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The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction
by Neil Gaiman

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In his latest book, fans from around the world chose which of Neil Gaiman's writings they liked the best, a great introduction to his writing for anyone not familiar with his work. Here the prolific, genre-bending author recommends some of his own favourite books: comfort reads to turn to in difficult times.

Interview by Eve Gerber

The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction
by Neil Gaiman

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A great man once wrote in The Guardian that “what’s it for?” is “not a question you expect to be asked when you write fiction for a living.” You said that—and yet when we asked you to name five books, you chose comfort reading as a rubric. Your choices are not an everyman’s selection of soup for the soul. How does Neil Gaiman define comfort reading? 

What we all yearn for, in lockdown, is escape. I’ve been in the same house for the last seven months. My most exciting daily journey is to the compost bin and back. Every week or so I visit the post office or the little general store that are around three miles away. That’s my life right now. So, escapism, for me, is worth its weight in gold. What I’ve been reading for pleasure lets me travel. I’ve been going to places with a feeling of familiarity, places that give me the feeling of being with beloved friends and places that give me the feeling that the world can be benevolent.

Nobody I know is not feeling stressed right now, feeling stressed politically, feeling stressed emotionally, feeling stressed physically, feeling stressed financially. So, when you asked for five books, I wanted to do five books that would ease people’s stress.

Turning to your books: first you’ve named William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

I encountered The Princess Bride in the library in the late seventies. It was a book I never heard of, though I had heard of William Goldman. I don’t think I knew then that he wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But I had read Marathon Man and I had read Magic. I thought that he wrote scary thrillers. So, I went into The Princess Bride cold and I fell in love.

Sometimes you can fall in love both with the tale and the way it’s told. What I love so much about The Princess Bride was the way William Goldman framed the story as a fairy tale by a fictional author being read by a father, who skips the boring stuff, to his skeptical son, who is slowly won over. That in itself is a delight. And then the story within this frame is wonderful.

“My most exciting daily journey is to the compost bin and back”

I met Goldman in about 1983, ’84, back before The Princess Bride became a film. I remember telling him that The Princess Bride was my favorite of all his books. He mentioned that there were plans afoot to make a movie, but that he didn’t think it would happen because it had fallen through before. He was beautifully wrong. The Princess Bride movie came out and although it made no impact at first, people ultimately fell in love with it.

Anybody who loved the movie should go read the novel. And anybody who has never heard of the movie, should go read the novel. It’s William Goldman, at his best, writing for the sheer joy of it and that joy manifests on every page.

You’re both an author of adult fairy tales and a proponent of them. What good do fairy tales do for adults?

Tolkien pointed out that fairy tales weren’t made for kids. Fairy tales existed for adults but when they became unfashionable they were consigned to kids, much in the way that the furniture adults no longer cared for was consigned to the nursery in a big old Victorian house. They became children’s fiction. We love these stories when we first encounter them. We hear them over and over and we start looking for other things. The Princess Bride reminds how much adults can enjoy an elegantly told fairy tale.

Next, No Bed for Bacon by Doris Caroline Abrahams and Simon Jacoblivitch Skidelsky, also known as Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon. Please tell me about it.

While it is not true to say that the film Shakespeare in Love was the film of No Bed for Bacon, it is also true that if you were to try to film No Bed for Bacon, everybody would say, ‘we’ve seen this before and it was called Shakespeare in Love.’ The plot territory is very similar; the themes are similar.

For me, the joy of No Bed for Bacon is seeing this funny Elizabethan world that Carol Brahms and SJ Simon built up around a working writer, a jobbing playwright with the surname Shakespeare. Their first historical book was called Don’t, Mr. Disraeli. Don’t, Mr. Disraeli is a jeu d’esprit that takes place in a very Victorian world. It’s very silly. No Bed for Bacon was the thematic sequel. Instead of doing the Victorian era, they do the Elizabethan era. It’s not silly. It has a lot to say about love. It has a lot to say about art. And most of all, it is talking about something that Brahms and Simon addressed throughout their writing lives, which is the human capacity to believe ourselves important. They have a way of gently, lightly puncturing pomposity.

No Bed for Bacon is the work of longtime collaborators. By my rough estimate, you collaboratively write a fifth of your oeuvre and more than 50 per cent of your prodigious output is produced in collaboration with illustrators. How do you pick your accomplices? Does duetting shape what you write?

I love collaborating. And when I’m done collaborating, I love being left alone to do something. I can’t enjoy anything I’ve made, but I can absolutely enjoy something that somebody else has made. I couldn’t read a comic script that I wrote with any pleasure, but I can enjoy a comic book based on that script enormously once someone else has drawn it. I give them words on a page and they give me back something amazing. I enjoy reading Good Omens more than reading anything else I’ve done because I laugh at all the bits that Terry Pratchett wrote. I get to appreciate Terry’s genius and the mingling of our efforts into something greater.

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There is something profound about a good collaboration. Collaboration comedy, in particular, works well. There are lots of collaborative comedy teams in the UK. You have Frank Muir and Denis Norden, Barry Took and Marty Feldman, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Graham Chapman and John Cleese. I could go on. It works because one of you can throw out a straight line and then one of you can come up with the punchline. Also, you know immediately if it’s funny. For me, the best thing about collaborating is that writing is a really lonely business, it’s something we do on our own. So it’s fun to collaborate because it forces you to interact with other human beings.

Next, a transatlantic Wodehouse. Tell me about Psmith, Journalist.

The P in Psmith, you learn, is silent, as in pneumonia or psittacosis. We’ve been speaking about humor and escapism and jeu d’esprit and yet, the Wodehouse book that I’ve selected has more of a social conscience than any other Wodehouse I can think of. It is about crusading, rabblerousing and doing the right thing. Rupert Psmith was always my favorite among Wodehouse creations. He is an etiolated, monocled figure with a dry wit and he’s paired with his friend Mike, who is quite normal. The Psmith series just gets funnier. In this book, Psmith is muckraking in New York tenements. So, it has a social conscience, but it is still a delight.

It sounds like Psmith, like so many Neil Gaiman books, is madcap, metatextual and a touch macabre. As a writer, are you innately madcap? Instinctually meta? And when you put your pen down, are you any of the above?

Interesting question. I guess I’m metatextual and probably because that’s just how my brain works. When I start building a story, I’m going to be comparing it with other stories out there, I’m going to be figuring out what I can do that they haven’t and how I can lean on them. I’m never going to pretend that what I write doesn’t exist on the back of what came before it. I’m going to acknowledge what I am building on. So, for instance, in The Graveyard Book I acknowledge that it’s in conversation with The Jungle Book and that’s okay.

Now to a very familiar title, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I miss Douglas Adams. He’s been dead since 2001. He occupied that area for me between friend and acquaintance. He was, I suppose, a work friend. The first book I ever wrote that did anything was The Companion to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I got to work with Douglas on it. Douglas Adams was a genius.

A lot of the pleasure in reading Douglas Adams is in jokes that are elegantly and delightfully tuned while also commenting on the human condition. You can open The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy randomly to any page and ….

“Some factual information for you. Have you any idea how much damage that bulldozer would suffer if I just let it roll straight over you?”

“How much?” said Arthur.

“None at all,” said Mr. Prosser, and stormed nervously off wondering why his brain was filled with a thousand hairy horsemen all shouting at him.

By a curious coincidence, “None at all” is exactly how much suspicion the ape-descendant Arthur Dent had that one of his closest friends was not descended from an ape, but was in fact from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and not from Guildford as he usually claimed.

It’s simply that when anybody is using precisely the right words to do precisely the right thing, it’s like the apparent simplicity of a great omelet. The pleasure of seeing something that seems deceptively simple perfectly executed.

Your 2002 Hitchhiker’s Guide intro notes that Adams “did not enjoy writing and he enjoyed it less as time went on.” But that he “used the tropes of science fiction” to explore what interested him. You are more genre-fluid than Adams. Do you enjoy your virtuosity with literary tropes? You’ve mentioned not enjoying reading what you’ve written. Do you enjoy writing and are you enjoying it more or less as time goes on?

Douglas was incredibly good at writing, but it made him incredibly miserable. I am nowhere near as good as Douglas was at writing, but it does not make me miserable at all.

I see myself in the centre of a spectrum. On my left is Douglas Adams, who had to be locked in a hotel room for weeks to force him to finish a novel that he just couldn’t finish unless he had no alternative. And on my right is Terry Pratchett who would’ve had to be locked away in a room to stop him from writing. And if Terry could’ve found a pen, he probably would’ve written a novel on the wall. I’m definitely capable of not working. But if I do stop writing, my loved ones tend to point out that I’m miserable and grumpy and irritable and no fun to be around. And they tend to ask me to please go off somewhere and write something. And at that point I go off and write.

The last book you’ve chosen for comfort reading is Archer’s Goon. Please tell me about it.

I could’ve picked pretty much any Diana Wynne Jones novel. Diana is magnificent author. People who aren’t yet familiar with her may recognize her Howl’s Moving Castle, which was made into a movie by Hayao Miyazaki—although the novel and the film are very different.

Diana’s Archer’s Goon is set in a city very much like Bristol, where she lived. The father is a university professor, just as Diana’s husband Charlie was a university professor. The novel itself involves seven strange entities or demigods who are bound to this town. They cannot leave, although they want to, and they each control a specific thing that happens in the town: crime, perhaps, or technology. One of them, we learn, lives, literally, in the past. A young boy gets to the bottom of what’s going on. It’s a complicated story, as much written for adults as for kids.

From what I understand, the nugget of the book is a Rumpelstiltskin-like tale but about writer’s block instead of infertility. This led me to fear that lockdown might be blocking you. Is it and if not what kind of comfort writing are you doing?

Lockdown, in theory, ought to be giving me lots and lots of time to write. Lockdown, in practice, is me so lonely that I’m saying yes to the incredible number of helpful, charitable and social things that people would like me to do. So I can stumble away after having spent an entire day looking at people on computer screens and realize I’ve done absolutely no writing at all. It’s very peculiar.

“There is something profound about a good collaboration”

I love the central conceit of Archer’s Goon, which is writing to break through writer’s block. During lockdown, I had to write a short story rather suddenly and that was how I did it. I sat down and knew I had to write this story for a Doctor Who charity anthology and the editors said they’d like me to write a story about a character I had created for Doctor Who called the Corsair. I had no idea what it was going to be about, but I knew I had to write it because it’s for a charity anthology. That was terrifying but it flowed.

You’re famous for your fantastically fecund imagination and your genre bending or blending. I wondered if this might be part of the secret to your prodigious literary output. 

I’ve always admired the kinds of writers who do lots of different things. Part of the joy of being a writer is you can have all sorts of different kinds of adventures. If you’re writing something funny, it should be funny. And if you’re writing something scary, it should be scary. And if you’re writing something that is intelligent, it should be intelligent. And if you’re writing something for kids, it should be the best writing for kids. And there’s nothing wrong, there’s everything right, about that.

Early in my career I wrote an awful lot of comics. Comics is a medium that gets mistaken for a genre. Nobody minded if, in Sandman, or in graphic novels, I lurched from doing historical fiction to social realism to eschatological imaginings to children’s fantasies to horror in comics. It was all comics, so therefore it was all one thing. When I found myself drifting more and more over into prose, I wasn’t prepared to give that up. I wasn’t prepared to stop writing what I wanted.

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So, genre fluidity was a freedom I wasn’t prepared to give up, even though I understood that it was not a great idea commercially. Commercially, what you’re meant to do is write another book like the last one and have it out a year after the last one was published. If you write horror, you’re meant to write another horror novel. If you write a boy wizard story and it’s commercially successful, you’re meant to write another boy wizard story. I’ve never done that. I followed up American Gods with Coraline. And I’d much rather look back on a life in which I got to follow up American Gods with Coraline then one in which I followed up American Gods with American Devils.

Thank you for breaking down barriers. As a teen, I never read The Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy because that’s what my brother read. I read Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë and they didn’t write fantasy. I was always a genre purist—but my children are genre experimentalists, thanks to you. Which brings me to your latest gift to readers: please tell me about the delightful sampler you’ve just published, The Neil Gaiman Reader.

Now I have an answer when people say, ‘I never read you. What should I read?’ I’ve been asked that unbelievably often, especially by taxi drivers. At that point, I always asked, ‘Well, what do you like?’ And I would try to triangulate from what they like to what I wrote. So, for someone who likes Jane Austen, I’d point at Stardust. I’d think they’d enjoy the understatedness of it, the love story threading its way through it and its setting in Victorian times. Now, whenever anyone asks, ‘What should I read?’ I have a 750-page doorstop to suggest in which they’ll probably find something that they’ll like. There are excerpts from novels, there are a lot of stories. You are not expected to like everything. You can dip into it and dip out. When you find something you like, you can probably find something else like it. When you get to the end of it, you’ll have an idea of who I am and what I’ve done.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is a New York Times bestselling author, and creator of many novels and graphic novels including Neverwhere (1995), Stardust (1999), the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning American Gods (2001), and Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett, 1990). Other works include the Sandman series and the dark fantasy novella Coraline (2002), which was adapted into the 2009 stop-motion film directed by Henry Selick. Gaiman also writes short fiction, screenplays and picture books for young readers.

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Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is a New York Times bestselling author, and creator of many novels and graphic novels including Neverwhere (1995), Stardust (1999), the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning American Gods (2001), and Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett, 1990). Other works include the Sandman series and the dark fantasy novella Coraline (2002), which was adapted into the 2009 stop-motion film directed by Henry Selick. Gaiman also writes short fiction, screenplays and picture books for young readers.