There aren’t many authors who can make a largely female crowd gasp and swoon with every dulcet word, but Neil Gaiman is definitely one of them. Ostensibly at BEA to deliver an address on why storytelling is dangerous, Gaiman’s Saturday morning talk was more about toeing the line and promoting the Gaiman brand. He tossed off e-cards into the crowd like a guitar god cheerfully throwing picks. And he did manage to win over a few skeptics (including this reporter).
“So this morning I got here and I signed 1000 books,” said Gaiman at the start, which was followed by ribald applause. “Each of you gets two books.” One of the books was Make Good Art, which will be published in December.
He was dressed all in black and settled into his chair with a confident and carefully rehearsed ease.
“There isn’t really a Writing Author Lessons 101,” said Gaiman. “But if there was, there would be a list of dos and don’ts. I know that in the don’t column, ‘Don’t have a major novel for adults coming out in June followed by a book for kids in December’ would be high on the list.”
The YA book, which tells the tale of what happened to a father who leaves the house to get milk for the family cereal (among his adventures: being kidnapped by aliens who want to replace the Earth’s mountains with throw cushions and turn Australia into a huge decorative plate), is Fortunately, the Milk, which is illustrated by Skottie Young. Gaiman revealed that the connection came through Twitter, when Young had expressed interest in working with him. “If you need a time-traveling stegosaurus in a hot air balloon,” said Gaiman, “Skottie Young is your man.”
The adult book is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was partially inspired by a friend down on his luck who stole Gaiman’s famiily Mini, drove it down to the end of the lane, and committed suicide. It involves the Hempstocks, who have figured in Stardust and The Graveyard Book, but was a long time in coming.
“The problem with writing a story about the Hempstocks is that they lived at the end of my lane.”
Ocean started off as a short story, which Gaiman wrote because he missed his wife, who was in Melbourne for four months recording an album. “I wanted to write a story that’s not about my family,” said Gaiman, “but that’s very much about what it was to see the world through my eyes when I was seven.”
“I’ve heard people point to writing and say that it can be like driving by night. Writing this for me was like driving by night with one headlight out in the thick fog. You can just see far enough ahead not to drive off the road.”
Halfway through the appearance, Gaiman copped, “This has nothing to do with why fiction is dangerous.” He carried on by describing how he got into trouble as a boy by reading books and learning from them. He learned how to dye his father’s white shirts a deep purply red using a common beet root and got into trouble. He learned how to make toffee and became aware of its natural properties. “It will shatter like glass and completely cover the floor of the classroom.”
After offering these biographical exemplars, Gaiman shifted to his views about fiction.
“Fiction is dangerous, of course, because it lets you into other people’s heads. Fiction is dangerous because it gives you empathy. Fiction is dangerous because it shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one you live in.”
Gaiman described going to various companies (Google, where one of his sons works, Apple, and Microsoft) and asking the people who invented what they read as children. “They all said, we read science fiction. We read fantasy.”
“Getting into other people’s heads is dangerous,” continued Gaiman, “incredibly dangerous.”
At this point, the floor was open to questions and the talk about “dangerous fiction” was regrettably tabled. Gaiman was asked about the worst sentences he has ever written. He pointed to the story “Night of the Crabs.” One of the offending sentences: “He wasn’t going to leave Pat Benson alone that night, crabs or no crabs.”
He harbored fantasies as a young writer that he would be rewarded for his stories by a limo showing up at his house. “People would get out of it and say this is yours. We love your stories so much.”
As Gaiman described his early writing development, there was a curious pecuniary fixation. He had taped an inspirational Muddy Waters quote next to his typewriter: “Don’t let your mouth write no checks that your tail can’t cash.” He talked of an early teacher who had offered him ten shillings to read the entirety of Gone with the Wind.
He said that he was proudest of his kids, which caused the crowd to loosen an “Ahhhhhh!” that could have found a home on an episode of Community. When one audience member’s phone went off, followed by a cry of “Shit,” Gaiman responded, “Isn’t it embarrassing when that happens? If it’s any consolation, it’s usually up here.”
In other words, Gaiman is well-practiced at working the room.
Gaiman mentioned that the Ameican Gods TV show is still in development at HBO. He has finished a script and he’s waiting to hear back for notes. He compared the relationship to “a game of tennis,” leading this reporter to wonder if there was a dependable racket that didn’t involve thrones. Gaiman talked about introducing material that had never appeared in the book.
“The process has been more HBO going, ‘Can you make it more like the book?'”
Gaiman said he still feels doubt. “I’m a weird mixture of appalling arrogance and absolute self-doubt and humility. Like a nightmarish layer cake.”
He doesn’t write for any specific age. “There’s no such thing as a book just for kids. Because every book is going to have to be read aloud by someone your age.” Every novel is different for Gaiman. After writing American Gods, Gaiman told Gene Wolfe that he had figured out how to write a novel. “He looked at me with infinite pity and said, ‘Neil, you never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel you’re on.'”
He did talk about his affinity for Jack Benny’s old radio program. “They get good around 1942,” after Benny had gone through three sets of writers. He mentioned starting a story about Jack Benny, but, tellingly, he did not mention Fred Allen.
There wasn’t much elaboration on Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech. This was an appearance to please the crowds. But the very minute that his hour expired, he was led out the door by his handlers, walking with the pace of a rock star with a hectic schedule.