What was it like to be Douglas Adams’ publicist? Jacqueline Graham pays tribute to her dear friend
In celebration of Towel Day, Jacqui Graham – Douglas Adams' publicist throughout his career – describes the stellar rise of Hitchhiker, and the writer's block that followed . . .
Jacqui Graham and future Hitchhiker author Douglas Adams hit it off in an Italian restaurant when the book was still a gleam in Douglas's eye.
It went on to be a publishing sensation, with Douglas embracing the spotlight with open arms and soon Jacqui was coaxing Douglas, with the promise of umpteen dinners, through the writing of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Here, Jacqui shares what it was like to be sitting next to Douglas on the rollercoaster ride that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy became.
This is Jacqui's warm tribute to her friend – who sadly passed away aged only 49 – a piece that she wrote last year to mark the 42nd anniversary of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and that we felt it only right to revisit as we celebrate Towel Day in 2022.
It seems unbelievable that this year will mark a rather significant anniversary of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: 42 years.
42. The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. It also seems unbelievable that this year, and this very month, marks the twentieth anniversary of Douglas Adams’s untimely death, at the age of 49. But it was actually something of a lifetime ago. Literally, for many HHGTTG fans weren’t even born when the book was published in 1979, some not even when Douglas tragically died in 2001.
In the 1970s and 80s it was the era of many hardback publishing houses and just a few paperback ones, before vertical publishing became the norm. The internet didn’t exist, there were no mobile phones (despite the Guide being a portent). All you had was a landline telephone, a typewriter, a telex machine for hugely urgent communications, a photocopier and the Royal Mail.
I joined Pan Books, as it was then, on 2 January 1978. The fiction editor at the time was a huge, bear-like man called Nick Webb. He had listened to the first BBC4 radio series of Hitchhiker in March 1978 and thought there was a book in it. BBC Publications had turned it down, to their eternal regret, and Nick bought it in the early summer of 1978 as a Pan Paperback Original. The advance was £3,000 – about £14,000 today – which seems pretty hefty by current standards, for an unwritten debut novel. But things were more buccaneering in those days.
I first met Douglas on 21 June 1979. We had lunch at 11 Park Walk, a lovely Italian restaurant very near the Pan offices in Cavaye Place. I don’t remember a huge amount about it, apart from how amazed I was at his size, his boyish enthusiasm and how much – and how quickly – he ate. In August that year, I went with him to Seacon, the world annual science fiction convention, held that year at the Metropole Hotel in Brighton. The BBC radio series of Hitchhiker was shortlisted for the Best Dramatic Presentation, but came a close second to Superman, the box-office record-breaking film starring Christopher Reeve. By this time I had started to realise that the book was going to be huge – when it was finally written.
Predictably, Douglas missed the various, extended deadlines for delivery of the typescript, so the turnaround at the printers had to be completed in double quick time and the book was published on 12 October 1979, priced at 80p (under £4 today), with an initial print run of 60,000 copies.
The publicity campaign was intense and continued for months. One of the first people I called was Carroll Moore, then Producer of Kaleidoscope, the forerunner to Front Row on BBC Radio 4. When he instantly said ‘yes’ I knew we were on to a winner. Fortunately, Douglas loved the attention, adulation and excitement of interviews and appearances and was a tireless promoter. One of his favourite stories was when we went to a signing at Forbidden Planet. As we neared the shop we encountered very large crowds, making progress difficult. The cab driver wondered if it might be a demo, but it was the fans descending on Forbidden Planet for the signing session. Scheduled to last for an hour, it went on throughout the afternoon.
The reviews were glowing. The interviews were everywhere. The first printing of 60,000 copies disappeared almost overnight. Reprint after reprint followed, with the price eventually rising to 85p. 250,000 copies were sold within the first three months and the book was number one in the Sunday Times paperback bestseller list for months on end.
Naturally, a follow-up novel was signed, a continuation of the first which ends with the characters setting off to the restaurant at the end of the universe. The problem was Douglas was also writing a second Hitchhiker radio series, as well as basking in fame and media attention. The biggest problem was that he found writing terrifying.
When he had missed a couple of the original deadlines for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, he told me that he simply couldn’t write in the (slightly squalid) flat he was sharing at the time with Jon Canter, now the television comedy writer. He needed a flat where he could be on his own, but it had to be in Islington very near his own shared flat, so he could go and pick up his post on a regular basis. I found him a suitable flat and managed to persuade the then MD, Simon Master, that Pan would pay for it, on the basis that this was a small price to get the second book out of him.
This was a modest forerunner to his famous time in the Berkeley Hotel in 1984, holed up in a two-bedroom suite with Sonny Mehta, to write So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. But the basic premise was the same. He had to have a schedule and at the end of the working day someone would read what he had written, comment on it and then he could have dinner. Sonny did the job superbly, but had the benefits of room service and nearby restaurants. I was a mere amateur editor and cooked the dinner myself. But it somehow worked and Restaurant repeated the success of Hitchhiker.