Neil Gaiman is a remarkably affable fellow. Even a few minutes after finishing signing several hundred books, even several minutes before heading out onstage in front of hundreds of fans, he’ll sit down on a couch next to you to talk about stories: how we tell them, and why they mean so much to us. Last week, before his appearance with Daniel Handler at BAM, Gaiman talked with me and B&N Teen Blog editor Melissa Albert about dangerous fiction, stumbling upon stories in unexpected places, and horrible breakfast déjà vu.
JC: Your new collection is Trigger Warning. I find the title very interesting, considering its place in internet culture, what it means and how it is employed. Why, or how do you think stories are able to create that kind of reaction in people, where they touch something viscerally inside of us that relates to our own past?
NG: What fascinated me about the title, and about the phenomenon of the title, is you watched something that meant one thing in the internet world—something that was created out there in fandom as a way of letting people know that something nasty might be happening on their Tumblr feed, that you might have written some fiction that other people might find upsetting. And it was very much, “We are friends and some of you might get upset by some of this stuff; I am going to protect you from it.”
I was completely cool with that. And then I watched it creep out of the internet into the real world, and particularly into universities. I watched baffled university professors saying, “The classroom is not the place to be treating the symptoms of PTSD. And furthermore, we do not want to place trigger warnings on works of literature.” Because people should be unprepared for them, because if you come to them, because trigger warnings can become akin to spoiler warnings. If you go into Romeo and Juliet knowing nothing, your experience will be changed. If you go into Romeo and Juliet with, “Trigger warning: underage sex, suicide, accidental poisoning, stabbing,” you’re getting [a different experience].
I was mostly just fascinated by that phenomenon, fascinated by the fact that some of my stories now were getting trigger warnings. I was writing content which some people could find triggering and some people could find completely bland. Just as I had been writing for the last thirty years. That was why I though, “Alright, I’ll give it the title and I will write an essay that’s part of the introduction just to say this is why I’m calling it this. It’s not a joke. I’m not making fun of trigger warnings, I’m not making light of them.” I do want people to talk about whether we need them in a literary context. That’s the bit that fascinates me.
MA: Do you remember the first story you ever wrote and what it was about, going way, way back?
NG: I don’t know that I remember the very first story I ever wrote, but I remember the first story that I remember, if that makes sense. I was about 8 years old and we were given some kind of story beginning like, “I was walking down the street and I heard a weird buzzing noise and I turned around and…” I wound up writing a story in which an alien who looked like a frog was in a very small flying saucer, and the narrator, who was probably about 8 years old, and a faintly mad professor and this alien went off and had adventures.
MA: And that became American Gods.
NG: [Laughs] Exactly. That was the first story that I remember writing. But the lesson that I took from it was actually much more interesting: When I changed schools, the first story that I did was about them, because I’d been writing stories about this alien, this frog. I handed it in, and the teacher’s comment was, “All seems rather silly.” And I thought, “Oh, you cannot necessarily take a series from one place to another.” So I started a new series. Having just read my first sword and sorcery, Kenneth Bulmer’s Sword of the Barbarians, it was sort of incredibly sub-Conan, so that was what I was writing when I was 9: lots of very sub-Conan stuff.
JC: Do you feel more at home writing short stories or do you like writing novels?
NG: Short stories are wonderful places because you can go out and around the universe and still be back by teatime—at least by teatime on Friday. Unless you’re me, and sometimes you leave half a story unfinished for 10 years and then have to try and remember how it ended. The, you know, when I was doing Sandman, it would alternate between these big long storylines that would take me a year, year-and-a-half to do, and then after I’d done that, I would write four or five short stories. And what always happened was three-quarters of the way through the big long storyline, I’d be going, “Oh, I just want to do some short stories. I don’t want to be held down by these characters, I have to finish this giant story, it’s the same people I was writing about last month and the last two years, this is ridiculous.” And then I’d write the stories and after about the third of them I’d be going, “You know, I quite like the idea of not having to reinvent the entire universe with each issue. It’s kind of fun when you’ve already set things up and you can just sort of start moving it.” So I like both.
JC: One is a nice break from the other.
NG: One is a glorious break from the other. I think I would be grumpy if somebody said that I could only do one.
JC: It’s nice that yours sell, since a lot don’t seem to sell.
NG: I’m not just lucky, but incredibly baffled and happy. It’s been the same all the way down the line. I mean, we did a short story collection, a small press one called Angels and Visitations back in 1993, and it did 5,000 copies and sold out, and went back to press and sold out, went back to press. Finally, when we’d done about 25,000 copies, I said, “We have to put this out of print now.” It was no longer a small press book, we’d done 25,000 hardbacks, that’s sort of silly. So we went on and did Smoke and Mirrors, which quietly went out and has been in print ever since, and then a decade later did Fragile Things, and now almost a decade later we’ve done Trigger Warning.
JC: You keep writing them, I guess.
NG: Yeah, and people keep buying them. They like them.
MA: When you’re writing a story, is your entry point usually a character or a line or an image? How do you work your way into things?
NG: Any of these things. It can be a character, it can be a line, it can be an emotion, it can be a scenario. With “Black Dog,” it was going to a pub in the north of England and being shown the mummified cat that they found in the wall that was bricked up to guard the place 600 years before.
MA: That feels American Gods-y, too.
NG: That was the point. I suddenly thought, “This is an American Gods story.” So that began “Black Dog,” which then just sort of sat there. I wrote the opening, and then a couple of years later I thought, “You know, it’s time to wrap this up, time to finish the story.” I emailed my friend Colin, who was the one who had taken me to the pub. I said, “This is kind of crazy, but just to fit in with the story, are there any stories of black dogs where you are?” He said, “Well yeah, actually, there’s Shuck’s lane, where old Shuck walks, ‘Old Shuck walks down Trucks Lane.’” So it’s like, great, there we go, this is my story.
JC: I don’t know that we have black dog stories in the U.S. I don’t know that I know any.
NG: You don’t.
MA: “Black-Eyed Dog,” that old Nick Drake song, though I guess he’s English.
NG: The English ones, they’re called “bar guests” and “wish hounds.”
JC: This might be internet lore, but I remember reading somewhere that Diana Wynne Jones put you in one of her books.
NG: I’m in Deep Secret as Nick. The scene that Nick eats the breakfast twice is something that Diana and Mary Gentle did to me to amuse themselves one breakfast.
JC: Because you were just that out of it?
NG: I was at a writers’ conference, Milford, this sort of writers’ thing. You had to get up for breakfast because if you didn’t, there was no food until one o’clock when lunch was served. I was fine the first few days, but by Thursday I was getting up in my sleep, going in, and eating these incredibly—
NG: It was, and they were horrible. These greasy, fried eggs that came out in trays. Apparently I would sit there mechanically eating my breakfast and I [one day] finished and Diana and Mary—Mary hadn’t wanted her breakfast because it was so horrible, so she put it in front of me and I carried on eating. And apparently halfway through, I looked up very puzzled and I said, “I’ve eaten this breakfast before and I didn’t like it the first time.”
MA: A horrible déjà vu.
JC: Have you ever done that, taken people you know or incidents from your life and put them in books?
NG: I have, but in sort of very, very small ways. I tend to steal from my life rather than stealing from other people’s. Then I go in and I disguise them as well.
MA: Do you have, on your laptop or somewhere else, a cache of story starts and ideas and things that you’ve jotted down?
NG: What I have is notebooks, and then I have a tendency to lose them.
MA: Do you write like, “If found, return to…”
NG: Oh, I never lose the notebooks in the grand scheme of things. But I lose the story starts because they’re in notebooks that then get retired. Somebody was actually going through the notebooks looking for poetry for—we’re putting together a poetry collection—and she was going through and found the first four pages of a short story called “The Pope of the Zeppelins.” That was my friend Kat Howard, and she fell in love with it, and now she’s like, “You have to finish it; that is a great story.”
JC: Good title.
Trigger Warning is out now. Buy it, read it—it will haunt your dreams.