By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009
In bookstores this week, Arthur Dent is hitchhiking through the galaxy again. Dracula glides through the London fog once more, still in need of overwrought young women with plunging necklines and exposed veins. Winnie the Pooh is back to toddling around the Hundred Acre Wood.
This would not be remarkable were it not for the fact that the authors who created these literary icons -- Douglas Adams, Bram Stoker, A.A. Milne -- have been dead anywhere from eight years to nearly a century. But in the twilight world of officially sanctioned sequels, death is not an impediment to character development.
In three new books -- "And Another Thing . . . ," the sixth volume of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series; "Return to the Hundred Acre Wood," the new Winnie the Pooh book; and "Dracula: The Un-Dead" -- the estates of the deceased writers (or their descendants) have hired writers to breathe new life into these characters, whether their creators would have wanted them biting people on the neck again or not. It's not a new practice, but this troika of high-profile revivals, all within a 10-day period, brings these after-death sequels to a new level of prominence.
Jane Belson, Adams's widow, was cheerfully blunt when asked if her late husband would have wanted anyone tampering with, say, Marvin the Paranoid Android.
"I have no idea," she said, "he's not here."
She paused, then gave a good-natured laugh. "He hated writing books, but he loved having written them. . . . I'm not sure how he would have reacted to someone doing it for him. But it seemed like a good idea."
The literary creations of authors stopped being sacred territory roughly 20 years ago, when the estates of late authors began leasing out the copyrights to old works. Scarlett O'Hara rose to meet another day years after Margaret Mitchell died; James Bond has had endless adventures since the demise of his creator, Ian Fleming; and Peter Pan flew again a couple of years ago, three-quarters of a century after J.M. Barrie passed away.
Michael Brown, the chairman of the Pooh Properties Trust for the past three decades, says he never would have greenlighted a new Pooh book when he joined the trust, which oversees the Milne literary estate. Back then, the mention of a Pooh sequel would have had everyone from publishers to the public throwing "up their hands in horror," he says.
"But there's been a change in the attitudes of society," he continued. "There's a sense that nostalgia is fine, but you can bring these things out of the cupboard. . . . Of course, there will still be the purists, or Eeyores, who'll say it's a rotten idea before they open the front cover."
How the new writers approach their jobs is as varied as the works they're reviving.
The Pooh trust decided to hire someone to create new adventures for the little yellow bear with the honey habit and methodically went about a selection process. They eventually turned to David Benedictus, 71, who had produced all-star audio adaptations of the original Pooh stories and who had submitted a couple of new story ideas for Pooh and Tigger several years ago. Brown said they did not want any updates to the sensibility of the story, which is kind and friendly and gentle and "very much not the 21st century," he said.
Benedictus, in turn, immersed himself in the 1920s world of Milne, trying to imagine the stories the man himself might have written, even visiting Ashdown Forest, the actual setting for Hundred Acre Wood.
"After 20 stories of Eeyore feeling sorry for himself, he'd felt he'd come to the end of the road," Benedictus said. "My job was to write the stories he would have written. More of an acting job than a writing job."
The trustees, he said, were very much involved in the editing process -- down to individual word choice -- and also in the creation of a new inhabitant of the Wood, Lottie the Otter.
"There was only one female character in the original stories, Kanga, and that seemed a serious imbalance," Benedictus said. "Lottie we originally thought of as a grass snake. She had different names, Selena, Mirabelle, then Otterline, and finally Lottie. There was a lot of discussion as to what kind of animal she should be."
That process is in stark contrast to the evolution of the new Hitchhiker's volume.
Belson, the author's widow, and Eoin Colfer, the Irish lad writing "And Another Thing . . . ," tell the same story of the new book's creation: Their agents met for lunch, hatched the idea, and broached it to each of them. Belson said yes, Colfer said yes. Ta-da!
Colfer is best known for writing the Artemis Fowl series of children's books, with something on the order of 18 million books in print. Belson, both agree, stayed completely out of the writing and editing.
"I did it because I loved the books," Colfer says by phone from his home in Wexford, Ireland. "My God, when we were teenagers, you were hoping some situation would come up where you could say, 'Don't panic!' "
Of course, it's not so easy to replicate Adams's idiosyncratic creation.
Adams said he first got the idea for "Galaxy" while lying on his back in a field in Austria, slightly drunk, staring up at the starry sky. It started out as a radio show in 1978, morphing into television and a series of books. The stories followed the adventures of Arthur Dent, who manages to escape from Earth moments before it is destroyed -- to make way for an intergalactic freeway -- bathrobe and towel in hand. Its sense of humor read like a ménage à trois between Monty Python, P.G. Wodehouse and Doctor Who. It begat a cult.
"Don't Panic!," the words written on the guidebook referenced in the title, became a catchphrase. So did the number 42, which, it turns out, is the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything (too bad the question isn't known). When dolphins vanish from Earth shortly before it is pulverized, they leave behind the following message: "So long, and thanks for all the fish."
How does Colfer think he can imitate that?
He doesn't. He's not even trying to imitate his idol.
"This is not part of the Douglas Adams oeuvre. It's very authorized fan fiction. . . . You have to be conscious of the 'Hitchhiker' fans. They are loyal and vocal and techno-savvy. You mess with them at their own peril."
To that end, he reread all five previous volumes, marking them up and noting each character's special powers and limitations, which he then had on his wall during the writing process.
He does confess to taking one shot at an Adamsesque laugh line. When the god of one world is interviewed to be the god of a new realm, he is asked in the interview process: "So, where do you see yourself in five years?"
The legion of "Hitchhiker" fans, hostile to the idea when it was made public last year, have largely mellowed, thanks in part to Colfer's reverence for the subject.
"His initial take on 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' suggested that the series was in safe hands, so I'm looking forward to reading the new book as soon as it is officially available," writes Richard Gray, 44, president of the book's official fan club, ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, in an e-mail from his home in Brighton, England.
Which brings us to the undead count from Transylvania.
Dacre (rhymes with "acre") Stoker (great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker) grew up in Canada before moving to the United States, aware but not terribly impressed that his ancestor, an Irish theater manager and penny-dreadful novelist, was the author of the horror classic. His appreciation grew over time, but it wasn't a key part of family folklore, perhaps because the Stoker family lost the copyright, due to improperly filled out paperwork, in the 1930s. He would become a headmaster of private schools, later moving into land conservancy.
When screenwriter Ian Holt called him out of the blue in 2003 with a pitch that they team up to revive the count, he was all for it. He's also well aware that Holt's interest in him was mercenary: "He said, 'To separate me from the field, I need a Stoker in the project.' "
The pair divided up the research and employed a full-time researcher to do even more. The resulting storyline has it that the events in the first "Dracula" really happened, and that the real-life Stoker thinly disguised them in his novel. The story picks up in 1912, with Stoker attempting to stage a play about the book "Dracula," when the survivors of the original adventure begin (you guessed it!) to die in gruesome ways.
The advance reviews are good: "Energetically paced and packed with outrageously entertaining action," says Publishers Weekly.
The money for domestic and international rights isn't bad, either: "The advance was something over $1 million."
But Stoker also says he wanted to bring his ancestor back into prominence. Though "Dracula" has never been out of print since its 1897 publication and has spawned one of the dominant horror genres of the past century, Bram Stoker rates no more than a plaque in Dublin, where he grew up, Dacre Stoker notes. The loss of the copyright meant that anyone and everyone could grab a chunk of his creation.
"I'm not claiming I write like Bram, and I'm not claiming to be an authority on all things vampire," he says. "We're just coming back to Bram's character, to a man lost in the fray in a lot of ways, and to what he created. That's the point of the book."