Monday, July 05, 2004

rhubarb and cherries and fireworks, oh my...

I've been in the US long enough that I no longer find summer fireworks to be just odd (although late-autumn-nearly-winter fireworks still feel right.). Also been here long enough to find the July 4th fireworks display last night -- we drove down to the lake, and sat on blankets and stared up at the night -- kind of interminable. It went on for seventy or eighty minutes, and slowly shaded from "Coo, how wonderful, ahhh," over to "Ah. Another big green and purple thing in the sky with small sperm-like sparkly wigglers coming out of it, just like the previous twenty," and from there it was just a short hop to "Please, let it be over soon..."

I've got about a day's work left keyboarding previously-written Anansi Boys stuff. Then I have to finish the BBC Radio 3 adaptation of Mister Punch. Then it's back to writing new stuff for Anansi Boys, with a more or less clear idea of how it ends (although that may change when I get there) and a fairly clear idea of what happens next.

Neil! What are you thinking? You said recently, "I realised a couple of days ago that the rules of fiction mean you have to tread slightly warily as you go..."

You've been telling us all along that there are no rules. Write what comes next, don't worry about rules. If your comedy becomes frightening and less comical simply because it progressed that way, then in my humble opinion you are simply taking your own advice unless you change it.

Was The Sandman series always the same sort of book from beginning to end? You started it with a very discouraging tale about the Dream King trapped in a basement, and went on to several adventures (one of which ended with hope, I'll come back to that). After the first adventure was over and the character and maybe even the writer were left saying, "Ok, what now?" you gave us comedy, horror, drama, mystery, and education all in one. It was remarkable. As we came to the end, you gave us a bit more adventure followed by another discouraging tale that ended so many things we'd grown to love, yet somehow managing to make us smile anyway when it was all said and done. You left us with hope. Not the same hope as portrayed in the first story, or was it? Yes, perhaps it was. It was the reinforcement of that one word that you showed us can defeat Demons. We closed the last page knowing that maybe everything will be ok after all. It was an inversion on itself. In many ways we neared the end and it had similarities to the beginning, which is done often. But I do not think it is often that someone can mix so many genres into one storyline successfully.

You seem worried about the turns that Anansi Boys has taken. Is this just artistic uncertainty? Or am I reading these things entirely incorrectly?

As a loyal reader. I don't care what you do. You could write an Old West parody of Moby Dick (I don't know how, but if you could...) and I would read it and enjoy it because whenever you write a story or even a blurb, it is intelligant and thoughtful, funny, sometimes frightening, often moving. You put our minds to work and we love it. I think I can speak for most if not all of us loyal fans in this regard.

If anyone can make it work, it's you. Thanks for being an inspiration.


That's very kind of you.

I don't think I've ever said there were no rules. I've definitely said that you can do a lot of interesting things by breaking them, and also by not knowing them. But overall, I tend to believe something that my old elocution teacher, Miss Webster, used to say, whenever I'd done what I considered a particularly interesting reading of something, which was, "Neil dear, please remember that before you can be properly eccentric, you must know where the circle is."

Thus, if you're going to do damage to cowboy stories, you should probably at least know the tropes of cowboy stories. (Y'know, you could easily retell Moby Dick in the old west, in a couple of different ways. I once saw, in the West End, a musical retelling of Moby Dick as a sort of Saint Trinian's girls school adventure. It was crap, mind you.)

Sandman is, I suspect, much more classical than it looks. For example, Brief Lives is a Road Trip, or at least a picaresque, just as Worlds' End is a set of tales told in a pub (which is the oldest tradition there is of doing a short-story collection that doesn't look like one). Even individual short stories tend to follow the narrative rules of their class of thing (and I'm not sure that rules is the right word for what I'm talking about here -- axioms, or imperatives or something may be closer to what I'm talking about) -- the Prez story, "The Golden Boy" is a synoptic gospel.

There are things that you can do as an author in a narrative that are unfair to a reader. Ever read something really interesting that ended with a disappointing "And he woke up. It had all been a dream"? Normally it tends to be an incredibly irritating ending to a good book or short story, because it breaks part of the compact between reader and writer, that, in fiction, you're being told something that matters, and that you'll care about, and which will have consequences, and won't leave you feeling cheated. (I'm not saying that an author can't make "And then she woke up" work -- I loved using that as part of the ending of The Doll's House, and having it mean something very different. And it's the only way out of the Alice books that makes sense, but I've still not forgiven Masefield for the ending of the otherwise perfect The Box of Delights.)

In the case of Anansi Boys, I'm not actually grumbling about the subject matter, more talking out loud while I'm writing about something that I'm trying to figure out in the background while the book is going on, which has to do with flavour and approach and how to make something work for a reader (which includes me,'cos I get to be the first reader, after all).

I'm not saying you can't fuse or blend horror and humour (I've done it already, several times). I'm probably saying that in a novel (or at least, in this novel) I'm trying to make something that feels like a layer-cake, with different flavours and textures in the cake, but it's obviously all part of one thing, and in not making something that has a layer of chocolate cake and then a layer of sashimi and ends with a layer of barbecued ribs.

And it's always wise to ignore the daily maunderings of novelists while they're writing.

Hi Neil,
When can we expect a new collection of poems/short fiction?

Give or take a month, you can expect it exactly a year after publication of Anansi Boys. That's because of the way that publishing works: Anansi Boys will come out in hardback, and then, a year later, Anansi Boys will come out in paperback and the new short story collection will come out in hardback. And then a year after that, it'll come out in paperback, and a new novel will come out in hardback. (Although things may get a bit confused, because I'll be writing a children's book, with a working title of The Graveyard Book, after I've finished Anansi Boys.

There's probably enough short stories, poems and such for a new collection by now, although I don't mind putting it off for a little bit longer as many short story contracts specify that you won't allow a short story to be reprinted for a certain amount of time after the anthology is published. So that, say, the FLIGHTS anthology will be the only place you can read "The Problem of Susan" for a year. (Although often those contracts will permit "Best of Year" anthologies.) So by holding off, there will be more stories in there.

I have always appreciated your works, but have never really listened to an audio book. However, I am currently listening to Terry Pratchett's Mort via BBC Radio, and find it incredibly enjoyable. I know you have done audio books before, but I am not sure if you've ever published an audio version of any of your books in the old-time radio show format. If you have, just cane my naive knuckles and send me off again, but I had to ask--are any of your books (especially American Gods) recorded in this manner? With a cast, and sound effects and a proper narrator? I was curious, and felt I should go right to the source. Any information you provide out of your busy schedule would be delightful.

~ Best wishes, sir
J. Lauer

Well, "Signal to Noise" was a full cast adaptation done by the BBC, written by me, with music by Dave McKean, and is available on CD (normally from DreamHaven's site, if you can't find it anywhere else; but I can't see it on their list, and they don't have an index or a search function yet -- thought they may get one soon -- so you may want to go to the Allen Spiegel Fine Arts website, and go to the product page and then click on the little blue face five squares along and two down for information on the Signal to Noise CD, which tells you that this must be a very beautifully designed website and that its primary purpose is not actually in selling stuff, but in showcasing a number of very cool artists.)

"Two Plays For Voices" contains two full-cast and sound effect adaptations, written by me, for the Sci-Fi channel's website, for their late-lamented Seeing Ear Theatre. You can buy it on CD or cassette from bookshops, or listen to the two plays at the scifi website -- at for Murder Mysteriesand for Snow, Glass, Apples. It won an "Audie" award last year.

American Gods is a solo reading, although an incredibly well-performed one, by George Guidall. Anansi Boys will be read, not performed (and I know who I want to read it, but it'll depend on his schedule).

Years ago someone at Radio 4 asked about doing an adaptation of "Good Omens", and I believe Terry and I said Yes, but nothing more was ever heard from them. Maybe they decided it just was a bit too not-Radio 4, or something.


I picked the last rhubarb of the year today, and then I picked the first bitter-sweet cooking cherries and will make something interesting and desserty with both of them this evening.

It's nice being home, even if it's just for a few days.