Thanks to Twitter (see, it IS good for something!), I found tickets to the sold-out Neil Gaiman talk at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on Saturday, “Myth, Magic, and Making Stuff Up.” Gaiman is not only an excellent writer – of fiction for adults, teens, and children, of graphic novels, of nonfiction, of short stories – he is a great advocate for libraries, so I was doubly excited to see him speak.
His first words to the audience were, “Hello. So, the plan. And I have one.” He then said hello to those watching/listening from the overflow room, and consoled them, “You wouldn’t believe what it smells like in here.” For the rest of the hour, he gave a prepared talk, then read us a draft of a new story(!), then answered questions from the audience.
Gaiman likened myths to compost – an analogy he has used elsewhere – old, essential stories broken down into their rich, earthy components, ready and waiting for writers to plant their own seeds and harvest their own new plants from the old material. Myths evolve to suit – and help explain – a particular time and place. In one version, Sleeping Beauty might sleep for a hundred years, and in another version she might sleep for just a day; in many versions she is the protagonist, but in another it’s the queen who is the hero. “Too often myths are unexamined,” Gaiman said. “It is the function of imaginative literature to show is the world we know but from a different direction.”
After his prepared talk, Gaiman read us a story called “Freyja’s Unusual Wedding,” a retelling of an old Norse myth featuring Freyja, Thor, Loki, and the giant Thrym. I’m unfamiliar with the original, but in this version, Thrym steals Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, and demands Freyja’s hand in marriage in exchange for its return. Freyja, naturally, declines to be married off to the giant, and Thor and Loki must come up with an alternative plan. “Freyja’s Unusual Wedding” is to be part of a collection of retellings of myths that Gaiman plans to spend 2014 working on (among other things, I’m sure), and the audience reaction was strongly positive.
The question and answer session was relatively brief. One person asked about the role of rules in myths, citing examples from Gaiman’s newest adult novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Gaiman responded that myths once had a useful function as a teaching tool in society, but noted, “I have always been very fond of not telling what the rules are.” He pointed out that whenever he has met with people in Hollywood meetings about his projects, someone has inevitably said, “I don’t really understand what the rules are,” to which he replied, “No one understands what the rules are.” That’s what makes life – and stories – interesting (or scary).
Another person asked, “Do you ever create something that becomes part of your belief system?” Yes, Gaiman said; writing can be a way of learning what you believe, and at least, “I believe what I’m writing while I’m writing it.” But, he added, “It’s weirder for me when other people believe it.” (“I have a very weird kind of head.”)
The last question was from a teacher, who mentioned the recent change in the core curriculum, a shift toward more nonfiction. He asked if Gaiman could recommend some nonfiction he liked. Gaiman said that he hadn’t really started reading nonfiction until he started writing fiction and realized “It all had to come from somewhere.” He recommended two of his favorite nonfiction books: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay (1841), London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew (1967).
A few additional quotes from the first part of the event:
On turning into a werewolf: “I dreamed I did once, so I know what it’s like.”
On writing: “We [authors] cannibalize ourselves.”
On stories: “Without our stories we are incomplete.”
On fairy tales: “Fairy tales are not true, they’re more than true.”
On the imagination: “It’s a strange place, the imagination…a dangerous place…you can always use a guide.”
For those who missed this event and are interested in what Gaiman has to say, I recommend his recent commencement speech (video). For those who are interested in reading some of his work, check out A Calendar of Tales for free – twelve short stories, one for each month of the year, inspired by prompts on Twitter.
Note: The above photo of Neil Gaiman is from the Boston MFA website. Photography during the event was “strictly prohibited.”