Read Highlights from Neil Gaiman and V.E. Schwab In Conversation at TorCon!

Virtual convention TorCon kicked off on Thursday, featuring a number of Tor authors additional special guests, including authors such as Christopher Paolini, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, and others.

On Friday evening, V.E. Schwab (The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue) and Neil Gaiman (American Gods) appeared together for a session, in which they discussed inspiration, writers’ block, and one’s legacy as a writer.

After their initial introductions, Schwab kicked off the conversation by posting a question to Gaiman: how does he deal with all of the projects that he has on his plate?

These sections have been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

V.E. Schwab: Right before we started chatting, you were talking about getting back to writing again, and I was wondering, as somebody who does so many things these days, how do you do it?

Neil Gaiman: Very gracelessly. Kind of badly. But it’s really weird. You and I were talking in the green room about what counts as work, and what feels like work. And the weird part of it is that pretty much everything that isn’t making things up, isn’t actual fiction, it’s homework.

VES: Why do you think that is?

NG: I don’t know. I’ve written in lockdown here, I’ve written three, maybe four introductions, one of which was about a year late, and one of which was either four years late or 32 years late, depending on which way you look at it. And I’ve written scripty things, I did my little Michael Sheen and David Tennent thing.

It was all fun and I’m working on various projects, but none of it felt like I actually made magic happen, and then a few days ago I started a short story and it was the perfect short story to write because nobody was waiting for it; it was for a charity anthology (which meant that I wouldn’t get paid for it); and the way the invitation for it was phrased, I realized that it was fundamentally fan fiction with one of my characters in it.

I got to do that thing that I haven’t done in ages where you start a story with absolutely no idea what’s happening next. You say “well, it has to start with them running somewhere,” so I would start them running somewhere and then I’ll find out where they’re running to and what they’re running from, and what’s happening, and 3000 words and three days later, you look at it and you’ve got a short story. I made one.

VES: I think short stories are weirdly precious in that way because it’s all the magic of writing a novel with none of the time. You know a novel, you’re holding a world up, and your arms get very tired. I feel like in a short story, you’re just holding it up until they get tired and then you get to put it back down.

NG: Roger Zelazny once said to me me that his best short stories were the last chapters of novels that he hadn’t written. And there is that sort of joy sometimes with a good short story, saying “look! it’s a whole novel I didn’t have to write!”

But you also don’t get the … the short story is over too soon for you to have the bad days, the days where you are three quarters through a novel where you can’t remember why you’re doing this, you can’t even remember why you thought the book was a good idea to begin with, because it’s obviously a bad idea and you should probably get a real job or be a gardener, or drink whisky professionally or something.

On the long process that it takes to write a novel:

NG: I don’t know who it was who defined a novel as a long piece of prose with something wrong with it, but I find that so comforting, because at the end of the day, whenever I finish a novel — and I don’t do that as often as I should do these days — I look at what I’ve done, and I go “oh, you’re a long piece of prose with something wrong with it. I love you.”

Now, I’ve written books over long periods of time before, I’ve done it in different ways, so I want to know about Addie [from The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue]: how did she start idea-wise, and did you just start writing and put her away?

VES: I had the idea almost exactly a decade ago, when I was 22, and I knew right away that I wasn’t ready to write it yet. I had pieces of it, but I have to have the beginning and the end, and the voice. If I don’t know how it ends and the voice, I’m not ready to start a novel.

So I put it away a couple of years. It was like a pot on very low heat. I would come back to it and check and see if it was ready yet, and there was always something missing. Sometimes it was my own fear and inadequacy, sometimes it was the fact I didn’t have the voice, tense or structure, and I remember very vividly that I got to the point where I was afraid that I’d die without writing it, around when I was 30, and that gave me a little bit of a kick. It really became a novel about the fear of adulthood — not specifically the legal definition of adulthood, but the sense that you turn 30 and suddenly everybody expects you know what you are doing, when you’re really just one day older.

So I think something happened when I turned 30, where I felt like I understood a piece of this story and I was really glad that I’d waited. But yeah, it was about 7 and a half years of thinking about writing the book and turning it over in my head, and about two years of actively writing it.

You’ve sat with stories for quite a long time before, haven’t you?

NG: The longest one for me was probably The Graveyard Book.

VES: How long was it?

NG: I had the idea in 1985 or 1986. Probably 1986. I wrote a first chapter, knew that I wasn’t good enough to write it, and put it away, and then came back to it in about 1999 or 2000, tried writing something, wasn’t good enough, put it away, and it was around 2004 that I just went, “I’m not getting any better now. So I just have to write it now, I don’t have any other options.”

And then I did something very tricky, which was I figured out the structure, and I knew the structure was going to be a short story every two years that when put together would make a novel, but I wrote the fourth one; I went into the middle, because I didn’t want to write an opening chapter again.

VES: Are you usually a linear writer, then?

NG: Yeah.

VES: Because I bounce around to wherever I think I won’t quit.

NG: I think that by nature, I’m probably one of those, and something like American Gods, I got to cheat, because every time I got stuck, I wrote a short story that would be part of the body of the thing. But I think writing Sandman for so long, comics where you have to start at the beginning and keep the whole thing in your head, because by the time you’re five-ish years in, you can’t go back and change it.

Realizing what a book is about: 

VES: It’s fascinating that sense — that it’s almost difficult to explain that feeling of not being ready to write something. Because in your brain you should think “I’m a professional, I can do this, I can write all types of stories,” and it’s almost like a tug that says “not yet.” And I do think part of it — I’m not sure if you felt this way with The Graveyard Book — with Addie, I felt there’s some stories that you get to tell many different ways over many different years, and there’s a story that you only get to tell once. And I knew that Addie was a book I’d only get to tell once.

NG: Exactly. Partially, it’s only that you get to tell it once, and sometimes, it’s the idea of going “oh, this is really good, nobody has quite had this idea, nobody else has written this book, I get on crack at doing it right.” With The Graveyard Book for me, I’m so glad I didn’t write the 1987 or the 1991 or the 1999 versions, because the version that was published in 2008 was a better book. And also it’s that thing where you discover what a book is about.

What you were just saying that Addie is essentially about turning 30 and having to grow up; I was inspired to write The Graveyard Book looking at my then 18-month / 2 year old son, cycling on his little tricycle around the graveyard on the road from our house because that was the only place he could ride, and going “oh, I should do this book.”

It wasn’t until I’d finished the book that I realized what it was about. Not in the sense what the plot was, what it was about, which is the tragedy of parenting. The tragedy of parenting is that if you do your job right, you raise theses people you love more than anything in the world, who are amazing and now they go away. And they go off and do their own lives, and that strange / painful / awful / sad / happy thing is really what the book ended up being about.

On the writing process / writer’s block: 

VES: I’ve never been so grateful for waiting on a story, and I think it’s really difficult to do, especially in an industry where we’re trained to continually reproduce. I feel an immense sadness when I read a story and can tell how much it would have benefitted from sitting still for a couple of years. Like the writer has gotten the plot, but hasn’t gotten the heard, they haven’t let something sink in. I think the experience with Addie has made me a much more patient writer. I realize that sometimes when I don’t get a story or connect with it right away, I’m not ready to tell it or haven’t fully figured out what the depth of it is, and when you rush, you end up with a story that’s all plot, and that can be really fun, but I always say that’s like candy: you’re still hungry afterwards.

NG: And also, everybody is hungry afterwards. It’s not satisfying. It just doesn’t quite do it. When I was writing Sandman, I had one episode that I rushed through the ending of because I had to leave the next morning to go to a convention, and I just remember being at the convention, phoning the artist, and just saying “don’t draw those last four pages, I’m going to rewrite them completely.”

VES: It’s nice, you feel yourself going off the path, you go from grass to gravel. It’s not a good place to be. But it also takes quite a bit of self reflection to understand your art in that way, to understand when something is wrong, is just as important to understand when it’s right and ready.

NG: Yes, exactly. The idea of writer’s block is such a fascinating one. That writers have convinced others and themselves that there’s this writer’s block thing. And all too often for me, writer’s block is just getting stuck and normally, when you’re stuck, it actually means that you just went off the path somewhere. You’ve wandered into the woods, you were in the meadow and took a wrong turn, and very often,  you can often fix writer’s block. I’ll print out where I was (print, not on a screen), and I’ll start reading, and then I’m trying to be a reader, and then you suddenly get to the point where you’re like “what? How did that happen?”

VES: I think when we go off course, we think we’ve gone massively off, but we’re just one or two steps off. Creatively, I find that the most maddening place to be, like the picture is slightly out of focus. You know how close you are and it feels disastrously far off from where you want to be. It doesn’t take far to feel like you’ve missed something.

On the differences between Dolphins vs. Otters: 

VES: I say often that books have gotten harder, the more books I’ve written, and people are always like “that doesn’t make sense, the more you do a thing it should get easier,” but the thing for me is I feel like the better you get at writing, the better you get at seeing when your own work is not write, and you have a higher standard. You have to write a first draft, and a first draft is by definition imperfect, and you can’t ever make a perfect first draft no matter how many novels you write. The more books you write, all that you gain is a sense of self-awareness about how imperfect it is.

NG: When Gene Wolfe — one of my favorite writers in the world, one of my favorite people — I remember saying to him incredibly thrilled as I’d finished the first draft of American Gods, and was just starting on the second, I said to him “Gene, I’ve finished this novel, I think I finally figured out how you write a novel.” And he looked at me with such pity, and said to me “Neil, you never figure out how to write a novel, you just figure out how to write the novel you’re on.” It’s true! And also, every new story, you’ve already done that thing before, and so unless you’re the kind of writer who is content to repeat themselves, which some writers are, and some writers love, but you’re not, and I’m not. We’re the weird kind.

My friend Teresa Nielsen Hayden once made the analogy that some writers are dolphins, and some writers are otters. With a dolphin, if it does a trick and give it a fish, it will do the trick again. And with an otter, the reason people don’t train otters and have otters do otter tricks like dolphins is if an otter does a trick and you give it a fish, the next time it’ll do something else because it did that thing already.

VES: I wish I were a dolphin! I feel like my creative life would be less fraught if I were a dolphin. But I like the challenge: I don’t want to do the same thing twice. It would be very boring.

NG: Oh yeah. I went through an entire — probably the first 20-30 years of me being a writer was me going “wouldn’t it be nice if I were a dolphin, if I were one of those people who more or less wrote the same book every year and it comes out in September or in May,” and then I’d look at people whose work I’d loved, and one of the things that all of the people I love have in common, if you like what they did last time, you’re probably going to like what they did this time, but they’re not going to do the same thing at all. It’s going to be absolutely something else.

John M. Ford, wrote one of my favorite books, The Dragon Waiting, it’s been out of print for years. I believe Tor is finally going to be bringing him back into print, and I’m very excited. It’s an alternate history world where there are vampires and in which Christianity happens to be a minor religion along with all of the others, and it’s Richard the Third and Henry the Seventh, and this weird and wonderful thing, and so “what’s he going to do next?” and what he did next was a mainstream thriller!

On what books will outlive you and one’s legacy:

VES: If you could chose — and us creators can’t choose what’s the most successful, popular or most read — If you could pick only one of your books which will outlive you, which would it be?

NG: One of the kids books. I’d let all of the adult books go, even though I love them and am proud of them. I don’t think I could pick which kid’s book. I have a very very silly poem called Pirate Stew coming out in October. I would be perfectly happy if Pirate Stew, or The Graveyard Book, or Coraline, or The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, I think that’s because there’s absolutely nothing in a person’s universe like the ones they fell in love with as a child. Maybe Coraline. The Graveyard Book is technically a better book, but Coraline… I wrote it for my daughters to teach them to be brave, because as a kid, I completely misunderstood what being brave was — I thought it was not being scared. And I really hadn’t understood that you’re absolutely terrified but do the right thing anyway.

Over the years, I’ve had people come up to me saying thank you, that it had gotten them through dark times.

What about you? What book would you take into immortality?

VES: I had a moment when I finished Addie LaRue, because it had lived inside of my head for so long, it left an open grave when I was done with it. It was hard, because I’m used to writing books that take one or two years, and this was the most I’d had with it. I had a moment after the book was done where I thought if I never wrote another book, I think I would be okay with that.

And it didn’t last long — it lasted about a week, and the gears started turning and I though “oh god, what if I never write another book like Addie!?”

I think if I had to pick only one, it’ll be Addie, but you know, I think it’s fascinating that we don’t choose. I would have never looked at the books I wrote so far and told you I thought A Darker Shade of Magic was going to be the most popular. We have no control over the reception, all we can control is the amount of work we put into it.

Audience Questions: 

How much world building do you go into a book with, and how much happens while you’re writing and in edits?

NG: I always know something. I always know more about the world when I start writing than I know that the reader knows about the world. And I also want to find out about it! If you’re doing something novel-length, you need to be the first reader, and you need to delight in things, and turn the page and find out what happens next. So I always know something, but it’s not always the same thing — I might know how something begins or ends, or I might have a glorious sequence in the middle.

VES: I know that my world is a house, and I don’t know how many rooms it has, and I don’t know how it’s furnished, but I usually have a sense of its dimensions and maybe like the vague color pallet. I like my world to have boundaries. And I like to understand that I’m operating within a set of rules or parameters, and those are the walls. And then really, it becomes about exploring the house and getting to know it. And as Neil says, maybe I know one element or something about the house, but I don’t know the whole thing. That’s what the figuring out is for.

How do you or would you approach writing queer characters in a world or time period where it feels anachronistic to use our modern language to describe those identities?

NG: You just do. I mean that’s how you do it. It’s not like queer identities are new. In American Gods, there was a 14,000 years ago, sequence in Siberian shaman crossing the land bridge, and I loved essentially having a trans character who is very obviously as trans or butch, to use another phrase from a past time, and it was glorious writing her, and just letting her be what she was in that time and nobody turns a hair.

VES: I would say I struggle with it in one way, which is that one of the main characters in the Shades of Magic series, had I written Lyla Bard as a modern character, I would’ve made her nonbinary, but I felt like she did not have an awareness at the time, she’s in 1819, that she simply wouldn’t have had the terminology. So there’s a sense of awareness about everything about her, but I used she/her pronouns because I felt like her own place in society where she starts out, she wouldn’t have had the life experiences and interactions to have even given her the vocabulary.

Shades of Magic has a lot of queer identity, a lot of it more explicit because Lyla came from our London at a specific time and societal class, I feel like she wouldn’t have had the awareness. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot and went back and forth on.

It’s difficult, but I think making sure that you don’t erase: queerness isn’t new.

Those are just some of the highlights – you can watch the full conversation here.

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