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Neil Gaiman at the Edinburgh Book Festival

August 17, 2011

And other things we learned today from Neil Gaiman and Audrey Niffenegger.
But first… lunch at the Book Festival.
Not sure how they managed to create a pop-up pub, complete with stained glass window detailing and wooden booths, but not arguing with the decent sandwiches, strong coffee or interesting tea cakes. No mere flimsy tent, this.

There was a bit of a line, sorry, queue, to get in to the more tentlike tent where the discussion actually took place. The elder Willses bristled at this, but I shrugged. Lines at the Book Expo were longer. Also- you can make friends in Neil Gaiman lines! And I did. Started to chat with Caroline, an Edinburgh local about my age- we had time to talk a bit about books, parents, underpaid jobs in the arts, odd bosses, and books some more, while waiting for the event to start.

The two authors talked mostly about myths and fairy tales, which was fascinating.
“Myths decay into fairy tales,” said Neil Gaiman. “Sacred stories decay in repeated telling, to become magic tales, and, if they decay further, they become jokes.”

“You can point to the things fairy tales have in common, he added. Fairy tale characters each have one thing, one characteristic that distinguishes them, a simple and primal motivation. Using that idea, the two authors took apart Hansel and Gretel. Hansel existed as one who could be fattened. Gretel existed to be smart and devoted to her brother.
And the witch? “Probably crazy because she was protein-deficient!” Niffenegger joked.
Fairy tales open undeveloped characters for the reader to move into, Niffenegger suggested. (An interesting notion- I’m looking forward to rereading tales with that idea in mind.)

I love articulate discussions of fairy tales and cultural constructs. Even more so when it’s Neil Gaiman doing the discussing. I love the way his novels and stories take a sidelong look at reality, weaving in magic and mythic elements.

He raised a good point about girls in fairy tales: “Girls in fairy tales are good, and patient, and smart and noble. And they go through hell.” The two authors came up with examples: waiting years, staying silent for a month, cursed shoes. But in the end, their virtues are rewarded.
Boys? They just show up in these tales. “The second son inherits the cat… and the story starts!”
I’d love to see more from Gaiman, riffing on the structure of fairy tales and myth in an essay- certainly seen it in practice, in his work.

Even my parents, who have not read Gaiman, were interested in hearing him talk about his writing process. “I write with something in my head I can’t get out. I write to understand it, and to find out what happens.” He writes to play with the element of surprise, as much as his fans read for that element. He says the element of surprise comes from the writing process he learned with comics, writing to the episodic nature of the story, staying open to twists and turns within a general overarching plot.
“Like hitchhiking from Edinburgh to London,” he said. “You know you’ll get there… eventually, even if you’re not sure how.”

In the Q&A period that followed, Gaiman fielded questions about writing episodes for Dr. Who and Babylon 5, and discussed the novel he’s working on. It meant to be a short story for an anthology… but it kept growing. There may be anAmerican Gods sequel in the works. (Please, please, oh please!) Elements like Bigfoot and mentalism have crept into the writing. “It’s still accreting things,” he mused “like the way a meteor forms out of space debris.”

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