Literary Birthday: Douglas Adams

Even for novelists, a famously time-wasting bunch, Douglas Adams (born today in 1952) was a procrastinator of epic proportions. One of his favorite jokes was about how much he loved deadlines, particularly “the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Adams had such a grueling time finishing Mostly Harmless, the bleak fifth entry in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy,” that when British TV program The South Bank Show contacted him about doing a piece on his writing the book, the blocked Adams proposed instead a show about his writer’s block (which, conveniently, offered yet another excuse for him to avoid writing). In the script’s meta narrative, Adams wrote about how “despite having sold 198 squigwizillion books, Douglas Adams still found it very hard to believe that he could actually write them.”

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be Afraid of the Block

hitchhikersguideEvery writer gets blocked. The words don’t flow. Or they do, and you simply can’t stand them. Nothing works out.

But you have to work through it. There is no other option. Except, well, giving up writing. And since no writer ever wants to become a civilian, when the block sits in your head like a slug of granite, there’s nothing for it but to chisel your way around it.

Douglas Adams had one of the more infamous (and consistent) cases of writer’s block ever witnessed. It became one of his running jokes: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” After spending seven years not writing a contracted manuscript called Starship Titanic, he called up his old Monty Python writing buddy Terry Jones and asked him whether he could help out. Sure, Jones replied, how much time do you have left? Five weeks, Adams replied.

In a more famous case, Adams spent years not writing the fourth Hitchhiker’s book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. His publisher, Sonny Mehta, finally came up with a solution: Lock Adams in a hotel room and not let him out until he produced pages. Mehta kept him on a schedule—a swim in the morning, write, room service lunch, write, dinner around the corner, sleep, repeat—that went on for days, Mehta said:

Douglas would sit down at this small desk with a typewriter, and I would sit in an armchair at 45 degrees from that, my back facing him, and I’d read a manuscript. I’d wait for the sound of those fingers on his typewriter keys–which sometimes would kind of happen, sporadically, and then there’d be long periods of silence, and I’d turn around to check him out and see that he hadn’t croaked on me or something. He’d be sitting up, staring out the window at this roof terrace. And every now and then I’d say, ‘How’s it going?’ And he’d say, ‘Fine–fine.’ And you’d hear paper being crumpled and thrown into a dustbin.

Each of us have to figure out our anti-blocking tools. Because we don’t all have a big contract to fulfill and Mehta there to help us do it.

Reader’s Corner: London Book Fair

Solid advice, always

Neil Gaiman gave the keynote talk at the start of the 2013 London Book Fair, where—after, before, and while doing the actual business of publishing—everybody will again go through many rounds of amateur and professional prognostication about where the industry is going.

Gaiman declined to make any grand pronouncements on the issue of whither-digital, noting that it will continue to change the landscape in many dramatic and unexpected ways. He did share a conversation he had with the late, great Douglas Adams years before e-books were a reality (remember that Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide was really just the sci-fi prototype for the iPad) where they talked about what would happen once that came about:

“I asked him if he thought the inevitable e-book would mean the end of the physical book,” Gaiman said. Adams replied by noting that sharks existed alongside dinosaurs, and yet sharks are still around. “That’s because nothing has ever come along that was quite as good at being a shark as a shark is,” Gaiman said, adding that books, too, are very good at being books.