A conversation with Neil Gaiman at WAMFEST 2014

By Dan Landau
Celebrated writer Neil Gaiman visited Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus on October 16, 2014 as part WAMFEST 2014 (Words and Music Festival). Speaking in front of a packed audience in Lenfell Hall in Hennessy Hall, Gaiman had a conversational interview with WAMFEST artist-in-residence, Wesley Stace.
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Above: Renowned author and screenwriter, Neil Gaiman (right), in conversation with Wesley Stace at FDU's Florham Campus for WAMFEST 2014. (Photo by Dan Landau)
As the author of more than 30 books, including “Coraline,” “The Graveyard,” and “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” Gaiman has received numerous awards internationally for his writing. Gaiman also wrote two episodes of the long-running science fiction TV series, “Doctor Who” — “The Doctor’s Wife” which aired in 2011 and 2013’s “Nightmare in Silver.”
Highlights of his conversation with Stace: 

Always loved books: 

“I loved books as a kid, and I read as often as I could. By the time I was eight or nine, before any kind of family event, my parents would
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Above: Neil Gaiman spoke to a full house in Lenfell Hall. (Photo by Dan Landau)
frisk me for books because they knew I had some on me somewhere.”

Writing is not magic:

“[Aspiring writers] want to hear the secret — they want to know that at midnight, there will be a bang three times on your door (you don’t answer it), and then you wait five minutes and there will be another bang and this time you answer the door and see Stephen King and J.K. Rowling standing there, wearing green robes. They
Above: Artist Michael Arthur live-drew the event, sketching images he drew from the topics and themes Gaiman and Stace talked about. A video camera mounted above Arthur and a screen adjacent to the stage displayed him drawing in reaction to what was said on stage. Arthur also spoke at a WAMFEST event on October 17, appearing with designer Stefan Bucher to discuss drawing and design. More on that event here. (Image of drawing courtesy of Arthur)
will take down into the basement and you will do the thing that is evil with the goat bones and then you will be a novelist. That’s not how it works. Writing is a craft, not magic. It’s something that you sit down and do.”

Interest in comics:

"I was in my early teens and I liked comics very much. I bought these comics called the 'Spirit.' I had no idea they were reprints from the early 1940s. All I knew was that they were seven-page comics drawn and written as well as anything I had ever seen. There was power and impact in these short stories. I decided I wanted to get into comics. Comics were undiscovered territory for me. It felt like something that I could take my machete and go out into the wilderness and do things no one has ever done."

Career advice for writing comics:

“There was a two-day career program scheduled at my school and I went there hoping they would would me how to become a comic book writer. People would talk to career specialists and come out knowing they were going to be hotel administrators, or whatever. When I met with someone, he said, ‘So, what do you want to be?’ I said, ‘I want to write American comic books.’ He looked at me as if I said, ‘I want to rob graves.’ There was a long pause and then he said, ‘How do you do that?’ I said, ‘I have no idea; you’re the career officer.’ We just stared at each other and then he said, ‘Have you ever though about accountancy?’ That was my career counseling."

Making things up:

“While working on [the novel] ‘American Gods,’ I researched everything I could find on Slavic gods. There was nothing out there — a few lists of names and tiny bits here and there, so I made stuff up for the book and the stuff I made up is now in Wikipedia as if it were fact! Wikipedia points to books on myths as sources, but these books were published after [‘American Gods’ was published] and the authors read my stuff and just put it into their books!”

On not being a novelist: 

“I’m envious of novelists — they are like an order of higher being, dedicated to the novel. I could never be a novelist because then I would have to stop being a ‘write-for-TV-sometimes-ist’ or whatever the things are that I want to work on. I have the freedom to write whatever I want, for example children’s books.”

Clarity of utterance:

“I’m always trying to go for clarity of utterance in my writing. That does not mean that I’m not absolutely willing to send you off to the dictionary if the correct word is one that you don’t happen to know because I want to use the correct word. But it also means that I’m unlikely to write in a way that is intentionally obfuscatory. I want to be clear.”  

Advice for aspiring fantasy writers:

Read stuff that is outside of your area of interest — history, etc. Explore those parts of the books store that you haven’t visited. It will make your fantasy writing different from everyone else’s.
Stace is a critically-acclaimed singer/songwriter and novelist. He has released fifteen music albums, ranging in style from folk to pop, most under the stage name John Wesley Harding. He has also published three novels under the name of Wesley Stace.
WAMFEST is an annual series of unique conversations, collaborations, and performances hosted by FDU that attempts to break down barriers between different genres in the arts, particularly between what are considered “high” and “low” arts, and to celebrate what is shared among all artists and all audiences.  Guests have included, among many others, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Pinsky, Rosanne Cash, Paul Muldoon, Jonathan Demme, and Talib Kweli.