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Neil Gaiman on the Importance of Storytelling

Neil Gaiman | Press photo submitted as art for Nuvo

“Writer’s cannibalize everything they are.”

Neil Gaiman has it right. We cannibalize our dreams, our memories and our emotions, he says, and eventually, our words become stories. For Gaiman, critically-acclaimed author of American Gods and The Sandman, to name a few, the pieces of himself he digs deep into become works of fiction, children’s stories, comics, poetry and plays for radio and screen. “We’re expected to choose between books we enjoy and books that are good for you,” he says. “But I’m all for books I love.”

In recounting the stories he fell in love with as a child, Gaiman introduced himself to a few hundred of his Indianapolis-based fans — mostly Gen-X and Gen-Y — all huddled together last Friday in the obscure North Central High School auditorium. For those who stumbled upon the intimate event, Gaiman delivered the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library Foundation’s 33rd Annual Marian McFadden Memorial Lecture, joining the ranks of the city’s long history of lecturers, who have included Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Amy Tan, Judy Blume and others.

With an overwhelming respect for the written word, books have been part of Gaiman’s life since his upbringing in Southern England. “I was a feral child,” he said, “raised by patient librarians.” Gaiman relayed his time spent frequenting libraries, making his way through the children’s section up to young adult and then to adult literature, where he learned how much stories are transmissible. “You can catch them or be infected by them,” he said. “They make you feel part of the continuous flow of life.”

Having raised his 15-year-old daughter, Maddy, on oodles of “Gaimanized” children’s stories, his lecture featured versions of his take on classic tales, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which he read aloud for his fans. “My tummy’s always full, and there’s always a girl in my bed!” Though tongue-in-cheek when comparing himself to Baby Bear, Gaiman eloquently summarized the story: “We make our own mistakes,” he said. “Like Goldilocks, we sleep unwisely. It’s our right.”

Gaiman’s fantasy stories, such as Coraline, originally illustrated by Dave McKean, stem from a fascination with houses and with dreams. In 2009, the same year Gaiman won the Newbery medal in children’s literature for The Graveyard Book, Coraline hit high definition 3-D movie theatre screens. Just for good measure, he wore the same custom-made Kambriel jacket that he wore to the Oscars in support of Coraline to Indy’s McFadden lecture. A Friends of the Library Foundation representative told the audience they chose him as guest speaker, because he’s considered among the top ten living post-modern American writers, encouraging young readers to become the future of library supporters.

And although 2009 proved successful for him, it was also a harrowing one for his family. “My father died expectedly,” Gaiman said. He didn’t shed tears until reading a work of fiction, he said, in which the character’s wife passed on. “I sobbed like an adult, finally letting go everything I was holding onto from my dad’s death.”

Writing for a quarter of a century, Gaiman admitted he’s never written a story to get people through the hard times. “I write because I wanted to find out what will happen next to the people I make up,” he said. “Fiction is an escape from the intolerable, like experiencing life in a way that lets us survive it.”

According to Gaiman, the most important power of writing is the moment when it saves your life. “We save our lives in such unlikely ways,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves to tell stories.”

Stories based on truth, or on true legends, thereby have also inspired Gaiman’s work, such as the short story, “In Relic Auryn,” which he read to the McFadden audience.

There’s a graveyard on the island of Iona in Scotland where the kings of Scotland and Norway are buried. When the saints landed there, they said, “We’ll build a chapel.” It’s what saints did when they landed. So, one saint entombed another, Saint Auryn, underneath the holy chapel. After three days, they dug him up, and from behind the mask of death, he sat up and gasped, “God is not what you imagine. Nor is Hell, nor is Heaven.” A saint stuffed earth in his mouth to shut him up. And so, Auryn holds the foundation of the church and is the only saint buried on that island.

Future projects Gaiman said he’s working on include a follow-up or two to American Gods, as well as a short story, “Dead Room,” based on unsettling electronic voice phenomenon his friend heard in a recording studio in Edinburgh of a little ghost girl pleading, “Please go away.” In addition, Gaiman vows to write a secretly anti-authoritarian children’s book, Choosday, about a cute panda with allergies. Lastly, he’s finishing a set of instructions about how to survive a fairytale — also known as life — because, according to Gaiman, “it’s all about having choices.”

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before.
Do not forget your manners.
If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember your name.

Trust ghosts.

Trust dreams.

Trust your heart,
and above all else, trust your stories.

Excerpt by Leslie Benson
previously published in Nuvo Newsweekly