31 October - 3 November was the World Fantasy Convention 2013 in Brighton, filled with very good writers saying interesting things to each other about writerly topics. For those who missed it, this series is your own virtual WFC 2013.
In the absence of his interviewer, Neil Gaiman relates the story of the last time he stayed at the Hilton Metropole, to the constant ripple of the audience's laughter: the various people with whom he drank until 3, then 5, then 7, how he launched straight into the next day's line-up, how he returned to his room at 1pm for a shower - and found his room reassigned and his luggage vanished. The bed was still made, said the hotel. The bed had clearly not been slept in, said the hotel. They assumed he'd "done a runner", said the hotel - despite the five-day booking, despite the convention. The organisers at last got him a new room by threatening to withhold the entire convention's bill "unless this man gets a room", but the luggage was gone forever. Jo Fletcher, who's arrived for the anecdote's finale, explains that she's late because the hotel has three first floors, none of which connect, and only the intervention of a kindly cleaner has allowed her to reach us at all. Everyone murmurs in agreement: architecture by MC Escher.
The two reminisce the meeting, thirty years ago, of a young journalist and a young woman on the convention's reception, and Gaiman segues into his brief career in journalism, getting to meet whoever he liked and interview them, as long as the interviews were published in things that weren't bought for the words. (Playboy.) Two long Douglas Adams interviews (which prick my envy) led to Gaiman writing Don't Panic: The Official Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Companion. He even got to design his cover, because neither he nor the editorial assistant knew he shouldn't, so he sketched it out and she blithely delivered it to the art department, who were grateful for the brief. "You can do so much cool stuff if you don't know the rules," he says. Originally, Douglas Adams had let them write the Companion royalty-free, not expecting much from it; when it hit the big time, Adams approached them and they gave him half the profit. "I like doing the honourable thing," says Gaiman. "It's nice, and it's easy."
Gaiman's wary of the advice not to write for free. Between the ages of 22 and 27, "The education I got in science fiction and fantasy, everything that I learned... I learnt from Jo," writing largely for free. He describes writing a 150-word review for the BFS Journal which led to her deluging him with free books to review, for free, until he was writing so many reviews that they were publishing half of them under a false name. Fletcher agrees that writers shouldn't be too cautious: "It's a good way to start." What fascinates Gaiman about the SFF community is that it is a community, as comics perhaps used to be.
Writing for the money is more dangerous than writing for free. Fletcher introduces Gaiman's pop career, which they jointly blame on Kim Newman, who invited him to write a rock book for them. With a choice between Barry Manilow, Def Leppard, or Duran Duran, he chose the latter: they'd only released three albums, which didn't seem too much work. Such books were more popular then, before the internet. Trying to explain the rarity of of information pre-internet, Gaiman says, "Back then, we were like people trying to find a flower in a desert. Now, we're like people trying to find a flower in a jungle." With his £2000 advance, he bought himself an electric typewriter, ready for the career and the royalties. A week later, Proteus Books went into involuntary redundancy. No royalties. "Here's this thing I did for the money," says Gaiman, "And I didn't even get the money. I spent three months writing a book I didn't want to write. I don't think I'll do that again." Fletcher and Gaiman contemplate where that path could have led him, if the publisher hadn't gone under, if it had "worked out", with horror.
Years later, Gaiman met Simon le Bon and hesitantly confessed this dirty little secret of the band biography.
"Which one?" demanded Le Bon.
"With a grey cover? Oh, we liked that one!"
At that point, the dirty secret sidled its way back onto Gaiman's CV. It was, after all, his first book. He later asked his assistant later to keep an eye out for a hardcover, which she gleefully bought - for $800. He felt rubbish about that until last March, when a book dealer friend retired off his signed Duran Duran biography sold for $10,000.
One might not write for the money, but some compromises are required. Gaiman reports sending his first story in at 8000 words, to Imagine, who replied that they'd publish it at 4000 words. He duly halved it - grumpily, but he wanted to get published.
"It's very odd for me reading young Neil Gaiman," he says, "Cos I remember being him, and writing that, but I had no style."
"I told you, when you stopped writing like everyone you loved and wrote like yourself, you'd be great," says Fletcher.
"You did, you did."
He relates reading a children's book he wrote when he was 20, identifying in it all the different styles of all the authors he admired, and finding only one page which read like him, Gaiman.
He gave another early story to Fletcher for feedback, and she told him "Facetious twaddle, darling." Twenty years later, when a Gothic anthology approached him, he hunted that story down to see if it was rescuable - and found it so fixable. This was Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire, whose full title not even he can remember, never mind the original even longer title. Its premise centred around a person in a fantasy world who wanted to write "fantasy" (which maps back into realism, in this double-mirror). It wasn't the fantasy that gave the story trouble, though: it was the realism. "The stuff that I didn't know how to do back then... When I was 24, I couldn't write a piece of kitchen-sink realism that read as mainstream kitchen-sink realism, and now I could."
The capacity to fix stories is a cornerstone, for Gaiman. He said, "I don't know that I'm a very good writer, but I think I'm a fantastic editor." He's good at writing something that's 90% there and then putting it aside and working out how to take it that last 10% forward. (My mother calls this "the realm of the last inch", the final effort that sets great art and writing apart.) He believes in learning on the job, rather than getting fully skilled in advance: "For me, it all goes back to punk. Here's one chord, here's a second chord, here's a third chord, now start a band." That also allows you to explore new avenues: "I never want to be famous for just doing one thing," because then you don't get to do the other stuff, so he's insisted on that freedom - despite being told off by publishers and editors. That pressure included a large financial offer accompanied by a hefty dressing-down from a publisher, saying to write more like American Gods and none of this Coraline nonsense. He refused.
The final audience question is, "Was there a mistake that you wouldn't mind repeating?" Gaiman reflects carefully before answering. For every mistake, he says, the massive fucked-up can of worms has led to good things. But if he could go back, and change just one thing, he'd go back to the Hilton Metropole the last time he stayed there, nip into his room, and rumple up the bed so it looked like it had been slept in.
Next panel at the Virtual WFC 2013: Substance versus style, with Geoff Ryman, Jack Dunn, Lisa Tuttle, and Ellen Kushner.
The virtual conference is created from my own rapid scribblings at the panels and talks and paraphrased - all as accurate as possible, but if you take exception to anything, contact me. Direct quotations are my transcription of someone's exact words as best as I can.