Enter Sandman: Neil Gaiman at PEN World Voices

Neil Gaiman at PEN World Voices

There’s a certain kind of author whose cool sneaks up on one so quietly, hastily, and tardily that the only legitimate response for the (otherwise) well-read savant may be to reject this problematic writer, now the ne plus ultra of the literary set, out of hand.

If you’ve been “in” on said raconteur from their fledgling steps into the raw publishing world, it’s a different tale. When one’s own anointed few break out to the big time, it’s like hitting the trifecta on Derby Day. “Ah, yes,” you airily proclaim, “I’ve been reading Ian McEwan since The Cement Garden.” (“Say what?” retorts the late-to-the-party Atonement fan.) Or “Yes, yes, I saw the NYTBR, but haven’t you read Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist? But you must. It was clear way back when that with a quick wit like that, he’d soon be on to ever more dazzling things.”

But what if one’s cool-dar has finally betrayed one? If one has completely missed the caboose, as it were? The only solution for the savant may be to turn his back, coincidentally making known his disdain for the author at hand. “Ah, that writer is crap,” the savant says indignantly to all the newly rabid fans, otherwise known as his trusted chums. “Haven’t read a word of his stuff.” Now sputtering, “Never will.”

And that might just be that. Peace reigns again in the literary kingdom. Except for that one author. The one whose coolness not only grows, but then grows some more, until kablooie, the wretched writer’s gone viral. Overnight, they’ve become the coolest damn author on the planet. And then, embarrassingly, there is little to be done (though there are always at least a few admirable holdouts) but cave. “Why oh why didn’t I read David Foster Wallace when he still wrote short stories,” one self-pityingly whispers to oneself. Now 1100 pages of Infinite Jest are holding down the flyaway scraps on your desk and you’ve utterly no choice but to grasp the nettle and get it read.

These are my quasi-resentful thoughts as a boyish, flop-haired moppet strides well-booted onto the stage of Cooper Union’s Great Hall. The large audience, blissfully ignoring the beautiful NYC April day in progress, a day to put T.S. Eliot to shame yet rendered invisible in our current cavern-like surroundings, spontaneously breaks into loud, grateful applause. For here is Neil Gaiman, much beloved by his fans, of which there are, in the grossest of understatements, many.

As for me: well, I do hereby shamefacedly confess to having completely missed the Neil Gaiman boat. Putting aside a long list of excuses, suffice it to say that I only awoke to his pantheistic elevation in 2005/2006 when Anansi Boys, a novel featuring a character from the earlier bestselling American Gods, and then Fragile Things, his short story collection, delivered a one-two punch on the New York Times bestseller list. Suddenly, there was no escape from Gaiman’s divinization. Even then, I managed to remain, at best, slightly less ignorant. But PEN World Voices is one of the best chances we New York City residents have to make amends. Here, at last, was my reckoning.

It’s quickly apparent what all the fuss is about. Gaiman is one of those rare authors who is equally at home on stage as he is in an isolated room scribbling away. He’s a born storyteller. And though some of his anecdotes have surely been recounted many times before, it’s nigh impossible to distinguish the retreads from the novel apercus such is the freshness and genuine engagement with which he responds to each question.

He immediately charms the audience with tales of his “bookish” childhood. In one anecdote, his younger sister Lizzie sweetly reminds him that nobody else had a brother who would walk along the street reading a book, and if he bumped into a lamppost, apologize and just keep walking, not even bothering to ascertain whether what he’d run into was, in fact, human. He describes himself as a “feral child raised by librarians,” a fact, he jokes, that librarians don’t like him to publicly confess as then “even more people will use [them] as free daycare facilities.”

And, as with many young lads who fantasized about being a writer, Gaiman was a daydreamer. When he was 10 or 11, he would daydream during organized sports: “[You’d be] standing around while people blew whistles and occasionally a large hard wet leather ball would hit you in the side of the face, coming straight out of nowhere, when you were thinking about something perfectly interesting, which was what I was doing.” His daydream was to be J. R. R. Tolkien: “I could think of nothing cooler than being the person who wrote Lord of the Rings.” It turns out to be a rather complex fantasy that involves the young Gaiman carrying around a copy of Lord of the Rings and slipping into an alternate dimension “exactly the same as ours except that Tolkien had not existed and had not written Lord of the Rings.” Gaiman would get an adult to type the book out for him so that the publisher would accept it. He would then murder the adult because “you don’t want this thing getting traced back to you.” In the final act of this fanciful invention, young Neil would, at last, be acknowledged as the true author of Lord of the Rings.

Besides the bewitching ease with which he seems able to slip into a child’s frame of mind, another clear factor in Gaiman’s appeal is his incredible range. He’s written everything from graphic novels to award-winning children’s books to radio plays. (Radio plays, he appealingly confesses, are his favorite medium as they have “all the immediacy of writing for television” with none of the waiting in regards to production.) In person, Gaiman fully embodies his various writing personas, quickly switching from boyish enthusiasm to contemplative adult to comic book rebel to doting parent, all in the short span of the hour-long conversation. It’s hard to capture his wit and his charm in prose — it’s probably better to view one of the many videos online. That said, some notable highlights of the afternoon follow.

On his first book, a bio of Duran, Duran: As Gaiman tells it, he was approached by a music publisher to pen a book. He wants to write about the Velvet Underground, but the publisher tells him that they already have a list of artists/subjects in mind. His choices are Barry Manilow, Def Leppard, or Duran Duran. He selects Duran, Duran because Duran, Duran has fewer albums than Barry Manilow and he anticipates that a treatment of the Birmingham band would be “significantly less work.” The book remains his “dark secret” for about a decade. An immediate bestseller, the fan bio enabled Gaiman to graduate from a manual to an electric typewriter. But the publisher went into involuntary liquidation shortly after the first printing, a second printing was not to be, and Gaiman was never paid all the royalties owed. It was the thing he’d absolutely done for the money, and then never received the money. And it taught him a lovely lesson: he’d spent three and a half months writing a book that he didn’t want to read. Never again.

On what he found most appealing about the comic form: Starting out, it was a lot less intimidating than prose. As a young writer, he was acutely aware that people had been writing novels for 3000 years and “you’re sitting on the shelf with people who are really, really good at this thing.” Comics had only been around for about 100 years. “You could do the equivalent of walking into a jungle with a machete.” He got to do things in Sandman noone had ever done. “There were things I did that weren’t against the rules because noone had ever thought to make those rules.”

He went off comics as an adolescent but then as a young journalist picked up an Alan Moore Swamp Thing in Victoria Station. Two months later, he made a decision that comics were what he wanted to write. Back then, the literati viewed comics as the lowest of the low. But, says Gaiman, “I miss those days. It’s really fun creating things in the gutter because nobody’s looking. You can go off and do really interesting work and nobody cares. Only you and the people reading it. And that as a dialogue and that as a world is a wonderful, wonderful thing. You have enormous freedom.”

It’s 1986, the year that Maus, Dark Knight, and Watchmen are just coming out. Gaiman decides to write a piece on this hugely exciting literary development. He finds an editor at the (UK) Sunday Times Magazine willing to accept his pitch. He sends the piece in, but when he phones a few days later to get the editor’s thoughts, the editor tells him the piece lacks balance. “Lacks balance? In what way?” asks Gaiman. “Well, these comics,” the editor replies, “you seem to think they are a good thing.” Gaiman agrees; the article does lack balance in that way. The editor sends him a kill fee for the piece.

On the Graveyard Book: the book was in his head for 23 years. When the idea first occurs to Gaiman, he thinks the idea is better than the writer he is at the time. So he puts the project away until he’s a better writer. And every four or five years he pulls it out and writes a page. Finally, in 2003, he decides he isn’t getting better as a writer anymore and waiting no longer makes sense.

On holidays: he can do them for about a day and a half. By day two, he’s in his bathing suit saying “Kill me, kill me now.” So it’s day two, he’s sitting on the deck chair and he’s surreptitiously writing in his notebook. And he reads what he’s written to his daughter and she asks, “What happens next?” She asks the question. And that’s how he really got started on the Graveyard Book.

On his new found politicization: Sandman came out in an era when all the other British writers had bloodsucking Margaret Thatchers on their covers. Gaiman remained nonpolitical, however, until 2003 and the invasion of Baghdad. At that time, people started comparing Bush’s official statements on torture with lines from Sandman — and he loved it. He was more political than he thought. As it turns out, “Politics and people are not removable, one from the other,” he says. “At any point that you are saying anything about the nature of history, of countries, you are talking about politics. At any point that you are up there as an author writing about people that other people do not want written about … you are absolutely being political, you are saying things people do not want said, and other people are reacting to it.”

On working with artists: every relationship is personal. He writes a script that is a letter to that particular artist. He sometimes asks the artist, “What is that you like to draw that noone ever lets you draw?” and that can become a story. The answer becomes the parameter for his work. “Artists work really well when given boundaries,” he says with a smile.

Gaiman tells tale after tale. You begin to feel that you can listen to him forever. And when he tells you that when he’s in the deepest throes of writing he writes 6000-7000 words a day and “it’s all a bit mad,” you don’t doubt it. One has the sense that Gaiman is obsessed, in the best possible way, with stories. Stories pop up everywhere and he seems incapable of forgetting a visual. He mentions being seventeen years old and seeing two men in tatty suits, one short and oily, one larger, coming toward him. Not being able to shake the slightly menacing encounter, he knows then that the men must appear in a story — and thus were Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandermar of 1996’s Neverwhere born.

A final, terrific note from an audience member asks Gaiman whether he realizes that at the beginning of the event he was sitting in a position that resembles the way Morpheus, his famous hero of Sandman, a character that is himself an anthropomorphic personification of Dream, sits. Gaiman acknowledges that he puts a lot of himself into all his characters and muses that he didn’t anticipate, however, that his own famous hair would one day come to resemble the hair he drew long ago for Morpheus. One wonders just how thin that line between self and work truly is for this gifted novelist who seems to love reality and fantasy with equal fervor. As the audiences greets Gaiman’s closing lines and subsequent exit with yet another fabulous roar, we all head out to purchase, with unfeigned eagerness, his books, all of which promise to bring us yet more dreams.

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for this enthusiastic
    Thanks for this enthusiastic report.

    I’m reminded of the time I revealed my uncoolness when Steve Aylett asked me, by email, what I thought of the movie V for Vendetta. I replied that some of the film was quite good, but other parts were too much like a comic book. Imagine my chagrin when I finally found out that Vendetta is based on an Alan Moore comic!

  2. That’s a great story, Bill.
    That’s a great story, Bill. An irony for those of us who go into publishing is that often we do so thinking that then it’ll be our job to be on top of everything, but, of course, our necessary focus on our own lists and genres means that we can easily miss an author whose buzz is building outside our daily bailiwicks. On the more positive side, it’s one of the most wonderful things about publishing that it is always full of surprises.

  3. Love Gaiman’s work,
    Love Gaiman’s work, especially the novels, but I can’t but notice that you barely mention in passing what has to be one of the most fascinating books around. I must have read Neverwhere at least 10 times and always found something deeper in it. Better than American Gods, better than the Ananci Boys, Neverwhere is a stunningly good *and* gripping book. It’s apparently hard to achieve that kind of mental, moral, emotional depth and, at the same time, write a story that you can’t put down. At least, it must be extremely difficult – very few authors ever manage it.

  4. Thanks, Michael! Jessica,
    Thanks, Michael! Jessica, thanks for the Neverwhere tip. It wasn’t one of books discussed at any length at the PEN event, but it does sound great.

  5. So Dedi – I just found this
    So Dedi – I just found this article (wonderful) and wondered….have you read any Gaiman since it was written?

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