Emily S. Whitten: Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, and Awards Aplenty
Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon have numerous things in common. They’re both fantastic writers; they’ve both written for (and about) comics; they’ve both won Hugos, Nebulas, and a slew of other impressive awards; they’ve both penned Sherlockian-style tales; they’ve both had novels adapted for the big screen; and they both have great hair.* Another thing they have in common is that last weekend they were both at George Mason University in Virginia, receiving awards at the annual Fall for the Book festival. I was fortunate enough to attend both ceremonies.
Both evenings started out with a nice VIP reception in which ticket-holders could mix and mingle and chat with the authors while having a drink and some hors d’oeuvres. Both authors signed books and made it a point to try to have a personal word or chat with as many attending fans as possible, and everyone had a great time.
On Friday, Neil Gaiman was on hand to accept The Mason Award, presented to authors who have made extraordinary contributions to bringing literature to a wide reading public. Joining the impressive ranks of past winners Dave Eggers, Jonathan Letham, Chinua Achebe, Sherman Alexie, Greg Mortenson, and Stephen King, Neil took the stage in front of 1,800 enthusiastic fans prior to the award presentation to read from a couple of his newest works and to answer questions.
His first reading was a selection from his just-now-this-very-second finished new adult novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which will be published “sometime next year” (possibly July-ish). The intriguing snippet of story we heard centered around a seven-year-old boy and began with an ominously sinister morning, in which said boy and his father have their ordinary breakfast routine interrupted by the discovery that the family car is mysteriously not in the driveway where it ought to be, but instead down at the end of a nearby lane. A death and the introduction of an odd family with three generations of women who clearly know things quickly follows…”and then it gets weird,” says Neil. From what I heard, I don’t doubt it, nor do I doubt his word when he says he didn’t start out to write a scary book, but now thinks this is the scariest thing he’s ever written. Despite my propensity for needing to hide under the covers while reading scary stories, I can’t wait to read more.
Neil followed the reading by answering a number of audience questions with his customary slightly mischievous sense of humor, including the question of “Why?” to which he answered, “Why not?” Why not, indeed. More substantive information we gleaned included that the books he enjoys writing the most are those with the “huge highs and terrible lows” in which he gets to “stomp around and phone my agent to go, ‘Why do you let me do this?? I could have been a gardener!’“ (To which she replies, “No you couldn’t. Just write the book.” It’s good to have a sensible agent.) In further discussing writing, Neil’s extremely complicated advice to those who want to be writers was to “Sit down. Start. Write. Keep writing.” However, he then admitted that if you truly want to become a real writer, you will receive a postcard in the mail, which you must then burn with a black match at midnight, and then there will be a knock on the door, and he and all of the other Mason Award winners will arrive wearing robes, and surround you, and then they will say: “Now you learn.” And then you will be a real writer.
I am expecting my postcard any day now.
In little known facts, Neil shared something he wasn’t sure he’d ever mentioned before, which is that in American Gods, the farm with an ash tree which is an hour south of Blackburg is based on an old decaying family farm belonging to Tori Amos, which he visited with her years ago and decided to adapt for the book. He also shared that his writing gazebo, which he’s mentioned several times on his journal, was built for him by some Renaissance Faire friends (and that writers should never be let near tools because they wouldn’t know what to do with them). Neil declared that the gazebo was perfect except for the mice – who nibbled on the drafts of The Doctor’s Wife script which he’d planned to send to the Library of Congress! I’m usually a big fan of small furry creatures, but in this case: for shame, tiny cute rodents!
Neil finished his talk by reading an unpublished spooky short story called “Click Clack, The Rattle Bag,” prefacing it by sharing his love of the spooky month we’ve entered. “We are getting into what Ray Bradbury called ‘The October Country,’” he said, “that one time of year when I can look around at all the shop windows and see the kinds of things I like, and go, ‘Oh gosh! Giant spiders and dead things! How cool is this??’” His love of scary things well noted, he then proceeded to scare the wits out of all of us with the new story. Thanks, Neil.
As always, it was a delight to listen to Neil, and I’m looking forward to his upcoming works, which include children’s’ books Chu’s Day and Fortunately, The Milk (which will feature art by comics artist Skottie Young ); the adult novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane; and his new Sandman story.
Moving on to Sunday, Michael Chabon was awarded The Fairfax Prize, which honors outstanding writers for their literary achievements and has previously been awarded to Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, Mitch Albom, Michael Cunningham, E.L. Doctorow, Ann Patchett, and Amy Tan. Prior to accepting the award, Michael, an amazing wordsmith and storyteller in person as in his prose, took the stage to answer questions from a very tough interviewer: himself.
In discussing his writing, Michael asked Michael, “What’s up with all the similes?” …and then answered his own question using three similes; before admitting that really, it’s just “something in the wiring” that causes him to see likeness in two unlike things and include it in his works. He also gave several answers to the question of where he gets his ideas: 1) “I have no idea!” 2) “The book just appears in my brain, whole and inexplicable.” and 3) (the most truthful one) “Ideas are the easiest; swarming, ubiquitous, chronic. The hard part is sticking with the ideas when they start to lose their luster.”
In discussing his opinion of the value of MFA programs, Michael said that the MFA program he was a part of “made a man out of me,” by giving him a seriousness of purpose, inspired in part by observing all of the hard-working women in the program and their resolute determination to take advantage of the opportunity that feminism had brought with it. The MFA program taught Michael the discipline of actually sitting in his chair for long periods of time, typing and re-typing and editing and re-editing his work. It also taught him much about the craft of writing, including having to ask himself a hard question after a critique of his first, very character-intensive story by his advisor, i.e. “How could I have forgotten to tell a goddamned story??”
In telling a story, Michael recommended that even if pulling from personal experience, one can’t just record each thing that has happened, as real life tends to have pockets of tedium throughout. Instead, “you need to edit your life, and shape it; but most of all, you need to lie – to compress people, leave out events, and thus make things more interesting.” He also shared that his favorite characters to write are “the assholes – the ones who’d have ready comebacks and fun dialogue,” such as Inspector Dick of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
Despite his enjoyment in writing the dickish characters in his novels, Michael is a very nice guy who looks at readers as friends to share with. And he does want to share with as many people as possible, stating his desire to “produce popular art, which is unreservedly and unmistakably both.” Being this year’s recipient of The Fairfax Prize speaks to his success in achieving this goal.
It was a real pleasure to hear Michael speak, and I am looking forward to reading his newest novel, Telegraph Avenue, which was published in July of this year and is now sitting on my bookshelf in hopeful anticipation of my having a free moment or two sometime soon.
That’s all the news from me this week, but I’m off to New York Comic Con tomorrow, so there’s sure to be more coming up!
Feel free to say hi if you see me in New York, and until next time, Servo Lectio!
* Oh yes, and there is also this.
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Michael Davis Doesn’t See London, But He Does See France
WEDNESDAY MORNING: Gold… Mike Gold. And Doctor Know.