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Saturday, 16 November 2013

Susan Cooper in conversation with Neil Gaiman: Virtual WFC 2013

Susan Cooper and Neil Gaiman discuss writing for children, the powerful impact of homesickness, their early careers in journalism, and the icebergs beneath stories.

Susan Cooper and Neil Gaiman
Picture courtesy of Lena Coakley, @LenaCoakley
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.
When you write for children, says Gaiman, you reach a point where adults start coming up to you to say what you did to the inside of their heads when they were young. It's very strange. Indeed, replies Cooper; and with time, you get more than one generation doing that.

Both Cooper and Gaiman live in the US but grew up in England and that tug of English roots, history, and landscape permeates their conversation and much of their writing. Cooper grew up in Buckinghamshire, then rural countryside, during World War Two, "So it was very loud," she says drily. Gaiman was born in Hampshire, near the South Downs. Somehow reading about the South Downs in Kipling made them more real to him than experiencing them. Both have a strong sense of their home landscape's history. When you grow up in England, says Cooper, you're sitting on top of layers of history, sometimes literally. She recalls a farmer ploughing his field and turning up Roman mosaics. It makes time frangible, says Gaiman.
     Leaving England meant they wrote about it more. In his first years in America, Gaiman found himself writing his most English things. Cooper had the same experience: she wrote Dark is Rising ten years after moving to the US. "Don't worry," JB Priestly told her. "You'll write better about a place when you're away from it." Back then, immigration was a far more dramatic break from one's home. There was no news, no TV, no internet, says Gaiman; he wound up subscribing to a weekly edition of the Telegraph, which arrived by post three weeks later - so all the news was at least a month old.
    All the Dark is Rising books were written out of homesickness: "I was ludicrously homesick," says Cooper. At 28, she was married to an American lecturer and had three teenage stepchildren. In the top room of her house in New England, her escape was to write about England.
     Gaiman and Cooper both find themselves "trapped" in the US, by love and family ties, however much they'd like to return to the UK. Despite having lived most of her life abroad, Cooper firmly sees herself as an English writer, and Gaiman likewise: he feels like he's faking it if he tries to write "American" stories. He's never been to an American high school, for instance, and even though his children have, that doesn't give him a sense that he can write that.

Before immigrating, Cooper read English at Oxford, when Tolkien and Lewis were teaching, when the English literature syllabus still stopped abruptly at 1832. Tolkien was not an engaging lecturer. He faced the blackboard, put his pipe in his mouth, and talked very quietly to himself while making occasional marks. He lectured Cooper on Beowulf and at the time, university policy had it that if no students attended a lecture, the rest of that course of lectures could be cancelled. Week after week, he regarded her and the single other attending student with disappointment. "We were all waiting for volume 3 of The Lord of the Rings," says Cooper, and no doubt he'd have preferred to be off writing it.
     Cooper was the first woman to edit the Cherwell. After university, she went knocking on the doors of Fleet Street. The news editor of the Sunday Times offered her a chance: a colour piece on a rose show. Cooper took it and duly went along, trying to eke some interest out of the intricacies of rose-gardening. Just as she left, she heard a little old lady ask, "How far apart should I keep my passions?"
     "Eighteen inches is a safe distance, madam," replied the gardener gravely.
     The Sunday Times was happy to employ her but lacked the budget. In a meeting, the foreign editor stepped in and offered to share their budget: that was Ian Fleming, who got her her first job.
     Gaiman recalls Ian Fleming's advice on writing: that you should lock yourself in a horrible hotel, the worst you can find, in a horrible place, with no interesting spots to visit and nothing to see, with no company whatsoever, and you stay there until you've finished writing. "It sounds like the advice of someone who doesn't like writing very much," he says carefully. Fleming was a generous writer, though: when Roald Dahl was stuck for a plot, Fleming gave him the leg-of-lamb murder story.

Cooper's shift into full-time novel-writing began when she won the E Nesbitt Memorial Prize, which offered publication and £1000 (then more than a year's wages). As she wrote the book, though, it turned into fantasy.
     Cooper and Gaiman share this background in journalism. Gaiman talks about what that experience offers a writer: compression; how to give an impression of how somebody talks with just a few words. The first magazine he wrote for was She, followed by a series of (non-sexual) interviews and articles in men's magazines, "the bits that nobody read," he says. Through writing for Time Out and Today, though, he did manage to interview all the people he wanted to meet.
     "We both learned it by doing it," says Cooper. Whenever a child asks her how to be a writer, she says, "Read, read, read."
     Asked what fantasy writers they'd recommend, Cooper and Gaiman start with each other, naturally, then reel a list off the top of their heads, including David Almond, Philip Pullman, Diana Wynne Jones, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Rudyard Kipling (Steve Jones edited a book of his fantasy fiction, including Rewards and Fairies and Puck of Pook's Hill).
     Someone else wants to know their views on fan fiction: both Cooper and Gaiman hesitate. One reason why he gets scared in speaking about this, says Gaiman, is that anything you say about fan fic risks being taken out of context and turned against you. He's been burnt before, but the worst was when he answered a question on his website which asked if fan fic was a useful way to teach yourself writing, towards being a professional writer. He replied yes, but that one day the training wheels would have to come off - meaning that you'd need to be creating and writing about your own characters and worlds. The volume of vitriol in response to that was quite terrifying. That doesn't mean fan fic is inherently a bad thing: his writing Doctor Who episodes is, after all, a kind of fan fic. Perhaps his worst experience, though, was that he once made the mistake of googling something and finding a giant repository of Good Omens slash fiction. (Much of fan fic is sexual, but not all; slash fiction specifically focuses on sexual attraction and relationships.) No author should have to see that, he says. But worse was to come. He discovered that the smallest possible unit of time is that between clicking on a link which takes you to real-person fan fic of yourself and Terry Pratchett, and clicking away. His face suggests he's still traumatised.

Another audience member desperately wants to know what happens to Will at the end of Dark is Rising, as she has a long-running argument about it with a friend. Cooper smilingly refuses to settle it: after the end of a book, she says, unless she writes a sequel, what happens is up to you. Gaiman adds that anyway, "Authors are liars, you can't trust us," and that there are levels on which all stories are icebergs, with so much more underneath.
     Talk of writing sequels leads them to Ursula le Guin, returning to EarthSea from different angles: first, feeling she'd been unfair to female magic, and reworking that; then, with a new interest in old age. Cooper considers whether she'd write another Dark is Rising series: perhaps, she thinks, centered around the three human children.
     A few people ask about what lay behind various stories. The Boggart books, says Cooper, were inspired by Katharine Brigg's Dictionary of Fairies, which has all the information one could wish on fairy mythology. In her research for Ghost Hawk, no-one with any memories of that time was still alive, so she relied heavily on reading primary sources. She never listens to music while she writes, though Gaiman is "an inveterate listener of music". Over the past few years, though, he's found he can't write while listening to music with lyrics anymore, so now looks for soundtracks, instrumental pieces, and his favourite songs sung in other languages.
     Neither Cooper nor Gaiman can give a favourite character. "I've been inside all of them," says Cooper; how could one choose? The closest Gaiman has to favourites are the ones he still wants to know more about.

Next panel in the Virtual WFC: Does science fiction have a future? with Brian W. Aldiss, Stephen Baxter, Joe Haldeman, Peter F. Hamilton, Jaine Fenn, and Paul McAuley

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 or I've got any details wrong, contact me. Direct quotations are my transcription of someone's exact words as best as I can.

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