“This is where it ends,” says Neil Gaiman, taking to the stage with Margaret Atwood on the last evening of the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
As guest selectors, tonight marks the last of their many individual appearances over the course of the festival, covering not only their inimitable bodies of work, but also their influences and inspirations.
It’s fitting then that the event begins with Atwood and Gaiman asking each other what they read as children.
After realising “adults have no attention span”, Gaiman learned to read for himself at an early age and began to devour everything available to him: from Enid Blyton (“she was an effective story delivery mechanism”) to C.S. Lewis and an author who “shaped the way I saw the universe”, Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers.
Atwood started with the “dark gothicism” of Mother Goose and Beatrix Potter, before discovering the works of Edgar Allen Poe mistakenly filed in the children’s section of the library.
Unsurprisingly for two contemporary masters of the fairytale, the tales of the Brothers Grimm were also a major influence (“My view of adults pre and post Hansel & Gretel was very, very different,” says Gaiman).
Both naturally progressed to sci-fi and comics, and Atwood and Gaiman demonstrate an encyclopaedic knowledge of both. “It was before the age of nerds,” says Atwood, answering Gaiman’s question as to whether she was mocked as a girl reading comics.
This leads to a discussion on genre in fiction, which Atwood describes as a recent invention. “In the old days, people just wrote books,” she says, before both go on to light-heartedly mock the rather precise categorisations of novels which exist today — “professorial adultery novels?” wonders Atwood.
With science fiction and fantasy described as a way of understanding the world, Atwood then asks Gaiman how he handles “getting in and out of the worlds” he creates in his many forms of fiction.
“I love doors,” he replies. “Real and imaginary. They’re transitional, that moment of threshold.” He then describes how a real-life bricked up door in his childhood home went on to provide inspiration for Coraline, after he asked himself the perennial what if… question about what might lie behind it.
The discussion shifts to the portrayal of supernatural females in Gaiman’s literature — both wicked and heroic. After recalling the first time he remembers hiding from something was when he watched the Wizard of Oz, Atwood catches Gaiman off guard with a glorious and scarily accurate impression of the Wicked Witch of the West, something which genuinely seems to unsettle him — and which provides one of those unmissable festival moments. “You’ll always be able to say you witnessed that,” says Gaiman to the audience, after recovering his composure.
In an hour which slips by like something out of a fairytale itself, the pair discuss more motifs and inspiration from fable; whether their respective stories take place in the same or different universes; and the problem with utopias — which, according to Gaiman, would “all work brilliantly if it wasn’t for people”.
There’s an excited gasp as Atwood reveals she is considering a graphic novel adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale — then a huge wave of applause as these two literary legends take their leave, having transformed the last evening of the Book Festival into something truly magical.
Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood were in conversation at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Aug 26