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The View From The Cheap Seats

The View From The Cheap Seats

“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.

The Union ChapelDiscussing 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.

The View From The Cheap Seats

Trigger Warning

“And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead.”

—Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning

Ostensibly, this post is about a book I have not yet read, the latest collection of short stories from Neil Gaiman. He is not doing the usual book tour for this launch, but whilst in London he did an interview and Q&A session at the Apple Store on Regent Street (which means they should be releasing it as a podcast at some point). This post is really a series of loosely related musings resulting from comments he made.

Trigger WarningI first heard Neil speak many years ago, when he read from Stardust — a book I already loved — and I discovered that his voice, his cadence, his intonation perfectly suited his style of writing. Since then I have tended to read his work with his delivery in mind. It was a voice that made you feel safe even as he took you into strange and dark places.

I struggle to understand why short stories are so unpopular. They seem the perfect form for the attention-deficient modern world. A few years ago, when I began to read more for pleasure again, short stories featured heavily as they were easily compatible with commuting. Neil considers himself lucky that his are profitable enough that he has been able to publish three collections but, even so, the sales figures are only a third of those for his novels. He speculated that many people find short stories frustrating because these miniature worlds vanish just as they become invested. If that is true, those people must be infuriated but the shards I produce. I can offer my sympathy if not an apology…

This collection is titled Trigger Warning because the phrase, the use of which Gaiman approves in its online origins to warn of content that might trigger PTSD, has gradually expanded to cover anything that someone might find unsettling or merely offensive. Art that leaves us disquietened has an important role and to pre-empt it with a warning reduces the artistry, dampens its potency and robs us of a valuable experience. He noted in particular that children rarely require such warnings — they are excellent at self-censorship and deciding when they are comfortable with tackling issues and when they want to back away. Forcing them, he noted with an anecdote about his eldest daughter (she liked the Goosebumps series so he proudly gave her a copy of Carrie…), has less than ideal consequences.

Gaiman is known for exploring the macabre but he describes himself as squeamish. This apparently changes when he wears his writer’s hat. He described a long conversation with a doctor friend that went into graphic detail on autopsies because he needed the information for a story and so it became fascinating rather than disgusting. When I wrote Once Removed, Jenna did me one better as I was able to watch an autopsy performed, experiencing it first hand. But then I have never described myself as squeamish. I happily tear into rare steak whilst watching zombie movies.

When asked about his own fears, Neil explained that anything which scares his characters is really a manifestation of his own fear — that is the source from which he draws (although he notes that writing characters in embarrassing situations is actually what he finds most uncomfortable). It made me wonder about my general inability to write effective horror. Even when I draw overtly on horror tropes like vampires, the characters I produce tend to be relatable if not always sympathetically described. I find I can readily explore the emotional pain of isolation or disconnection, but there is not much that I fear. It gives me a desire to explore (inwardly at least) what undiscovered fears might be lurking below the surface, if that will expand my writing range.

Shards

I stopped writing poetry around the middle of university, essentially upon leaving my teenage years, and most of the writing in the Artist section is actually now over a decade old. Whilst that particular vein of raw emotion seemed to have been mined, it did not mean I stopped writing  (obviously, given that you are reading this), but most of the subsequent fiction was never shared beyond a handful of people.

Shard

Much of the fictional prose I write tends not be fully formed short stories, but rather isolated scenes and slivers of dialogue. At one stage my intention was to collect them so that they might later be expanded into something more substantial or joined together to form a larger whole. Over time, I came to appreciate them more in their current form: loose sequences that allude to the worlds from which they are plucked, to other stories with details for the reader to fill, open to interpretation and more universal as a result.

I think of these pieces as “Shards”, shattered fragments that reflect their world and whose shapes offer hints at the stories from which they came. As a new project, rather than having them gather digital dust (static, white noise?), I plan to post one of these Shards each week in the Artist section, which has now been reorganised appropriately. Shard I is available immediately. Expect considerable variety in length, style and content, but I am interested to receive feedback and to see what people particularly enjoy; there is every chance I may choose to return to some worlds or characters in the future.

Shortcomings

Tomine’s genius is to strip his medium of every possible type of grandiosity or indulgence, and the result is that life itself floods in.

-Jonathan Lethem

Shortcomings

Last week I was browsing Forbidden Planet’s signed books and came across Adrian Tomine, a graphic novelist with whom I was not familiar. His real world stories revolve around relationships and immediately evoke Daniel ClowesGhost World, in both visual style and socially awkward characters, although the subject matter is slightly less offbeat. I picked up signed copies of Shortcomings and Summer Blonde and devoured them in quick succession. Particularly interesting is Tomine’s often cinematic style in which the reader feels they are watching a scene through a camera, lingering with identical panels. Scene changes are often abrupt, occuring in the middle of a line, and many conversations are joined mid-flow. From context it is always easy to extract what has been discussed previously, but the precise words are left to the reader. As contemporary fiction that just happens to use a different medium, Tomine is subtle, intelligent, easy to read and highly recommended.

While I still love my current camera lens (a Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS) there are certain things it can’t do. The main issue is low-light shooting since I detest flashes. If the subject is stationary there is little problem, particularly with the lens’ image stablisation, but those of the organic variety do have a tendancy to move. The trade off is then blurry shots or dark images. In short: time for a secondary lens. It didn’t take much research to stumble upon Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.4, a prime lens (non-zoom) that is by all accounts beautifully crafted, letting in a huge amount of light and producing incredibly sharp images. Unfortunately I wouldn’t know. Nowhere in London has been able to sell me one. Because they don’t have any. If any photographers out there have a secret supplier please let me know.

A few days ago I mentioned the sudden expansion of Twitter as celebrity bloggers brought it into the mainstream. It becoming mainstream, while it may be less of a “club”, is no bad thing. The celebrities, however, might be. Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross both have extraordinary numbers of followers but, while both being intelligent and witty people, neither really seems to have that much to say. Rather their feeds are filled with drivel, mostly pandering to people who want to receive that one personal message from their célébrité du jour. I am not saying I have found the perfect balance for my own Twitter feed, but I also know that there is enough background noise in my life without needing to add these kinds of celebrity microblogs.

I do have one on my list though: Neil Gaiman. It’s not that unnecessary minutiae do not appear in his, but the majority are interesting links related to his work and that of his acquaintances. If you must include celebrities, I strongly recommend TweetDeck which lets you organise the feeds of those you are following into multiple columns so you can separate out friends for example. By default it also keeps replies and direct messages separate so you can easily identify and respond to them. TweetDeck requires the Adobe Air platform to be installed.

"Luck is the residue of design."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2021 Priyan Meewella

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