As you all will know; I like to read. 🙂 I thought that I’d post some interviews from my favourite authors; I enjoy finding out more about them and I hope you do too.
In his short story collection Trigger Warning, the Goodreads Choice Awards winner for Best Fantasy demonstrates the haunting genius that has kept him on top.
In the event of an emergency, Neil Gaiman wants you to secure your own mask before helping others. Frequent fliers may think they know the drill, but for anyone who has read Gaiman’s Trigger Warning—the winner of this year’s Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy—it’s a haunting reminder of who we are, who we want to be, and who we pretend to be.
The internationally best selling author is no stranger to the masks people wear. His fiction is filled with the fantastical, but beyond the whimsy and beyond the nightmares are simple people (not necessarily human people, but people all the same) searching for themselves. In Coraline, it’s a girl tempted by “Other” parents and by the “Other” daughter she could become. In American Gods, it’s a widowed ex-con struggling to find his place among the gods. And in The Sandman comic book series, it’s Dream, Death, and the rest of the Endless siblings, who all turn one face to the world—and another to each other. The monsters change, but the masks are always there, waiting to be worn.
Gaiman talks with Goodreads about shaping stories, keeping bees (it’s a “Sherlock Holmes-y thing”), and what he sees from behind his own mask.
Neil Gaiman: When it started out, I don’t remember wanting anything more from my career than food and shelter. The biggest excitement for me after signing my first book contract was finally moving up from the manual typewriter and buying an electric typewriter. It wasn’t fancy, but it was electric.
These days I’m definitely no longer young and hungry. And the nice thing about having written all of the things I’ve written over the years is that even if I do not write, the rent will still get paid. And there will still be food on the table. I don’t have to worry that if I do not write, my children do not eat. But there’s absolutely still the thing of, oh my god! I have never told that story. Somebody asked me yesterday on Tumblr, “Why did you write The Graveyard Book?” And I thought about it for a second. And the impetus for it was that it didn’t exist. Which meant I couldn’t read it and no one else could read it either. That tends to be what still drives me as much as it drove me thirty years ago: Either I know what happens and no one else does—or I need to find out what happens.
GR: You wrote in your 2006 collection Fragile Things, “I like things to be story-shaped. Reality, however, is not story-shaped.” As a writer, do you find yourself trying to shape your reality into story-shaped packages?
NG: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And fixing things. You know, it’s amazing how many stories start with you going, this is terrible! But what would happen if…? And you wind up just fixing things. Or occasionally breaking them. Trying to explain why and how life impinges on a short story can be kind of hard. People want a one-to-one connection. They want you to say, “I went off with my uncle to this town and this happened to us, and this didn’t happen to us, but I saw this thing—and I thought, what if?” And sometimes you get that, but you’re much more likely to magpie pick this tiny little thing from one corner of your life and magpie pick another little thing from another corner of your life. Then the whole story is kicked off by what you were wondering and thinking about anyway.
GR: Did that happen for any of the stories in Trigger Warning?
NG: “The Case of Death and Honey.” That story really began twice. It began first with me as an eighteen-year-old just pondering Sherlock Holmes. One of the things I loved best about Sherlock Holmes was that he had retired to the South Downs, and the South Downs was very, very close to where I lived. And we’d go walking on the South Downs, and I would think about Sherlock Holmes retiring here—and he retired here to keep bees. Which probably was one of the reasons why forty years later I started keeping bees. There were other reasons, of course, but there was also a little Sherlock Holmes-y thing going on.
What fascinated me most about bee-keeping, in a sort of Sherlockian context, was how boring it is. Like making a movie only worse. Just these little moments of anguish and strength and power. The thing you do most is absolutely nothing. And I didn’t know that. And I started thinking. We are told, unless Sherlock Holmes was working on a case, he was bored to the point of needing chemical stimulation. He was seriously fucked up. And that fucked-up-ness was why he needed a case. And I always thought bee-keeping was enough to keep Sherlock Holmes amused, but then I realized there is not enough going on there. I wouldn’t have known that if I wasn’t a bee-keeper. Knowing that I started thinking Sherlock Holmes must have been using the bees while working on a case. But what kind of bees and what kind of case?
That combined with the fact that about a year before I wrote the story I’d been in China—a beautiful, beautiful part of China. I’m casually walking through these weird little mountains, and there’s a man and his wife selling pots of perfectly white honey. And that got me interested. The next time I came upon loads and loads of beehives by the side of the road, my translator and I stopped. We went to talk to the man and his wife about honey production in China, and I was marveling at the fact that the hives they used were the same design made by a man in America back in Victorian days. And so at the point I was asked to write a Sherlock Holmes story, I had honey and bees swimming around in my head—and I was also plugged into China. So I came up with Old Gao, this Chinese beekeeper who would have these rare bees that Sherlock Holmes was looking for on the side of a mountain. And none of that is in the finished story. And all of that is in the story.
GR: That’s one of my favorite things you do for all your collections—how you include little behind-the-scenes snippets about the creation of each short story and poem. What inspired you to start doing that?
NG: I loved—really, really loved—feeling like there was an author there. I would prefer a short story collection of average stories in which the author gave me context on being a writer and a writer’s life. I preferred that to perfect short stories because one gave me something to hold on. They said these stories were written by a person. He had a deadline and his dog had just died. All that went into this thing he was writing. And I would love them. They would give context, and it was a kind of context that made me feel I could do this. Like it was within my reach.
Whereas I didn’t read Tolkien and think I could do that. Beautiful sentences and people—they were like rocks. They had magically appeared here in the universe. But I would read Harlan Ellison and go, this is amazing. I want to do this. I could do this. Maybe I could do this. If I get smart.
GR: You mentioned in the introduction to Trigger Warning how Harlan Ellison used to write short stories in a bookstore window, for the entire world to see.
NG: I asked him why he did it, and he said he wanted to demystify the craft. And I thought—well, it’s like that bullshit about writer’s block. Writers, we’re really clever. We make shit up. And we make shit up that’s convincing. And if some writer wants to go out and explain that they can only write at dawn in a lavender-hued room when the wind is in the east…. Well, everyone’s going to believe them because writers are convincing. That’s what we do! We convince. And I’m not trying to demystify the part of writing that is magical, but what I am saying is that you actually do need to sit down and write. Build the little home that the elves will come to in the night and start inhabiting. The elves will not turn up if you don’t build the house. So you better start building the fucking house.
I do believe in getting stuck. I believe you can absolutely get stuck on something. But if someone says, how is the novel going? If you say you got stuck, it makes it sound like A) it’s your fault, and B) it’s fixable.
GR: As opposed to a mystical block that has descended on the helpless author.
NG: Exactly! Writer’s block is this thing that is sent from the gods—you’ve offended them. You’ve trod on a crack on the pavement, and you’re through. The gods have decided. It’s not true. What is really true is you can have a bad day. You can have a bad week. You can get stuck. But what I learned when I was under deadline is that if you write on the bad days, even if you’re sure everything you’ve written is terrible, when you come to it tomorrow and you reread it, most of it’s fixable. It may not be the greatest thing you’ve ever written, but you fix it, and actually it’s a lot better than you remember it being. And the weird thing is a year later when you’re copyediting and reading the galleys through for the first time in months, you can remember that some of it was written on bad days. And you can remember that some of it was written on terrific days. But it all reads like you. Fantastic stuff doesn’t necessarily read better than the stuff written on the bad days. Writers have to be like sharks. We keep moving forward, or we die.
GR: Goodreads member Ece says: “In ‘My Last Landlady’ in Trigger Warning, you write, ‘I’ve heard we see the world not as it is but as we are. A saint sees a world of saints, a killer sees only murderers and victims…’ What do you see when you look out at the world?”
NG: What a lovely question. I see stories. Which occasionally drives my wife nuts. I do tend to see people as stories. Things become story-shaped. But also on a more general note I tend to see people as fundamentally good-hearted, sensible, well intentioned, and occasionally mislead. I find it very strange when I’m talking to people that believe people are fundamentally evil. I don’t believe that. To quote a line Terry Pratchett and I came up with in Good Omens: “People are fundamentally people.” They’re not fundamentally good. They’re not fundamentally bad. They’re fundamentally people. That’s very much what I see when I go out there.
GR: What are some books you enjoyed reading as a child?
NG: James Thurber‘s The 13 Clocks was really one of my favorite books as a child. And I’m incredibly proud that it is now back in print. I had a little bit to do that with just by grumbling on my blog about it not being in print, and eventually The New York Review of Books actually came to me and said if you write the introduction, we’ll bring it back.
Then there’s a story called “The New One” from Mary Poppins Comes Back. When my newborn son was literally newborn—the evening after he was born—I went onto the web and downloaded it so I could read it to my wife. And she was amazed. I’ve always made a point of reading my kids the Mary Poppins stories because I think P.L. Travers was a smart writer and a powerful writer, and she definitely helped form my worldview as a child. She tends to get forgotten as a writer—how good she was tends to be forgotten. And right now, I guess, she’s been replaced in popular imagination by Emma Thompson. But I suppose it’s better to be Emma Thompson than nothing at all.
And Diana Wynne Jones! I wish I had known Diana and her books as a child—knowing her as an adult was great. I was seventeen before I ran into one of her books. It was Charmed Lives, and I remember reading it, thinking this person is amazing. She’s doing all this wonderful stuff, and I’m probably too old. I should have read this when it could’ve shaped the inside of my head.
Diana was and is one of my favorite authors and human beings. But I think she was underestimated as a writer for years. She made it look matter-of-fact easy, and she didn’t show off. And she made you work, and she assumed you were smart.
GR: Goodreads member Nuno says, “As a fan of both sci-fi and fantasy, I am often confronted by people who dismiss the genres as pure escapism—and nothing more. But I’ve always liked that Ursula K. Le Guin said that the purpose of sci-fi is to ‘describe reality, the present world.’ What would you say is the purpose of fantasy and sci-fi?”
NG: I do think the purpose is to show us the world that we live in—at a slightly different angle. One that we haven’t seen it before. The great thing about seeing things you are familiar with at a slightly different angle is that you can see them again for the first time. You can see them without all the preconceptions you’ve built. If you think people or things are one way, the best thing about both fantasy and science fiction is they can give you a fundamental message that things do not have to be this way. Things can be different. And that is incredibly liberating.
People say there’s escapist stuff, but then there’s the good stuff. But you don’t get to decide what’s the escapist stuff and what’s the good stuff. And fiction that allows you to escape is wonderful.
I heard an interview the other day on BBC radio about a man who had really learned how to read properly in prison. And he was talking about the fact that the best thing about reading was that it meant he didn’t have to be in prison while he was reading. Yes, he was in prison, but there were books. And now that he could read them, he could be in Jamaica and go to America and have these adventures and be back in time in history. And I thought, he’s saying something very real. It’s not escapism—it’s escape. And when you escape, it’s not just escape. Because you’re coming back, and you’re different. You’re armed with tools and weapons and knowledge. And things you didn’t know before.
GR: What are you currently reading?
NG: I’m currently reading two books. I’m reading Slade House by David Mitchell, which I am loving. And my wife, Amanda, did something really sweet. I had been sent a pre-publication copy, but I kept leaving it at home and forgetting it. I wouldn’t buy myself a new copy because I had my copy at home waiting for me. But Amanda went out to Porter Square Books here in Cambridge and bought me a new copy. So I’m currently two chapters in, and I can’t wait to get back.
And I’ve been reading—incredibly slowly—as my thing I go back and forth between listening in the car and bringing up on Kindle while I’m traveling, The Pickwick Papers. When I was about eleven or twelve, I read the first half of it, and then never finished. I think the book was a school book, and it was taken back. And I always vaguely wondered what had happened next. So when I was doing some long drives, I picked it up. And I’ve been fascinated watching the way it begins as a fairly clunking series of comic cuts and then gets deeper as it goes. And the cartoon people start being replaced by real people so by the end it’s kind of odd because the people who were cartoons in the beginning never quite un-cartoon, except possibly for Mr. Jingle, who un-cartoons a little. But you do feel the real people fill it out and make it deeper. And I’m loving it.
I’m now doing the thing you do with a book you’re enjoying where you’re painfully aware that the end of the book is hanging and looming. Sometimes you finish books at a gallop. You start at a walk and then you trop and then you cantor. And then you know you have only probably another 100 pages to go, but it’s like whoa, it’s 4 o’clock in the morning—but if I could just finish the book. And then it’s a mad gallop. And then there are the books where you can see the book coming to an end, and you’re like, oh no, this book is like a friend…. When I finish the book, I won’t be able to hang out with this friend anymore.
GR: It really is like saying goodbye to a friend. But at least books are always there, waiting for you to visit again.
NG: And that really is the joy. I used to have amazing memory. But I actually love the fact that my memory isn’t quite as great as it used to be. And I can sit down with books that I love, and go, I don’t know what happens. Well, I kind of know what happens, but I can enjoy you again. This is really fun.
GR: Goodreads member Em says, “I’ve adored all your work, especially your Doctor Who stories. If you had your own time machine (à la the TARDIS), where would you take it?”
NG: Oh, well, you’ve got everything! Let’s see…. If I had to choose just one time and place, I would definitely go back in time and get myself a library card to the Library of Alexandria. There are things I want to read, and they burned them. And given the fact that the TARDIS has automatic translating capabilities, I would take advantage of that—and read myself silly.