Neil Gaiman is an easier man to reach than many of the people who work for him. That is sometimes the case with the really big and famous. So I persevere with my attempts to get to talk to Neil when he comes to Edinburgh, in spite of not having understood until recently, quite how big Neil Gaiman is. But at least I’m not alone in this. Vanessa, of Fidra Books which is hosting his event this evening, was also quite clueless when she first contacted him.
Encouraged by Glasgow author Julie Bertagna, who is a big fan, I lean on Ian Lamb from Bloomsbury for so long, that the poor man gives in and allows the bookwitch a generous time slot with Neil at his Edinburgh hotel. Julie comes along, as I firmly believe there can never be too many authors at once. The hotel has bookwitch coloured chairs in its grand meeting room, and they serve some very welcome tea.
Julie and Neil discuss book signings and Neil mentions his first one for children, which he’d found terrifying. Julie says she does mostly teenagers, and she reckons adults will be well behaved even if they’re not interested. “Yes”, says Neil, “kids will talk quietly amongst themselves, or not quietly.” “Or open a packet of crisps”, agrees Julie.
Bookwitch – “Neil, I believe your first contact with Vanessa at Fidra was about some favourite childhood books of yours, which you wanted her to republish?”
Neil - “No, it all started with two journalists who were talking amongst themselves about favourite childhood books, and they got on to the subject of Victoria Walker’s books, and they emailed me, because I’d mentioned the books online. They asked ‘did you ever read The Winter of Enchantment?’ and I said ‘yes, it was a favourite’ and he said ‘whatever happened to it?’ And so I mused publicly on my blog on whatever happened to Victoria Walker? You have this children’s writer who is loved and remembered, and her books that were going for up to £900 online, and nobody knew what had happened to her.
We tried to track her down and somebody who read my blog and was also a book dealer put two and two together and he contacted her. He emailed me and I then got contacted by Fidra because they wanted me to blog about this, and they just thought I was some cheerful blogger. I got a nice email from Vanessa thanking me for talking about Victoria Walker and letting me know all these books were now back in print. Then another email saying she had heard I maybe was a writer and if I needed any plugging, she’d love to help out with my books.” (We all laugh.) “So that’s why I’m signing in her bookshop today. She’d heard that I was a writer.“
Julie - “ And then she curled up and died…”
Bookwitch – “I was no better. I went to a signing of yours in London a few years ago, and the queue just never got any shorter, so I went away again. I had no idea of your cult following. Neil, where does your interest for Norse Gods and stuff like that come from?”
Neil - “Probably Roger Lancelyn Green and The Myths of the Norsemen, aged about seven.”
Bookwitch – “Oh, the one you tried to put alphabetically onto your bookshelf?”
Neil - “Yes, although actually it wasn’t my copy. It belonged to my friend. The one I owned was the Tales of Ancient Egypt, which was the one I had to try and figure out whether it went with the Ls or the Gs. I put it with the Ls …”
Bookwitch - “Do you still do that with books?”
Neil - “Well, yes, although it was an awful lot easier when I only had thirty or forty of the buggers. Now it’s an awful lot harder. With fiction things have sort branched off and have their own sections and once you get into the realms of non-fiction you… And trying to keep plays together and poetry together and …”
Bookwitch - “Did you go to university, because that is often where you pick up that sort of interest?”
Neil - “No, I was seven and I would have been very, very advanced. No, I just loved that stuff. At about that age, they were reprinting the Thor comics from about 1960, in an English comic which I think was called Fantastic, may have been Terrific. It was one of the Odhams Press. They had Wham!, Smash!, Fantastic and Terrific, and one of them was reprinting the old Thor comics.”
Julie - “My brother used to get those.”
Neil - Yep, Dr Don Blake trapped in a cave on a holiday in Norway or somewhere, finds a stick or something, bangs it and becomes Thor. So, whether or not I bumped into that first, or the Lancelyn Green stuff first, I don’t know. It was about the same time, but one sort of informed the other.”
Bookwitch - “And you don’t have any other connections with the Nordic countries?”
Neil - “No, other than you know, I love them, and they’re very odd, gloomy, wonderful places.”
Bookwitch - “As a Swede I was taken by your knowledge of the meaning of Wednesday. I have not read American Gods yet.”
Neil - “Oh, you’ve missed this nice Norse stuff in there. I think American Gods is a novel that actually makes a lot more sense than - who wants tea? - I think it’s probably one that makes a lot more sense to people who know the Norse Gods, because you definitely need to understand that they are not your friends. (Laughs.) It’s a weird concept I think, for some people to get, because they get very used to the idea that Gods are people-like parents who love you and adore you. The Norse Gods never were that. Even Thor is mostly pictured as being, he’s not very bright, he’s not the smartest one in the block, you know. Odin is somebody you really … given the choice of having him come to your house or not come to your house, you don’t want him in your house. And it’s all gonna end in tears, (Pours tea.) all heading towards Ragnarök. And by the way, everyone’s gonna die.
The funny thing about the Norse Gods for me is that it’s something I keep thinking I’ve got out of my system. I loved doing them in Sandman, and then they seemed so right for American Gods. I don’t always remember (where I get my ideas from), but I do with American Gods. I had bits of it knocking around inside my head, but I didn’t know what it was. Then I was in Iceland and it was one of these things when the plane was gonna give me a thirty hour stopover in Iceland, and I landed at six o’clock in the morning and had not slept on the flight, and I thought ‘well, I’ll just keep going until it gets dark’, which would have been a really sensible thing to think had it not been July 3rd, which meant that at four am I was lying there in a hotel room with curtains that didn’t seem to be doing anything to keep the light out, wishing that I hadn’t left the little eye things that they gave me on the plane, on the plane.
In a world were darkness doesn’t happen, and that night I didn’t sleep, so I was pushing forty hours when I had been wide awake. I remember wandering the next morning through Reykjavik to a tourist display at the tourist office, and seeing a little diorama of the travels of the great Vinland expedition, and how it worked, and where they put their colonies. Looking at it going from Iceland to Greenland I thought, ‘I wonder if they brought their Gods with them?’ and it was a sudden moment of ‘oh, that’s a book, that’s everything. OK that’s my book’. I went back to my hotel room and wrote essentially the outline to American Gods in a slightly sleep deprived state. Really, it was enormous fun, just trying to get the sheer grumpy mean cunningness of the Norse Gods in there. They come out much nicer in Odd and the Frost Giants.”
Bookwitch - “Yes, they’re nearly nice.”
Neil - “Yes, nearly nice. You know they may have been nice to have around while they were a mad eagle, a gloomy bear and a too-smart-for-his-own-good fox, but at the point where they turn back into Gods, you really do start to feel you don’t want to hang around with any of these people very much. I always loved Loki’s flyting which is one of these great little stories that doesn’t really have a plot. Loki turns up, and all of the Gods are having dinner and they threaten him. Basically it’s Loki turning up and just flyting, basically means just insulting them, going round the table one by one pulling out pieces of information, that may or may not be true, but certainly are all true enough to sting, on each of the Gods. It’s very much the equivalent of you know; I’ve had your wife, she said I was better than you; and you like little boys; and you get drunk. I like the fact I had Loki getting drunk and saying things he shouldn’t have done and basically being carried out… I try to leave them (the Norse Gods) alone, but they tend to creep back into the story. I get very bored with the Greek Gods.”
Julie - “It’s interesting with the classic templates. Coraline is really Alice.”
Neil - “I read Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland too many times as a kid.”
Julie - “I haven’t got my hands on The Graveyard Book yet, but I’ve read about it and it is basically The Jungle Book.”
Neil - “It’s odd, because it’s a bit The Jungle Book, and then PL Travers kept creeping in on the edges. I basically took the initial idea of The Jungle Book and of course you have the dead child and the family and the child wanders out and is threatened by the menace of the wolves, and Bagheera comes in and says ‘I will be his guardian’ and you’re there. In the case of The Graveyard Book it pretty much matches that beat for beat, with a gentleman called Silas standing in for Bagheera, and after that I didn’t really plan to go back and do anymore, but then I thought you’ve got that wonderful chapter with the monkeys, and I had this idea of these little ghouls; I’ll do a little story with them, and I’ll do something inspired shapewise by the ghouls.
When PL Travers did the Mary Poppins book she would do a story with a title like Bad Tuesday, where one of the kids would have a really bad day, and they would run off and they would be walking into a mirror or they would go into a plate or something like that, and they would have to be rescued by Mary Poppins, who’d be off on her day off anyway, and come back. The other great thing with wanting to do what PL Travers did, were these odd little stories where everybody would go down to the park and there would be a sort of magical eruption that Mary Poppins had created, and the world of normality would interchange, and you’d become someone just for the space of a chapter, or an hour and then it would be over, and everybody would be floating through the park on balloons or whatever.
I did a chapter called Dance Macabre where the living and the dead get to meet. It came from a book by Leland called Rich and Poor Dance the Same Way. I learned that the original pronunciation of the word we pronounce macabre, was ‘machabrae’ and I thought ‘rich and poor dance the same way, they dance the maccabrae’; there’s my story.”
Bookwitch - “I don’t think I was aware of your Hitchhikers’ Guide companion Don’t Panic at the time. How do you feel about Eoin Colfer writing a new Hitchhiker book?”
Neil – “Puzzled, actually. Mostly. Because I think you could line up a thousand Hitchhikers’ Guide fans and ask how many of them would like to read the Further Adventures of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox, and they’d give you a funny look. Nobody ever came to that story for the plot. Nobody ever came to it for the characters. You never liked the characters. Douglas made no pretence they were meant to be anything other than paper thin. We came for the sentences, and you came for the idea, and most of all you came for the world view.
Eoin is very smart, and I like him a lot and I’m sure he will write his Hitchhikers book with a great deal more enthusiasm and enjoyment, and finish them much much more quickly, than Douglas ever would have done. But I don’t see the point; on a deep fundamental sort of level I don’t see the point. Nobody is waiting for them. It’s not like Douglas finished mid cliff hanger and everyone going ‘oh my God, what is going to happen to Marvin?’ because nobody cares what’s going to happen to Marvin. What we want is another good Marvin gag. We like Marvin to come on and be depressed, but you’d like it in the context of a wonderful Douglas Adams sentence .
Exactly the same way I would feel just as baffled if someone announced that Eoin Colfer was going to be writing more Emsworth and Jeeves books for the P G Wodehouse estate. Nobody is going ‘I need more stories about Jeeves and Wooster’. What they’re going is ‘do we miss P G Wodehouse? Would we like more brilliantly turned and more brilliantly convoluted plots?’ Of course we would, but I don’t want Eoin to write them any more than I want Stephen Fry to write them or anybody else. What I’d like is more P G Wodehouse, but if I can’t have that I don’t want more Jeeves and Wooster.
I would like more Douglas Adams. I would like more Douglas Adams, by somehow going back in time and fixing it so that when he keels over, clutching his chest he gets back up again. That’s how I’d like him to get back to actually writing books. And he then writes a book accidentally and then wakes up and looks surprised, and then waits another month or five months or another five years, before he writes another one. That’s how Douglas wrote best. Whatever he (Eoin) produces I’m sure it will be very good, will probably have a plot, which kind of rules it out as a proper Hitchhiker book right there.” (Lots of giggling in the background.)
Bookwitch (to the photographer) - “I was thinking, Ian, that since I’ve got you here; do you want to ask your usual question?”
Ian – “What’s your opinion of Mr Philip Pullman?”
Neil – “A terribly, terribly nice man.”
Ian – “And his writing?”
Neil – “I’ve never read anything but the Golden Compass books and feel bad about that. I should read some of the other stuff.”
Ian – “They are by far the best.”
Neil – “Very possibly, but I haven’t read anything else to compare. I enjoyed them. I read the first one aloud to my daughter and then read the second and third for pleasure myself. Did not like the movie. At all. I know that it’s not his fault, it’s nothing to do with him really. It’s just like all the things that were so amazing about the book, and the pleasure of being in, and discovering an alternate universe, which is a very specific pleasure, weren’t there. And beyond that, I don’t know. I kept finding myself thinking that I couldn’t understand why the religious people in America were up in arms about it. (Laughs.) It left me baffled.”
Ian – “Would you like any of that attention and hatred directed at any of your texts for publicity; good publicity?”
Julie – (laughing) “I don’t think you need any.”
Neil – “Ahm, I don’t know that I have sold significantly less books than Philip Pullman. I may have done it slightly more under the radar. I guess it’s something I kind of like. I enjoy existing under the radar, and am probably always convinced that I’m further under the radar than I am. I used to like best the days when it was either ‘Oh my God he’s my favourite author’, or ‘Who?’ and there was nothing else.”
Julie - “When I was at university you were a cult author for my generation, so you’ve still got that mindset, you’ve gone beyond cult author.”
Neil - “But in my head I’m still a cult author.”
Julie - “For the guys I know you are the cult author, and you’ll always be that. I think it’s quite unusual, because you are huge selling and you’re no longer that cult author, but for some people you’ll always be their special author. It’s a great thing to straddle, isn’t it?”
Neil – “I think part of that is because I’ve never gone gone quantum, in any particular place. I just bubble under. These days I get to be a children’s cult author, even in a world where The Graveyard Book has come out and it’s now three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and the first two at number one. And it may well bubble back at number one. But I’m still a children’s cult author.”
Julie - “Yes, but you were blogging. You were one of the first to blog, and that kind of adds to the aura. Can I ask you something quickly, because I came across this funny thing the other day, which made me laugh, because it’s the kind of thing I get asked all the time. ‘Why is Gaiman, 48 next month, (you’re not!), messing about with kids’ stories and comics at his age?’ and I just…” (laughs)
Neil – “Wow!”
Julie - “I think it was meant as a compliment. It was a nice article. That was the beginning of the article.”
Neil - “What a wonderful concept!”
Julie - “Isn’t it?”
Neil - “But what a horrible world it would be in which I wasn’t allowed to mess around with kids’ books and things. I do worry about respectability. Every now and then I worry that I might be respectable. And I, no I think I’m still … as long as people say things like that I’m probably going to be all right.”
Julie – “Good answer. The other one is, I was talking to a librarian recently. I was going round schools, and she was saying ‘People like you. The things you write are so dark, so terrible. You should start writing happy books for the nation’s children’. Then I was reading something about tough times, how reading is even tougher. In the 1930s depression they were looking back to The Little House on the Prairie, and things like that, which is really about destitution. But you, you like to play in the dark, or with darkness.”
Neil – “There was a quote that I misquoted from Chesterton at the beginning of Coraline, where I was quoting or misquoting the famous Chesterton line where he says ‘you are not telling children that the bogeyman exists, you are telling children, because they know the bogeyman exists, you’re telling children the bogeyman can be defeated.’ and that for me is the cool thing, that’s what fiction is all about. I guess I could probably write a story about some happy bunnies, (snorts) who prance around in the fields and then continue to be happy and then some happy things happen, and then they have a really nice day. I’d probably get kind of bored, but…”
Julie – (laughing) “Bunny hops!”
Neil - “The kind of fiction that you see a lot on the American Disney channel, sort of Winnie the Pooh cartoons, and things like that, all made for Disney, in which there’s no plot. The nearest you’re allowed to get to a plot is Piglet thinks that everybody has forgotten Piglet’s birthday, but actually they are planning a surprise party. Everything’s all right and there was never anything to worry about. Whatever you were worrying about wasn’t worth worrying about and I don’t know what anybody’s gonna learn from that. If you’re gonna teach kids, I don’t believe that children’s fiction is without purpose.
I think that it’s very important to teach kids about important things, but I think cool important things, like the fundamental message of Coraline, which is being scared and being brave is not not being scared; being brave is being scared and doing it anyway. That for me was a big thing. It took me 30 years to figure out. I went through my entire childhood thinking I was a coward because I was scared, because if you were brave you weren’t scared. Whether I did the thing or not, didn’t matter, because I was scared. Actually bravery has nothing to do with not being scared, because if you’re not scared then you have nothing to be brave about. Being brave is the point where you go ‘I’m absolutely terrified, and I’m going to do the thing anyway’. That’s bravery. And I thought, ‘that’s good, I’m gonna put that in a book’.”
Julie - “I think young people are pleased about that, because you go the edges of things. Childhood and young adulthood is always about feeling on the edge of things, not quite in control.”
Neil – “It’s about powerlessness, you know. You’re always dealing with a world, and the first graphic novel I ever did was called Violent Cases, which is a piece of adult fiction, but it’s a piece of adult fiction about adult memories of being three years old and the sheer powerlessness of living in a world of capricious giants, who seem to know what’s going on, when you don’t, and trying to make sense of this world, and of kids trying to make sense of this world in which 1960s Portsmouth and 1920s Chicago seem to be melding.”
Neil starts signing the books we’ve brought with us. Julie says that her daughter will kill her if her copy of Coraline doesn’t get signed. And she points out that if Neil notices us later that evening, we are not actually stalking him, as we’ve been invited to the event where he’s talking.
Neil – “So, which Scandinavian country are you from?”
Bookwitch - “Sweden.”
Neil – “Marvellous place.”
Bookwitch - “Yes, it’s not bad. Whenever I’ve told people that you moved from England to Minnesota, they say ‘why?’. But I do understand.”
Neil – “It’s filled with Swedes and Norwegians and the occasional Finn.”
Bookwitch - “Exactly. I think you expect that somebody rich or famous would go to New York or Los Angeles, or what have you, but not the middle of ‘nowhere’.”
Neil - “That’s a good point. When I finally get round to moving back I’ll probably move to Skye where the weather will be even worse in some ways. At times of really nasty weather in places like Minneapolis I have seen rain go from side to side. Skye is the only place I’ve ever seen rain go up. It comes down, goes along and then back up. It didn’t go up very far, but I’ve talked to a friend who’s an architect, and he says ‘yes, when they build you have to build for a world in which the rain can be carried along and then up again’.”
Neil - (Sighs loudly) “This is the strangest pen. It’s a pen I was given and that I’d never tried prior to this tour, but it’s actually unforgiving in that the moment it runs out of ink it’s out of ink, and you’ll be halfway through a word and it doesn’t fade gradually. – So tell me about bookwitch.”
Bookwitch - “It’s the best children’s book blog there is. Lots of authors like it.”
Julie - “You’ve become a cult, too, haven’t you?”
Neil mentions the plane delay that morning, and how he and Joanna from Bloomsbury had a proper huge English breakfast, because there might not be time for lunch. Julie says that when she signs she takes the Queen Mother’s advice never to say no to a toilet stop. Neil’s policy is ‘never refuse the offer of a toilet or food and never refuse the point where they say ‘we’ve got 45 minutes, would you just like to go back to your room and lie down?’. “Trouble is when you actually go back to your room you try and get online, and you fail or you get halfway through a blog entry, and someone’s knocking on the door.” To the photographer about Good Omens; “the problem with this of course it’s that it’s really unlikely that Terry Pratchett will ever come out again and do a signing tour in our life time.”
Ian - “We’ll run him down.”
Neil - “Good, because he’s meant to do the punch line on that.” Goes on to comment on the iPod recorder; “very smart”.
Bookwitch - “I impressed Eoin Colfer with it, and I thought he was so into gadgets that he wouldn’t be.”
Neil – “And the mike’s built into that one?”
Bookwitch - “No, it’s a loose thing, you just attach it and it records.”
Ian – “I think the new ones might come with mikes. I don’t know.”
Neil - “They don’t. I bought one. I bought something online like that but it actually came with a little twisty sort of mike.”
Julie - “I googled you, and apparently there is an online protest group to get you a phone, Neil. Did you know that? I thought that was hilarious (laughs). I wish somebody would do that for me. I write something on my blog and it actually happens.”
Neil - “The embarrassing thing about that was of course; I just thought it was a funny story. The way that it happened was I click on an advert for the new G1, and I click on an ad that says T-Mobile phones. I go, right, I’m interested, I’d like to touch one, and I should be writing right now, so driving down to my T-Mobile dealer is a perfect displacement activity.
So I got my car, drove down, walked in and there’s a huge G1 poster on the door and I go, I’m in the right place, and it was like the Monty Python cheese shop. I said I’d like to play with the G1, please, and the guy in the shop goes ‘we don’t have one’, and I go, ‘when are you getting them in?’ ‘We won’t be, (Neil laughs) we’re not the right area. It doesn’t work here.’ ‘You have posters here’ ‘Yeah, they sent them to us, but they won’t be sending us the phones’. So I thought I’ll go back and blog about it. I think it’s funny. Within 45 minutes I have a guy from Google who says ‘I’ve got one sitting on my desk. Would you like it?’”
Julie – “That’s quick. The power of blogging.”
Neil - “Before this, this group had formed, and now I have had T-Mobile writing to me.”
Julie - “You must sit at home wondering what you can ask for next.’
Neil - “The trouble is you never know what happens. I just wrote that for fun one evening, and it got picked up and that thing turned up at all the text sites and everybody decided to blog about it. I can guarantee that absolutely the entirety of the T-Mobile and Google echelon were reading the story of me unable to buy the phone.”
It’s time for us to vacate our purple chairs, as Ian from Bloomsbury comes to chase us out, in the nicest possible way. I feel sorry for Neil having to chat at length, over and over again, but he does it so well. I hope that he will get his offer of 45 minutes, but I suspect he won’t.
A few hours later when we see him again at the Church Hill Theatre, he looks as good as new, and he sounds it, too. After a rapturous reception from his fans, Neil reads the Dance Macabre chapter, which goes down really well. At a guess, many of the fans have yet to read The Graveyard Book, as it’s just been published, so the reading feels fresh to most of the audience.
In the questions and answers session afterwards I was sorry that we didn’t get to hear Vanessa’s son’s question of whether Neil likes Lego. I’d have loved to find that out. But Neil reassures his fans that he doesn’t feel that JK Rowling stole Harry Potter from him.
Neil also says that he doesn’t really make any difference between adult and children’s fiction. To him it’s just fiction. He just wants to write. Neil tells of when he wrote Coraline for his children, and he read it to his daughter, who loved it. Then he sent it to his agent, who thought it was too scary for children. Neil suggested she should read it to her children, who also loved it. It appears we get more scared as we get older.
And I forget why, but Neil told the audience that Ibsen is very boring. Not enough Norse Gods, perhaps.
(All photos by Ian Giles.)