This Doesn’t Have to Be the World You Live In. Neil Gaiman on “Why Fiction is Dangerous”

When you can show someone the inside of your head, there’s no going back.

While out promoting his two new books, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, out on June 18th from William Morrow and Fortunately, the Milk, out on September 17 from HarperCollins, Neil Gaiman gave a talk at this year’s Book Expo of America on the subject of why fiction is so dangerous.

Read the highlights from his speech below, which include the very dark real-life event that inspired Ocean at the End of the Lane, the revelation of a family that hides inside many of his works, and exactly why fiction is so dangerous.

The idea for Neil Gaiman’s forthcoming kids book Fortunately, the Milk began “because I felt guilty about dads.” The author related an anecdote about raising his first child, his son Michael, and how one of his utterances as a young 4 year old inspired The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish. While Gaiman is very proud of the story and its popularity, he realized that in a lot of cases this story—where a dad is swapped for fish—ends up being given to dads by their kids!

So to give the dads of the world a story where they’re not shuffled away, Gaiman wrote Fortunately, the Milk, which chronicles one father’s heroic efforts to get home with some milk despite (or in thanks to) the best efforts of aliens and time traveling dinosaurs. The book itself came together in little moments here and there, as Neil essentially only worked on it when he needed to cheer himself up with something light and fun.

The author is very pleased with how the book came out and was effusive about Skottie Young, the artist, “If you ever want someone who can draw a time traveling stegosaurus in a hot air balloon, Skottie is your man! This may happen to some of you.”

His forthcoming adult novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane began as a longhand short story, then a novelette, then a novella. When Neil typed it up, though, he found that the word count actually made it a novel!

The seed for the story was planted years ago, when the author’s father came to visit him in Minnesota in 2003. Gaiman the younger was showing off his new car, a Mini Cooper, and Gaiman the elder pointed out that the new Minis didn’t look much like the ones from the 1960s, prompting Neil to remember a white Mini that the family drove when Neil was a kid.

When asked why the family got rid of the Mini, Neil’s father related a story about how at the time the family had taken in a South African lodger who had smuggled a lot of money out of his home nation; money from several South African families that was meant to be invested in British banks. Instead of investing it, however, the lodger lost it all at a casino in Brighton. Overwhelmed with shame, the next morning the lodger took the Gaiman family’s Mini, drove it to the end of the lane, and committed suicide in it. “That was my lane! I was seven and nobody told me. And that was sort of the beginning point.”

That story combined with a tale he had heard as a child that the farm down the lane from the Gaiman household had been surveyed by William the Conqueror and was 1000 years old. “At some point in my head they became called the Hempstocks. I don’t recall why. I put some Hempstocks into Stardust, just to show that I could. And in the Graveyard Book Liza Hempstock is there, and part of the Hempstock family, and related to Daisy Hempstock [of The Ocean at the End of the Lane].”

Gaiman found the impetus to finally write a story about the Hempstocks as a way of conveying to his wife Amanda Palmer what the world was like to him when he was seven. She was in Melbourne, Australia working for four months, and he missed her and this was a way for him to send a part of himself, an important part, to her.

The story evolved as it grew. “[Writing this] was like driving at night with one headlight out in thick fog. I could only just see where it was going.” The book ultimately became about what it feels like to take refuge in books and our relation to fiction.

As his “Why Fiction is Dangerous” Book Expo of America talk continued, Gaiman came back around to addressing the title question. Non-fiction, the author began, was dangerous in an obvious way because it taught you how to do things directly, the consequences of which are just as obvious.

Fiction, however, “shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one that you live in. Which is an incredibly dangerous thing for the world.” He related a story about being at a science fiction convention in China in 2007 and asking one of the government officials assigned to watch over the proceedings why China was now allowing such a convention. The official answered that while China has a worldwide reputation for being excellent at constructing things that others bring to them, China is not considered inventive or innovative. Through outreach to huge American tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple, the Chinese government discovered that a lot of the individuals in those companies grew up reading science fiction. That, essentially, they were told at a young age that the world wasn’t static, that they could change it, that they could introduce new concepts and inventions.

Thereafter, The Chinese government relaxed their control over science fiction stories, and those stories began immediately seeping in to their culture.

Gaiman then took a break to answer questions from the audience. Check out the entire talk below. (The Q&A, not chronicled here, begins 30 minutes in if you’re curious.)


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