August 2013 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Guest Blog: Gaiman & Pullman Talk Children's Books in Literary Oxford

Guest Blog by Catherine Batac Walder

On Wednesday, August 21, I listened to Neil Gaiman's conversation with Philip Pullman at the Oxford Playhouse in Beaumont Street. Gaiman's visit is part of a signing tour of his new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but it felt like an hour and a half of eavesdropping on two grown men talking about the books they loved as children, favorite characters, comics, and finally, story ideas from nightmares. I could think of other magnificent buildings more suitable as a setting to this dreamlike night, but then again, the playhouse also seemed like a gateway to literary Oxford. Just around the corner is The Eagle and Child pub (meeting place of Tolkien, Lewis, and other members of the Inklings) and a couple of doors down is the Randolph Hotel, which featured in the Inspector Morse TV series based on the novels by Colin Dexter (they now have a Morse Bar).

I had attended two talks of Pullman's in the past, and they both had a serious tone. In this third one, as soon as he started the chat with the comment that the last time he saw Neil Gaiman was about a year ago and "he was dressed as and made up as a badger," I knew that the night was going to be like reading one of their fantastical stories. Gaiman talked about reading the Mary Poppins books when he was six or seven and how they helped form whatever worldview he had as a kid. "The idea that the world is incredibly unlikely and strange secret things are always happening, that adults don't really explain to you, or in fact, that adults may be oblivious to," he said. Of The Wind in the Willows (the book that prompted him to dress up like a badger), he said, "It was just weird, and I think it was the kind of thing that I like 'cause it's also the kind of thing I'll do when I'm writing - throw everything in. That certain point when you look around and you go, artistic unity may say that this armchair should not be in the novel but it's my novel." His wonder was infectious as he recalled discovering the library when he was very young and having that incredible feeling of power; discovering the card catalogue in which you could actually look up subjects like witches or robots or ghosts; or you could just take down books and read the interesting ones. Both authors talked about discovering American comic books and marveled at the speed in the stories, the size of them, with Gaiman adding, "Everything was alien, everything was equally as strange and unlikely, so skyscrapers, and pizza and fire hydrants were just as alien to my world as people in capes flying around."

What struck me the most about this conversation was how authors influence the public to read other authors--sharing their literary wealth. Gaiman mentioned how A.A. Milne wrote about Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908) in an essay in the 1920s and became a one-man campaign to give the book the fame he felt it deserved, and one of the things he did was extract the adventures of Mr. Toad and adapt them to stage. In a way, Gaiman did the same for one of his favorite books, James Thurber's The 13 Clocks, reintroducing it to readers via the 2008 New York Review of Books edition.

At the book signing afterwards (which lasted for hours), I told Gaiman that it was great to finally meet him and mentioned that he started the Philippine Graphic/Fiction awards in my home country the same year I left. "You missed me," he said. Having been introduced to the rich Philippine mythology and contemporary urban legends, Gaiman established and funded the competition that ran for three years, and at that point in time, it was something he had never done anywhere else. I asked him to dedicate my copy of Blueberry Girl to my daughter and, as our family is also a huge fan of The Wind in the Willows, requested that he doodle a badger for the little one.

Known as an author who has always tried to connect to fans, Gaiman is currently touring Scotland to promote his new book, but he has revealed that this current journey across Canada, Europe, and the U.S. will mark his last book-signing tour. If you live in the UK, you can pre-order his upcoming children's book Fortunately, the milk from Bloomsbury UK and have a chance to get a signed bookplate.

Many thanks to Catherine Batac Walder, a freelance writer living in the UK, for this report. She has previously written for us about Sherlock Holmes, ex-library books, and the Oxford Literary Festival.