Neil Gaiman

In which I share my enthusiasm for Neil Gaiman

My well-thumbed copy of Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

Despite loathing English literature as a school subject I have written an actual essay about a couple of Neil Gaiman’s short stories, with quotes and everything. The lovely people at Thresholds, the home of everything short story, have published it so you can read it on their website. It’s called A Kind of Magic, and I’ve been intermittently singing the relevant Queen song all week.

If you’ve been around for a while you know I love comic fantasy (and Douglas Adams, and indeed Neil Gaiman) so it’s not surprising that both stories are in that genre. I am still writing the stuff, it’s just that with such luminaries to compare myself to I rarely find my own work up to my required standard. I had a comic fantasy story published in Bards and Sages Quarterly a few (seven!) years ago, so you could buy a copy if you want to know what mine looks like when it hits the target.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a surprisingly short book, for modern fantasy. Or perhaps I just read it particularly fast. I seemed to be completely immersed for a brief moment, then I emerged into the sunlight again and it was all over. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

This is a novel about childhood (and myths, and books). The different priorities, different realities, of children and adults. It’s about deeper truths, small pleasures, and what happens as we grow up (or grow older, anyway). The vast majority of the book is told from a seven year old boy’s point of view, as remembered by his middle-aged self; childlike, with a grown-up veneer. It’s a dark fairytale bordering on horror story, with a wonderfully British cosiness round the edges. It’s about a little boy, befriended by the older girl down the lane who claims her family’s duckpond is an ocean.

If you much preferred American Gods to Stardust, then you might not be immediately grabbed by this as it’s closer to the spirit of the latter than the former, I would say. If you’ve never read any Neil Gaiman but enjoyed John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, or even Lisey’s Story by Stephen King, give The Ocean at the End of the Lane a go. Vivid imagery and a rattling pace, with a poignant core.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

To say how huge and influential Neil Gaiman is, he hasn’t written many novels (not true of comics of course or, latterly, children’s books). I enjoyed Good Omens, which is how I first discovered Neil Gaiman as a teenage Terry Pratchett fan in the early 90s, and in the last 10 years I’ve read Stardust and Anansi Boys (a particular favourite) but somehow not got round to American Gods, despite there being not much else to go at in the way of prose.

Turns out it was worth the wait. One of those total immersion novels where you completely believe in the world that’s created. And belief, when it comes down to it, is what the book is all about.

Shadow is in his early thirties, he’s about to be released early from prison and he’s looking forward to seeing his wife again. In the event, he’s released a few days earlier than he was expecting, so he can make it to her funeral in time. Three years of aching to be back with the person you love most, and she dies in a car crash before you can get to her. You’d be lost, wouldn’t you? Directionless. Ripe for being swept up into events beyond your control or comprehension. Something like, say, a war between gods.

It’s a road trip, it’s small town America, it’s mythic and epic and reverent and irreverent at the same time. It’s almost like Stephen King read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, let it stew at the back of his mind for a few years then wrote a book haunted by it. Except it’s also unmistakably Neil Gaiman. There are coin tricks and cons, magic that’s misdirection and sleight of hand, and magic that is real and a lot less showy. It’s about love, loyalty, remembering and believing – be it in religion or yourself or your family, and it’s about what happens when the world moves on.

I very much doubt I’ll be waiting a dozen years to read the new one, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

If I blog about tweeting, then tweet this, will I be stuck in an infinite loop?

Prompted in part by Louise Doughty’s recent post at the Telegraph SSC where she asked if any of us tweet, I’ve finally taken OneMonkey’s advice and joined Twitter (@JYSaville, since you ask). So far I’ve resisted the urge to tell the world what I had for breakfast, when I’ve poured myself another cup of tea (if I did that, I’d never have time to write anything else) or what colour I’m painting my nails. In fact, so far I haven’t said anything.

In the last few years while I’ve been aware of Twitter, I’ve dipped a toe in every so often without signing up. I’ve looked at Neil Gaiman’s page or friends who’ve already taken the plunge, and I could never get beyond the impression that this was a jumbled transcript of all the different one-sided phone conversations heard on a bus during a long journey. None of it made any sense, I found it hard to tell who was saying what to whom, and I couldn’t understand the appeal. Then I read something in an explanation of Twitter which suggested it was an information-gathering system in which you could immerse yourself and filter out the bits of interest. Suddenly it doesn’t matter who’s speaking, if I overhear that magazine X is now looking for stories on theme Y I can just go investigate. It’s a nudge in a particular direction. And if someone insists on talking about their preferred biscuits I can ignore them for now, until Twitter starts to make some sense.

I’m not what you’d call a social animal and I haven’t gone out of my way to build up networks while blogging; if people stumble across my blog and enjoy bits of it that’s fantastic, and if someone takes the time to comment I’ll respond, but that’s about as far as it goes. With Twitter it’s all about following – how can I gather snippets from those eavesdropped conversations if I’m not having them directed my way? It wouldn’t even let me finish signing up without following at least 8 people. However, I’m already reconsidering following Neil Gaiman because he seems to retweet hundreds of things (where does this man find the time to write?!) and it’s just confusing. I’m trying to follow people that either stay roughly on topic or just don’t say much at all, for now. Far from being a modern mobile user of social media, I’ll be checking Twitter maybe once a day at home, and probably not for long. If wading through all the accumulated tweets since the last time takes up my whole writing slot, that somehow misses the point.

Review of the week (it’s been an exciting one)

Apart from the release of my short story collection The Little Book of Northern Women (more of which in a moment), I’ve been listening to the new BBC radio version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Richard Mayhew helps a girl in a London street and finds himself caught up in the disputes of London Below, with its fiefdoms and tangential relation to the London Richard’s familiar with. I enjoyed the TV series when I first saw it on DVD a few years ago, but it’s true the radio series had more scope and is therefore in some respects better. There’s a well of darkness in Neverwhere that can only fully be dredged when your imagination’s supplying the images (I was picturing most of the characters as they appeared in the TV series, but they weren’t being confined to scenery I’d actually seen them in). It remains a good story, which is the main thing, and though I knew the plot I was still finding it tense and unsettling at times.

The overwhelmingly positive reaction to The Little Book of Northern Women, which I self-published via Amazon at the weekend (though it should be easily convertible to non-Kindle formats; I’ve got it as epub on a Kobo) has given me a thrilling few days so far. Kelvin Knight has become a one-man publicity campaign on my behalf, a role which I neither asked nor expected him to play, but which is much appreciated. The other stalwarts of the Telegraph Short Story Club have, as usual, been most encouraging as well, tweeting and generally shouting about the new book’s existence. So far, the feedback has been good and people have been enjoying the stories they’ve got round to reading (which for some eager people is all of them), but I would love to hear what anyone else thinks of the collection or any of the stories in it – you could leave a comment here or write a review somewhere and point it out to me.

In the news this week

The Olympics. I’m sick of it already and it hasn’t even started yet (except apparently it has, but they haven’t had the opening ceremony. How does that work?). I’m not sporty, I leave that to sister number 1 who’s sporty enough for all 3 sisters. However, I do have a residual fondness for the Tour de France from years of watching with my dad and Big Brother, so I’m mildly excited about the British success this last weekend. I was on the Place de la Concorde 3 years ago for the final stage and I agree with my dad that I should have been there this year instead, except…

Except I wouldn’t then have been able to sit in the Edinburgh Playhouse on Saturday night bouncing up and down in my seat watching the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show, and that would have been dreadful. I went, I had a brilliant evening, and OneMonkey has been reminded how much he loves Marvin. A very smartly-dressed Neil Gaiman looked like he was enjoying himself in his portrayal of the book, in a wing-backed chair within easy reach of a china teacup. And I got to see friend T for a while.

I’ve been hanging out at the Telegraph Short Story Club (overseen by Louise Doughty) for a few weeks, which has been fun so far. Mention has been made on there of the Man Booker shortlist, to which my response was an unimpressed shrug. I know some people make a point of reading all the books on the longlist or shortlist every year, but I discovered that I’d only read one book on the longlists since 2001, I think my preferred reading matter doesn’t cross paths with the sort of fiction that makes it on there (it’s certainly not a conscious effort on my part). So, I thought I’d get adventurous and try one of those opinion polls that are so popular these days. Do join in…

To Edinburgh, with towel

Somehow I’d entirely failed to hear about the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tour. The one with (mostly) the original radio cast. The one where Neil Gaiman will be the voice of the Book for one night only. Even he only mentioned it as an afterthought at the end of a longish post on his journal, but thankfully I spotted it, and in a moment of blinding insight into the state of my soul, my inner teenager reared up screaming Buy tickets now! So I did (listen to your inner teenager, sometimes it knows you better than the outer grown-up does) and now I’m eagerly awaiting a weekend in Edinburgh in which my Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman strands will collide in what I hope will be an evening of pure joy. It should be, at the very least, a unique experience.