It was time. They let us into the room around 9:15. It was a mad dash to the best seats in the room. I managed the fourth row back with a good shot of the podium. I had an awesome view. There was also a leather backed comfy chair on the stage. I watched as minions brought out water for the podium, then later water for the comfy chair, then later still, more water for the podium. There were index cards and anyone who has heard Neil speak knows that the cards are for questions. He always has a question and answer period, but the questions are from the cards. So, I wanted to think of a really good question. I had time, but I had a question left from the show he did with Amanda Palmer, so I wrote that one down and passed my card along. Was it brilliant? Most definitely not. Would it get chosen? Probably not, but you never know.
My question, you ask?
If you could be any one of the characters from your stories in real life, which one would you choose to be?
After I sat there thinking about it, I thought of some others:
What are you reading?
If you had 60 seconds to get out of the house and could only grab one book, which one book would you grab?
|People behind me in the audience|
He approached the podium looking at the water there to the water near the leather backed comfy chair and back again, clearly not knowing where he should be, but he opted for the chair. It was more a conversation than a lecture anyway, as I would soon discover. Upon realizing the people on the left side, my left and his right, could not see him because the podium blocked their view, he pulled the chair forward to the edge of the stage and leaned in towards the audience. He was given a bag of promotional pins for Fortunately, The Milk and he decided to throw them out into the audience after he read them aloud. They were great works of fiction about milk. Some examples: The Grapes of Milk, Charlie and the Milk Factory, Westward Milk, Wuthering Milk, etc. He threw one in my direction and I reached up my hand to catch it, but it ended up being a tip in and the person seated behind me came up with it. So disappointed, to be that close. He decided to stop before he beaned someone in the head.
Rather than start this conversation about the topic on the program, he started off talking about the two books he has coming out this year. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an adult book about a child and Fortunately, The Milk is a children’s book about an adult.
He started out by saying that Fortunately, The Milk was written to assuage his guilt somewhat, an apology if you will to all the fathers out there. He told a story about how when his oldest son was about 7 years old, I believe, he got really mad at something Neil was telling him to do, something very parental. His son declared, “I wish I didn’t have a dad. I wish I had a…” and here he seemed to be unable to think of a suitable substitution. “I wish I had a goldfish.” So Neil wrote a story called The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish about a little boy who swaps his dad for two goldfish, but then realizes he needs to get him back, so he goes to the kid he got the goldfish from, but that kid had swapped his dad for something else. So the little boy goes off on a hunt to find his dad again, who keeps getting swapped away for something else.
He started writing The Ocean at the End of the Lane as a short story. He would write a little bit at a time and go back to it later, as he seems to do with a lot of his writing. Some of his stories start as a thought written down on a page, ignored for years, sometimes taken out and polished up with some new text and put back away again. As he wrote the new story, he realized that it seemed a bit long for a short story, so went to Wikipedia to determine the word count to be considered a short story. Safe for the time being, he continued to write until he could no longer deny the story had grown too large to be considered a short story. It had become a novelette. Still he wrote and still the story remained stubbornly unfinished until he had to admit it had become a novella. By the time he was done with the story, he phoned up his editor and said, “I appear to have written a novel. I hope you don’t mind.” He assured us she didn’t.
Neil bought himself a Mini Cooper. Having the same car myself, I was very excited. Ridiculous I know as we’ll never be in a Mini road rally together, but he has a Mini! And I have a Mini! Mini solidarity, man!
Neil was telling us how he was very proud of his Mini and when his dad came over from England to visit, he asked him what he thought of the new Mini. His dad thought it was very nice and not unlike the Mini they had when Neil was a child, but he had forgotten about the Mini. It was white. When he asked his dad what happened to the car, his dad was a little surprised he never told him. Apparently, they had a lodger from South Africa when Neil was young. The lodger had brought his money and money from his village back home. I guess he was supposed to use that to acquire additional capital, but he gambled it all away at Brighton and lost everything. The lodger stole the Mini and drove it down to the end of the lane and committed suicide. He was talking about how working on this book brought up some memories that had been left alone for quite some time and how some elements of memories found their way into the book.
After he talked some more about the process of writing The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he finally started talking about the topic, Why Fiction is Dangerous.
He was asked to give to take part in a discussion at BEA. He agreed. He was asked what he would speak on. He said why fiction is dangerous, figuring he’d have 6 weeks to come up with something. About a week before BEA, he got a call to verify everything was a go and he asked who was taking part in the discussion with him. He was advised no one, upon which he said that was not a discussion, it’s a monologue. He then said he knows why non-fiction is dangerous; for example, 1001 Things Boys Can Do and then do them, like using red beat dye to dye his dad’s white shirts purple. Or reading up on toffee making in which he made a toffee the size of a softball and put it in his pocket to take it to school. Upon having to wipe his nose, he pulled out a pocket handkerchief which then was stuck to a softball sized ball of toffee which when dropped, shattered like glass on the floor and no, he didn’t do it on purpose.
He then went on to tell us why fiction is dangerous:
Fiction is dangerous because it gives you empathy.
Fiction is dangerous because it lets you into other people’s heads.
Fiction is dangerous because it makes you believe the world doesn’t have to be like the world we live in.
Fiction allows us to imagine the impossible. He talked about a Sci Fi convention he went to in China. It was the first allowed in the country. Science Fiction was traditionally been banned from Chinese culture along with anything else that could be considered subversive or a challenge to the current government and he asked why now? Why was the Chinese government allowing a Sci Fi convention now. Well, China has not been in the forefront of technological advances, so they came to the USA and visited Apple, Google and Microsoft and asked all the creative minds what they read as children and they all answered Science Fiction.
Then we came to the question and answer period. And no, my question did not get read. His editor read the questions and it seemed she started from the top, but whatever.
Anyway, one of the questions was what was the worst line Neil had ever written. He edited a book with Kim Newman called Ghastly Beyond Belief which was a worst quotes collection. He said the worst one was, “He wasn’t going to leave Janice Williams alone, crabs or no crabs.” While he didn’t technically write the line, he did have to put it to paper for the collection.
One of the questions was regarding what he dreamed of being when he grew up. He said he always wanted to be a librarian or English teacher. When he was 7, he had all his books alphabetized on his book shelf. He spent all his free time in the library and read all the books in the children’s section in alphabetical order by the time he was 12.
He was also asked about All Hallows Read which he started a few years ago and has been gaining in popularity. The idea is for people to give each other scary books for Halloween. Stephen King thought it was a good idea. Information can be found at http://www.allhallowsread.com.
It was time for Neil to leave us, but he also left something with us, he left copies of signed copies of Make Good Art and Fortunately, The Milk. And yes, I was one of the first 500 people. All the stressing in the morning was for nothing. It all worked out anyway. There were also on the back table next to the door some of the promotional pins, but there was a pack of wolves tearing them apart, or rather there were a gaggle of people that were taking the time to pick them up and read them looking for just the right title about milk. Some people were taking more than one, but there weren’t enough to go around. I was getting irritated by the people who were just lolly gagging and blocking the table for other people to see, so I just reached my hand between two people and took the pin I came away with. My title? Westward Milk.