04 March 2009

“What It Is That I’ve Done, What It Is That I Do”

Here are some of Neil Gaiman's thought-provoking remarks about his storytelling and writing process from Roger Sutton's interview of the recent Newbery Medalist for the School Library Journal:

I was in Bologna a few years ago, in 2003, listening to a speech being given at the university about my work. It was an incredibly perceptive speech by a Bolognese professor of children’s literature. What fascinated me and troubled and worried me was I thought that I was so clever. I thought that everything I did was so different. And in this speech, the lady was talking about what it is that I’ve done, what it is that I do. And I realized with a sort of horrible sinking feeling that she was describing my next two books. . . . And it was a really major sinking feeling. It was like, Oh, my God. I’m actually doing the same thing over and over. . . .

The Graveyard Book was the longest in gestation of anything I’ve done. And it also was kind of the book that I was working towards writing for a very long time. It began in 1986, maybe early ’87. . . . I was a working journalist at this point. I’d written a few short stories. And I wrote an attempted first page and then read what I’d written and thought, You know, I’m not good enough for this. This is a really good idea, and it’s much better than I am as a writer. I will put it aside until I’m good enough. And once, maybe twice after that in the intervening years, I would go back and try writing a bit more. I’d definitely given up on it by 1989. . . .

Somewhere in 2004, after I’d finished writing Anansi Boys, it occurred to me that technically I was no longer getting better in terms of, you know, just the sheer skill of putting a sentence together, the ability to say whatever it was that I wanted to say. Whether I was any good or not, I didn’t know. But I was definitely no longer seeing the kinds of year-to-year improvement that I had previously been aware of. I was now going, “OK, this is basically whoever I am.” And I no longer had any excuse for putting off writing the story.

I had a notebook with the words, “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” That was definitely going to be the first line. I had begun and given up on the opening many times, and suddenly I thought, I can start in the middle. So I did.
Whole interview here.

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