“Then I pick up my pen, and I start to write” – Neil Gaiman’s “The View from the Cheap Seats”

In 2008, when I was doing my PhD at the Uni of Manchester, I went to a reading by Neil Gaiman. He was reading from his newest novel, The Graveyard Book, and I had just read Coraline, and maybe Stardust. After the reading, he did a signing, and when it was my turn, I asked him whether he ever scared himself while writing. I was thinking, at the time, of how unbelievably creepy Coraline had been, button eyes and not-quite-right parents, and of how whenever I write something scary, I have to be careful to stop writing before night falls. The venue he had given the reading in was gothic and shadowy, and footsteps echoed and faded sharply, as if sound itself was a living thing in that place, scuttling to and fro.

I can’t remember what he answered – something along the lines of he’d never thought about that before. I wish I did remember. His voice was slow, a little tired maybe. It was late, in that way of the early-falling dark of winter evenings.He signed my copy of Coraline – he drew me a little rat to go with his autograph.

I remembered this, all of a sudden, when I was almost to the end of The View from the Cheap Seats, and I went looking for the book. I found Stardust, and The Graveyard Book – I can’t find Coraline, or my little rat. They may still be in London, along with a bunch of other books I’ve inadvertently left with my very patient sister.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Neil Gaiman at the time, which is a pity, but I’m not quite sure why. Coraline and Stardust and The Graveyard Book are familiar to me, shiveringly familiar, in that same way that Tim Burton’s work is familiar. They’re stories you know from your childhood, retold – uncovered, maybe, from their half-remembered state. Gaiman speaks a lot to the trick of following something real and true in fiction – his stories do that.

But since then, Gaiman’s non-fiction has moved me. Everyone knows the stirring, itch-inducing Make Good Art; his report from Syria in 2014 and speech on libraries have also touched me in the years since I finished my PhD.

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The View from the Cheap Seats, a collection of Gaiman’s speeches, interviews, introductory essays, liner notes and other non-fiction, is massive at 500 pages, and not, I think, to be read all in one go. Partly because of the nature of the essays and speeches, and how they’ve been grouped together in sections, it gets mildly repetitive at some points, and it’s easy to get distracted by stylistic crutches and quirks.

If you can refrain from downing this tome in one gulp, then you will have a wonderful time I think. Gaiman is a devastatingly generous writer – the section on “Some People I have Known” is loving and compassionate and admiring and admirable. His thoughts on genre, especially sci-fi, are clever and thoughtful, as are his articulations on the comics industry. The titular essay, “The View from the Cheap Seats”, also known as “A Nobody Goes to the Oscars”, is a beautifully understated elegy on grief, “about being out on the days when you would best be at home, and melancholy”. His words on making art, on writing, just make you want to go off and write something, anything. Everything.

I keep coming back to that word, “generous”. More than anything, Gaiman’s non-fiction has heart and generosity – he is generous with his ideas, with his conception of humanity and of the world, in his perception of the people around him. I’ve said before – I think with reference at the time to Lindy West’s Shrill – that non-fiction works best for me when there is something in the writer to admire, to really admire, and there is…plenty of that here.

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