I’ve never met a famous writer before, a celebrity writer. It turns out they are just like normal people. Almost. Neil Gaiman walks into our Short Story Master Class (in the Waterstones at Piccadilly Circus) and everyone falls silent. He looks exactly like he does online or in the photos of one of his books, minus the beard.
(I don’t know if Neil consciously based his appearance on Severus Snape or if it just happened)
Neil starts the class by asking who among us are writers. Seeing as students from the Creative Writing Course at Birkbeck College are here and his name has attracted many other aspiring writers most of the crowd raise their hands. Neil then asks which of us write short stories. A few hands fall. Then he asks which of us have been published before in one way or another. Half of the remaining hands drop. Neil smiles and asks us what we would like to know.
He spends the next two hours talking about his past, his work, telling anecdotes and taking questions from the audience. He was born in East Grinstead and the writing that put him on the shelves was his Sandman comics published with DC. Since then he has won numerous awards and published countless different works in different genres and different mediums. After talking about his past as a reporter and which books and authors he enjoyed as a child Neil reads one of his short stories titled Other People. He then explains that one of his favourite tricks as a writer is to mislead the reader with the narrative voice. “I like to take readers where they don’t think they’ll be going,” he admits. “Take them by the hand and lead them into the big, dark forest. Then let go of their hand and run away.”
Neil then goes on to talk about the different types of writers he knows. He compares writers working towards deadlines to dolphins and otters. “If you give a dolphin a fish after it has performed a trick it will realise that if it performs the trick once more it will receive another fish. Some writers are the same. If you give them a good review on one of their books, their next book may be in the same genre or a similar style. Otters are different. They’ll take the fish and then they’ll think, hmm… that was fun. I’m going to write something else now. Bye.”
He then takes a question from a member of the crowd asking if he writes from experience like an actor remembering a role. ‘Of course,’ Neil said, ‘I absolutely do.’ He explains that when he started travelling the world he would meet strange people and attend interesting cultural events that would often result in the idea of a short story. He also insists that everyday occurrences such as “that funny person on the tube” or a strange TV show can result in an idea. He also warns us of the pitfalls of writing people into our work and points us towards the wedding story which can be found in the introduction of one of his short story collections Smoke and Mirrors.
‘I suppose that an idea is a notion,’ is the answer. He then says he often doesn’t know what an idea will turn into until he writes down the story and sees how long it is. This has often annoyed his editors and publishers when he turns in a short story and they were expecting a novel or visa versa.
The conversation turns to first drafts and rejection slips. Neil says that when he was starting off as a writer he wouldn’t mind rejection slips as it meant there was some quality control going on. ‘I’d hate to write something terrible and it be published”. He also states that he tried to finish whatever he is writing before starting on something new and that he never throws anything away. “One bad short story is better than ten or twelve unfinished ones,” he advices.
And then it was over. Neil took his seat at the signing desk and we formed a queue to pick up a copy of Neil’s books Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things and Trigger Warning for him to sign. I took a copy of Smoke and Mirrors (I did have copies of the other two collections but they were stored on my Kindle) and wrote my name on a Post It note for Neil to read (It isn’t difficult spelling Jack but people like Isabella or Siobhan might be upset if they discover Neil signed their book with the wrong spelling). I posed for a picture exchanged a few words and was ushered away to pay for my purchase.
It was brilliant meeting Neil Gaiman. He’s a very down to earth writer. Inspiring guy, hopefully we can reach the level of recognition and skill he has.
Also he can draw