Last time author Neil Gaiman philosophized in Philadelphia, his wisdom—in the form of the 2012 UArts commencement speech, exhorting grads to craft art from their lives—went viral. A year later, that speech has just been published in hardcover as the year’s most anticipated new college-grad gift book. Frequent Gaiman collaborator and West Philly photographer Kyle Cassidy—who photographed Neil and his wife, musician Amanda Palmer, the night of that speech for an art project called The Bed Song Book—caught up with the author this week for a new shoot and a chat about the joys of the creative process.
Neil, how did the University of the Arts commencement speech come to happen in the first place?
I got a very nice letter from Sean Buffington, who is the president of University of the Arts, saying they’d like me to be the commencement speaker and they’d like to give me a doctorate. And I thought: Nobody’s ever given me a doctorate before. I am completely undoctorated. [Longtime artist collaborator] Dave McKean and I had been sort of joking about it a few days before that—he had just been made a doctor, and I’d been mocking him outrageously for the silly hat that he had to wear…. Because it was the University of the Arts, because these were people in all fields—photographers, illustrators, designers, animators—I thought, I won’t feel like such a fraud if I just get up there and tell them everything I know.
So I wrote the speech, and I ran it by Amanda, who is my bullshit detector, and she liked it—and the bits she didn’t like I went off and rewrote. She’d say, “That’s the kind of thing they tell you at commencements. You have to go deeper than that.” So I did. And then I got up there and delivered it. As far as I was concerned, I was simply happy that everybody seemed to have liked it. I loved that I got a standing ovation, I loved that people were thrilled, and I assumed that was going to be the end of it. I’d made my speech, and now it was done. Except that it didn’t really work like that. Because about a week later, it went up on Vimeo—the university had filmed it, and they put it up—and suddenly it went viral. I don’t think I’d ever been around for anything of mine to go viral before, not in that same way where, within a week, about half a million people had watched it, and the numbers kept going up and up. Very rapidly, within about a week after that, my agent started getting requests from publishers to publish it…
Did you get any direct response from people who’d heard the speech?
I started to see people from all walks of life talking about how applying things from that speech was making things better for them. One of the things I’ve loved the most has been the people who’d read it and say, “Hey, you could say the same about ‘Make good science!’” And the architects saying, “My god, yeah, it applies to ‘Make good architecture,’ too, doesn’t it?” I’m an artist, so what I’m doing is to make good art—but other people may take that into another direction.
In the art world, there’s a big argument around the idea that you should never work for free. But some of the things that you and I have worked on together—and I’m thinking of the time we covered [science fiction novelist] John Scalzi in buttercream frosting and made a poster out of it—these were things that nobody was expecting a paycheck out of, but I think everyone felt extremely well compensated for it.
You and I met on a project called Who Killed Amanda Palmer when Amanda Palmer, a singer and songwriter who’d just gone solo with a side project, approached both of us to photograph and do some writing for a book that she was going to be self-publishing of photographs of herself dead. I told her right at the beginning that I wasn’t going to ask her to pay anything for it, because she couldn’t afford me. I wasn’t doing it for money, I was doing it because it sounded interesting, it sounded like a fun, juicy project. And of course I didn’t get paid anything for it, but I did end up getting a wife—incredibly unexpectedly. Probably the one thing in the world I was not looking for at that point in my life was a wife. I’m not even sure I was looking for a steady girlfriend! And instead I got Amanda Palmer out of it. So, honestly, I’m incredibly glad I didn’t say, “Yeah, give me a thousand dollars,” or whatever. I think I did much better out of that equation than getting paid.
PW's Fall Guide 2014