Last night I had the opportunity to see Neil Gaiman, writer of among many other things the Sandman, speak to Chicago native Audrey Niffenegger, author of the Time Traveller’s Wife, at the Chicago Public Libray. I jumped at the chance since they are two of my all-time favorite authors. The event was in honor of Gaiman’s novel, Neverwhere, being chosen as this year’s One Book One Chicago selection.
I was one of six hundred people who showed up at the Cindy Pritzker auditorium for the chance to see them. While in line, and later in the auditorium waiting for the talk to start I was pleased to see many people were passing the time with real, honest to goodness paper books, rather than phones or ereaders (I saw several of those as well). Most people either had Neverwhere or another of Gaiman’s books, or one of Niffenegger’s. I was severely tempted to get up and do a survey of the audience to find out what they were reading, in order to get recommendations. Instead I began reading Lev Grossman’s the Magicians, and was thoroughly engrossed in it, by the time the guests of honor took the stage.
When they were introduced, the mention of the upcoming episode of Doctor Who written by Neil got its own round of applause. Incidently, for the first time ever I noticed billboards advertising the new season on BBCamerica, up at train stations on my way to the event.
Before the talk began I bought a signed copy of Neil’s poem, Instructions, illustrated by frequent collaborator Charles Vess. I also bought the Night Bookmobile, a short story of Audrey’s that she adapted into a comic. I will probably write a review once I have read it.
The talk was very interesting. Below I will list what I thought were the highlights. I intended to ask them a question, but when the time came I was struck with the sudden doubt that I could project my voice well enough to be heard. I can be rather soft spoken. Eventually I rose my hand anyway (people much further back in the room were being heard just fine) but I didn’t get called on. I sent my question into Neil’s blog, maybe he will answer it.
Highlights as I remember them:
*Neil detailed the origins of Neverwhere. He said he had read a book by Gene Wolfe (I forgot to write down the title) that featured Chicago in a way that made the city feel like a character. Similarly he read Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, that did the same for early twentieth century New York. He suggested to an editor of his that someone should do book like that about London. The editor said “why don’t you do it?” He was taken aback, he thought he was giving the editor an idea to give to a “real writer” He didn’t say when this happened but it was either when he was still a journalist or just beginning to write comics. He didn’t do anything with the idea at that point, but it was planted in his brain.
A few years later he ran into his friend, English actor/comedian, Lenny Henry, who mentioned that he had spoken to the BBC about doing a fantasy miniseries, possibly about warring tribes of homeless people in London. He asked Neil if he wanted to write it. Neil said yes, then went home and wrote a letter to Lenny saying that he didn’t want to write about tribes of homeless people in London. Because he said he could make being homeless seem really cool, and he didn’t want to be responsible for a kid in Dorset (I don’t remember if that was the exact example he gave) running away from home, to be a “cool” homeless person. Instead he wrote an outline of what became the BBC version of Neverwhere.
*He said that he usually uses a working title until he thinks of something better. But that he usually doesn’t come up with anything better and so one day he winds up with a book in his hands called Neverwhere, and he thinks “why?”
*When asked how he came up with Coraline, he said when his daughter Holly was around four, she would come home from nursery school, find him at his type writer, and dictate stories to him. They were about little girls who got locked in cellars, or whose mothers got replaced by witches that looked exactly like them. He thought he should buy some ghost stories for her. He went to his local book shop, and asked if they had anything really scary for little kids. They had nothing of the kind. And so he decided to write that kind of book himself.
*Asked about why he wrote Neverwhere as an all ages book. Neil said he doesn’t know what age group a book will appeal to until after it is published and he finds out who is reading it. He said that when he sent Coraline to his agent, she called him asking, “Do you honestly want me to send this to Harper Collins as a children’s book?” He asked why not, and she said it gave her nightmares. He asked her to read it to her two young daughters, if they liked it then send it as a children’s book. If they were turned into gibbering messes then–(he sort of shrugged there). His agent read it to her her daughters, at the time seven and five. They liked it, and so it went ahead as planned. A few years ago, he attended a stage musical addaptation of Coraline. He happened to be seated next to his agent’s younger daughter, by then fourteen. He told her that Coraline got published because she wasn’t scared by it. Her response was that she was terrified, but knew if she let on she wouldnt get to find out what happened next.
*Someone asked something to do with both Audrey and Neil working in visual mediums, as well as prose. Sorry don’t remember what the exact question was. Audrey said she often comes up with an image first, then writes as a way of figuring out what the story behind it is. For example with the Time Traveler’s Wife, she thought of the title, then the image of an old woman sitting on a porch with a cup of tea, waiting for something.
Neil said that writing comics made him much better at describing things, because if he could not adequately describe an image, the artist couldn’t draw it.
*An audience member said she was in an American literature class in which a faction of the students were studying American Gods as non-canonical literature. She asked him what he thought of the possibility of American Gods becoming part of the accepted curriculum. He said he thinks authors should have the safety of being dead for a good amount of time before their books start being taught.
*On the topic of American Gods. He said that the are places in Europe that are ancient and feel sacred. And on them people built things like Stone Henge. There are also places like that in America, but here we build giant balls of twine, or replicas of the worlds biggest wheel of cheese circa 1977. And people visit, and get their pictures taken in front of them, and leave shaking their heads wondering what the hell that was all about. And that was part to of the impetus to write American Gods, to explain it.
*He said that he has been working on a short story set in the Neverwhere universe called How the Marquis Got His Coat Back. In which we meet the Marquis’ brother, who is exactly like the Marquis only worse.
*He isn’t planning on writing a sequel to Neverwhere anytime in the foreseeable future. But if he does, he knows that a brass bed will be involved. Sometime back, he read an article about workers finding an antique brass bed in the London sewers. It could not have been brought done there whole, so someone must have brought it down piece by piece, and assembled it. No one could figure out what it was doing there. He read the article, and thought “I know.”
*He revealed that Terry Jones is working on an television miniseries version of Good Omens. He did not say what channel would be producing it, or how far along it was.
*On collaborating with Terry Pratchett, he said it was great, because he was writing for an audience of one. He would write with purpose of making Terry laugh. And vice versa.
*Someone asked what upcoming books they recommended. Audrey said she had read a book called the Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. She described it as the an amazing, creepy story about the best circus you could possibly imagine. Neil recommended a graphic novel called Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol.
So that is my best recollection of what was discussed. If anyone else was there and has a favorite bit I didn’t include, please leave it in the comments. And they mentioned at the beginning that it was being recorded for Chicago Public Radio, but the did not say when it will air. If and when I find out I will link to it here.
Updated: the Gene Wolfe book is Free Live Free.