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There's a boyishness about Neil Gaiman that makes you doubt the 40 years he claims. A bad boyishness, complete with a mop of unruly dark hair and -- on the day I met with him -- a black leather jacket. He wears sunglasses the whole time we speak: modishly pale ones that only just mask the intense green of his eyes. He is, he tells me at one point, the father of three: an 18-year-old, a 16-year-old and a seven-year-old. And so 40 makes more sense but, even so, you wonder at the magic he's woven to maintain his youthful mien. On the other hand, consider the work: the fantastic worlds he's created that surely require the outlook of someone who sees a universe filled with wonder everywhere he looks.
And there are compensations for 40. For one thing, he is the author of an impressive body of work, the seminal Sandman series of graphic novels chief among them. But there is more: much more. The novel Good Omens, co-written with Terry Pratchett that is now being made into a movie to be written and directed by Terry Gilliam whose screen credits include darkly comic classics like 12 Monkeys and Brazil. There are the novels Neverwhere and Stardust and even children's books. Most recently, however, Gaiman penned the epic novel that will most likely place him even more highly in the ranks of serious novelists. American Gods has been well received by critics. January Magazine reviewer, David Dalgliesh, called the book Gaiman's "best and most ambitious work since The Sandman."
Born in the United Kingdom, Gaiman has made his home in the United States for the last nine years. In Minneapolis, the Midwest he draws so skillfully in American Gods, near his wife's family, where the couple's children could be near their grandparents and where Gaiman could satisfy one of his American dreams: "I thought," says Gaiman, "you know, if I'm going to leave England and go to America, I want one of those things that only America can provide and one of those things is Addams Family houses."
At present, Gaiman is looking forward to the publication of Coraline, a children's book expected in mid-2002 and the film version of Good Omens.
Linda Richards: There's been a lot of muttering in the UK press about J.K. Rowling "borrowing" ideas for her Harry Potter books from you. Would you care to comment on that?
Neil Gaiman: Last year, initially The Scotsman newspaper -- being Scottish and J.K. Rowling being Scottish -- and because of the English tendency to try and tear down their idols, they kept trying to build stories which said J.K. Rowling ripped off Neil Gaiman. They kept getting in touch with me and I kept declining to play because I thought it was silly. And then The Daily Mirror in England ran an article about that mad woman who was trying to sue J.K. Rowling over having stolen muggles from her. And they finished off with a line saying [something like]: And Neil Gaiman has accused her of stealing.
Luckily I found this online and I found it the night it came out by pure coincidence and the reporter's e-mail address was at the bottom of the thing so I fired off an e-mail saying: This is not true, I never said this. You are making this up. I got an apologetic e-mail back, but by the time I'd gotten the apologetic e-mail back it was already in The Daily Mail the following morning and it was very obvious that The Daily Mail's research [had] consisted of reading The Daily Mirror. And you're going: journalists are so lazy.
What was it of yours they were accusing her of stealing from you?
My character Tim Hunter from Books of Magic who came out in 1990 was a small dark-haired boy with big round spectacles -- a 12-year-old English boy -- who has the potential to be the most powerful wizard in the world and has a little barn owl.
So there were commonalties, for sure.
Well, yes and as I finally, pissed off, pointed out to an English reviewer who tried to start this again, I said: Look, all of the things that they actually have in common are such incredibly obvious, surface things that, had she actually been stealing, they were the things that would be first to be changed. Change hair color from brown to fair, you lose the glasses, you know: that kind of thing.
Change the owl to a gecko.
Yes. Or to a peregrine falcon. And I said to her that I thought we were both just stealing from T.H. White: very straightforward. But then I saw an online interview with the mad muggles lady where they were asking her about me and they said: what about Neil Gaiman? And she said: Well, he's been gotten to. [Laughs]
By the Harry Potter conspiracy? [Laughs]
I guess, yes.
Where do you live now?
I have an American wife whose family all live in Minneapolis. We decided that it was time to move over so that her family could meet the kids and that was where we went. And also because I really wanted an Addams Family house. I thought, you know, if I'm going to leave England and go to America, I want one of those things that only America can provide and one of those things is Addams Family houses.
And so you have one?
I do. Yes: with the big pointy tower and wrap-around porch. It's fun. The only thing that's weird is kids do not come trick or treating at Halloween. Every year we used to buy the candy and stuff like that and we'd wait, but they'd never come.
Does it have a reputation as a haunted house?
I don't know. Somebody once told me that somebody had actually hung themselves in the tower but I've never been able to find anything about that anywhere else so I suspect they probably didn't.
How long have you been there?
About nine years now.
So it has affected your writing. It gave birth to American Gods, I would think.
Completely, It was what American Gods came from: discovering that America was a much more complex place than I thought it was and that the Midwest was a much more complex place. There was a review that came in from a Seattle paper that said how strange it was that the Midwest was much better drawn than the scenes in L.A. and New York in the novel. Which is probably because there's 500 pages of the Midwest and about 80 New York and probably about 80 L.A. But it's also because I figure everybody knows New York. Everybody knows L.A. There's not an awful lot of painting that one needs to do. Whereas nobody has ever written about [some of these] weird Midwesterny places. So that was part of the fun.
Were Americans more than you expected? Were you surprised?
It took me a couple of years. There were really interesting things going on under the surface. You wind up having to understand history and then come forward, to figure out who came where and what they did and what was going on economically and what the cultural patterns were and then you come back forward. Which again was stuff that I tried to get into the novel.
How many kids do you have?
Three. One just turned 18, one 16 and one seven.
The older two are Brits?
Well, yes. But they all have dual nationality. Two sets of passports.
Sandman was, I think, life changing for its genre. Or even perhaps created its own genre. It's been very important, anyway.
I don't know to what extent. At the time that I was doing it, I was very much hoping that it would change things for the medium of comics. Looking back on it, I don't think an awful lot. It did an awful lot for Sandman in that graphic novels are still out there, they still sell 80,000-odd a year, year in, year out in America alone. But what I was definitely hoping would happen was the same kind of thing that happened when I read Alan Moore was doing on The Swamp Thing. I went: Well, hang on. Here is someone writing stuff for adults and writing stuff with as much imagination and verve and depth as anything else out there: any other medium out there. I wasn't going: Oh, I want to write Swamp Thing. I was going: Oh, I want to create my own one of these. It will be interesting to see if in a few years time, the generation that was raised on Sandman do actually start creating more literary and more interesting comics.
I think it's happening.
I mean, it seems that every time a new prominent graphic novel comes out, The Sandman is what is referenced.
I think it's good. It's going to be very interesting to see where comics go over the next couple of decades. And the success of the Jimmy Corrigan book heartened me enormously and the fact that it's a book that simply got reviewed as itself. And nobody obviously went: Oh, we've already reviewed comics two years ago, we don't need to review this. I thought [that] was really good and really important.
As far as I'm concerned, comics are a medium. That really is the most important side of them.
Where would you like to see the medium go?
I just want it to be one medium amongst many. I would like it to be a commercially viable medium in that I worry a lot that comics has the potential to go the way of poetry. If it keeps shrinking commercially... I'm talking about poetry in terms of, you know, Byron used to bring out a poem and everybody read it. Kipling would bring out a book of poetry and everybody read the book, read the poems and quoted them to each other and knew them and these things were read. These days, poetry gets written by a very few people who are fundamentally hobbyists, for a very few people, who are fundamentally also hobbyists who want to see what the other people are doing. And I doubt there's a poetry book written more than once a decade that could financially sustain its author despite Guggenheims, Pulitzers and what have you. And there are some brilliant poets out there but, at the end of the day, it's become hobbyists exchanging [poetry] and little poetry magazines exist for other poets to buy and hope that their poems can be in them. I really hope that comics do not go that way. I think it [would] be very sad if comics did go that way. And I can see that happening. If the readership base gets small enough, if you get to the point where comics are things created by people who do comics for people who do comics... and I think that would be sad.
Sandman is your benchmark. Everything you've done since, people always compare to The Sandman. How do you feel about Sandman all this time later?
It's the biggest thing I've ever done. People would say -- like with Stardust -- Well, it's great, but it's not Sandman. And I'd say: Well, Sandman took me seven years to write, its 2000 pages long, over 10 volumes, it's enormous. It's impossible, as far as we can tell, to try and bind the complete Sandman as one book because it would be the size of a family Bible and impossible to read and bind. Stardust was barely 60,000 words. Why are you comparing these two? [Laughs]
I'm pleased with American Gods. It's not as big and it's not as complex as Sandman partly because it took me two years to write rather than seven going on eight. But I think it's the first thing I've done that could actually spare to stand up against Sandman.
It's a whole different thing. It's a big ol' novel. How many words?
Do you think it's your most important work to date?
I'm never quite sure what's important and I'm not sure that authors are meant to know what's important. And I'm not sure that anybody gets to make the call on the whole importance thing until a long time afterwards.
1930. Probably the most prominent English essayist was A.A. Milne. The editor of Punch, famed for his comedic essays and a man with several plays running in the West End concurrently. A man who had bestselling books with titles like The Daily Round and hilarious collections of essays and sketches. One of the funniest writers of his generation and an accomplished playwright. I did an Amazon search several months ago just out of interest to see just what of his was actually in print. And it listed 700 books: all of which, as I went down page after page, were variant editions of the two Winnie the Pooh books and the two books of comic verse for children that he wrote. And that's all that we have left of A.A. Milne and he's in better shape than most of his contemporaries whose names we do not remember at all. I can't point to the other guy who was the biggest playwright in the 1930s because we don't know who that was and if I said his name, you'd be blank. The fact is, those two books of children's stories and two volumes of children's verse are what posterity, rightly or wrongly, has deemed the important thing to remember about what A.A. Milne did.
Actually, that's not true: there's one other thing we remember him for. His attempt to revive something forgotten which, again, worked brilliantly. To the point now where we didn't even know that it ever was forgotten. He wrote Toad of Toad Hall as a stage play, because he loved [it] and was furious that it had been forgotten -- The Wind in the Willows [which was written by Kenneth Grahame]. And Kenneth Grahame's book came out and was a huge dud. Kenneth Grahame's other two books -- Dream Days and The Golden Age -- now completely forgotten. Portraits of sort of being a child in early Edwardian, early Victorian days -- were seized on and loved by the Edwardians as these beautiful, sentimental portraits of childhood. These were Grahame's bestselling books. And the Wind in the Willows was a dud: it was completely forgotten to the point where A.A. Milne wound up writing an essay in the 1920s saying: Let me tell you about one of the best books in the world and you have never heard of it. It was called the Wind in the Willows and [A.A. Milne] went on and did Toad of Toad Hall, the theatrical adaptation, which then revived the book to the point where it's now considered one of the great children's classics. And if I'm burbling on about this stuff, I'm also burbling to point out that if Milne had not been a huge fan of this one book, there is no particular reason to think that The Wind in the Willows would have gone on to become the classic that it is.
It's quite possible that in 100 years time, people will say: You know that guy who wrote the book The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish? He did all this other stuff too? And people will say: No.
And the guy who did the biography of Duran Duran.
[Laughs] I can't see that one ever getting...
But you did do a biography on the group?
Yes, yes. That's the kind of thing you do when you're a 22-year-old journalist and somebody offers you money. It was great. Not only did I pay the rent, but that biography bought me an electric typewriter.
When was it?
I think it was written in 1984 and published in 1985. What was funny about that, of course, was the fact that it came out at a point where they were still hugely hot and promptly became an instant little minor bestseller. The first printing sold out in days.
Fun. So you did more than buy an electric typewriter. You bought linoleum as well.
No. I didn't. Because, what happened then was the publisher, before they could go back for the second printing, was taken into involuntary bankruptcy. Proteus Books. And that was that. And that was a really good thing, actually. I look back on it, because I got the advance. I got my 2000 pounds up front. But I never got any of the royalties I should have gotten and it never went on to make me any money which meant that I sort of got to stop and take stock. And I went: OK, so here am I and I spent several months writing a book that I wouldn't have wanted to read. I don't think I'll ever do that again. And I learned a lesson that every now and then the universe conspires to remind me of. It's like my one lesson and if somebody, while writing my life as one of these comedic tragedies, people would point to it as one of those recurring themes that he's needs to be every now and again retaught this one, which is: Whenever I do things for the money...
Whenever I do things because I want to do it and because it seems fun or interesting and so on and so forth, it almost always works. And it almost always winds up more than paying for itself. Whenever I do things for the money, not only does it prove a headache and a pain in the neck and come with all sorts of awful things attached, but I normally don't wind up getting the money, either. So, after a while, you do sort of start to learn [to] just forget about the things where people come to you and dangle huge wads of cash in front of you. Go for the one that seems interesting because, even if it all falls apart, you've got something interesting out of it. Whereas, the other way, you normally wind up getting absolutely nothing out of it.
The best thing about the Duran Duran book was, because I own the copyright on it and because the company went bankrupt, later they were actually taken over by somebody else who wrote me a letter saying: We want to bring it back into print. I got to say: No thank you.
You were a rock journalist?
No, I was a journalist. The rock bit simply happened because I had a friend named Kim Neuman, with whom I was already writing a book called Ghastly Beyond Belief. And Kim was writing a book called Nightmare Movies for these people and he mentioned me as somebody who could write. I got a phone call from Proteus saying: OK, we have three books that need to be written very, very urgently. Pick one. I said: Great. Who are they? And they said: Duran Duran, Barry Manilow and Def Leppard. I figured Duran Duran had done much less. Barry Manilow I figured I was going to have to listen to, you know, 40 Barry Manilow albums.
I still leave the Duran Duran book off of biographies, more for fun than anything else, but one day in 1996 I was -- due to a series of strange coincidences -- on a yacht in the Mediterranean with Simon LeBon as part of the crew. Simon loves to sail. He's a big 'round the world yacht guy and stuff like that. He'd come out to crew the yacht for a week and I was there as a land loving passenger and we were friendly, we were chatting and about day three I thought: I can not keep this one, I have to say it. And I said: Look, I have to tell you. I wrote a Duran Duran biography once. And he said: Which one? And I said: The Proteus one. And he said: The one with the gray cover? We liked that one, it was great.
So you hadn't met him? It wasn't the kind of biography where you tour with the band for half a year or anything?
No. It was the kind of biography where you go down to the BBC and you say: Hello, BBC press cuttings library? I would like to buy everything you have with the words "Duran Duran" in it. And you pay 150 pounds for all their photocopying and you take it away and you take all of these press clippings and you write it into a book. And you listen to the albums.
The other thing that I learned at the same time was, lots and lots of my friends were writers in London. Writers may be solitary but they also tend to flock together: they like being solitary together. I knew a lot of writers in London and many of them were award-winning writers and many of them were award-winning, respectable writers. And the trouble with being an award-winning, respectable writer is that you probably are not making a living.
If you write one well-reviewed, well-respected, not bad selling, but not a bestseller list book every three years, which you sell for a whopping 30,000 pounds, that's still going to average out to 10,000 pounds a year and you will make more managing a McDonald's. With overtime you'd probably make more working in a McDonald's. So there were incredibly well-respected, award-winning senior writers who, to make ends meet, were writing film novelizations and TV novelizations under pen names that they were desperately embarrassed about and didn't want anybody to know about. You know, the sort of secret knowledge that was passed on: Did you know that so-and-so wrote that casualty book? It's actually by such-and-such, you know? And, the thing that became very apparent as I became a writer was these people were selling out -- and I do think of that as selling out, because they'd put pen names on because they didn't want to acknowledge them -- for 1800 pounds a book. 2000 pounds a book. 2500 pounds a book. And I thought, then: It's not the selling out that's bad. It's that these people are selling out for absolutely nothing. You know, if you're going to sell out, sell out for a million dollars. Sell out for 10 million. Don't sell out to the point where you look at yourself in the mirror going: Oh my God, I'm a hack. Why am I doing this for 2000? For 1500? For heaven's sake!
There's a strange and wonderful alternate history of the London literary world of the 1970s and 80s and for all I know 90s, where you'd go and say: This famous writer wrote this episode of a novelization or this person wrote Highlander III and you could go and figure it all out.
Speaking of selling out, I hear that Good Omens is being turned into a movie. [Laughs] Isn't that an awful way of putting it? But I wanted a sellout segue.
I think it's a lovely sellout segue. What makes it a lovely sellout segue is that for 10 years, Terry Pratchett and I had a bad experience right at the beginning with that film. And then we spent eight years, nine years simply saying no. Every two or three months another major Hollywood entity would come along, clear its throat and say: We'd like to buy Good Omens. Expecting us to say: All hail! Give us money. And we would say: No thank you. And they would say: No, really. We mean it. We actually want to buy Good Omens and give you money and we would say: Please go away.
That went on for a long time until the Samuelsons came along and said: Look, we want to make Good Omens because this is what we feel it's about and furthermore we're talking to Terry Gilliam and we want Gilliam to write and direct it. At which point, Terry [Pratchett] and I said: Absolutely. Go with it. We took significantly less than we had been offered by many of the people to whom we'd said no because we liked the idea of Terry Gilliam doing it. If anybody is going to do Good Omens, I want it to be Gilliam. And then people say: Are you and Terry [Pratchett] involved [with the project]? And we say: No! Because we want to see what Terry Gilliam is going to do. We wrote the book. It's Terry Gilliam. I'm very happy to see whatever he does.
What was the bad experience you had at first with the film version of the book?
Terry and I were approached by these Hollywood people. They phoned us up and told us that they loved us. We went out to Hollywood and we had the kind of Hollywood experience that people joke about. I wound up transmogrifying our Hollywood experience into a short story in the Smoke and Mirrors collection called "The Goldfish Bowl and Other Stories" much of which was taken from literal things that were happening back then, Terry and I sort of watching this with horror.
Essentially what happened is we went out there, we spent a week going in for meetings around a big table, while people who couldn't write told us what they thought the movie should be. We'd go away and do an outline and hand it in the next day and nobody would have read it and we'd go in for another meeting and they'd tell us a whole bunch of different things and we'd say: That's essentially in the outline. And they'd say: Well, we haven't read the outline.
We went away and we wrote to script and we handed it in and they said: It's too much like the book. At which point Terry Pratchett very wisely said: I've had enough. I'm quitting. I'm off. And he quit. I said: I want to see what happens next. So I didn't quit and they said: This is what we want in the story. So I wrote a story that was what they said they wanted, wrote a script -- actually, a very nice script. I'm still proud of it. It was very much what they said they wanted. And I handed it in. And they read it. And they said: Well, it's not like the book, is it?
I actually didn't get the pleasure of quitting because the day after that they went bankrupt. So that was one of those moments again when not only was it this strange sort of weird sellout, but I also didn't get paid.
Are you working on something now?
The next thing that will actually happen which should be fun is a children's book called Coraline and that's the next book to come out.
As in made of coral and as in Caroline, spelled wrong. For years I thought it was a name I'd made up and then I've actually discovered now that it's a real name. Which is always what happens when you make up a really good name. [Laughs] You discover other people made it up too. | August 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.