Thursday, July 12, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #30: Douglas Adams (1987)

author Douglas Adams

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, the executive producer of On the Arts
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

When I interviewed author Douglas Adams in 1987, who knew that, besides his vastly eclectic interests, he would also be something of a pioneer in technological innovation with his fascination for Apple Macintosh computers. He saw the decade as a launching pad for a number of technological feats which would bear fruit in the years to come. Adams, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 2001, had an equally diverse career as an English writer, dramatist (which included being a script editor of Doctor Who) and a humourist. Most people know him as the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a best selling 'trilogy' of five books (selling over 15 million copies), which began as a BBC Radio comedy in 1978. (His contributions to British radio are commemorated in The Radio Academy's Hall of Fame.)

The day he came in to talk, he had just written Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency which he described as a "thumping good detective-ghost-horror-who-dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic." In Adams' hands, Gently is not your typical private detective. He's more interested in quantum mechanics, conjuring tricks and consuming pizza than fiddling with fingerprint powder; a "Holistic Detective" who believes in the "fundamental interconnectedness of all things." (The book was followed by a sequel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul in 1988. He began working on another novel, The Salmon of Doubt, but he died before completing it.) Naturally with someone whose interests are so vast, we began our interview discussing obsessions.

kc: When I first read Hitchhiker's Guide and now the new book, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, I began to think that your interests were much bigger than what the page might contain.

da: (laughter) There are often more ideas at work than I can comfortably handle. I'm someone who proceeds by a sequence of obsessions. I get incredibly enthusiastic about one idea and then about another. Every now and I then I discover I don't have an obsession and then I go into a catatonic state because I don't know what to do.

kc: Maybe you're just not satisfied with the obvious things that sustain most people. I read somewhere that you came up with the idea for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy while lying on the grass and looking up at the stars and wondering where can I go from here?

dc: Yeah. I did. In 1971, just before I went up to university, I was hitch-hiking around Europe and I had The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe. On one occasion I found myself lying drunk in a field in Innsbrook – as one does there – and it occurred to me as I looked up at the stars (which were swirling somewhat) that someone ought to write a hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. It didn't even necessarily occur to me that it would be myself who would write it. Now I have a friend who suffers from something he calls 'nubism' which is the idea that whatever is going on there's always something more interesting going on somewhere else. You're never quite at the nub of things.

kc: Well, that leads me directly into Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency for the very reason that in detective work everything gets deduced by what becomes evident to the eye, or the nub of things. But in this book you might as well just throw out the magnifying glass because the technology has changed, the world has changed, and there's far more going on that connects us to things that we don't even know about. Given all this, did you think it was time for a whole new type of detective?

da: What attracted me to the idea of doing a detective story came when I was writing Hitchhiker's Guide and I became fascinated with the idea that the tiniest little insignificant detail could have earth-shattering consequences. This is the stock and trade of the detective novel. Every insignificant detail could provide the key to the whole thing. The big event would become a complete smokescreen and a blind to distract you from what is going on. Those are the things I felt very much at home in trying to deal with.

kc: You're also at home with the idea that the characters in this story are, let me rephrase that, fascinated by the technology.

da: That comes completely from my own recent fascination with computers. For instance, in this particular book, I wrote it on an Apple Macintosh computer in which I'm deeply – and tragically – in love with. The book, as you see it now in your hands, is exactly how I laid it out on the computer. So that's my fascination. Another recent fascination of mine, one that did find its way into the book in a major way, is what happens the day when computers invade the field of music. People have always known instinctively that there's a connection to be explored between music and math. It's already established that good mathematicians generally make good musicians. So here we are today beginning to realize that everything in a piece of music can be described in numbers and those numbers are susceptible to some kind of understanding and manipulation. And for those, like myself, who don't know how to play the piano well, technology has come to the rescue in the most astounding way. If you have a synthesizer, there are programs – particularly on the Mac – where you can write music of whatever complexity you like. The computer can play the instruments for you. You can edit every last note of the performance. This is the first technology I've come across which allows me to do fundamentally something I could never really do before. This is incredibly exciting to me.

kc: I can see why. In Dirk Gently, you continually get the sense of another world that can be accessed through a machine.

da: Right. Yet it's all set in the here and now – except for one scene set in Bermuda in Four Million Years BC – but besides that it's all taking place in the present. You know, one of the frustrations for me writing Hitchhiker was doing this terribly reckless thing which was that I'd blown up the world in the first chapter (laughter). Then I was stuck with that. But I did it because I was tired of those hokey stories where everyone is trying to save the world, so I thought let's just get rid of it right off the top.

kc: Besides being a detective story, though, featuring time travel, it's also a ghost story. Why did you want to mix these genres?

da: I always wanted to do a ghost story from the point of view of the ghost. You never get to see things from the ghost's point of view. So I thought for all of time that man has lived on this planet, we've always speculated about what will happen to us after we die. Is there a Heaven? Is there a Hell? But one thing we do assume is that at the point we die then we'll find out.

kc: Which is the dilemma of one of the main characters, the CEO Gordon Way, who gets shot to death and his spirit then tries to come to terms with whether he's really dead at all. So you get the crime and you get the search for clues and the solution – but that doesn't really seem to be the point of Dirk Gently.

da: No. The journey is at least as important as the destination. But what I was trying to do was catch the readers of my previous books somewhat by surprise. My previous books say one damn thing after another because I began as a sketch writer who gradually found his way into writing more connecting story lines. But in books like Hitchhiker's Guide, the narrative was really an excuse for a collection of sketches. With Dirk Gently, I thought it was time that I really addressed myself to the problem of plot. So I began it with a series of events that are so disparate that you can't believe that they are all coming from the same book. And just when people think there is no point where it can be all brought together, I surprise everyone by bringing it all together and resolving it. And it does that. Just.

kc: You talk about looking for the connectedness of things yet the bigger picture always keeps getting bigger. How do you find ways into this expanding picture?

da: Oddly enough, that became one of the reasons it became impossible to write Hitchhiker any more. Simply because, you keep on increasing the level you're dealing with until you have nowhere else to go. In Dirk Gently, I think I want to do one more book to make amends to readers for the four-part trilogy of Hitchhiker. Thereafter, I'm going to do something dramatically different by going off with a friend (ed. Mark Carwardine) on a zoology expedition to make a series of wildlife programs for radio which will be different than any wildlife show you've ever heard (ed. Last Chance to See). I also want to do a computer game based on Hitchhiker. But then I have this great idea for one called Bureaucracy. This is a game featuring a series of escalating adventures, crises, catastrophes, all taken to nightmarish proportions. But the object of the game, quite simply, is to get your bank to acknowledge your change of address card.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney     

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