On Neil Gaiman, Cars, Disney and Conferencing – and a Touch of NaNoWriMo

[Disclaimer: If this doesn’t make sense, please excuse it on NaNo-brain]

… So, you missed me!?

I know, I’ve been terribly remiss in blogging (both of them). It’s been one of those EVERYTHING-HAPPEN-AT-ONCE weeks that leaves you exhausted and bewildered on a Sunday night asking your mug of tea “what just happened?”

Well, I shall you exactly what just happened…

Monday
I was very much looking forward to Monday; having devoured Grimm Tales by Philip Pullman with great gusto, and clutching 5 very special tickets in my hand, myself, Sarah and Rachael took the train to the Big Smoke for an evening in the presence of two Greats: Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman were discussing fairy tales at the Cambridge theatre … I’ve done enough fan girl squeaking on Twitter for you to realise how much of a Big Deal this was (it was a massive deal).

First to go wrong, was poor Ana travelling down from Milton Keynes had a rather abortive attempt to reach London (thank you delayed and cancelled trains) – leaving me with a spare ticket. Second to go wrong – and leaving us worried for his health* – was that Philip Pullman was taken ill, meaning Neil Gaiman was now to be discussing fairy tales with Meg Rosoff. I arrived with my battered copy of American Gods and less-battered Grimm Tales in preparation for signing, a little cold from the walk from Waterloo to Covent Garden, and ready for an evening of literary delights.

The evening was incredible. Neil Gaiman and Meg Rosoff were entertaining, witty and proceeded with great intelligence and insight. What intrigued me the most was the idea of fairy tales as a concept – these are tales that are passed orally from generation to generation and as such are never “pure” in the sense that there is one definitive true story. They are designed to scare, to understand and to communicate, but in a way there is never a moral of the story – these morals were introduced at some point or other, and seemed to stick, but they are the morals of the teller, not of the story. What you also learn, is that it’s not about the language, it’s about the story. A lot happens in a few sentences, because there are no flowery embellishments, it’s simply “this happened, then this happened and then this happened because of that”. It’s entertainment in its most literal sense. This is how they have been so timeless – because there is no cultural or generational implications.

My favourite quote of the night came from Neil Gaiman – “Fairy stories don’t tell children about monsters, they show them how to beat them”. And this is certainly how I feel that Gaiman’s works are told. You should be scared, but you should also know how to win. Disney has created a “vanilla” version of the fairy tale – they are not scary and they always have a happy ending, whereas many original tales never did. They had a factual, real ending. The bad person gets a rather gruesome comeuppance, and the hero (though Gaiman argues that there is no such thing as a “hero” in fairy tales) gets on with life. Have children’s stories become less scary? Gaiman – particularly in America – comes under criticism for scaring people. But he doesn’t just scare – he also inspires. You should be scared of monsters, but you should also know how to beat them…

Although there was a brief discussion about religion and the fairy story, and how stories have evolved, the discussion centred around fairy stories and what they mean to people, what they have inspired, and what we can learn from them today. Much was said about Philip Pullman’s tireless work to making this collection of Grimm Tales accessible to all, and what makes each choice a good story.

We were also treated to Audrey Niffenegger reading one of my favourite of the Grimms, The Three Snake Leaves, and Neil Gaiman’s short story (available as audio), Click Clack the Rattlebag – which is always an honour. I left London, with a beautiful 10th anniversary edition of Coraline, SIGNED by Neil Gaiman (I was so starstruck I couldn’t say anything and stood there like an idiot), and a warm glow of literary happiness.

If you want to hear Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman talking about fairy tales, you can hear their chat to Radio 4 here.

*No news as yet as to his health, but we all wish him well

Tuesday
Well, Tuesday went a bit pear-shaped. Instead of having a run in the evening and trying to sneak a few pre-NaNoWriMo words in (as I was going to be out on 1st November), then blogging about my amazing Monday evening, I ended up stuck on the side of the road at rush hour swapping insurance details and talking to the police.

Yes folks, I had a car crash. I will say no more than this, as it’s all being dealt with, but suffice to say I am unharmed – even if it was my first crash ever in 8 years of driving and I was still shaking the following morning.

Since then, sadly, I have been car-less. No car for me.

It’s been miserable.

Wednesday
Nope, I wasn’t terrifying trick-or-treaters, carving pumpkins or scaring myself witless in front of Paranormal Activity like any other sensible 25-year-old. No. I was getting merry on 2-for-1 cocktails at Giraffe and eating steak, and not getting home until gone 10pm, which is far too late for little old me.

Thursday
Oh, please, you don’t think I spent Day One of NaNoWriMo actually writing do you!? That would be the normal writerly thing to do …

No. Instead I was watching Beauty and the Beast.

Sue me.

(This was accompanied by a wonderful dinner with good company and AMAZING food at Rhiannon’s)

Friday
Again, the most obvious choice would be to get writing, seeing as I’m on Day Two of NaNoWriMo and at a word count of zero. Ha ha! Friday night found me going for a run, eating risotto and half-passing out in front of the TV. By Friday I was so exhausted from work and two late nights in a row (I’m an old soul, okay!) that I couldn’t even face the computer.

Saturday
Before going any further, I must say:

  1. Thank you to all at SYP for putting on a great conference
  2. Sorry to all my followers for flooding your feed with SYP conference stuff (and thank you for your patience)
  3. Thank you to Laura for convincing me to go

The Society of Young Publishers “Beyond the Book” conference – coordinated in style by the amazing duo, Lucia and Julie – centred around the changing nature of publishing, and what we as Young Publishers can expect in the fast-moving digital age.

I was inspired and impressed and entertained throughout (look at my tweets if you don’t believe me). The idea that the digital age is bringing about “new reading experiences on new hardware” is both terrifying and exciting. I love books – hardback or paperback – and I am a believer in books. But when, in the UK alone, 30-40% of people say they don’t read, and a third of homes don’t own a book, you realise that being a purist about books doesn’t work anymore.

From Johanna Geary’s magical seminar around the Folio Society and their love of traditional books, to Andrew Rhomberg of Jellybooks and Jon Ingold of Inkle and their enthusiasm for the new ways of reading and experiencing books, the conference allowed you to explore your hopes, fears and everything in between around publishing, digital and traditional. Whether you want it or not, change is coming, but it has to be change that the publishing world controls, and I felt that it was a good time to speak about it – because if not now, we will miss our chance.

Surely, as publishers, our ideal is to have everyone reading? And, as such, surely we have to understand that not everyone is engaging the with book as we know it. We have to bring the book to them in a manner in which they can connect. Whether it was sat in a seminar, or heatedly discussed over rosé at post-conference drinks, the overwhelming feeling was positive and enthusiasm – tempered by apprehension. What to expect and what will arrive could be two very different things, but it’s clear with this conference, that we aren’t sitting back and waiting for it to happen.

The future of publishing looks bright indeed.**

With special thanks to:

The whole team at the Society of Young Publishers
Game Changers
Julia Kingsford, World Book Night chief executive
Laura Austin, eBook manager at YUDU Media
Sarah Taylor, marketing assistant at Matador
Trevor Klein, head of development at Somethin’ Else
Beyond the Textbook
Andrea Carr, owner and managing director of Rising Stars UK
Pedro Moura, international sales manager for Macmillan Publishers
Beautiful Books
Johanna Geary, senior editor at the Folio Society
Interactive and Social Reading
Andrew Rhomberg, founder and managing director of Jellybooks
Jon Ingold, creative director at Inkle
Crossing Boundaries
Erica Wolfe-Murray, founder and managing director of Lola Media Ltd
Bobby Nayyar, managing director and CEO of Limehouse Books
William Higham, managing director at the Next Big Thing

… and Alastair for rescuing me when my phone battery died after hours of frantic tweeting.

** No self-indulgent smugness here – I’m just going with the flow!

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