The Berkeley Hotel hostage

<p>The late, great Douglas Adams found writing so arduous that his publisher,Sony Mehta, was forced to take extreme measures. Nick Webb, researching his authorised biography of the author, solicited Mehta's recollection of how he got Adams to meet his deadline.</p><p> Given that publishing runs on gossip (or exchanges of trade intelligence as it is known to the higher echelons), the legends of the business are surprisingly few. There's the tale of the Barbara Cartland paperback that had some pornography bound into it on the collating line. Apparently the narrative ran on seamlessly--with hallucinogenic effect. Then there's the packager who, during a dock strike, went down to the Thames every day and wept, because sitting in the rain on a barge 20 feet away were his uninsured books. And who could forget the assault on the single-guest expense account record--still unbeaten--from the demented editor who resigned the following day? But one of the most enduring stories concerns the delinquent author who was locked up with his publisher until he had written his book. </p><p>Douglas Adams, whose authorised biography I have just finished, was that author, and the tale is true. Douglas enjoyed being a famous writer, but he loathed the process of becoming one. That entailed writing. He just hated doing it. It was hard work and lonely. He was a man who coped badly on his own; he needed company. Without it, he could fall into a kind of listless vacancy. </p><p>Creatively, writing was exhausting. A sentence or two could consume a great idea that had been marinading in his cortex for a lifetime. Comic writing is particularly difficult, because the lilt of a sentence can be destroyed with a misplaced comma. Douglas had a fine musical ear and was sensitive to the music of language. What's more, his ruthless self-editing made every version of his work shorter than the one before. By the time you have reworked a joke 10 times, cut it to the bone and rotated it through 90 degrees, you are genuinely not sure if it is funny. </p><p>To some extent Douglas was trapped by success into writing. Famously, he said he loved deadlines because he loved the sound of them whooshing by. The reality was that his dilatoriness was not a lot of laughs. For his publishers it was a matter of commercial pain; but for poor Douglas it could mean agonising despair when he felt he just could not do it. When very low, he was known to fall to the carpet and weep. </p><p>Besides, there were so many better things to do. Ideas to explore, pleasure to pursue, computers to fiddle with and, of course, lunch--all offered amusing refinements to his talent for displacement. Being abnormally clever, he understood his own subterfuges and then despised himself for being so weak-willed. That served only to slow him up further. </p><p>Publishers are used to authors' delays. Over the years they have evolved a judicious scale of responses. When a writer confesses to lateness, as a publisher you cannot afford to be too generous ("don't worry . . . par for the course . . . get it right rather than do it now . . .") even if you haven't yet scheduled the book and it is not time-sensitive. Authors tend to be so insecure that they interpret forgiveness as indifference ("Good grief, my publisher doesn't care!"). </p><p>No, you have to be disappointed, yet not so irritated that you induce a paralysing degree of anxiety in your author. But if the work represents a major chunk of turnover, and the trade is geared up for a publication date, the desire for punctual delivery takes on an unusual sincerity.</p><p>So long</p><p>The book in question was So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (Pan, 1984). Sonny Mehta, then editorial director of Pan, recalls what happened: "I did lock him up in the hotel room--that is true. We were really up against the wire. We had the jacket done and all the rest of that nonsense. And then, of course, I speak to Douglas. 'How's it going?' I ask, and he says, 'Oh, pretty well. You should have it in a couple of months.' And this used to go on and on and on. </p><p>"Then I'd phone Ed [Ed Victor, Adams' agent] and Ed would say, 'Listen, I think Douglas is working. He said you should have it in a couple of months.' As I recollect, Ed finally said: 'Listen, I think we ought to have a meeting about this.' And we all turned up at Upper Street, where Douglas and Jane [Adams' partner] were, and we sat down and had a long talk, and it became clear that, actually, Douglas had written only about 25 pages. I went back to the office, and I said to Simon [Simon Master, then m.d. of Pan], 'Look, you're not going to have the manuscript.'</p><p>"And this was important, because we'd made a big fuss about the hardcover [Pan's first hardcover] and all the rest of it--apart from the fact that we were counting on it, just in financial terms. So I had a long talk with Ed the next morning and I said, 'Look, Douglas has got to finish this book, and if we just wait, we may be waiting 18 months, two years. Why don't I put Douglas in an environment where he's really got to work?' And Ed said, 'It's an interesting idea.'</p><p>"So I came up with the wheeze of putting him in a hotel room someplace. But there was no good putting him in a hotel room if he wasn't going to be supervised. So I said, 'Look, I'm going to do this: I'm going to get a hotel room and I'll move in myself--a hotel suite--and make Douglas churn out pages.' Everyone thought it was a good idea, if I was prepared to do it. </p><p>"We found the Berkeley--bloody great terrace outside, I might add. It cost a few bob. I phoned Bruce Harris at Crown and said, 'Listen, this is what I'm going to do', and it turned out those guys were even more anxious than we were at Pan, and I said, 'But you're going to have to pick up half the tab for the hotel.' There was a big silence and then they agreed.</p><p>"And so I went to look at the suite. I told Douglas, 'Douglas, you'd better be there at 3 o'clock tomorrow', and he agreed. I said, 'Bring clothes and whatever--this is going to be a routine--I'll spell it out to you when you turn up.' And we sent a cab around to pick him up.</p><p>"He turned up with a typewriter, his clothes, and a guitar. I didn't mind at all. [Douglas was in Dire Straits mode at the time.] I was just so relieved he turned up. There were two bedrooms. The office shipped across a case of wine for me, and cases of manuscripts, so that I would be able to work. And I moved in. I remember putting Douglas in the smaller of the two bedrooms because I was extremely pissed off. </p><p>Explaining the rules</p><p>"The reason we hit the Berkeley was he wanted to swim, and there was a pool upstairs. I explained the routine. I'd get him out of bed; he'd go up for a swim; we'd have breakfast, finish by 8.30 a.m. </p><p>"And 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.</p><p>"It was quite macabre, looking back on it. The pile of manuscripts that I was reading would grow up on the floor as I went through yet another submission. And at the end of the day I would gather together whatever pages Douglas had written, and we'd talk about it. Then I would phone the office. My assistant, Jenny [Gregorian], would turn up to collect the pages and take them to the office.</p><p>"That was the tenor of the day. We'd have lunch; room service would come down. In the evening we would go out to some restaurant round the corner, have a dinner, and then I'd bring Douglas back, and say, 'Okay Douglas, you'd better get some sleep', and he would be sent to his room.</p><p>"That is roughly what the routine was. And every now and then he would get up and play the guitar. And we'd talk a little bit--you know. And that was it. And every now and then I'd go through the dustbin--discreetly, when he was gone to have a piss or something--to see what he'd chucked away, and it would say things like, 'Who the fuck does he think he is?' There was one page, I remember, of very choice abuse, which I actually kept and had on my notice board for quite a while--even in New York. During one of the refurbishments it kind of vanished, along with other memorabilia."</p><p>Sonny was sympathetic to Douglas, but they were so unlike each other that at times it must have been like some weird hostage siege. It would make an interesting play. Sonny always had an ability to concentrate. Being incarcerated with room service, he probably got through vast amounts of work. </p><p>Every evening Sonny would sit and read the day's output. Reading a book in the author's presence is excruciating. No study of your face has ever been so attentive. Was that a twitch? Did you smile? In which case, where precisely? Was that an involuntary orgasm? Please say something. </p><p>Sonny, not a natural thespian, nevertheless has authority. A "This is fine, Douglas" from him would carry as much weight as volumes of gush from a lesser figure. Despite their confinement, Sonny and Douglas remained on good terms. </p><p>A quilt of a novel</p><p>What of the book itself? For Hitch-Hiker fans So Long is not the most popular of the sequence. It's a quilt of a novel with squares showing off Douglas' talents as a sketch writer. It is funny, inventive and warm, in many ways more of a love story than a comic sf novel. The patchwork alternates between the surreal and the everyday, and in places it reads almost as if he felt obliged to write the fantastical bits so that his readers would not feel short-changed. </p><p>Douglas ends the book on a note that seems to work within the narrative and stand as a commentary upon it: "There was a point to this story, but it has temporarily escaped the chronicler's mind . . ." The truth is that he did not want to write any more if he could avoid it. Unfortunately, he was so inventive that he could escape from any dead-end of plot, as he had proved already by writing around the fact that the Earth had been smashed into atoms. Like Conan Doyle, forced to revive Sherlock Holmes, Douglas was pushed by success--and, let's be honest, by the huge advances--into carrying on Hitch-Hiking. </p><p>Heartbreakingly for his fans, he killed off Marvin the Paranoid Android, who, after billions of years of boredom waiting in a car park to be patronised by dim primates, is allowed blissfully, finally to stop. "'I think,' he murmured at last, from deep within his corroding, rattling thorax, 'I feel good about it.'"</p><p>It is a message from Douglas: no more. He yearned to move on. </p><p> </p><p>Nick Webb's WISH YOU WERE HERE: THE OFFICIAL BIOGRAPHY OF DOUGLAS ADAMS (&#163;18.99, 0755311558) is published by Headline on 6th October.</p>