Thursday, November 28, 2019

An Ocean of Story

It was three years ago that I went for my first meeting at the National Theatre, with Mel Kenyon, my redoubtable Theatrical Agent. I met Katy Rudd and Joel Horwood in an office at the back of the action. Katy was a director, Joel a writer. They wanted to adapt my novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. They wanted to make it a play.

I really liked them, and they seemed to have responded to the right sort of things in the book.

I said yes.

(Saying yes also meant that I soon had to say no to something else that the National Theatre wanted to do. Something much bigger, and probably more of a crowd pleaser. They couldn't do both, and they knew they couldn't. But I have a special love for Ocean: it's smaller and more delicate. Sooner or later the big crowd pleaser would happen anyway. Ocean was small and personal.)

Six months later, there was a “proof of concept workshop” at the National Theatre studios beside the Old Vic. I saw a flapping canvas puppet. Actors said words. There wasn't a script yet, but there was a point of view. I told them what I liked, what I didn't. They were the same things that Joel and Katy liked and didn't.

A year after that, more or less, there was a semi-acted read through of the script, put on for me and for the National Theatre. It had potential, wasn't there yet, but was enough of a thing that I said yes to it continuing (I could have stopped it there) and the National Theatre powers that be said Yes to putting it on at the National.

And a year after that, a table read. Many of the cast had been with the production since that first workshop. I had a few big notes, but found it intensely moving. I managed not to cry at the end.

And two days ago I was in a rehearsal room in the National Theatre, watching a run-through of the whole play, with sound cues, puppetry, and drama. I was holding my breath, hoping it would work. And as it came to an end, with a tear streaming down my cheek (I flicked it away discreetly, a gesture I've only ever seen in films before now) I was thrilled with what Katy and Joel have built.
They've built it with remarkable actors and with technicians and with craftspeople and lighting designers and the best of the talent that the National Theatre has. They've built it with Jherek Bischoff's music.

They've built it with love, and with an understanding of what the book's about, which taught them what you can lose to fit the book into something the size of a play and what you have to keep.
They've built it with the three ladies of the Hempstock family, with Ursula Monkton in all her forms, with Hunger Birds, with real theatrical magic.

(Movement/Choreographer Steven Hoggett (Left) and Director Katy Rudd (seated). I first worked with Steven with the National Theatre of Scotland's 2006 version of The Wolves in the Walls.)

The production has almost sold out already: it's already lots of people's favourite of my books, and the word on the street is good. It's also at the Dorfman, the smallest of the National Theatre's venues, which fits about 350 people a night. The show runs from previews on December 3rd until January 25th. There are still a few tickets, but not many.

The opening night is December 11th, the day before the UK General Election. I wonder what the mood will be in the theatre that night. I hope the critics like it, but mostly I hope the people who go to the theatre like it.

On December the 18th, Sir Lenny Henry will be interviewing me about Ocean at the End of the Lane, play and book, on the big Olivier Stage at the National. Tickets are £31/£26 for Students and Under 18s, and the ticket price includes a pre-signed copy of the illustrated edition of Ocean at the End of the Lane. (Which normally go for £20 except I believe they've now all sold out.) And you can also buy just a ticket without the book, for those of you going as families, or who already have the book.

Here's the link:

And if you want to look for the last few tickets,

It's Thanksgiving in the US now. It feels odd to not be sweating in a tiny kitchen, cooking huge turkeys and a whole salmon or two and making the stuffed mushrooms for a host of family and friends. Instead I'm off on my own for the first time since the Autumn of 2016, to try and caught up on writing. 

I miss my family, but it feels very good to be concentrating on what needs to be written. I'm lucky having Amanda there, who encouraged me to go and write. 

I'm thankful there are people out there who read what I write and who like what I make. I'm very lucky, and I know it.

(And I blew out a tyre on a country road a long way from anywhere last night, in a rented car. The What3words app was invaluable in letting the roadside assistance I was put through to know where I was. Huge thumbs up from me, and thank you What3words.)

Labels: ,

Monday, November 25, 2019

Radio Secrets

In the winter of 1983, I was alone in my parents' house. Even they weren't there. I was 22 going on 23, and writing things nobody wanted to buy, or even read, and feeling very lonely indeed. I was about to move up to a bedroom in Edgware at the start of 1984.

The nearest thing I had to company was BBC Radio 4. (I remember listening to an audio sequel to Cold Comfort Farm. Also that it was the only time I have ever managed to actually follow The Archers for long enough to know who was actually who and what they all wanted.) I would sit in my parents' empty dining room with the radio on while I wrote short stories nobody would ever read and nobody would ever buy.

But the radio helped. The radio really helped.

It's nice, and odd, to feel that I'm now part of the thing that kept me going then.

My short story "Chivalry" will be broadcast at 4:00pm to 4:30pm on the 25th of December. It's about an old woman who buys the Holy Grail in a charity shop.

There's a generation gap vast as an ocean between people who are excited that Glenda Jackson is both our narrator and Mrs Whitaker, and those who have no idea who Glenda Jackson is and why she matters (wasn't she a British politician once?) but are very excited about Kit Harington.

And as if that wasn't enough...

Playing in the Dark will be broadcast on Radio 3 on the 23rd of December from 7:30pm until 10 pm.  That's me and some guests reading things aloud, and also the BBC Symphony Orchestra (and some of the guests) making music.

Here's a video of me introducing our final reader, who read a chunk of GOOD OMENS...

(If the video below doesn't work for you, as I hear it's region-locked, you can watch it on Twitter:

Playing in the Dark will also, in edited form, be going out really early on the morning of the 25th, on BBC Radio 4 from 6 am - 7 am.

If you are somewhere in the world where you cannot turn on the radio and hear Radio 3 or 4, you can still livestream it, and once it has been broadcast it will be up for a month. ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD YOU CAN ACCESS THE INTERNET, YOU CAN LISTEN TO THEM. FOR FREE.

This is a true thing.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, November 22, 2019

Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Now Dead Again

Gahan Wilson is dead.

I'd make a joke about it, but nobody joked ever about Death as well as Gahan, or, I suspect, for as long.

His stepson describes him, in his death announcement, as "one of the very best cartoonists ever to pick up a pen" and he was.

He was a gentle, funny, charming man. One of the most perfect evenings I've ever had was the night that Peter Straub and Gahan Wilson and I wound up after an event in the little lobby bar at the Royalton Hotel, back when it was a Philippe Starck-designed place, and the three of us, in our uncomfortable tuxedos, talked about art and puppets and humour and horror and Sherlock Holmes and and what we were trying to make until late into the night.

Ten years ago, I had the honour of writing an introduction to Gahan's book, 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons.

This is what I wrote:


I have an embarrassing admission to make: when I was a barely pubertal schoolboy I did not look at Playboy for the articles. I did not actually care about the articles. Interviews with American politicians or movie stars left me unmoved, reviews of stereo equipment or sports cars or cocktails meant nothing to me. No, I went to Playboy for the pictures.

I was not old enough to buy it, nor brave enough to steal it, so each month I would head into my High Street W.H. Smiths, and go up on tiptoes, and reach up to and take Playboy down from the topmost shelf. Then I would slick through it as rapidly as possible, past the Playboy Advisor, past the naked ladies (pneumatic, terrifying creatures, quite unlike the girls at local schools I would stare at awkwardly and with longing when I passed them on the street), past the short stories (even if I wanted to read them there would not be time before a shop assistant spotted me), until I found it. It was always there: the Gahan Wilson cartoon. And I would stare at it, at the strange, squashed Plasticene-faced people, at the vampires and the people building monsters, at the enormous aliens and raggedy mummies and acts of unspeakable cruelty and nightmare (“What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?” asked one spouse of another. And under the seat was the cat, and it had.)

In a magazine devoted to sex and aspirational lifestyle accoutrements, Gahan Wilson was about something else – a cock-eyed, dangerously weird way of looking at the world. Even when sex entered the picture it did so strangely and awkwardly (Superman, his back to us, flashes an old lady, who, unimpressed, retorts “You're not so super.” Vampires view sleeping nubiles as snacks. Werewolves... ah, you'll find out.)

And, strangely, the knowledge that each Playboy had a Gahan Wilson cartoon in it somehow, for me, made Playboy cool in a way that the cars and the cocktails never could, just as the knowledge that Charles Addams was forbidden to draw the Addams Family characters in the pages on the New Yorker made that respectable magazine significantly less remarkable in my eyes.

Over the last two decades I have had the good fortune of encountering Gahan Wilson in the flesh: initially, oddly, as a book reviewer who said nice things about what I did. I wrote him a fan-letter, got a wonderful letter back from him with a drawing of Mister Punch on it, and finally got to spend time in his company at a variety of conventions and meetings across America. Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly teamed us up for their Little Lit book, and I wrote a story for Gahan to draw that meant that I found myself interviewed when they made a documentary about him (Born Dead, Still Weird) and that the comic we did was beautifully animated for the movie: it had ghouls in it, and small children, and dead people, all of which traditionally show up in Gahan Wilson's work.

In person, Gahan is tall. His face might possibly have been made out of Plasticine, but he is – and I doubt he will mind me telling you this – significantly better looking than many of the people, some of the monsters, and all of the aliens that he draws. He is, in person, a funny man, not with the compulsive joke-making look-at-me funny of comedians, but with a comfortably wry view of the world that he communicates with ease. He is affable and intelligent. He does not seem like a cartoonist – were I to pick a profession for him based on his looks it would be that of successful small-town mortician, I think, or owner of a backwoods motel. Or an alien, squished uncomfortably into a Gahan Wilson-shaped humanoid body suit, here to observe our ways and taste our wine and despoil our women.

He operates in no tradition, although, on occasion I have seen people and line in nineteenth Japanese prints and, in one case, a five-hundred year old graffitied drawing of a monk and a dragon on the side of a Chinese temple that I could have sworn were made by Gahan Wilson's pen. He draws on horror movies, on popular culture, on his own strange view of the world and of the permeability of language – not punning, but playing with words and popular expressions in ways that flex and stretch them, like a morbid poet. (“Is Nothing sacred?” asked a man in a place where they worship Nothing. “How are they selling?” is asked of a sad-looking man with piles and piles of unsold hot cakes.)

Until now it was hard to be a real fan of Gahan Wilson's Playboy work. I do not read every issue of Playboy, for a start, and these days the magazine is too often sold wrapped in plastic. And when Gahan Wilson's cartoons have been collected in the past, the Playboy cartoons were often black and white reproductions of the colour originals. This book made me happy and excited when the publisher told me it would exist, and it makes me happy and excited now – the idea of getting to see the Gahan Wilson Playboy cartoons as they were meant to have been seen, all of them collected together chronologically is one that I find intrinsically wonderful. The world is a better place for having this book in it. No kidding, no hyperbole (well, maybe a little. But I mean it, so that makes it all right).

I'll shut up now and get out of the way. You have pictures to look at that will make your world more interesting. I don't know if these cartoons will taste the same without me having to do that nervous top-shelf dash. Possibly they will be better.

I trust these volumes will sell like hot cakes.

Neil Gaiman

They were cartoons like this...
I got to reprint one of his short stories in the book Unnatural Creatures, a benefit book for the Washington DC literacy program 826 DC. It was not actually called

although sometimes it's called (Inksplot).

Here's the animated film I talk about above.

It's a short film that was made for the documentary BORN DEAD, STILL WEIRD, as an adaptation of the short story we did together for Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman's IT WAS A DARK AND SILLY NIGHT book.

I really really liked Gahan. He was one of the people you admire before you meet them who live up to your expectations and hopes when you do. I'm deeply sorry he's gone.

It seems like last week that I bought a drawing from him, the cover art for a book I wrote with Gene Wolfe, A Walking Tour of the Shambles.

We used to talk (half-joking, but only half) about doing another volume of Little Walks For Sightseers, but 2019 took Gene and now it's taken Gahan, and I miss their conversations and I wouldn't want do it on my own.