Neil Gaiman on making his readers ‘work’ through his prose, and why the fragility of the world inspires his writing
At the Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest, Neil Gaiman also talked about the pedagogical value of comics, and why he is uncomfortable with knowing where he will be three years from now.
One can imagine how the next best thing to interviewing Neil Gaiman is perhaps reading his books, or better even, listening to him talk about them, and that is precisely what I signed up for (after the opportunity to do the former fell through; sigh) on a wintry Sunday evening, as I tuned into Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest 2020's session with Gaiman and poet-writer, Jerry Pinto.
The conversation was suitably titled 'Dreaming up Multiverses', as the writer gave his audience a peek into his mind and home in Scotland's Isle of Skye, seated amidst books on a warm, chestnut brown leather chair, diagonally facing a microphone.
So, how does a Neil Gaiman series really begin? Pinto asked. "As an accretion," Gaiman answered. "It begins with a whole bunch of things I am not aware of as being part of fiction — they just accrete somehow." The only way, then, for him to answer all the questions jostling for space in his head is through spinning a fictional yarn, and Gaiman assured us that he has 14,000 years worth of human history to spin into a yarn within him. However, a minor snag occurs — "It doesn't feel like it has one character running through it, who is 14,000 years old," he said more to himself than to his audience, before adding: "So, I am going to need to have a place as a constant. A lot of it is starting to ask yourself questions...," he trailed off.
The writer snapped back a second later and mentioned how his daughter finds his interest in rocks rather amusing. The "funny thing" about rocks is that they tend to stay put through time, hail and storm, unmoving and unrelenting. Therefore for Neil, rocks turn into windows into the landscape they belong to, revealing to him more about his surroundings than their more animate counterparts.
However, much like his fellow British novelist Howard Jacobson, who was also one of the speakers at the event, Gaiman's stories are born purely of serendipity. "The Graveyard Book would never have happened if I didn't have a small son who wanted to ride his tricycle at a time when we lived across a little lane from a graveyard, and we didn't have anywhere in the house where he could ride his little tricycle," Neil said, as I sat across my laptop screen (that had now doubled up as a portal into Gaiman's library, allowing me for an hour to imagine I was indeed in conversation with the author), wondering what a world without Nobody Owens would feel like. What would growing up look like had we not met Nobody walking through walls and doors like they were indeed air? These questions perhaps niggled at the back of Gaiman's mind as well, as he saw his two-year-old cycle through the graveyard with ease, unabated, and he found himself asking, "Wouldn't it be interesting if I told the story of a young boy raised by dead people in a graveyard?"
Sure, he thought, just that it sounded a lot like Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which was okay and was acknowledged and credited. But little did he know back then, at the age of 25, that he stood 19 years away from writing this story whose plot never presented itself to him until the mid '90s, when he tuned into a late night television show in his living room. Gaiman watched a young South-American kid fleeing from a death squad in a mausoleum of their local graveyard, and went, "Ah! That gives me the thing I was missing." Because really, why would anyone want to live in a mouldy old graveyard, unless something or someone was out to kill them, right? And it was then, right there, that he understood how this serendipitous second had led to his process of "accretion", as he began accumulating all the sensory and visual cues and information he needed to tell his story that was two decades in the writing.
Gaiman believes that writers are always allowed this "inciting incident" — loaning the term from Hollywood — at the beginning of stories to get the ball rolling. "It's you kicking the stone, and the stone going somewhere it shouldn't have and smashing a window, and all of a sudden you're not in the story you were in that morning," he said with a hint of glee on his face.
The writer cherishes each one of his 'inciting incidents', especially in a year that seems to be a rather long and tedious one for all of humanity. It was only a few months ago that Neil found himself displeased at the idea of knowing exactly what his life would look like for the next three years, laid out in painstaking detail in a planner. He did not enjoy knowing his life so thoroughly, armed with a robust calendar. "I thought, why should I know where I am going to be and what I am doing for the next three years? That's ridiculous." But of course — and much to his relief — the pandemic ensured that none of those plans materialised. "Furthermore, every now and then I run into an entry I forgot to erase, and it is like a strange fossil message from an alternate universe. I go, 'Oh! In this alternate universe, today I've got a play opening in West End, and I am in the opening.' Or in this fossil universe, I am in Philadelphia, giving a talk today. That's wonderful," he said, smiling.
As the conversation streamlined towards his now-iconic The Sandman comic book series, one sensed how urgently Gaiman was underlining the importance of thanking fellow artists and creators for their collaborative effort into visually bringing a writer's stories alive. "One of the strangest things for me right now — we're making episode one of Sandman as a television show, and it definitely feels more like Sandman than I ever imagined that it could look. And then, there are also moments there that are pure Sam Keith, pure Mike Dringenberg. There are things in there where we have to try and figure out, that okay, if this was how Todd Klein lettered it, how do we do that in sound? So, there is this realisation [of] how good the people that I worked with were, and the things that you can pull off so cheaply, easily, cleverly in comics that you can't just take for granted in television," he said.
Then there are print-to-screen adaptations that often pose the challenge of accents for characters living in a world 10,000 years older — it is stuff like this that one barely ever pauses to consider when their comic book characters have been getting by perfectly well, speaking in "word blends", Neil observed.
But what about this world that we currently inhabit — this unsinkable mass of stone spinning for aeons — still keeps him hooked? Gaiman's answer was unsurprising, even though expectedly delightful. "I don't remember thinking of the world as being a properly solid structure," he said. "So much of my books is incredibly implicit in my childhood. In Coraline, the door that opens on to a wall of bricks — that was the door on the wall at our home, in our drawing room."
Brought up in the servants' quarter of a big, old Victorian house, where the servant's family was allowed to use the ordinary door while the "fancy family" used the "fancy door" to enter the "fancy room", the writer's childhood address became his first major source of creative fodder. The doors in this house became Coraline's portals into the 'Other' side, when he grew up. "I was sure that if I opened it right, and when the door wasn't noticing it wouldn't be a brick wall; it would be a corridor. And if I went down it, I would find myself somewhere completely different. When I was writing Coraline, that door was waiting for me," he recalled.
It is this porous and fragile texture of our existence that convinced Gaiman to start a dialogue with refugees from across the world. It is the realisation that a moment in time can change our lives irrevocably that got Neil thinking about how these same people in search of homes today were living normally, running corner shops and selling insurance, even a few months ago. The year 2020 has only further laid bare this heartbreaking vulnerability of our worlds.
Halfway through the conversation, Neil Gaiman expressed his amusement and exasperation at how people often mistake 'comics' for a genre, when they are really a 'medium' of storytelling. He also noted how readers in the US and UK are mostly averse to a writer switching genres, preferring they do "more or less the same thing, which is basically the last thing you did." When he stopped doing comics to adopt prose, he realised he wasn't as welcome in the new medium.
"I remember after American Gods came out, my agent got a letter from a very prestigious editor in the UK saying that they would make a significant financial offer for me for three books, as long as those three books were almost exactly the same as American Gods. And as long as they were allowed to work with me to make them even more commercial. But I had to stop this thing of going off all over the place, and I am like, my next book is Coraline," he said, which eventually steered the conversation towards how libraries across the world — for both children and adults — are still reluctant on introducing dedicated sections for comic books and graphic novels. This is a phenomenon, Gaiman believes, that plays out at different speeds in different countries.
In 2002-2003, the writer attended an American Library Association conference with Art Spiegelman, Jeff Smith and Colleen Duran, where he happened to meet librarians who implored them to educate them on comic books. "What do we put on our shelves, and for who?" they asked.
Moreover, the pedagogical value of the medium is often overlooked and undermined. "The most important thing for me is that a page of comics — a normal average page of comics — has about 180 words on it...That's 180 words worth of real words that you've read. My vocabulary is enormous, and I am very aware of how much of my vocabulary I owe to people like Stan Lee, and Gardner Fox, and all the people who wrote comics. I owe them my vocabulary as much as I owe it to the King James Bible or glorious writers like Lord Dunsany. Because that was where I would meet these words first," Gaiman said. The action of reading also trains one to combine pictures and words, "which is a whole skill in itself", according to the writer. It tutors one to become "comic literate", as opposed to prose which involves more of "active telepathy". In the latter, the writer codes their ideas into words, that are then conveyed to the reader who decodes the message and creates a world of their own with them, in their imagination.
But in comics, you don't have sound and nothing moves. However, "you've got images, and the images can do things that the words alone cannot." Neil missed using silent panels as punctuation in his novels, or panels that would force the reader to just look, and infer what they can from it. Audio dramas and radio function in much the same way as prose does — by forcing the audience to experience a story in a certain way — only with sound. Cinema, however, compels a person into being passive according to Gaiman, by making its audience not "build" but "receive" an experience or image in a certain way. "So, while it has movement, speech, colour and sound, you lose the capacity for ambiguity. It is much harder to make a reader work, and I like to make my readers work," he said, mostly because he “can”.
Through prose, the novelist primes his readers to use their faculties, ask questions and immerse themselves into his world. And it is through this labour — a trick known only to him — that Neil Gaiman makes his audience a part of his creative experience, opening the portals to his myriad universes, one of which I was glad to have inhabited for an hour, on a wintry Sunday evening.
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