Exclusive Interview With Douglas Adams

(Author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

by Gregg Pearlman

March 27, 1987


The story goes that while traveling around continental Europe some years back, Douglas Adams, a bit drunk, on his back and in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, suddenly began contemplating the outrageous vastness of the universe. The idea for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy came to him -- along the lines of The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe.

The story may even be true -- Adams says he's told it so often and it's become so apocryphal that he's no longer certain that it actually happened. And it's probably safest not to ask.

But wherever the idea was born, the Hitchhiker's Guide has had almost more spinoffs than you could count. It started as a radio play and has since surfaced as a set of records, a four-book trilogy (not including the book of the radio scripts), a six-part television series, a landmark Infocom text adventure, an always soon-to-go-into-production film -- and even a spinoff towel, which sports part of the towel speech from the first book and which Adams calls an absorbing read.

The Hitchhiker trilogy started out as just that: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and Life, the Universe, and Everything. Later he added So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

Adams' new book, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, is a departure from Hitchhiker, and it should be out around June.

Also, along with John Lloyd, Adams wrote The Meaning of Liff. Just recently Infocom started shipping Bureaucracy, Adams' second game, which has absolutely nothing to do with the Hitchhiker material. He knows its origins for certain this time: having moved from one London apartment to another, he dutifully sent out several change-of-address cards, including one to his bank. As it happens, he personally filled out the form at the bank.

Shortly after the move, he found that his credit card had been invalidated by his bank -- which had sent a new card to his old address. He spent weeks talking to bank officials, filling out more forms and applying for a new credit card. The bank still didn't acknowledge his change-of-address form -- until the day it realized the error of its ways: it sent a nice letter apologizing for being a very silly bank -- to his old apartment.

This experience helped form Bureaucracy, along with his travails in Madagascar, where, he said, anyone who hasn't anything to do and has something green to wear can come up and check visitors' passports.

Adams was at the Claremont Resort Hotel in Berkeley, California, to be the master of ceremonies for the second annual Software Publishers Association awards.


Adams: I own five Macintoshes, and as soon as I can get hold of a Mac 2, it'll be six. In my work room at home I two Mac+'s and an SE, and my secretary and my girlfriend share another Mac.

GP: Do you program at all?

Adams: Years ago I learned BASIC well enough to design a three-dimensional crossword, which took quite a lot of array handling. I was quite pleased with it. When I was doing an awful lot of plane traveling, I read C and Forth manuals -- just to pass time on the plane -- and learned the languages in theory, but because I was spending so little time at home then, and when I WAS home I had to write, I never got to doing any programming in either language, but C I found interesting, and Forth I found absolutely fascinating. But I've not actually done it for real, which is kind of odd: all my programming was done in my head on planes. So you don't have to do any debugging that way.

GP: Well, that being the case, what would the process have been in creating the Hitchhiker game? Would you write a flowchart or something, and then somebody would code it?

Adams: Yeah. When I first started doing that, actually before the Mac came out, I had a DEC Rainbow, which was not the right computer to have had, but I didn't know any better at the time. And I had a piece of British software called Brainstorm -- I think there've been a lot of programs called Brainstorm -- which was a little bit like Think Tank, actually. It was a tree-structure thing, which could also make connections sideways, which Think Tank couldn't do.

And so I wrote the tree structure, if you like, of Hitchhiker for a certain way into it, after which it became too complicated to hold in that form. At that point, I just did them as word processing files and elaborately explained how you'd get from one bit to another and what the connections would be, which is rather a long-winded way of doing it.

Steve Meretzky was doing the coding -- he was also filling in a lot of the gaps. 'Cause when you're designing the way I was, there's an awful lot that you simply don't foresee and doesn't become apparent until somebody starts playing it.

So Steve was the one in the position to play it. Because he'd edit it, recompile it and play it, and see what else needed to go in there, so he would come up with suggestions to plug those gaps, throw them back to me, and I would say either "Yeah," or "Try it this way," or "Rewrite it a bit" and so on.

We did think, very briefly, "Well, was it worth my learning to write a Muddle code?" [Muddle (MDL) is the language the game was programmed in. Infocom uses a specialized version called ZIL. The acronyms don't mean anything. -- GP]

But the pressure of time being what it was -- Steve is quite a fast programmer -- I don't know how long it would take me to learn Muddle, but it would certainly mean that I would be a slow programmer for a while. And you don't want a complete novice writing a major piece of code, so just in terms of how we could most expeditiously get it done, I wrote it out in that way, and then it was coded by Steve.

GP: What would you say, then, is the difference between writing this kind of thing and writing something for radio and/or television, and writing a book, or even a movie, for that matter?

Adams: Very different, in fact. Although it's the player who's supposedly playing the game, you are actually playing elaborate games with the player. Now, with a book, you hope that when you spring your surprises, the reader will have been concentrating at the right moments and will have taken on board all he'll need to have taken on board so that this thing that now happens will come as a surprise -- slightly different from a game, because by the time you arrive at a particular point in a game, you know what the player must have done in order to have got there, and you therefore have him much more in your grasp, so to speak.

GP: So would you say it's more limited, then, or less?

Adams: It's not really a question of being more or less limited: you have, if you like, more control over your audience than you do just writing normally, because you know what's in the player's mind by the time he's got there.

GP: So it's just easier to steer, I guess. You know that there are several different directions, and when you're writing a book, there's just one.

Adams: That's the paradox of it, because people think of interactive fiction as something that's controlled by the player, but it isn't. It's really controlled by the guy who's written the game.

GP: Is there a possibility of creating games based on the other Hitchhiker books?

Adams: Well, we're meant to be doing Restaurant. The thing is, the Hitchhiker game was based very, very loosely on the book, and deliberately so, because I didn't want to just do sort of a trot through the book. I've seen some games, based on books, where it's just like the original book only you get to do the typing, which I think is really not a good way of doing it. So I wanted to write a game that would have the same starting point and the same kind of feel as Hitchhiker, the same kind of logic to it, but would go where the game wanted to go. And in doing Restaurant I don't want to pick up the story where it left off and simply carry on doing the same thing. That would be boring. I've had a couple of ideas -- I don't know which would be quite right yet -- and a sort of logic which would apply just to the game. So once you've got that, you draw on those bits of the book that fit, and invent a lot of other bits.

GP: I wonder if you wouldn't mind just kind of giving a quick run-through of Bureaucracy.

Adams: The change of address card thing is fundamental, because the sort of thing I had in mind was the tiny, tiny, little ordinary everyday problem which just escalates and escalates and escalates till it takes over your entire life and becomes completely out of control.

I suppose bureaucracy is something that always just sort of drives me absolutely insane. That's really where it came from.

So the two particular things were the change of address card, and my experience in Madagascar. There are some things in there which aren't really bureaucracy, but are just sort of tedious, annoying things -- like when you go to a hamburger restaurant, and you just want a hamburger, and the waitress keeps on asking you questions, you know, about how you want it done, what sort of potatoes you want, do you want them pan-fried, do you want them french-fried, do you want them this, do you want them that -- and you say, "Just bring me a fucking hamburger!" And you're too tired to listen to her litany of questions that just goes on and on and on. So I built that into the program. It was a chance to do all the things that annoy you, you know.

GP: One of the things I saw was the blood pressure meter which escalates every time something annoying happens.

Adams: Also, we didn't really put this in quite the way I wanted to, but you know the sort of problem when you're feeling a bit tired, and there are an awful lot of things you've got to do -- often just domestic things around the house -- and you think, "Well, I ought to do the washing up. Well, I can't do the washing up because I need to get some washing-up liquid. Right. Well, I'm going to get some washing-up liquid. And I can't go out because I haven't had a bath yet. And I haven't got dressed. Well, I can't get dressed until I've done this, and I can't go out because I'm waiting for this phone call, but, supposing I have to call them, I can't call them because I don't know the number, I have to phone so-and-so to get the number, but in the meanwhile they might phone me," and you just get a complete stalemate, and you think these are all small, trivial problems, but they each require the solution of the others to be able to solve them. And after a while you get a complete catatonic state.


Adams: I was determined that Life, the Universe and Everything be the last Hitchhiker book. Having written it, I moved to California to work on the Hitchhiker movie. I really did not enjoy myself in Los Angeles at all, and when I returned to England after that not-very-happy experience, I had sworn that after the third book, the next book would be something completely new.

But going home and having felt a bit disoriented, there was a certain amount of running for cover at that point, which is why I agreed to writing another Hitchhiker book -- simply because it was something I knew. The problem is that you can say no to something 99 times, and you only have to say yes once and you're committed.

So, to be honest, I really shouldn't have written the fourth Hitchhiker book, and I felt that when I was writing it. I did the best I could, but it wasn't, you know, really from the heart. It was a real trial and struggle to write it.

I'd been going backwards and forwards between England and the States relentlessly for a long time. I just got fed up with living in airplanes, which is very much like living in a vacuum cleaner: it's a long tube, and it's very noisy, and it smells stale inside, and you get treated like dirt.

So I decided I'd stay put and renew my contacts with my friends and family, and I discovered all kinds of interesting things, like my accountant having stolen half a million dollars from me -- because I was completely out of control -- and that caught my interest.

I addressed myself to writing something completely new: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. I spent a year thinking about it, worrying that I couldn't do it and getting into a bit of a panic. And then finally I'd got enough of the ideas assembled, and from the moment I passed the deadline, I sat down, wrote it, and finished it a matter of two or three weeks ago. It's certainly the book I've enjoyed writing the most for ages, and I feel that I've now got a sort of new lease on life, because I was getting so bloody bored with Hitchhiker's. It had been ruling my life for the best part of 10 years -- and I just didn't have anything more to say in that context.

Also, with this appalling thing with my accountant, it means I'm actually working for my living again, as opposed to, you know, earning money I don't actually need -- I mean, obviously, I've earned a lot of money from Hitchhiker's: I've always known that I was going to have to earn a lot of money one way or another simply because I have no idea how money works, and therefore I just don't keep hold of it very well -- and I can never quite work out why.

GP: What are your main literary influences?

Adams: Other funny writers, of whom the chief is P.G. Wodehouse, who is, in my opinion, one of the greatest-ever users of the English language -- he's sort of the Mozart of the English language, I think. I particularly admire funny writers, because I know how incredibly difficult it is. Evelyn Waugh is very high up there, and Jane Austen. People have this idea that humor is in some way a sort of lesser emotion, which I don't accept at all. I think that good, funny writing is amongst the finest writing of any type, which is why I think that Wodehouse is one of the finest writers who ever lived.

GP: Tell me a little bit about Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

Adams: It is a ghost-horror-detective-whodunnit-time-travel-romantic- musical-comedy epic. My original intention was to have a cookery supplement as well, but I dropped that. I'm terribly pleased with it, I must say. I think one of the things that'll catch people by surprise a bit is that because my books so far tended to be very, very episodic -- it's one thing after another for about 180 pages, whereupon it stops -- this book, for a long way, appears as if it's a lot of unconnected events: not only unconnected but apparently wildly unconnected -- which gradually all turn out to be part of the same thing going on. And it virtually all resolves. The only thing I left out was -- I didn't explain about the teeth. Maybe I shall explain the teeth in the second book.

But it's difficult to know where to begin to describe it, because there's so many strange things going on. The one element of it, which I suppose clearly marks it as being by the same author as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one character called the Electric Monk, which is a labor-saving device -- in that, you know, we have dishwashers to wash the dishes that we can't be bothered to wash ourselves, we have video recorders to watch the television programs we can't be bothered to watch ourselves, and the Electric Monk is a labor-saving device which just believes all the things the world expects you to believe when you can't be bothered to.

GP: What would you say are your main comic influences in terms of television?

Adams: Well, Monty Python's Flying Circus, obviously, was a very strong influence. I think the three best television shows ever made -- the shows which actually made it worth inventing television, because I'm not sure it *was* worth inventing -- were Monty Python, David Attenborough's Life On Earth, and the dramatization of I, Claudius with Derek Jacobi.

GP: Okay, and these are your comic influences?

Adams: Well, the comic influences: Python, and I suppose -- though I was pretty young at the time -- someone that was really brilliant and, I think, completely unknown in America was a very extraordinary English comedian, Tony Handcock, who really created a whole style of humor all to himself on radio and television in England.

Also, when I was a kid, there was radio show called I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again, which, like Python, was all ex-Cambridge Footlights people. Actually the only common link between the two was John Cleese. Nevertheless, there was a whole family of shows of which Python was the apotheosis.

GP: I'd heard the term "Oxbridge Mafia" used regarding that whole brotherhood of people that came out of Footlights.

Adams: Yeah, that's actually getting it slightly the wrong way round when people say that, because it's not so much that people who went to Cambridge Footlights had thereby an easier entree into the entertainment business at all, because the entertainment business is basically determined by who the audience responds to. It's more like "Why is there such a high preponderance of people who are interested in yachting who belong to the New York Yacht Club?" I mean, that's where you go, you know.

So it's not so much that people get there and then suddenly get careers in comedy, but people who have that natural bent think, "Well, that's where I'll go because that's where I'll meet like-minded people." Certainly that was very much in my mind: as far as I was concerned, I went to Cambridge to join Footlights.

GP: How have you changed as a writer in the last 10 years?

Adams: I suppose the most dramatic change has occurred with this new book. Hitchhiker was always, first, foremost, primarily, at every level, a comedy. Now Dirk Gently is also a comedy, but it's also a thriller or adventure story or whatever, with the result that it doesn't actually have to be funny all the time. It'll be funny when there's something funny going on, and there's a lot that IS funny that goes on.

I think what that's actually relieved me of is the necessity of being funny the whole time, because I think that in the past I've too often been facetious -- just because I haven't been able to think of something quite funny enough, but there's got to be something funny here because this is meant to be a funny book, etc. And so I think -- I hope -- I will have become less facetious. I find facetiousness very irritating.

In many ways, I find that writing is a constant battle with exactly the same problems you've always had. It's funny, somebody the other day wrote to me: he was compiling a book of well-known people's early school reports, and he asked me if I had mine. I had my mother send me a bunch she dug up, and so there was one from when I was about six or seven. What was very interesting about primary school reports is how clearly it is exactly the same person. Things don't really change.

In this new book there are a lot of things I've finally plucked up the courage to try and describe. I always had a slight fear of describing the real world, in that everybody else knows what the real world is like and might say, "Well, how ridiculous!" whereas if you describe a completely unreal world, then only you know what it's like, and nobody can say you're wrong. I don't know what that says about me, actually.

GP: Is your American following significantly different from your English following?

Adams: It isn't, actually. Certainly when I meet the people who read the books on both sides of the Atlantic, that's when I find it hardest to understand people who say, "Well, humor doesn't travel from one country to another, and Americans won't understand English humor" -- it's just a bunch of people. At book signings I meet several dozen or a hundred or so people, and it's much the same cross-section of people as you would meet in England.

GP: Where do they tend to be the most awestruck? Do you get that more with the foreign element -- meaning foreign to you -- than people at home? Where do they gush more?

Adams: I don't know. I get a bit embarrassed about it, actually, because the odd thing is, what's hard to convey is that in all respects other than when you come out to do a promotional tour and talk to journalists and go on television or whatever -- at that point you suddenly become something other than a person, almost: you're something slightly set apart.

But in all other respects -- I live at home, and I have my friends, work in my study, my girlfriend nags me if I don't pick up my socks or help with the washing-up -- it's an absolutely normal, everyday domestic life. I regard writing the books as part of what I have to do, it's my job -- and it's hard to convey that to people when you come out and have to be this sort of "other" creature, which is DOUGLAS ADAMS in big caps. And people think you're some sort of strange, other being.

Everyone has these slightly odd and false perspective shifts, and you forget that everybody is somebody who lives at home and has to pick up their socks. So when you meet people who are awestruck, you feel very uncomfortable, because you know they're getting something wrong, you know.

GP: It's when people say, "Hey, he's just a regular guy, just like me" when you're not sure whether you've succeeded or failed.

Adams: Yeah, because if they have to say that, then -- I don't know, it's complicated. I just don't have to deal with it that much because 50 weeks out of the year, all the people I see are just my old friends. Where you get a sudden real disjuncture is where, you know, you're with your friends or family or whatever, and then you have somebody when you're in that context who comes up to you and so treats you as a star or something. I don't like that at all.

But certainly in England I'm really not aware of that, because people are much more circumspect in England. So it's only really in America that I get these people stopping me in the street and saying "Are you Douglas Adams?" I mean, aaaagh! I don't like that at all. If you're talking about somebody really famous, it's to the square of the square of the square, and it's unrelenting and it never, ever stops: 24 hours a day, it doesn't stop. Because I've seen a little bit of how it works, I know how it would affect somebody when it's unrelenting like that. You get crazed by it.


Adams: Vonnegut is another favorite of mine. I deliberately put him low on the list, though, because I get embarrassed by people trying to draw comparisons between him and me -- on one very, very superficial level, it's an easy comparison: he writes stuff that is a) funny, and b) uses science fiction to make its points, and I write stuff that is funny and uses science fiction to make its points.

But that's the only level of comparison. Vonnegut is essentially a deeply serious writer. Obviously a major part of his world view, if you like, comes from the experience he describes in Slaughterhouse Five of being a Prisoner of War in Dresden during the fire-bombing. And I don't have any experience like that to draw on, you know, nothing remotely approaching that.

So Vonnegut is essentially a deeply serious writer who uses comedy to make his points, and I am essentially a comic writer who occasionally tries to slip a point about something or other "under the counter," so to speak, and so from that point of view, I find the comparison embarrassing because he's a great writer, and I think I'm essentially a frivolous one, I'm afraid.

GP: You're pretty much in a position where you can say what you want, to an extent.

Adams: Well no, no, no, because the reason you get to be good in the first place is that you work very, very hard at getting it right and if as a result you think, "Well, therefore the world will have to listen to whatever I write," you fall into a trap, and that's when you have to work doubly hard to make sure you don't let stuff by that isn't good enough.

And I'm afraid, I think, that was the fault with So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish -- I just completely lost my way. You have to continue to apply the same criteria you applied when there was not the slightest reason why the world should give a damn about anything you write. You can't presume on an audience. You're the only one that can keep your standards up; if you don't, then you're lost. I think everybody's allowed to slip once or twice -- but you slip twice in succession and you're in trouble.

So it's not right to say you can write what you please, and that you've earned the right to write what you please. You've earned yourself an audience, sure, but to keep that audience, you have to maintain the same standards -- which is not to say you carry on doing the same thing: if you do, you're compromising in a way, because the whole point of the thing you did in the first place was that it was new and original. So you have to try and strive to be new and original, and it's a hard task.

GP: What you've said partially answers my next question: from the fact that Arthur Dent seemed to be a happier, more in-control character in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, I wondered if in fact you were happier and more in control when you wrote it than before.

Adams: It's always difficult bringing the biographical element in, because the connections are never that obvious. I suppose my life was a bit more stable at that point, but on the other hand it was rendered unstable by trying to write that book. Basically whenever I have a book to write, it always precipitates all kinds of major crises in my life. It's an insanely difficult thing to do, or at least I find it so.

GP: I had heard the story about the biscuits long before So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish came out, and it was a pleasure to recognize it in that book. [If you don't know what the biscuit story is, you'd better read the book. I won't excerpt it here. The gist is that Arthur Dent had a situation where he had bought a packet of cookies, coffee, and a newspaper, then sat at a table with a stranger who had done the same. Arthur then put his cookies in the middle of the table, and just after he took one, the other guy also took one -- of Arthur's. Arthur pretended not to have noticed, and the two men just alternated eating cookies. Finally the other man left, and under his newspaper Arthur found what he realized were his own cookies. What Adams said in Berkeley, but omitted in the book, is that somewhere in England there's a guy who has exactly the same story -- but Adams has the punchline. -- GP]


In your works in general, how much would you say could be construed as a personal joke, or something that actually happened to you or somebody else that you wanted to get into print for, say, the specific purpose of amusing them or yourself?

Adams: I put the biscuit story in there, as much as anything else, because I hoped that once it was printed people would stop asking me to tell it. It happened in the summer of 1976. I told it on English radio in 1978. Because I've told it an awful lot since then, it's become one of those apocryphal stories, you know, that always was supposed to have happened to somebody's sister or brother-in-law. And I just wanted to get it down on record -- well actually it's Arthur saying it -- that I was the one it happened to.

But otherwise, there are bits and pieces that go in which are sort of little personal jokes, but they're usually very, very tiny -- they have to be: you can't put in something that most of the audience will feel "There's something here I don't understand, and I have the feeling I wasn't meant to understand it." That's a very arrogant way to treat your audience.

So if I put in a detail just to amuse a couple of people or myself, then it's usually something where there would have to be something there anyway -- as a little bit of background color, or whatever -- and maybe I'll make it so that anybody who knows will see that there's an extra little joke there. But you mustn't do something which other people will feel excluded from. For instance, in Restaurant at the End of the Universe there is this dead rock star called Hotblack Desiato. Now, that's a good name for that character. But it's also the name of a firm of local real estate agents near my home. So if you happen to know the part of London where I live, that's a rather astonishing joke when you see it as the name of a character. But at the same time, you don't feel excluded, because there's no reason to think there's something else there. This way, you don't know there's something there, over and above what you see.

GP: In terms of So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, were you getting all sorts of "personal" questions about Arthur Dent's life and is that kind of why you wrote that chapter [where Arthur and Fenchurch "go flying"]? Or were you just having fun? Or neither?

Adams: Both and neither. People had asked me those questions and I thought, "Well, I'll have a go, see if I can make it work." And I'm not sure if I did.

GP: Also, was it intentional that Arthur Dent's initials would be the same as yours, but flipped the other way?

Adams: No, it wasn't at all.

GP: Hadn't even occurred to you?

Adams: No. There are all kinds of odd things about his name. I wanted the name to be, on the one hand, perfectly ordinary, but on the other hand, distinctive. "Arthur" is a name like that -- it's not like Dominic or Sebastian or something obviously very odd or even affected. It's a solid, "olde English" name that's perfectly ordinary, but not many people actually have it.

There was a character at school called Dent. It just seemed to have the right ring. And also, I suppose, because Arthur was very much somebody to whom things happened -- somebody who reacted to things that happened to him, rather than being an instigator himself -- he seemed to be a "Dentish" sort of character, and that was partly in my mind, so that's really how the name came about.

But then there was an extraordinary coincidence: I got a letter from a researcher in English literature. He was studying the English Puritan period, with specific reference to John Bunyan and Pilgrim's Progress. Hitchhiker in many ways borrows its form from one of the oldest forms of literature, the Everyman story -- the innocent guy who gets thrown into a strange world -- going all the way back from the Everyman plays, the mystery plays, then, slightly further forward, Gulliver's Travels and so on.

GP: The Prisoner, for that matter. Patrick McGoohan said the same thing, in fact. His production company is Everyman Productions.

Adams: But then Pilgrim's Progress is another clear example of that. So this guy drew these comparisons, and then he came up with this extraordinary thing: there is one book that Bunyan is known to have read -- now, obviously he read hundreds, thousands of books, but there's one book we happen to know he read because he made a note in his journal about it. It was called -- and you'll see the parallel in the title -- The Plaine Man's Pathway to Heaven, written by an English Puritan writer called...

GP and Adams: Arthur Dent.

Adams: Right. And when he stumbled on this, he assumed -- he instantly lept to the conclusion -- that I had deliberately made this extraordinary, involved academic joke. He went through The Plaine Man's Pathway to Heaven and teased out all the parallels between the two books, and he sent me this long dissertation on this "joke" that he discovered I had "created." I had to write back and say, "I'm sorry, I've never heard of this book."

Later I came across an old, old copy of Rolling Stone. There was an interview with Bob Dylan, and he was quizzed over and over again about the meanings of his lyrics and whether he was referring to the I Ching or the Book of the Dead, or the Tarot pack -- and he was saying "No, I did that line because it rhymed," you know?

I knew exactly what he meant, but it was completely opaque to the interviewer, who was determined that there were all these levels of concealed literal meaning which really weren't there at all. Now, when Dylan said "I did it because it rhymed," he wasn't in fact saying "That's all there is to it." You cannot necessarily seek or find what is communicated by a piece of writing by trying to discover other literal meanings buried inside it. The fact that Dylan would write a line that sounded good is not in itself saying that that isn't actually an excellent thing to do, and the reverberations of the line and why it sounds good actually make it good. But it doesn't add anything to say, "Well, if you can explain in terms of the Book of the Dead or I Ching, then you've achieved something more."

GP: How did The Meaning of Liff start, and do people know about it?

Adams: It started even earlier than I thought it started -- when I was 12, my English teacher gave everybody in the class the name of a place and said, "Okay, I want you to see what kind of word you might think it would mean." We just did that in one lesson. I thought that was great, I loved that.

Years later, 1978, I was in Greece with friends, including John Lloyd. To begin with, we were playing charades. After a while, because of the amount of retsina we'd drunk, we needed to find another game that didn't involve so much standing up.

So I suddenly remembered this thing I'd been given to do at school, you know, finding definitions of place names, and both Johnny and I had always shared a great fascination with words. So we started making some up.

I can remember some of the ones from that day, such as "ely," which is a cathedral town in East Anglia. An ely is the first inkling you get that something somewhere has gone terribly wrong. And a "wembley" is the moment of realization that the disaster has struck. Oh, and there's "woking," which is standing in the kitchen wondering what you came in here for.

Anyway, we wrote down a whole lot of these. Johnny went on to become a television producer, and he started Not the Nine O'Clock News on English television. When he was doing a book based on Not the Nine O'Clock News a few years later, he found, in the bottom of his drawer, all these things we'd done and put them in the book. They were just page fillers, but they turned out to be the most popular part of the book.

Then the format rights to Not the Nine O'Clock News were sold to American television, where it became Not Necessarily the News. Now, the "Liffs" never featured in the television program of Not the Nine O'Clock News in England, but the producers picked up these things and incorporated something similar in the American version of the TV shows called Sniglets.

Later, because that had been such a successful part of the Not the Nine O'Clock News book, Johnny and I decided to do a book entirely devoted to these things, and came up with The Meaning of Liff. We wrote several hundred "Liffs."

Meanwhile, Sniglets came out in America, and I have to say -- and this is very easy for me to say and very obvious of me to say it -- I did not think the Sniglets book was as good. To my mind, there's a certain purity about not making up the words, but just taking them from the gazetteer. A word that already exists, even if it's a place name, has a sort of integrity to it, in a way, such that if you make up a word and the definition, it all seems to be very woolly. Whereas if you take a word which so far has been sitting on a signpost and give it some other meaning -- maybe I'm being slightly pedantic here, I don't know, but I prefer that way of going about it.

Anyway, my American publishers decided to bring out The Meaning of Liff over here. I don't think it was done very well, I thought the cover looked like a cover from a remainder shop. I don't think they packaged it right at all.

Nobody over here seems to know about it, which is a shame. It's funny, because when I was on the David Letterman show, Rich Hall was also on it, and I hadn't realized at the time that he had been responsible for Sniglets. Because I know that it was a huge best seller, I felt a little bit aggrieved, you know, that The Meaning of Liff had completely disappeared over here, and I thought it was better -- not only better, but also the original. I felt particularly agrieved when the few people who came across the book over here asked me if I'd stolen the idea from Sniglets -- when it was exactly the other way around.

GP: People really do think it says "Life," and they figure "There's already been a Monty Python book like that -- this must be the hardback."

Adams: Yeah, in fact it was also an awkward coincidence that the Python film was called The Meaning of Life. Some of the Pythons are old friends of mine.

But we'd spent ages, Johnny and I, trying to find the right title for this, and we finally came up with The Meaning of Liff -- I don't know that it's a great title, I quite like it -- and it was very shortly after this that the Pythons decided to call their movie The Meaning of Life. I thought, "Oh, shit! It's all going to get confused." So we tried to think of another title. Well, even though we'd got there first, the movie was going to be coming out first. We just couldn't think of a better title, so we just stayed there. And, yes, there was a certain amount of confusion.

GP: Are you making money off it?

Adams: In England I think we sold about 150,000 copies. Over here I think we sold about 150 copies.

GP: What exactly was your involvement -- I saw your name credited in one Python episode in the last series, without John Cleese.

Adams: Oh, right. Yes. That's very observant of you -- now what was that? [I guess that's why I left that line in: just to show how observant I was. -- GP] That was when I'd started working with Graham Chapman -- yeah, I'd forgotten all about that. I'd got to know Graham, just vaguely, because there'd been a show in London of the current crop of Footlights, which actually wasn't very good, but I had some material in it. I'd written or co-written one or two sketches, one about the annual general meeting of the Society of Paranoiacs, and Graham saw the show on opening night. I got chatting to him because he liked some of my sketches, so we had a few drinks and he said "Come and have a chat sometime." So I went round to see him and had a few more drinks. He'd was rewriting a sketch that Michael Palin and Terry Jones had written. I think Graham was feeling slightly sort of at a loss, because he always had written with John Cleese in the past -- they wrote as a team. So he had to write a lot by himself, and he didn't take too naturally to that. And he said, "Look, will you help me rewrite the sketch, see if you've got any ideas?" So that was that. I can't remember what it was, actually. I don't think it was the world's greatest sketch. Oh, there was something about private medicine I seem to remember.

GP: Have you had anything else published?

Adams: Actually, there's one thing I've published in England last year called The Utterly, Utterly Merry Comic Relief Christmas Book. I know there's an organization over here called Comic Relief, and there's one in England too, but there's absolutely no connection between them whatsoever. The only reason they have the same name is that it's a rather obvious name to come up with. And the object is exactly the same: raising money for Ethiopia and the Sudan.

A good friend of mine, Richard Curtis, a comedy writer in England, went to Ethiopia and the Sudan in the wake of Bob Geldof's extraordinary efforts and determined that just as the music business had done its bit, so the comedy business should do its bit as well. So he rallied us all together. Some people went and did a show, other people did a record.

I was volunteered to edit the book. I wrote a number of things in it, and what I like best was a short story I had written as a sketch with Graham 10 or 12 years ago on the private life of Genghis Khan.

I also wrote a Hitchhiker short story for it which wasn't very good. In fact, I think Crown has come out with another compendium with all four Hitchhiker books -- it may not have come out yet, but it's in the works -- which has that Hitchhiker short story. But the Genghis Khan story I was pleased with -- it was very silly. It also had a guest appearance from Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged [From Life, the Universe, and Everything -- GP].

I don't think it will be distributed out here, because most of the contributors, other than myself and a couple of members of the Python team, who are known out here -- are major comedy stars in England who are not known in America at all, so I don't think the thing would sell so much over here. One group called the Young Ones, who appeared on MTV, I believe, do sort of punk alternative comedy kind of stuff -- extremely rude. In fact, because of their contribution to the book, we nearly got sued for criminal blasphemy. But maybe it could come out over here. I'll make sure to look into it.

GP: I know that you had dealt with the Footlights: did you perform, and have you ever performed on TV aside from when your scene in Hitchhiker's [in which he was seen diving naked into the ocean after renouncing money]?

Adams: Oh, dear, yes. No, certainly when I was at Cambridge I wanted to be a writer/performer -- I very much had the Pythons in my sights -- that's why I wanted to do that kind of stuff. But for some reason the world wasn't that keen on me being a performer. And probably quite rightly. I've only only performed on local television in East Anglia.

But I suppose I feel oddly quite pleased by that, actually, because other friends, contemporaries at Cambridge, who've gone on to become television stars, I do not envy their having well-known faces that you can't take out in public. I mean, that's awful. And just occasionally, though not for a while now, I do college lecture tours and dramatized readings from Hitchhiker's, which I really enjoy -- it satisfies the performer bug. It's quite fun, but you don't have to sort of stick beards on or hang around in fields getting wet waiting for cameras and all that kind of stuff.

But in terms of being well known, briefly, a couple of years ago, I did a job for Paul McCartney. I was trying very hard not to be utterly awestruck in meeting this guy who helped form the way I thought in the '60s when I was growing up. It didn't really work out, but he said an interesting thing. You know he did that song with Stevie Wonder called "Ebony and Ivory," and he was saying that for a long time he'd wanted to do something with him but felt very nervous about asking him. "I can't just ring up Stevie Wonder." And his wife, Linda, said "It's all right, you can actually ring up Stevie Wonder, you are actually Paul McCartney." And eventually he did. Stevie Wonder was obviously extremely pleased and delighted to be asked.

GP: You've had this on both sides, I suspect, because you've said, "Gee, this is Paul McCartney", and other people have said, "Gee, this is Douglas Adams."

Adams: It's complicated. For instance, John Cleese was a great hero of mine when I was a kid. I've got to know him since -- not terribly well, to be honest -- and I still find him rather terrifying, and I'm never at ease with him at all. There are other friends of mine who know him a lot better than I do who don't find that. I think it's probably just that because he was such a hero of mine, there's a bit of residual awestruckness, which I should know better than to have.

GP: I would imagine that you would just learn to take it in stride when people start shining your shoes for you and you haven't asked them to.

Adams: Yes, well, you see everybody has this thing that "There are people more famous than me and there are people less famous than me," which is why Paul McCartney had that difficulty phoning up Stevie Wonder -- even, in fact, the experience of becoming well known at school, and everybody points at you and expects certain things of you. In fact, it's exactly the same.

So through having had the relatively little bit of fame that I have to deal with, I know, to a fairly good degree, I think, what it's actually like being Paul McCartney.


Copyright ©1987 by Gregg Pearlman

Last updated 7/15/96
Gregg Pearlman, gregg@EEEEEEgp.com

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