Pittsburgh is a great city on so many different levels. Rock solid people, great food, hidden architectural gems tucked into neighborhoods, and an endless bounty of learning opportunities. Of these, my favorite is the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series featuring children's writers -- “Black, White & Read All Over.” In the past I’ve posted articles on seeing John Green and Gayle Forman. The lectures are great fun. Good writers are generally good speakers and the latest visitor was exceptionally entertaining -- the creatively versatile, inimitable Neil Gaiman. What made the night extra special was that Neil wasn’t on a speaking tour. He knows Dr. Drew Davidson, from Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, who convinced him to come and talk about the 15th anniversary and re-release of Neil’s book, “Stardust” -- for one night only. The Music Hall at the Carnegie Museum was packed. How cool is it to see authors treated like rock stars?
Neil talked about getting his initial inspiration for the book after accepting an award for his comic “Starman #19” at the 1991 World Fantasy Convention in Tuscon. If you’ve ever spent time in the desert away from city lights, you know what he’s talking about when he tells of seeing a lone shooting star against a “thick black vehement night’ filled with stars. He thought ‘what if it was a blazing diamond streaking across the sky . . . or a girl with a broken leg? (in case you haven’t read the book, I’ll stop here.)
Neil shared a bit about the writing process for the book. He told about buying a new old fashioned fountain pen and notebook, settling in to housesit at Tori Amos’s quirky bridge/house to write, and dictating into a cassette machine so his collaborator could illustrate the story as he wrote. To go from the handwritten word to typing it into the computer acts as an editing step for him, since he refuses to type any sections he feels aren't worthy of the time. After the book was printed and released, the model Claudia Schiffer fell in love with the story and nudged her director husband, Matthew Vaughn, into making a movie. (Robert DiNiro in drag is supposedly fabulous.) The film has done very well outside of the U.S. but Neil says he often ends up apologizing for all the extra ‘stuff’ the movie people added when they ‘mucked about’ with the story.
The audience was also treated to a reading from his new book due out in June (“The Ocean at the End of the Lane”). It started out as a short story, and deals with a few members of the Hemstock family – reoccurring characters sprinkled throughout several of his books, including “The Graveyard Book.” Then the story turned into a novella, then a very long novella, and surprised him by ending up as a novel. Be forewarned. Neil determined by the end of writing the story that although this book focuses on young people, the story is too dark for children. During the Q&A he clarified his thoughts on when a book is for children and when it is for adults. Using his book “Coraline” as an example, he explained that while parts of that story are dark, Coraline was a hopeful character and certainly not helpless (Okay for Kids); the new book gets quite dark and in it the child is truly helpless (Not Okay for Kids). Hope = children. Remember that. And if the youngsters are drawn to this new book, he assured us that the first two chapters are quite dull and will surely turn off any child who attempts to read it. We’ll see about that in June.
Truly an entertaining evening. But here’s the best part. Neil Gaiman told us a secret about an upcoming project. And he asked the hundreds of people to not post this tidbit on line and keep it to ourselves. And, since the packed auditorium was filled with Pittsburghers, I’m betting his secret is safe.
And hopefully he’ll come back.
Sarah Dessen is coming in January. I’ll report on her next month.