Neil Gaiman on writing

January 27, 2012 at 7:24 am (Articles / Interviews) (, , , )

Originally published in the Philippine Online Chronicles (April 2010). Neil Gaiman talks about being a journalist, speculative fiction, and which of his characters he’d rather be stuck with on a deserted island.

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Aspiring writers in the Philippines always face an uphill climb. There are entire worlds to be written out – stories, comics, or maybe poetry or opinions, but writing (as with most other art forms) is notoriously impractical to pursue, given that it is not very lucrative as a profession.

So when British fantasy, horror, and science-fiction writer Neil Gaiman visited the Philippines to announce the winners of the 3rd Graphic/Fiction Awards he co-sponsors with Fully Booked, the Philippine Online Chronicles (POC) took the chance to ask him what he had to say to those who have always wanted to get into writing.

Gaiman began as a journalist, interviewing the likes of fantasy writer Terry Pratchett early in his career. He wrote books about the band Duran Duran and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide for the Galaxy, before foraging into comics where he would make a name for himself as the writer of the Sandman series. Gaiman has also written several novels and short story collections, including American Gods, Smoke and Mirrors, Neverwhere, and the Newbery-winning Graveyard Book.

The fact that there is little impetus for Filipino writers and artists to pursue their craft is one of the reasons Gaiman and Fully Booked launched the Philippine Graphic/Fiction competition back in 2005.

“The whole thing about [writing] not being lucrative and not being practical was actually the reason why we started the contest and why I put up the prize money for it,” he said, during POC’s interview with him at Rockwell Center, the day after the winners of the competition were announced.

“I actually wanted to make it enough that it wasn’t just pocket money. It’s actually enough to make people look—this is worth writing a story, or making a great comic. It’s to tell them to actually go out there and make this good, and if you do it, it can help and it can change things.”

POC: How did you get into writing as a career?

NG: I don’t know if I’ve ever really had a real job, in the sense of I have earned my money in my life by writing for it, which meant in some ways that I got to be really hungry and when we kicked off, I was starving.

I spent the first four years of my life mostly as a journalist, occasionally selling a short story here and there, and then creeping from journalism to comics, and then selling a novel, just a few years later looking up and oh there’s a TV series, and books and a few years after that writing movies and all of this was good. And it’s been very, very slow, very steady climb but it was always based on the idea that I’d eventually have a real job.

The nearest to a real job I ever came actually, is when I was starting out as a young journalist, my father informed me—he knew that I’d starve as a journalist—he had this great idea, I could show off show homes and I could write while I wasn’t showing people around, and I sort of really didn’t want to say no because it was such a kind thing to do, and I was starving.

So I got on a bus and I went all the way across London by bus and went to this place where I was going to meet this guy for an interview and I sat in the reception for an hour, then they said “we’re really sorry, he’s had to go home, it’s too late” and I said oh okay, and I went back across London by bus. And then I thought, well that was that. I didn’t plan on going back across London by bus, it was a ridiculous bus journey, so I never went back, and that was the nearest I ever got to having a real job.

But I was very focused—I wanted to write, I wanted to tell stories, I figured that I could do this, I figured it wasn’t just a stupid dream, so I did it.

POC: Did journalism help you on your way to becoming a comics writer and novelist?

NG: I think being a journalist is incredible practice for being a writer. It teaches you economy, like you know that if you have 700 words, than you don’t have 900 words or 1500 words, and if you hand in 900 words, somebody will randomly chop 200 of them out and make you look stupid.

So you really do learn economy in terms of taking what people say. Like what I actually just said was “Taking what people say, um.” You aren’t ever going to put that down in the interview. What you’ll put down is something much more compact and compressed, even though you’ll sit and transcribe this, and you’ll learn from transcription how to take 6,000 words from here, and turn it into 2,000 words for an interview.

You also learn deadlines. Because if somebody says they want it on their desk at 4:00, you have it at their desk at 4:00, and it doesn’t really matter if you don’t have rose-scented candles burning and the right kind of paper and beautiful girls to dance through your room every morning to inspire you, you just have to get to write.

POC: In the Philippines, there seems to be a bias against science fiction, fantasy and horror – they seem to get less “respect” as compared to mainstream literature. Is it the same in the West?

NG: You can’t really generalize about the West, because at that point it starts to be about who you’re talking about. In England or America, we are in a world where the best-selling books and many of the most respected books are somewhere in the region of the fantastic, whether you’re looking at Twilights and Harry Potters, or me and Stephen King, or looking at people like Michael Chabon in the mainstream. It very much sort of mingles.

I think you need to get to places like Australia and start talking about the fantastic and fiction or science fiction or horror, and they’ll say “no, no, what’s really important is gritty novels about Australian life, that’s real literature.” But that’s still where the Twilight books and the Harry Potter books sell.

I don’t quite get it. I’ve never been very good at snobbery. I’ve never been very good at looking down on groups of people, and going “I am superior to them because because of the color of their skin,” or “I’m superior to them because of the way that they dress,” “I’m superior to them because they’re missing fingers,” or whatever. I don’t go very much into “I’m superior to them because I like and read a different kind of fiction.”

So as far as I’m concerned, all genre really means is it tells you the place in the bookshop you don’t have to go to find the stuff you don’t like.

POC: There are some people who might ask, why write a fantasy or science fiction story when there’s so much to write about that’s actually happening in society, in real life?

NG: One thing that has actually fascinated me with the stories in the contest is the amount of social satire. And really hard-hitting Filipino science fiction social satire, where you’ll get people using the medium of science fiction in order to be both very, very angry, and very, very funny—about what they perceive as the injustices and the inequities and the problems of the Philippines.

Through the medium of essentially satirical science fiction and suddenly you have stories like last night’s wonderful audience grand prize winner and the judge’s runner up winner, “Filipina: the Super Maid.” It’s a glorious story about what’s wrong with sending your people all over the planet and what they’re meant to do and what they’re expected to do as these sort of invisible tireless, perfect workers. Or that glorious story from the first year, about a space ship powered by gossip.

And in each case you’re looking at somebody trying to write about something that can be very hard to write about as mimetic fiction, or fiction that mirrors life.

Mimetic fiction is very good at a number of things, but it’s not very good at warning, and it’s not very good at holding up a distorting mirror to say “if this goes on, this is where you don’t want to go.”

This is why probably one of the greatest books of the 20th century, 1984 [by George Orwell], had to be science fiction. You can’t write a warning against a totalitarian regime by setting it in Russia or whatever, it’s much more interesting saying this is England sometime in the future, in 1984, and this is what happens when the government just redefines the way your mind works.

Science fiction actually allows us to think about things and have concepts about things that we didn’t have before (like the concept of “Big Brother”), and it allows us to get upset about things, and to go, “if you go down this path, bad things happen.” And that is one of the huge and important things that science fiction can do.

POC: On comics writing—the Philippines has a lot of very good comics artists, but not that many good writers. Do you have any tips for people who specifically want to get into comics as writers?

NG: I think, honestly, that a world in which there aren’t enough good writers in comics is a world in which anybody who’s a halfway decent writer has an amazing chance at being thought of as a brilliant writer.

People like me and Alan Moore, I think, are fairly decent writers, but in comics we got to be giants, we got to be titans, and we got to be titans because there weren’t any other giants there, so suddenly we’re towering over everybody. And I always felt, if only there was just more good writers in comics, I would never have had that. Nobody would have gotten Neil Gaiman. So I think you have to look at that as an opportunity.

The thing about comics that I love is they can be the most democratic of media, and the most accessible of media, because at the end of the day, all you need to make comics is a pen, ink and access to a photocopier or to a computer printer, and that makes life so cheap, and so easy and levels the playing field so much.

I remember the first time I saw that wonderful Elmer comic [by Gerry Alanguilan] it was more or less like that, it was one of those handed to me while I was just here in the Philippines and I thought this is great, this is wonderful, this is awesome, and its beautifully told, and it’s beautifully drawn, and it’s about a chicken and civil rights for chickens. And you’re reading something like that, and you’re going, it doesn’t matter where in the world this was published, it’s a great comic.

POC: Last question. This was originally asked to comics maker Alan Moore in an interview by Fully Booked – If you were stuck on a deserted island with just one of your characters for company, who would it be (Alan Moore’s answer was the girls from the erotic series Lost Girls—because he wasn’t going to say Rorschach, the neurotic vigilante from Watchmen, and one of Moore’s most popular characters).

NG: Nobody would want Rorschach. I don’t want Rorschach on a desert island with me, he’d smell weird, he’s scary, and he’ll probably break my finger because I would not live up to his ideals. But the girls from Lost Girls…I like that.

But if I could have one character or one set of characters on my desert island with me, I’d like somebody practical who could keep my spirits up. I think I’d probably take Mervyn Pumpkinhead from Sandman for a number of reasons, including if I ran out of food…you’ve got a pumpkin. That could keep me going possibly another week.


Photos by Irish Bernardez, used with permission.




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