Interview with MJ Simpson, Douglas Adams’ biographer

Published the 11th May 2002

MJ Simpson is Douglas Adams’ number one international fan. He’s the former president of the international and official fan club ZZ9 plural Z alpha (for which he is still research archivist), author of “the Completly and utterly unauthorized guide to the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy” (TV Essentials). He helped the editor to make the selection of texts for “salmon of doubt”, worked on the 25th anniversary edition of the original radio scipts, and updated latest edition of Neil Gaiman’s “Don’t Panic”.

His more important work is undoubtly “Hitchhiker “, the first Douglas biography published in 2003 by Hodder and Stoughton. “A thorough and fair-minded biography of a dazzling if frustating talent. A fine epitaph” (Literary Review).

(This interview is an extract from an interview published in the first place on my Guide Galactique website the 11th May 2002)


NB : If his books are fascinating, Douglas Adams, for his intellectual choices, is also quite interesting. His love for sciences matters, his “radical atheism”, his interest for zoology…

MJS : Douglas was what we call in Britain —a renaissance man – in other words, he was a man like Leonardo da Vinci who had many interests and could do many things: comedy, ecology, computers, rock music…

NB : Music took quite an important part in his life, his friendship and his work. He had thirty guitar. Did he really dream to be a rockstar as he told it sometimes : “It (his appearance at a pink Floyd show) was a very extraordinary experience actually and it confirmed for me the strong desire I’ve had for a long time, to be a rockstar”?

MJS : Of course Douglas wanted to be a rock star – who doesn’t? As a child he loved the Beatles and Paul Simon and Pink Floyd and Procol Harum. Imagine how wonderful to play with Pink Floyd! And he became good friends with Gary Brooker from Procol Harum. And one of his closest friends played in Paul McCartney’s backing band. But Douglas never met Paul Simon because Paul Simon doesn’t like meeting tall people!

NB : In his last years, he made a lot of speeches during scientist or high tech fans events. Why did he make this speeches?

MJS : At university, Douglas wanted to be a comedian. He wanted to stand on stage and perform. And he performed at ‘smoking concerts’ which are private cabarets for members of the Footlights Club. He never performed in the annual Footlights Revue stage show although he wrote for it, directed it, and was in a short film which was made to be included in it. Adams-Smith-Adams performed their own sketches because they weren’t in the Footlights Revue. Giving his speeches was for him like being a comedian in a comedy club. He liked to have an audience.

NB : What did he want to achieve with his “Hitchhiking guide to the future” series?

MJS : I don’t think he ever wanted to achieve anything except to make money so that he could buy guitars and cars and invite his friends to wonderful parties. But I know he did enjoy the two series he made for radio near the end of his life (the other was called The Internet: The Last Battleground of the 20th Century). He liked working in radio – so he achieved happiness – and he was able to tell people his ideas who could never attend one of his lectures.

NB : We don’t know much about his parents and his sister. Who are they?

MJS : Douglas’ parents divorced when his was very young and both remarried. Because of this he has (I think) a sister, a step-brother and a half-sister. Or a half-brother and a step-sister. You know what? I don’t know! It’s a very complicated family tree! I do know that Douglas was very close to his grandmother, and to his little sister Jane (who is 14 years younger than him). I don’t know all the details. Jane Garnier (‘Little Jane’) is certainly his half-sister (same mother – different father). According to Don’t Panic, he had a sister, three years younger. That would be Sue Adams, and she would be a full sister, as their parents divorced when Douglas was five. James Thrift could be a half-brother or a step-brother. It’s all very complicated!


NB : “Last chance to see” is quite an ufo in dna career. Even if we recognise his style and humour, it shows a very mature author, at ease with non fiction, and shows his deep interest for zoology. He wanted to do more serious work, he wanted to make a book about atheism too, which was another subject of reflection he was deeply fond of. He seemed to have always this dichotomy about intellectual and popular subjects. Dirk Gently is more philosophical and complex than H2G2.

MJS : LCTS is certainly Douglas’ best book. All his other books have brilliant parts and some parts that aren’t so brilliant. But LCTS is perfect. It’s easy to read, it’s very entertaining, it’s very informative, and it says something serious. And nobody bought it. Well, it sold okay, but not even as well as The Meaning of Liff. It was Douglas’ favourite book, and everyone I have interviewed has said it was their favourite Adams book. But the publishers wanted him to write novels.

I don’t think he ever seriously considered a book on atheism – it was just one of his many, many ideas. Early work by Douglas Adams is certainly more concerned with just Being Funny than the later work, when he was also keen to make people think.

NB : Douglas Adams was not confident at all with himself and with his work. He was a modest man, a perfectionist who suffered from the writer’s block. And it seemed to become worse with the years. The salmon of doubt was a book he begun ten years ago, and was in turn a dirk gently book, a h2g2 book and a new book on its own. How can we explain that?

MJS : I don’t think Douglas had writer’s block. Writer’s block means that you can’t think what to write – you stare at the page (or the computer screen) and you have no ideas in your head. Douglas’ head was always full of ideas – too many ideas. He certainly could think of things to write but he didn’t want to write. He lacked the self-discipline to sit down and write a book. You cannot cure somebody of writer’s block by locking them in a hotel room for two weeks! But you can give them discipline that way. (I don’t think Salmon of Doubt would ever have been published in Douglas had lived.)

NB : Which writers were the greatest influence for him? He’s been compared with PG Wodehouse, Lewis Caroll and Vonnegut. He liked very much PG Wodehouse. Which similarities do you find between them?

“He twiddled a thoughtful steering wheel”. Any other writer would have said, “He twiddled the steering wheel thoughtfully.” This probably won’t make any sense in French! Vonnegut also influenced Douglas and so did Robert Sheckley, but he didn’t like any other SF writers. Most of his other influences were from comedy, like Monty Python.


NB : Douglas Adams got quickly fed up and unease with h2g2 success. It seems that there have been a lot of phases of love and hate. Why did he make five books, and was working on a sixth one?

MJS : Douglas said after every book that it was the last. It’s not like today, when somebody signs a contract to write a trilogy, so everyone knows in advance that there will be three books. He had to be persuaded to write each book separately, because his publisher wanted it. The Salmon of Doubt was going to be a Hitch Hiker novel at one point but the version that is published in May is a Dirk Gently book.

NB : The five h2g2 books are not similar at all. The first two ones are closer from the spirit of the radio series. The third one fits uneasily after the two first ones because it concentrates on a plot that is not very h2g2 like. The fourth one is a book about a love affair and almost happens on earth only. The fifth one is darker than ever. Why such differences?

MJS : The books were written over a period of about 12 years, in very different circumstances. Lots of things changed: Douglas became more successful, he met Jane, he became interested in ecology, computers change completely, his father died, and many other things happened which affected how he felt and what he wrote about. He was never happy with the fourth book. Restaurant was his favourite of the five Hitch Hiker books.

NB : Douglas Adams seemed very uneasy with women characters mainly in the beginning. Trillian is less remarkable and clearly defined than the other characters.

MJS : There is a long tradition of British authors who could not write about women believably. Two classic British children’s books which influenced Douglas were The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham (no female characters) and Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne (Kanga the kangaroo is the only female character). Funny female characters are very difficult to write (especially for male authors) unless they are scary old women.

NB : Why the answer to the ultimate question (42) has become so popular? What Douglas Adams thought of this popularity?

MJS : Douglas got very, very annoyed with people asking him about 42. It has no meaning – that is why it is funny. I think the idea became popular because it is such a simple explanation; it is an answer that everybody can remember, not like a complicated scientific formula. But there are secrets about how Douglas chose 42 as the best number – he didn’t just think of it as he was writing. I explain this in my book about him.

NB : Douglas wrote “The Guide has appeared in so many forms each time with a different story line that even his most acute followers have become baffled at times”. Which version is the more original and weirder one?

MJS : Many people like the radio series best because that was the first version. Some people prefer the book because it is better constructed and has lots of ideas in it that weren’t on radio. The weirdest version is probably the computer game!