Thursday, August 24, 2006

To editors: thanks for all the fish

Back in the 80s I read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams.

I opened the first page of the first book in the series without much expectation, started reading, and immediately realized I was encountering a most unusual and almost endlessly entertaining and quirky mind, one that could truly be described with that overworked word, "unique."

I'm not sure what made me look Adams up yesterday. I was tired of thinking about politics, perhaps, and the phrase "So long, and thanks for all the fish," was roiling around in my head for some reason. I remembered that Adams had died suddenly and way too young some years ago, and I became curious to read more about him.

Despite a wide-ranging and probably frenetic mind, and varied interests, Adams's creative output was narrow rather than wide. His lasting oeuvre, his literary contribution, was the Hitchhiker series itself. That's not anything to be ashamed of; it's a great accomplishment to have entertained and amused people at such an extraordinary level of wit.

As a writer and ideaphoric myself (although admittedly one of a lesser degree than Adams) I wondered how he managed to harness his freewheeling brain long enough to do the sort of sustained work necessary to create so many novels.

I got my answer in Wikipedia:

While working on the radio series (and with simultaneous projects such as The Pirate Planet) Adams developed problems keeping to writing deadlines that only got worse as he published novels. Adams was never a prolific writer and usually had to be forced by others to do any writing. This included being locked in a hotel suite with his editor for three weeks to ensure that So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish was completed. He was quoted as saying, "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."

Locked in a hotel suite with his editor. So he got by with a little--or perhaps a lot--of help from his friends.

That's true of a number of authors, I believe; we just usually don't see the workings of the behind-the-scenes handlers and shapers and coaxers and helpers. Editors, for example, are often very instrumental in forming the work, even in motivating the writer, but only the insiders know for sure.

Spouses can act as literary helpers, as well. As inspiration, of course, but also in more practical ways. Some day I may write a piece on the marriage of Tolstoi and his wife (that's quite a segue, Neo--from Doug Adams to Tolstoi). I happen to be a minor expert on the subject of the Tolstoi marriage, having read a number of books many years ago on the subject, notably this one.

The story isn't pretty, although it starts the way most marriages do, with love. The relevant part in terms of this essay, however, is that Tolstoi's wife Sonya, who was responsible for overseeing the day-to-day matters of his estate, who gave birth to and raised thirteen live children as well as having several other pregnancies, was also Tolstoi's scribe and sometime editor.

Yes, in those days before there was Word there was the written word, penned by the human hand. Every night after her other duties were done (not that they were ever done; you know what they say about women's work, and she had more of it than most) Sonya carefully transcribed a fair handwritten copy of what her husband had penned in messy draft form.

Here is a description of Sonya's efforts, based on a book William Shirer wrote about the Tolstoi marriage:

Sonya had the burden of copying her husband's almost illegible scrawls into her meticulous handwriting. She copied War and Peace seven times. Shirer calculates, ``Since it runs to 1,453 printed pages in my edition that means that her fair copy came to at least 3,000 manuscript pages. So she must have written down in her own careful handwriting 21,000 pages.'' (Actually, Sonya's burden was much greater than Shirer envisions. Like most English translations, Shirer's edition is well shy of the Russian original. My Russian-language edition of War and Peace contains 1,544 pages; an equivalent English version would have more than 2,000 pages.)

I think Adams's editor probably had it easy in comparison.

Powered by Blogger