Exclusive interview with Nick Webb, Douglas’ friend and author of “Wish you were here – the Official biography”
Published the 3rd September 2003
Nick Webb is the author of “Wish you were here, the official biography of Douglas Adams”. Being published next october, just a few months after MJ Simpson’s biography, one could ask if this book is good news. And i can definilty answer yes. Because Nick Webb is not just anyone. He’s the editor who made him sign his first contract with Pan Books for “the hitch-hiker’s guide the galaxy” , and was a close friend of Douglas ever since. This interview gives you a glimpse of a book which will bring you an intimate portrait of a great man.
(This interview is an extract from an interview published in the first place on my Guide Galactique website the 3rd September 2003)
> FIRST STEPS
Nicolas Botti : How did you meet Douglas for the first time?
Nick Webb : It was 1978 in a pub, The Argyll Arms, near the London Palladium. It was rather crowded and noisy,but Douglas and I – both being very tall – managed to talk. John Lloyd was there too, being ogled by the women..
NB : What did you think of him the first time you met?
NW : I thought he must have a philosophy degree because he had such a philosophical turn of mind. I was surprised to learn that he had studied English Literature. He was very funny, large and jolly.
NB : Why did Pan want to sign a contract with Douglas? He was a young man, and was just the author of a successful SF radio series? At the time, he hadn’t even written a line of one book. Is this the usual way of working for a big publishing company?
NW : The radio series had been a huge success and had clearly been written by someone with great resources of verbal invention and a quirky world view. I wasn’t the only young editor to think it would make a book. At the time Pan, which was run editorially by a talented publisher called S Sonny Mehta, was the liveliest paperback house around and quite active in its pursuit of “tie-ins” – though mainly with movies. It wasn’t a large investment for Pan. Sonny and the hard-boiled sales people were always responsive to enthusiasm so they were happy for me to take a gamble. It wasn’t a big deal in any sense.
NB : The legend says that he has signed with Pan rather than with other
Publishers because he liked you a lot. Was a huge meal involved?
NW : This is very flattering. Yes, we did get on very well, but Pan was also the best place to be at the time. Subsequently we had some enormous meals, but not before the contract was signed.
NB : In the first place, he thought he would write the h2g2 book with John Lloyd, with whom he already wrote episodes 5 and 6 of the radio series. Then he changed his mind. Do you remember this event? His doubts are they an example of his lack of self-confidence?
NW : The initial contract was with them both, but Douglas decided he could and should write it on his own. For such a clever man, he could be surprisingly clumsy in his dealings with others. John Lloyd was very hurt to be fired as co-writer. Douglas and John had a complex relationship that embraced jealousy and competitiveness as well as great affection.
Dear old Douglas was tortured by self-doubt all his life, but he also needed to be the sole creator of his work and he knew that it was exceptional. Like all [?] authors, he could be grimly self-centred.
There are theories that relate insecurity to creativity. I have some time for them. Douglas and John were part of a very bright bunch of CAmbridge graduates who, though urbane and charming, were ruthless in their pursuit of creative credentials. Douglas had a pattern of intense male friendships that often ended in schism. This is horribly complicated.
Hope you won’t think it’s a cop-out if I say you’ll have to read the book.
NB : Did you deal with Douglas during the writing process of “the hitch-hiker’s
series”? Was it a painful experience already?
NW : No, I left Pan – one of my many existential cock-ups – before the anguish of getting Douglas to deliver and really had no further editorial role in his astonishing career.
NB : Were you surprised by Douglas immediate success? And Pan?
NW : I knew it would work, but was surprised that it went so bananas. I think everybody was taken by surprise.
> THE WRITER
NB : Did you think at the time that Douglas would be such a successful writer?
NW : The truth is that I had no idea, but I could see in his word-play and passion for ideas that he had the right ingredients to make a smashing writer. Afterwards, when he was a huge success,I could pretend that acquiring him was judgement , not luck, but it was never a convincing ploy.
NB : Do you think he would have finished “salmon of doubt” and written other books?
NW : Yes, his long period of lying fallow had given him lots of ideas. He told me over lunch a few months before he died that his creative batteries had been recharged.
NB : His Hollywood experience took a lot of energy out of him. Do you think he shouldn’t have tried that much to make h2g2 in a movie?
NW : This is tricky. He desperately wanted to make the movie, but it took him some years before he was reconciled to the thought that h2g2’s picaresque,episodic structure was just not suited to the Hollywood blockbuster. He got tantalizingly close at one point, but then scuppered the deal by insisting on the original, very high production budget. The various delays meant that film FX caught up with Douglas’s imagination, but that’s not really the point of h2g2 which is much more text-led and that your usual Hollywood SF epic. It has more wit in a couple of lines than Starwars has in the whole sequence. Douglas’s description of getting a film made (“like cooking a steak by having a succession of people breathe upon it”)is spot on. He liked California a lot – especially proximity to all the techie people, and its distance from the brittle media set in London – but to some extent I think relocating to California was flight from some of the anxieties of home.
He could be “working on the film” – a pretty good excuse for not facing the agony of writing his next book.
NB : Douglas had a lot of passions and interests : endangered species, science, computers, music, atheism… Some say that he could have done much more and even better as a writer if he didn’t try to make a huge amount of things at the same time.
NW : That may be true, but would the books have been as good? Douglas’s wild enthusiasms were the man, and he put them into his books. It’s that underpinning of intellect that makes the jokes so enduring. How many successful novels get to grips with evolution, solipsism,chaos theory, the existence of god and so on….? It makes a pleasant change from all that sex and shopping.
NB : Was he the first multimedia man? Radio, book, TV, theater, computer
games,… The list is impressive.
NW : I don’t know if he was the first, but his range was certainly very impressive. He was a prescient thinker about IT in particular, and much in demand as a lecturer on the subject.
He was annoyed that Stephen King was the first to publish a novel on the net, and said it should have been him. Some of the other incarnations of his work were licensed of course, so he did not have creative control.
NB : All of his books, even within the h2g2 trilogy (in five parts), are very
different from each other. His books became darker as he got older.
NW : That does seem to be a trend, though I think there are variations depending on his personal circumstances when he was writing. Salmon of Doubt was shaping up to be more cheerful.
NB : Douglas thought that “Last chance to see” was his best book though it was
his least successful. Do you share this point of view?
NW : I like that book very much, and think it’s important. What a pity that Douglas did not do more non-fiction. His journalism is excellent. Last Chance is suffused with anger. Douglas’s sense of wonder was insulted by man’s ability casually to wipe out a species that millions of years of evolution had perfected. I came across young zoologists who had been inspired to study their subject by reading that book. Arranging literary preferences is a bit odd given that one would not be comparing like with like, but if you pushed me express an opinion I’d probably agree with him.
NB : He was not pleased with most of his books and didn’t consider himself as a good writer or even as a writer at all.
NW : Poor old Douglas was trapped by success – and huge advances – into a job for which he was one of the least temperamentally suited people on earth. He found writing incredibly painful,He was a perfectionist and ruthless self-editor. Yet at the same time, he knew damn well that he was a writer, as amusing and as musical as P.G. Wodehouse. But Douglas did find it very difficult, Comic writing is exquisitely hard; the effect of a line can be destroyed by a single misplaced comma spoiling the rhythm. Douglas did have a very acute ear for the list of a sentence, and was forever tweaking.
NB : Did he really suffer from a writer’s block or just lack of confidence?
NW : This is such a complicated question that I can either answer it glibly (“both”), or urge you to read the bio. Even then, I am not sure that I’ve got it completely right.
NB : He definitely revolutionized radio comedies, do you think he achieved something as revolutionary with his books? Do you think his work will remain in English literature as a definitive classic, like PG Wodehouse’s books, or that he will be remembered mostly as a funny SF writer ?
NW : I’m sure his work will be remembered. Already many of his tropes and turns of phrase have entered the language.He adored Wodehouse, and like Wodehouse he heard the music of English. His odd imagination, his way of seeing the world, and his sense of wonder at its strangeness, will live on. Your question turns on the horrible dichotomy in English letters between “mainstream” and genre writing. It’s a distinction that Douglas resented. I don’t know if Douglas will always be packaged as SF, but in any case SF is undergoing a wonderfully creative period at the moment and shows no sign of going away.
NB : Do you feel, guess the Douglas’ influence, ascendancy in other writers’ Books?
NW : Yes, he was hugely influential across a whole range – Red Dwarf to Murakami.
> THE MAN AND THE FRIEND
NB : When a writer becomes hugely popular for a sentence like “I love deadlines…”, we think that he must be a real nightmare for his editors or his agent. Though, it seemed that he kept very good relations with them, you and Ed Victor included. How can we explain such an incredible contradiction?
NW : I never suffered from the deadline horror, so was not put to the test. I liked him hugely. People dealing with him professionally got very exasperated, but they always forgave him.
Of course, it does no good to be fierce with a delinquent author as you cannot bully an author into writing – or, if you do, the result will be dire. Besides, Douglas was so utterly mortified about his own failings that nobody had the heart to be unkind when he became a problem.
He was a giant, with giant emotions of warmth and also of despair. You simply couldn’t put the boot in with someone like that.
NB : There are a lot of legends that make the man so engaging and human. His doubts, his sandwiches and baths, his love for deadlines, all the stories surrounding him (how he almost broke his nose with his own knee, the lettershe sent to the book shops after h2g2 success to ask if they forced the clients to buy his book, how the idea for h2g2 came in a european field…). Was he really that human?
NW : Yes, most of the legends are true, but Douglas did love nifty anecdotes and repeated them shamelessly. Once he remarked that the story of the origins of h2g2 had been told so many times that he could now only remember all the tellings, and had to trust himself that the original experience actually happened.
NB : He was a remarkable story teller, a fantastic reader,.. His wife said he could have been the most brillant teacher you can imagine. And that it was a real pleasure and really challenging to discuss with him.
NW : Yes. He and I used to argue about science. He was a voracious reader with an enviable memory.He had a particular gift for the telling analogy.In his last decade he was in great demand on the US lecture circuit. Without doubt he would have made an inspirational teacher.
NB : After Douglas’ death, we saw how much his friends cared for him : Stephen Fry, Dawkins, David Gilmour, Terry Jones and many others. Were you surprised by all this reactions? Was Douglas such a great guy to be friend with? Can you tell us some of your memories regarding your friendship?
NW : I was not surprised because he had a talent for friendship.
Ours was based mainly on our love of science and prodigious lunches. He and Jane threw excellent parties,and on one occasion he gave me about ten amazing suits that he had commissioned in Hong Kong. For various personal reasons (read the book!) he lost a lot of weight, and, when he returned to London with the suits, they were all too big for him.
He gave them to me when we were all so mellow on his generous quantities of champagne that I was persuaded to try them on in the middle of a party. (I am v. large like Douglas, and, alas, even heavier.)Lots of North London fashionables came overto admire them. Lots of raw silk and whatnot – quite unlike anything I owned before or since.
NB : Was he very close to his family?
NW : Douglas’s family history is too baroque to be easily synopsized. His dad was a real problem.He adored his mum. Hosts of siblings, half siblings and step-sisters. I’m not dodging the issue – well, I am – but the family tree looks a little like the Underground map. The family background is fascinating and says a lot about the man Douglas became.
NB : Did his late marriage and Polly’s birth change a lot the man, his life
and his way of seeing things?
NW : Polly was the least complicated relationship in his whole life. He loved her unconditionally and completely. It settled him down a lot. Douglas and Jane had been an item for ten years before they got married – with time off, as Jane said, for bad behaviour. It was sometimes pretty turbulent. Enough said.
NB : When did you see him for the last time?
NW : Can’t remember the exact date. I’d stayed with them in April 2000 in Santa Barbara (following one of my foolish career moves into a dotcom) and then I had a huge lunch with Douglas when he was back in London that autumn. We argued about evolutionary biology and the origins of virtue. Douglas kindly bought me the brilliant book of that name by Matt Ridley from the bookshop close to the restaurant.
NB : How did you learn about his death?
NW : Robbie Stamp, the M.D. of TDV, rang me in the morning. It was hard to believe.
>AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETTELY DIFFERENT…
NB : And now for something completely different : Could have he been a rockstar?
NW : When Douglas reached his late 40s, he joked that he was now old enough. He would have loved it. But to take the question seriously, I don’t think he could have been. He was an accomplished left-handed guitarist, but he was always a little out of time with the other musicians. Douglas just a little out of time with the world? Make of that what you will.