Neil Gaiman Talks Dreamily About Fountain Pens, Notebooks & His Writing Process in His Long Interview with Tim Ferriss

Last Feb­ru­ary, Neil Gaiman sat down for a 90-minute inter­view with author, entre­pre­neur and pod­cast­er Tim Fer­riss. At the 13:30 mark, the con­ver­sa­tion turns to Gaiman’s writ­ing process, and there begins a long and love­ly detour into the world of foun­tain pens (the Pilot 823, Vis­con­tis, and the New York Foun­tain Pen Hos­pi­tal in NYC), note­books (why he prefers Leucht­turm Ger­man note­books to Mole­sk­ines), and how he writes his nov­els out by hand. It’s all care­ful­ly thought out:

Tim Fer­riss: Are there any oth­er rules or prac­tices that you also hold sacred or impor­tant for your writ­ing process?

Neil Gaiman: Some of them are just things for me. For exam­ple, most of the time, not always, I will do my first draft in foun­tain pen, because I actu­al­ly enjoy the process of writ­ing with a foun­tain pen. I like the feel­ing of foun­tain pen. I like uncap­ping it. I like the weight of it in my hand. I like that thing, so I’ll have a note­book, I’ll have a foun­tain pen, and I’ll write. If I’m doing any­thing long, if I’m work­ing on a nov­el, for exam­ple, I will always have two foun­tain pens on the go, at least, with two dif­fer­ent col­ored inks, at least, because that way I can see at a glance, how much work I did that day. I can just look down and go, “Look at that! Five pages in brown. How about that? Half a page in black. That was not a good day. Nine pages in blue, cool, what a great day.”

You can just get a sense of are you work­ing, are you mak­ing for­ward progress? What’s actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing. I also love that because it empha­sizes for me that nobody is ever meant to read your first draft. Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolute­ly go up in flames, it can — you can change the age, gen­der, num­ber of a char­ac­ter, you can bring some­body dead back to life. Nobody ever needs to know any­thing that hap­pens in your first draft. It is you telling the sto­ry to your­self.

Then, I’ll sit down and type. I’ll put it onto a com­put­er, and as far as I’m con­cerned, the sec­ond draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.

Tim Fer­riss: Do you edit, then, as you’re look­ing or trans­lat­ing from the first draft on the page to the com­put­er, or do you get it all down as is in the com­put­er and then edit —

Neil Gaiman: No, that’s my edit­ing process. I fig­ure that’s my sec­ond draft is typ­ing into the com­put­er. Also, I love — back­ing up a bit here. When I was, what was I? 27, 28? In the days when we were still in type­writ­ers and we were just a hand­ful of peo­ple with word proces­sors, which were clunky things with disks which didn’t hold very much and stuff, I edit­ed an anthol­o­gy and enjoyed edit­ing my anthol­o­gy.

Most of the sto­ries that came in were about 3,000 words long. Move for­ward in time, not much, five, six, sev­en years. Mid ‘90s, every­body is now on com­put­er, and I edit­ed anoth­er short sto­ry anthol­o­gy. The sto­ries that were com­ing in tend­ed to be some­where between six- and 9,000 words long. They didn’t real­ly have much more sto­ry than the 3,000 word ones, and I real­ized that what was hap­pen­ing is it’s a computer‑y thing, is if you’re typ­ing, putting stuff down is work. If you’ve got a com­put­er, adding stuff is not work. Choos­ing is work. It expands a bit, like a gas. If you have two things you could say, you say both of them. If you have the stuff you want to add, you add it, and I thought, “Okay, I have to not do that, because oth­er­wise my stuff is going to bal­loon and it will become gaseous and thin.”

What I love, if I’ve writ­ten some­thing on a com­put­er, and I decide to lose a chunk, it feels like I’ve lost work. I delete a page and a half, I feel like there’s a page and half that just went away. That was a page and a half’s worth of work I’ve just lost. If I’ve been writ­ing in a note­book and I’m typ­ing it up, I can look at some­thing and go, “Oh, I don’t need this page and a half.” I leave it out, I just saved myself work, and it feels like I’m treat­ing myself.

I’m just try­ing to always have in my head the idea that maybe I’m some­how, on some cos­mic lev­el, pay­ing some­body by the word in order to be allowed to write, but if they’re there, they should mat­ter, they should mean some­thing. It’s always impor­tant to me.

Tim Fer­riss: You men­tioned dis­trac­tion ear­li­er and your dan­ger­ous­ly adorable son, which I cer­tain­ly agree with. I had read some­where, actu­al­ly, before I get to that, this might seem like a very, very mun­dane ques­tion, but what type of note­books do you pre­fer? Are they large legal pads or are they leather bound? What type of note­books?

Neil Gaiman: When they came out, I real­ly liked — I’ve used a whole bunch of dif­fer­ent ones. I bought big draw­ing ones, which actu­al­ly turned out to be a bit too big, though I liked how much I could see on the page. Those are the ones I wrote Star­dust and Amer­i­can Gods in, big size, but they weren’t ter­ri­bly portable. I went over to the Mole­sk­ines, and I loved them when they first came out, and then they dropped their paper qual­i­ty. Drop­ping paper qual­i­ty doesn’t mat­ter, unless you’re writ­ing in foun­tain pen, because all of a sud­den it’s bleed­ing through, and all of a sud­den you’re writ­ing on one page, leav­ing a page blank because it’s bled through and then writ­ing on the next page.

Joe Hill, about six or sev­en years ago, Joe Hill, the won­der­ful hor­ror fan­ta­sy writer, sug­gest­ed the Leucht­turm to me. My usu­al note­book right now is a Leucht­turm, because I real­ly like the way you can pag­i­nate stuff in them and the thick­ness of the paper, and they’re just like Mole­sk­ines, but the Porsche of Mole­sk­ines. They’re just bet­ter.

I also have been writ­ing, I wrote The Grave­yard Book and I’m writ­ing the cur­rent nov­el in these beau­ti­ful books that I bought in a sta­tionery shop in Venice, built into a bridge. Some­where in Venice there’s a lit­tle sta­tionery shop on a bridge, and they have these beau­ti­ful leather-bound blank books that just look like hard­back books, but they’re blank pages. I wrote The Grave­yard Book in one of those. I bought four of them, and now I’m using the next one on the next nov­el, and it may well go into anoth­er one. I’m not sure.

Then, at home, I say at home, my house in Wis­con­sin, which is where my stuff is, I’ve got my — we live in Wood­stock, but I have an entire life’s worth of stuff still sit­ting in my house in Wis­con­sin, and it’s become archives. It’s actu­al­ly kind of fab­u­lous hav­ing a house that is an archive, but wait­ing for me in that house is a book that I bought for myself about 25 years ago, and before I die, I plan to write a nov­el in it. It’s an accounts book from the mid-19th cen­tu­ry. It’s 500 pages long. Every page is num­bered. It’s lined with accounts lines, but real­ly faint so it would be nice to write a book in it, and it is engi­neered so that every sin­gle page lies flat.

It’s huge and it’s heavy and it just looks like a book that Dick­ens or some­body would’ve writ­ten a nov­el in and I’ve just been wait­ing until I have an idea that is huge and weird and Dick­en­sian enough, and whether or not I actu­al­ly get to write it in dip pen, I’m not sure, but I def­i­nite­ly want to write it in an old Vic­to­ri­an, some­thing slight­ly cop­per plat­ing. One of those old flex nib pens that they stopped mak­ing when car­bon paper came in, just so I can get that spi­dery Vic­to­ri­an hand­writ­ing.

Tim Fer­riss: I’m just imag­in­ing you putting pen to the first page. When you fin­ish the first page and what that will feel like. That’s going to be a good day.

Neil Gaiman: It will be either a good day or an incred­i­bly bad day. When you get to the end of the first page, it’s “Oh no! I had this pris­tine — ” it is the thing that I tell young writ­ers, and by young writ­ers, a young writer can be any age. You just have to be start­ing out, which is any­thing you do can be fixed. What you can­not fix is the per­fec­tion of a blank page. What you can­not fix is that pris­tine, unsul­lied white­ness of a screen or a page with noth­ing on it, because there’s noth­ing there to fix.

Tim Fer­riss: You men­tioned a word, and it might be that I’m a lit­tle slow mov­ing because I’m from Long Island, but Leucht­turm? What is that word?

Neil Gaiman: L‑E-I-C‑H, I think it’s T‑U-R‑M, and then 1917, I think is — their Twit­ter han­dle is def­i­nite­ly Leuchtturm1917.

Tim Fer­riss: Leucht­turm, and I’ll put that in the show notes for folks, so you’ll be able to find it. Since you gave me — I’m not intend­ing to turn this episode into a shop­ping list, but I’ve nev­er used foun­tain pens.

Neil Gaiman: Real­ly?

Tim Fer­riss: I have not. My assis­tant, my dear assis­tant does. She loves using foun­tain pens. She enjoys the act. I’ve had a few slop­py false starts and then been rather impa­tient, but if I want­ed to give it a shot, are there any par­tic­u­lar foun­tain pens or cri­te­ria that you would use in pick­ing a good pen?

Neil Gaiman: The biggest cri­te­ria I would use in pick­ing, if you have the choice, is go some­where like New York’s Foun­tain Pen Hos­pi­tal.

Tim Fer­riss: Is that a real place?

Neil Gaiman: It’s a real place. It’s called The Foun­tain Pen Hos­pi­tal. They sell lots of new pens, they recon­di­tion old pens, they look after pens for you. And try them out, because the love­ly thing about foun­tain pens is they are per­son­al. You go, “No, no, no.” And then you find the one. I tend to sug­gest to peo­ple who are just ner­vous­ly — “I’ve nev­er used a foun­tain pen, what should I do?” I will point them at Lamy, L‑A-M‑Y, who have some fab­u­lous starter pens, and they’re not very expen­sive, and they’re good. They do a pen called The Safari, but they have a bunch of good starter pens, and they’re just nice to get into the idea of, “Do I like doing this?”

Let’s see, what am I using right now? What have I got in here? This one here is a Pilot. It’s a Nami­ki, and it’s a flex­ing nib ever so slight­ly when you put down weight on it, the nib will spread. It’s a beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful pen. That one’s a Pilot. I think this one here is the Nami­ki. It’s real­ly weird because Nami­ki is Pilot, so I don’t quite under­stand that.

Tim Fer­riss: Maybe it’s a Toyota/Lexus thing?

Neil Gaiman: I think it is. It’s that kin­da thing. This one here is called a Fal­con, and again, you put a lit­tle bit of weight on it, and the line will just spread and thick­en, which is part of the fun of foun­tain pens. I’ll go and play. There’s a love­ly Ital­ian one. I’ve got my agent, I did a thing some years ago when I real­ized that I was los­ing a lot of actu­al writ­ing time to sign­ing for­eign con­tracts.

Tim Fer­riss: This is for books?

Neil Gaiman: This is for books, or occa­sion­al­ly for sto­ries or things being reprint­ed around the world. The con­tracts would come in and there would be big sheaves of them because they get print­ed all around the world, and for­eign con­tracts, a lot of them you have to sign a lot. You have to do a lot of ini­tial­ing and I would sit there going, “I have just spent 90 min­utes sign­ing a pile of con­tracts, and I love that I got to sign it, but —” I con­tact­ed my agent. I said, “Can I give you pow­er of attor­ney? Would you mind? Would you just sign these things for me?”

She was like, “Absolute­ly!” Great. I got her — she’d nev­er used a foun­tain pen and I got her a foun­tain pen. I actu­al­ly went to The New York Foun­tain Pen Hos­pi­tal with her, and did the thing of show­ing her pens, “What do you like?” I got her a Vis­con­ti, which are just these love­ly Ital­ian pens. Most­ly I love, there’s a slight­ly fetishis­tic bit of hav­ing bot­tles of beau­ti­ful­ly col­ored ink. When you start talk­ing to foun­tain pen peo­ple, they real­ly — they pre­tend to be inter­est­ed in what pen you like, but they don’t care, because they’ve found their own pens that they love.

They say, “What do you use?”

I use Pilot 823s for sign­ing. Actu­al­ly now, I’ve got a Pilot 823, ’cause it’s just a fan­tas­tic sign­ing pen. It’s a work­horse, it keeps going, and I got one in 2012 and it was my sign­ing pen. I signed through Ocean at the End of the Lane. Before the book had come out, I had already pre-signed, writ­ten my sig­na­ture 20,000 times with this pen.

Tim Fer­riss: I have some footage of you icing your hand after said sign­ings.

Neil Gaiman: That was a sign­ing tour that I real­ly got into icing my hand and wrist and arm. I did the num­bers, and as far as I can tell, I’ve signed about one and a half mil­lion sig­na­tures with that pen, which remained, and I had to send it off to Pilot at one point, not because the nib was in trou­ble, because the plunger mech­a­nism was start­ing to stick, and they fixed it for me and sent it back. Then my three-year-old son found a place behind a cast iron fire­place in our house in Wood­stock where if you just insert your father’s Pilot 823 pen, which you have found on the table, just to see if it would go in there, you can actu­al­ly guar­an­tee that with­out dis­as­sem­bling the house, we actu­al­ly have to take the entire house apart to unin­stall a cast iron fire­place from 1913 to get at the pen. That pen now has been giv­en as a sac­ri­fice to the house gods, so I need to get a new one.

Tim Fer­riss: Its strikes me, at least it seems as we’re talk­ing that many of the deci­sions you’ve made, the tools you’ve found and enlist­ed, act to make not writ­ing unap­peal­ing, or at least bor­ing after five min­utes, and to enhance the act of writ­ing to make it some­thing that is enjoy­able. I don’t know if that’s true.

Neil Gaiman: That is true, but they also exist for anoth­er rea­son, which is kind of weird, which is to try and triv­i­al­ize what I’m doing and not make it impor­tant and freight­ed down with weight, because that par­a­lyzes me. When I start­ed writ­ing I had a type­writer. It was a man­u­al type­writer. When I sold my first book, I had the mon­ey to buy an elec­tric type­writer.

Tim Fer­riss: What was that first book?

Neil Gaiman: Gosh. I actu­al­ly don’t remem­ber whether I bought the elec­tric type­writer with the mon­ey from a book called Ghast­ly Beyond Belief, a book of sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy quo­ta­tions I did with Kim New­man, or whether it was for the Duran Duran biog­ra­phy that I did. Either way, I was just 23. What I would do back then is I would do my rough draft on scrap paper, sin­gle spaced so that it couldn’t be used, and also so that I could get as many words on. Paper was expen­sive. I could always do that. I remem­ber the joy of get­ting my first com­put­er, and just the idea that I wasn’t mak­ing paper dirty. Noth­ing mat­tered until I pressed print, and that was absolute­ly and utter­ly lib­er­at­ing.

And then, a decade on, pick­ing up a note­book, it was for Star­dust, which I’d decid­ed that I want­ed the rhythms of Star­dust to be very anti­quat­ed rhythms, and I thought there’s prob­a­bly a dif­fer­ence to the way that one writes with a foun­tain pen. 17 cen­tu­ry writ­ing, 17th, 18th cen­tu­ry writ­ing, you notice tends to go in very, very long sen­tences and long para­graphs. My the­o­ry about this is that one rea­son why you get this is because you’’re using dip pens, and if you pause, they dry up. You just have to keep going. It forces you to do a kind of writ­ing where you’re going for a very long sen­tence and you’re going to go for a long para­graph and you’re going to keep mov­ing in this thing, and you’re think­ing ahead.

If you’re writ­ing on a com­put­er, you’ll think of the sort of thing that you mean, and then write that down and look at it and then fid­dle with it and get it to be the thing that you mean. If you’re writ­ing in foun­tain pen, if you do that, you just wind up with a page cov­ered with cross­ings out, so it’s actu­al­ly so much eas­i­er to just think a lit­tle bit more. You slow up a bit, but you’re think­ing the sen­tence through to the end, and then you start writ­ing.

You write that, and then you pause and then you write the next one. At least that was the way that I hypoth­e­sized that I might be writ­ing, and I want­ed Star­dust to feel like it had been writ­ten in the late 1920s. I thought to do that I should prob­a­bly get myself a foun­tain pen and a book, so that was how I start­ed writ­ing that. Again, what I loved was sud­den­ly feel­ing lib­er­at­ed. Say­ing, “Ah, I’m not actu­al­ly mak­ing words that are not going down in phos­phor on a com­put­er screen.”

Watch the full inter­view above. Stream it as a pod­cast. Or read the com­plete tran­script here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

18 Sto­ries & Nov­els by Neil Gaiman Online: Free Texts & Read­ings by Neil Him­self

Neil Gaiman Reads His Man­i­festo on Mak­ing Art: Fea­tures the 10 Things He Wish He Knew As a Young Artist

Where Do Great Ideas Come From? Neil Gaiman Explains

Neil Gaiman Teach­es the Art of Sto­ry­telling in His New Online Course

Aman­da Palmer Ani­mates & Nar­rates Hus­band Neil Gaiman’s Uncon­scious Mus­ings

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