The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman by Neil Gaiman - Read Online
The View from the Cheap Seats
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Summary

An enthralling collection of nonfiction essays on a myriad of topics—from art and artists to dreams, myths, and memories—observed in #1 New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman’s probing, amusing, and distinctive style.

An inquisitive observer, thoughtful commentator, and assiduous craftsman, Neil Gaiman has long been celebrated for the sharp intellect and startling imagination that informs his bestselling fiction. Now, The View from the Cheap Seats brings together for the first time ever more than sixty pieces of his outstanding nonfiction. Analytical yet playful, erudite yet accessible, this cornucopia explores a broad range of interests and topics, including (but not limited to): authors past and present; music; storytelling; comics; bookshops; travel; fairy tales; America; inspiration; libraries; ghosts; and the title piece, at turns touching and self-deprecating, which recounts the author’s experiences at the 2010 Academy Awards in Hollywood.

Insightful, incisive, witty, and wise, The View from the Cheap Seats explores the issues and subjects that matter most to Neil Gaiman—offering a glimpse into the head and heart of one of the most acclaimed, beloved, and influential artists of our time.

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ISBN: 9780062262288
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Introduction

I fled, or at least, backed awkwardly away from journalism because I wanted the freedom to make things up. I did not want to be nailed to the truth; or to be more accurate, I wanted to be able to tell the truth without ever needing to worry about the facts.

And now, as I type this, I am very aware of a huge pile of paper on the table beside me, with words written by me on every sheet of the paper, all written after my exit from journalism, in which I try very hard to get my facts as right as I can.

I fail sometimes. For example, I am assured by the Internet that it is not actually true that the illiteracy rates of ten- and eleven-year-olds are used as a measure by which future prison cells are built, but it is definitely true that I was told this at an event at which the then–head of education in New York assured us that this was the case. And this morning, listening to the BBC news, I learned that half of all prisoners in the UK have the reading age of an eleven-year-old, or below.

This book contains speeches, essays and introductions. Some of the introductions made it into this volume because I love the author or the book in question, and I hope my love will be contagious. Others are here because, somewhere in that introduction, I did my best to explain something that I believe to be true, something that might even be important.

The authors from whom I learned my craft, over the years, were often evangelists. Peter S. Beagle wrote an essay called Tolkien’s Magic Ring, which I read as a small boy and which gave me Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. A few years later H. P. Lovecraft, in a long essay, and after him Stephen King, in a short book, both told me about authors and stories that had shaped horror, and without whom my life would be incomplete. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote essays, and I would track down the books she talked about to illustrate her ideas. Harlan Ellison was a generous writer, and in his essays and collections he pointed me at so many authors. The idea that writers could enjoy books, sometimes even be influenced by them, and point other people at the works that they had loved, seemed to me to make absolute sense. Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.

I hope that, somewhere in here, I will talk about a creator or their work—a book, perhaps, or even a film or a piece of music—that will intrigue you.

I am writing this in a notebook, with a baby on my lap. He grunts and squeaks in his sleep. He makes me happy, but he also makes me feel vulnerable: old fears, long forgotten, creep out from shadowy places.

Some years ago a writer not much older than I am now told me (not bitterly, but matter-of-factly) that it was a good thing that I, as a young writer, did not have to face the darkness that he faced every day, the knowledge that his best work was behind him. And another, in his eighties, told me that what kept him going every day was the knowledge that his best work was still out there, the great work that he would one day do.

I aspire to the condition of the second of my friends. I like the idea that one day I’ll do something that really works, even if I fear that I’ve been saying the same things for over thirty years. As we get older, each thing we do, each thing we write reminds us of something else we’ve done. Events rhyme. Nothing quite happens for the first time anymore.

I have written many introductions to books of my own. They are long, and describe the circumstances under which the pieces in the book were written. This, on the other hand, is a short introduction, and most of these pieces will stand alone, unexplained.

This book is not the complete nonfiction of Neil Gaiman. It is, instead, a motley bunch of speeches and articles, introductions and essays. Some of them are serious and some of them are frivolous and some of them are earnest and some of them I wrote to try and make people listen. You are under no obligation to read them all, or to read them in any particular order. I put them into an order that felt like it made some kind of sense—mostly speeches and suchlike at the beginning, more personal, heartfelt writing at the end. Lots of miscellaneous writing, articles and explanations, about literature, film, comics and music, cities and life, in the middle.

There is writing in here about things and people that are close to my heart. There’s some of my life in here, too: I tend to write about things from wherever I am standing, and that means I include possibly too much me in the things I write.

And now, before we close and I leave you to the words, a few thank-yous.

Thank you to all the editors who commissioned these pieces. Thank you isn’t a big enough expression of gratitude for Kat Howard, who went through so many of my articles and introductions, and decided which ones would make it into this book and which ones would be thrust into darkness, who put them into some kind of sensible order a dozen times just so that I could say, I have another idea . . . (I also complicated things for her every time she was certain she had everything she needed by saying, Well, I already wrote about that in my essay about . . . , and rummaging around on the hard disk or clambering up dusty shelves until we found it). Kat is a saint (probably Joan of Arc come round again). Thank you to Shield Bonnichsen, who found an essay we didn’t have a copy of anywhere else. Thank you to Christine Di Crocco and Cat Mihos for finding things, typing them and generally helping and being wonderful.

Thank-yous also in abundance to Merrilee Heifetz, my agent; Jennifer Brehl, my American editor; to Jane Morpeth, my UK editor; and, ever and always, to Amanda Palmer, my remarkable wife.

Neil Gaiman

I

SOME THINGS I BELIEVE

I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will, eventually, win.

Credo

I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast.

I believe that you can set your own ideas against ideas you dislike. That you should be free to argue, explain, clarify, debate, offend, insult, rage, mock, sing, dramatize, and deny.

I do not believe that burning, murdering, exploding people, smashing their heads with rocks (to let the bad ideas out), drowning them or even defeating them will work to contain ideas you do not like. Ideas spring up where you do not expect them, like weeds, and are as difficult to control.

I believe that repressing ideas spreads ideas.

I believe that people and books and newspapers are containers for ideas, but that burning the people who hold the ideas will be as unsuccessful as firebombing the newspaper archives. It is already too late. It is always too late. The ideas are already out, hiding behind people’s eyes, waiting in their thoughts. They can be whispered. They can be written on walls in the dead of night. They can be drawn.

I believe that ideas do not have to be correct to exist.

I believe you have every right to be perfectly certain that images of god or prophet or human that you revere are sacred, and undefilable, just as I have the right to be certain of the sacredness of speech, and of the sanctity of the right to mock, comment, to argue and to utter.

I believe I have the right to think and say the wrong things. I believe your remedy for that should be to argue with me or to ignore me, and that I should have the same remedy for the wrong things that I believe you think.

I believe that you have the absolute right to think things that I find offensive, stupid, preposterous or dangerous, and that you have the right to speak, write, or distribute these things, and that I do not have the right to kill you, maim you, hurt you, or take away your liberty or property because I find your ideas threatening or insulting or downright disgusting. You probably think some of my ideas are pretty vile too.

I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will, eventually, win. Because the ideas are invisible, and they linger, and, sometimes, they can even be true.

Eppur si muove: and yet it moves.


Parts of this were first published in the January 19, 2015, issue of the Guardian, with accompanying illustrations by Chris Riddell. It was first published in its complete form in the New Statesman of May 27, 2015, illustrated by Dave McKean.


Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013

It’s important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of member’s interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

And I am biased, enormously and obviously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about thirty years I have been earning my living through my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I’m biased as a writer.

But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.

And I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. A charity which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals, and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And it’s that change, and that act of reading, that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.

Once in New York, I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons—a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth—how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, fifteen years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based about asking what percentage of ten- and eleven-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one-to-one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something incredibly simple. Literate people read fiction, and fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end . . .

. . . that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a postliterate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but these days, those noises are gone: words are more important than they ever were. We navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the Web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we’re reading.

People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only get you so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was R. L. Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness.

There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to someone encountering it for the first time. You don’t discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is the gateway drug to other books you may prefer them to read. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the twenty-first-century equivalents of Victorian improving literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy.

(Also do not do what this author did when his eleven-year-old daughter was into R. L. Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, saying, If you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her early teenage years, and still glares at me whenever Stephen King’s name is mentioned.)

The second thing that fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read that will be vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if escapist fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armor: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As C.S. Lewis reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books if there are.

I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in my summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on interlibrary loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and they would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader—nothing less, nothing more—which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

Libraries are about Freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the twenty-first century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But to think that is to fundamentally miss the point.

I think it has to do with nature of information.

Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories—they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003. That’s about five exabytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

Libraries are places that people go for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before—books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, a place that people, who may not have computers, who may not have Internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, over twenty years before the Kindle showed up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath resistant, solar operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and Web content.

A library is a place that is a repository of, and gives every citizen equal access to, information. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and e-mail, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realizing that they are, quite literally, stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, England is the only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account.

Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce. And while politicians blame the other party for these results, the truth is, we need to teach our children to read and to enjoy reading.

We need libraries. We need books. We need literate citizens.

I do not care—I do not believe it matters—whether these books are paper or digital, whether you are reading on a scroll or scrolling on a screen. The content is the important thing.

But a book is also the content, and that’s important.

Books are the way that the dead communicate with us. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, the way that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us—as readers, as writers, as citizens: we have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. We have an obligation to use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers—and especially writers for children, but all writers—have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were—to understand that truth is not in what happens but in what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armor and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies premasticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children to read that we would not want to read ourselves.

We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we’ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all—adults and children, writers and readers—have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment. Just look around this room that we’re in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it might be easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on. This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, in this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things. They daydreamed, they pondered, they made things that didn’t quite work, they described things that didn’t yet exist to people who laughed at them.

And then, in time, they succeeded. Political movements, personal movements, all begin with people imagining another way of existing.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful, to not leave the world uglier than we found it. An obligation not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not to leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. If you want your children to be intelligent, he said, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

Thank you for listening.


I gave this lecture for the Reading Agency, a UK charity with a mission to help people become more confident readers, in 2013.


Telling Lies for a Living . . . And Why We Do It: The Newbery Medal Speech, 2009

I

IN CASE YOU were wondering what I’m doing up here—and I think it’s a safe bet that right now I am, so that makes at least two of us—I’m here because I wrote a book, called The Graveyard Book, that was awarded the 2009 Newbery Medal.

This means that I have impressed my daughters by having been awarded the Newbery Medal, and I impressed my son even more by defending the fact that I had won the Newbery Medal from the hilarious attacks of Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, so the Newbery Medal made me cool to my children. This is as good as it gets.

You are almost never cool to your children.

II

WHEN I WAS a boy, from the ages of about eight to fourteen, during my school holidays I used to haunt my local library. It was a mile and a half from my house, so I would get my parents to drop me off there on their way to work, and when the library closed I would walk home. I was an awkward child, ill-fitting, uncertain, and I loved my local library with a passion. I loved the card catalogue, particularly the children’s library card catalogue: it had subjects, not just titles and authors, which allowed me to pick subjects I thought were likely to give me books I liked—subjects like magic or ghosts or witches or space—and then I would find the books, and I would read.

But I read indiscriminately, delightedly, hungrily. Literally hungrily, although my father would sometimes remember to pack me sandwiches, which I would take reluctantly (you are never cool to your children, and I regarded his insistence that I should take sandwiches as an insidious plot to embarrass me), and when I got too hungry I would gulp my sandwiches as quickly as possible in the library car park before diving back into the world of books and shelves.

I read fine books in there by brilliant and smart authors—many of them now forgotten or unfashionable, like J. P. Martin and Margaret Storey and Nicholas Stuart Gray. I read Victorian authors and Edwardian authors. I discovered books that now I would reread with delight and devoured books that I would probably now find unreadable if I tried to return to them—Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators and the like. I wanted books, and made no distinction between good books and bad, only between the ones I loved, the ones that spoke to my soul, and the ones I merely liked. I did not care how a story was written. There were no bad stories: every story was new and glorious. And I sat there, in my school holidays, and I read the children’s library, and when I was done, and had read the children’s library, I walked out into the dangerous vastness of the adult section.

The librarians responded to my enthusiasm. They found me books. They taught me about interlibrary loans and ordered books for me from all across southern England. They sighed and were implacable about collecting their fines once school started and my borrowed books were inevitably overdue.

I should mention here that librarians tell me never to tell this story, and especially never to paint myself as a feral child who was raised in libraries by patient librarians; they tell me they are worried that people will misinterpret my story and use it as an excuse to use their libraries as free day care for their children.

III

SO. I WROTE The Graveyard Book, starting in December 2005 and all through 2006 and 2007, and I finished it in February 2008.

And then it’s January 2009, and I am in a hotel in Santa Monica. I am out there to promote the film of my book Coraline. I had spent two long days talking to journalists, and I was glad when that was done. At midnight I climbed into a bubble bath and started to read the New Yorker. I talked to a friend in a different time zone. I finished the New Yorker. It was three a.m. I set the alarm for eleven, hung up a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. For the next two days, I told myself as I drifted off to sleep, I will do nothing but catch up on my sleep and write.

Two hours later I realized the phone was ringing. Actually, I realized, it had been ringing for some time. In fact, I thought as I surfaced, it had already rung and then stopped ringing several times, which meant someone was calling to tell me something. Either the hotel was burning down or someone had died. I picked up the phone. It was my assistant, Lorraine, sleeping over at my place with a convalescent dog.

Your agent Merrilee called, and she thinks someone is trying to get hold of you, she told me. I told her what time it was (viz. and to wit, five thirty in the bloody morning is she out of her mind some of us are trying to sleep here you know). She said she knew what time it was in LA, and that Merrilee, who is my literary agent and the wisest woman I know, sounded really definite that this was important.

I got out of bed. Checked voice mail. No, no one was trying to get hold of me. I called home, to tell Lorraine that it was all bosh. It’s okay, she said. They called here. They’re on the other line right now. I’m giving them your cell phone number.

I was not yet sure what was going on or who was trying to do what. It was five forty-five in the morning. No one had died, though, I was fairly certain of that. My cell phone rang.

Hello. This is Rose Trevino. I’m chair of the ALA Newbery committee . . . Oh, I thought, blearily. Newbery. Right. Cool. I may be an honor book or something. That would be nice. And I have the voting members of the Newbery committee here, and we want to tell you that your book . . .

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, said fourteen loud voices, and I thought, I may be still asleep right now, but they probably don’t do this, probably don’t call people and sound so amazingly excited, for honor books . . .

. . . just won . . .

THE NEWBERY MEDAL, they chorused. They sounded really happy. I checked the hotel room because it seemed very likely that I was still fast asleep. It all looked reassuringly solid.

You are on a speakerphone with at least fifteen teachers and librarians and suchlike great, wise, and good people, I thought. Do not start swearing like you did when you got the Hugo Award. This was a wise thing to think because otherwise huge, mighty, and four-letter swears were gathering. I mean, that’s what they’re for. I think I said, You mean it’s Monday? And I fumfed and mumbled and said something of a thankyouthankyouthankyouokaythiswasworthbeingwokenupfor nature.

And then the world went mad. Long before my bedside alarm went off I was in a car on my way to the airport, being interviewed by a succession of journalists. How does it feel to win the Newbery? they asked me.

Good, I told them. It felt good.

I had loved A Wrinkle in Time when I was a boy, even if they had messed up the first sentence in the Puffin edition, and it was a Newbery Medal winner, and even though I was English, the medal had been important to me.

And then they asked if I was familiar with the controversy about popular books and Newbery winners, and how did I think I fitted into it? I admitted I was familiar with the discussion.

If you aren’t, there had been some online brouhaha about what kinds of books had been winning the Newbery Award recently, and about what kind of book should win the Newbery in the future, and whether awards like the Newbery were for children or for adults. I admitted to one interviewer that The Graveyard Book’s winning had been a surprise to me, that I had assumed that awards like the Newbery tend to be used to shine a light onto books that needed help, and that The Graveyard Book had not needed help.

I had unwittingly placed myself on the side of populism, and realized afterward that that was not what I had meant at all.

It was as if some people believed there was a divide between the books that you were permitted to enjoy and the books that were good for you, and I was expected to choose sides. We were all expected to choose sides. And I didn’t believe it, and I still don’t.

I was, and still am, on the side of books you love.

IV

I AM WRITING this speech two months before I will deliver it. My father died about a month ago. It was a surprise. He was in good health, happy, fitter than I am, and his heart ruptured without warning. So, numb and heartsick, I crossed the Atlantic, gave my eulogies, was told by relations I had not seen in a decade just how much I resembled my father, and did what had to be done. And I never cried.

It was not that I did not want to cry. It was more that it seemed there was never any time in the maelstrom of events to just stop and touch the grief, to let whatever was inside me escape. That never happened.

Yesterday morning a friend sent me a script to read. It was the story of somebody’s lifetime. A fictional person. Three-quarters of the way through the script, the fictional character’s fictional wife died, and I sat on the sofa and cried like an adult, huge wrenching sobs, my face running with tears. All the unwept tears for my father came out, leaving me exhausted and, like the world after a storm, cleansed and ready to begin anew.

I’m telling you this because it’s something that I forget and need to be reminded of . . . And this was a sharp and salutary reminder.

I’ve been writing now for a quarter of a century.

When people tell me that my stories helped them through the death of a loved one—a child, perhaps, or a parent—or helped them cope with a disease, or a personal tragedy; or when they tell me that my tales made them become readers, or gave them a career; when they show me images or words from my books tattooed on their skin as monuments or memorials to moments that were so important to them they needed to take them with them everywhere . . . when these things have happened, as they have, over and over, my tendency is to be polite and grateful, but ultimately to dismiss them as irrelevant.

I did not write the stories to get people through the hard places and the difficult times. I didn’t write them to make readers of nonreaders. I wrote them because I was interested in the stories, because there was a maggot in my head, a small squirming idea I needed to pin to the paper and inspect, in order to find out what I thought and felt about it. I wrote them because I wanted to find out what happened next to people I had made up. I wrote them to feed my family.

So I felt almost dishonorable accepting people’s thanks. I had forgotten what fiction was to me as a boy, forgotten what it was like in the library; fiction was an escape from the intolerable, a doorway into impossibly hospitable worlds where things had rules and could be understood; stories had been a way of learning about life without experiencing it, or perhaps of experiencing it as an eighteenth-century poisoner dealt with poisons, taking them in tiny doses, such that the poisoner could cope with ingesting things that would kill someone who was not inured to them. Sometimes fiction is a way of coping with the poison of the world in a way that lets us survive it.

And I remembered. I would not be the person I am without the authors who made me what I am—the special ones, the wise ones, sometimes just the ones who got there first.

It’s not irrelevant, those moments of connection, those places where fiction saves your life. It’s the most important thing there is.

V

SO I WROTE a book about the inhabitants of a graveyard. I was the kind of boy who loved graveyards as much as he feared them. The best thing—the very best, most wonderful possible thing—about the graveyard in the Sussex town in which I grew up is that there was a witch buried in the graveyard, who had been burned in the High Street. My disappointment on reaching teenagehood and realizing, on rereading the inscription, that the witch was nothing of the sort (it was the grave of three stake-burned Protestant martyrs, burned by order of a Catholic queen) stayed with me. It would become the starting place, along with a Kipling story about a jeweled elephant goad, for my story The Witch’s Headstone. Although it’s chapter 4, it was the first chapter I wrote of The Graveyard Book, a book I had wanted to write for over twenty years.

The idea had been so simple, to tell the story of a boy raised in a graveyard, inspired by one image—my infant son, Michael, who was two, and is now twenty-five,