I did not really start reading “literature,” as such, until about 3 years ago. Despite never having lacked a book to read from the time I was 5 years old, the novels I had read consisted of whatever flotsam and jetsam I had unearthed on the shelves of the local library that sounded interesting. They were fine for entertainment purposes, but the writing was typically standard, with content that did not necessarily make you think. Not exactly chick lit, but not War and Peace either. The only classics I had read were what we had been required to read for school—A Tale of Two Cities, Animal Farm, Beowulf—works that did not really predispose me to stay up until the wee hours with a manic inability to put them down.
But when I started writing my own book, all that changed. I suddenly realized that I knew absolutely nothing about good writing. So I started with a novel about Paris, one of my favorite places in the world. Tropic of Cancer was a revelation. Henry Miller (a fellow native New Yorker) really knew how to tell a story. As he wrote to his Brooklyn friend, Emil Schnellock, the book was going to be “first person, uncensored, formless—fuck everything!” Reading his prose showed me there were more creative and poetic ways of telling a story, that got to the heart of experience, with all its attendant emotional messiness.
So I began reading as many classic authors as I could, in an attempt to catch up with the decades I had wasted reading the literary equivalent of cheap wine. Dostoyevsky, Thackeray, Tolkien, Sylvia Plath, and a host of others considered better than your average hack. I also joined a book club, which made me read books I never would otherwise have chosen for myself. I had read Stephen King’s On Writing, but had never actually read any of his novels. After beginning The Shining, I had to confine myself to reading only during the day, with all the lights on. I was stunned to find that simple words on a page could be utterly terrifying.
But a couple of years before this discovery of great writers and the power they could have to transform one’s view of just about everything, I got to meet Neil Gaiman.
To my eternal embarrassment, I had no idea who he was.
I had agreed to be part of an opening event at the gallery of a friend in Utrecht, where I was to model hats designed by his daughter, Holly. (The hats were absolutely gorgeous, by the way, and I would have bought one if I could have afforded it—guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree).
My friend, who is Gaiman’s sister-in-law, came over and said “Come on, I’ll introduce you to Neil.”
I followed her as she walked up to this slightly rumpled-looking guy with longish tousled greying curls, who looked as though he had just gotten out of bed.
“Neil, this is my friend, Laurel.”
“Hi,” I said, shaking his hand.
“Hello,” he said.
At which point there followed a long, rather awkward silence. I had absolutely nothing to say. Apart from having been told by a friend that he wrote novels, I knew nothing else about him. In my defense, it would not be until a couple of years later that I would be familiar enough with good writing to know who he was, but still. You would have thought I could come up with something to say. Nada.
So he eventually turned to talk to someone else (who was most certainly much more interesting and with whom he could hold an intelligent conversation) and I went back to modeling hats.
Although I still have only read one short story he wrote, A Study in Emerald, I have since learned more about who he is and have read much of his advice to writers. A man possessing an uncommon wisdom and seemingly an all-around good guy.
He recently posted something on his blog, however, that made me feel just a bit better about venturing into the realm of writing, wondering if anything I had to write would be worth reading: “I was, and still am, nervous about putting a book of non-fiction out into the world. I’m not scared of putting out fiction, but there’s part of me that wonders if I have any right to burble in public about what I believe and hope and care about, that wonders if anyone is going to be interested in essays on books that (in a few cases) it seems like nobody cares about but me, or on the state of comics in 1993, or on how to write a review a book you find, when the deadline comes, you’ve mislaid.” Apparently, even great writers feel unsure of themselves at times.
But the thing is, even if I were to meet him now, I seriously doubt our conversation would have progressed much further than it did that day. I still don’t think I would have anything intelligent to contribute to the conversation and would probably still feel like a complete idiot. But hey, at least I got to wear a nice hat for a few hours.