Is Fiction a Safe Place?

Last week, I wrote about Neil Gaiman’s collection of short stories, Trigger Warning. But there’s a quote in there that struck me the first time I read it, and struck me again when I was writing that blog post. It’s this one:

“I wonder, are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered . . .”

I had a book like that. Well, to be fair, I saw the movie first, but when I was in high school, I read the book. It was The Picture of Dorian Gray. One night, when I was three or four, it was on television. In those days, there was one television in the house, and whatever was on, was on. Needless to say, it was quite some time before I slept well. At four, I had never considered the Big Ticket Items that Oscar Wilde gets to in this book. Selling your soul. Having a soul that can be sold. The existence of evil. The horrors of getting old.


If you’re not familiar with this novel, you need to read it. But in a nutshell:  Dorian Gray is a young dilettante – gorgeous, young, vain – who has a portrait done of himself. As he stares at it, he muses, “How sad it is! I shall grow old and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young . . . If only it were the other way! If it were I who were to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that, I would give everything . . . I would give my soul for that!” (Moral of Story #1:  Be careful what you wish for. Because you never know who is listening.)

To be fair, it’s been ages since I read it – when I was older, in high school. But it’s that movie version that has stayed with me, that final scene in which Gray dies and his staff rushes in to find a hideous old fiend dead on the floor . . . while the portrait has mysteriously regained its youth. It. Freaked. Me. Out.  Because it was the first time in my life that I understood mortality. I don’t think any four-year old should have to understand that. At least, not under those circumstances.

And yet. What else have I learned from books? There weren’t many books in the house when I was growing up, so I read the encyclopedia (took me about a year; I think I was four or five?). I would go to the library and just grab books off the shelf. I ran through the usual things like Billy and Blaze and other lovely books that are now out of print, but I always read at least one grade level ahead, usually two – and as I grew older, the gap got wider. So by the time I was in sixth grade, my classmates were reading Sweet Valley Twins and I was reading Dean Koontz. 🙂 Want to talk about disturbing? I was the only sixth grader who knew what a hermaphrodite was (thanks to The Bad Place). But hey. They were interesting and fast-paced and not only did they teach me about the world, they also taught me how to write. No one tells a better story than Koontz. I’m convinced of that. I’m just boycotting him until he gives us that final installment in the Christopher Snow series.

I learned history. Empathy for humans and animals alike. More so for animals. I learned about ciphers and encryption. Race relations. Ancient Greece and Rome. Ghosts and things that go bump in the night, things that still haunt my writing.

And yes. As Neil Gaiman says in Trigger Warning, these books upset him because “I was not ready for them . . . they troubled me and haunted my nightmares and my daydreams, worried and upset me on several levels, but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray disturbed me on several levels. It haunted my nightmares and my daydreams. It was so far out of my comfort zone as a four-year old, I don’t think I ever found my way back to my comfort zone. I think most of us have that one book, the one that changes us in some fundamental way. I think that’s why people are afraid of books. Because books make you think. They force you to confront new realities, new ways of thought.

They’re bloody dangerous, books.

And they are not safe places.

But would we have it any other way?

I think not.



Thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning

51F4L8SwzBL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_“Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.” – Neil Gaiman, the introduction to Trigger Warning.

I recently – and finally! – read Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, a collection of short stories (most of which have been published elsewhere, in other anthologies, but never before brought together in one volume).

I’m not normally a short-story person – it tends to bring back too many memories of having “BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN??!!!” crammed down my throat – but Neil read two of the stories aloud when he was in Tulsa, and I adored them. And more to the point, I couldn’t get them out of my head. Especially one, whose title I couldn’t recall, about a genie who encounters what could be his worst nightmare – a woman who doesn’t want a darn thing more than she already has. It was funny and sweet and supernatural and I wanted more.

Like, I think, most collections of anything, there are some pieces here that are stronger than others. Of course, the stories I thought were not quite as good are probably the ones that plenty of others thought were the strongest. In particular, the rather longish “The Sleeper and the Spindle” was a bit, well, longish. You can guess from the title that it’s a reworking of Sleeping Beauty – and while it’s a clever one, it didn’t quite feel right as a short story, and I felt very removed from it.

But. There were others. Several others. Some that stayed with me, haunting my steps, for days and weeks after. Some that have come back to me slowly, as my subconscious processes them and tries to put them into a semblance of context.

But Gaiman, in his introduction, makes zero apology for this. “I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered . . . but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.”

The one truth of all writers is this:  if you want to write well, you need to read a lot. And writers can do far worse than to read Neil Gaiman. His sparseness with words, his ability to choose precisely the ones he wants to achieve the desired effect. The humor (in Tulsa, he read stories aloud, in that lovely British accent that says yes, I am talking about ducks playing poker and of course it is the truth because I am British and I am speaking with The Accent, and my dear, we all know The Accent cannot lie).

The way in which he lays down the bread crumbs, one at a time, so subtly and softly you don’t realize you’ve been led into a trap until it’s too late. As he did in the story “Click-Clack the Rattlebag.” Shades of Hitchcock creepy, that one.

Or the way in which he comes from so far out of left field, as in “Adventure Story.” Leaving the narrator just as befuddled and sideswiped as the reader.

Or how he makes the utterly ridiculous seem plausible (The Accent!!!) in “April Tale” –  “You know you’ve been pushing the ducks too hard when they stop trusting you, and my father had been taking the ducks for everything he could since the previous summer.”

But I think my two favorites were “October Tale” (the one about the genie), and “Orange.” Seriously. If you want to study how to write something different, this is the one to read. It is written as the responses to a questionnaire. I mean, seriously. Instead of having to think out a traditional narrative and plot and dialogue and action . . . it’s one person’s incomplete observations, made to what must have been a very incredulous investigator! No need to spell out everything. No filling in all of those pesky blanks – or even most of the blanks. It’s the epitome of trusting the reader. And in Gaiman’s hands, it works, brilliantly. Here’s a very short sample of what I mean:

24.) Yes, it was stupid. But it wasn’t uniquely stupid, if you see what I mean. Which is to say, it was par-for-the-course Nerys stupid.

25.) That she was glowing.

26. A sort of pulsating orange.

27.) When she started to tell us that she was going to be worshiped like a god, as she was in the dawn times.

See what I mean? It’s just absolutely brilliant. It does what it’s supposed to do:  it keeps the reader reading, because we keep asking ourselves what the freaking fruitbat?? We get just enough to keep us guessing, to see if we can put the dots together before the end – but of course, this is Neil Gaiman. We don’t. 🙂

So if you’re looking for a good short-story collection to study, love the supernatural and creepy (there are several ghost stories here, too), and a good dash of British humor, you can’t do much better than Trigger Warning.

Just remember:  not everyone makes it out alive.


Here’s a review from NPR:


A Magical Evening with Neil Gaiman

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. – a story about R.A. Lafferty’s books from The Guardian. – link to Trigger Warning – a link to the Diane Rehm Show, and her interview with Neil Gaiman in February 2015.

Two Good Interviews With Two Great Authors

I heard two great interviews with authors this week on NPR.

The first is from the Diana Rehm Show, with the incomparable Neil Gaiman:

The second is actually one from last year, on Here and Now, with YA author Ransom Riggs. His first novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, is being turned into a movie, and apparently they start filming today.

Enjoy! 🙂