Readers + Writers week – Neil Gaiman and Margo Lanagan

Kate De Goldi chaired a talk between Neil Gaiman and Margo Lanagan which was about what makes a book a children’s book, or a young adult book. It was informative, funny, interesting and way too short.

It started with Neil reading chapter seven from The Graveyard Book, in which Bod asks a dead poet for advice about girls. I’ve heard people go on about how good Neil is at reading aloud before but I’d watched youtube videos and not been impressed. Seeing him live is very different. His dialogue sounds like conversation, he puts the right amount of enthusiasm in, he does accents. He’s charming to listen to.

Margo read from a part of her newest book Tender Morsels, which I own a copy of now and am looking forward to getting around to reading. It’s a play on fairytales, specifically Snow White and Rose Red, which is one of my favourite overlooked fairy stories. She also did accents, and I was impressed with the dialect and slang of her first person writing.

Kate De Goldi asked if either of them know that they’re writing children’s books, or adult’s books or if they just write. Neil said he knows he writes books that are not for children, but mostly because there’s a lot of stuff in there that would bore children. He said that he writes children’s books with adults in mind, knowing as he does, that there will be a lot of adults reading them aloud. He described this as ‘writing deeper’, adding layers of meaning into the story to appeal to everyone.

Margo said that she used to write specifically for particular audiences but then she gave up on trying to be amazing and just wrote for herself. “Write what you please!” is how she put it, and I think I shall make that my new mantra. If you write what you desperately want to write then you will get a level of passion into it that may not otherwise be there. She talked about how she ‘got out of her own way’ and followed where the story took her without over thinking it.

They described some of the key points of young adult or crossover fiction: coming of age, growing up, learning how to accommodate the dramatic moments in life (violence, sex, death, etc). Realisation about the world around, recognition and understanding that the world is not as you thought it was. Neil then said that all young adult is, is a place in a book shop, which I tend to agree with somewhat.

Kate asked Margo about fantasy, why write it, basically. Margo said that fantasy books are a way of looking at the world we live in, just slightly to one side. It’s a way to allow distance between the reader and the terrible things that can happen to characters. In realistic fiction there is no buffer, it has to be real experiences.

Neil said something lovely about how if you are writing for kids you only have to say things once. He mentioned Diana Wynne-Jones specifically here, because he said his kids understood them better when he read them aloud than when he read them to himself over and over again. She believed that kids are smart and they are paying attention. When you’re writing for adults you have to put themes or points across 3 or 4 times to ensure that it’s picked up, because adult readers are (generally, obviously) more easily distracted and may be skimming the pages.

The first audience question was from the lovely Sally who asked if Neil got a physical sensation when writing. (Margo had earlier described writing as coughing something up). Neil didn’t think he had any physical analogies, but he did mention how lovely it is when the story surprises you and suddenly you’re writing very fast. He said this was like being the first reader of a story, rather than the creator per se. (I am glad I have now had this experience with Rain.)

The other audience question that I enjoyed was about whether there is a specific place that inspires them. Neil couldn’t think of a lovely or beautiful place, but said he comes up with the best ideas when he is in the audience at middle grade theatre, what is happening on the stage is going to be happening for some time and you can’t leave or take out a book. Margo said she has the same experience on long car trips.

From this, the second epiphany of the talk: Boredom = Inspiration

As they were wrapping up the talk onstage me, Debbie and Sally raced out and got the first place in the author signing line. It was very exciting indeed. Meeting Neil was intimidating, but seeing how kind and polite he was with Sally made me less shy. I told him that he had inspired me to write and to blog and that I always gushed when I met people I admired and I apologised. He told me that he liked my shirt! It was squee inducing. He signed my copy of the Graveyard Book and Anansi Boys and I had a book for a workmate that he signed as well.

Then Debs, Sally and I had a fangirl swoon and we had to go to Sweet Mother’s Kitchen for liquid refreshment. Amazing.

Thanks to Christchurch City Libraries there are some great photos of the whole Reader and Writers week festival.
Here’s us fangirling and here’s Sally with Neil. So cool.


8 thoughts on “Readers + Writers week – Neil Gaiman and Margo Lanagan

  1. Awesome write up! I’m still smiling from the two awesome talks. I think last night’s one was even better than Friday’s, but I found them both hugely inspiring and delightful.

  2. I’ll do a write up of Saturday’s one in a couple of days. I really enjoyed it, but I think that in practical terms I learned more about the craft on Friday. I think I learned more about Neil on Saturday 🙂

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