Sources of inspiration

Of Tea Leaves & Talismen

What I Learned from Neil Gaiman

Snoqualmie Pass, by every right of weather, should have been snow-covered and potentially dangerous. That’s how “wonderlands” should be: beautiful and deadly. The chance that you might not make it to the end makes the journey and the glory that much better.

Instead, the pass—there are a number of mountain passes in Washington state, but if you say “the pass” everyone knows which one you mean—was bone dry and the only snow visible capped the mountain peaks. Almost exactly a year before, my wife had to put chains on a rental car to return home safely from seeing an old friend. I, too, traversed the state to see an old friend, although the relationship was mostly one-way.

Neil Gaiman spoke in front of 2,500 people in downtown Seattle on a mid-November night that should have been frigid. Yes, the night air chilled but did not cause shivers. Most people did not even wear coats. Everyone, however, asked a question.

Most people won’t tell you why they start late, Gaiman said after taking the stage around 7:45 p.m. He promised to buck that tradition. With a gleam of pride, he showed the four-inch thick stack of index cards with questions from the audience on each one. Reading them made him late.

sSomewhere in that stack, written with a black permanent marker I always carry, was my question.

I wanted to ask what he was working on; I wanted to ask about the process of turning American Gods and Good Omens into television shows; I wanted to ask which of his stories or books was the hardest to write. I didn’t ask any of those questions, but they were answered because someone else asked.

I’ve been looking to Gaiman for answers for more than twenty years. How do you live when you feel lost in the world? How do you survive when someone you love dies? How do you make a living with your imagination? I knew some of these answers, from his stories, novels, and comics. I learned more from interviews he did for a “goth” magazine called Carpe Noctem published by Thom Carnell. (I learned from Thom, too, and he has become a friend in the way I wish Neil Gaiman could be my friend. We read each other’s work, offer encouragement and advice, and tell everyone we know to buy each other’s books.) Thom has read things I’ve written. Gaiman had not.

That is, until about the last 30-40 minutes of his two-hour engagement, when Gaiman held a card and read the words aloud, as if he had read them before and didn’t need to look at the card again.

“Peter Straub says that you are the only person who correctly identified who wrote which parts of The Talisman. How did you figure it out?” the card read.

I had good reason for asking this question. In January 2017, I was fortunate enough to attend the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp, a weekend-long workshop lead by the sci-fi/horror writer Thomas F. Monteleone. With him were three regularly-attending instructors: writer F. Paul Wilson, editor Ginger Buchanan, and writer/editor Douglas E. Winter. If you are me, this line-up is like sitting at the feet of masters. Every year, Monteleone brings in a special guest to talk and meet with the burgeoning writers at the camp. That year, Peter Straub was the guest.

During a discussion, he talked about the collaboration process and how he and Stephen King came to write The Talisman. And he said many people have tried to point out passages written by him and those written by King. Only one person had gotten it right: Neil Gaiman.

I needed to know how he did it. What was it that made it so he could figure out which of these two giants of genre literature wrote the parts of their own collaborative novel?

“Because I wrote Good Omens with Terry Pratchett,” Gaiman said. Briefly, he spoke more about the specifics, but I want to hold those parts for myself and the other 2,499 people in attendance that night. But what matters is this: writing a novel with a friend gave him insights into a novel written by friends that others didn’t have.

Reading and writing are such solitary endeavors that we often forget the communal nature of story-telling. This is what I learned—re-learned, in some cases—that night from Neil Gaiman: my stories matter; the stories do not have to be written or read alone; revisiting favorite books is a great way to be happy but doing things for others is even better; appreciate your local libraries; there is still wonder and mystery and kindness in the world and because those things exist, you might as well be them.

I had planned to make the drive through the pass alone. I’d take my time and enjoy the oddly calm weather. While the skies stayed calm in that area, fog surrounded my home and make landing airplanes at the small airport in Walla Walla impossible. A new friend, someone I had never met, was supposed to be on one of those planes. While I was being regaled with tales from Gaiman, she was trying to get home, but instead had more than one flight cancelled.

The morning I returned, I went out of my way to pick up this stranded traveler. Yes, it took longer to get home than I had planned, but I made a new friend and we shared stories about writing and art—she is a photographer—and working in higher education, about moving to new places and how to get along in a world of wonder and mystery and kindness

It’s what I think Neil would have done, too.

Contributing Editor and Author T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween, has worked as a journalist, horror movie columnist, pizza delivery man, warehouse worker, haunted house monster, customer service clerk, college instructor, and other less glamorous jobs. Tranchell has his master’s degree in literature from Central Washington University with, naturally, a focus on the horror genre.

Tranchell published his first novel, Cry Down Dark, through Blysster Press in 2016. In 2017, Blysster released a collection of short stories, poetry, and film criticism titled Asleep In the Nightmare Room. He has also published horror short fiction, is at work on his second novel, and was co-editor of GIVE: An Anthology of Anatomical Entries, a dark fiction anthology from When the Dead Books. He is a rising star among horror scholars, having presented work on Stephen King at the Popular Culture Association’s national conference, and has been a panelist and interviewer at Crypticon Seattle for several years.

He currently is the author development coordinator for Blysster Press, writes for Northwest Public Broadcasting, and is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached via email at

T.J.'s work can be found on Amazon.