Stories: All-New Tales - By Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio



AL SARRANTONIO AND I WERE DISCUSSING anthologies of short stories. He had edited a huge anthology of cutting-edge horror, and another of cutting-edge fantasy, each book, in its way, definitive. And in talking, we realised that we had something in common: that all we cared about, really, were the stories. What we missed, what we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. And yes, we wanted good writing (why be satisfied with less?). But we wanted more than that. We wanted to read stories that used a lightning flash of magic as a way of showing us something we have already seen a thousand times as if we have never seen it before. Truly, we wanted it all.

And slowly, the wish becomes the deed…

When I was a child, I pestered my elders for stories. My family would improvise, or read me stories from books. As soon as I was old enough to read, I was one of those children who needed to have a book within reach. I would read a book a day, or more. I wanted stories, and I wanted them always, and I wanted the experience that only fiction could give me: I wanted to be inside them.

Television and cinema were all very well, but these stories happened to other people. The stories I found in books happened inside my head. I was, in some way, there.

It’s the magic of fiction: you take the words and you build them into worlds.

As time passed, I became a more discriminating reader (I remember the first time I realised I did not have to finish reading a book; the first time I realised that the way a story was told was getting in the way of the story). But even as I became more discriminating as a reader I started to feel that the thing that kept me reading, the place the magic occurred, the driving force of narrative was sometimes being overlooked. I would read beautiful prose, and I would simply not care.

It came down to four words.

There are the kind of readers who read only nonfiction: who read biographies, perhaps, or travel writing. Readers who read nothing but concrete poetry. There are those who read things that will improve them and their lot, who only read books that tell them how to survive the coming financial crisis, or have confidence in themselves, or play poker, or build beehives. I myself can sometimes be found reading books about beekeeping and, because I write fiction, am always happy to read strange factual things. Whatever we read, we are part of the community of the story.

There are nonreaders, of course. I knew a man in his nineties who, when he learned that I was a writer, admitted to me that he had tried to read a book, once, long before I was born, but he had been unable to see the point of it, and had never tried again. I asked him if he remembered the name of the book, and he told me, in the manner of someone who tried to eat a snail once and did not care for it, and who does not need to remember the breed of the snail, that one was much like another, surely.

Still. Four words.

And I didn’t realise it until a couple of days ago, when someone wrote in to my blog:

Dear Neil,

If you could choose a quote—either by you or another author—to be inscribed on the wall of a public library children’s area, what would it be?



I pondered for a bit. I’d said a lot about books and kids’ reading over the years, and other people had said things pithier and wiser than I ever could. And then it hit me, and this is what I wrote:

I’m not sure I’d put a quote up, if it was me, and I had a library wall to deface. I think I’d just remind people of the power of stories, of why they exist in the first place. I’d put up the four words that anyone telling a story wants to hear. The ones that show that it’s working, and that pages will be turned:

“…and then what happened?”

The four words that children ask, when you pause, telling them a story. The four words you hear at the end of a chapter. The four words, spoken or unspoken, that show you, as a storyteller, that people care.

The joy of fiction, for some of us, is