Even Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy author Douglas Adams struggled with writer's block
A new book about the British sci-fi/comedy writer reveals his thoughts, insecurities and visions of the future
Writing didn't always come easily for Douglas Adams.
That may be a surprise to fans of the late British comedy and sci-fi writer, whose prolific resume includes the iconic novels The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, as well as classic episodes of Doctor Who and Monty Python.
But it's no surprise to his sister Jane Thrift, who was there when he was writing some of his most famous works, and often got a sneak peek at his earliest drafts.
"If it was going well, oh, it was exciting. He'd call you in and print it off the printer or show you what he'd written and he'd stand there. And it was a bit tricky sometimes because he was just waiting for the expression or the laugh," Thrift told As It Happens host Carol Off.
"But the times when it was difficult — those were difficult. Those were hard. It was hard to watch him go through that process. And I think it was probably as he became more successful, he knew the value of each word and it had to be perfect."
Adams's insecurity about his own writing is one of revelations about the author's inner-life that will be explored in the forthcoming book 42: The Wildly Improbable Ideas of Douglas Adams.
The crowdfunded biography is being created in collaboration with his family, and makes use of a trove of Adams's personal documents, archived at St. John's College in Cambridge, U.K., the author's alma mater. The collection includes 67 boxes full of his notebooks, letters, scripts, speeches, to-do lists and poems.
It includes early, hand-written drafts of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, the author's eerily accurate predictions about future technology, and personal missives that provide insight into how Adams sometimes struggled under the weight of his own success.
The book, which includes scanned copies of the documents, is being edited by Kevin Jon Davies, who first met Adams in 1978 and knew him for 20 years.
"Douglas Adams was not yet famous in 1978 when my tape recorder was first balanced on his untidy desk. He paused it mid-flow to answer the phone and released it afterwards, completing his previous sentence with a grin," Davies said in a press release.
"His archives mirror that cluttered desk and his butterfly mind — draft pages, letters and notebooks, with inky crossings-out and 'middles of thoughts' — rich with comedic genius and some truly terrible typing."
'Writing can be good'
In one typed note, he wrote: "Today I am monumentally fed up with the idea of writing. I haven't actually written anything for two days, and that makes me fed up as well."
Then there's his hand-written letter, titled: "A General Note To Myself," in which he says: "Writing isn't so bad really when you get through the worry. Forget about the worry, just press on. Don't be embarrassed about the bad bits. Don't strain at them. Writing can be good. You attack it, don't let it attack you. You can get pleasure out of it. You can certainly do very well for yourself with it!"
That sounds par for the course for Adams, his sister said.
"What I found really interesting when I saw that note was I just wished he'd read it to himself a bit more often," she said.
Another revelation that may surprise — or perhaps upset — his fans is a scribbled note where he expresses his frustration with the ongoing fascination with Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy — a novel that sparked four sequels and inspired a radio play, several stage plays, a TV show and a movie.
In one note, he skewers the book's main characters, using British slang for an unintelligent person: "Arthur Dent is a burk. He does not interest me. Ford Prefect is a burk. He does not interest me. Zaphod Beeblebrox is a burk. He does not interest me. Marvin is a burk. He does not interest me. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a burk. It does not interest me."
But Thrift assures that Adams loved those characters dearly.
"Those characters were real and they'd been with him for years and years," she said. "It's like family members. You love them dearly, but sometimes you just want a break."
Also found amongst Adams's notes are his jokes, his observations and, perhaps most intriguingly, his predictions.
Thrift says her brother would often imagine technology — like digital music or e-books — long before they became everyday realities.
"I don't know, interestingly, if he was trying to predict the world, the future, or if he just was like, 'This is how I would like it to be. This is how I would like to have all my music stored in one place. I would like to be able to read a book on, you know, computer, but ... as thin as a piece of paper,'" Thrift said.
"There was no limit to that imagination. It was quite remarkable; quite, quite remarkable."
Finding answers to life's big questions
Fans will recognize the book's name as a reference to The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. In the book, the supercomputer Deep Thought calculates "42" as the answer to "life, the universe and everything." The confused characters are then tasked with figuring out what the question is.
It's the same challenge Thrift hopes the book will inspire in its readers.
"I hope what it will do is invite and encourage people to find out what the right questions are themselves … to start looking at the world through different lens," she said.
"Especially at the moment, so many changes going on in the world, it's almost like, what can I imagine? How would I like the world to look? How would I like it to be? And how can I get there?"
42: The Wildly Improbable Ideas of Douglas Adams will be published by the crowdfunding publisher Unbound at a yet-to-be announced date. Supporters can pre-order a copy on the Unbound website. After 1,000 copies are sold, it will go into wider production.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger.