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The Staff



Neil Gaiman hitchhikes through Douglas Adams' hilarious galaxy

By Kathie Huddleston

I t was a point in time when his life could have gone in a completely different direction. Today, Hugo and Nebula winner Neil Gaiman has successfully tackled everything from comic books to best-selling novels to children's books. But in the late 1980s, when this renaissance man-to-be wrote a book about Douglas Adams, the fellow who would single-handedly change the meaning of the number 42 for science-fiction fans forever, Gaiman was left with a decision to make.

His book, Don't Panic: Douglas Adams & the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, stood as a biography for Adams and an excellent companion guide that explored how Hitchhiker's came about. With the book's success, doors opened, leaving him to choose between writing about other people's lives and exploring the dark recesses of his own mind.

He chose the latter. However, his experience in working with Adams on the book and their long friendship have had a lasting influence on Gaiman's life and work. Don't Panic, which comes out this month, has been newly revised to include a new introduction by Gaiman, and to cover Adams' later work and his untimely death in 2001.

Gaiman chatted with Science Fiction Weekly about Don't Panic, how the book came to be and about how very tall Douglas Adams was.

Tell me about Don't Panic.

Gaiman: Well, Don't Panic is a book that I wrote 17 years ago now, which is very strange. And it's a book that came about because in 1983, when I was starting out as a journalist, an editor of mine said, "I'm a huge fan of Douglas Adams. Do you think you can get an interview with him?" And so I phoned up Douglas' publishers and I did. And by the time I got the interview, that editor had already been fired. But Douglas spoke so much during the course of our interview that not only did I sell that interview, but leftover bits of the interview in question went to two other magazines. So, by the end of doing one interview, I think I'd done three Douglas Adams interviews. Two interviews across three, possibly four, magazines.

Which meant that in 1986, when Titan Books were looking for somebody to write a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy companion, which for some reason several other people had begun and abandoned, they found my friend Kim Newman, the author. And he said, "No, you should get Neil to do it. He's already interviewed Douglas." Douglas was very keen on the book existing.

When you first interviewed him, what was that like? Were you a big fan?

Gaiman: Oh, I was an enormous fan. I was awed. He was living at the time in a house in Islington, which the house itself turns up in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. He'd just come back from America, where he'd spent a very miserable year or so trying to get the Hitchhiker movie off the ground. It was one of those recurring motifs in Douglas' life. And he just returned to London, to his spiritual base, and was very keen on talking. I think at the time his book, The Meaning of Liff, which he did with John Lloyd, had just come out. A book he was desperately proud of and loved promoting. And I think he was happier with than he was with many of his later novels. He was enthusiastic, tall, amiable, terribly polite. I learned as an author so much about how to treat fans and how to treat journalists from just watching Douglas. He treated everybody with unfailing affability and politeness.

Did you say he was tall?

Gaiman: Oh, astonishingly tall. Extremely tall. And tall is something that you stick in with Douglas because it was one of those things that he was. I've known taller people in my life who I would never begin to describe with, "Well, he was tall." Whereas Douglas always had gave you the impression of being slightly too large for any space or place that he was in. He once mentioned to me that he'd actually broken his nose as a child with his knee playing sport, which seemed the perfect Douglas sort of metaphor for how he was very liable to back into something and break it. So yes, very tall. He once said to me that he knew that he could be a great comedian because reading the history of all these great English comedians, you know John Cleese was 6 foot 6 and Graham Chapman was 6 foot 4, 6 foot 5, so were Denis Norden and Frank Muir. His reaction was, "I could be a famous comedian. I'm as tall as they are."

And he was, in his own way.

Gaiman: And he was. I think at the time I met him he still hadn't decided that he was a novelist, and I don't think he ever really did decide that he was a novelist. If anything, he was the world's most unlikely best-selling novelist, because he wasn't a novelist. He really was a comic sketch writer. Or something else. I don't even know if he was a comic sketch writer.

I suspect that whatever Douglas was is the equivalent of us all standing around in the 14th century trying to talk about a science-fiction writer. If we were all in the 14th century and we'd just witnessed the passing of the equivalent of an Arthur C. Clarke, we'd be standing there going, "He's a balladeer, really. But he wasn't really happy as a balladeer. I don't know, maybe he was sort of an illuminated manuscript man." It seemed like most of what he was doing was about the future, and you don't really have words for it. In the case of Douglas, he wasn't a science-fiction writer, he wasn't a novelist. I don't know what he was. I feel as awkward trying to describe what he was as I think Chaucer would trying to describe "ye science-fiction writer," because it begins from a set of assumptions that we don't have.

But I do think that everything that Douglas did that was really successful consisted of trying to explain the world to the world. It was the way that he saw it which was so elegant and unique, and he made it look so amazingly easy. You know, a line that I still find fascinating is a paragraph or two into the original Hitchhiker, where he talks about these like forms that were so primitive they still thought digital watches were a pretty neat things; which says A, a lot about us, and B, a awful lot more about 1978. And it sums up the spirit of 1978, I think, in a way because we no longer think that digital watches are a pretty neat thing. They're just part of the landscape.

How did the book do when it came out?

Gaiman: What happened was the book came out in its first edition in 1987 and did astonishingly well. For me, I wound up having to make a decision at that point because I, having written it, was immediately offered the opportunity to do lots of other companions and biographies and things. Which, if you were a hungry young journalist, is an enormously tempting thing to be asked.

It's hard to turn work down.

Gaiman: It's very hard to turn work down. It's very hard to turn well-paying cool work you're interested in doing down. That's the hardest one. But I also really had this peculiar notion at the time that maybe my future didn't really lie in writing books about other people. Maybe it was work that I had to do that I should get on with. So the book was published in 1988 in the U.K. and in the U.S. and in various places around the world. It did very, very well, and it was very popular and it got lovely reviews. I perversely went off instead and started writing a comic book called Sandman. Douglas and I remained friends over the years. At one point he asked me if I would come in and work on a new Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series, sort of ghost-write it. Not exactly ghost-write it, because my name would be on it, but do the adapting for him. And again, I thought about it for a bit and I said no. Cause at that point my career was doing just fine.

We would run into each other from time to time, and he remained very tall. The last time we actually had a chat, we bumped into each other at David Gilmour's Pink Floyd's 50th birthday party, and I was telling him my experiences with the BBC on the Neverwhere TV series, which turned out to be amazingly similar to his experiences with Hitchhiker. We had sage and wise things to say to each other about the BBC. And then, two years ago I was sitting being interviewed. It was actually a lot like this except the person at the other end of the telephone was in Hong Kong. And I had a computer on and it had sort of a standard computery front page. I'm being interviewed about American Gods, which was the next book of mine to come out and which would be out the following month.

I'm burbling away and I look up at the screen and it said something about Douglas Adams being dead and I thought, "Oh, what nonsense." Bear in mind that the day before there had been a whole Internet rumor about Lou Reed being dead. He had actually gone on Saturday Night Live to explain that he wasn't dead. So given that, I just thought, "Oh, God, the Internet again." And I clicked on the Douglas thing and suddenly I'm at the BBC's homepage and there's a big thing about Douglas Adams dead. I said to the gentlemen interviewing me from Hong Kong, I said, "Douglas Adams is dead." And he said, "Oh, yes. Did you know him?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "Well, do you want to stop the interview?" And I said, "No. No, we'll carry on." And he phoned me back a week later and said nothing on the tape is usable after the point where Douglas dies. He said, "You were no longer functioning."

It must have been a tremendous shock.

Gaiman: It was an enormous shock. It was an enormous shock because he was young, he was amazingly full of life and because he was sort of one of those strange constants in my life. He just started getting in touch with me because the people who organized his speaking tours wanted to organize the speaking tours for me. We'd started that thing of e-mailing and chatting. And it was just very weird. Also, the way that he died was so peculiar. He was exercising. I know about many authors who immediately took that lesson to heart and stopped any pretense of exercising.

But he was so full of life and he had so much more to give. I think that was the frustrating thing as well with Douglas. He was such a mass of contradictions. I still find it strange and in some ways almost sad that his death was followed by the publication of a load of stuff that he didn't want published, or hadn't wanted published at the time. You know, unfinished manuscripts and so forth. At the end of the day, Douglas was a solid sort of atheist, and I think his attitude probably would have been that it was what was feeding his wife, Jane, and his daughter, Polly. But it still—he was such a perfectionist and the idea of his stuff being published in the shape that it was in, unfinished stuff, it would never have happened while he was alive.

There's been a lot of interest in his life since he passed away.

Gaiman: Don't Panic was essentially reissued. It was updated by a very, very smart young man named M.J. Simpson, who has also written his own Douglas Adams biography recently. And a guy called Nick Webb has just done the authorized biography, so there are now three Douglas Adams books out. Of all of them, Don't Panic is much, much less about the person than it is about particularly Hitchhiker. It was always created as a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy thing, and that's very much what it is.

What surprised you most about the experience of writing this book and the journey that it's taken?

Gaiman: I think there have been several surprises. The biggest one when writing it was how many of the things in Hitchhiker one thought of being set in stone, when they were merely accidents. The biggest and most obvious one is Arthur Dent's dressing gown, which may seem a silly and rather goofy thing. But in the first couple of Hitchhiker books on radio they never actually mention the dressing gown. The dressing gown only turns up on the TV series and, in fact, Douglas wrote a scene where Arthur gets to wear this silver space costume. And the director, who Douglas very much disliked, Alan J.W. Bell, took it out and kept him in the dressing gown the whole time. Which was something that Douglas actually liked enough to keep it in subsequent books. So, Arthur Dent and his dressing gown remained after that. I always like the strange accidental nature of that.

The other thing that fascinates me now, especially looking at some of the biographies that are coming out now, is how much of Douglas' story has been invented post-1987 when I did the first draft of the book. There are major Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy antidotes that cannot be found in Don't Panic because Douglas hadn't made them up yet. You will not find any account of how the very first signings that he did went. I narrated this documentary on Douglas recently called The Hitchhiker's Guide to Douglas Adams. It's a lovely documentary. And there's stuff in it where you're cutting backwards and forwards between other people and Douglas telling the story of his first-ever signing and how he got to this signing and they'd closed off the roads. He didn't know what was going on and people couldn't get through. And it turned out it was for him and there were thousands of people and police there, and they closed down the roads. He got to the dinner that he was meant to get to several hours late because he'd been signing for thousands of people. And I'm watching all this going, "This is absolute nonsense." [Laughs.]

What had actually happened was Douglas had sort of mixed up three or four signings in his head and picked the best of all of them and decided that had happened first. That kind of thing. You won't find any of that story in 1987, because 1987 was too close to the date when it had happened and everyone remembered that. No, when Douglas did his first Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy signing at Forbidden Planet it was a small, cheerful, not badly attended signing. Forty or 50 people turned up. So that kind of thing I think is hilarious. You learn the fluid nature of anecdote.

Nobody is ever on oath when they're talking about their own biographical detail, unless you actually are on oath and hooked up to a lie detector. But especially writers, you have this tendency to improve anecdotes.

You wouldn't do that, would you?

Gaiman: Oh, I'm sure I would. Not only would I do it, but I would immediately forget that I'd done it, which is part of the joy. Although having said that, of course, my big trouble is it's much harder for me to do because I keep my online journal at

That is harder, then, because the truth is right there.

Gaiman: Even if I'm fixing things ever so slightly to make them more dramatic, I'm only doing that normally within 24 hours of something happening. So, you don't change things very much then. Then, later I'm kept honest by the journal because I can't stand up and say, "And then this spaceship came down and 10 beautiful women came out and they said, 'Neil Gaiman, we are taking you off to our planet to repopulate it.'" [Laughs.] [Someone would come up and say,] "Hang on, I read your journal and all it said that happened when you went to Brazil was that you did an enormous signing." And I'll say, "Oh, well, I left that part out." But you can't really, so ...

You've done a great many different types of writing. What was special for you about Don't Panic?

Gaiman: I learned so many things. It was my first excursion into nonfiction. These days I've now been writing fiction for 17 years. And I could definitely see myself doing another nonfiction book. It would be fun. I learned a load of things from it, and it would be nice to go back. I learned a lot about the pitfalls of a writer's life from watching Douglas.

I also think for me Don't Panic represents a road not taken. I could have taken what I'd done from Don't Panic. I could have gone on and become somebody who wrote books about other people. Having said that, I had so much fun with the style of Don't Panic, writing in this classic English humorist sort of style, that I then went on and did a book called Good Omens with Terry Pratchett. So if it hadn't been for Don't Panic there would never had been a Good Omens.

The press release they sent out for the book is calling Don't Panic the "definitive companion to Adams' life and work." Do you think that it is?

Gaiman: No, I don't. I wouldn't have said that. How definitive is definitive? What it is, is it's probably the best guide to the work out there, because the other two books that are out currently are much more about the life. And it's a really solid big picture if you want to know who Douglas was and what he did and you like Hitchhiker's and you want to encounter jokes and sequences and things that haven't necessarily been published anywhere else. And Don't Panic is a very, very good place to go. On the other hand, I'm sure you will learn more minutiae about Douglas's life from either of the other two books than you will from Don't Panic, because they were written once he was dead.

You've done everything from non-fiction to children's books to best-selling novels to films to comic books to television. What type of writing do you enjoy most?

Gaiman: Anything I haven't done before.

Is there anything you won't tackle?

Gaiman: No. It hasn't come along yet. It's that point where I suddenly go, "You know, nobody's ever written a really interesting pornographic cookbook." Then suddenly I'm hooked. It's the challenge of learning and of continuing to move. If you aren't learning, things get very dull very quickly.

You haven't followed the rules about how someone might become a successful writer.

Gaiman: No. I've been doing it in my own rather peculiar way. I think I've probably had as much fun as anybody who could possibly have been following the rules.

I imagine you've had more fun.

Gaiman: I probably have. But it's very baffling. I always feel very guilty when it comes to trying to explain my career to anyone.


Gaiman: It doesn't really explain very well. You wind up going, "Yes, I had an awful lot of fun."

Will you ever stop writing?

Gaiman: Oh no. That would be like a shark not moving anymore. At that point you have to die.

Well, we don't want that.

Gaiman: Definitely not. No, I'd like to keep going, thanks.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Gaiman: Yes, you have to write. I run into many, too many, people who would love to be writers and are convinced that all you have to do is start a story and leave it on a computer or on a notebook and the elves will come in the night and finish it for you. And unfortunately the elves won't turn up. The only advice I can give is you have to do it all yourself.

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