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Neil Gaiman is for Readers on Both Sides of the Divide

Below is another reflection on the life of a publicist from Michelle Rafferty. Rafferty has been a Publicity Assistant at Oxford University Press since September 2008. Prior to Oxford she interned at Norton Publishing and taught 9th & 10th grade Literature. Every Friday she is chronicling her adventures in publishing and New York City, so be sure to visit again next week.  Follow Michelle on twitter here.  Follow the OUPblog here.

With the release of Star Trek it’s more in vogue than ever to be a Science Fiction fan, but is it ever going to be cool to read like one? In the literary world there is a great divide between “literary fiction” and SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy)—a recent blog post by Robert V.S. Redick on Suvudu (appropriately titled “Beating My head on the Genre Wall”) argues that genre walls have prevented quality SFF from getting the respect it deserves. Although I’ve read Science Fiction classics like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and dabbled in the  Star Wars spin-off series, I admittedly have stood on the “literary” fiction side. But after my colleague Cassie Ammerman introduced me to prominent SFF writer Neil Gaiman (you might recognize him as author of Coraline, a YA novel turned film this year), I too found myself wondering why I can’t carry my new copy of Stardust with equal pride. Cassie invited me to an event in his honor last week at Cooper Union; as Gaiman talked about his career the topic of genre came up, but it didn’t seem to be the point. What I walked away thinking was: He loves to read and write. And he knows how to do it well. (Ok—and he has incredible, voluminous hair.)

Gaiman offered some excellent universal advice for readers and writers on both sides of the divide; so in the spirit of breaking down genre walls I’m sharing some Gaiman insight that could be of use to us all:

1.) People who read books are not nerds, they are “bookish.” And with Gaiman’s British accent, “bookish” definitely sounds like a good thing.

2.) There’s no shame in famous author fantasies. Gaiman admitted that when he was young he didn’t want to be an astronaut, he had other plans: to (literally) be Tolkien. He fantasized that he lived in an alternate reality where Tolkien doesn’t exist; Gaiman then hires an adult to type up The Lord of the Rings trilogy (which he somehow possesses) with Gaiman’s name attached. Gaiman then kills the typist, and takes credit for The Lord of the Rings.

3.) How to stay productive? Avoid the internet like the plague. Gaiman does blog, but he still does all of his writing the old fashioned way (that means paper and pen): no messages popping up, no e-mail, no googling the spelling of a word “only to surface 3 hours later.” He also divulged that he uses different colored pens when writing so he can see his progress.

4.) There is a litmus test for really great characters. You would never want to walk away from them at a cocktail party. Especially the bad guys.

5.) The best place to write is Vegas. A travel agent told Gaiman that they have the “nicest, cheapest, rooms” so that’s where he headed to begin American Gods. The hotel staff was so shocked that someone came to Vegas to do something other than gamble that they gave Gaiman royal treatment and a corner room.

6.) Artists work really well when given boundaries and limits. Gaiman spoke specifically of the artist/writer relationship for the graphic novel: it is important the two are open with one another about their respective goals and artistic proclivities. If the artist likes drawing cats he should tell the writer. And the writer should feel like his writing is a letter to the artist. If the two allow themselves to feed off one another they can create a project they both are proud of. Gaiman says that if a review of a comic book deemed his own work lackluster, but the artist’s work as the best of his career, he would have tremendous pride in the project.

7.) Don’t write for the money—it will probably come back to haunt you. Early in his career, a publisher called him asking him to write a biography of Duran Duran. Gaiman wrote the book purely for the paycheck—it allowed him to move from a manual to an electric typewriter. However, writing just for money turns out to be not so simple, because the publisher who commissioned the book went belly-up after the first printing, and Gaiman was never paid the money he was owed.

8.) Don’t give up on your ideas too fast—the writing just might need some time to catch up. “This is actually a better idea than I am writer.” This is what Gaiman first thought when he first started to write The Graveyard Book—the story of a young boy raised by dead people (kind of like The Jungle Book). It took him a number of tries and years (about 20) to get the prose just right. His persistence was worth it though: the book earned a Newberry in 2008.

Recent Comments

  1. David Scholes

    I am familiar with Neil Gaiman’s work but the above article was quite insightful.

    I was particularly interested in his advice about avoiding the internet like the plague.

    Advice that I have not taken thus far I might say.

    My approach (with short SFF stories) has been to post them on various sites (such as SFF World) to get a sense of how people react to them. Then, most recently, I actually managed to get published in the US.

    The link is: http://www.StrategicBookPublishing.com/ScienceFictionandAlternateHistory.html



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