Neil Gaiman – Tidbits of truth surrounded by lies

Neil Gaiman takes one dose fantasy, one dose reality, stirs it carefully while adding a pinch of darkness and a cup of adventure and the result is a delicious blend with the taste that anything is possible.

Tangled hair and curious eyes, the first impression of Neil Gaiman is that he just woke up from bed still thinking about a dream he had. He may be trying to remember whether the dream was about monsters from another dimension or a childhood memory – or both…
The first time I read Neverwhere, I remember the feeling I had much like Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole. The feeling that there is a reality beyond what we see, that we need to lift our gaze and see the people around us. That we need to stop be so focused on ourselves and try to grasp the world.
– Neverwhere is about the people that fall outside or in between the cracks of a big city. I wanted to write about what happens when you stop existing, when you become invisible. I couldn’t write a book about homeless people, because if I had done that then only the kind of people that are already interested in homeless people would read it. And that would be good, but those people already care about the homeless. I wanted to reach further than that…
Since I read his novel Neverwhere as a teenager, I try to never pass homeless or beggars on the street without looking at them. Even when I don’t give anything, I try to acknowledge their existence, make eye contact, give them a smile or something to show them that they are part of our society. That I know that they are there and I want to help them. I don’t want the cracks to swallow them, I don’t want them to be invisible in my eyes.

Is there always room for storytelling? Neil Gaiman admits having had both doubts and frustration for being a writer, not feeling that he is doing enough nor that his writing was important.
– I have thought a lot about writing and if my writing is doing anything for the world. I mean, my work is to make things up. There are people at hospitals, rape centers, firefighters, refugee camps… And I make shit up.
But a story told by his relative Helena, a survivor from the Holocaust, made him think more about what his writing could do. In the Warsaw ghetto that was Nazi-controlled, books were forbidden. If you had a book, you would be killed. No trial, just a gun to your head, simply for having a book in your possession. And in this environment, Helena was a teacher. Somehow she got a hold of a copy of Gone with the wind. So she hid it in the wall behind a loose brick. At night, she’d cover all the windows and by candlelight read one chapter from the book. Then the next day, she would try and retell the chapter in the book for her students and acting it out in her own way.
– That retelling of Gone with the wind allowed her and her students to escape the ghetto. Novels are not escapism, they are the escape. A good book lets you escape and while you are in the story it will give you knowledge, armor, weapons and strength to go on. That story made me reconsider what I do and recognize the importance of what I do. Because that’s how important stories are to us.

The subjects is serious, but Neil Gaiman still views the world as a magical place filled with possibilities and chances to change the world for the better. I suddenly realize that Neil Gaiman strikes me as a genuinely good person, not only a good writer. A person that never seems to judge people for not having the strength to do good everyday, but always try to make us all do just a little bit better because he believes in all of us. He believes that if we all help out a tiny bit more, the world will be closer to the kind of world we really want to live in.
Neil Gaiman tells us a story. In a country just like ours, people like us were living in peace. They had food on their plates, they had families and houses. They went to work every morning and came back in the evening, tucking in their children in their beds and telling them a good night story. Then carefully closed the door, kissing their loved ones and retelling the events of the day they had andhow their boss doesn’t understand them.
Then a darkness came over the land and ripped it apart. Living became a nightmare. People would vanish without a trace. People were killed and no one knew why. The farmers could not farm, because they might get killed when being in the field working with the crops. There were no longer any stores open, because people had taken all the food in desperation and all the windows had been smashed. The people ran out of water, so they went to the swamp, took the mud and let it settle to be able to drink the little water that surfaced. And they knew this water would make them sick, but without any water they would die. Finally they had lost all hope that the country would ever become whole again.
So they packed what little they could carry, not more than a change of clothes. They took their children’s hands, left their home behind them and even so carefully locking the door, even when knowing they would never return.
And they embarked on a long journey, because they knew in their hearts that they had to flee in order to survive. Both the children and grownups passed dismembered corpses on the ground, people slaughtered in their search for somewhere they might be safe. The parents tried to make the children look away, tried to distract them so they wouldn’t see the dead bodies.
The children and the grownups walked through the desert without knowing if they would make it to the other side and the journey was hell itself. On the way, their shoes fell apart by the rocks that cut through. Still they kept walking barefoot, even when their feet were hurt and torn by the rocks, not knowing if this desert was where they would die or if there was help to be found on the other side. But they did find shelter. Life is still hard there in many ways and they have almost nothing to call their home or their own. But the people survived the journey, they are safe and no longer afraid. They work hard to transform the temporary shelter into a home and make it into a place to live. And they still dream of a better future.

This story does not take place once upon a time. This is not a fairytale in a country far away. This story is happening now, in our world and the people are living in a Syrian refugee camp. It’s a dark and grim story and Neil Gaiman wants us to change this story and give it a happy ending.
– When I went to the refugee camp, it was like getting my heart ripped out. I had thought about my own family and my relatives that survived the holocaust, but now I really grasped what it takes to get people to leave their homes that they have created. How far it has to go before you leave the life you have build for your loves ones.

Neil Gaiman met people that had fled to the Syrian refugee camp and asked them if they would tell him their story. What he found was insight in the fragility of civilization. The lives the refugees had were our lives before it all changed. The people were ordinary people like ourselves. Like you and me, they never thought they one day would have to leave everything in a fragile hope of surviving and not have to live in fear every waking hour.
– Their story are Hansel and Gretel, that is the world this story takes place in. Hansel and Gretel is from a time where people were starving, where they didn’t have enough food and how they tried to handle this. Syria was similar to our world, to our reality, before the war. I asked them what they had done before all this and their stories were our stories. I sold insurances, I had a shop, I sold cars, I worked in a factory. Before the war, they lived lower middle class, middle class and upper middle class lives in their society. They didn’t know how thin the ground they walked on could be, they didn’t know how easy their society could break. Their story is astonishingly forgotten. I thought I was really informed on what goes on in the world, but I wasn’t aware of how bad it was in Syria. Because it has been going on for so long, it’s not news anymore and no one reports from the conflict…

Neil Gaiman looks like a unusually normal person or a normal unusual person. Listening to him, I suddenly get the feeling that we must be friends. I have simply forgotten about it. He feels like a friend to every single person in the room. Our mind is trying to convince us that we are friends and Neil himself makes it so horribly easy to believe it by being relaxed and calm. He is who he his, no more and no less and it is perfectly enough. But when we reach the part where Neil Gaiman told us in the audience which writers were his close friends, I nearly fell out of my chair. Not the, oh I’m a bit surprised and say that I nearly fell out of the chair. Rather my entire body jerked to the level that – I actually fell out of the chair and was saved by my friend grabbing a hold of me.
– I don’t really belong to a movement or a group of writers. I have friends that are writers. Jonathan Carroll, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon. We agree on shit. We tell each other: Yes, this is how the world should be. Let’s make it happen.
Why the strong reaction from me when Neil Gaiman says the names of his writers friends? Because they includes my absolute favorite authors in the world besides Neil himself. I adore Margaret Atwood and her dystopian take on the future. I have reread Kavalier and Clay’s close to magical tale that mixes superheros with an opposition against the Nazis over and over again. Land of Laughs is a strange tale unlike any other and have always had a special place in my heart. I simply lost my breath when I realized how strongly I’d wish I could be the fly on the wall, listening to them talking an entire night. What these writers all have in common is that they are magnificent storytellers that always add a pinch of reality and make us readers look at the world in a new light.

When Neil reads a scene from ”The ocean at the end of the lane”, he does different voices for the child’s thoughts, for the child when he speaks and for the dad that is confused and somewhere else in his mind. He reads it so vividly that we all can almost smell the burned toast. We hardly even see the writer himself when he reads. We barely notice the writer dressed in black jacket, black jeans, black t-shirt sitting in the dramatic setting with a large, red curtain up on the stage. Instead we all become children again, thinking of toast, of a glass of milk from a real cow and of how adults so rarely listened to us when we spoke, no matter how much we stressed the urgency.
– I read a lot of children literature as a small child and I realized that quite a few of these writers knew absolutely nothing about children. Putting me in context, I was a kid with a book. Weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs, you name it – I was always reading. My father would pat me down for books before we went on social occasions. But somehow I could always find a book, no matter where I went. And then I’d simply go below a table or sit behind a couch and read, wherever I could be alone with the novel. Some of these children’s books would give me the feeling that ”This book is about me, this person knows me.” The I’d read another book and feel that: ”Oh, this is very peculiar. It seems it is written by someone that can’t remember what it’s like being a child. And that really baffled me and made me think: Did grownups get an amnesia pill and forget everything? So I promised myself to never forget what it’s like being a child.

Neil Gaiman’s ability to capture both children’s and adults view of the world and the fact that none of us really grows up, we simply grow taller and start to pretend to fit into society is one of his trademarks. Grownups are not to be trusted, even when they try to do right. He captures the imagination and the analyzing gaze from children seeing through the thin layer of adulthood that the years drape us in, questioning why some people seem to think that it is so horribly important to cut your hair and get a job and how children view the grownups horribly peculiar behavior.
– It’s a terribly thing being a smart child. You see through the grownups and you go ”That’s bullshit.” The first time for me was in school and they had changed the rules regarding comics. So if you brought a comic to school and got caught, they would not just take it, they would tear up the comic in front of you. So I asked my teacher about why they had decided this. And he answered ”Because if you read comics, you wouldn’t read real literature.” And I said: ”But that’s not true. I have the largest comic collection of all the students and I’m the only student that had read the entire school library.”

When I went to the lecture with Neil Gaiman, I was afraid. I had such great expectations that I didn’t truly believe he could fulfill them. I honestly didn’t believe he could leave a greater impression on me than his novels had already done. It was a complete waste of perfectly good fear. I envy the people that has him as a teacher in his writing class. That little fact, that he has a writing class, make him seem so horribly humble. He seems to doubt his own ability to teach, but he wants to give something back. And he claims that he finds out more about himself during teaching. Because when students ask him questions, he needs to answer them. Then he carefully listens to his own answers, to learn more about what he himself really think of the matter.
– Being a teacher, I get to talk ideas, talk about fantastic literature and get people to write fantasy. I get to show how using fantasy can be used to shine light on other things that exist in our world. We live our lives inside our own heads. On some level, we may still believe that volcanoes explode because they are angry with us. And we spend at least half of our lives with dreams and imagination. In my writing, I’ll always use magic as much as I can to illuminate a metaphor. Because if I talk about the subject in absolute terms, you will either turn away or miss the point. All my writing is a mosaic picture with tidbits of truth surrounded by lies.

All of us listening wants to keep our distance, we don’t want to sit there with stars twinkling in our eyes. We want to listen to his writing process and give the impression that we are sensible, intelligent grownups that are by no way starstruck by his appearance. Why are we even trying?
To quote the head of the head of the international writers stage that tried to end the evening in a very correct and professional tone. How he handed over the gift and shook hands with Neil Gaiman, thanking him politely for coming to Stockholm. How I could see the man’s posture suddenly changing. How he was desperately trying to hold back his true reaction. How I could see him surrendering to the moment. Deciding not to resist the urge that each and every person in the entire room feels. How this correct middle-aged man suddenly throws his arms around Neil Gaiman and with a loud voice speaks the words: “My god, I love you.”

Written by Boel Bermann

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Read more:
Neil Gaiman’s webpage

’So many ways to die in Syria now’: Neil Gaiman visits a refugee camp in Jordan

Neil Gaiman shares his perspectives of Syrian refugees in Jordan – in pictures

Neil Gaiman 2

A small selection of Neil Gaiman’s writing:
The Sandman
American Gods
Fragile Things
Smoke & Mirrors
The Graveyard Book
The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Donna Tartt – Stories that cuts across time & class

When I try to recall my first experience with Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, it always blends together with the end of that summer I spent in the countryside and these words from the novel itself:

“On Sunday I woke up early to a quiet house. Francis had given my clothes to Mrs Hatch to be laundered; putting on a bathrobe he’d lent to me, I went downstairs to sit on the porch for a few minutes before the others woke up. Outside, it was cool and still, the sky the hazy shade of white peculiar to autumn mornings, and the wicker chairs were drenched with white dew.”

My newfound friends from school had given me the novel as a gift, but I had been hesitant to read it. Knowing what the book meant to them, I was afraid it wouldn’t fulfill my expectations and thereby I’d letting them down in some way. But somehow I found the courage to read it. I remember being mesmerized by the words, sitting on the porch of an old Swedish country house drinking my coffee. Reading my friends words scribbled on the first page made me feel as chosen as Richard, to be included into their group of friends. I never wanted to put the novel down; I wanted to devour the words without any interruptions. But life demanded that I occasionally put it aside. However each morning I went out to the porch and sat there reading while the house was still sleeping.

The Secret History is one of the few novels that I have revisited more times than I can even remember. And when I hear Donna Tartt utter the words that she uses to describe Dickens, I realize that is how I wish I could have described what it has been like to read her novels:
– No matter how many times I read them, I always see something new. You can never quite pin it, define it and take the measure of it. The stories cut across time and class.

The chair Donna Tartt is sitting in doesn’t allow her feet to rest at the stage floor. Instead they dangle with the toes touching the stage floor and she keeps the toes together. This small detail makes her appear like a child dressed in a grownup clothes, a precocious and intellectual child that analyzes her own work and tries to remember how she became an author:
– I can´t remember not being able to read. I can remember not being able to read handwriting, but I thought the grownups were writing in some sort of code to keep us kids from understanding their notes.
It seems as if she recalls the south of her childhood with a sense of loss that can be felt in her novel The Little Friend that takes place in Mississippi, in a fictional town in an era that is gone now.
– My childhood wasn’t very different from the south that my grandmother and my great-grandmother lived on. The south was sort of a time capsule and I believe me and my sisters was the last generation to have lived in it. Now that is gone, now the south is like the rest of the world.

Unlikely as it sounds, Donna Tartt once wrote a short story about cheer-leading. No one was interested in it until The Secret History was published. Then people started to ask her if she happened to have anything else and the manuscript emerged from a drawer. She says, almost apologetically, that she was very young when she wrote it.
– I remember sitting in the car reading George Orwell, I was the only cheerleader reading Orwell. You might say that being a part of the cheerleading squad was sort of being in an Orwellian organization. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was more a thing I did as a child to please my parents. Mississippi is a flat, bleak landscape and driving through it is a very Kafkaesque experience with no way of telling the distance to your destination. And I remember how horrible it felt when it went too dark so I couldn’t make out the words in the book anymore.

It´s strange to hear these memories of her growing up, almost surreal. In my mind, Donna Tartt has always been who she is now. My mind can´t take in the fact that she was once a child growing up in the south, that she has been a cheerleader or the fact that she helped out in the library in her hometown, even after her debut novel had received critical acclaim. I realize I hardly view her as American. I have placed her in her own time and space and she keeps reminding me that she is American, even when that means such fragmented and different things.
– Something quite different about America is that class is very fluid. It is easy to move both up and down in class. In the south, when I was young as it is described in The Little Friend, it was very fixed classes. But in The Secret History and in The Goldfinch, it´s a lot about the movement up and down between the classes. If you view books such as The Great Gatsby and a lot of American literature and our national stories – classes and the movement between classes has always been there as a reoccurring theme.

During the conversation she comes back to America a lot, to what makes the country she lives in different from the rest of the world. She speaks of the short story Young Goodman Brown and calls it an anti-moral tale. She explains:
– In America, as a society, we tend to spit up things into good and evil. Our nation is built on the Jeffersonians, enlightenment and declaration of independence, but our country was still funded by Puritans. So the country is divided into those who want new ideas and those who want to keep thing as they are.

I´m at one of the last public appearances for Donna Tartt in Sweden, taking place at Kulturhuset Stockholm. Through the entire conversation, Donna Tartt keeps her eye on the person in front of her and appears to become unaware of all of us sitting there in the audience. Not in a nonchalant way, rather the opposite. I suspect she almost forgets us, since she is so engaged in the talk.
The myth of Donna Tartt came very much from her praised debut novel The Secret History and the silence that followed during the ten years before her next novel was published. Her readers, like myself, were afraid. We feared that the silence meant that she would never write another novel and that her ability to write would be lost to the world. The only one not afraid was Donna Tartt. She knew that the wait would be long and that her readers would have to be patient:
– I knew a book wouldn’t come soon after The Secret History. It took me nearly ten years to write that novel. I started when I was nineteen and finished it when I was twenty-eight years old.

During the conversation, she turns away from the audience, but it again seems like she is unaware of it and is only doing turning to be better able to view the person she is talking to. It´s not really an interview, it´s much more a conversation between the two people up on the stage. We are merely eavesdropping on a conversation, all 700 hundred of us. Every now and then we remind Donna Tartt of our existence, by applauding, laughing at a joke or making discrete noises of approval.

For a brief period of time, her posture changes when she reads from her latest novel, The Goldfinch. When reading, she sits straight and lifts her gaze to the novel. She looks up, but not as much at the audience but beyond. As if she is recalling the space she has written about in the novel, the area between the creator, the work and the illusion it creates.
– It´s like when you dream and wake up and remember what you dream. You can know what caused the dream, something you read, heard or viewed previously – but you don´t know why it took the shape it did in the dream. The area between where we can see the artist’s work, the human hand that shaped the painting and the moment where you take a step back and the illusion takes over and shows you the motif.

Personally I have always had a strong emotion for novels that are written in first person perspective and I often write in that perspective myself. There is something fascinating about forcing the reader into the mind of the main character. I believe this perspective makes it both easier to love as well as hate the characters, depending on how they feel about the person. Being forced into viewing the world from the eyes of someone you dislike or are too different from is a hard thing. For Donna Tartt, she very carefully chooses how to tell the story in order to being able to tell the stories she wants.
– In The Secret History, it was important that the reader would not know anything about what the other persons were thinking. The reader realizes and experiences the same things as Richard does about what is happening. In The Little Friend it was important to expand beyond Harriet’s point of view, because she is a child and does view the world from her perspective. And she does view things the wrong way when she interprets them.

Donna Tartt has a love for old adventure novels for children. She says that she was at a very formative age when she read all the books she could find in her grandmother’s house and in the public library. Since the library didn’t have much money, they didn’t have many recent books. Therefore, she simply read what was around. Reading what was around meant reading things that made an impression. She is very serious when she describes what she enjoys about Treasure Island:
– When it comes to Treasure Island, Stevenson doesn’t dumb down when writing for children. Even the villain John Silver is not a pure villain, he´s complicated. First the main character believes he is a wonderful man. Then the scene comes when he overhears a conversation… As both children and adults, we tend to trust people that look a certain way and we are taken by appearances.
Just like Richard Papen, taken by the appearance of the group of friends in The Secret History, fascinated by how they are unlike all the others.

She sits there leaning forward. The position signals that she wants to make sure she takes in all the words in order to answer to the best of her ability. She is very still, only using small gestures to reinforce her words. I wonder if she writes with as small gestures, scribbling down her words in discreet letters in her beloved notebooks.
– I keep notebooks wherever I am and wherever I go. I write something every day, even when I travel. When I´m home, I always write in the morning for at least three hours. If I, after that time, feel tired or frustrated, I shop or call my mother or do something else. But if I get into the writing, I will keep writing for quite a long time. I can´t just write in the same place, especially since it takes me quite a lot of time to finish a novel. If I only stayed in one place and wrote, I would be chained to that place for ten years. However I write by hand and the pile of notebooks grows throughout my writing process, so when I am closing in on the end I need to stay in the write place just to have all my notebooks with me.

I´m holding my breath, hoping that she will reveal more on how it is to live with her characters and her novel for such a long time. How she keeps her discipline, how she does research, what notes she scribbles down and at what moment she realizes that she has found the core of her next book, the book that will be her companion for such a long time. She is only giving small details about it, not revealing much about how it is to have a novel as your constant shadow.
– I enjoyed writing my latest book, but at first I didn’t realize it was a novel. It was just notes. There were these things that I knew were connected, but I didn’t know how. I don´t have a perfect plan for my novels, they evolve during the time I write them.

Donna Tartt’s appearance is thin, but not fragile. Her contours are sharp and she is dressed in black with red details, razor-sharp page and flat shoes in lacquer. Her appearance is as timeless as her work. Watching her up on stage, I realize that she could almost be from any time and her work carries the same timeless stamp:
– I don’t want my books to be bound to a certain time and that drives some people crazy. Because they want to know in what time the books took place and I have carefully edited out the time references. I want my novels to be very intentionally blurred in time. What I write is not meant to be real, my work is not supposed to be documentary reality. I want my novels to be removed from the ordinary.

Written by Boel Bermann

Donna Tartt/Peter Hapak for TIME

Stockholm innan undergången

Ytterst lite finns bevarat efter Stockholms Undergång som inträffade sommaren 2014, men medlemmarna i skrivarkollektivet Fruktan har gått igenom arkiven för att försöka ge er en bild av det Stockholm som en gång fanns.

Stockholm var Sveriges huvudstad och och största tätort samt landets kulturella, mediala, ekonomiska och politiska centrum, främst känd för sin dramatiska undergång under juli 2014.
Vid tillfället för stadens undergång bodde cirka 2,2 miljoner människor i Storstockholm, som utgick från Stockholms län.

Huvudartikel: Stockholms Undergång.

Unik ögonblicksbild
Några av de få pålitliga ögonvittnena som såg och dokumenterade undergången var författarna i skrivarkollektivet Fruktan, som i novellsamlingen ”Stockholms Undergång” dokumenterar händelserna runt det hela. Vittnesmålen visar att Stockholm var en levande plats före undergången och även om dokumenteringen är begränsad av själva förstörelsen finns det fragment av dokumentation som visar de minsta detaljerna i vardagslivet.

Kort beskrivning ur dokumenteringen av undergången:
”Slutet är här. Gör dig redo. Sömngångare demolerar Stockholm. Pesten bryter ut, monster samlar lik och skadedjur utrotas. Ett väderfenomen drabbar staden, demoner kommer till Kungens Kurva och en komet närmar sig Sergels Torg. Människor förfryser inifrån och Hötorgsskraporna faller som dominobrickor.”

Stockholms historia
Stockholm grundades senast under tidigt 1200-tal. Placeringen var strategisk både ur försvars- och handelssynpunkt, vilket starkt bidrog till att Stockholm snabbt utvecklades till att få en ledande roll i Sveriges försvar och bli landets största och viktigaste handelsplats. Stockholm nämns i skrift första gången år 1252 i Skyddsbrevet för Fogdö kloster och fick stadsprivilegier den 1 maj 1436 vilket anses vara den dag då Stockholm kom att fungera som Sveriges huvudstad. Rollen som Sveriges förvaltningscentrum och officiell huvudstad befästes genom 1634 års regeringsform, då kungahus, regering, riksdag och centralförvaltning samlades till staden.

För att få veta mer, förboka  Stockholms Undergång här:
Undrentide webbutik
Science Fiction Bokhandeln

Före Stockholms Undergång  Essingeleden_1966a