Neil Gaiman and Daniel Handler spent the evening of February 17 in conversation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The longtime friends (who teamed up last November to give away free copies of National Book Award-nominated books) discussed their children’s-and-adult-literature-spanning careers, the writing life, sword-fighting, and more to support the release of their latest books, Trigger Warning and We Are Pirates, respectively. A portion of the proceeds from the event were donated to the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, and the authors both donated their speaking fees to the Authors League Fund.
In regards to the night’s theme of repartee under the title “En Garde!,” Handler warned audience members that “the swords meant to be delivered have not arrived, so we have to talk about literature.” Handler started the evening with one of many audience-submitted questions: “Who would actually win a sword fight? I’m nimbler but you’re crueler.” Gaiman responded: “I’m more gullible.”
To Gaiman, Handler said: “Tell me about an author you met and how it went.” Gaiman recounted meeting Diana Wynne Jones at a fantasy convention in the U.K. sometime in the ’80s. He offered to buy her a drink and expressed his admiration for her work, to which she said that he was “the first adult human” who wasn’t a teacher or librarian who had read and liked her books.
Handler remarked on the strangeness of meeting people who had read his early books, remembering a time that he met a bookseller after the publication of his debut The Basic Eight who had read the book, and Handler’s immediate response was, “But I’ve never met you.” Gaiman shared a similar anecdote: out with a friend, who had brought two friends of her own to the theater one night, one of the distant friends cracked a joke from Good Omens, and Gaiman thanked her. “ ‘Why are you thanking me?’ ‘That’s from Good Omens.’ ‘Yeah, it’s one of my favorite books.’ ‘I wrote it.’ ‘No, you didn’t.’ ”
Fielding another audience question, Handler asked Gaiman what their differences and similarities were. Gaiman suggested that their shared passion for books, words, and stories were a start, as well as the authors’ working in “sandboxes: we both write children’s literature with absolute respect, as well as writing adult stuff that worries people.”
Handler especially appreciates the passion that young readers bring to the books he creates, describing child readers as “walking around half-immersed in the world of the book,” which they regard as a “sacred space of which they feel a part.”
Gaiman recalls meeting Handler a few months before the release of Coraline, when he asked Handler’s advice for his first children’s book tour. Handler’s response stuck with Gaiman ever since: “it’s all about respect,” he had said. Handler expanded on his view of respecting the child reader of his books, which he does by engaging with them directly, using one example of a mother saying to him at an event, “Billy likes your book,” and Handler saying to the child, “Who is this woman? Is she bothering you?” Or when parents photograph him at events, he’ll talk to the child: “Is your father photographing me? How would you rate him as a father? And the kids always rate high, so I respond, is that because he’s standing right there? Let’s make a secret code so you can tell me what you really think.”
Gaiman added that the reverence that child readers bring to his books is palpable, recalling even recent adult attendees to his events holding “elderly Scholastic paperbacks” of Coraline that they had reread since middle school, and that they tell him got them through so much. Handler added, “You don’t hear it from grownups so much. You don’t love books quite as much as you do when you’re young.”
Gaiman eventually turned discussion to Handler’s controversial comments at the National Book Awards. “What was going through your head?” he asked of Handler. “I was trying to honor my friend,” was Handler’s somber response, “and it was a disaster. I tried to honor her and it came out wrong,” Gaiman interjected: “It was the wrong thing to say at the wrong time.” Handler added “Jackie [Woodson] writes so marvelously about the spaces of which we talk so shallowly,” concluding that he “was grateful for a community that was upset yet willing to move forward, and we raised $200,000,” for We Need Diverse Books, an organization for which Woodson is on the board.
Handler offered the next audience question: “Is there some writing you keep for yourself?” He himself mentioned his start as a poet, and under his pseudonym Lemony Snicket he even edited a special feature for Poetry magazine called “Poetry Not Written For Children That Children Might Nevertheless Enjoy,” because, he said, “there’s lots of poetry for children and teens designed to turn them off of it forever.” Gaiman added that “kids appreciate rhyme and cool words.” Speaking also to the lofty vocabulary in both the authors’ work for children, Handler said, “When kids are wrong they don’t fake it, like adults do.” Adults will think to themselves, “ ‘Hm, I should know that word, but I don’t, so I’ll just move along.’ ”
The audience questions turned to the writing life. “How do you write novels?” read one card. Gaiman offered that every one was different, and “that you never really learn to write a novel, you just learn to write the one you’re on.”
Turning to Handler’s picture book The Dark written as Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen (and for which Gaiman did the audio), Handler recalled reading it with his young son. “I’m scared every day,” his son said. Handler asked him: “Are you scared a lot?” “No, just every day.” “That’s the whole history of the world,” Handler mused to himself, but then responded to his son, “Me too, sorry.”
Concluding the evening with a final question of advice for writers, Gaiman suggested that writers should “write what you care about. There’s no marketing niche for [a retelling of The Jungle Book] set in a graveyard,” but, he added, that young people in particular are energized by “un-ironic enthusiasm,” so anything that an author is genuinely passionate about will find its following. Handler added, “I felt when I started out that there wasn’t room. It turns out there is. The world of literature is infinite and wide.”