Sunday, December 25, 2005

[Interview] Neil Gaiman NU107 Interview

Anyway, here’s the NU107 full interview with Mr. Neil Gaiman, several months late. The interviewers are Erwin Romulo, Ramon de Veyra, and Quark Henares. I managed to get a copy of the entire interview, although I can’t remember who I should thank for it. There was also the partial copy from Astrid, whom I’d like to thank again as even the full interview file had missing parts which was only available in the partial interview that I got from Astrid.

So here’s my Christmas present, and if you were wondering what I was doing on Christmas day…

NU107: Hello, hello. It’s alive. Rico, which is it again? Oh, can you hear me speak, Mr. Erwin?

NU107: I think I can.

NU107: All right, all right.

NU107: Ramon can you speak?

NU107: Hello.

NU107: Oh, there.

NU107: Hello, good morning everyone! Do we, do we have our Metallica tunes interested? (laughs)

NU107: Yeah, into Sandman?(laughs)

NU107: No, we were debating whether it would be Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” or—

NU107: Or the one by Metallica.

Neil: All the Mr. Sandman stuff, of course.

NU107: Well we thought that you might really think us idiots for doing the whole… we decided to just wing it.

NU107: Come in cold!

Neil: The only point that I ever go, you know, these people are idiots, is that moment where, radio, you’re on the radio and they always do, and you guys haven’t, which is really good, exactly the same intro.

NU107: It’s the king of dreams.

Neil: No, no, no, no. It’s the—

NU107: Hello everybody and we’re hanging out with the dream king here. (laughs)

Neil: That was Tori Amos right there for those of you who didn’t get it. Oh no, please don’t. (laughs)

NU107: Well how’s been the booking this evening?

Neil: Actually I’ll still find out. I’m sure it will. (laughs)

NU107: Anyway good morning everyone. We’re here with our very very NU107. The whole NU107 is here.

NU107: The whole.

NU107: In fact in a booth where—

NU107: On normal working days, no one is here.

NU107: Everyone’s late.

NU107: Everyone’s late. Everyone’s late. Everyone’s late.

Neil: Thank you. Get them before—

NU107: These guys come in like, 2 pm.

NU107: Chris is here everyday.

Neil: And they’re in here with cameras.

NU107: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Maybe the work flow of NU would be better if you were here everyday. (laughs)

NU107: No, we’re here with Neil Gaiman, the, uh, fabulous. Fabulous. Fab fab, Mr. Neil Gaiman, who, the multi-award winning writer.

NU107: Maybe we should go into a song.

NU107: Yes, yes. Definitely!

NU107: What would you want to play?

Neil: Well I grabbed my iPod, punched up a hasty, on-the-go playlist, and I thought the first thing that might be fun is a song by Thea Gilmore who’s an English singer/songwriter whose work I love and it’s just one of those songs that hits the chord with you when you’re a writer, because it reminds you of the stuff that you shouldn’t be when you’re a writer and what you really shouldn’t be is safe. So it’s called When Did It Get So Safe?

(plays So When Did It Get So Safe?)

Neil: When Did It Get So Safe.

NU107: So when did it get so safe?

Neil: Well, I suppose. What I like to think, what I hope, what I liked to think is that hopefully it happened. So far, what I came to do as a writer is the moment that I know what I’m doing, I stop and I do something else, and at least for me, that’s an incredibly comfortable way of working. I wrote comics until I was good at doing comics and comfortable with doing comics and then I figured the responsible thing to do at that point was go on write prose, which didn’t mean I could write. I wrote…

NU107: Neverwhere?

Neil: I did Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, to the point where American Gods had won all the awards it could possibly win, I figured that maybe at that point, I should…

-phone rings-

Neil: Isn’t that amazing, the phone rings while you’re on the radio?

NU107: Yeah, yeah.

Neil: Aren’t you going to answer it?

NU107: My wife.

Neil: At least she knows where you are.

NU107: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

NU107: Speaking of mediums, you’ve done TV. You’ve done prose and you’re doing a movie. So which, I mean you can’t probably have a personal favorite even though you feel, maybe you’ve done as much in one medium. Which is your personal favorite?

Neil: I do have a personal favorite medium, but I usually get to work on my favorite medium for only once every three years on average. My favorite medium is actually radio plays. Of all media, I love doing radio drama, audio drama, but because everything happens, you have all the advantages of movies and stuff, and you have real drama happening, but you have all the fun of prose and comics and you’re working in somebody’s head.

NU107: And you take a very active role in it. You also, I mean you do your readings right?

Neil: I do readings, and I do performances, but with radio plays, I just get a real director in and a real crew, and I do a couple for BBC now, a couple for US Online thing, and if it weren’t for the fact that I would have to send my children out to dance for the pennies in order to support myself, I would do a lot more of them. But it’s one of those things where you do it for love.

NU107: You should do some more of it right now. I mean like the four of us with Diego.

NU107: We’d make a pretty slick radio play.

Neil: We’d go out of the way with the script.

NU107: Yeah. Uh, you’re doing a movie, which hopefully will, in Hollywood, is up in the air. Any directors you look up to? I know you did film reviews for quite some time.

Neil: I was, I was a film reviewer when I was young. I was a terrible film reviewer but that’s okay. Who do I love as a director? Gilliam I think is, of living directors probably now at the point where he is consistently the most interesting living director I think.

NU107: Terry Gilliam?

Neil: Terry Gilliam. I think he has visions. And other than that, it’s the usual suspects. Peter Greenway, David Lynch.

NU107: Yeah!

Neil: It’s weird because on the whole, the kind of directors I like are kind of odd and small and culty and off and slightly left off-center and weird, and then the film being shot this September is being shot by Robert Zemecki who is—

NU107: Beowulf.

Neil: Yeah, Beowulf. Which is being done by, we got Anthony Hopkins starring in it, and Ray Wingstone, and a bunch of really cool people. And you know, looking at this movie which is gonna be the big, action weird-ass movie of 2007, going how did I write that? These are the kind of things I go—

NU107: How did you met like Terry Gilliam and the rest of the Pythons I mean?

Neil: The only Pythons that I know are Terry Jones, whom I know very vaguely. I interviewed him when I was very young; a journalist just like you. I went to his house and I interviewed him and he said would you like anything to drink. I said sure, coffee and he said Chablis I think. And he brought out the largest single wine bottle I’ve seen in my life. I mean we’re talking those kind of bottles that look like a chip pouring bottle and it comes up, we sit there and do the interview, and it’s me, the photographer, and Gilliam, and we get drunk and drunker and we get photographed. Published in the magazine, me popping up from underneath the desk with Terry Jones pushing me down. I remember stumbling away from that interview, and finishing that interview lying on the floor, wondering why the ceiling was going round and round and round. So I think interviewing Terry Jones was very dangerous for a journalist. Terry Gilliam, I know really well because he was going to do the movie of Good Omens.

NU107: Oh yeah, yeah.

NU107: And Watchmen too.

NU107: And he’s supposed to do Watchmen as well.

Neil: The trouble is, that Terry Gilliam terrifies Hollywood. They are really scared of him. I don’t know why they are scared of him, but they are absolutely terrified. And he had the great script for Good Omens, he had Johnny Dept, Robin Williams, Kursten Dunst of the US, and get a studio to cough up $50 million dollars and agree to distribute it. We figured it was a done deal. And went to Hollywood and said okay, who wants the movie? And everybody took one step back.

NU107: You have sketchy relation. I know you were supposed to do Mr. Punch right with Roger Avary also?

Neil: No, that was Beowulf.

NU107: Okay, so that went through at least.

Neil: Beowulf with Roger Avary, we were going to do in ’97. That’s the weird thing about Hollywood, you can never predict anything. We wrote the script in ’97, it was like a small budget action flick but was going to be fun, and now it’s this, we suddenly start in January after we long since given up on it.

NU107: But have you gotten it royally screwed, somebody like your friend Alan Moore who is now really antagonistic towards Hollywood adapting any of his stuff.

Neil: Screwed in what way?

NU107: Alan had to defend a film which he didn’t even… I think he had to defend League because he got sued by some screenwriter who said that elements of his screenplay, and it was a film that he didn’t approve of but he had to appear in court.

Neil: No, I haven’t had that yet. (laughs) You know, I haven’t been deposed, nobody has sued me for ripping off their film I had never seen.

NU107: Yeah, yeah.

Neil: No, that happened to Alan.

NU107: Is Gilliam still keen to do, would you still be interested in doing Good Omens?

Neil: Gilliam would still love to do Good Omens if anyone would give him the money. If anyone listening has $65 million dollars who don’t know what to do with—

NU107: Quark has!

Neil: Terry Gilliam, just write to me, and I’ll put you in touch with him. Terry would love the money.

NU107: Hopefully Brothers Grimm does well. Hopefully it pushes through the nth time around.

Neil: Well the trouble with Gilliam is, he makes films that do brilliantly and are commercial successes and come in under budget and are just fine, Twelve Monkeys and… somehow these films never quite erase the Gilliam terror from Hollywood. He starts again from scratch every time trying to convince them he will not go $200 million dollars overbudget and call them all idiots.

NU107: Like what happened in Brazil where he took out the variety because of an ad.

Neil: Exactly. He made Brazil and won. He fought Hollywood and he won, and they’d never forgiven him for that.

NU107: You’re on your exclusive, we’re on our exclusive interview, we’re very—

NU107: Honored.

NU107: Nervous. Kid. We’re having an exclusive interview with Mr. Neil Gaiman. Can everyone please turn their phones off? In the meantime, let’s play another one of your—

Neil: Let’s play one song. What have I got here? Okay, this is one of those songs that you hear and it’s somehow becomes, it shouldn’t have happened it’s really unlikely, and because of that, it becomes of those things that I play over and over again as I travel. This is the Beautiful Self cover of the Ramones “Blitzkreig Bop”.

NU107: All right!

(plays Blitzkreig Bop)

NU107: Blitzkreig Bop.

NU107: That is the most upbeat, better than your version, the one your band does. I mean happier. But you have a chick singing, so…

NU107: Yeah.

NU107: Oh no, this one had the girl from rock thing.

NU107: Well, there you go. Anyway, we’re here on our exclusive interview NU107 with Mr. Neil Gaiman. Thanks to Gweilos. A lot of people have been texting in, we’re raking it in I think through the text messages, and a lot of people are cutting class for you, including a girl who gave you chocolate apparently.

Neil: There are a number of ladies who have given me chocolate. Chocolate is. I left Singapore, when I left Singapore, I actually would like to think possibly the largest personal collection of barbecued pork and ham. I could now go back to America and set up a small, Filipino candy store. And Filipinos in American who are going miss local candy can just come to me and I have boxes of them.

NU107: In Minneapolis.

Neil: Yup. There’s more than any one person will possibly be able to eat, even helped by small children.

NU107: How do you like the dried mangoes by the way?

Neil: Dried mangoes, really cool. You guys have the best mangoes. It’s really nice getting to taste things like mangoes, and even bananas. Oh, this is what they’re meant to taste like. Because around the rest of the world, you get these things and they’re shipped green and they’re gassed and they sort of ripened and you taste it, you get the idea vaguely that you are eating a banana-ly substance or something vaguely mango-ish. Where here, oh I get it, this is mango.

NU107: Oh so ripe mangoes you haven’t—

Neil: I’ve had ramp, out here I’ve been eating dried, eating ripe mangoes, mango juice of breakfast.

NU107: There’s a funny question here. Do you listen to dark music or something? (laughs)

Neil: Do I listen to dark music? Yes, some of it, but I tend not to. The wonderful thing about having an iPod, I have a 60 GB iPod and it’s full.

NU107: Oh wow.

Neil: And when they bring out 120 GB iPod, it’s probably full. I love all kinds of music. I will sometimes, when I’m writing something that’s particularly dark, go on find some really dark and appropriate music. The worse it got was writing all that hell stuff in Sandman, when I went and dug out, and this was back in Final Days, I dug out Leery’s Metal Machine Music, which played nothing but Leery’s Metal Machine Music in the background while writing hell for several days. And I want you to know that Leery’s Metal Machine Music was actually made for anyone who needs to write hell.

NU107: (laughs) Which is actually interesting because Sandman kind of looks like Peter Murphy, right?

Neil: All of the characters who Sandman’s thinking page, Peter Murphy is probably the only one who really has the justification, but he’s a mad king second, because the first thing I did a few sketches, I sent a few, [Sam] Kieth sanded a bunch of sketches, we picked that was the closest to the character, and we sort of carried on from there. When Mike Dringenberg the inker got the drawings, he said oh, it looks like Peter Murphy. And we all went, who’s Peter Murphy? He said, lead singer of Happy House. Used to be in the Mat Phil commercial. And we went oh him, right. And so Dave McKean based the drawing of The Sandman on the very first cover of the very first issue on Peter Murpy.

NU107: So I was wondering about your other works. What was the soundtrack tune, to a very specific work, what you were listening to?

Neil: Stardust, the soundtrack was mostly feel nice bands. Lots and lots and lots of folk rock because if you’re writing something for Charles Vess, and you’re writing something that’s very, very set in faerie and very English, folk rock is perfect. So lots and lots of feel nice bands, and lots of Tori Amos for that one as well. I started writing Stardust in a house that Tori was renting in London that was actually a bridge. The house was built into this bridge over a canal. And that was where I began to write it. American Gods, lots of sort of American music. There’s this singer/songwriter named Greg Brown who’s like sort of a middle-American Lou Reed and instead of singing about transsexual drug addicts dying of overdoses, he sings about small farms in Iowa. And lot of Greg Brown, and also the other thing that really kept me going and kept me saying through American Gods over and over again was the Magnetic Fields 69 love songs. Which is 69 different songs in 69 different genres. No two songs are alike by the incredibly talented Steven Merritt who I think is probably our greatest living songwriter at this point.

NU107: Oh yeah? How about The High Cost of Living? I was reading it again last night.

Neil: The embarrassing thing about that is I wrote it in 1991, 1992 and I don’t remember what I was listening to when I wrote it. I do remember that when I was writing Anansi Boys, the new novel, it sort of went backwards and forwards because it’s lot of reggae, a lot of weird world music, a lot of African stuff. And you know, you just go and try to find the soundtrack that’s appropriate, the soundtrack to the movie in your head and you make that.

NU107: Definitely. Erwin?

NU107: Well, no I guess we should give him a lot of our music.

NU107: Do you listen to a lot of Filipino albums by any chance?

Neil: Only 6 or 7 so far so I’m sure there will be more. I was reading in the bath this morning, I got out of bed, had a bath and I was reading Filipino mythology and folk tales in the bath this morning thinking this stuff is so cool, why didn’t I know about this before or I would have used it.

NU107: What was the best gift you got here so far? I mean everyone in the Philippines is probably giving you something.

Neil: I don’t… you can’t say the best. Well the stuff that’s so cool is that everything’s personal, everything’s so beautiful and people make little art and they give you things and they give them from their soul and they care. And I… mostly I just sort of faintly touched. You know, you got a signing line, the signing lines we got here are impossible. Normally when you’re an author, you just say okay, I’ll sign for everybody. But you can’t sign for 3000 people, physically you can’t sign for a thousand people. So you do your best, which signing on Saturday night ‘til 1:30 in the morning, and we did over 700 people yesterday with 5 hour signing and again, I think we did nearly about 600.

NU107: So do you go into the trance, ready?

Neil: No, it’s not about trance. It’s more like running a marathon. You just know that you’re gonna have to keep going, and you know that you want it possible to be a bright human being here because when number 500 comes through just as you were for number 2.

NU107: Yeah because everyone of them is just very excited to meet you.

Neil: And especially here out here in the Philippines, they’ve been in line up to 6 am in the morning.

NU107: Or 5 am.

Neil: Exactly. So they’re not just excited to meet me, they’re also exhausted. And every now and then some of the girls who’ve been standing for hours and you know, are sort of getting more and more wound up, and sort of get to the front and knelt down, and you sort of give them a hug and say, okay.

NU107: Something I’ve noticed is that most of your fans are women. Which probably wasn’t the case when you started out right?

Neil: Definitely wasn’t the case. I started writing Sandman it was all boys. But Sandman very very rapidly went out and got a female readership. And suddenly it became about the only comic, the only mainstream comic in America where you had a 50/50 male female readership, and I would get these comic store people who look liked the comic store guy on The Simpsons coming up to me and going, you know man I got to thank you, you brought women into my store. No women had ever come into my comic store and then Sandman came out and they come in. And they sort of go if you changed your t-shirt and swept the store, they’d come back.

NU107: There’s a joke that you have a large female readership because most of the girls got copies of Sandman for their ex-boyfriends and suddenly they were really reading into it because of the great female characters I think also like Hazel and Papa Claus and…

Neil: I think it’s possibly that. It’s definitely true that Sandman has been spread over the years sexually. You know, it’s boys whose girlfriends say oh I don’t read comics, and they say here, read this. And the girlfriend comes back and says do you have any more? Give me to them now. Now! And then they go away and read them, and when they break up with the boy, they take the Sandman.

NU107: Yeah, yeah, that’s true. I know three people concretely who have their ex-boyfriend’s Sandman.

Neil: But I also think, it’s very interesting, both in Singapore and here, I think for the first time ever in each place, I see probably more women than men. And I think a lot of that also comes because we now have a world in which you have a female comics readers. If you go back ten years, there weren’t even. Now with manga, you got a generation of girls growing up reading comics, and it’s not a weird, strange thing to do. And when they’re sixteen or seventeen, they look around and the mangas that they were reading doesn’t quite do it for them in the same way that I get a lot of male readers because they’re seventeen and eighteen, and suddenly the comic books that have people hitting each other through walls don’t do it for them anymore. There’s a moment through which, there’s a moment where adolescent power fantasies no longe rwork for you. That’s the moment I can come in and can own your soul.

NU107: (laughs) I guess we should play another song.

Neil: Okay. I thought we were talking about movies a lot, and I’d thought I’d play my favorite song inspired by a movie, which is a song by Tom Russell called “Touch of Evil” about the Orson Welles song “Touch of Evil”.

(plays “Touch of Evil”)

NU107: Everyone heard that, your plan. You were talking into the microphone.

Neil: Oh.

NU107: We do it on our radio show, the last song is always a David Bowie song. Because he’s David.

NU107: We’re here on our exclusive interview with jam session I guess, with Neil Gaiman playing.

NU107: Are we going to bring out the kazoos? (laughs)

NU107: Louie Louie right? Ramon has some interesting questions, I’m sure you miss your family.

NU107: Yeah, one of the things we were discussing in preparation for this was that you’re one of the most interviewed people which we know, so we couldn’t come up with any questions that haven’t been answered before so we wanted to ask some personal stuff if that’s all right. Like how did you meet your wife?

Neil: She was staying in a house that was owned by my father. She was a student and my father wound up buying a house he that didn’t want because he ran a small mail-order business out of my grandmother’s garage and one of the neighbors complained so he actually had to get a shop in order to continue running his mail-order business and the shop that he bought came with a house, which he didn’t want. So they lent it out, and whenever I was in town on Saturdays, I’d go over there for a cup of tea because it was a lot quicker than walking home and I, my wife was staying there. My wife to be was staying there and that was how we met. And that was actually scarily more years to go more than I like to think about. It’s very very weird some of these thing with time because you actually don’t notice time passing, and then you suddenly turn around and you realize that, I sort of looked at my son the other day, because he graduated from the George Washington University studying computer training that I do not understand, and he’s now going off to do a Masters in PhD in a computer thing so I will completely not understand anything he’s in. And I look and you know you’re the same age now that I was when I started being a writer. And you’re the same age that you were that I was when you were born. And it was suddenly, sort of weird moment, oh my God, life is past. You sort of, people tell me I’m prolific and I don’t think of myself as a completely prolific writer. But slowly shelves and shelves of stuff, they sort of just get longer and longer. And my writing career and my son’s life and now these thing in shelves. It’s fun, it’s certainly…

NU107: How was the first meeting. I mean do you remember first meeting your wife?

Neil: No but I remember the first time I noticed, I don’t remember the first time I met her, but I do remember the first time I noticed you. She was, it was actually one of those why miss you’re beautiful moment. She’d had these dreadful glasses that did her no favors at all and one day they got broken so for a week she walked around with no glasses on and suddenly, it was like whoa! She of course didn’t know that I was staring at her going whoa! She couldn’t see anything.

NU107: And you have three kids, is that right?

Neil: Michael, Holly, who’s twenty and a bit more and is currently in South Africa, which is really peculiar, the idea of, you know a few days ago, I was in Singapore, on the phone to my wife who just got off the phone with my daughter who was in South Africa at a wild life park watching frog-shooting stars thinking the world has become a much much smaller place than it used to be for me. And then there’s Maddy who’s the littlest one. And she’s ten and she’s really funny, she’s I think the one who may, probably most likely to turn into a writer herself if she doesn’t grow up to be a stand-up comedian. And I actually got to do something to impress her. I never impress her. Nothing I do ever impresses Maddy which is actually kind of fun. But we were in London a few weeks ago and we had dinner with a magician named Darren Brown who’s one of the best magicians in London, in England, and possibly the world. And Darren, when it was done, when it was over we went out for dinner, and Stephen Fry, the English actor and comedian from Black Adder, the voice of the book in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came over to talk to Darren, and Darren said this is Neil Gaiman, and Stephen Fry said oh Neil Gaiman! Yes, I’m a huge fan of yours, the era of the graphic novel has dawned upon us at last, has it not my boy? And he turns to Maddy and says and you young lady, shake my hand. What is your name, and she says Maddy. I’m Stephen Fry. He goes away. It was very very sweet. And she looks at me and she goes I just met Stephen Fry and I didn’t let him know I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. Okay, I understand. Cool dad thing.

NU107: How old is she now?

Neil: She’s ten. And very very funny. The other cool thing that I’ve done for her, she became an Archie comic fan. And because I’m Neil Gaiman, when the people at Archie Comics found out that my daughter was a huge Archie comic fan, they put her on their complimentary comic list. I get the big complimentary comics from DC, and she gets the envelope of comics from Archie. She’s much happier than I am by the way.

<NU107: Would you ever do an Archie comic?

Neil: If she told me to, I would.

NU107: Really?

NU107: Has she read The Day I Swapped My Dad?

Neil: She written all, she quites like it. To be honest, would I ever write an Archie comic? If it was a matter of impressing her, yes I would. But actually what’s much more likely is she’d go and write an Archie comic. And then they’d print it because they can say Gaiman on the cover, and it actually it would be Maddy, which would be much more fun.

NU107: All right. I have a fanboy question here. You always talk about Alan Moore but you never really talk about the other Vertigo writers. Among your fellow writers in that imprint, what do you think of them actually.

Neil: The trouble is, for example, Pete Milligan, I only know very vaguely. You know, Pete and I know each other to say hi to, but we don’t really know each other very well. Garth Ennis and I like each other, don’ know each other well. Grant is a good friend of mine, Grant Morrison. And you know, whenever I’m in Glasgow I’d go out to dinner with Grant and, Grant’s so funny because I remember Grant. Again, I’ve known Grant now for twenty something years so I remember him. When I first met him, he was this very skinny guy, a little bit older than me, used to wear long trench coats, and had this huge muck of black hair. And that’s always how I think of him. And incredibly shy you know. You couldn’t hear for the first three years of knowing Grant, you had to lean in really close to hear what he was saying because he’s spoken in this very precise little Scottish accent very very quietly, (in Scottish accent) and it would just come out with these stories for Batman and Arkham Asylum where I got Batman in drag butt-fucking the Joker and that kind of thing they do.

NU107: (extreme laughter)

Neil: So in Singapore, this would have got you off the air, and we’d all right now be, the police would be, we’d all be on the way to jail.

NU107: We’d all be getting butt-blanked. (laughs)

Neil: That’s the kind of thing Grant would say, to be the terribly wonderfully appalling thing in a very precise Scottish accent and very very quiet. Didn’t say this isn’t Grant, Grant has begun this, shaven headed, chaos magician of the twenty first century you know, glittering creature of, and whenever I run into him, I ask him what are you doing now Grant? (In Scottish accent) Oh I’m now, you know, off to Iceland, or I’m giving these talks to major corporations on drugs and chaos magic and they’re uh, they’re paying me enormous amounts of money to come and just tell them they’re idiots. Okay.

NU107: That’s really interesting because that’s one of the common themes of Morrison’s work, is reinvention of the self. So I didn’t even know that he was... shy. I always thought—

NU107: He’s a rock star!

<NU107: --shameless in the best sense of the word.

Neil: That’s the fun of knowing all these people for so long. You know, I knew Alan Moore before he was a magician.

NU107: How did you meet him?

Neil: I remember him, how did I meet Alan Moore? I sent him, I sent Alan Moore, I sent him—

NU107: Ghastly Beyond Belief

Neil: Very good. You done your homework. I sent Alan Moore a copy of my first ever book, which was a book called Ghastly Beyond Belief, the book of science-fiction and fantasy quotations which I wrote with Kim Newman, and I was a huge fan of his and I’ve been following his work, actually gotten several jobs beneath his nose I’ve gotten several jobs over the years because he would say, who would do this. I’d say Alan Moore’s great, get Alan Moore. But fine, I had something out, I sent it to Alan, and the phone rang, and a deep noise after that, (deep voice) you bastard I just lost two days work reading your book. I just phoned up to say thank you. Really? And we were friends. It was one of those sort of incident-bonding moments and I was going to a horror convention in Burningham and I mentioned to Alan that Nancy Campbell and Clive Barker would be there. And he said I’m a fan of those but I wouldn’t really want to come unless I knew ‘em. I said I know everybody, I’ll introduce you. I turn up at the convention, I look up, there is something looking enormously like a yeti in a suit. Really nasty, red suit. I mean expensive, great leopard skin shoes, high built, and then there’s this lush of hair, erupting. And that was Alan, incredibly devised and quite possibly the funniest person I’ve ever met. I don’t know anybody, I’ve met a number of great comedians and I think that Alan is funnier. But that was before he was a magician. And I remember when, he actually hasn’t changed. But he wears more rings and, a little bit spookier now. But I do remember when he became a magician, it was his fortieth birthday and the telephone rang, and a voice said hi Neil, it’s Alan. Listen mate just phoning up to let you know that I just turned forty, and I thought you know, better have me midlife crisis early so I’m becoming a warlock.

NU107: (laughs) Grant practices magic and Alan does too, do you or?

Neil: Nah, I write. I think that’s all the magic I need.

NU107: Damn strange.

NU107: He’s one of the people who showed you how to write a comic script?

Neil: He did. I mean that sort of became rather blown up in context when people go, well Alan showed you, you know it’s as if he took me somewhere and showed me the dark secret. It was actually during that convention I turned to Alan and I said, look I don’t know, what is a comic script? I always wanted to know. Come on, let me show you. He grabbed a notebook, and wrote page one, panel one. So you write it, and then you say whatever you can see. We are all looking at a room with a man in it, and you write down everything in it that you possibly want the artist to know, and if somebody is speaking, you write their name. Luther, ow, that hurt. That’s what he says. That really hurts, do you wanna see? Meanwhile, and next pan. And that’s how you do it. And that was Alan’s, I mean comic script.

NU107: I can use this? What you just said? We’re in the same room together.

Neil: You can use that, you bring out a comic of your own. Ow that hurts. Luther’s cringing.

NU107: Well we’re going to end soon, sadly. But, okay the future. You’re doing a movie and that probably is, are you terrified or?

Neil: No, I made a short film a couple of years ago to find out what I thought of filmmaking. I made a short film about John Bolton, which in some ways is a documentary about artist John Bolton, and in some ways really isn’t. But I made it, essentially a small student film to just find out whether I liked directing. Because there are things I’m really good at, like making up stories, and there are things I’m completely crap at, like putting up shelves. And I needed to figure out. You know, is directing a film like putting up shelves or is it like making up stories? I just felt it was a lot more like making up stories. You had the power of because I say so, which was what I found frustrating when I write scripts for other people and you write a script and then you know, the point that I knew that Neverwhere, the British production of Neverwhere was doomed on CD was the point when I was talking to the costume lady. And she said, this is Doors Parker, her little, you know, pink parker. And I said but she’s gonna be wearing a big leather jacket. And the girl said yeah there’s too much leather in the show already. I thought, and in the script I wrote, she was the only person wearing any leather. And the costume lady looked at me like, you’re the writer. You know, I look after the director and we know what we’re doing. And it’s the power of because I say so. So what I love, you know what I really love, I think most of all about, you know the movie stuff is, you don’t have to like it. Nobody has to like it except me. But at least it’s what I wanted it to be. With Mirrormask, it’s a slightly different thing. Because with Mirrormask, it’s not my film. And there’s no point in it where I go, you know, that way because I say so, but I felt very much writing it, that I was just there to make, to visualize, to help Dave McKean. You know, Mirrormask is Dave McKean’s film from beginning to end. It’s his story. I got there, I got to work on him in his story, I got to part, part stuff for him, I got to put together dialogue but it’s a Dave McKean experience and that’s what that film is.

NU107: Has he done the casting already or?

Neil: Mirrormask is tied out.

NU107: I mean Death’s the nature?

Neil: Death with, it’s casting but it’s casting in that weird Hollywood way right now, which has nothing to do with, the weird Hollywood method of casting which has nothing to do with really who you wanted things and how, it had to do with, if you imagine that you need, let’s say, a hundred points in order to start your movie. You’re like collecting chips or dice or cards or something in order to start your movie, and you need a hundred of them let’s say. And you discover that you could have, actor A is 30, actor B is 40, and actor C is 50 and that gives you your hundred points and you can start casting. But you don’t really want actor A, so you want, you know you want actor B, the actor, it’s the thing of getting to the point where you can get a green light for the casting job. And that’s really a lousy way of explaining, everybody’s gonna be going, we know he makes it. But you’re trying to accumulate enough points in Hollywood to get the green light. And that’s sitting at the back control at that point. Just okay, if you want actor A, you’re going to have someone more famous here in this part. Then you go, what if I have somebody there? Sooner or later you have enough sort of oomph to get the movie actually happening.

NU107: You wrote the script for Death and you know, onwards. Was it, how, is it close to the book or did you have to expand it?

Neil: I obviously had to expand it because the joy, that was the joy of me, if you took Death: The High Cost of Living and you filmed it, you’d have a great thirty-seven minute film. Maybe forty minutes but it doesn’t get any longer than that. Because that’s as long as the serial is. So, which is why I was interested as opposed to Sandman, where the first thing you looked at is what do you draw out. You know, it’s too big. If you’ve done Sandman, you’d have a hundred hours of material.

NU107: They’re not bringing in script doctors to muddle the script I guess?

Neil: No, no. It’s just me.

NU107: Have the studios asked for anything, like to be put more girls or something like that, are they interested in concepts so far?

Neil: Not so far.

NU107: That’s great.

Neil: We had one exec, we had one exec that was quite sure that it was the next Princess Diaries but then she went away and was replaced by the guy who was the exec on Lord of the Rings who understood what exactly this was and was completely happy with it.

NU107: New Line.

Neil: It’s with New Line.

NU107: Fantastic. Thank God for small world.

NU107: Do you have a final cut in the project?

Neil: No. You get final cut on the movie when you’re

NU107: When you have a few more under your belt?

Neil: You have to be, these days you have to be more or less have to be a Stanley Kubrick to get a final cut. I’m sure, he’s there.

NU107: (laughs)

Neil: I’m sure Spielberg and Lucas has a final cut but there’s not a lot of directors who have final cuts. At least at Hollywood-size film, you can always have final cuts on a smaller independent or you can do what Dave McKean did, and get final cuts on Mirrormask which nobody else has a clue how to make what he did, how to do it, or possibly to change it. There’s never money to do it anyway, so.

NU107: You were talking about Death, well we were talking about it, I just remembered Mad Hettie and all of these great characters and you’ve done a lot of really fantastic characters over the years. Which one, I mean, it’s probably hard to say, it’s like saying who your favorite kid is, but do you have any characters you made that you really identify with or really love?

Neil: I think when I was writing Sandman, the characters I identified with most were probably Lucien the Librarian and Mervyn the Pumpkinhead. They were actually, in terms of identification with characters, because the lovely thing, especially Mervyn, was that he was allowed to say any of those things that I was thinking could possibly write. So those moments where you go boy, you know, Morpheus is really just being a complete pain in the neck. You know, self-pitying teenage twerp there isn’t he? I can have Mervyn Pumpkinhead come on and say great, so I see what happens, he has a broken heart, and it starts raining here and we’re the guys who get wet and we have to clean it up. That was always nice, having him around.

NU107: Well Morpheus is an interesting character in the sense that you know, he’s not really one you would really tend to like, you know. I mean you want to follow his story but he is yeah, a bit of a, you know, he always bitches about his past relationships and is giving everyone a hard time just because he’s having a hard time himself. So when you started, did you, did you know that the character would be going that way?

Neil: Oh yeah. No, I always knew that. For me the joy of him was trying to write a character who wasn’t human, who did not have a human value system, was completely in many ways self-absorbed, would always try and do the right thing if it was pointed out what the right thing was. But then had absolutely no, just didn’t have human values. And that for me was so much part of the fun.

NU107: Was DC ever scared that the character might be unlikable and you know, sort of...

Neil: Yeah, yeah yeah. No they, in the, they dumped my first outline for it and that was a big worry, would the character be liked and would be problematic and I sort of vaguely promised them that he would get a human girlfriend at some point, and they really loved that because they thought that would humanize the character, and I didn’t tell them any of the unfortunate consequences. I never told them that they would never actually see themselves. So when he actually did get a human girlfriend, it was actually between two issues and they broken up when you met them.

NU107: And he burns the other one. He sent another one to hell. (laughs)

NU107: Sandman is one of the most epic thing you’ve ever done. Still, are you planning on doing some, I mean it’s probably very exhausting to do something so long, and so drawn out but are you planning on doing another?

Neil: By the time I finished, Sandman was about eight years of my life. Nine. It was actually from the point when I started writing Sandman to the point where it finished, it was, it was a solid nine years of something that was two weeks of every month when I began and six weeks of every month by the time I finished. And at that point I promised myself that I would basically just do things I could finish by tea time for awhile. I’m not yet at the point where I want to buckle down for another, you know, decade-long building or something. In many ways, I could probably do now in prose what I did in comics if I wanted to just because we’re now at the point where, between things like the Lemony Snicket books and the Harry Potter books, and to some extent Stephen King’s Green Mile, you now have an audience that actually, a book reading audience that actually understands the nature of serial fiction. Which of course was the complete joy of doing Sandman, it was serial fiction. It came out monthly. Having said that, the thing that I love about being a novelist right now is if I get to chapter six and I suddenly realize that I needed a gun in that drawer in chapter one, I can just go back and put a gun in the drawer in chapter one and nobody ever knows that it wasn’t there in my first draft. When I was writing Sandman, it was like this incredibly complicated game of, it was like playing a game of chess while jumping out of a parachute you know, out an airplane. Because if I got to issue thirty six and the gun was not in the drawer in issue three, it couldn’t be there in issue thirty six. Because everybody had already bought and read issue two. So, you’re always building in things for the future, knowing sort of what you’re gonna do, but not quite how it would work until you got there but having to plan ahead and it was sort of a strange sort of mixture of juggling, improvisation, and incredibly skillful planning.

NU107: So none of that for awhile I guess.

Neil: It’s nice right now doing things, I’m getting rid of other things. As I said, by the time I finished Sandman, I felt like I was sorely decent at writing comics I had the idea that there are some comics I could write or at least I was very good a writing Sandman. I’m now ,I’m enjoying writing prose for a bit and I’m just getting to the point, with Anansi Boys, it’s the first one that I actually look at and I go, I think you’re a fairly decent novel. American Gods won a million awards and was everybody’s favorite book except for the people who hated it but I still wasn’t sure that it really worked. There were a lot of things I would have liked to have got better if I had five or six more years to work on it. And I didn’t. With Anansi Boys I think it’s good. It’s funny, it’s light, I wanted to write a book, especially after <>American Gods which is big and dark and gloomy. I thought it would be nice to write a book that would make people feel happier when they finished it. So it’ll be out in September.

NU107: At Fully Booked.

NU107: Fully Booked, Fully Booked. There you go. They have a lot of… Promenade, Gateway.

NU107: With a nice new store in Rockwell.

Neil: Where I signed yesterday for hour, after hour after hour after hour. And right at the end we saw a hundred people who actually hadn’t passes or anything, hanging around really patiently in the heat, and I said okay, look if we just do one, if I don’t have to personalize anything, if it’s just one signature for each of them, I would do them. So we cleaned out the people who’ve been waiting.

NU107: Fantastic.

NU107: Yeah, last question then before we—

NU107: Ramon I think?

NU107: Go ahead.

NU107: I guess you’ve achieved so much already. What do you think is, what’s there left for you? I mean what excites you to achieve?

Neil: There’s nothing in the same way that they used to be. I don’t have that wonderful, sort of burning drive. It’s like the burning drive to get awards. When you’re a kid, and you read about things like the Nebula award or the Hugo award, it’s the coolest thing that you could ever possibly imagine and I can remember getting my first Hugo award for American Gods, and getting up there and giving a very short speech which began with a very rude word, and then me saying I got a Hugo. And it was the coolest thing that ever happened. And then I got my second Hugo for Coraline and then I got a Hugo for best short story last year. And now it’s like—

NU107: A Study in Emerald

Neil: A Study in Emerald.And now it’s like, this is really cool. I got three Hugo’s but I don’t actually have a burning desire anymore. I begun to two or maybe three Nebula awards, and I have. It’s great, and people say did you really won an Oscar or something? No, not particularly. I’ve got lots of awards that are really nice. It got to the point where my wife made me go get a special cabinet just to put them in because they were cluttering the place up and people would sit over them and stuff so now they’re going into a cabinet. There’s definitely no kind of, when I was little more than a kid working on Black Orchid and I finished writing Black Orchid I was in the early days of Sandman, maybe Sandman #1, #2, #3 at the outside I was working on, but I think I had just written #1. And I remember taking the plane to America and Dave McKean entrusted me with the art for Black Orchid to take it to America, to get it shot. And we didn’t have, there was no back-up plan. It hadn’t been scanned anywhere in England, I would always take it with me. And I thought you know, I really, I remember just being absolutely terrified, in the middle of the Atlantic when the plane would go down. And the Black Orchid arc they would never redo it, you know, they would just move on to the next thing and Sandman #1 they might bring it out they might not, but you know, nobody would really know what Sandman was going to be because even if they brought out this one comic as a memorial or whatever, that was the biggest thing I had intended, and should have been boy this would be really terrible if my whole career didn’t happen. And the plane went down. I’m not worried. These days I’m not worried when the plane it goes down. I left behind, ,you know, a shelf of really cool stuff and three cool kids. And if I wind up, this looks more really interesting stuff that I wanna do, and lots more mistakes I wanna make. And I want to screw up and I want to do interesting stuff and maybe I’ll do, you know write something original that’s just going to be an audio book and maybe I’ll do this do that. But it’s, but there’s no feeling right now of having left something huge, unfulfilled. I’m a writer, most writers around the world can’t make a living writing. I just, the hard horrible fact of the case, writers do other things because we can’t make a living. And a writer has got to spend his entire adult life, being paid for making things up, and writing them down, and people giving them awards, and I arrive at places like the Philippines, and you know, I get this sort of micro, incredibly cheerful Nurenberg rally welcome with this wall of sound and three thousand people just screaming and, people passing by going is he a rock star? No, he’s a writer. I mean how cool is that?

NU107: Yeah that’s like Beatles with Ed Sullivan. When you came in I wasn’t expecting raaah!.

Neil: So right now you have all those people hanging around the lobby. Most of them with books in hand. Maybe I’ll sign them as I go out.

NU107: If. Sorry.

Neil: No, it’s great. I’m incredibly fortunate. And I also know as I set up that rally, that most, in many ways it’s luck because I happen to write stuff that people like to read. And if they didn’t like to read it, I’d still be writing the same stuff. It’s not like I have a brilliant sense of the market place, it’s not like I was going, okay what the world really needs is Sandman, you know, twenty years ago what the world needs is this single Sandman, and then it will go huge, and then it will be ten volumes, and it will and then there’ll be this huge manga explosion and then everybody will pick up on it and then, you know, you don’t really think like that. I write the kind of stuff I like to read and that’s as simple as that. And you know with my children’s books sometimes I write the kind of books I either would have liked to read as a kid or like my kids to read. You know, it’s very very straight forward and people like to read it. If what was fashionable now was police procedurals, I’d still be writing the same stuff I write.

NU107: Or superhero comics. As you said, you have a hard time writing that sort of thing.

Neil: I’m rubbish at superheroes. I always cheat. I can, I can sort of, with Black Orchid, maybe I can do science-fiction and make it look like superheroes. And with Sandman maybe I can do cool, mythic horror weird stuff and make it look like superheroes. You know, with 1602, okay maybe I can do historical fiction and make it look like a bit like superheroes.

NU107: Okay, there you go. A lot of people texted in they just want to say that you’ve changed their lives and they’re very very happy and some of them went to your book signing and just want to say thank you for being just the nicest guy.

Neil: That was so sweet. I got on this morning and I probably had a hundred messages from people who’ve been to my book signing and all of them are the same. There were these lovely long messages saying when I got to the front of the line, I didn’t say. And then what they wanted to say when they got to the front of the line instead of breaking down into tears or squeaking can I marry you or whatever.

NU107: Thank you Mr. Neil Gaiman. Somebody texted and asking who are you interviewing? Are you interviewing David Bowie? For those who’ve just tuned in, we’re interviewing Neil Gaiman, not David Bowie.

NU107: Who has a signing yet this afternoon.

Neil: The Neil Gaiman signing, not the David Bowie signing.

NU107: Where’s the signing?

NU107: Fully Booked, Gateway. What time? 4:30, be there at the activity center right?

NU107: With three hundred people lined up.

NU107: Okay, so don’t go.

NU107: Do go, but admire from afar, and buy the books, share the love. Send your psychic messages. Mirrormask the big hard bound, it just came out, Anansi Boys coming out in September. And you can get the whole Sandman library at Fully Booked. And Neverwhere.

NU107: Thank you to Jaime Daez and Gabby Delarama and Christian Sisima of NU who made this possible.

NU107: So what’s your last song sir?

Neil: I’ve been thinking about it. I think I was gonna play “Horses” but I think by Tori because that was the saddest song but I thought actually, another song because it’s completely inappropriate in every way. “Papa was a Rodeo” by the Magnetic Fields.

Friday, December 09, 2005

[Essay] I Don't Believe in Writer's Block

There are many reasons not to write, but I don’t believe “writer’s block” is one of them. For me it’s a myth; it’s as if telling someone you suddenly lost the ability to speak, you forgot how to spell, or words simply left your memory. There is no such thing as writer’s block for me. There are, however, other reasons why we don’t write, and we use the writer’s block excuse to encapsulate all of them. No inspiration? Writer’s block. Not motivated enough? Writer’s block. Too lazy? Writer’s block. Lacking a good idea? Writers block. For me, simply naming it writer’s block is avoiding to face the problem rather than seeking to solve it. Let me tackle the reasons why “writers” don’t write.

No inspiration. It’s a real concern. Some of the best work out there come from inspiration. But obviously not everything that’s well-written came out from inspiration. Or rather, from unsought inspiration. There are days when I wake up and I have a good idea in mind. When that happens, I write. There are, however, several days where nothing good comes up. Does that stop me from writing? No. I either look for good ideas, or simply write. Other people wait for emotional cues to drive them to write. It could be falling in love, experiencing grief, or simply getting nostalgic. While some of these experiences can be sought out, they don’t always happen just because we will it, nor is it always advisable to do so. (Can you imagine yourself forcing yourself to fall in love with someone because there’s a looming deadline so that you’ll be inspired to write a love poem? Or breaking your jovial mood by sinking into depression to write that somber novel?) If people only wrote when they were inspired, then everyone would be professional writers. What distinguishes the writer from the non-writer is that the former writes no matter what the situation, whether they’re inspired or not. Inspiration is good. I just can’t expect it to always pop up whenever I’m geared to write something. Sometimes inspiration follows after writing. Sometimes it doesn’t. But I’ll write anyway. One factor that people forget is that aside from creativity (inspiration) or talent, hard work and perseverance can also lead one to become a good writer. A genius might write his or her first draft and submit it to a publisher. Others pore over their work, continually editing, revising, and attending workshops to hone their craft. I honestly wish everyone (and when I say everyone, I really mean me) could be the former, but that’s not the case. What discourages other people from the latter path is that it’s difficult, but that’s the reality of most things: no pain, no gain.

No good idea. Much like the no inspiration reason, some of us might claim we don’t have any good ideas. Of course the adjective we need to focus on is good. I think we all have ideas to write about. We just don’t think it’s good enough. At the very least, you can talk about your day. But our self-doubting consciousness tells us that’s not interesting enough. We tell ourselves that no one wants to read how we got up in the morning (or afternoon or even evening for some people), how we went to work and experienced all these trivialities. Our inner voice may be right. Or it might not be. I think that anything, even the most mundane activity, can be made interesting as long as it’s given the proper treatment. Look at the lives of detectives. For the most part, it’s a boring job. All you do is research and wait, hoping for something to pop up. Occasionally, there’ll be excitement, and perhaps even a gunfight or two. But why are detectives of the noir era romanticized? Mainly because the writers focused on the exciting part, or rather, made it exciting in the first place. The other side of the coin is that there’s always something in a person’s life that’s exciting. We just need to dig in deep, or pay closer attention. Take for example the life of a zookeeper. I’m sure the zookeeper thinks his or her life is mundane. A child, however, might be awed at how the zookeeper constantly faces “wild” animals and manages to enter their cage without getting harmed. Why have blogs become one of the most popular things on the Internet? Because people love to read about other people’s lives.

But assuming you really need a good idea, something that doesn’t personally concern you, what do we do then? Finding a good idea is perhaps one of the problems that can be solved. It’s called experiencing new things, doing research, or paying close attention to details. Some writers go on trips or try out new things to look for ideas. As someone with little time and even less of a budget, experiencing new things doesn’t have to be something outrageous. It could be going to a corner of the city you’ve never gone before (or simply getting lost is an interesting experience in itself). It could be trying out new food, a new sport, or even reading a new book. Then there’s always research. Experience doesn’t need to be first-hand. You can read about other people, their exploits, or a topic that you’re interested in but don’t have the time or budget for. Sometimes research means digging deeper. You already have a topic, you just don’t find it interesting. By digging into its history, into the minutiae of its process, you’ll eventually find something worthwhile to write about. At times, one needs to look at your concept from a different perspective. Your country is something that you’re familiar with, and you might take it for granted. But how would foreigners see it? Or simply other people? Don Quixote is a narrative about the then-modern world told from the perspective of a delusional (but romanticized) man. The no good idea dilemma can actually be solved if we devote time and effort.

Not Motivated. Now I’m guilty of this. While I don’t lack any good idea (or even inspiration), sometimes, we simply don’t feel like writing. It’s the same with laziness. For one reason or another, we don’t write, either because we’re not in the mood, or if we have other, more pressing concerns. Of course the question we should now ask ourselves is how much do we want to write? Our will to write should exceed our desire not to. When I was still in the academia as a student, no matter how lazy I was feeling, I always met my deadline, whether it was an essay, a term paper, or a simple written homework. Why? Because I wanted to graduate first and foremost. Did I enjoy the process? Not always. Was I motivated to do my homework? Again, not all the time. But even if I wasn’t, I was motivated by something else (namely to pass my subjects) hence I did it nonetheless. Same goes for work. Now if you don’t prize your schooling or professionalism, a question you have to ask is why do you write. If it’s simply because you feel like doing so, then the path of a professional writer is not for you. If it’s for personal amusement (and when I say personal amusement, I really mean masturbation), then your writing will always be just that. If it’s the art of writing, then your effort will reflect how much you really respect the art. As for time, well, everyone’s busy. We may not pursue writing full-time but we’ll always have time; it’s just spent elsewhere. Some opt to skip an hour of sleep just to write a paragraph or two. Others find time to write during their short breaks at the office. You might also want to give up your leisure time, time you spend watching TV, playing video games, or going out on gimmicks. At that point, you’ll have to gauge your priorities. Is writing more important to you than TV? If so, then write write write! If not, then writing is a leisure activity for you, just as watching TV is. So if you don’t make your deadline, it really shouldn’t bother you in the first place (so don’t pursue a career in writing!).

From personal experience, blogs are one of the easiest things to stop updating (and as I mentioned earlier, I’m not exempt from this). Mainly because most of us blog for unprofessional reasons. It’s for amusement, for our own benefit. Do our readers pay us? No. What penalty will we receive for not updating. Flames at most (tip: don’t flame bloggers whose blogs you want to read). So once again, we enter the internal debate of how important writing is to us, and whether we should drop it altogether to pursue other more enticing activities. I’m not saying writing is the be-all and end-all of things. Sometimes, we simply have to drop writing because of more important, real-world concerns such as family, friends, career, and health. Just don’t be confused which should be prioritized in your life.

No equipment. Thankfully, that’s not called writer’s block. When you have no computer, try the typewriter. If you don’t have a typewriter, try doing it the old fashioned way: pen and paper. It’s a slow, agonizing process but during desperate times, we must make do with what we can. Technology provides us with mobile means of writing though, from PDA’s to mobile phones to laptops. Still, just so you don’t make an excuse not to write when those tools aren’t available, make it a point to bring a notebook and pen wherever you go. At the very least, it’s to list down ideas, so you don’t suffer from the “no good idea” or “no inspiration” excuse.

Whenever I see someone say writer’s block, that’s just another excuse for me. The real dilemma for writers isn’t writer’s block, but either they don’t have the time, effort, or priority. Don’t misunderstand me, good ideas are hard to come by. But it’s not something a lot of time and effort can’t solve. And when it comes to time and effort, people seldom make room for it unless it’s a priority in their lives.

[Essay] Filipino Loyalty

For the most part, Filipinos have proven themselves to be fiercely loyal. When it comes to their families, the statement “blood is thicker than water” rings true. A father would protect his son, even if his son is the guilty party, and the man-of-the-house will support his cousins and other relatives, even if it comes at the expense of his own (and sometimes his own family’s) welfare. There are also Filipinos loyal to those who have been kind to them, even if the aforementioned people are far from the best of role models. There are Marcos loyalists to this day, 20 years after the Martial Law dictatorship ended. And there are even Filipinos who are loyal to ideologies or concepts, which explains the lingering groups of communist parties, or the anti-chacha (anti-charter change) rallies every few years or so. Unfortunately, said loyalty debatably doesn’t carry over to the country itself.

Admittedly, national sense of pride isn’t exactly at an all-time high. Majority of the youth and the populace simply want to leave the country, either migrating abroad of working there. Government policy also doesn’t alleviate the problem. I mean where have you seen a country that praises its citizens for working abroad? Sure, we depend on the remittances of our OFW’s (Overseas Foreign Workers) to help pay for the country’s debts, but what kind of example are we setting when we praise people who work abroad because they can’t find good employment opportunities in the country they were born in? Not to mention the proliferation of “imports” (or the very fact that we have a term for it), and I’m not talking about merchandise. Many sports and TV personalities we favor are of partially Filipino-descent, and the nature of their citizenship only becomes an issue when it’s convenient (or inconvenient, depending on who brings up the matter). Yet while some Filipinos favor Fil-Americans and Fil-Europeans, the same outlook doesn’t extend to their Asian counterparts. The Chinese will always be Chinese to certain segments of the population, even if they’ve lived here all their life and adopted native practices. Filipinos don’t take pride in their Filipino-Chinese community, yet praise their Taiwanese soap-opera heroes and heroines.

Even among Filipinos, not a lot view themselves as part of the whole nation. We identify ourselves by our region or by the dialect we speak. A running joke is a person is asked “Are you a Filipino?” and they would reply “No, I’m [insert local region here],” the practice of which will astound even the optimists. And who do Filipinos vote for during election? Not necessarily the one that’s best for the country, but the one that’s best for their region (although perhaps we’re not unique when it comes to that voting practice). The contradiction is that Filipinos are extremely loyal to the region they belong to (just ask any Cebuano and they’ll proudly tell you they’re Cebuano), but not to their country.

The country’s literature attempts too much to be socially aware, to be socially relevant that it comes at the expense of other genres. But in the end, such books are only patronized by the literati, while the very society it tries to help enjoy their romance novels and celebrity magazines. When it comes to animation and comics, a lot enjoy the products of Japan and America, not realizing that some of the animators, artists, and writers are Filipinos. And when those same people come out with local works or tell people that they’re the ones behind people’s favorites, some can’t help but stare with either disbelief or skepticism. The nation also has lots of indigenous resources, whether cultural, natural, or ideological. Yet who takes the time to invest in such treasures, or recognize such valuables? Is it the local populace, or the foreigners? Look at the martial art arnis; while it has a cult following locally, there’s probably an even bigger following abroad.

Amidst this bleak outlook, perhaps the only thing bleaker are the reaction of the populace. Do we seek to solve the problems we face? Many choose to flee instead, migrating to a different country, not realizing that the places they wish to relocate have problems of their own. What government doesn’t have its own share of corruption and political turmoil? And it’s not really such a big mystery why the West is fascinated by the East, and vice versa; the Philippines is no exception to the disease of familiarity. Of course everyone will claim they have things worse, until they experience first-hand what other people are experiencing. While the Philippines does indeed paint a bleak picture, there are probably other countries which are suffering more. The only difference is that their population is perhaps more hopeful. And for every hundred of Filipinos who are tired of this country, there will always be at least one vanguard who will fight unto death for the country he owes an allegiance to. Some might criticize what can one person do, but change always begins with one man. And there will be the uncounted supporters of the Philippines, be they Filipinos living abroad or in this country of ours; they may not have Filipino blood or even citizenship, but their true loyalties can be seen in their actions. For Filipinos, the question isn’t whether we are capable of being loyal or not, but rather to who we owe our allegiance to.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

[Essay] I'm A Book Snob

There’s this strange phenomenon when it comes to the act of reading books. I mean modern society places a high value on reading: when we talk about books, it’s a sign of intellect, of value, of something worthwhile. And when someone claims that he or she has written a book, we give that person respect. Perhaps this is why many people whose careers doesn’t revolve around writing come out with books of their own: celebrities, politicians, doctors, athletes, etc. By coming out with a book of their own, it’s like saying to the whole world “Hey! I’m smart too!” Getting published is like the cherry on top of an already-impressive resume and adds validation to their success. But as much as we value book reading, how many actually takes the time to do so?

While I’m a voracious reader of books, it would be foolish of me to assume that everyone else is like me. Contrary to popular belief, I think our world is full of readers; just not the type that reads novels. Magazines, video games, comics, blogs, web pages... there’s a proliferation of reading material and people do read these stuff. When you hand them a book though, you can hear them sighing inwardly, and the air stirs with the unasked question: how many pages does it have? Novels, in their big, thick format, have a way of intimidating people. Some people find it an accomplishment if they read a book in a year (and one that’s not required reading, either for school or for work), even if it takes you less than a few days to finish reading one.

Despite its lack of readership, we nonetheless value book reading. I mean how many best-seller lists have we seen, and we may not like the author of the book but we’re nonetheless impressed by their accomplishment. One question we also fail to ask ourselves is if book X is on the best-seller list, why haven’t we read it? Or worse, it’s on our bookshelves, we just haven’t made the time to read it. We talk about book X to our friends, and they claim that they bought the book as well. Have they read it? Yes. Have they finished reading the novel? No. They stopped at this page and that (ranging from single digits to halfway of the book). There’s even the phenomenon of movie-adaptation novels. Just look at Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. I’m not talking about spoilers, but people who watch these movies usually buy the books they were based on. Why? I’m not really sure. Some actually attempt to read the books they bought. Others simply use it as a conversation piece, so that they can say that they have the books. But honestly, these people would prefer to watch the movie (and there’s nothing wrong with that). As an acquaintance of mine said, why bother reading the book when you can watch it on the big screen? Just don’t be pretentious about it.

On the other side of things, since we don’t take the time to read the books we judge, the release of a book isn’t as big as we make it out to be. Sure, you’ve come out with a book. It doesn’t mean you’re intellectual, you’re a gifted writer, or whatever other connotations you want to attach to it. First and foremost, the ability to get published isn’t a matter of skill, but a function of money. If I were a wealthy person, who’s to stop me from publishing my own book? The printer certainly won’t stop me, it’s business for them (especially if you pay on time). My PR would be happy as well for the reasons I stated above. My critics would be against it, but hey, they’re my critics. As for book reviewers, anyone can do a book review; I’ll just label them as critics. Bookstores won’t mind as long as I either pay for shelf space, or actually sell well (good PR substitutes as well). That’s not to say independent publishers are vanity publishers (“I print because I want to stroke my own ego.”), but when someone comes out with a book, I try to think what’s their agenda. And agendas vary; some want to pursue a literary intent (which may or may not be a good thing), some for propaganda purposes, others simply to entertain, to earn, to teach. Each has a different intent and it would be erroneous for us to conclude one general statement for all of them.

Friday, November 18, 2005

[Essay] Points of View

I find it strange at how people will generally tell you that there are several sides to every story, yet when faced with a particular encounter, will seek only one and follow that interpretation as if it were the gospel. It could be something you were taught in school, a statement a friend said, or perhaps your own personal belief. As a writer and a moral human being, I try to view everything in as many perspectives as I can. The quest for truth, after all, will constantly be elusive, and I am far from wise to discern which is true and which is deceitful. Perhaps the best I can hope for is to gather as much information as I can, and make the appropriate judgment.

There are various reasons for having different points of view. Some simply result from a misunderstanding, while others end with much malice involved. Yet people in my experience, more often than not, assume the latter, or when they discover it’s the former, refuse to reconcile. But that’s part of the human experience I guess.

I honestly love giving gifts. I love seeing people happy. Unfortunately, not all gifts are truly gifts: some are tributes, bribes, or even Trojan horses. I once gave a gift to someone I was acquainted with, but didn’t know well enough. On my side of the story, the gift was born of true affection, seeking nothing in return. It was a gesture, a selfish gesture perhaps, but a sincere one nonetheless. I didn’t know any better back then, but the recipient eventually became mad at me. From her point of view, I wasn’t giving a gift. It could have been a bribe to get into her good graces, a show of wealth, or something else entirely. Both of us had good and honorable intentions, yet it ended badly. Was I to blame, or perhaps her? Some of you might say it’s the latter’s fault, that her own paranoia caused the rift. That’s an easy conclusion to say, but who knows what her history was? Perhaps she was betrayed in the past, or had a similar experience: that’s not to justify her actions, mind you, but give them a basis. Some of the best intentions, after all, end badly. That’s true in this case. It reminds me of a commercial by the bank HSBC: two executives, one Asian, one Western, were having dinner at a ramen shop. The latter was trying to impress the former, so he finished his bowl of noodles, since it was rude to leave food on your plate. For the former though, emptying your bowl meant that one had not eaten enough, and that the host lacked generosity Not to be outdone, the Asian host requested more food, while the Western executive continued to eat and eat, not wanting to upset the other party. Obviously conflict arose, but it was not something intentional, but merely because both parties had differing perspectives, and they weren’t aware of it.

Striking something closer to home, I often hear the Filipino phrase hindi ko na problema ‘yon (“that’s not my problem”). I hear it in the workplace, with the people I talk to, and sometimes even my friends. Most people, I think, want to live in a specialized world, where all they need to focus on is their tiny but specific duty. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work that way. For employees like me, we have bosses, and people above us in the hierarchy ladder (or simply people who’s tasks are entwined with ours, but we have no control over). For employers, there are several factors governing them, from economic variables, their target market, the government, and perhaps even rivals. Now when someone approaches me to do something, they want immediate results. I want immediate results as well, but some tasks assigned to me is beyond my power. It could be waiting for my boss to approve something, or waiting for a coworker to do this and that task. When I give my reasons to the other party, they don’t want excuses. They utter the all-too familiar phrase. Yet when the tables are reversed, they blame their bosses, their coworkers, the government, virtually everyone else. Now I’m understanding and I know when you can’t bleed blood out of stone. But other people are not as considerate. My coworker was recently requesting a permit from a certain company. Now I was tasked with talking to the other party, and much like Murphy’s Law in action, the other side didn’t have the permit ready yet. They said that everything was done, and that they were just waiting for their boss to sign the form. Now I understand that situation, and I’ve faced it myself often. So did my coworker. Yet when I relayed that message to my coworker, she was infuriated, again stating the familiar phrase. She’s experienced such a situation herself, yet expect others to climb out of a hole she herself can’t escape. The problem I have with the statement “that’s not my problem” is that it lacks empathy; we make a separation between us and the other person, when in truth we actually share a lot of things in common. It’s separating our problems from theirs, when in actuality, they’re interconnected. Does conflict arise in such a situation? Yes. The perspectives are actually the same; we just refuse to acknowledge that the other side’s excuse is as valid as ours. Your problem is my problem; that’s why I’m so affected by it. I know it’s out of your hands, yet I blame you nonetheless. And that is perhaps the root cause of this problem: we want someone to blame other than ourselves. When people complain about the government, not solving do they ask themselves what they would do if they were in the politician’s place? Sometimes the solutions we come up with are no better than those of our scapegoats.

Ever been in the middle of a conflict between friends? They’d tell differing accounts, each one portraying the other to be the villain. For example, I have this friend who had a quarrel with his girlfriend (let’s call him Friend A). I also have this friend who’s a friend of the girlfriend (let’s call her Friend B). Now Friend A and Friend B will tell identical accounts… up to a certain point. From that point on, it’s either Friend A that’s the villain, or the girlfriend that was in error. Obviously, Friend A and Friend B were telling the truth up to a certain point. After that, some lies and confusion have been mixed in. Now there are several causes for that. I’m sure some of you have experienced exaggerating a story, and have it grow in the telling. The original story might involve ten people, then when passed on it becomes twenty people, then thirty, until it reaches a thousand. The more people it passes through, the greater the inconsistency. Or it could be something intentional, people blinding themselves and others to the whole story. In high school, I got into this fight with one of my classmates during PE class. He hit me in the nose, giving me a nosebleed. When the teacher asked me what happened, I told him my classmate hit me in the nose because I constantly kept blocking him in the basketball game. Which was true. What I didn’t tell my teacher was that my classmate goes so infuriated with me constantly blocking him that he elbowed me in the stomach, causing me great pain. In retaliation, I spat at his face, and he retaliated in return with the punch. Would my omission have changed who was wrong? Perhaps not, but it’s an important piece in the gigantic puzzle of human conflict. My case probably would have been less sympathetic had I mentioned it, yet I deluded myself that it didn’t matter. I didn’t plan on omitting that part yet when it came to the situation of attaching blame, yet I did. It’s not something I’m proud of, yet people twist their narratives in small but integral ways: it could be omitting some events, or a small lie. Friend A, for example, after a series of reasons for breaking up, mentioned that his girlfriend cheated once on him. Yet when I talked tot Friend B, it was the reverse: it wasn’t the girlfriend that cheated but Friend A. Of course that wasn’t the only reason for the conflict (many reasons were stated) but it could be that one fact that swings your opinion of the person. Truth mixed with lies, sometimes intentional, sometimes delusional; digging into the heart of the matter is more difficult to ponder than an outright lie, and is perhaps one of the easiest things to assuage our conscience, even if we were the ones at fault.

In grade school, two people who bullied me were friends (let’s call them Bully A and Bully B). Now in order to start fights, Bully A would tell lies to their target. “Person X said this about you,” Bully A would say, while Bully B would confirm that statement. That way, my classmates would get into fights that wouldn’t have started. Or if the person refused to be intimidated by the insult, either Bully A or would Be would chide the person to fight and keep pressing him on the whole day. “He said this and that about you, you’ll just let that pass?” was something they’d say. Now both Bully A and Bully B were in the business of spreading lies. The thing I found funny and ironic is that when Bully A told lies to Bully B, the latter didn’t realize it, despite having known Bully A for quite some time. One quarrel Bully A wanted was between me and Bully B, so he told Bully B that I insulted him, despite not doing so. Of course Bully B believed him, and we started to quarrel despite me constantly denying what Bully A said. Now that’s simply malice. It’s not a fact that was twisted to their own purpose, but sheer spite. The statement had no basis, yet it was believed. Both sides have entirely different accounts, and obviously, one of them is lying. But who do people believe? I mean Bully B knew Bully A’s track record of lies and deceit yet it was him who he believed, not me. Just goes to show that people don’t always believe what’s rational, but what they want to believe. Just look at people’s opinions. Supporters of FPJ believe that president GMA poisoned him. Local conspiracy theorists believe that as well, along with the other crimes of GMA. More level-headed people attribute GMA to graft and corruption, but not outright assassination, at least that of FPJ.

So you have these four scenarios for conflict, each with differing perspectives. Which one is the correct one, and how do we find out who’s telling the truth. A conclusion some people might come up with is that we go with the vote of the majority. I mean surely there were a lot of witnesses to verify the truth, hence the majority of believers of which side was right.. But that’s not an accurate measure of what really happened. Many people believe rumors, and they aren’t always true. A majority vote only proves how effective your propaganda is, not whether you’re truly innocent or not. I mean in the scenario of me giving gifts, the only people who’ll know my side of the story is if they ask me, and what if I’m an unpopular guy? Or worse, people take the other person’s story at face value. So it merely ends up as a race of who tells the story first. Or in the case of Friend A and Friend B, it becomes a popularity contest: who knows the most friends? So the real story, again, becomes elusive, and we’re left with these multiple views. What’s the use of having multiple perspectives if you can’t discern which is right? (Some would even settle for merely knowing which is wrong.)

There are telltale signs though. In the case of Bully A, Bully B, and me, it comes down to character. While it doesn’t always work (since some people do become repentant of their ways, and just because you’re a liar doesn’t meet you always lie), integrity can lead us to who’s right and who’s wrong. Bully B, after all, knows Bully A’s personality. I’m surprised he didn’t doubt Bully A’s word. It’s like the reverse of the Boy Who Cried Wolf: believe the liar. Of course such tactics are less clear. In the case of Friend A and Friend B for example, who’s the liar there? If you didn’t know them very well, it’s hard to tell. But I was very familiar with both of them, and it’s not the first time that Friend A had a case of manipulated truth: stories which were identical to the other side, except with a few details altered. Of course I could be wrong and he might have been innocent this time, but one’s previous actions are the only thing I have going for me. Others need more investigation, whether comparing other accounts, or digging up more information. Did president GMA poison FPJ? An autopsy report would solve that. And at times, there’s no real conflict to be resolved: we just want to attach blame. It’s like blaming an employee for the faults of his or her employer, even if the employee is powerless to change the company’s policies.

People often think that their point of view is the best one. I, however, think there’s a certain flaw in that kind of reasoning. How can we come to a valid conclusion if we’re so self-centered? Do we know what the poverty-stricken feel by remaining in our ivory towers? Do we find the answers to our questions without doing research, but solve it through sheer cognitive will? The best way is perhaps to view it from another person’s point of view, and understand their motivations. We’ll still come up with our own conclusions, but it’s a theory based on the experience of others, and not just ours.

Friday, November 11, 2005

[Essay] Since When Did I Become An Optimist?

You know the person who’s present at public gatherings, yet does nothing but sulk in a corner? And when you attempt a conversation, you sense the lack of enthusiasm, and the person seems to be more concerned about his or her own personal problems rather than the topic at hand? Perhaps it’s so emotionally painful to talk to such a person because you feel your spirit seep out of you, as if the he or she was slowly leeching at your life. While sycophants prey on the popularity of others, this one does the reverse: no matter how humble you are or how optimistic you’re feeling, you simply get drained.

Not so long ago, I was one of these people. When people speak of auras, mine was several meters long. Whenever I’d see people, depression would kick in because of the loneliness I felt. This, in turn, would drive other people away, causing me more grief. Thus it was a self-perpetuating cycle, an ouroboros of self-pity. Any rational person would see how illogical this behavior was, yet emotion never subscribed to reason.

What I noticed during this time is that, well, negative emotions are contagious. When you feel sad, other people can’t help but feel sad as well, unless they distance themselves from you. As much as other people determine who we are, we also determine who we are, and how other people treat us. If you want to be treated with pity, then feel pitiful for yourself. Perhaps a tactic some beggars use in this poverty-stricken country of ours is to look and feel sorry for themselves, as if fate has been cruel to them and all that’s left are the scraps the benevolent are willing to give. With such an attitude, you can’t help but feel sorry for them (being the “benevolent” person that you are), and they in turn won’t change their lifestyle short of divine intervention.

Of course it’s also strange to see a happy, well-off man in constant company of such a pessimistic fellow. The old adage birds of the same feather flock together ring true more than opposites attract, despite what soap operas on TV might profess. Perhaps a better example would be who do you go to when you want to mad or angry at someone? Do you hang out with optimistic people, who might make your concerns seem trivial, or unjustified? Or would you rather be with similarly angst-filled men and women who can relate with your rage, and provide input of their own? Angry people in the company of other angry people make a very angry crowd.

This basic concept is what makes mob rule prevalent. You have angry people, agitated people, and apathetic men and women. In a span of a few minutes and after some bolstering on the part of the angry people, the entire group soon becomes, well, a mob. Even the apathetic ones are rallied into the cause of the wrathful, because emotions are contagious.

Yet what’s sad is that the opposite is not always true. While people do congregate to bolster themselves in positive ways, have you ever had a scenario where someone you now fared significantly better than you? It could be a relative, a good friend, or an acquaintance. While we feel happy for them, a tiny spark in us feels selfish. It’s called jealousy. We ask ourselves why it didn’t happen to us, especially if it’s a peer we’re more or less familiar with. Celebrities, politicians, and heroes are someone we elevate ahead of us. When a local athlete wins an international competition, we feel happy for him. When a friend becomes that athlete and gains the acclaim of our fellow friends, it might be fair to say that we feel both happiness and jealousy. The problem with the latter is that if we repress it too much, it spreads like a malignant poison. It’s not evident at first but later on, happiness makes way for jealousy. We become spiteful of the positive emotions around us; in other words, we become a cynic.

But jealousy is not the only emotion that keeps us apart. Do you have friends whom you can’t really relate to? I mean one girl I know is full of bubbly cheer. She always smiles, is often positive, and speaks in a high, perky voice. While acquainting with her is fine, the moment I rant, it’s simply brushed off by all her enthusiasm. And what I mean by brushed off, you explain your case yet you don’t get the reaction you expect. Human beings really want yes-men as their companions. Or at least someone who can relate to your struggles, even if they won’t always agree with your opinions. In my previously mentioned scenario, she completely circumvents that because our emotional thresholds are too far apart (she’s too far on the positive side, while I’m too far on the negative). So expectations can also keep people apart, in the long term if not in the short term.

So where does that leave us? Are human beings destined to live our the rest of their existence lonely and full of negative cheer? One fact many people forget is free will. As much as external factors can affect how we feel, we can also choose what to feel. Now some people might point out that emotion isn’t something we control: if someone scratches you, you feel pain. It’s not a choice of whether you feel pain or not. Well, let me clarify. Emotion probably has two levels: an immediate effect and a lasting effect. If a mosquito bites you, the first sensation you feel is pain. That’s what I call the immediate effect. You feel the pain. What happens next is the lasting effect, and is perhaps what we can control. I mean one common reaction we can do is bitch about the insect bite, and talk about it all day. How it ruins our skin, how it makes our arm itch, how it was unlucky of us. That, however, is merely one perspective we can take. Other people can move on, and simply view it as a daily fact. That’s a more neutrally-centered emotion. Or some people can even see it as a blessing, that they’re still capable of feeling and staying in touch with the world (and a rare few will probably be happy that they were able to feed an insect). Now those three emotions are something we can control. Granted, our “default” emotion might be different (the first time I get bitten, my instinct might be to rant about it), but we can always alter our perspectives. I mean I still get bitten by mosquitoes, but instead of complaining about it all day, I usually do something more practical, such as swatting it or rubbing my skin with alcohol (mosquito-repellants aren’t really for me). Did I feel pain when I was bitten? Slightly. Did I let it affect my whole day? No. Which goes to show how self-control, and perhaps optimism can carry you to another level.

But wait, what does that have to do with our topic? Well, as much as negative emotions are contagious, a strong will can negate the pessimistic feelings other people are exuding. Just because I’m with a grumpy old man doesn’t mean I have to be grumpy too. Granted, that’s not always the case. Even the most stalwart of human beings might give in to mob rule or peer pressure, given the proper circumstance. In such a case, what’s there left to do? The answer is to simply avoid such situations. I mean if you’re prone to drunkenness, don’t go to a bar, even if you tell yourself at the start you won’t drink. Or in the case of short-tempered friends and you want to keep your cool, don’t hang around with them too much (note that I said too much… ostracizing friends isn’t exactly the best recommendation you know).

As for my aura of despair and depression, well, I do follow my own advice. Which is probably why there’s always a hint of hope in whatever I write. As far as emotions go though, be wary of them. Because they’re infectious, and you’re not just affecting yourself, but other people as well.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

On The Chronicles of Narnia

Weta workshop seems to be racking in the epics as they made the costume and set design for Peter Jackson’s epic movie Lord of the Rings and now The Chronicles of Narnia, which is based on C.S. Lewis’s highly successful children’s book series. Of course it’s worth noting that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis lived in the same milieu, and the two are actually good friends.

Personally, the Narnia books strike me as something controversial. I’m not a big fan of Tolkien, and I’m even much less a fan of C.S. Lewis. Philip Pullman, a young adult writer, dislikes Lewis, and his best-selling, award winning His Dark Materials trilogy is actually a reaction to The Chronicles of Narnia. As for his opinions on the yet-unreleased movie, he has several complaints on the subject matter. Some scoff his arguments as petty jealousy, resentment, or a publicity stunt to boost the sales of his own books. Does his arguments have merit?

The problem with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and its sequels deal with values. Many works of fantasy draw as inspiration various myths. In the case of Lewis’s successful work (along with his science-fiction and philosophy writings), his basis was Christianity. Now the initial reaction of many would say that’s a good thing. Closer inspection though and actual reading of The Chronicles of Narnia would reveal that Lewis was a product of his time, and shares a more conservative stance on religion. Now I don’t have a problem with the pilot book (and most well-known in the series) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I do with the others. In one of the later books, for example, it’s revealed that one of the characters is deemed as less than savory simply because she adopts a tomboyish (i.e. wears pants) lifestyle. Pullman does have basis for his arguments, but just because there is proof does not mean the argument ends.

An issue with literature is its struggle to keep up with the times. Classics have stopped being classics simply because they’re now viewed as unacceptable, such as a book referring to African Americans as niggers is now labeled as racism. The Chronicles of Narnia comes under similar scrutiny. One camp in general defends these books that some might consider outdated, stating that they are nonetheless classics and merely reflect their era. Others, on the other hand, are less forgiving, and deem that such books should stop being required reading for their children. Both sides have good points, although in the end, it’s up to the individual to decide what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. On my side, do I really want children to be influenced by the conservative views Lewis had? (Lewis considered teaching women a waste of his time, for example.) Yet the literati in me shudders at the thought of a body of work sentenced to extinction simply because it was deemed “inappropriate”.

Narnia is also a controversial issue for me because it contains the seeds for both acceptance and denial of the fantasy genre in Christianity. The genre of fantasy, unfortunately, is discouraged by the church, more so among the Protestant folk. This, of course, is not without basis. Fantasy novels and short stories usually contain magical elements and unfortunately, the Bible considers any form of sorcery as tools of the devil. This isn’t helped by the way media has sensationalized various fantasy icons, whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons, video games, and certain RPGs. So is it a sin to read a fantasy book? No. But one side of the church states that there are those prone to such weaknesses, whether it’s juxtaposing fiction with non-fiction (which is one of their fears when it comes to The Da Vinci Code), or taking it too seriously. Again, the question we must ask is whether such fears are justified. Well, in a certain way, yes. I mean in any group, there will always be someone who will harness it for the wrong ends. A knife, for example, has many uses, from cooking to carving to a useful tool in general. There’ll always be a chance though that someone will use the knife to stab someone. That’s the same fear the church has with fantasy books, except you know, you don’t ban knives from people just because there’s a possibility that they might harm other people (or in the case of children, themselves) using it.

Now I’m not saying the banning of fantasy books is a cardinal rule. It’s a gray area at best, and some people take extreme lengths, while others possess more tolerant views. Some people consider the Harry Potter books inappropriate even without reading it (or taking the word of their priests/pastors), while others have a more liberal view. Still, don’t be surprised at the vehement condemnation of a practitioner at something like Harry Potter. I’m just surprised that they haven’t focused on the biggest fish of them all, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is the father of modern adult fantasy. (Perhaps Tolkien’s association with Lewis had something to do with it. Which brings me to my next point.)

The exception, of course, is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the rest of the books in the series, mainly due to its Christianity-based lore. Never mind the fact that the protagonists uses magic as well, even if it’s for the side of “good” (as if fantasy novels never portrayed heroes using magic for the good of all). The church’s tolerance of The Chronicles of Narnia is something of a double standard. I mean on one hand, they’re proclaiming that fantasy is a gray area. On the other hand, they’re giving The Chronicles of Narnia their full support, and is actually one of the few works of fiction that I see on the shelves of Christian bookstores.

Of course it’s interesting to note that while Christian belief and the church in general has evolved over the years (despite what some of them might deny), the values The Chronicles of Narnia teaches hasn’t, simply because it’s a text set in stone. There’ll be new interpretations of it, but the fact that it does possess ethnocentrism, for example, can never be invalidated. I find it ironic that the church is opting for tolerance of humanity (i.e. forgiveness of sins, caring for your neighbor, etc.) in general, yet one of the books that they promote breeds intolerance. Of course Narnia will appeal to the more conservative practitioners of Christianity, especially with Lewis’s rather zealous stance.

On a more optimistic side, Christianity has broken its own rule by accepting The Chronicles of Narnia as part of their doctrine. In supporting The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is also inadvertently supporting the very genre it has rallied against. Which gives hope for the fantasy genre to perhaps gain more acceptance in the future.