Interview: Neil Gaiman

To mark the publication on 15th June of the anthology Stories (Headline Review, £18.99), a collection of stories selected jointly by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, I met with Neil in London in May, and among other things discussed the art of the short story, the future of the author, what went wrong in the 1980s—and why there’s never been a better time than today to be a writer. First published on Prospect online in June 2010

Tom Chatfield: In your introduction to Stories, you argue that above and beyond “good writing,” a short story has an obligation to make people care—to ask the question “what comes next?” Why did you feel this was so important?

Neil Gaiman: For me, that was the starting point of the whole idea of the anthology. I had written stories for anthologies that Al Sarrantonio had edited: he had done a pretty much definitive horror anthology, a fantasy anthology, and so on. We had breakfast in New York just to catch up, and I was talking about what interested me most, which was in the idea of what happens if you take away all the genre rules for stories—what constitutes “mainstream writing,” “best-sellers,” etc—and just tell people to go and write. We were saying, well, that would be an amazing anthology but no publisher is ever going to buy a collection of stories called just “stories.” Then we went out and discovered that actually they would, if we said it with enough confidence.

TC: And why was this such a strong impulse for you?

NG: I had started to feel that somewhere in the second half of the 20th century, the idea of page-turning as a good thing had been lost. You were getting books that were the equivalent of absolutely beautifully prepared dishes of food that didn’t taste like anything much. Back when I was a reviewer, in the 1980s, I’d get books where, sentence by sentence, everything was beautiful. I just never cared.

TC: Where did this idea that “well-made” fiction was synonymous with “proper” fiction come from?

NG: If I wanted to be cynical—which I do not, because I’m not actually very cynical and I don’t do cynical very well—I would say, first, it’s because at the point where you are teaching books, page-turning is actually no longer a survival trait for a book. Particularly in universities. You want a book that easily submits to dissection, that gives you lots of different ways it can be interpreted, that has beautiful sentences and so on. But the actual narrative drive can count against it.

In children’s literature, which is a very easy place to point to because in some ways it became a microcosm of the world outside, the idea that something had a good story became less and less important. The people who were buying the books, and choosing the books that would get bought, were librarians and teachers for whom the question of whether you wanted to turn the page was significantly less important than the question of—well, if I said whether a book conformed to a certain ideological bias, I would be being unfair to well-meaning people. But it would also be true to say that I remember the wasteland of children’s literature in the 1980s. If I was sent one book about a young man in a tower block who wasn’t doing very well at school and whose brother was on heroin, and to whom nothing very much happened, I was probably sent a hundred of them. And you could tell people were just going down a list and ticking things off. Is it not middle class? Tick. Is it not in any way ideologically strained? Tick. Is it properly grim and gritty? Tick. And yet does it somehow lack anything that anybody could actually object to in any way? Tick. They’d go down the ticks.

TC: I remember being a child in the 1980s, and the books that have lived with me from then are probably Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett’s. Because their worlds came from completely elsewhere, they required no prior knowledge.

NG: Yes. And they were not prescriptive, they were discovered, they were anarchic. The discovery of what Douglas Adams could do to a sentence, what Terry Pratchett could do to a plot…

TC: It struck me, in this new anthology, that although you say there were no criteria for inclusion, there is almost nothing in it that’s straight realism.

NG: What I loved in the stories I chose was the sense of people just being let loose with themselves, and playing God. You take the rules of genre away, and people feel they can play with a story. And one of the things people start doing when they play with stories is that they make things up.

TC: Yet people are always saying that life is stranger than fiction, with the implication being that you don’t need to make anything up any more. And that in a digital age, today, all you need to do as a “creative” is search and filter.

NG: Life is always going to be stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be convincing and life doesn’t. And life can be heavy-handed in a way that you wouldn’t allow in fiction. I sat there with a friend dying of lung cancer two nights ago, and she pulled out a cigarette from a pack which had “smoking kills” written in huge letter facing me. And I thought, I couldn’t actually do that in a story, because in fiction or in a film it would be so heavy-handed and such amazingly bad art. But life owes no obligation to be good art.

TC: You as a young person were a real fan: you cared a lot about particular books and authors. Today, your relationship with your readers is very close, very interactive. And I wonder how different it might have been if you had been growing up today, as a reader and someone who loved authors. Because the Neil Gaimans of tomorrow are able almost to follow you around, on Twitter, on your blog…

NG: I remember, aged 13 or 14, ringing directory enquiries, whenever I had a down moment, and trying to persuade them to give me a writer’s phone number. Had they given me a number, which they never did, I would have phoned someone up and said, “so, what are you working on then?” And they would have said whatever they were working on, and I would have said “thank you very much” and put the phone down. And that would have been my interaction with the person writing the book: there was nothing else I wanted to know or say other than to know that they were there, and for them to know that I was there.

TC: It seems to be a very profound change in the writer’s relationship with not just audiences but books: books are less definitive, more like one part of an ongoing conversation with readers.

NG: I’m never, I hope, stupid enough to believe that Twitter or blogging or any of this stuff is a substitute for actually doing the work or writing a book. On the other hand, for me a lot of the time it is a way of going, “oh my God, this is fun.” And it is fun. When I was a kid, if somebody had told me that when I was grown up I would get to write an episode of Doctor Who, I would have thought, “wow, I wonder if it could ever be as much fun as I think it’s going to be, maybe it will feel like a job.” Yet the fact of the matter today is that the moment I sat down and wrote “Interior: Tardis” and “the glass thing is going up and down inside the hexagonal column,” I thought, this is good, this is as much fun as I thought it would possibly be. And it is a real joy to be able to say that to people, via Twitter and so on.

TC: Are there dangers that come with this territory?

NG: You are navigating between the things that I have seen destroy writers. On the one hand, there are the guys who are too precious, and they take ten years to produce a book and you look at it and you go, how can you take ten years between books? Very often it’s because every single word and comma assumes such enormous importance. And then there are the ones like GK Chesterton, whom you just want to go back in time and stop from writing; you want to say, “just don’t write another essay, just stop, take a week off for God’s sake…”

I don’t think those are the biggest pitfalls, though. I think the biggest pitfalls for a writer are that we are not performers. A performer—and I know this because I am friends with many performers, and in fact at this point am affianced to one—lives or dies by what the crowd did last night. The applause. Did people like them, was it a good gig? It’s an immediate gratification thing. For writers, for it to work, you write something, and normally by the time it is published you are on to the next thing.

TC: For younger and emerging writers today, though, with so many opportunities to appear and to speak and to communicate, you can get something like that applause effect. You’re always wondering, how many blog readers, how many re-Tweets, what’s my Amazon ranking?

NG: Right. There is a wonderful author called Sarah Pinborough, a very nice lady, who went onto Twitter about the same time as me, and we had some friends in common so I followed her and she was delightful, entertaining, very funny. And then she went off Twitter, and I met her in the flesh for the first time a couple of months ago and said, you’re my Twitter buddy, what happened? And she said, I counted my page count after I joined Twitter, and it had dropped by two thirds, because I was being funny on Twitter. The energy was going there, into the immediate gratification.

So I worry a little bit. I worry about kids now who come to me and say, I am a young author, and my publisher has told me I should start my blog. And I say, do you want to start one? And they say, not really. So I say, well don’t. People come to me and they ask, how do I get 1.5m people reading my blog? And it’s like, you need to start it in 2001 and try not to miss a day for the first eight years…

TC: And do you ever feel it’s a burden, blogging and so on, an unwelcome obligation?

NG: I guess. I mean, I’m blogging less because I started feeling like I was repeating myself. When I started, everything was new, everything was fun and exciting, and then there came a point after 7 or 8 years when I started to think, I’ve answered that question before, I’ve written that thing before, I’ve explained that concept before. At this point I started thinking that probably what I should do with the blog is just make it significantly easier for people searching it to find where I’ve told them things before, because there is no point writing it again and again and again.

TC: And what about the changing role of publishers in the book world?

NG: I feel right now as if we are at the end of something. And I am very pleased that I got in before it finished. Publishing was always predicated on the concept of the gatekeeper, and on the fact that it was expensive and difficult to get something into people’s hands. That is no longer true. We are still in a world that needs gatekeepers, but only just. When I was a young book reviewer, the early 1980s, I was reading all the science fiction and fantasy and horror that was being published in the UK during the course of the year, plus other stuff. It was perfectly readable by one person. That would be impossible today: you have gone from there to a world in which it is easier than it has ever been to get your information out there, to do your thing.

TC: I find myself worrying about elements of fear and panic in the publishing industry. So while a lot of the old boundaries between genres are being broken down by authors, when I look at the catalogs, the tactic seems to be to generify things still more. I see a catalog with an entire section called something like “teen vampire fiction,” these identical-looking books that I can’t really criticize, because I haven’t read them and probably never will…

NG: What I love about your statement “I won’t ever read them” is that you have just wound up articulating my secret theory of what genre is for—which is also why the new anthology is called Stories. Because my theory on genre is that while there are people out there who believe that genre tells people what to read, actually I believe that genre exists as a marketing tool to tell you what to avoid. Somebody says that “teen vampire” is a genre, and then most of us can say, good, I know that I don’t read teen vampire books. It’s possible that ten percent of those books are good. But I don’t have to go to that place any more than I have to go to the cowboy section or the romance section.

TC: Publishers are certainly segmenting audiences more and more, to reach more people. But is this any good for writers or for books?

NG: The problem that we are in now is that everything is about filtering. Information used to be gold: hard to find, expensive, the equivalent of going off into the desert and coming back with a perfect lump of gold. Now, it’s the equivalent of going off into the jungle, in which there is information everywhere and what you are trying to find is the piece that is useful, while ignoring the noise. I don’t know if this is good or bad: it just is.

TC: It’s a landscape, as you say, that people inhabit. But it is a landscape that is suffused with words, and I wonder if it affects how people read and write, when words start to look disposable rather than golden.

NG: I don’t know. I do know that I was reading articles in the late 1970s in my teenage years that, basically, were reflecting on a post-literature society in which people would no longer write things down or read because they had the television and telephone. The book was going to go the way of the letter—and yet now I get handed books where the whole idea is that it’s someone’s email, but also their Twitter stream and blog entries. An epistolary novel!

I’m fascinated by the fact that my fifteen-and-a-half-year-old daughter barely uses her phone to talk on. There’s that weird point when you are driving four teenage girls around, in a car that five years ago would have been alive with conversation, and not only is it completely quiet, but those five are all talking to each other through text, with another 15 people coming into and going out of that conversation. It’s as if you have five telepaths in the car but are excluded from the telepathic communion.

TC: Do you feel it is a good time to be a young writer?

NG: It’s an amazing time to be a young author. Your options are almost infinite. The playing field may not be perfectly flat, but it’s really so much flatter than anybody every believed. The truth is, if I were starting out right now, writing short stories or whatever, I would build my little off-the-peg website, no need for a publisher at that stage, maybe never. Although I’m fascinated by how many mainstream publishers keep an eye on the web for people who are good. But just the idea that I could get stuff done and out like that, that I wouldn’t be dependent in any way on any other gatekeeper.

TC: I think a lot of older authors have sour grapes about it: it was rather cosy to be removed from that messiness. It makes me feel we’re getting back to something like the early days of newspapers as scurrilous rags, and of authors hawking their wares, their stories, on the streets and by subscriptions.

NG: I love the messiness of it. I think in some ways we’re back even earlier than that, at the point where you turn up at the village and you say, give me a meal for the night and I’ll tell you stories. So, yes, it is a good time, a really good time to be a young writer. Any time that all of the rules are changing is a good time.

TC: It can help to sort people, too: if there aren’t the conventions, you can’t hide behind them, you can’t just tick the established boxes. You have a duty to be interesting.

NG: Yes. I like the world we are in right now. I think it is fun, I think it is really unpredictable. And I love the fact that things that people prognosticated as being dead or dying have come back to life like weeds, including written communication, including short stories: the death of the short stories has been announced many times.

TC: What about piracy and business models and so on? You know the views of authors like Cory Doctorow about copyright, about open formats: he is very eloquent about the idea that there is no excuse for people restricting the way words are used, he is very against proprietary formats.

NG: I am sure that Cory believes that. But you know, at the point where the newly-resurgent UK Nazi party decides to issue commercially their own edition of his novel Little Brother with a large swastika on the cover and re-written bits inside making it clear that this book supports the UK Nazi party point of view, Cory might stand up at that point and say, I know I’m up for myself being remixed, but this actually does break the terms under which I am putting this out into the public domain.

Which is just really playing devil’s advocate. But for me, the thing that frustrates me most about the pirate copies of stuff of mine is very often it has been run through an Optical Character Recognition reader and been scanned, and this has picked the wrong words, which is what happens if you use OCRs. Nobody is there proof reading, and I get people saying, how could you write this nonsense? And I’m saying, well I didn’t. And they say, it’s in this thing I downloaded from the web. I like a certain amount of quality control, and I also like the idea that I am free to give stuff out or take it away.

When I was a young man, the first book of mine that I wrote that was published was a biography of Duran Duran. It wasn’t very good. It was written from press-clippings by a 23-year-old journalist who planned to use the revenues from it to buy a new electric typewriter and pay the rent. And the publisher went bankrupt a couple of weeks after it came out so I never got paid. My point is, the book went out of print, and about three years later when the assets of that publisher were bought, the new publisher who had bought them came to me and said, can we reprint your Duran Duran book? And I took enormous pleasure in saying to them no, I’m very happy for this book to stay out of print. The idea that now my Duran Duran book goes up on the web and out into the world, because information needs to be free. Well, no, I don’t really want that to be out there…

TC: Otherwise your definitive biography will include a section on “Gaiman and Duran Duran”

NG: Exactly. I’m happy for it to have gone.

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