Meeting ‘Scary-Trousers’ Himself: A Masterclass with Neil Gaiman
by Natalie Bolderston
Being a fan of macabre fantasy, sci-fi, and anything weird in general, I, along with everyone else in the room, was excited to finally meet the man behind the wonders. What can only be described as a hushed awe fell across the group as he arrived – fashionably late, of course. Neil Gaiman, creator of sinister spectaculars such as Neverwhere and Coraline, is perhaps the only person marvellously creepy enough to be dubbed ‘Scary Trousers’ by graphic novelist Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta). He was dressed, appropriately enough, all in black. Observing this, combined with his beard and wavy mop of hair, I couldn’t help mentally identifying him as the Tim Burton of literature. I do hope he’d take that as a compliment.
Taking his seat, Neil immediately stated that his plan was simply to ‘tell you what you want to know.’ He was of course, initially met with bewildered, nervous stares – mine included. But then we got going, and so did he.
He talked predominantly of his development as an author, starting out, as many of us may aspire to begin, as a journalist, interviewing established novelists and writers. After listening to their woes over the trap that is genre fiction – whereby once a writer established in one field, they are unable to publish outside of this – Neil vowed that this would not be his own fate. ‘I want to be able to do what I want,’ he claimed, ‘whether it be children’s writing, a novel about the French Revolution, or a cookbook.’ Perhaps it is this desire for creative freedom that make his own works so varied; they range from ‘fairytales for adults’, such as the topsy-turvy Stardust, to more light-hearted short stories aimed at children, such as the collection M is for Magic. In spite of the difference in register, his wry, comedic style is something which remains evident across these genres. (Neil is yet to publish a cookbook. However, he made it clear that this is not to be ruled out.)
Early on in the class, he was asked how he maintains the individuality of his voice – something even successful authors occasionally struggle with. He responded reassuringly: ‘When you start out, you will sound like other people and imitate authors you’ve read. But that’s not a bad thing. It just means you haven’t found your own voice yet. Style is the stuff you do wrong, the stuff that you can’t help doing. If you keep writing, eventually you will start to sound like you.’ He then jokingly added: ‘But don’t just sound like one type of writer. If you’re going to steal, steal from everywhere. That way, no one will notice.’
In the same vein, he went on to discuss the compromises often asked of writers such as himself. In particular, collaborations with other authors often demand some degree of adjustment, especially when creative conflicts arise. According to Neil, there is a simple solution to this: ‘It’s not about working out who is right and who is wrong. You just can’t. However, it’s easy to figure out who cares the most. And, for me at least, it’s the person who cares the most that should win.’ He described, with evident fondness, the back and forth between he and Terry Pratchett (author of Discworld) during their development of the apocalyptic sensation Good Omens. The method is not, as many may think, to simply sit down together at one typewriter – not at first, anyway. Rather, Neil would write the first five thousand words and send them to Terry, who would then re-type it all, adding in his own contributions. This raw draft thus became the first ten thousand words. In Neil’s own words, it became ‘a race to get to the next good bit’ – a friendly one, of course. He then related the key to collaborations: ‘You have to be willing to sometimes accept something that wasn’t in your head. Often, you end up with something better.’
As with any great author, Neil’s characters are clearly very dear to him. Accordingly, he responded to questions pertaining to the formation and development of these with obvious relish. He began with an odd bit of advice: ‘Listen to them. Know what your characters sound like. A lot of who they are is in the dialogue, or in the disparity between what they say and what they do.’ He then explained how he ‘meets’ his characters a bit at a time, making particular reference to American Gods, a novel which can perhaps be taken as a homage to Neil’s interest in mythology. The idea started, simply enough, with two characters meeting on a plane, and grew from there. ‘I thought about them every night, and the story around them grew,’ he recalled. ‘You find that your characters fascinate you; you want to get to know them better.’ Neil further revealed that the finest seem to be the ones he didn’t foresee: ‘The best characters turn up on the page; they’re there because they have to be.’
Perhaps the strangest, but most useful piece of advice he gave on this area was to ‘give your character a funny hat.’ That is, give them a quirk, or, in his words: ‘something you can hold onto.’ For me, this technique was made most obvious in The Sandman, a series of comics surrounding a protagonist who is an ‘anthropomorphic manifestation of dreams’ – a character whose very substance makes him distinguishable from all others. Similarly, the unexpectedly amiable nature of his older sibling, Death, as well as the fact that she is depicted as a woman, is another example of Neil’s apparent defiance of character convention. Even more impressively, readers’ avid anticipation of her arrival was sparked almost instantly, from just one enticing line in the first issue: ‘Dream is Death’s younger brother.’
As a reader, I’ve always found the unique nature of Neil’s multiple fantasy worlds – and how they were conceived – to be one of the most intriguing things in his work. So, of course, I jumped at the chance to ask about them. ‘The initial idea for the two worlds in Neverwhere, London Above and London Below, took about five seconds to think of,’ he revealed. The development of these, of course, took quite a while longer; Neil’s main inspiration in his world-building is apparently ‘forty years of reading mythology and fantasy novels.’ Unsurprisingly, then, he seemed firm in the belief that an avid reader makes a good author: ‘You have to read (as well as write) outside your comfort zone,’ he stated. ‘It’s the only way you grow and change. If you stop changing, you start dying as a writer.’
Finally, perhaps the most poignant pointer he left us with was this: ‘Have passion. It’s the greatest guide when you’re starting a big project. You have to be willing to write on the bad days, the days when your back hurts, when you’re unsure of your talent, and when you might think that any success you’ve had is due to some peculiar cosmic accident. Even on the appalling days, it’s your job as a writer to carry on.’ He also (rather sweetly) stated: ‘The most important thing to me is that my reader is satisfied…that the time they’ve spent on me is well-spent.’ And, as one such long-time fan and reader, I can honestly say that it is.