Neil Gaiman is about to take the stage here at BookExpo America for a presentation titled “Why Fiction is Dangerous.” Here begins the liveblog. Click on the headline of this post if you can’t see the miniposts.
Now they hand out the books. Only 500 copies of both the books. OK. I am now officially a fan of this guy.
What the rest of these cards say is, “Thank you, Neil.”
Q. What have you learned from listening to Jack Benny?
A. A lot about America. They get good around 1942. He’s gone through three sets of writers. He gets some pretty cool writers, as good as he is. I should be able to say, “Well…timing.” I’ve started a story on a fictionalized version of Jack Benny. I have notebooks of things that exist in a kind of a half life. One called Pirate Stew, have been working on it for years, and the Jack Benny Project.
A. Is writing of each book different?
Q. (yes). Told someone after completing American Gods, I think I’ve learned how to write a novel. You only learn how to write the novel you’re writing. Sequels? He gets distracted by what’s new.
Q. Origin of All Hallow’s Read?
A. I was on a plane, with time to kill. There was Internet. I just thought wouldn’t it be interesting if people gave each other scary books at Halloween? So I just said on the Internet, what would you call it. On Twitter, dozens of replies came in, including All Hallows Read. Registered the web site. Stephen King loved it – no idea why (laughter).
Q. Which age group do you prefer writing for?
A. Mostly I don’t think about age group. My kids have 12-year age gap. So you spend 20 years reading books aloud. There is no such thing as a book for kids, because every kids book is going to have to be read by someone your age (gesturing to audience). You want to do the best you can, for the adults who will be reading them aloud.
Q. Did you ever fantasize about being a hot librarian.
A. No. Because hot librarians are probably a very different gender from me. The professions I fantasized about were English teacher and librarian. They were the people I loved and respected. I didn’t know I’d be good at being them. But when I was 7 I put all my books in alphabetical order. I loved books. Librarians tell me never to tell people this… I talked my parents into dropping me off at the library on their way to work. Read through children’s library and started on the adult.
Q. After 30 years of success, do you still feel doubt?
A. Yeah. How can you not? And it hasn’t been 30 years of success. Some stories work, some don’t. I am a mix of appalling arrogance and self-doubt.
Q. How is The American Gods TV show coming?
A. It’s like a very slow game of tennis. (with HBO). I started it with things not in the book. They keep going, “Can you make it more like the book?” Right now, I finished a script and we’re waiting for their notes.
Q. What accomplishment are you proudest of, outside of writing.
A. My 3 kids. They baffle me in really cool ways. My oldest, Mike, is a software engineer at Google. I ask what are you doing. He says, “Wa wa wa wa….” Holly is a milliner, who makes great hats. Maddy is at Wake Forest and she’s awesome. She’s interning on Team Vogue this summer. So I’ll be getting the female equivalent of “Wa wa wa wa…”
Q. Who was your favorite teacher?
A. Mr. Hays. English teacher. He gave me money. I would have been 10 or 11 and he said, “Have you ever read Gone with the Wind? I’ll give you 10 shillings if you read Gone with the Wind.” So he did. It absolutely moved him from the ranks of Pretty Good Teacher to My Absolutely Favorite Teacher.
Q. How do you handle rejection?
A. You write stories, send them out. As a young man I would expect that the following morning a limo would show up at my house and people would get out of it and say, ‘This is yours. We loved this story so much, you can have it.’ Instead, a little slip would come back saying “not quite right for us.” As a very young man I got rejections and thought either I’m not very good or I need to change. So became a journalist to find out how it all worked. Two months later sold two books. I vowed to myself that I would write things that were so brilliant that no one could reject them.
Now, I worry that no one will tell me if I’ve written a dumb short story…
His editor: I’ll tell you!
Q. What is the worst sentence you ever wrote?
A. 1985, my first real book, Ghastly Beyond Belief, my compilation of the worst quotes from fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Like from Night of the Crabs, “What a beautiful night this would be…if it weren’t for the threat of giant crabs.” Or, “He wasn’t going to leave Janice Williams alone that night, crabs or no crabs.”
“Letting people know the world can be different is incredibly dangerous.” Now to the questions…
“Fiction is dangerous because it gives you empathy.” It shows you that the world does not have to be the way it is. Gaiman was in China in 2007 for a sci-fi convention. Communist Party had agreed to let it happen, the first such convention. Panels for young writers. Gaiman took a party official aside and said, “Look, while not actually illegal, scifi has been regarded as dangerous and subversive for a long time in China.” They weren’t sure if it was criticism of government or not. “Why have you said yes to this?” He said, “In China, we’re really good at making things that people bring to us – iPods etc. But we don’t invent.” They went to America and talked to people at Google and Apple and asked, what did you read as children. “We all read science fiction. We read fantasy. We can change the world.” That’s when they decided to encourage the reading of science fiction.
I now have a lump of toffee the size of a softball, put it in my pocket and took it to school. A lump of toffee will shatter like glass when it hits the floor and will cover the floor of the classroom. Will not be able to convince your math teacher this is something you would do on purpose. Why would I want to do this? This is my toffee! You will spend the rest of the class cleaning up. You will be given a note for the headmaster. “This is going to hurt you a lot more than it will hurt me.” Will hit you with a sneaker. THAT is why nonfiction is dangerous.
NON-fiction is dangerous, because when you are 8 years old you find books like A Thousand and One Things a Boy Can Do, and you do them. Did you know that you can dye your father’s white shirts a deep purply red with beet roots. They said this in the book. Father did not appreciate it. And then there was toffee making….
New novel is about taking refuge in books, relationship between fiction and people. This has nothing to do with Why Fiction is Dangerous. It’s the kind of topic you come up with six weeks before BEA, figuring you’ll come up with something. They said it would be a discussion. Who’s going to be in the discussion? You’ll just be talking. That’s not a discussion!
The Hemstocks are the family he created, who lived at the end of his lane. Put them in earlier books. Wrote about what it was like to see the world through his eyes at the age of 7, and the landscape that used to be strange and empty. “That was where it began.” Process of writing it got very dark. Writing can be like driving at night. Not just like driving at night – doing it with one light out, in fog. You can see just far enough ahead not to drive off the road.
Gaiman was 7 when this happened. Nobody told me. That was the beginning point for new novel. “The idea of that event sat in my head like little grains of sand that produce pearls, and it irritated me.” When he was 8, someone said a farm down the road from his house had been in the Doomsday Book, which meant it was a thousand years old. As a boy, he wondered if the people there had been there for a thousand years. He played with the idea growing up and always meant to write about them.
The new novel is a very dark little book. Funny to have two books coming out one that’s probably the silliest book I’ve ever done, the children’s book, and the novel. In 2003 Gaiman bought a Mini. My Dad came over to America, and I said, ‘Look, Mini.’” Dad had one in the 60s. Why did you get rid of it? Dad: We had a lodger from South Africa with money given by friends and he was meant to bank it for them. Instead he went to a casino in Brighton. He lost everything. He stole the Mini and committed suicide in it.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is another forthcoming novel, a much darker book. “I started writing a short story.” Then it was a novelette, and then I kept writing it. Then it was a novella – 18,000 to 40,000 words it’s still a novella. And then I got to the end, writing it longhand, typed it and did a word count. Sent my editor an awkward little note: I appear to have written a novel. I hope you don’t mind. And she didn’t.
“It was a thing that I was writing every time I felt like cheering myself up.” Took a year to write Fortunately the Milk. Eventually I looked it and realized it was a book. I handed that over a slightly bemused editor. On Twitter there’s an artist, Scottie Young, illustrated it.
Gaiman’s son told him, “I wish I didn’t have a Dad… I wish I had gold fish.” That led to his writing of his first children’s book, about a boy who swaps his Dad for two goldfish. The book has been popular, and it gets given to Dads. “I felt really guilty.” Decided to write “a Dad kind of story.” Starts out with him coming out to get milk for children’s cereal. He’s late, gets taken by aliens etc. Australia will be replaced by a huge decorative plate with an image of Australia on it.
“This year I have two accidental books coming out,” Neil Gaiman says. Tops on the “don’t” list: don’t have a major novel for adults come out in June followed by a kids’ book in September. It all happened accidentally.
Neil Gaiman waits to take the stage, listening to his introduction.
“There’s nothing I an do for anyone who’s stuck behind a pillar. You’re doomed.” I’ve signed a thousand books, because each of you gets two books. Also signed downloadable e-cards for overflow. We’ll be getting copies of Make Good Art (sighs, oohs and ahs, applause), and a book to be published in September, Fortunately the Milk. (gasps, applause)
Neil Gaiman’s greeting would befit a rock star here at #BEA13 . I suspect I am the only person in the room who has not read one of his books. He’s moving the podium so we can see him from the left side. I like him already.
Sitting next to me at the Neil Gaiman event is a passionate reader who is attending her first BookExpo America event. “I’ve been trying to get into this since I was 14 years old,” Lauren Marrero, 19, of Montville, NJ. Today is the day Power Readers can get into the show. This seems like an excellent idea. Lauren is going to try to get a Mary Higgins Clark autograph for her sister. It’s going to be a great day for her at the Javits Center. Me too!
Neil Gaiman is on my list of authors I hear good things about but have never read. Melissa Singer, an editor at Tor/Forge guided me to American Gods as a good first book to try. Hello Amazon Wish List!