Thursday, September 30, 2010

What I haven't finished reading

This is the second part of an interview from Neil Gaiman's website, which I've been working slowly through for a few days. It really is time to turn off the computer though, RAM and all that, so I'm pasting what I haven't finished here. Feel free not to read it--I mean, I haven't either.

What was that like? 

Rock and roll stars have it much better than writers when they're on a tour. Chiefly, I suppose, because rock stars are doing what they do 
"My career has been somewhat like climbing stairs. You know, you learn fairly quickly that everything is sort of the same amount of effort. In many ways, it was much, much harder to get the first book contract. The hardest thing probably overall has been learning not to trust people, publicists and so forth, implicitly. I'm by nature a very trusting person. And its only, very slowly, you sort of learn, 'Well, ok, Publisher X, despite claiming to us that the book was not remaindered, has actually secretly remaindered it into Australia.' "
when they get to a strange city. I'm not a signer, I'm a writer. Although through years of practice I'm getting to be quite a good signer. I really am. I'm not a signer. I'm a writer, and that is the reason why I actually do readings now. I pretty much insist on the readings. It at least gives me something I can derive a small amount of aesthetic enjoyment out of, rather then just sitting there for four hours saying, "Gwendolyn. What a lovely name; how do you spell it?" But what's fun if you're a rock star is you stumble off stage at midnight. Well, you stumble offstage at eleven, by midnight you get to climb on a giant tour bus. You go to sleep on the tour bus and sometime around 3 or 4 in the morning you wake up somewhere else, you stumble out, stumble into a hotel and wake up at about eleven. And then you have a few hours of your day before the sound check and the whole day begins. Whereas, if you're a writer, you stumble out of your singing at 11:30 p.m.. You get back to your hotel, praying that room service didn't stop at eleven. And you set your alarm for five-to-six because you have a 10-past-six checkout because you're a going to be getting on a plane to the next city where you are met by a very nice, efficient media handler lady who will take you to a TV station, a radio station or to your next interview. That's the biggest difference, I think. But the most important difference of all is that, if you are musician, every night you get to play music to people, but if you are writer every night you get to sign somebody's books. I mean the best part of it. I shouldn't sound as if I'm begrudging it or grumbling about it. The part that I enjoy most is a weird two-fold thing. When you're writing, what you hear is abstract numbers. It's a lovely thing to know you've sold 60,000 Neverwheres in hardcover or you've done 300,000 in paperback, or you've done 100,000 of this or a quarter-million of that. That means nothing. Those are numbers. They don't mean anything. They're just numbers. They're numbers that sort of translate into royalty checks. What is so wonderful about going on a signing tour is the numbers translate suddenly into people. Even though I must have signed for only 2% of the people who bought Neverwhere in paperback or whatever. These tiny percentages; they suddenly become real. You get faces. You get to say thank you to them for buying the books. They get to say thank you to you for telling them stories. That is wonderful. That is a magical thing. 

You're so prolific. Have you ever faced the dreaded writer's block? 

Oh, Yes. Continually. But I have good strategies. (laughs) 

Will you share some of them with us? (laughs) 

Sure. Strategy number one is that I always, or almost always, have at least two or three different things that I'm writing at any one time. In my experience, writer's block is very real. You'll be writing something and suddenly it stops. The characters stop talking. You've been happily just transcribing everything they've been saying, and suddenly they sit down and shut up. Suddenly, you are in deep trouble. It does happen. It's very real. 
"I work on a computer as if I'm working in clay. You put down the kind of thing that you mean and then you look at that for a few seconds. And then you work into it, you delete this word, you add that word. You change the tense. You decide that isn't quite what you meant and you use a thesaurus or whatever. There is no discontinuity. There is no break between your first and second draft. There IS no first or second draft. What you have is an ongoing, improving first draft."
It's not something (in my experience anyway) that happens on everything at the same time. It's just that sometimes a project needs a little time to think, a little time to breathe. So what I tend to do when that happens is I always have two or three other things that I'm doing at the same time. I can just go to one of the ones that's working. Which is how I give this appearance of being prolific. I'm really not. I think of myself as a very lazy author. But it's very nice for me to have more than one thing that I'm doing at a time, and being able to bounce between them. The other thing that I would say about writer's block is that it can be very, very subjective. By which I mean, you can have one of those days when you sit down and every word is crap. It is awful. You cannot understand how or why you are writing, what gave you the illusion or delusion that you would every have anything to say that anybody would ever want to listen to. You're not quite sure why you're wasting your time. And if there is one thing you're sure of, it's that everything that is being written that day is rubbish. I would also note that on those days (especially if deadlines and things are involved) is that I keep writing. The following day, when I actually come to look at what has been written, I will usually look at what I did the day before, and think, "That's not quite as bad as I remember. All I need to do is delete that line and move that sentence around and its fairly usable. It's not that bad." What is really sad and nightmarish (and I should add, completely unfair, in every way. And I mean it -- utterly, utterly, unfair!) is that two years later, or three years later, although you will remember very well, very clearly, that there was a point in this particular scene when you hit a horrible Writer's Block from Hell, and you will also remember there was point in this particular scene where you were writing and the words dripped like magic diamonds from your fingers -- as if the Gods were speaking through you and every sentence was a thing of beauty and magic and brilliance. You can remember just as clearly that there was a point in the story, in that same scene, when the characters had turned into pathetic cardboard cut-outs and nothing they said mattered at all. You remember this very, very clearly. The problem is you are now doing a reading and you cannot for the life of you remember which bits were the gifts of the Gods and dripped from your fingers like magical words and which bits were the nightmare things you just barely created and got down on paper somehow!! Which I consider most unfair. As a writer, you feel like one or the other should be better. I wouldn't mind which. I'm not somebody who's saying, "I really wish the stuff from the Gods was better." I wouldn't mind which way it went. I would just like one of them to be better. Rather than when it's a few years later, and you're reading the scene out loud and you don't know, and you cannot tell. It's obviously all written by the same person and it all gets the same kind of reaction from an audience. No one leaps up to say, "Oh look, that paragraph was clearly written on an 'off' day." 

Well, that is unfair. 

It is very unfair. I don't think anybody who isn't a writer would ever understand how quite unfair it is. 

I'm going to move onto a different subject. I understand you've raised money to support the Comic Legal Defense Fund. Why do you feel so strongly about the issues that it represents? 

Because I come from a country without the First Amendment. Because most countries in the world don't have a First Amendment. 
Cover of
Sandman Dream Country by Neil Gaiman
Click here
 for ordering information.
As far as I know it's the only one. The current total of countries in the world with First Amendments is one. You have guaranteed freedom of speech. Other countries don't have that. They have Obscene Publications Acts. They have governments who can tell them what can and what cannot be written. Coming from a country without this thing, I know what an amazing, miraculous, cool, brilliant thing it is. And I also know that it is something that can easily be eroded if it is not safeguarded, or patrolled. A nice, easy place for freedom of speech to be eroded is comics, because comics are a natural target whenever an election comes up. Things are kind of quiet right now, but we've got an election coming up. Which means that I can pretty much guarantee you that at some point over the coming year TV reporters will be standing with graphic novels or comics not aimed in any way at children. Normally these publications have the words "Adults Only" on the cover, or "For Mature Readers" or the equivalent language. They'll be standing in front of a display of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Archie Comics and saying, "You think this is what your children are reading, but they are really exposed to this horrible stuff." 

So the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is out there preserving and fighting for, and sometimes winning and sometimes losing, the fight for First Amendment rights in comics and, more generally, for freedom of speech. For example, the State of California tax authorities announced that for tax purposes comics were not literature, but were sign paintings, and were to be taxed as sign paintings. It was the longest and most expensive case the Legal Defense Fund fought. We won, which was great. 

On the other hand, there are cases which still scare me to this day that we lost. I mean the Mike Diana case. Mike Diana was a kid in Pensacola Florida who created a self-published fanzine with a readership of maybe 500 people, most of them swapped zines backwards and forewords with each other. The zine falls into the hands of the local police. A police officer pretends to be a kid into fanzines and buys a copy through the mail from Mike -- who suddenly finds himself spending three nights in jail, charged with obscenity, and then let out on bail. The defense brought famous, expert witnesses from New York and San Francisco. The prosecutor pretty much effectively demolished the expert witnesses standing up there and saying "this stuff is art" by pointing out to the jury that the standards of Pensacola, Florida are not the standards of the gay bath houses of San Francisco or the crack alleys of New York. So they found him guilty of obscenity. Which made him the very first American artist to be found guilty of obscenity for their own work, for making their own art. Now, let me tell you what was imposed upon him. Because this is the bit that I find scary. I find it a little bit scary that they found him guilty of obscenity, but I find it a lot scary that the sentence consisted of three years suspended day in jail sentence, a $3,000 fine, a journalistic ethics course to be done at his own expense, psychiatric counseling to be imposed at his own expense, 1000 hours of community service, and he was not allowed within ten feet of anybody under than age of eighteen. Bear in mind, this was a kid that worked in a convenience store. And finally, and this one is thepiece de resistance, (which never made any newspapers, nobody was interested, because its comics and nobody cares about comics) Michael was forbidden under the terms of his sentence to draw anything that anybody might find obscene. The local police force was ordered to make 24-hour spot checks of his place of residence to make sure that he was not "comitting art." You know, to ensure that he wasn't drawing things for his own amusement while he was on the telephone and then tearing them up. The police were empowered, entrusted and ordered to break into his house 24-hour days and make random spot checks to make sure that he was not committing art. Now, we took the course to appeals court. Although we didn't get it overturned, the court at least allowed Mike to move to New York to do his sentence in New York. Where, to be totally honest, the police have better things to do then to break into people's houses at four in the morning to make sure they're not drawing. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, who declined to hear it. Now considering this is the first case of an American artist being convicted of obscenity and, given the nature of the sentence, you would of thought they would have heard it. But they didn't. If you asking why I'm out there fundraising, why I'm out there manning the barricades, and why I'm willing to do whatever I can to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund -- that's why. Because things like that happen. There are erosions of freedom that occur at the borders of literature. If things like that can occur for somebody drawing comics in a way they probably couldn't if it was a novel published by a major novelist (or even a minor novelist publishing something through a real house) it's because those battles have been fought and won. The battles that many people assume were fought and won many years ago are still being fought. 

Have you personally ever had any of your work censored? 

Yes. I once when I was young nearly sent a Swedish publisher to jail for a bible story. I was involved in a comic called Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament where we retold, with a straight face, stories from the Old Testament. I told a story from the book of Judges, in which a man's wife is to quote the bible "whoring about on him." And he sent her away and then he goes and gets her back from her father. He misses her. They stop off in this little village over night. The townsfolk gather around on the road to Bethlehem, which is where they are and say, "That man that came to you tonight. Throw him out so that we may have sex with him. We want to rape him." And this man says "No. No. No. I will not. That would be a terrible thing. That would be a violation of all the laws of hospitality. And he's my guest. But I'll tell you what. He has a wife with him and I have a virgin daughter whose never known any man. You can have them." They get known and abused all night and are left dead on the doorstep the next morning. When the guy gets up the morning he finds his wife dead on the doorstep and takes her home and cuts her into thirteen bits and into twelve locks and sends one to each of the tribes of Israel. So I told that story and did it fairly straight, and next thing I knew I had a Swedish publisher about to go to jail because there is a Swedish law forbidding the depiction of images of violence against women. That particular bible story is filled with images of violence against women. I think it was more or less only the fact that it was from the bible and told completely straight that got him off. 

Let's turn to another subject. How has being a father affected your work? 

Well, I suppose chiefly I get to steal from them. Both of my kids picture books. The one that I'm just about to do now and the last one I did, The Day I Swapped My Dad the Two Goldfish I completely stole them from my two kids. As I did with the next book. The Day I Swapped My Dad the Two Goldfish came about because my son looked at me one day when I was saying something horrible and unreasonable to him like, "Isn't it time you went bed?" He was about eight and he looked up me and his lower lip trembled and he said "I wish I didn't have a Dad." He said, "I wish I had something good, like some goldfish." He then stomped off to bed angrily. I thought, "What a great idea!" The seed having been planted in the back of my head, five years later I sat down and wrote The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish which then turned up on the Newsweek list of best books. The biggest thrill I've got from The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish is just the fact that its turning up now on the Scholastic edition that kids bring home with them from school. You know if you have a young kid with the list of books they take home from school. That's where it is. It's on that list. I love that. The great corrupting of the youth of America. 

Not just of England (laugh). What do you feel like the greatest challenge you've had to face in your professional life so far? 

I honestly don't know. My career has been somewhat like climbing stairs. You know, you learn fairly quickly that everything is sort of the same amount of effort. In many ways, it was much, much harder to get the first book contract. The hardest thing probably overall has been learning not to trust people, publicists and so forth, implicitly. I'm by nature a very trusting person. And its only, very slowly, you sort of learn "Well, ok, Publisher X, despite claiming to us that the book was not remaindered, has actually secretly remaindered it into Australia. 

Did that happen to you? 

Oh, yes. Things like that. And Publisher B, instead of actually invoking the clause that says "whereby they have to sell off the remainders" had claimed that what they are actually doing is technically not remaindering but deep discounting them, so that they don't have to do that, and so forth. Slowly you learn that you really have to make sure that you have good people looking out for you, and that you think of everything. (laughs) Which is very alien to me. It's not how I think. 

It's sort of counter-intuitive to a creative personality, I think. 

No. I agree completely. I was always so relieved that anyone wants to publish anything I've written. In many ways 
"As far as I'm concerned, the entire reason for becoming a writer is not having to get up in the morning. It's not writing when you don't want to, and writing late at night if you want to."
I feel like the biggest challenge hasn't come yet. Because, if pressed, I would confess that what I'm really scared of is that one day somebody will knock at the door and they'll have a clipboard. They'll say, "Mr. Gaiman?" And I'll say "Yes." They'll say, "It says here that you get to make stuff up and get paid for it." I'll say, "Yes." "And it says here that you can do anything you want. You can go and do fantasy and you can do real fiction and you can do TV, films, whatever you want." And I'll say, "Yes." And they say, "Well it's over. It's done. We've caught up with your game, Sir. You are going to have to go and get a real job. And work normal hours." 

You mean like the two villains fromNeverwhere? 

Yes, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar show up and they say "It's over. You are now going to have to get a real job." I will have gone to that point, seemingly expecting that this writing thing would go on for ages. I'd then think, "Well, it's a fair cop." I would go off and have to get a real job and get up the morning and wear a suit. I suppose I'd secretly make some things up in my head for myself before I went to bed at night, or before I go to sleep anyway lying in bed, sort of making up little stories. But I'd never be able to tell anybody. That's the thing I'm scared of. 

It's not going to happen. 

Well, I hope not. 

What are your pet peeves in life? Do you have any pet peeves? 

I'm not terribly peevy. What are my pet peeves? I don't know really. I wish you could get better radio in America. I wish somebody would give NPR the money to be a real radio station. I'm fairly peeveless. I suppose, right now coming off this tour, I'm not so much peeved as I'm actually kind of thrilled that I can do a signing tour on which I got to break records in most of the stores that I signed at. Yet I'm still managing to do this while somehow still remaining one of those authors who hears, "Oh you write books. What name do you write under?" I feel like I'm getting away with something, because I'm doing it all under the radar right now. So in some ways its kind of a peeve because you think, "Well, wouldn't it be nice if you went into a store and this actually translated itself into people knowing who you are and so on and so forth." (laughs). On the other hand, this is not something that I particular worry about. I think I'm astonishingly lucky to be where I am at this point. 

What projects are you working on now? 

Well, once I've finished recovering from the signing tour, there are a couple of things. There's a children's book that should have been finished by December that's been sitting on hold now for a couple of months. I'm actually feeling very guilty because I left four kids locked in a closet, three of them have been dead for years and years and years. I'm feeling guilty. They've been in there for months and I have to go and get them out. Then there's a big novel and various sorts of other things. Like gettingNeverwhere the movie, which looks like its now starting to gather some serious momentum. The movie is with Jim Henson Productions and Dimension Films. 

What's the latest word on the Sandman movie? 

It's not something I have any control over. Its one of those things when I did the deal to write Sandman it was in those antediluvian days when all rights were owned by D.C. Comics, who is owned by Warner Brothers, which means Warner controls Sandman. I wish things were different, but they're not. 

So that's sort of the end of Sandman for right now, as far as you're concerned? 

Well, yes. I may do a little tenth anniversary project to say thank you to my editor who really wants me to. Karen Berger at D.C. Comics. She's always been the single most terrific editor anybody could ever want. If the time is there, I will do her a little Japanese Sandman story. 

Marvelous. And what's the word on the Phantom Princess film? 

Ah, Princess Mononoke. I don't know what title it will eventually come out under when it comes out. 

How's that coming? That's in production, isn't it? 

Yes, I wrote the English translation. It has a wonderful cast, including: Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billie Bob Thornton, Billy Crudup and Gillian Anderson. With such a fantastic cast, one hopes for the best dialogue one can give them. It comes out sometime this summer from Miramax. 

Photo of Neil Gaiman
Is there anything else that you'd like to say to your fans? 

Mostly, I'd just like to say thank you for coming out in such hordes during the signing tour. The most amusing thing I heard was that we'd actually broken the previous record in this store in Portland we signed in. Powell's of Portland, which is a wonderful store. An astonishingly wonderful, huge store. In fact, the previous signing record there had been set by Martha Stewart. Thank you to everybody for breaking the Martha Stewart record. When I heard about that I was enormously amused.