NEAL CONAN, HOST:
A year ago, writer Neil Gaiman told the graduating class at Philadelphia's University of the Arts that life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong in life, in love, and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, Gaiman said, this is what you should do: Make good art. Neil Gaiman's speech became a hit on the Web, and now it's been adapted into a small book. We want to hear from artists today: Is he right? When things go wrong, is work the answer? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Neil Gaiman joins us now from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. His many books include "American Gods," the comic book series "The Sandman," and with graphic artist Chip Kidd, his latest: "Make Good Art." And, Neil, nice to have you on the program again.
NEIL GAIMAN: It's wonderful to be back, Neal.
CONAN: And you don't tell us a story in your speech that illustrates your point about when things go bad, make good art. Do you have one?
GAIMAN: I didn't tell any stories, mostly because it was a graduating speech and I - you know, a commencement speech, and I had 20 minutes to try and squeeze everything that I'd learned or figured out, normally by bitter experience, in 30 years of being a professional writer into 19 minutes of talking to a graduating class.
But, I mean, you know, for me, it's been true, pretty much solidly through that 30 years. Things go wrong. If you're a human being in the world, bad things happen. You will bump into things. You will get your heart broken. Things that you thought were going to work aren't going to work. Things you thought people were going to love aren't going to be loved. And when that happens, if you are a creator, if you are an artist - and that was a graduating class of artists - what you have to do is go out and make good art. I think you're absolutely allowed several minutes, possibly even half a day to feel very, very sorry for yourself indeed, and then just start making art.
CONAN: When was there such a moment in your life?
GAIMAN: Oh, I think the - let's pick a nice moment: 1996, 1997 - I'd spent several years working on a TV series in the U.K. called "Neverwhere," and it came out. And as it was getting made, I started feeling more and more that it was just something that wasn't going to work, that the things that I wanted to happen weren't happening. It wasn't the thing that I'd wanted, and still hoped that when it came out, people would love it. And it came out to deafening silence. People didn't really like it very much. The viewing figures tumbled. And what I did was write a novel. And I wrote "Neverwhere" as the novel. I said, this what I meant. This is the thing.
GAIMAN: And I took all of the upset and the frustration with the television series, and I put it into a book and brought the book out. And what's lovely is, over the years since then, the book has gone on to become this much-loved thing. And, actually, a couple of months ago, the BBC did a fantastic adaptation of the novel on the radio starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Sir Christopher Lee and all these - James McAvoy, these fantastic actors. And I thought, OK. It - you know, 15 years later, the thing fixed itself. The wheel turned.
CONAN: I'm reminded of Susan Stamberg's memorable phrase: The pictures are better on the radio.
GAIMAN: Oh, the pictures are always better on the radio. You actually do have - somebody at the BBC asked why I'd said yes to the radio, and I said because you have an unlimited special effects budget.
CONAN: Like many commencement speeches, yours includes an interesting small confession.
GAIMAN: My confession, which was definitely one of those things, I thought, do I tell these kids this or not? And I also tried to preface it with the information that it's not something that you could do in today's era of Google and easily accessible information. But when I started out as a very young journalist, phoning editors and just pitching stories, they would often say, well, who else have you written for? And I didn't want to say, well, I haven't actually written for anybody yet. So I would list likely sounding magazines, places that I, you know, somebody like me might have worked for, and I got the jobs.
And over the next six years, it became this mad point of honor for me to have worked for everybody on the list that I'd said in those first couple of months to people that I'd written for. So I wrote for the Sunday Times magazine. I wrote for the Mail on Sunday. I wrote for Time Out and City Limits and all of these magazines in London, just so that later, I could claim that I hadn't actually been lying, I'd just been slightly chronologically mixed-up.
CONAN: (Laughing) As you say, that's a little more difficult to get away with these days.
GAIMAN: And I - and honestly, I don't recommend it. I don't recommend lying. What I was trying to say to people is that you get work, in the beginning, as a freelance artist, and you can define artist very, very loosely here in terms of, you know, writing, making art, whatever. You get work however you get work, and you - you're always faced with this, these weird impossibilities of people will always want to hire you if you have experience, and the only way you're going to get experience if they hire you, and you do it however you do it.
But what I tried to make clear is something I actually learned from the world of comics that, talking to people seems to apply outside of the world of comics as well, which is how you keep work as a freelancer. What I was saying to people is - what I'd learned is that you can be - there are three things you can be. You can get the work in on time; you can be good, really good; and you can be easy to get along with. And as long you get two out of three of these right, you will continue to work.
CONAN: Oh, so people will put up with your unbearable personality if you get your work in on time and you're very good.
GAIMAN: Absolutely. And by the same token, if you're really nice and you're really good, they'll probably forgive you for being late.
GAIMAN: But, you know, the problem is when you drop down to one out of three, that's the point when they're going, I don't really want to - yes, his work is good, but he's not very nice; he's always late - why should I bother. So it's that two out of three thing.
CONAN: We're asking the artists in our audience if work is their salvation - when things go wrong, is the right answer to make good art? Neil Gaiman is our guest. Our phone number is 800-989-8255, email: email@example.com. Let's go to Debbie. Debbie is on the line with us from St. Louis.
DEBBIE: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. Absolutely, it's - I write poetry, and I find that I feel transformed - that my experience is transformed within the poetry. And that once I've completed a poem that I'm very satisfied with, it changes my outlook. I feel a bit released at that moment. Right now, I'm struggling with great poverty, and I have some very dark days. But I find that when I've really put all that into my poetry, not a sob story poem, nothing like that, but just the transformation that I go though internally with that. I find that A, I've completed a piece of work that I'm proud of and that I want to be out there in the world, but also it helped me at that moment, it helped me today. It might not have made me any money today, but it helped me. It'ill help me continue to go forward in my life in general.
CONAN: So these are not necessarily poems that are about rending of garments and screams of tragic pain?
DEBBIE: No. Absolutely not. I don't write that way. I don't wallow in self-pity. I don't want my poems to be that way. They're not tearjerkers. They're not hand-wringers. They're metaphysical, in a sense. They're spiritual, but they're also abstracted from the particulars of my struggle. They're not about that the water was shut off or I don't have electricity. It's not like that. It's what my spirit is journeying through. And one line that I wrote recently was that hope is not a butterfly, it's seeds in amber.
CONAN: Hmm. Nice. Well, you should...
GAIMAN: That's really beautiful.
CONAN: Yeah. That's nice and that should be rewarded.
GAIMAN: And that feeling of just having created something, it's a very, very real thing, that being able to look around and go, I've just improved the world by something that wasn't there before, even if everything else is going to hell.
DEBBIE: Yes, yes.
GAIMAN: You made something.
DEBBIE: Yes, yes, and that's great. I love that "if the whole world's going to hell," because it sometimes feels that way, but that suddenly something - I feel like something has been added to - even to my - especially even to my own life, but just in the universe.
CONAN: Well, Debbie, keep adding.
DEBBIE: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. She also said something interesting, she says that they're not making me any money right now. You write in your book - or in your speech, your commencement speech - that the lesson you learned early on was don't write anything for money.
GAIMAN: Well, I didn't necessarily learn that. What I learned was whenever I did something where the only reason for doing it was money - and this was a lesson that I learned beginning with being a 23-year-old author hired to write a book about Duran Duran - that whenever I did something and the only reason for doing it was the money, normally something would go terribly wrong. And I normally wouldn't get the money and then I wouldn't have anything. Whereas, whenever I did anything where what prompted my doing it was being interested, being excited, caring, thinking this is going to be fun, even if things went wrong and I didn't get the money, I had something I was proud of. And very often in the long term - and the long term now, you know, could be 15 years, could be 12 years - I'd look back on it and go, actually that thing worked out. It's looked after me. It came back from the dead. It did something good.
So realizing - and it's something that, you know, I forget. Sometimes somebody waves a paycheck and I go, I don't really have any reason for doing it, I'm not interested. But, yes, what amazing money, how can I say no? And then I do it, and then I regret it. And the - you can almost feel the universe itself sighing, like why doesn't he learn this one?
CONAN: We're talking with Neil Gaiman about his new book, "Make Good Art." It's a graphic representation of a speech he gave - a commencement speech he gave a year ago in Philadelphia. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Todd's on the line with us from Alpine, Texas.
TODD: Yes, sir.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
TODD: Oh, I was just calling to say, thanks for taking my call, and whenever I do get down, I love making good art. I run a blacksmith shop, and running a forge and having fire and being able to produce something from nothing always gives me good pleasure.
CONAN: And that must be very satisfying, that sort of physical work there?
TODD: Oh, it's very satisfying. Not only does it give you something to work towards and taking something from nothing and molding it into something else, but you're knowing you're going to have something that's going to last for generations, that'll be passed on.
CONAN: And if you're frustrated, you can take it out whacking a big piece of iron.
TODD: Yes, sir. That's one of the good things about it.
TODD: Some things they say about blacksmiths. They're usually very happy people and they like music, not very stressed out.
CONAN: Oh, that sounds...
TODD: You can take it all out with a hammer.
CONAN: Sounds like a good profession.
GAIMAN: That's wonderful. It reminds me of - particularly horror writers of my acquaintance. And knowing a lot of horror writers and knowing a lot of comedians, and the way comedians tend to be very harried, worried, troubled people. And people who write horror tend to be incredibly happy and mellow and easygoing. And talking to them, you realize it's because they take all these horrible things and they just put it all on the paper. They're just happy, whereas the comedians trying to make their jokes tend to be much, much, much more worried.
CONAN: Thanks for...
GAIMAN: Blacksmith sounds best of all.
CONAN: Todd, thanks...
TODD: Thank y'all.
CONAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate it. One of the things you - the best of advice you say you got from a well-known horror writer, and the fact is it's part of a section of your speech on the difficulties, not of failure, but of success.
GAIMAN: Absolutely. I mean, you know, when you're getting to talk to a bunch of graduating kids about to go out in the world, they know to be wary of failure. And you're going to have to tell them a bit about failure, but what nobody warns you about when you set out are the difficulties of success.
The way that you actually have to learn how to say no to projects because you're going to have to spend your first few years, if you're smart, saying yes to anything that comes your way, because you don't know what's going to pay off. I use the analogy in the book of somebody just putting messages in bottles and throwing them out to sea.
And suddenly there comes a day when you go down to the shore and the shore is covered with bottles and all of your messages have come back and everybody's said yes. And now, you're going to have to learn to say no.
But the - what I said in the speech, and what I say in the book, is the most important piece of advice I was ever given that I didn't pay attention to and I wished that I had, came in 1992 from Stephen King at a signing I did in Boston for a "Sandman" book called "Season of Mists." And he came down. He saw the lines stretching around the block. He wanted to take me out for dinner, but the signing wasn't done until 10:30 at night. And I wound up in his hotel room with Steve and his family, and he said, you know, this is really wonderful, this is special. You should enjoy this. Just make a point of enjoying it.
And I didn't. I worried about it. I worried it was going to go away. I worried about the next story. I worried about getting things done. And there was a point, a good 15 years after that, where I finally started to relax. And I look back and I thought, you know, I could have enjoyed it. It all went just fine; my worrying about anything didn't change anything. It didn't get better because I was worried about my next deadline or whatever. I didn't do anything differently; really, I should have enjoyed it.
CONAN: Neil Gaiman, you will have a similar problem when your next book comes out, "The Ocean at the End of the Lane," and it's - I've read a galley, it's a beautiful book. You're going to be pestered with all kinds of demands to do the same thing again. So learn from your success, enjoy it.
GAIMAN: Thank you so much, Neal.
CONAN: Neil Gaiman joined us today from WHYY, our member station in Philadelphia. He's the author of many novels, children's books, screenplays and comic books, including "American Gods" and, of course, the great comic book "The Sandman." His latest, "Make Good Art."
Tomorrow, Chris Hedges will join us for the next in our series of looking-ahead conversations. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.