The Novelist’s Wife Speaks Out

To wrap up my series on writers and their secret worlds, I’d like to share with you the thoughts of Amanda Palmer, a musician who happens to be married to a writer whose secret world is as big as they come: Neil Gaiman.

I’ve always had a deep and abiding respect for Neil Gaiman. His work brings to mind Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory: seven-eighths of the meaning is hidden beneath the surface. Reading him is like dipping your toe into what you think is a puddle but turns out to be an entire freaking ocean. That is the most important quality a writer can have, in my opinion. The power of subtext, the ability to say things by not saying them.

Amanda Palmer isn’t like that. As an artist she admits she’s often very literal, not well-versed in metaphor, The Queen of Feelings. The experiences of her life go into a blender on low speed and come out only slightly pureed. She’s not afraid to repurpose her life for the sake of her art.

When Neil Gaiman was writing his latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he read it aloud to his wife each night before bed. To her it was terrifying and beautiful but ultimately, just a story. When the galleys came in, and she could read it for herself, she started to see the meaning behind the words, but it wasn’t until her husband patiently explained the significance of the story that it finally hit her. This was a glimpse into the secret world of the man she loved.

I just started The Ocean at the End of the Lane last night, so I only know what the few glowing reviews I’ve read reveal, but I do know this: it’s personal. Amanda traces it back to a moment the two of them shared–or more accurately, failed to share. Neil wanted to tell her something, something personal, but she had a new song budding in her head so she asked him to wait until she could get it out on piano. Later on, when she was ready, the moment had passed. The window into her husband’s secret world had shut with them trapped on opposite sides.

Neil writes on the dedication page:

For Amanda, who wanted to know.

And Amanda writes, in the blog post:

one thing i have learned, being an artist married to another artist:
you cannot separate the self from the relationship and you cannot separate the relationship from the work.
call it poison, or call it the muse.

I’m very conscious of what I choose to share about my marriage here on my blog, but in my writing, my fiction? Anything’s game. I’ve been writing about crap that’s happened to me even before I knew it was happening.

Marriage? It’s traumatic. It knocks you upside the head, knocks you flat, even when you think you’re ready for it. It’s two completely separate lives trying to merge. Things are going to break. People don’t tell you about that. Going into it, you think you’re immune to those kinds of problems.

So I know my marriage is going to come through in my writing, because everything does. I can’t help it. I write about relationships, and marriage is the ultimate relationship. When I write about someone’s feelings getting hurt, I will pull from my memory of stored emotions. Ditto falling in love, feeling misunderstood, feeling drawn to someone you shouldn’t like, resenting someone you should. And if these feelings are produced by my marriage, so be it. I’m thankful that I’m able to feel and express the wide range of human emotion, able to make sense of it, able to relate to others and make connections.

But I’m not going to write about it on my blog. Not in any deep and meaningful way, not without permission from my husband. He’s not an artist. He’s not interested in baring his soul before the world. I’m not going to betray his wishes for something as silly as a blog. Even Amanda Palmer, The Queen of Feelings, has come to the same conclusion:

…but our *actual* relationship…the feelings and fevers and discussions and layers of attachment and complication underneath…that’s….for us. our close friends follow the intimacies of this strange journey we’re on with each other. but it’s not for the blog, it’s not really for the public.

Go read her post, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane (A Book & Marriage Review).” Very rarely do I come across something that resonates with me so deeply. (And she’s not even a Neil Gaiman fan. How incomprehensible.)



Filed under books, writing

10 responses to “The Novelist’s Wife Speaks Out

  1. emuse

    Ah but with her, he does not have to be Neil Gaiman, author. Instead, he gets to be Neil.

    That makes all the sense in the world to me.

    Thank you for this. I am single, but I have been with artists in the past and I am sure I will be with artists in the future (well, hopefully. One at least.) And it’s always an interesting combination.

    Some day I would like to try the hard that is marriage.

    • Yes, of course you are right about not having to be the author with her. I don’t see how a marriage with one of your fans would really work. I merely spoke from the point of view someone who loves loves loves his work. How anyone can read it and not be a fan kind of baffles me.

      And I do hope you get to try marriage. It’s quite a trip.

      • emuse

        I think the thing about fans are that they have a preconceived notion about the person. And they want the person to stay in that box. Rather than being whomever they are. Human, for starters.

        But then, I think fame is a test souls undergo. I’m not a fan of the whole system.

        We shall see what happens with marriage. Right now, I seem to have my hands full with myself. 😉

  2. I once heard an interview with Neil Young. He was talking about his process. The muse strikes him and he knows he has to attend the muse. His family knows this. He says that the only way he will stop is if he has to attend a family emergency. There is a story of James Thurber having dinner with his wife and his daughter. His daughter asked her mother what her father was doing. Her mother said, “Oh, he’s writing.” I think it is so helpful to have a spouse who understands your process. Without that, there are so many compromises you have to make. This is where communication comes in.

  3. We’re too busy sitting in the corner, observing all the characters and putting them in stories. Do you ever watch other couples when you’re dining out and make up conversations about what they’re saying? I do.

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