Neil Gaiman on making art, mistakes and his 'View from the Cheap Seats'

Neil Gaiman is as big a rock star as you’ll find in the literary world, and not just because he’s close friends with actual rock star Tori Amos or married to Amanda Palmer, one half of rock duo the Dresden Dolls. He’s a rock star because he succeeds at just about everything he does. In the ‘90s, he was known mostly as the guy who made one of the greatest comics of all time: “The Sandman.” That would be enough for most people, a career-defining feat, but as Dylan had to go electric, Gaiman had to cross over into the literary world.

Soon his novels were garnering as much praise and fandom as his comics: “Stardust,” “Coraline,” “The Graveyard Book.” His Hugo- and Nebula Award-winning novel “American Gods,” which is being adapted for the small screen for Starz, has been celebrated as a modern masterpiece.

But fans of Gaiman know that there’s another vocation for which the writer should be known. His nonfiction is as compelling as his fiction, comics and screenplays. In his three-decade career, he has written reviews, interviews, introductions, speeches, articles, and essays on just about every foreseeable topic (and plenty of topics unforeseen as well). Published by William Morrow, “The View From the Cheap Seats” is the first collection of Gaiman's nonfiction; it includes his widely circulated speech “Make Good Art,” a conversation with Stephen King, and his explorations of the Syrian refugee crisis, the Academy Awards and Edgar Allan Poe. We spoke by phone while he was in England; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The book is big, 544 pages and more than 100 pieces, but is noticeably subtitled “Selected Nonfiction” — there is a lot you haven’t included. What was that selection process like?

Yes, there are something like 300 articles that I’ve done. What I wound up doing is giving pretty much everything I’d ever written to a friend of mine, the writer Kat Howard. I asked her to pick what she thought was worth saving. What was interesting was that the things that she picked were not necessarily the things that I would’ve picked. Of course, there were a few times where I overruled her and snuck something in. On at least one of those, I read a review saying, “Why did he put this piece in?” So now I know she was probably right.

You’ve said this audio book was by far the hardest you’ve ever recorded. What made it so difficult?

On the one hand, it wasn’t characters, it was me. On the other hand, it was me deploying different nonfictional voices, which is a bit weird. So you’re having to go: “This is a very formal nonfiction voice.” “This is a very informal nonfiction voice.” “This is reportage.” “This is opinion.” And then there was the worst thing in the world: the interviews. I didn’t think about recording them when we selected them or else I probably wouldn’t have put them in. We only included two of them: Lou Reed and Stephen King. We picked them because we felt they were about bigger things. Then, suddenly I’m in a recording studio in Santa Fe realizing that now I have to do my best Stephen King impression and my best Lou Reed impression. With Stephen, I could kind of approximate and go back and forth between our voices, but Lou was so hard for me that eventually what I wound up doing was recording all of Lou’s bits in one giant take and then going back and recording my questions separately.

“The View From the Cheap Seats” was your original title for a piece you wrote for the Guardian, a title they then changed. Could you tell me the story of how that happened and how you ended up not only reverting back to your original title for the piece in this book, but also letting that title stand for the entire collection?

“Coraline” was up for an Oscar in 2010. I don’t know if there are many years where you know you will not get your Academy Award when you’re nominated, but certainly not in the year that “Up” was nominated not only for best animated feature but also best picture. When that happens, you know two things: First, that “Up” will not get best picture, and second, that nothing else will get best animated feature or else it would make nonsense of the entire thing. So I was going to the Oscars knowing we had lost. What I had known intellectually but didn’t realize in my gut was how affected I would be by the fact that it was a year to the day since my dad had died of a sudden heart attack. When the day rolled around, I was out there in Los Angeles in fancy clothes. I wanted to be in the Midwest, walking my dog, having the kind of day where you don’t really talk to anybody.

Instead, I was at the Oscars, which is like being in the circus. But it was a weird place to be in the circus because I wasn’t in the audience exactly, I was part of this thing, yet not of it. I was also very aware that I was getting to tell the story of what happens when you’re up in the mezzanine at the Oscars to people who didn’t even realize there was a mezzanine at the Oscars. So I wrote this piece for the Guardian that was about what it felt like to be there in that moment, and basically what the view from the cheap seats was. It’s a very funny, very melancholic piece of writing. It’s also the only piece in the book that is illustrated because it ends with the photo from the L.A. Times, which acts almost as a punchline.

I had been walking invisibly through the Oscars, feeling like an outsider, like I wasn’t a part of the thing, but a few days later the L.A. Times Oscars special comes out and the back cover is a panorama shot of the Oscars and front and center is me, looking down. I am looking at the back of Rachel McAdams’ dress, inspecting it for footprints, because it would be true to say that somebody had rather clumsily trodden on her beautiful dress and that person might possibly have been me. So the Guardian ran the piece but changed my title to “A Nobody’s Guide to the Oscars,” and I thought, “No, that’s not really what it is.”

What I like about “The View From the Cheap Seats” as the title for the collection is that most of the things that I’m talking about are not exactly pop culture nor exactly low culture, but they are the areas of culture that don’t often get commented on. They’re mostly not fancy, and that is because I think the fancy stuff can take care of itself.

In “Credo,” which opens the first section of the book, you write, “I believe I have the right to think and say the wrong things.” Do you find that in today’s society — especially because of social media and the 24-hour news cycle — that we don’t let people be wrong enough?

What I tend to see happening more and more is people retreating into their own corners. People seem scared to get things wrong or be shouted at so they form villages in which they agree with every other member, and maybe they go out and shout at the people in the next village for fun, but there’s no interchange of ideas going on. I think we have to encourage the idea that you’re allowed to think things. I have thought a great many stupid things over the years, and I can tell you that there’s not one stupid thing that I ever thought where I changed my mind because someone shouted at me or threatened to kill me. On the other hand, having great discussions with good friends, possibly over a drink, has definitely changed my mind and made me try to do better. You’re allowed to do better, but we have to let people do better.

In your introduction to “Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror and Fantasy,” you wrote, “Kipling’s politics are not mine. But then, it would be a poor sort of world if one were only able to read authors who expressed points of view that one agreed with entirely.” Would you say reading is similar to that conversation over drinks, in that books are the other great things that challenge us to think outside of ourselves?

Fiction helps build empathy. You are making in your head another person who isn’t you and you are looking out through their eyes. In attempting to change people’s minds, that’s incredibly important. Human beings are built to be xenophobic and tribal. We like people like us; people who aren’t like us are dangerous. It made an awful lot of sense back in the caves and back on the plains. It makes less sense now. When we need to find the things we have in common, when we need to see that people who are not like us in some way are still people too, reading is a great tool for that. There is a direct line through the book from “Credo” to the piece on libraries and building empathy through reading and even, I think, to that piece toward the end on the refugee camp.

One of the other pieces in that direct line is the speech “Make Good Art.” In a way, it feels like everything in the preceding 450 pages leads toward. Do you see it as a lodestone for the book?

I think it is, but what’s interesting is that “Make Good Art” wasn’t there originally. The penultimate iteration of the book didn’t have it in. I felt like it was missing. You can watch my train of thought going there; you can watch me stopping off along the way; you can watch me figuring some of this stuff out; but that is where I decided to say everything that I’d learned in the last 30 years that I wish I had known when I started.

The other piece that the book drives toward, not just in the literal sense of it being last, is the piece on Terry Pratchett. Its focus, beyond just memorializing your friend who died, or appreciating an artist you admired, is the idea that anger can fuel artistic expression. Can you talk a bit about that?

That piece was written before Terry died [of Alzheimer’s disease] so that he could read it. There was the knowledge when I wrote it that I had to write it then. I couldn’t write it after he died; it would have been seen as in some way attacking the memory of a dead person, even though he was my friend. When his publisher asked, “How can we publish this as the intro, it says you’re grumpy and angry?” Terry said to them, “No, I want that. I asked Neil to write a real piece and he wrote a real piece.” But then I wound up doing the audio book on that and crying. We had to retake it three or four times because I was just sobbing.

In the piece, I mention that his handler described him to me as a jolly old elf of a man. Terry was many things, but he was not a jolly old elf. I think each of us tends to take something and use that as the place where you begin making your art. If you’re going to make good art, it’s likely that you’re going to go to the place where things are dark, and use that to shine light into your life and, if you’re doing it right, into other people’s lives as well. For Terry, it was always anger. There was a deep rage in him that allowed him to create. For me, it tends to be sorrow or loneliness or confusion.

Tyler Malone is a writer and professor of English. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Scofield and a contributing editor for Literary Hub.

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