Douglas Adams will be forever remembered as a man who knows the meaning of life, the universe, and everything - and who also knows where to find his towel.
When you write your first book aged 25 or so, you have 25 years of experience, albeit much of it juvenile experience. The second book comes after an extra year sitting in bookshops. Pretty soon, you begin to run on empty.
Douglas Noel Adams was born in Cambridge, England, on March 11, 1952. When he was old enough to understand a bit of science, he appreciated the fact that his initials spell DNA.
Adams and his family, including a younger sister, Susan, moved to East London when he was a toddler. His parents divorced in 1957, then his mother took him and Susan to live with their maternal grandparents, who ran a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter in Brentwood, Essex. Adams would become passionate about the protection of endangered species later in life.
He attended Brentwood School in Essex, where he was the only student to earn a ten out of ten from his form master, Frank Halford. Adams also stood out at school for his height - he was six feet tall by age 12, six feet and five inches by the time he stopped growing.
When he was 13, his mother remarried and Adams became a full-time boarder at Brentwood. Regarding the boarding school life, he once said, "There is a piece of me that likes to fondly imagine my maverick and rebellious nature. But, more accurately, I like to have a nice and cosy institution that I can rub up against a little bit."
First Adventures in Comedy
While studying at St. John's College, Cambridge, Adams tried but failed to join an invitation-only student comedy club, the Footlights, so he and two friends formed their own group, Adams-Smith-Adams. He later said, "I wanted to be a writer-performer like the Pythons. In fact I wanted to be John Cleese and it took me some time to realise that the job was in fact taken." Eventually he was invited to join the Footlights.
Adams graduated from St. John's in 1974, with a bachelor's degree in English literature. Graham Chapman, of "Monty Python" fame, saw a live version of the "Footlights Revue" and he sought out Adams. They collaborated on a few unsuccessful projects, and Adams became one of only two non-Pythons to have a writing credit on an episode of "Monty Python's Flying Circus." His sketch, "Patient Abuse," involved a hospital emergency room where patient care was put on hold until all the paperwork was filled out.
Despite this fun stint with the Pythons, Adams' writing career in general was not going well. He took a series of dead-end jobs, including chicken-shed cleaner, hospital porter, and barn builder. For a few months, he served as a bodyguard for the royal family of Qatar. His duties mostly involved lurking in hotel hallways. He opened doors, closed doors, and watched for hand grenades. The family once ordered one of everything on a room service menu, according to Adams, then sent out for burgers.
Career and financial prospects were bad enough that Adams was forced to move back in with his mother. He also sought professional help: "I briefly did therapy but after a while I realised it is just like a farmer complaining about the weather. You can't fix the weather - you just have to get on with it."
He continued to submit script ideas wherever he could, and finally his optimism paid off - he was hired as a radio producer by the BBC, then he was hired as a script editor for the popular television show, "Doctor Who."
Adams Finds His Towel - and Fame
One day while laying in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, in possession of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe," Adams got the idea to write a similar guide to the galaxy. This eventually morphed into the radio series, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," about an earthling named Arthur Dent who found himself traveling about the universe with his trusty towel. In the novelization of the radio show, he wrote, "Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with." The radio show eventually spawned a trilogy of five novels, a television show, and a computer game. In the "Hitchhiker's Guide" series, a computer was built to determine - once and for all - the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
Unfortunately, fame brought stress. Adams found it hard to handle money and harder still to meet deadlines. He said, "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by." He suffered from feelings of insecurity and writer's block. He explained, "When you write your first book aged 25 or so you have 25 years of experience, albeit much of it juvenile experience. The second book comes after an extra year sitting in bookshops. Pretty soon you begin to run on empty." His editor sometimes set up a temporary office for herself in Adams' home, so she could help keep him on schedule. He had never intended to be a novelist, after all.
Adams enjoyed the company of people, but fame brought loneliness. Friends introduced him to a London barrister, Jane Belson, and the two vacillated between being roommates, friends, and former friends, then they ultimately married on November 25, 1991. They had a daughter, Polly Jane Rocket Adams, on June 22, 1994. Polly was later featured in a rock video Adams made for Apple, using the first version of iMovie software.
In 1999, the Adams family moved from London to Santa Barbara, so that Adams could negotiate a movie deal with Disney.
Adams was passionate about the guitar - over the years he collected twenty-four left-handed guitars. "I taught myself to play the guitar by listening to Paul Simon records, working it out note by note," Adams explained. "He is an incredibly intelligent musician. He's not someone who has a natural outpouring of melody like McCartney or Dylan, who are just terribly prolific with musical ideas."
Adams sometimes inserted "Hitchhiker's Guide" references into scripts for "Doctor Who."
Adams was an atheist. He once said, "I find the whole business of religion profoundly interesting. But it does mystify me that otherwise intelligent people take it seriously."
The music of Procol Harum was the inspiration for Adams' book, "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe."
When Adams was a student, he wrote a parody play of "Doctor Who" called "Doctor Which."
Adams tried to bring the "Hitchhiker's Guide" to life with a collaborative writing project known as "h2g2." The online venture was eventually hosted by the BBC, as was an online text-based game version of the "Hitchhiker's Guide."
Adams was the first or second person to buy a Mac computer in Europe, and he later wrote a number of tech-themed essays. For example, in an essay titled "What Have We Got to Lose?" he wrote, "Some of the most revolutionary new ideas come from spotting something old to leave out rather than thinking of something new to put in. The Sony Walkman, for instance, added nothing significantly new to the cassette player, it just left out the amplifier and speakers, thus creating a whole new way of listening to music and a whole new industry."
Adams was cofounder and Chief Fantasist of The Digital Village, an Internet-based company. Their primary product, "Starship Titanic," won a Codie Award and was nominated for a BAFTA.
Adams once climbed a portion of Mount Kilimanjaro while wearing a rhino suit, in support of Save the Rhino International. He also helped create a radio series and book titled "Last Chance to See," to draw attention to the plight of animal species nearing extinction.
Adams created the title for one of Pink Floyd's albums, "The Division Bell," and he once played onstage with the band.
Two days before Adams died, the Minor Planet Centre announced plans to name an asteroid 18610 Arthurdent, in tribute to the main character in the "Hitchhiker's Guide" series.
Douglas Adams died on May 11, 2001. He suffered a heart attack during a workout at a gym in California. Perhaps he would have appreciated the irony. He left behind many fans, an impressive body of clever writing, and an unfinished novel, "The Salmon of Doubt."
On March 25th each year, Adams' fans celebrate Towel Day, because every space traveler should know where his or her towel is.
Oh, and for those who want to know - Spoiler Alert - the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, is: 42. When asked why he chose this number, Adams replied, "It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number and I chose that one. Binary representations, base 13, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought '42 will do.' I typed it out. End of story."