“I fled, or at least, backed awkwardly away from journalism because I wanted the freedom to make things up. I did not want to be nailed to the truth; or to be more accurate, I wanted to be able to tell the truth without ever needing to worry about the facts.”
—Neil Gaiman, The View From The Cheap Seats
Neil Gaiman may be best known for a mind that weaves together the fantastic and the mundane in fiction but, over a career of some forty years as a writer, all the articles and introductions and speeches and essays and interviews start to add up. The View From The Cheap Seats is a hefty selection of these non-fiction works, weighing in at over 500 pages. Fittingly for the title, I find myself sat up near the rafters gazing down at a beautifully lit church, the stage simply dressed and focused around two seats. Although I saw Neil speak last year around the launch of his short story collection Trigger Warning, being in the Union Chapel drew to the surface a very different memory from seven years ago. Neil reminisces about the same night, noting that he had not sung in public since his teenage punk years until, on the second of her two nights there, his girlfriend Amanda Palmer forced him to sing with her. This time round they are married, he introduces their baby boy to the crowd and then, in fitting role-reversal, has Amanda open with a song before he takes to the stage.
Discussing the purpose of the collection early on, Neil explains earnestly that if the reader picks up the work of just one of the many authors or musicians mentioned within then the book was worthwhile. The book is, in essence, an exploration of what Neil cares about, be it people, ideas, the literary world or the written word itself. It contains around a dozen introductions that Neil has written for other people’s work. The generosity with which he writes these stems from the desire to bring works he likes to a new audience. He also mentions a disgruntled Amanda Palmer fan who, on discovering that they were dating, bemoaned “How can she be going out with him? He’s written more introductions than books!” Not quite as scathing an insult as may have been intended — introductions are, Neil points out wryly, much shorter.
The most interesting points arising from the night relate to the proximity of art and reality. An audience member asks how often he steals ideas from real events. The answer, as any writer will know, is constantly. Neil responds that, although he always worries he might be discovered a fraud with no imagination (unlikely!), writing fiction swiftly teaches one not to feel guilty about such theft from reality else one would be forever feeling guilty. I tend to approach it from the opposite angle: writing non-fiction swiftly teaches a writer that there is fiction in everything, whether it is true or not. Scientists may take umbrage with this statement but, even when one attempts to present facts alone, the inevitable resulting oversimplification is itself a fiction.
Neil repeats an analogy offered by Amanda when comparing her almost autobiographical discography to Neil’s veiled facsimiles of places or himself. She described the process as having a blender into which they pour themselves. The difference, she said, is that she presses the button for only a second so there are still big identifiable lumps, whilst Neil holds it down for much longer crafting a more evenly blended product that is no less real. Although I write this very blog, I have often commented that several of the fictional Shards elsewhere on the site contain the truest things I have ever written about myself. It may be shrouded — blended, if you prefer — but it is there for those who wish to look. And honestly, I think it is always those kernels of truth (rather than the fiction within which they reside) that draw people in when they identify with a Shard. Fiction is simply a medium through which one can convey a truth and, perhaps, the most nuanced one we have.