Neil Gaiman and His Newbery Speech
I thought Neil Gaiman gave such a lovely, funny, and inspiring speech when he won his Newbery Award. Thank you to Beth Schulman for the post. Neil Gaiman is going to be the Boston Public Library Children’s Book Fundraiser tomorrow, Sunday, Sept 26, 2010. It’s a tea party starting at 2:00. It might be too late to jump in, but you never know. You get to meet four Newbery authors and have them sign your books. I’d love to meet Neil Gaiman after reading his speech!
In case you were wondering what I’m doing up here–and I think it’s a safe bet that right now I am, so that makes at least two of us–I’m here because I wrote a book, called The Graveyard Book, that was awarded the 2009 Newbery Medal.
This means that I have impressed my daughters by having been awarded the Newbery Medal, and I impressed my son even more by defending the fact that I had won the Newbery Medal from the hilarious attacks of Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, so the Newbery Medal made me cool to my children. This is as good as it gets.
You are almost never cool to your children…
It was 5:45 in the morning. No one had died, though, I was fairly certain of that. My cell phone rang.
“Hello. This is Rose Trevino. I’m chair of the ALA Newbery committee …” Oh, I thought, blearily. Newbery. Right. Cool. I may be an honor book or something. That would be nice. “And I have the voting members of the Newbery committee here, and we want to tell you that your book …”
“THE GRAVEYARD BOOK,” said fourteen loud voices, and I thought, I may be still asleep right now, but they probably don’t do this, probably don’t call people and sound so amazingly excited, for honor books …
“… just won …”
“THE NEWBERY MEDAL,” they chorused. They sounded really happy. I checked the hotel room because it seemed very likely that I was still fast asleep. It all looked reassuringly solid.
You are on a speaker-phone with at least fifteen teachers and librarians and suchlike great, wise, and good people, I thought. Do not start swearing like you did when you got the Hugo Award. This was a wise thing to think because otherwise huge, mighty, and four-letter swears were gathering. I mean, that’s what they’re for. I think I said, You mean it’s Monday? And I fumfed and mumbled and said something of a thank you thank you thank you okay this was worth being woken up for nature.
And then the world went mad. Long before my bedside alarm went off I was in a car on my way to the airport, being interviewed by a succession of journalists. “How does it feel to win the Newbery?” they asked me.
Good, I told them. It felt good.
I had loved A Wrinkle in Time when I was a boy, even if they had messed up the first sentence in the Puffin edition, and it was a Newbery Medal winner, and even though I was English, the medal had been important to me.
And then they asked if I was familiar with the controversy about popular books and Newbery winners, and how did I think I fitted into it? I admitted I was familiar with the discussion.
If you aren’t, there had been some online brouhaha about what kinds of books had been winning the NewberyAward recently, and about what kind of book should win the Newbery in the future, and whether awards like theNewbery were for children or for adults. I admitted to one interviewer that The Graveyard Book winning had been a surprise to me, that I had assumed that awards like the Newbery tend to be used to shine a light onto books that needed help, and that The Graveyard Book had not needed help.
I had unwittingly placed myself on the side of populism, and realized afterward that that was not what I had meant at all.
It was as if some people believed there was a divide between the books that you were permitted to enjoy and the books that were good for you, and I was expected to choose sides. We were all expected to choose sides. And I didn’t believe it, and I still don’t.
I was, and still am, on the side of books you love.
I am writing this speech two months before I will deliver it. My father died about a month ago. It was a surprise. He was in good health, happy, fitter than I am, and his heart ruptured without warning. So, numb and heartsick, I crossed the Atlantic, gave my eulogies, was told by relations I had not seen in a decade just how much I resembled my father, and did what had to be done. And I never cried.
It was not that I did not want to cry. It was more that it seemed there was never any time in the maelstrom of events to just stop and touch the grief, to let whatever was inside me escape. That never happened.
Yesterday morning a friend sent me a script to read. It was the story of somebody’s lifetime. A fictional person. Three quarters of the way through the script, the fictional character’s fictional wife died, and I sat on the sofa and cried like an adult, huge wrenching sobs, my face running with tears. All the unwept tears for my father came out, leaving me exhausted and, like the world after a storm, cleansed and ready to begin anew.
I’m telling you this because it’s something that I forget and need to be reminded of … And this was a sharp and salutary reminder.
I’ve been writing now for a quarter of a century.
When people tell me that my stories helped them through the death of a loved one–a child, perhaps, or a parent–or helped them cope with a disease, or a personal tragedy; or when they tell me that my tales made them become readers, or gave them a career; when they show me images or words from my books tattooed on their skin as monuments or memorials to moments that were so important to them they needed to take them with them everywhere … when these things have happened, as they have, over and over, my tendency is to be polite and grateful, but ultimately to dismiss them as irrelevant.
I did not write the stories to get people through the hard places and the difficult times. I didn’t write them to make readers of nonreaders. I wrote them because I was interested in the stories, because there was a maggot in my head, a small squirming idea I needed to pin to the paper and inspect, in order to find out what I thought and felt about it. I wrote them because I wanted to find out what happened next to people I had made up. I wrote them to feed my family.
So I felt almost dishonorable accepting people’s thanks. I had forgotten what fiction was to me as a boy, forgotten what it was like in the library: fiction was an escape from the intolerable, a doorway into impossibly hospitable worlds where things had rules and could be understood; stories had been a way of learning about life without experiencing it, or perhaps of experiencing it as an eighteenth-century poisoner dealt with poisons, taking them in tiny doses, such that the poisoner could cope with ingesting things that would kill someone who was not inured to them. Sometimes fiction is a way of coping with the poison of the world in a way that lets us survive it.
And I remembered. I would not be the person I am without the authors who made me what I am–the special ones, the wise ones, sometimes just the ones who got there first.
It’s not irrelevant, those moments of connection, those places where fiction saves your life. It’s the most important thing there is.
I was, as I said, twenty-five years old, and I had an idea for a book and I knew it was a real one.
I tried writing it, and realized that it was a better idea than I was a writer. So I kept writing, but I wrote other things, learning my craft. I wrote for twenty years until I thought that I could write The Graveyard Book–or at least, that I was getting no better.
I wanted the book to be composed of short stories, because. The Jungle Book was short stories. And I wanted it to be a novel, because it was a novel in my head. The tension between those two things was both a delight and a heartache as a writer.
I wrote it as best I could. That’s the only way I know how to write something. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good. It just means you try. And, most of all, I wrote the story that I wanted to read.
It took me too long to begin, and it took me too long to finish. And then, one night in February, I was writing the last two pages.
In the first chapter I had written a doggerel poem and left the last two lines unfinished. Now it was time to finish it, to write the last two lines.
So I did. The poem, I learned, ended:
Face your life
Its pain, its pleasure,
Leave no path untaken.
And my eyes stung, momentarily. It was then, and only then, that I saw clearly for the first time what I was writing. I had set out to write a book about a childhood it was Bod’s childhood, and it was in a graveyard, but still, it was a childhood like any other; I was now writing about being a parent, and the fundamental most comical tragedy of parenthood: that if you do your job properly, if you, as a parent, raise your children well, they won’t need you anymore. If you did it properly, they go away. And they have lives and they have families and they have futures.
I sat at the bottom of the garden, and I wrote the last page of my book, and I knew that I had written a book that was better than the one I had set out to write. Possibly a book better than I am.
You cannot plan for that. Sometimes you work as hard as you can on something, and still the cake does not rise. Sometimes the cake is better than you had ever dreamed.
And then, whether the work was good or bad, whether it did what you hoped or it failed, as a writer you shrug, and you go on to the next thing, whatever the next thing is.
That’s what we do.
In a speech, you are meant to say what you are going to say, and then say it, and then sum up what you have said.
I don’t know what I actually said tonight. I know what I meant to say, though:
Reading is important.
Books are important.
Librarians are important…
It is a glorious and unlikely thing to be cool to your children.
Children’s fiction is the most important fiction of all.
There. We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort.
And that is why we write.