It was more than 40 years ago that Richard Adams wrote what is arguably the best novel about rabbits ever penned, Watership Down. Now, at age 94, when the author was interviewed about his stories, he mused about whether he should not have made them so dark. In an interview by Jasper Rees in The Telegraph, Mr. Adams revealed that the story about Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig frightened his young daughters. Here are some highlights…
“It’s a silly way of putting it,” says Richard Adams, “but if I had known earlier how frightfully well I could write, I’d have started earlier.” The genesis of Watership Down is now almost as familiar as the novel itself. In the late Sixties a career civil servant began entertaining his two daughters on the school run with vibrant stories about a warren of rabbits. They encouraged him to write them down and eventually he gave in – only for every publisher in London to reject the novel.
“I couldn’t bear to take the copy away from the publisher,” Adams recalls. “My wife Elizabeth used to go and collect the rejected stuff.” He remembers with startling clarity the lunch when his fortunes turned. “As soon as we sat down he said, ‘I like your book and I’d like to publish it.’ This blew a trumpet in my heart.”
Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig, his freedom-fighting rabbits, soon made their way into the lapine hall of fame alongside Peter Rabbit, Br’er Rabbit and the Velveteen Rabbit. Adams left the civil service to write full time. He was 54, and too old to take up a position in the literary establishment.
“I’m a very naughty boy in that respect,” he says. “I don’t really live in the literary world. I mean, I ought to know them all but I don’t. They don’t know me very much. Real authors are continually meeting each other, aren’t they?”
Adams is now 94, a beady owl with a plume of feathery white hair sitting in a high-backed armchair in his snug home in Hampshire, where he lives with his wife. The book that made his reputation is being republished in a handsome hardback edition by Oneworld. A copy sits on the table beside him, and its author seems chuffed to bits.
“I think it’ll go on selling forever.”
Did he really just make it up as he went along?
“The stories I told in the car had nearly always been shaped and cut and edited by myself for oral narration. When I was lying down to go to sleep in the evening I would think out the bit of story I was going to tell the girls the next day.”
He is especially pleased because Shardik, Watership Down’s successor, is getting the same treatment (although rather rueful about a horrible typo: “Ortelga” is reproduced on every page of the first section as “Ortlega”). Does he think Shardik, his mythical saga about internecine wars with a godlike bear at its heart, had a fair hearing when it was published 40 years ago?
“No! They were expecting something like Watership Down. And they didn’t get it. They got this rather difficult and savage novel. Shardik is a hard book to read. A lot of people have said that. They had to struggle with it. But I like it and I read it often.”
You can read the full interview at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11212927/Richard-Adams-on-Watership-Down-Perhaps-I-made-it-too-dark.html
Published in 1972, “Watership Down” was Richard Adams’ first novel. It won the Carnegie Medal, Guardian Prize and other book awards. In 1978 it was made into an animated film, and it was also fashioned into a television series that ran from 1999 to 2001. The adventures of Hazel, Fiver and their small group of rabbits escaping from the destruction of their home warren, and battling their way into a new home has delighted millions of bunny people through the decades. Characters such as The Black Rabbit of Inle and El-ahrairah have become important elements of lagomorph culture.