Neil Gaiman is one of the most innovative writers of our time, responsible for works such as “Norse Mythology,” “Coraline,” and “Stardust.” With at least five Hugo Awards, two Nebula Awards, a Newbery Medal, and a Carnegie Medal to his name, Gaiman barely needs introduction.
Shana: We had the glorious opportunity of attending Neil Gaiman’s master class in addition to his live public event. In the master class, Gaiman’s dark gaze penetrated each student as if we were characters he could read and understand through free indirect discourse.
Claire: Gaiman was surprisingly soft-spoken, sitting with his hands clasped and his legs crossed as he gave 15-minute answers to every student question. These often meandered away from the original point, but he was still so gently compelling that no audience member dared break their silence. I got to ask a question (after trying to subtly catch the moderator’s eye for about five minutes, anxiously glancing towards the ticking clock the entire time) – about Gaiman’s repeated use of dark doubles as a literary device in works like “Coraline,” “Neverwhere,” “Good Omens,” and even “Doctor Who,” and about the value of giving physical form to the darker aspects of society and the self. Yet, I could barely maintain eye contact with the man I was so excited to see, because his gaze was so unflinching, so earnest, and so strangely shrewd.
From my original inquiry, Gaiman somehow recalled a doorway to nowhere in his childhood house, a wooden door that opened onto a brick wall, and the formative image that that door made on his child mind. As I later told you, that’s totally cheating; exactly how many people in this world are gifted with a literal door to nowhere while growing up? No wonder he was enthralled by “Chronicles of Narnia” and “Alice in Wonderland.” The rest of us are forced to get by on our imaginations alone, dammit!
Shana: I’m always fascinated by the formation of ideas, and Gaiman’s life, in many ways, mirrors his art. From “Coraline” and “The Graveyard Book,” Gaiman tenderly shared how his inspirations spring from family moments, his daughter sitting on his lap after school making up her own stories and his son joyfully riding his tricycle at a graveyard across their home. When he weaves these details into his responses, I’m reminded that stories arise out of circumstance, when facets of our lives converge into an impression or story seed.
Gaiman’s answers were reflective of his evocative writing style, with thoughtful replies that sounded like poetry. There’s a magnetism in how he describes the Norse myths, evoking images of people gathered by a roaring fire and plied with mead, settling into their fur coverings while a bard clears his throat and begins a tale of even older days.
Gaiman spent his childhood reading the Thor comic series, and it kindled his interest until he discovered Snorri Sturluson and the “joyous darkness” of the “shapes of the [original] stories.” Perhaps the most significant topic of consideration was Ragnarok (the end times for Norse mythology). As much as there is a beginning to every world, there is also an end. Even amidst the tales of their bravery and trickery, the eventual promise that these gods will also fade away shows that they can die as honorably as the humans who first created them.
Claire: One of the oft overlooked aspects of Gaiman’s work is how he handles both inhuman and human characters with grace and gentleness, even when they’re surrounded by fantastical genre elements like an 11-year-old Antichrist or women who turn out to be stars. His “Doctor Who” episode “The Doctor’s Wife” is a microcosm of how to balance tenderness and raw emotion with a high-stakes plot. Gaiman forsakes convoluted, faux-clever plotlines and lets the Doctor’s trauma breathe; with such breathtaking lines as “‘You want to be forgiven.’ ‘Don’t we all?’” Gaiman handles hurt and healing equally well, grounding his writing in the very vulnerability that many modern stories try to conceal.
Shana: Gaiman’s work epitomizes many of my hopes for my own speculative fiction writing, with his dedication to melding the imaginative with the authentic. I cherish “Stardust” and “Neverwhere” for their richness in characters and mythlike worldbuilding, and they have a special place in my heart as my first Gaiman novels. But more importantly, these works help me process the stark and complicated realities of life, not in spite of, but because of their fictional construction. With every line, he shows us how we are and invites us to do better, be better and imagine better. There’s a truth in fact and a truth in fiction, and Gaiman crafts his stories with the practiced hand of an artist on canvas, his fiction probing at the many conflicting ambiguities contained in the human heart.
Claire: It’s worth noting that Gaiman was much more “on” during his actual speech at Dinkelspiel, despite self-deprecatingly acknowledging that he didn’t really have much of a plan for the night. His voice took on various cadences when reading excerpts; slurring and rough for “Good Omens” demon Crowley, high-pitched and prim for angel Aziraphale, growling and proud for trickster god Loki’s wolf-child Fenrir. I found myself admiring his oratory skills as much as his skill in written storytelling; the ease with which Gaiman slipped in and out of narratives – some, he professed, he hadn’t read in years, or even decades – betrayed his level of comfort with stories, with what we make of them, and with his own imagination. His comedic timing was impeccable; he jokingly asked if we were willing to stay until midnight, and a hum of enthusiastic assent swept through the audience; Gaiman looked about as stunned as his eternally mild manners would allow him to. His brief retrospective on the late Sir Terry Pratchett, especially, was entertaining, understated and touching. Gaiman recalled a writing session in which he and Pratchett plotted to cameo in the upcoming “Good Omens” screen adaptation by eating sushi in the background of a shot, smugly gorging themselves on raw fish while shooting. “Terry and I,” Gaiman laughed, “share a fondness for sushi normally found in seals.”
Shana: Something that still astounds me is how Gaiman pierces us and leaves us bleeding, and then sews our hearts anew with needle and thread. My eyes teared up when he discussed “Good Omens.” After 35 years of friendship, Pratchett made one “dying request.” One week after the funeral, Gaiman sat down and started to write the first episode of “Good Omens.” He wrote the sushi scene as they had discussed, but when they started shooting, he could not bring himself to sit at the table, knowing that he would burst into tears. His honesty amidst a sea of strangers truly moved me.
For every seemingly gloomy image – of Coraline’s Other Mother with her black buttons for eyes, of an orphan sitting alone at a graveyard with ghosts – his tenderness and vulnerability imbues it with resonance. Yes, Gaiman has a talent for comedic dialogue, weaving in jokes and sarcasm with an ear for the natural rhythm of his words. But above all, his stories are about the flutters of the human heart. Rousing themes like the occasionally rough quality of parental love, the highs and lows of the hero’s journey, the cost of pursuing one’s ambition: He treats them all with a caring hand, mindful of balancing the dark with the light. He peers into the almost intangible dimensions of our experiences and gives form to them through his stories, which in turn are metaphors for us to understand ourselves.
Claire: It’s that very heart that Gaiman got to at the end of the night; when asked the question, “What do you believe in?” by some intrepid and very ballsy audience member, he immediately replied, “I believe in stories. I believe in people.” He reminds the audience that, instead of alternately deifying or dehumanizing each other, to remember that, “Human beings are fundamentally people.” That means, he elaborated, that, “I believe that we can do better. I believe that we can always do better. I believe in empathy. I believe in caring for other people.” And that, truly, is why Gaiman has remained beloved, because for all of his works’ supernatural swagger and larger-than-life dilemmas, it is that bone-deep faith in humanity, in the potential of humanity, that worms its way into every story he writes. In answer to my master class question, Gaiman said that fantasy is, fundamentally, metaphor made literal, and as such allows audiences and characters in equal measure to reckon with reality more concretely.
The ways in which we reckon with those realities, then, define us – they define how we grow, how we live, how we die. Earlier, during the master class Q&A, he posited the – somewhat rhetorical, but not really – question of what the dichotomy of a “good” and “bad” death can do to a culture. What type of world, what types of writers, do the Norse myths reveal, if they characterize a “good” death as dying, bravely and bloodily, in battle? How could they rationalize punishment for dying, shameful and silent, of starvation? What kind of world prioritizes the manner in which someone dies over the content of their character? Such a culture, Gaiman argued, must revolve around an apocalyptic event like the Norse Ragnarok; the world must perish in smoke and ash, so that the gods, along with everyone else, can die honorably, amid bodies and bloodshed. What, he seemed to imply, do our cultural cornerstones say about us, then? Even the ever-incisive Neil Gaiman had no answer for that.
Shana: We could continue narrating our thoughts, but that would be a disservice to the raw impact of his work. Neil Gaiman – his authorial presence, answers, stories – can only be understood through personal experience, and we invite your own reflections on the weight of his words.
Contact Shana Hadi at shanaeh ‘at’ stanford.edu and Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.