Neil Gaiman brings storytelling show to Edinburgh

Neil Gaiman at the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Neil Gaiman at the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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HE’S a comic book writer, a novelist, a humanitarian... and now multi-talented Neil Gaiman tries something new this week as he goes on stage to read a Scottish-set work – complete with string quartet

Strange things lurk in the byways of Neil Gaiman’s fantastical tales: the Sandman, ghouls, flying horrors that can rend the fabric of the universe and, most recently, a soul-eroding cave somewhere in the Highlands. But what enters his feverishly creative imagination when he takes the stage of Sydney Opera House? Dame Edna Everage’s Ascot hat.

Four years ago, the English-born, US-based, multiple award-winning author of a bewilderingly diverse canon, from the cult graphic novel series The Sandman to children’s stories and such acclaimed fantasy novels as American Gods, Neverwhere and The Ocean at the Bottom of the Lane, was approached by Sydney Opera House, offering him its not inconsiderable stage for a live show. The result was The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, in which Gaiman reads the tale with backdrop art by comic artist Eddie Campbell and music from the FourPlay String Quartet, an Australian string quartet with a decidedly rock sensibility.

Having duly engaged audiences in Sydney, at San Francisco’s Warfield Concert Hall and New York’s Carnegie Hall, Gaiman takes the stage of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh tomorrow, where Barry Humphries’s alter ego’s headgear may be less of a preoccupation.

“It all began,” says Gaiman, like the consummate storyteller that he is, “with Sydney Opera House getting in touch several years ago. I’d just finished writing The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, and I told them it would take about 80 minutes to read, which seemed perfect.”

The tale is set in what he describes as “a slightly skewed version of Scotland a few hundred years ago” – of which, more later. The Opera House suggested he might work with an artist – Gaiman’s collaborations with illustrators such as Dave McKean and Mike Dringenberg helped set a benchmark in the graphic novel genre – and he suggested Australian-based Scot Eddie Campbell, whom he knew well and with whom he’d worked previously. “The last thing I wanted for the illustrations was a sort of generic Scotland, and I thought that Eddie, a Scot and a Campbell, might not mind that I kill about a dozen Campbells in the course of this story.”

Then there was the music. Gaiman, although not usually a performing musician – “if cornered I can bash out a song” – has been known to share a stage with his wife, singer-songwriter and Dresden Dolls art-punk animateur Amanda Palmer. He will tell you, however, that, so far as his writing is concerned, “I learned as much from Lou Reed, I think, as from Ernest Hemingway. A lot of the techniques you use as a writer, at least for me, are musical: things should work if they’re read aloud, things should sing.”

So, in Sydney he found himself teaming up with the FourPlay String Quartet, who composed the music for the event. “What I love about FourPlay is that they’re as at home doing their version of the Doctor Who theme tune or The Simpsons theme as they are with a Velvet Underground number.” They also, he adds as an engaging afterthought, boast viola player Shenzo Gregorio, known to play while bungee-jumping.

Gaiman describes the live interaction between author and string quartet as “very weird. Some of the time it requires me to keep an eye on one of them, who will wave me in, although I know my entrances and they know theirs. But strange things do happen. There’s something very primal about reading while people are making music. You’re telling the story and suddenly you’re finding rhythms to the words you did not know were there. You find yourself punching syllables and almost becoming a fifth member of the quartet.

“So we evolved it and did it at Sidney Opera House. And the whole time you’re on the stage there, all you can think of is Dame Edna Everage’s Ascot hat.”

More seriously, storytelling is an elemental process, but in front of some 2,000 people? “You know, it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to do, because there are moments when an audience becomes one person, moments when you can hear two thousand people hold their breath.”

But what of the story, set in this 17th-century Scotland which is not quite as historians would have it? Gaiman’s worlds, after all, are rarely commonplace and frequently disquietingly weird. It’s set in Jacobite times, he explains, although whether the King Over the Water is a James or a Charlie is indeterminate. Inspired by his love of the Isle of Skye, where he has a house, and by books on Gaelic folklore, the story does indeed involve a cave, full of gold and in a mountain range not too dissimilar from the Cuillin, “and in that cave is treasure, and anyone can take away some of the gold, but every time they do, the cave will steal a little of their soul.

“I liked the idea of one little cave of gold and all it will do is eat your soul and make things dark and bad for you.”

Gaiman’s dealings with the bad things of this world are not confined to fiction. He recently returned from visiting Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, home to some 100,000 Syrian refugees, with the UN Refugee Agency, writing about it for the Guardian and in his blog. “Everybody there had been through hell in Syria; 
everybody had been through hell getting out of Syria.”

The flipside, however, was seeing what they had created out of nothing. “There is an entire little street of shops run by these refugees, and someone had got hold of a bicycle and they deliver pizza around the camp. Somehow that pizza for me is the symbol of everything. The fragility and the resilience were both huge for me.”

If you think such harrowing realities would be unlikely to inform his surreally fantastic fiction, you’d be wrong. His tale of an alternative, subterranean London, Neverwhere, he reminds me, emerged after he was involved with a Comic Relief project for homelessness in London. Homelessness subsequently became an issue in the novel.

His Jordanian experiences may well resurface, he says, albeit metaphorically. Fantasy, after all, can reveal truth, even if it is in a cave in the Black Mountains.

• The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, tomorrow. A book of the story, featuring Eddie Campbell’s illustrations, is published by Headline. For further details see