Neil Gaiman is a rock ’n’ roll star of a writer — a status confirmed by the cheers, applause and impromptu shrieks of delight punctuating his performance before an audience filling nearly all of the 750 seats at the Babcock Theater in downtown Billings.
This was, of course, not a musical performance, no back-up band, no giant amplifiers, just one man standing at a podium with a microphone for an hour and a half, sipping occasionally from a bottle of water, reading a story, speaking passionately about the enduring value of libraries, reading another story, answering questions penned on note cards collected from the audience, ending with a poem called “The Day the Sorcerers Came.”
It was Friday evening, Feb. 21, and Gaiman was in town at the invitation of the Friends of Billings Public Library, along with other sponsors, to participate in the ongoing celebration of the new library building on Broadway at Fourth Avenue North.
An audience of all ages
More than a decade ago, my partner Elizabeth and I were turned onto Gaiman’s fantasy fiction by our daughter Rhiannon. Other parents, or grandparents, must have had similar prompting because the Babcock was filled not only with young people – some very young – but also with a great many older folks, like us.
The first book Elizabeth and I read was “American Gods,” and it hooked us. Since then I’ve read two other Neil G. books, “Anansi Boys” and his latest, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” Elizabeth has read those and several more, and both of us, during long automobile trips, have listened to tapes or CDs of Gaiman reading stories and sketches.
But these titles only scratch the surface. Gaiman is extraordinarily prolific, publishing or co-publishing novels (12), short story collections (5), picture books (4), another category called short fiction (6), comic books and graphic novels (23), screenplays and other film adaptations (10), and a category called miscellaneous (7), which includes a radio play adapted from his novel “Neverwhere” and a collection of lyrics called “8in8.”
Childhood in the library
Born Nov. 10, 1960, in England, Gaiman began his writing career there, although in recent years he’s been living in the U.S. In 2009 he won the John Newbery Medal for “The Graveyard Book,” illustrated by Dave McKean; this is a literary award tor “service to children” given by the American Library Association.
Many of his books are written for children, but at the Babcock he emphasized that writers should “never write anything for children that we wouldn’t want to read ourselves.” (One of the many instance of applause happened here, mixed with cheers.)
He spent much of his childhood in his local library, where “the librarians treated me with respect.” After he’d read all the children’s books they let him graduate to adult books.
His only previous trip to Montana, in 2007, took him to a State Library Association meeting in Helena, where he totally charmed two of our friends, Tomi and Dale Alger, who are librarians in Roundup.
Books like sharks
It doesn’t matter how we read, Gaiman said, on a screen or between covers: “the content is what matters.” Printed books he compared to sharks, which were around “before the dinosaurs” and are still around. Survivors.
And the library, too, is still around, still essential, a “community space” where a reader can gain free access to books either between covers or online.
“Reading,” he said, “is how we communicate with the dead” and how we shape our “responsibilities to the future, as readers, writers, citizens.”
“If there are no libraries,” he said, “we silence the voices of the past and damage the future.” (Applause.)
Pterodactyls and Aztecs
His opening story began with a commission from the National Public Radio show ”This American Life,” which was inviting authors to contribute pieces on the theme of “adventure.”
Gaiman’s first piece was liked by the show’s host, Ira Glass, but not by its producers. So he did a second piece, which was accepted and aired. Gaiman thought this audience might like to hear the first piece. (Cheers.)
The opening may have been what turned off the show’s producers because it begins with a narrator saying that there never was much real adventure in his and his family’s experience.
Then, gradually, the mother of the narrator begins telling him in a matter-of-fact way about his father’s experiences in the Air Force over Europe during World War II, experiences which include startling encounters with pterodactyls (“but mother, they’ve been extinct for 50 million years”) and Aztecs (“there were no Aztecs in Europe”).
Honoring Ray Bradbury
The second story read aloud by Gaiman had been set up by earlier comments about fantasy and science fiction being denigrated as forms of “escapism” — but “Why not escape?” asked Gaiman. Escaping to other worlds can give us both perspective on this world and tools to deal with it.
This second story was an homage to science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, whose novels include “Fahrenheit 451” (the temperature at which books burn) about a future society where books are outlawed (and firemen are not people who extinguish fires but ignite them – to burn books) and ultimately is about people who hide away and memorize entire books in order to keep knowledge alive.
Bradbury died in August 2012, two and a half months before his 92nd birthday. Too blind to read, he had people who would read aloud to him. So he heard Gaiman’s story – sent to Bradbury as a birthday present – and recorded a thank you message to Gaiman shortly before his death.
The story is narrated by a man who is beginning to forget things — “words,” he insists, “not concepts” — and the narration is constantly interrupted by pauses as the man forgets a word, including the name of the author of “Fahrenheit 451.” Hence, the title of Gaiman’s story: “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury.”
Why write fantasy?
Cards with questions arrived at the podium in too large a stack for Gaiman to respond to all of them, but that part of the evening provided him the opportunity to talk about creativity – his own and that of others.
Why write fantasy? “I get to create my own rules.” Fantasy is “flexible, powerful, a remarkable tool.” Example: Readers of his book “Neverwhere” – which has many “invisible” people in it – would come up to him and say that reading the book has allowed them to “begin to see homeless people.”
He commented that if he had written a realistic book about homelessness, “How many people would have read it?”
How to inspire children to be creative? Besides reading aloud to children (and to adults as well), Gaiman suggested, “Let them get on with it.”
Children are naturally creative and, he said, and mentioned that he had stolen ideas from his own kids – like his daughter, who once saw wolves coming out of the wallpaper of her bedroom. (This brought cheers from readers of “The Wolves in the Walls.”)
What about social media? He likes blogging, he said, when it is not an obligation but “feels like fun.” (Go to http://journal.neilgaiman.com to ferret out Gaiman’s comments on his visit here.
They begin: “Billings, Montana, was WONDERFUL: I talked to a bunch of young people in the wonderful new library, read a little and answered many questions. I talked to people that night in the Babcock theatre, read a lot and answered fewer questions than I would have liked … .”)
Advice to “writters”? Gaiman said his first advice would to be to spell writers with one “t” — “but that was cruel,” he said later, and added: “Think about what you want to make, not what you want to be.”
When asked how he manages to produce so much, he said when he sets a time and place to write, he does not allow himself to doodle or do crossword puzzles or “build little men out of paper clips and wooden matches.”
He said, “I either write or do nothing.”
His final reading – “The Day the Sorcerers Came” – is a poem in which the narrator speaks to “you” describing sorcerers coming down from the sky “like great snowflakes … but you didn’t notice.”
And that is only the beginning: “The graves give up their dead … floodgates broke” and all manner of mayhem keeps occurring “but you didn’t notice” – any of it – “because you were sitting in your room waiting for a phone call from me.”