Neil Gaiman in conversation with Claire Armistead, Royal Society of Literature, 17th June
They say you should never meet your heroes, and while I didn’t strictly meet Neil Gaiman, I felt as if I did. Maybe because I could actually see the speakers’ facial expressions for the first time in my life, being fairly myopic and therefore the delighted occupant of a front row seat for the occasion.
Anne Chisholm introduced the evening as the biggest ever event for RSL, with 1000 tickets sold. The subject of the talk was ‘Memory, Magic and Survival’ on the ticket, however Gaiman changed survival to time on the evening itself. Maybe to sound less exhausted at this stage of his gruelling tour schedule. He was there to introduce his last latest novel, before inevitably talking about comics, which is certainly why I was there. Claire Armistead, the literary editor of the Guardian, described Neil Gaiman as ‘many writers’. He said he is determined ‘never to pop out of the same hole twice’, crossing genres deliberately. Joe Wright is directing the film, the book was not due to even come out until 2 days after the event, the rights are sold, and the script being developed, such is Gaiman’s clout.
The pair discussed the Guardian webchat curated by Gaiman for readers to contribute to a live online story, as a way of creating a communal story made by hundreds of people. It started with the line: “It wasn’t just the murder, he decided. Everything else seemed to have conspired to ruin his day as well. Even the cat.” The response was so enthusiastic that the webchat was the only bit of the Guardian website that didn’t crash during Gaiman’s one day takeover. He has since started similar threads on Twitter, as part of what seems to be an ongoing push to build confidence in his readers’ self-confidence. His ‘Make Good Art’ graduation speech earlier this year was an online sensation.
Gaiman described his most recent novel – The Ocean at the End of the Lane – as accidental. It started as a short story for his wife as he missed her while she was abroad, a way of showing her the world he grew up in. The story grew from novelette to novella to a novel, although he only discovered this after typing it up.
What first sounded like a nostalgic Sussex story with autobiographical elements is actually a fairly dark tale that started from a revelation from Gaiman’s father, who found the family lodger dead in his Mini at their end of the lane; he had committed suicide after amassing gambling debts. The narrator may be seven, but this is not a children’s book. The suicide was driven by money, and the monsters in the novel are heralded by the act of giving of money, and all through the eyes of a child who doesn’t really understand the place of it. This is a book for adults who have forgotten the powerlessness of childhood. Gaiman said he wanted to get away from ‘weird magic’ in writing this book, but of course this is what ultimately emerged with the silver shilling extracted from the throat of the narrator on waking from a nightmare. There are fingers in eye sockets, a blurred line between dreaming and waking, the boundaries (or lack thereof) of myth and the feel of a shifting Leviathan of a story being coaxed off the ocean floor.
In a way that both revealed the extent of his influences (he read everything from a young age including Pony Club books) and explained the power of naming in the book, Gaiman referred to Mary Poppins as a Chthonic god to illustrate the power channelled by only ever referring to someone by their name and surname together. Gaiman professed his lifelong love of myth as a preference for darkness, rather than as a sugar coating fundamental truths. They are, after all, stories of deception and butchery. And to offset his description of this as his darkest and most disturbing book, he went on to plug his latest children’s book Fortunately the Milk, which is so wonderfully silly it includes a time travelling stegosaurus.
The amount of material he produces in a good year across genre and media is phenomenal. And yet, he described the anxiety he experienced in the Sandman graphic novel era that ‘it’ would all go away, that he wouldn’t be able to write. This only stopped the year after he won the Newbery medal. Now the Sandman 25th anniversary edition is due to come out, and Gaiman is starting to feel the weight of 30 million readers. In this latest story, drawn by J.H.Williams, he will explain why Morpheus is exhausted at the start of Preludes and Nocturnes, and hence so easily captured. He announced this, along with his plan to write a short story for the Marquis de Carabas from Neverwhere. For lovers of the comic book, this is Wimbledon and the Olympics combined. After he cited Swamp Thing: American Gothic as his favourite comic book arc, you cannot find a copy anywhere. His statement that ‘comics are a medium people mistake for a genre’ is also deeply pertinent for those who are trying to encourage the comic explosion to continue for as long as possible. In closing, he made a joke about colourblind Daaleks, and in the process delighted a thousand comic book fans in one heroic swoop.