Thanks to May Anne who posted a link from Nocturne which had an audio file of the Jam 88.3 interview.
Erin*: First of all, hi!
Erin: So how do you like the Philippines here so far? How was it for you?
Neil: I think I probably have an odd perspective on the Philippines right now. Because while I think it’s wonderful, all I think of when I think of the Philippines is three thousand people shouting very loudly to express their enthusiasm and signing the people until 1:30 in the morning. They’re so nice, they’re so enthusiastic and they’re so terribly terribly terribly terrifyingly happy.
Erin: As you probably know by now, you have a lot of fans here. So who is your favorite writer, or what is your favorite book?
Neil: That’s such a hard one. I just bought a book in Italy that I’ve been looking for for some years and I’ve been looking for a copy called Codex Seraphina which is a book by an artist and it’s written in a language that doesn’t appear to bear any relationship to any alphabet that any human being has ever come up with and it’s filled with drawings that make no sense in a glorious way because they appear to make sense. There are plants and a people who, and things that seem some kind of wonderful book that fell here from another planet. And I’ve been looking for one for ages, I’ve heard about it and copies are very few and far between. I finally found one in a tiny bookshelf in Balonia Italy. And right now that’s my favorite book just because it could be anything. I look at the pages and I make up stories, anything that causes me to make up stories is good. But somebody in Singapore asked me if I had to run into the house to save any book, what would it be. And that was scary because I got thousands and thousands of books, many of which I love and, but I thought you know, I’m probably gonna rescue would be a book that I bought in a very old house where they had, three times a year they’d sell books absorbed converted hospital. And the old man who ran it, Mr. McCosh**, looked like Santa Claus’s anorexic older brother. Long white beard and gaze at you over his spectacles. He sold books and every single time it’ll riddle in awe and show at cubicle had been filled with shelves and put books. Three times a year the public could come in. And I was wondering around there and I found a book that was, about two feet long, one foot thick, huge thick leather cover, about a hundred and fifty years old, and when I opened it, it turned out to be like an account book. Writing business accounts in and it was numbered pages, number one to five hundred. And each page sat flat and it was this book from the 1850s and it was completely unwritten in, and I bought it promising myself one day I would write a book in it. And I haven’t dared yet, even making a mark upon the paper. I think I’d rescue that.
Erin: A lot of people say Delirium was based on singer Tori Amos. Is there any other character that has been created by you that was based on anyone else that you know of?
Neil: Well you know, you sort of, you always steal little things from people. I mean Delirium, lots of people do know that Delirium is based on Tori, but that’s not actually true because I did not actually meet Tori until, I was writing I think I was in the middle of A Game of You when we actually met for the first time. But I met her, and it was like, oh my God, you’re my character! I know you! And after that, I cheerfully installed things that she said and give them to Delirium. My favorite was, once, when we were in, we met in Minneapolis and we were up in her room eating pizza sitting on the floor and she suddenly looked at me and she said, yeah we must jump up and down, up and down, and run around and around. And so we jumped up and down on the bed twenty minutes, that’s what we do. And my new novel, Anansi Boys, for example, there isn’t a character in it who’s based on my friend playing Henry***, who’s an English comedian and actor. But the novel itself wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t friends with Henry and if we hadn’t chatted and if I didn’t have his sort of voice at the back of my head. So Anansi owes a lot to him. There’s an evil agent named Graham Coats who is flat-out naughty character I ever created, who owes an awful lot to an ex-agent of mine, who was not actually as far as I can tell a particularly evil person, that was just completely useless. But there was this point when I started thinking, what if she wasn’t useless, what if she actually been doing this stuff intentionally? What if, actually she was just completely and utterly incompetent. But if she’d been evil, and if the money had been going off to the Canan Islands or something, and then I started creating this marvelous agent who was, you know, built more of his, built more of his plans facing overnight.
Erin: Last question. I’m just amazed by your writing style and how you phrase your words just right. Were most of them inspired from, when you talk to other people or do you just make them up in your head?
Neil: Mostly, they come out of my own head. Every now and then, somebody will say something wonderful and I’d remember it, and use it at the right time. In the film MirrorMask that I’ve been working on, probably the best line is actually stolen from a friend who, because it’s about a girl who works in a circus, and at one point her mother says to her, like all those kids out there, you really are ungrateful because all those kids out there, they’re watching and laughing and enjoying the circus. And she says well, I wanna run off and join real life. And that came out of a friend of mine who used to be in the circus and she told me that you know, it was easier for you people when you got to any big town because they’d run off to join real work. And I go okay, let me remember that. But mostly, the process of writing is a process of sitting and making things up and writing it down, and framing it up with a perfect line, and trying to come up with a perfect line for your character. I’m a great believer in the idea that good writing should be a simple and as elegant and used as few words and uses, you know, just be as elegant as you can possibly make it. I’ve never been a believer in using big words for the sake of impressing people. Especially because if you use big words for the sake of impressing people, you tend to do that thing where you actually wind up not quite knowing what that big word you used means and saying something that isn’t quite what you mean. Which I find a lot of American writers who have gone through their MFA’s and they are now, gone through their creative writing courses and yet reading these things, okay you don’t know what that word means. You think you do, but you’re wrong. You looked it up in a thesaurus, and it doesn’t mean that. I love the idea of communicating. I love the idea of people who, if people who read what you write are going to understand what you wrote, which I think gets even more exciting for you when you do something like a children’s book. Something like Coraline where you’re intentionally writing with a, not huge vocabulary, and you’re intentionally writing with words that, you know trust most a kid will learn while the rest of them will be a few cool words to learn and impress your brethren. But, it’s sorts of the way you deploy those words. And if you can just deploy them like, you can make people happy or you can make them cry or you can make them never forget something.
Erin: Thank you very much.
Neil: You are very welcome. Thank you.
* Also known as Nissie to her friends, Erin wrote a book review for Coraline which won her this contest. She’s cosplayed the character Death in a local convention, and her hobbies include reading, gaming, drawing, writing, web design, and stitching.
** Mr. Melvin McCosh was a bookstore owner (hence the extensive book collection) from Minneapolis. The place is actually the Svithoid Home, a former retirement home that did not have enough rest rooms which caused the health department to close it down, after which Mr. McCosh moved in. During Mr. McCosh’s residency, it was a 42-room mansion filled with stacks of books. He moved out in December 2004 and the place was demolished.
*** Referring to Lenny Henry, a friend of Neil who’s doing the audio book of Anansi Boys. He’s also won the BBC British Personality of the Year Award and the Edric Connor Inspiration to the Black People Award.