It was 2003. I read American Gods two years before and I wanted to read more. I was in my first year of my University’s Creative Writing Program and not too long before I’d finished my unpublished Read Between the Realities novel. Back in those days, Neil Gaiman was on his Blog a lot more and even answered a few questions of his choice sent to him by the many people that, well, pretty much asked him questions, or made various comments, or frankly just sent him cool things.
I sent him a few emails. I’d finished reading Neverwhere and the novel version of Stardust and I am pretty sure I read Smoke and Mirrors as well. Back then I wasn’t really reading comic books and I missed out on Sandman–some of his greatest work–until much later. I was very impressed with his writing. It was the first time I read such a wide variety of different stories that stitched so many awesome things together and made reality magical. I wanted to more or less know how to do that. All of that.
There was email that I sent him in particular that I would like to quote: because it was something really on my mind then.
In 2003, when I was about twenty-one I wrote the following:
Greetings, my name is Matthew and I am currently in my second year of York University in Thornhill, Ontario. I am almost taking a Creative Writing course in which I have discovered a major weakness of mine in terms of writing.
It is called description of setting. To put it simply, I have difficulty describing geography — be it a city, or a place of any kind that exists in the real world. I’m told though that research helps one around this problem.
Now here is my question (I’ll put some asterixes around them to emphasize its importance):
*(1) When researching a place of any kind in real life, where would one, as a beginning writer, even begin?
I would appreciate an answer to this very much — it is somewhat of a perplexion to me because lack of setting description really adds less depth to my stories. Thank you.
There were so many things wrong with how I phrased this email. It was painfully awkward. I mean, how can one “almost” take a Creative Writing course? I mean, I was either taking it or not. Did I mean that I was accepted into the Program then? That I was still waiting? I don’t think my thirty year old self will ever know and my twenty-one year old self took the secret with him into time. I do know that I was sure I had other questions, but I must have forgotten to write them down after Number One.
But aside from my awkward sentences, I was so lost. Yet I wasn’t lost enough to realize that something was, at the time, lacking with regards to my writing. I reconciled myself to the fact that Neil was more likely than not busy and that my emails would, like many others, would never be answered.
And then, one day, I opened up his website to skim through his entries. It was Tuesday April 1, 2003, April Fool’s Day. I’m not sure whether it was me, or my first girlfriend that found out about this. It has been a long time. But whatever was the case, on that day ten years ago now, I found a familiar question on the page with this reply:
The easiest thing is to go there, and take a notebook, and jot down things that strike you. Tape recorders, if you can conquer the embarassment of talking to yourself in a public place, can be terrific for that. And note the things that make you feel something. Sometimes one detail will stick with you. Write it down, or remember it.
Then, if you want colour and background, use it, and don’t dwell on it. A sodden teddy bear, face down in the grass, in the little section of a cemetery called BABYLAND may be all you ever need to mention…
You can take for granted that people know more or less what a street, a shop, a beach, a sky, an oak tree look like. Tell them what makes this one different.
Find authors you like and see how they do it. They’ll all do it differently, but you can still learn.
In retrospect, I wonder why I didn’t ask myself if this was some magnificent kind of April Fool’s joke. But if I did, and if it was, it was a benevolent joke created by the universe and one of a delight I can’t, to this day, begin to put into words. It was some of the most valuable advice from a person who’s writing I admired and was crucial to my development.
My favourite living author essentially replied to something that I wrote to him. I can’t remember how happy I was, but I must have been ecstatic. I felt special. Granted, it took me many years and trials to take this advice to heart and just write about the strange things that stood out at me. I’d already gotten the talking to myself in public part down-pat ages before this, but I never really touched a tape-recorder again. But Neil was right. I could still learn, and in my way I did.
I could end this story right here and it would be awesome. But it didn’t end there.
At the time that Neil had written me and countless others back on his Blog, he had been working on another novel for quite some time. In 2005 it came out.
It was September or so, and I was burned-out from school and a very unpleasant summer. It seems that a lot of painfully life-changing events have happened to me in the summertime. You know how they say that people have mid-life crises? Well, I can tell you that I have had many-life crises of the psychological kind. A lot of it is a blur now, save a few details, but I do remember Anansi Boys.
I wanted something like American Gods, but just as Neil warned, it wasn’t going to be like that. All of his stories, with a few commonalities, are still all different genders and beasts in themselves. Nevertheless, this story sucked me in. I was reading it non-stop in my house. And then, I came across something.
It was on page 21 of my hardcover edition, at the beginning of Chapter Two where the protagonist Fat Charlie is trying to get to a funeral. It read:
“He ran through Babyland, where multicolored windmills and sodden blue and pink teddy bears joined the artificial flowers on the Florida turf. A mouldering Winnie the Pooh stared up wanly at the blue sky.”
I read this passage again. And then again. And one more time for good measure. I went online and found the copy of Neil’s reply to my question that my former girlfriend had sent to me a year ago. And even though Winnie the Pooh was staring up at the sky instead of the ground, I felt then what Lucifer must have felt like in Sandman towards the end of the series where he watches a sunset and gives God His due, but far less grudging.
Actually I recall growling something along the lines of, “You magnificent bastard,” and grinning like a maniac.
That day, in what was a very unpleasant year, I got something special. I received a gift. For a few moments, I had a little bit of insight into a writer that I really respected and who shared a little bit of a wink with me. The original post link can be found here if you are interested. I’m actually surprised I never really talked about this, except with a select few people. Maybe, in retrospect, I never particularly had a space to do so.
It’s been ten years since I was that twenty-one year old boy and even though I have never physically met Neil Gaiman–and it grows less likely that I will–for that one moment, from 2003 and 2005 something unique was shared with me, and I’d not give it up for the world.