Last night, Neil Gaiman wowed 1,800 ardent fans at George Mason University’s Fall for the Books festival. The Mystery Writer’s of America presented Gaiman with the Mason Award for extraordinary contributions to a wide reading public.
Lucky for us, Gaiman also offered up two unpublished readings and answered a smattering of questions.
Here’s what you need to know:
- He IS writing another episode of Doctor Who. In fact, executive producer Caroline Skinner wanted to know why she can’t have “it” by Monday. The reason - he was busy wowing all of us with his new work.
- Prolific reading from a young age has contributed to Gaiman’s unstoppable ability to create extraordinary worlds with words. Some of his favorite childhood books include Narnia, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings (He read the first two books over and over because that’s all the library had available…a few years later, after writing a writing award at school, he was offered any book of his choice. He asked for Return of the King, so he might know how it all ended.), and Stormbringer.
- When asked what his advice is to aspiring writers, he said: “You sit down.” It’s best if you have a pencil and paper, or a pen and paper, or turn the computer on. Have a way to auto save. Type the first word. He went on to say people always expected more from him than that - like you’d get a postcard one day announcing you’re now writer - but he said it’s the people who start writing and never stop that will achieve something. So, sit down. Then write the first word. Then the next. And never stop.
- Due out next year, Gaiman’s newest book, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” turned out to be the scariest thing he’s ever written. Apparently it didn’t start that way, but by the end he was surprised at just how scary it became.*
- Part of the magic of Gaiman’s writing is his attention to details. He doesn’t rush through scenes. Rather, he languishes in them, building such beautiful imagery out of his words. From the warmth of milk fresh from a cow happy in his mouth to the story of burnt toast happily weaving it’s way through a gruesome death scene, Gaiman’s writing is a visual experience.
- Someone asked if when he writes, he’s like a 9-year-old putting his bike together in his bedroom. Yes, he said. He knows these parts have to go together somehow.
- The books he loves to write the most are also, at times, the most horrible. He loved writing American Gods, but there were points he was stomping around, yelling at his editor. I now feel better about my bellyaching over certain scenes, knowing that Gaiman does the same during his process.
- The farm with an ash tree, an hour south of Blackburg (“American Gods”), is, in fact, an old crumbling farm of Tori Amos’ family. Gaiman, a good friend of Amos, visited the farm while on tour with her years ago and decided to use it in his book. He wasn’t sure he’d ever told anyone that before.
- Gaiman talked about the importance of people who care passionately about bringing good stories to everybody. Gaiman’s call to arms was that we need people who love words, who love stories, who BELIEVE. It was a personal challenge to every writer in the room, including myself.
- The depth of Gaiman’s work is evident in what he leaves unsaid. He doesn’t lay every single thing out for his audience, for fear they won’t understand where he’s taking them. He builds incredible detail into certain scenes and then leaves other bits shrouded in mystery. It’s as if he wants each of us to fill in the little bits ourselves, making the story all the more personal and accessible. His use of subtext and reader imagination are absolutely genius.
Gaiman wrapped all of us up in his incredible world and transported us far from the GMU auditorium. The nuggets he read from “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” hypnotized the audience. There wasn’t a breath to be heard, no rustling of clothes or paper…just utter fascination.
He also read us an unpublished short story called “Click Clack, The Rattle Bag.” Though it was a very short little story, it was so scary. I believe that nothing is more terrifying than the dark when Gaiman is at the helm.
Writers - let’s accept Gaiman’s challenge. Let’s love words. Let’s read them and study them and fall in love with them. Let’s create interesting, fascinating stories with depth and color and humor and realism. Let’s feed the people of the world with what we have to say, and let’s make it important.
A huge, admirable “thank you” to Neil Gaiman for inspiring me last night. I cannot wait to dive back into my own stories.
*It’s worth noting that the short story Gaiman read really did terrify me. So, if his new book is the scariest thing he’s ever written, I am literally petrified of reading this book next year. @_@
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