Telling Stories: Neil Gaiman on bringing his new tale to Edinburgh

As international bestselling author Neil Gaiman prepares to bring his exciting new show to Edinburgh, he talks about the human purpose of storytelling and what you can do with the 26 letters of the alphabet, images and some tunes.

Feature by Alan Bett | 26 Jun 2014
  • Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has never been one to flinch from a challenge or a change-up.  He has written bestselling novels such as American Gods, legendary graphic novel series The Sandman, a Dr Who episode and film scripts. He is also well known as one of the most entertaining performers on the literary circuit. After filling the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall and the Barbican, he will bring his new short story The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains to Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on 6 July to remind us of the age-old art of storytelling, yet supported by a thoroughly modern rock n’ roll string quartet and the artwork of From Hell illustrator Eddie Campbell. The Skinny caught up with him as he prepares to step out of his comfort zone.

The Skinny: Can you tell us a little about your upcoming performance of The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains? How did you come to combine the elements of this event?

Neil Gaiman: It all began with the Sydney Opera House getting in touch with me – they asked if there was something I would like to do on their stage with art and music, that was their brief. I had just finished writing a short story that I thought would take probably about 80 minutes to read, it was set in Scotland about 200-300 years ago. I thought that’s good because my friend Eddie Campbell is Scottish and I can get him to draw it knowing that he will draw a real Scotland, his paintings, his images will be real, they won’t be some kind of Disneyland Scotland. In the story the landscape is as important as anything.

That was the beginning but I didn’t know who I was going to get to do music and the Sydney Opera House suggested FourPlay String Quartet. They’re an absolutely fabulous hybrid of a rock band and a string quartet.  They sent me some music of them covering the Dr Who theme which did it for me... which made me ridiculously happy.

You’re a writer who is famous for collaboration, for example with the many artists in your graphic novels...

I love that, I love the fact that I can create something but I’m not creating the whole. I’m more like a playwright or a film writer or whatever.

And did everything run smoothly here?

It really did. We [FourPlay and he] both got to tell each other what to do... we did a lot of rehearsing and I would say things like ‘slow down’ or ‘I don’t think that’s quite appropriate’... and they would say things like ‘we need you to shut up for a minute to let us play.’

Truthfully I don’t remember saying anything to Eddie other than I think it’s wonderful.  Eddie would just do these amazing images.  We played around a little bit with the timings of them.  When I’ll be doing it in the Usher Hall there’s going to be 40 different images going up. For the Sydney Opera House we had 15.

You’re also a man who seems happy to move between different genres and formats...

I enjoy using all of the techniques at my disposal and I also love to do the stuff that you don’t get to do. The most exciting thing about reading the story to 2000 people at the Usher Hall is that people don’t get stories read to them anymore. A lot of the people in the Usher Hall, the last time somebody read them a whole story they were kids, and now we’re going to give them the opportunity to make movies in their heads. We’ll give them pictures, we’ll give them an underscore, we’ll give them me reading a story, set in I guess the 1720s, in a slightly mythical slightly alternative Scotland. It’s a story which is made up of folk tale and historical elements, all the things I’ve run across from reading books about or set in Scotland, things that have caught my fancy... it’s a story that comes from my love of Scotland, my love of the landscape.

By providing image and music, is this a separation from people's own imaginations, creating more of a shared experience?

I think both of those things are absolutely valid; I don’t think you can prioritise one. I think the experience of pure prose, when you give somebody 26 letters of the alphabet and a handful of punctuation marks, and they build a world in their head, and people look like whatever they need them to look like, and places look what they need them to look like; it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. It’s also really fun to get people to share a vision, and giving them a picture of something is a really easy way to get them to.

Although you’re using modern and innovative techniques, will this evening hark back to something primal, to sitting around a fire telling a tale?

I hope so, I think storytelling is so fundamental and a part of what it means to be human.  We are a storytelling breed and it is that ability to tell stories that sets us apart. One of the things that fascinates me about people; take a naked human baby and drop it in the world with no human contact and watch it grow up and it’s not going to build a city, it’s not going to create great art, it’s going to survive, and probably on a relatively brutish level.  What makes us more than that is stories, the sharing of knowledge from people who have gone before us; old wisdom is passed on, new wisdom is discovered and shared. And that is stories, that’s what they are for. It’s a way that we can communicate with people who have been dead for 10,000 years.

You've mentioned that this is slightly out of your comfort zone, which is a good thing you suggest. Can you explain?

I think a part of it, as you get older, you have to push yourself out of the comfort zone or you might as well buy yourself a cardigan, and that’s said with no offence to anybody reading this who owns a cardigan, I’m sure there are many brave and wonderful cardigans all across Scotland, all across the world, and exciting people who wear cardigans and have exciting lives... but, it’s that thing where I know that I’m alive, doing awkward things which make me nervous, that I haven’t done before, things like going on tour with a rock 'n' roll string quartet. You wind up knowing that you’re a little bit more alive, and knowing that you can do something and fall flat on your face, is huge.

With all your collaborations and literary shape shifting, do you feel you have a natural creative home in any form or discipline?                   

You know, the bit that puzzles me is I think if somebody told me I could only do the same kind of thing again for the rest of my life. It would be like somebody saying that I could eat nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches for the rest of my life. I quite like grilled cheese sandwiches you know, it’s rather nice, cheese on toast, a little Welsh rarebit, it’s fun.  A week of them would start getting old, and by year three I would be dreaming of a salad or anything, so for me getting to mix it up, getting to write a novel here and a film script there; getting to write a children’s book here and an adult book there, getting to write an episode of Dr Who, getting to do magic and weirdness. It’s why I like being alive.

Neil Gaiman: The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains will be performed at Edinburgh's Usher Hall on 6 Jul. Tickets are available from the venue