Neil Gaiman may well have faced an audience of 125 students Friday afternoon who want something akin to the success that he’s had.
The accommodating Gaiman, a 53-year-old author who appeared at the Billings Public Library courtesy of the library foundation and the Friends of the Library, told middle and high school students just how to do it: sit down and write every day, no matter how they feel.
“When I’m having a bad day, I just write something,” said the author of best-selling books, comic books, short stories and poems for readers of all ages, including “The Sandman,” “Stardust, “Coraline,” “American Gods” and “The Graveyard Book.”
Unlike some writers, “librarians would never say they have library block. You would mock them,” he said. “Some days everything is rubbish, but if you look at it the following day, you say, ‘This isn’t bad, if I move a few sentences around.’ One thing I can promise you: When you get the galley proofs back from your publisher, it all reads like it was written by the same person. You can’t tell the beautiful days from the terrible days.”
Gaiman’s afternoon crowd included students who have formed book clubs to discuss his work and others who completed art projects based on his fiction. On Friday evening, Gaiman delivered a talk in a sold-out Babcock Theatre.
“Students love his use of imagination,” said Lyn McKinney, the librarian at Senior High School. “He has a wonderful sense of fantasy, in the magic of the written word.”
Gaiman wove that magic by reading some of it to students. In one story, written as a “calendar of stories” for BlackBerry, a boy’s father loses everything — shirt, wallet, the works — playing poker with a flock of ducks, including a mallard who deals from the bottom of the deck. “It took a flick of a wing to put cards where he wanted them,” Gaiman said. “The ducks took my father for everything,” and he had to walk home in only his underwear and socks — apparently, ducks don’t fancy socks, or they’d have taken those, too. “That was the April,” the story concludes, “my father learned not to trust ducks.”
Gaiman also told a charming tale for October’s page of a genie freed from his bottle by a contented woman named Hazel who really doesn’t want any of the three wishes he’s willing to grant her. “Thanks, I’m fine. It’s good,” she tells the genie.
He goes to her house where she fixes him a meal while he rakes her leaves. He spends the night in her spare bedroom, and eventually, as weeks pass, moves into her bedroom. One day, well into their relationship, Hazel asks him what he would wish for if their roles were reversed. The genie puts his arm around Hazel and tells her, “It’s OK. I’m good.”
He said he wrote “Coraline” after hearing stories about parental abduction told to him by his then four-year-old daughter, Holly. The book came about after he asked his local bookstore what they had in the way of horror for children 5 and under. It turns out the store had nothing, so he wrote the novella, slowly, a few sentences each night before going to bed. Partway through, he sent what he had to his editor, who wondered what happens next. “I said, give me a contract and we will both find out,” he said.
On his website, Gaiman describes his youth this way: “I was a feral child raised by librarians.” That wasn’t much of an exaggeration, he said. “Books were places you could go, and they seemed more safe than the real world,” he told students. “I loved the fact that I was genuinely learning about the world I was put into.”
Fiction, he said, “gives you the ability to look out through someone else’s eyes. You realize you are not alone.”
Gaiman received a gift basket full of books following his talk. He thanked the students for “such wonderful questions” and urged them to “use the library; use it well.”
Afterward, Kate Giffin, a sophomore at Skyview High School, praised Gaiman’s talk as “insightful.” The takeaway for her was Gaiman’s idea that students can write and be published if that’s what they’re put on Earth to do. During the talk she took notes on what one of her favorite authors had to say.
“If you have a challenge put before you, just do it,” she said, paraphrasing Gaiman’s message. Giffin, 16, has written short stories and two unpublished novels. She said she especially appreciated what Gaiman had to say about writer’s block.
“That,” she said, “was a cool insight.”