I’m a self-proclaimed geek. I don’t care about concerts, but I love going to lectures by authors. Hearing them talk about their lives and work and doubts and successes and any little bits of advice and wisdom they care to throw our way.
This Tuesday, I was among the privileged to see Neil Gaiman at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.
First, you have to understand that I was channeling my inner Jeremy Clarkson to get there on time (GET OUT OF THE WAY, PEOPLE, YOU CAN GO NINETY ON THE TURNPIKE AND NOT GET CAUGHT!) and we had to park two blocks away and make a mad dash for the venue. I’d never been there before, so we got in, the ushers got us to our seats (Row K, ground floor). As I caught my breath, I started to look around.
Then I looked up.
And I couldn’t breathe again.
The Tulsa Performing Arts Center is, at heart, an opera house. You have the ground floor. Then you have two mezzanine balconies. My eyes swept to the back of the ground floor . . . and up . . . and up . . . and up.
Both balconies were full.
Neil Gaiman himself didn’t notice at first, either. He walked out on stage and quickly won us over as his charming, humble self. And then, about five minutes in, he glanced up, blinked, and said, “Look at you guys up there! I’ve just discovered you! Hello!”
The most amazing thing was that he didn’t read his own work – not at first. Instead, he came out and stunned us all by saying, “I’m delighted to be in Tulsa. Because my favorite author is from Tulsa – R.A. Lafferty. Would you mind if I read one of his stories to you first?”
No. Of course we didn’t mind. Not at all. Neil chose Lafferty’s hilarious short story, “The Seven-Day Horror,” and I don’t know if it was the moment, or the story, or the way Neil read it, or if Spaghetti Warehouse spiked my iced tea by accident, but I haven’t laughed so hard at a story in my life. Get it. I beg you. It’s one thing to hear an author read his own work, but to be able to see an author talk about their influences, and the stories that inspired them to write, is amazing.
Neil also talked about the early influence of the library, and how his parents would leave him there to read on his own and explore. When asked about the importance of arts in a world where budget cuts threaten them every single day, he said, “Quality of life is big and huge and important. And if you take away the arts . . . Churchill was told during the war that the art museums should be closed, because they cost money and well, there was a war on. And he said, ‘What the hell do you think we’re fighting for?’ The arts are the bits that make everything worthwhile.”
The arts are the bits that make everything worthwhile.
Neil read two of his own wonderful short stories from his new book, Trigger Warning, which started as a Twitter contest. Every month, he posted a new question to his followers such as “What’s the oddest thing you’ve ever found in February?” and chose his favorite responses, and used those as the basis for short stories. “I wanted to prove that writing is a craft, and you could do it as simply as that.” That you could take a very simple prompt, the glimmer of an idea, and from there, let the story evolve.
He took questions from the audience (in the form of pre-written note cards), but no matter how silly (“Who cuts your hair?”), he responded with thought and insight. Most questions were about his writing, and the craft of writing. When asked why he writes, he said, “There’s nothing else I’m any good at! You do not want me driving your taxi . . . What I’m good at doing is writing, stringing words together in ways that hang in people’s heads. When I wasn’t good at it, I had all the confidence in the world. Then I realized I wasn’t brilliant – but it was too late then.”
Then he said, “Pretty much halfway through anything, I remember I’m not very good, that it’s been a fantastic accident. That’s the point where I call my agent . . . and she says ‘Oh, you’re at that point in the book.'” For those of us who doubt our writing every day, to hear one of the greatest authors of today say this was very much a morale booster. My own little Battle of Trenton. 🙂
When asked why he writes, Neil said, “I write books because I want to read them and they don’t exist. Sometimes, I’ll write a book because I want someone else to read it.” His novel Coraline is an example. His daughter would come home from school and tell him stories she’d made up, about a little girl who comes home from school to find that her mum is missing, and a witch has taken her place. He thought, if that’s what she likes, I’ll see what I can find for her. “So I went to the bookstore and asked what they had in the way of horror for a kindergartner. And . . . they quickly asked me to leave.” 🙂
Someone else asked what he thought about breaking the rules of writing. “Before you break the rules, know what they are. Then, throw all of that out the window and do it your way.” But, he emphasized, you have to know the rules first. You need to know why you’re breaking them before you can do it.
I think my favorite answer came to this question, which he read aloud: “How do you feel when an editor changes your work? And then there’s a little frowny face at the end of it – and that’s the correct answer!”
If you’ve ever read Neil Gaiman, you know his stories deal with the fantastic, with magic and fantasy and other wonderful things. Someone – who hopefully is hanging their head in shame still – asked something along the lines of “How do you justify writing things that aren’t real?” You could tell the question threw him; it threw all of us. You could hear the collective gasp from the audience, see people looking around for the culprit. But Neil thought for a moment, and then said, in part, “Fiction is a wonderful, tough thing . . . We understand something can be true – absolutely true – without actually having happened. People can read Neverwhere and they know there is no secret underground to London where lost people go, but they can go to London for the first time, take the Tube, see all the place names . . . and remember. And maybe it makes them more real, because they’re familiar.”
“Fiction is a wonderful, tough thing . . . We understand something can be true – absolutely true – without actually having happened.
As my friend’s daughter Sophie said later, it felt like Stephen King was there to promote his book; it felt like Neil Gaiman was there because he wanted to be there. He was utterly charming, self-effacing, and wonderful, and if you ever get the chance to see him in person, I urge you to take it. And don’t hesitate. Not even for one second.
http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/aug/13/ra-lafferty-secret-sci-fi-genius-poised-for-comeback – a story about R.A. Lafferty’s books from The Guardian.
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/trigger-warning-neil-gaiman/1120056945?ean=9780062330260 – link to Trigger Warning
http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-02-19/neil_gaiman_trigger_warning – a link to the Diane Rehm Show, and her interview with Neil Gaiman in February 2015.