from a dinner argument about evolution between Marc Blank and Clive Sinclair.)

Bureaucracy was certainly produced under duress, with barely any contributions from Adams (in fact was revised by Adams' friend Michael Bywater aka Dirk Gently) and is the rare game to contain an Easter egg that is a polemic against its own development.
posted by credulous at 4:29 AM on September 18 [1 favorite]

earthstarvoyager some Brits saying of my favorite book series from 8th grade that “it doesn’t hold up"
It is ever thus: Creative makes something; it is hard work; it sets a new baseline; less-creative people pile on that foundation; consumers get snitty about the original because it's become the new normal and seems a bit rough-hewn. The same John Lloyd whom you cite gets this all the time: each series "gets better" as it progresses. But the episodes are rarely constructed or shot in series-order. So the perception of the production team getting better is just the consumer getting attuned.
Locked in a hotel room working, 20 years before WFH became A Thing? Ahead of the game there, too.
And welcome to MeFi!
posted by BobTheScientist at 4:33 AM on September 18 [7 favorites]

This reminds me of one of my other favourite pulp writers, Alistair MacLean (of Ice Station Zebra, The Guns Of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, etc.) He wrote a lot of very very formulaic thrillers, and knew perfectly well what kind of books they were, and tried repeatedly to do other things with his life. He seems genuinely to have disliked the one thing he was good at, which was writing plot driven genre thrillers. He bought and ran hotels, tried business, failed. Tried to produce films of his stories, failed.

Eventually he’d go back to his desk, bash out another thriller with a rugged protagonist having adventures with a set stock of foreigners and vulnerable women in an exotic locale, and it would sell, and he’d think of doing something else…
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:27 AM on September 18 [5 favorites]

It was always tragic to me that Douglas Adams got so sucked into the success of his Hitchhiker’s thing that it became this huge weight.

I really felt that by the end of Mostly Harmless. Some of the best writing he’d done, in service of this universe he quietly despised.
posted by mhoye at 6:03 AM on September 18 [6 favorites]

The playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan had to be locked in a room to finish writing The Critic two days before the play was due to open:
A night rehearsal of The Critic was ordered, and Sheridan, having dined with Linley, was prevailed upon to go. While they were on the stage, King whispered to Sheridan that he had something particular to communicate, and begged he would step into the second green room. Accordingly, Sheridan went, and there found a table, with pens, ink, and paper, a good fire, an armchair at the table, and two bottles of claret, with a dish of anchovy sandwiches. The moment he got into the room, King stepped out, and locked the door; immediately after which Linley and Ford came up and told the author that, until he had written the scene, he would be kept where he was.

Sheridan took this decided measure in good part: he ate the anchovies, finished the claret, wrote the scene, and laughed heartily at the ingenuity of the contrivance.
posted by verstegan at 6:44 AM on September 18 [6 favorites]

I mean, how much of any media anyone loved in the 8th grade “holds up” to their adult selves? It can still cause pleasant emotions, still have good lines, but I have a lot of things I won’t revisit because I still remember living them, and I strongly suspect my adult self will not, and why would I do that yo a child? It’s like the microscope version of the super popular author — books that were huge hits in their day were so because they spoke powerfully to their age, and, when ages changed, that popularity declined. Literature produced a lot more Ouidas than Charleses Dickens…

I remember HHGttG fondly, having loved it in my teens, but I wouldn’t read it again and kind of wish people wouldn’t quote it so much.

On the other hand, I hadn’t realized Adams had such a hard life, and it seem a poor repayment of the pleasure he gave them.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:58 AM on September 18 [6 favorites]

I loved Hitchhiker's Guide as a teen, but the story gets meaner and more hopelessly cynical every time I read it.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:28 AM on September 18 [3 favorites]

I pulled my copy of HHGTTG out a few months ago to try to give it a re-read. I didn't make it much past Ford and Arthur making it onto the Vogon ship.
posted by jazon at 7:34 AM on September 18 [1 favorite]

I will always love Hitchhikers in all its forms, and I still get sad that Adams struggled with depression and then died way too soon.

But as an adult, my favorite Adams book is a Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Primarily because it's a puzzle box that actually works - the pieces all fit together in a satisfying if bizarre way. The characters in Hitchhikers just sort of meander through the galaxy for five books, which is fun but less satisfying.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 7:34 AM on September 18 [15 favorites]

I think Adams would have related to this.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:43 AM on September 18 [1 favorite]

I've also always preferred Gently over Hitchhikers.
The dirk gently books were written as a counterpoint to hitchhikers.
He said that with hitchhikers he was always trying to build the plot around funny ideas or lines he'd had and it was a tortuous process integrating them all together, whereas the Dirk Gently books were written with a different approach, focussing on the plot and the whole of book and letting the funny bits turn up where they chose to do so.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 9:28 AM on September 18 [7 favorites]

Cool - I'd never heard that! (also, nice eponysterical username!)

For me, the first Gently book makes even more sense when I learned that Adams cannibalized much of it from an unused Doctor Who script that he wrote. Professor Reg Chronotis (great name) was originally a retired Time Lord and his apartment was his TARDIS.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 10:12 AM on September 18 [7 favorites]

(Now available in semi-animated form)
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 10:29 AM on September 18 [3 favorites]

The Gently books were written by the writer Adams learned to be doing HHGTTG in all its media forms, and they're just simply much better for it.

I am sorry we didn't get to see what he might have done in the Internet Age, which I say with some trepidation as well because he was a bit of a grumpy ass about the kind of things well-known male SciFi authors have been/are allowed to be asses about, and could easily have ended up getting in with the wrong crowd. But certainly I wish he'd had the opportunity to either do that or mock the fuck out of the ones who did. I think television, in particular, was much closer to being ready for him in the 00s.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:29 AM on September 18 [8 favorites]

Dirk Gently is so damned good. Full of irony that isn’t mean-spirited and warmth that isn’t cloying. Richard is the greatest Mary Sue ever, probably because Adams was such a decent and interesting fellow himself.
posted by saturday_morning at 10:33 AM on September 18 [4 favorites]

I happened to be visiting NYC on spring break in 1988 when Adams made an appearance at a bookstore to promote Dirk Gently. So I got an autographed copy. I don't recall my interaction with him. But I love those novels and have read them several times.
posted by neuron at 11:07 AM on September 18 [3 favorites]

A few years ago I was at a panel where Steve Meretzky and Michael Bywater reminisced about working with Douglas Adams on various game projects. One of Bywater's anecdotes sticks in my memory, about being called in to work on Starship Titanic, a few weeks before the game's scheduled launch date. Bywater went into the office on the promise of two things: (1) a good lunch, and (2) that most of the game was done, and his role would just be polish and embellishment.

The good lunch was forthcoming, and at the end of it Bywater turned to Adams and asked about the game, what state it was in, what the story was. Adams pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and pushed it across the table. It read:


The game shipped very, very late.
posted by Hogshead at 11:09 AM on September 18 [11 favorites]

The radio series original is a faultline dividing my life thus far from the world I lived in afterward. I enjoyed reading the books largely when I could read them with my brain filling in the exquisite sound design, joyous performances, and the rest, but Mostly Harmless just put me in a funk about the story that didn't properly break until Dirk Maggs finished the radio series with Fits III, IV, and V, the latter case incorporating a change in ending that suited what Adams said, in retrospect, about Mostly Harmless, which was that he'd been in a bleak mood when he wrote it and would have ended it differently...but of course he never had the chance.

The radio ending of Fit the Fifth is where I leave it. It's perfect, and worthy.

I read the Colfer sequel, found it unpleasant and cynical, and left it where I leave Battlestar Galactica after Adama's talk to the late Laura Roslin about where he's going to build the cabin—to fester in an alternate universe where meanies, jerks, and libertarians live.
posted by sonascope at 11:45 AM on September 18 [4 favorites]

I'm trying to figure out whether to interpret "Douglas was in Dire Straits mode at the time," figuratively, literally, or a bit of both.

So Long is the one with the digression about how much he likes Mark Knopfler’s guitar playing, isn’t it?
posted by atoxyl at 12:38 PM on September 18 [2 favorites]

Mark Knopfler has an extraordinary ability to make a Schecter Custom Stratocaster hoot and sing like angels on a Saturday night, exhausted from being good all week and needing a stiff drink.

—Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
posted by kirkaracha at 2:00 PM on September 18 [3 favorites]

Douglas Adams eats biscuits on Cambridge station
I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table.

I want you to picture the scene. It’s very important that you get this very clear in your mind. Here’s the table, newspaper, cup of coffee, packet of cookies. There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary-looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase.

It didn’t look like he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it. [read more...]
Snopes says this is a legend; Adams says it's true. ¿Por qué no los dos?
posted by kirkaracha at 2:06 PM on September 18 [6 favorites]


It was supposed to be a joint launch, book and game at the same time.
It quickly became evident that Douglas couldn't possibly write both in anything like enough time so Terry Jones agreed to write it on the condition that he could do it in the nude.

This is why Terry Jones is credited as "Book and Parrot"
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:01 PM on September 18 [3 favorites]

(Now available in semi-animated form)

Does the new animation vastly improve whole experience? Asking because our local library only has the 2013 edition and now I'm curious to see it.
posted by ovvl at 4:39 PM on September 18 [1 favorite]

I guess I should grab by Dirk Gently and re-read that instead.

Good or bad, I do miss Douglas
posted by jazon at 4:52 PM on September 18 [1 favorite]

I like the Dirk Gently books better, but the radio HHGTTG is such a comfort listen for me, right up there with Jeremy Irons reading Brideshead Revisited.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:27 PM on September 18 [4 favorites]

Also I want to drop a plug for the original audiobook of Dirk Gently, read by the author. I listen to it at least annually. It's a warm cup of tea in audio form.
posted by saturday_morning at 6:33 PM on September 18 [4 favorites]

(Now available in semi-animated form )

...and in privately commissioned semi-animated form...and flash animated version with the Paul McGann Doctor....an audio CD of same....a VHS release with Tom narrating bits in the 90s...a novelization...a previous fan novelization...

It's gotten many times more attention being unfinished than so many things that were. Lalla Ward and John Leeson have recorded the missing bits at least three times over the years.
posted by StarkRoads at 7:09 PM on September 18 [2 favorites]

I am an aspiring author, albeit one of microscopic skill compared to Adams; a terrible college newspaper column back in the day, some fanfiction here and there, the occasional online ramble. But I do feel like I can empathize with Adams's plight somewhat, based on a sentiment that I've occasionally put into my characters' mouths:

Anyone can be creative once in a while. We are all human beings with imaginations and flights of fancy and the occasional odd idea that's tilted 10-to-20-degrees from the way that most others see the world. It's a very rare person who couldn't come up with a five-minute story or anecdote that entertains, though they may take a while to work out how to vocalize/structure it.

To be creative on a regular basis is far more difficult. This is why so many musical artists flare brightly for a few shining moments and then fizzle; they had (or were handed) a good idea, they implemented it, it worked, and they found themselves bereft of inspiration for a follow-up.

To be creative on a regular basis on a deadline is hellish. An absolute nightmare.

Even a self-imposed deadline causes agita sometimes. But when your financial well-being and literary reputation ride upon what you come up with next, when you're aware that your output will be closely scrutinized and analyzed and judged, and you're struggling to come up with a beginning, middle and end so as to tell another story with familiar characters rather than simply rambling on with "and then this happened, and then that happened and that happened and THAT happened" until the deadline pulls a metaphorical handgun on you?

It's like pulling teeth, then growing them back so they can be pulled again.
posted by delfin at 7:43 PM on September 18 [9 favorites]

I know there’s no diagnosing a famous deceased person with ADHD. However.

In any case, since I have learned that I have it, Adams’ achievements have become more inspirational to me. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that some of them wouldn’t have come about if he hadn’t had intense structure imposed upon him. Most of us aren’t worth that much to publishing houses—hell, even if we’re authors—so we need to create it ourselves or with our loved ones and associates.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:27 PM on September 18 [3 favorites]

I'd like to imagine that somewhere in the sprawling multicosmos there are countless Douglases who survived that heart attack and immediately retired from writing to take up other less stressful pursuits. Perhaps every few years or so there are articles saying "Did you realise that the environmentalist and green entrepreneur Douglas Adams, 70, first came to fame as a sci-fi author?" Perhaps in an attic somewhere he still has the first Apple computer to be powered 24/7 by solar power?

And I'd like to think that the Douglas Adams who wrote this might not have gone down the curmudgeonly road that some of his contemporaries followed:
There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don't necessarily know what we do, we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed, and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles you may want to take out of what may be a passing architectural fad, just ask yourself, "How would a dragon live here?" We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormously complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve, but we know how organic creatures live. We've never seen a dragon, but we've all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, "Well, if a dragon went through here, he'd get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn't see that and he'd wave his tail and knock that vase over." You figure out how the dragon's going to be happy here, and lo and behold, you've suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.
posted by logopetria at 12:59 AM on September 19 [7 favorites]

I know there’s no diagnosing a famous deceased person with ADHD. However.

I know, I'm broadly on board with not armchair diagnosing people on principle, but I absolutely have wondered whether Adams might have been one of us, or at least some kind of cousin.
posted by BlueNorther at 10:37 AM on September 19 [2 favorites]

I just wish Douglas Adams had had a chance to see the iPod and the iPhone.
posted by ZeusHumms at 3:29 PM on September 19 [7 favorites]

I received a signed copy of Mostly Harmless for my birthday when it came out, after having reread the prior books countless times and cackling out loud on each go round ("What's so bad about being drunk?" "Ask a glass of water" kills me every time). And so I eagerly dove into the newest book and... ohhhh no. "Written under duress" is a perfect descriptor. It was palpable how much Adams just didn't want to be there, and Arthur's journey of losing the joy of his life, then retiring to a quiet place to make sandwiches until he was forced to reengage with the Hitchhikers Guide as literal monstrous antagonist, felt like such an autobiography..

I seem to recall an interview with a friend of Adams' saying that a few years later, Douglas came to regret how he had treated all of the characters that so many people loved, and started to write another book to make up for it... and then died. I still haven't been able to bring myself to read the book that was cobbled together from the few completed chapters.
posted by FatherDagon at 4:46 PM on September 19 [4 favorites]

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