An Interview with Neil Gaiman
Like many fifteen-year-old girls, my entry into comics was Neil Gaiman's Sandman. It offered something I hadn't been aware existed in comic book form: intelligent, funny, beautifully drawn tales of myth woven into real life. Since then, Gaiman has been playing around with form and genre, writing screenplays, short stories, novels, childrens' books, radio plays, and other comic books.
His sense of adventure has paid off in legions of devoted fans. His signing events have hundreds of fans curling around the venue, out the door, and into the street. And dutifully and respectfully, he signs for each person, even until the wee hours of the morning if need be. I sat down with Neil over tea in New York City the day of an event with John Hodgman left him signing until after midnight.
You sign for everybody.
I do, I sign for everybody. It’s stupid. I recently got disabused of something that I had believed for years. I met Stephen King in ’92 and I met him at a signing of mine. He came along with his family and he invited me to dinner with them afterwards and the signing went so late that when I finally met him it was eating room service hamburgers on the floor of the hotel room at 10:30 or 11 at night. At the time he was saying, “If I’m booked for an hour and a half, I just leave after an hour and a half.” I’ve always taken that as truth. As a peculiar coincidence I was talking to one of his sons last week and I mentioned that. He told me, “He may say that, but he stays until the end, too.”
Have you ever shut down an event, where there was a curfew?
Yes. Every variant possible happened. The worst ones are the signings where you have an hour there and then you will be replaced by another body in that space and it’s not negotiable. You realize you’re leaving with several hundred people upset, but there’s nothing really you can do.
The worst one ever was in Sao Paulo in Brazil in 2001. Brazilians are lovely people. But they don’t hold back on how they feel. And 1,200 showed up and at 700 the shop decided to cap the line, thinking that was enough. The 500 people left behind apparently explained to them in a very enthusiastic and cheerful and Brazilian sort of way that they could of course shut down the line if they wanted to but those 500 people would destroy their store if they did. And they thought about it for a minute, reopened the line, and I signed for all 1,200. But I only discovered this happened until the end of the day. I stayed until 2 o’clock in the morning, and I lost my voice.
But you have a very open relationship with your fans.
(Smirks) Yes. We have an open relationship. Obviously they can see other authors if they want, and I can see other readers.
Yes, but with other authors, I don’t know their cats’ names.
That’s true. That bit can get weird at times. I can be at a signing and someone will say, “So, how did Fred’s operation go?” There have been occasional cat tragedies that I have not blogged. Fred-the-Unlucky-Black-Cat recently went in for an incredibly expensive operation to remove part of his bowel so that he can hopefully eat cat food and actually eliminate it without being sent off for an enema once every two weeks. I decided not to blog that at all because I thought I really don’t want to clog the FAQ box with 200 people writing in with get well wishes for Fred and cat advice. Any time you mention cats, people will write in, “Well, when my cat had this, the only thing he would eat was liquidized sardines. If you liquidize sardines and add acidophilus.” I always want to try these things.
Did any of them work?
Never! Not one. Nothing ever been suggested included by vets who have written in has ever worked. But I will try them every time. Very nobly. Actually, I think I may have learned about this Happy Cat pheromone from somebody writing in. It’s this scent that gets released in a month-long slow spray thing and stops them from weeing in places they shouldn’t. It did actually work. Happy Cat pheromones.
I always wanted to ask you how you were introduced to Kathy Acker.
I had read Blood and Guts in High School and loved it, which was Blood and Guts in High School plus two, Great Expectations was in there, and I think My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, was that it?
I don’t have her collected novels, I’m not sure.
I loved it. I think I had even seen a TV documentary about her, and I had gotten the impression from the documentary that she was incredibly tall. I was at a party for somebody, it was one of those small literary parties at the Groucho club for a visiting author, who I think might have been Spalding Gray. If it wasn’t Spalding Gray, it would have been Tama Janowitz. There’s this small, blonde, amazingly cute American lady and we get chatting and suddenly the penny drops that this is Kathy. By that time we were already enjoying talking too much for me to be intimidated. I think we were talking about Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, which was at that point her favorite thing in the world, and my favorite thing in the world, and I was already friends with Alan at that point. It was the kind of conversation you don’t want to end, so you end up going from there to another bar and to another bar until you finally stop talking. We were friends. It wasn’t the sort of friendship where you get to be better friends as time goes on, it was the kind of friendship where you meet, you click, and many, many years later when we were chatting and she said, “Oh darling, I’m so proud of you, you’re doing so well.” I said, “Well, I was always a writer.” She said, “I thought when I met you you were some sort of groupie.”
I introduced her to loads of comic book people, introduced her to Alan Moore. And then our friendship was profoundly rocky and enormous fun for the next decade. I’m not somebody who has very good fallings out with people, but Kathy was somebody who would have enormous and dreadful fallings out with people. At one point she fled England. She moved to New York, and I saw her whenever I’d come to New York, and then she moved back and bought a house in Brighton, sight unseen. This was immediately followed by the falling apart of the British housing market and Kathy moving to San Francisco never having seen her house in Brighton. I got a phone call from her one day saying, “Darling, you can sell my house in Brighton for me, can’t you?”
She moved to San Francisco and I ended up with the peculiar task apparently of trying to sell her house and it wasn’t something I hadn’t quite agreed to do but something I found myself semi-lumbered with. I made a few phone calls and talked to people and established it was much weirder and complicated than that. I think at some point in there Kathy sent the keys to the house in Brighton back and decided that she was mad at me because I hadn’t sold it or something. Then I didn’t see her or hear from her for a year or two. I think she then turned up at a signing I did, quite unexpectedly, in San Francisco and we had a wonderful time. She rescued me from one of the weirdest signings I had ever been at…
What made it so weird?
As far as I can establish, the owner of the shop who was quite mad, decided there would be a 45-minute break in the middle of the signing, during which she seemed to have decided that the 15-year-old stockgirl who obviously had a huge crush on my books and I should probably go off to the warehouse space in the back and get to know each other as well as possible. Something that seemed to me the most unlikely thing anyone had ever proposed during a signing, at which point Kathy turned up on a motorbike with leopard-spotted hair and rescued me. She was like, “Oh darling!” We disappear into the back and chat and after a while she was saying how delightful it was to see me again and why had I stopped speaking to her. And I thought about explaining to her that I hadn’t and that as far as I could tell she had but it was now obviously water under the bridge that I apologized for not speaking to her.
After that we just stayed in touch. I remember once in ‘94 I got a phone call from her inviting me to spend ten days with her on William Burroughs’s farm in Kansas and thought about that for, ooh, a good fraction of a millisecond for saying no, thank you, Kathy, what a lovely offer, I don’t think so. I got these great late night phone calls from her ranting about whatever she was interested in. Then she began a relationship with an old friend of mine. A writer named Charles, an English writer. She moved back to England, and I saw her when I was over there and she was so happy to be with Charlie. And then the cancer thing started.
I got a call from her after she came out from having her breasts removed in a San Francisco hospital, so completely horrified by the entire experience. Basically, they gave her a double mastectomy as an out-patient procedure.
As far as I can tell, a fairly appalling and horrible one. She had nothing further to do with the American medical system. She moved back to England, decided that she’d beaten it, explained to anybody who would listen that any sickness she had in her system was a result of dropping a bottle of water into a grotty canal and lifting it out and still drinking it. It was obviously still icky canal stuff in her system. And then she went back to America and broke up with Charlie and I got an e-mail from somebody one day saying, “I understand you’re a friend of Kathy Acker’s. She’s currently dying in a hospital in Mexico.”
I immediately e-mailed the UK and said, “She’s dying in a hospital in Mexico,” and a mutual friend of mine and Charlie’s, a guy named Igor, said, “She’s not dying, she’s just got flu, I checked around. She’s in San Francisco with flu, she’s just being a drama queen.” So I wrote back to the guy who said she’s dying and said I’m told she’s the flu in San Francisco, and they wrote back, “She’s really dying.”
I phoned her in the hospital in Mexico. We chatted a while. She was very weak. It was good. This week has been a particularly rough one on me because my friend John M. Ford the writer died completely unexpectedly. And it’s everybody who knew him and loved him is completely devastated, and one reason we’re devastated is he was sending us e-mails the day before and his heart went or his kidneys went in the night and he was gone. With Kathy I never had that. I’ve always missed her, but I got to phone up and say good-bye. That was good. That sort of somehow made it copable. Then she was gone, and she died in room 101, as Alan Moore said, “There’s nothing that woman can’t turn into a literary reference.”
You’re not touring much for Fragile Things, and usually you’re Neil Gaiman: Road Warrior.
Mostly I’m not touring much because the Anansi Boys tour came very, very close to if not killing me… I came off of that tour promising never to tour again. I’ve mellowed a bit. That one was hell. You saw me in Chicago. I got into Chicago around 12-ish, dropped my stuff off at the hotel, came out and did a couple signings of just signing stocks and then straight out to that place, we were there by about 5 or 6, signed stock and stuff in the back for about 45 minutes, ate some sushi, went on, did half an hour, 40 minutes of reading and q&a, and then signed until 1:30. And then I got into a car and went back to a hotel in the middle of Chicago, got in at about 2:30, I think. I just remember the nice man who brought me something to eat because I was actually painfully hungry by the time I got back to the hotel because I hadn’t eaten for eight hours, was the same man who three and a half hours later brought me my cup of coffee, knocked on the door and told me it was time to get up and get in the car and go to the next one.
It just kept on going like that. It was 10 days before I had my first day off and I did America and then I did Canada and then I went to England and did it all again. It was a very hard month. For this tour, I would rather have done a reading tour, but really at the end of the day it was just a matter of me turning around and saying, “I will give you a week. You have a week, and however you want to arrange it. And I’d like a day off there somewhere.” Then I thought this was going to be so easy and pleasant, and then I realized that actually it butted between two conventions I had already agreed to do, so I went to FantasyCon, and I did two days of events in London for Fragile Things, and then I came over here and tomorrow at 7 o’clock I’m on my way to Washington DC, and lots of people wanted to know why I wasn’t doing the big Washington Book Fair this year, which I kept explaining it would be really boring if I kept turning up every year.
That was one of those where they were disassembling the festival around me at 6 o’clock as the last few people got to the front. I signed for about four hours there, and the Washington Post said I did it because I was a savvy businessman.
Yeah, they really did.
Were you charging $5 per autograph?
I just thought that was so weird, the idea that I was still signing because I’m a savvy businessman. I’m signing because it’s polite. These people have gotten into line and they came a fair way to be there, and that’s how I would like to be treated if I were in line for a book signing, which thank god I never am.
I’m wondering how that would improve your business life. It seems it would be maybe a bad business decision to stay that long.
I don’t know. I’ve never been described as a savvy businessman anywhere else in any other context. I suppose I could cut it out and send it to my dad who would be pleased. See? I’m a savvy businessman. Mostly what I am is a really, really crap businessman who did the Douglas Adams thing where what you do is get an awful lot of money so it doesn’t really matter that you’re a crap businessman.
Especially now that you’re doing movies.
That’s nice. I now have three completely distinct income sources. The fact that the Sandman books sell forever is really nice, and then there’s me as a novelist, which is a completely different thing, and then there’s movies where people come along and say, “Here’s a million dollars,” and you say, “Thank you very much, that’s very nice.” You kick yourself and you look at the numbers on the check and you say, “I just got a check for a million dollars.”
I’ve realized one of the ways I know I’m not a savvy businessman is I get just as excited by getting a $300 check for a short story as I did to get for a million. I would get just as grumpy if I didn’t get the $300 check as I would for the million dollar check.
But that’s why you have an assistant, to straighten all of that out.
It’s true. My agent thinks I’m hilarious because she’s long since learned that the only time I’ll call her up thrilled about getting a royalty statement is when it’s some obscure country that I barely heard of, and I made back my advance and I’m getting royalties. I phone and say, “Did you see? Did you see? We got a $90 from Croatia!” She’ll say, “Neil, why are you telling me this?”
Your agents must love you, because you seem to be up for any medium, any experiment.
I am. I’m not very good at genre snobbery. If it’s anything I’m interested in, I’d obviously love to do it. And I keep bumping into people who’d much rather I did one thing or another. My movie agent would much rather I did movies forever and didn’t, for example, do TV. Whereas TV is fun, lots of people see it. It’s interesting to do TV. I like doing novels, but I’m astonishingly puzzled and grateful that I live in a universe that I have a short story collection published as a major novel. We live in a universe in which the odds of being able to turn to a publisher and say, “Would you like to publish a collection of my short stories?” is right up there with me saying, “Would you like to invest in a zeppelin business?” Doesn’t happen very often.
When eight years ago they published Smoke and Mirrors, it was with no fuss or fanfare. I said, “Shall I do an author tour for it?” and they said, “No.” It was like, why would you tour for a short story collection? Then they were incredibly puzzled when they looked around and it was still selling. I picked up a copy in the offices at HarperCollins this morning and noticed it’s now in its 17th printing in trade paperback. And maybe later than that, but the one I picked up had a little 17 on it. Smoke and Mirrors just came out and just took over. Suddenly I’m in a universe where I have a publisher who is publishing short stories of mine as a major book with quite disturbingly high numbers. If it were me, I would have done a print run of about half that and then gone back to press. With a really cool cover.
It is a cool cover, although I was a bit worried about it making surviving the airplane trip to New York.
Apparently this is tougher than a normal paper cover. The old version used to be much, much weaker. I got to design my cover, which was a first. Me and my editor Jennifer, we actually put together the design. The heart on the back was hand colored by my doctor. We had colored hearts that were all wrong and we had black and white hearts that were great, so I handed it to my local doctor and asked, “Would you mind coloring this in for me?” and he said, “Not at all.” So he colored that heart in, showing us what was red and what was blue, and I sent it back to HarperCollins.
It does look a little more sweet and reassuring than I would have hoped.
Really? Because the butterfly is all in pieces, although I guess you can’t see that until you take off the translucent cover.
I think the translucence works against us. I wanted the damaged butterfly. The fact that it was very dead and damaged… I thought that would be the signifier that there were scary, icky bits. Oh well, now it’ll take them by surprise and they’ll be traumatized by it.
I’m sure that they’ll be okay. Although you did get a romance audience with Stardust, so they might be a little scared.
That’s the weird thing about not doing the same stuff every time. With every book, you piss off a bunch of people who like a specific thing and are hoping for that specific thing again.
Do you actually get e-mails from your fans complaining about that?
No, but what I do get is people coming up at readings and saying, “I like X, I really don’t like Y.” The ones who read more than one book figure it out. The ones who read only one book tend to extrapolate and go, “Oh, they’re all like this.” The ones who’ve done two, go, “Oh, I get it. Some of this may be similar, but mostly they’re completely different.”
I’m sure there are people out there who still wish you were doing Sandman.
Oh sure. And there are people who wish I’d done nothing but Neverwhere novels. And then there are the ones who wish that I’d done nothing but American Gods. I sort of worried a bit when Anansi Boys was being sold as if it was the American Gods sequel. And I kept walking around going (cough, grumble) it’s, uh, not. The publisher said, “Yeah, but American Gods was a New York Times bestseller, and we have to push that.” Yeah, but it’s a different book. I didn’t want people with expectations for more of the same. If you want more of the same with American Gods, there’s a Shadow story in Fragile Things.
How did your interest in mythology start?
I wish I had an origin story for you. When I was four, I was bitten by a radioactive myth.
I remember the first time I encountered Thor was definitely in comics, which left me interested and excited enough in Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Norsemen that I read it until it fell apart. Then I went out with my own money and bought Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of Egypt. Which I read a lot. I was a seven-year-old kid reading ancient Egyptian mythology for pleasure.
I ask because it seems so few writers in contemporary literature use myth in their storytelling. Or at least not as many as I would like to read.
Mythology tends to be what religion decays into. A sort of second stage religion. Or it’s the bits of religion that won’t get you shot or harmed if you don’t take them seriously enough. There’s Jewish mythology, there’s Christian mythology, there’s Islamic mythology. All of these things sort of accreted around the edge. Nobody is going to call for you to be killed if you don’t take the Gospel of the Infancy of Christ seriously.
Which is an awful lot of fun, and I haven’t read the new Anne Rice book [Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt] but I think she did actually use the Gospel of the Infancy of Christ. At one point a kid gets pushed off the roof and Jesus gets blamed. So he brings the kid back to life so that he can say, “It wasn’t Jesus, it was that other kid over there,” and then he lets him die again. And then there’s a long sequence where Jesus just kills people a lot. They piss him off, so Jesus smites them and they die. To the point where Mary turns to Joseph and says, “If he’s going to keep killing people like this, we’re going to have to stop him from going out of the house.” It’s such a great line to find in an apocryphal Bible. How could anyone get from that Jesus to the guy in the New Testament? But obviously, that was the mythological Jesus. They loved the idea of the guy who was forever smiting – a schoolteacher starts to swipe him around the ear because he doesn’t learn his lesson and aahhhhh!
Given that we’re living in a universe in which religions and mythologies and semi-imaginary things, depending on where you’re standing, the level of imaginariness…. There are definitely people who look at the entirety of what’s going on the world today as a couple of people fighting over whose imaginary friend likes them better. And then you’ve got people who say, “No, no, this isn’t an imaginary friend, he’s actually the real thing. But that guy over there, he’s an imaginary friend.” And it’s huge and it’s responsible for an enormous amount of worry and difficulty and it’s why I’m not allowed to travel with eight ounces of shampoo. I’m allowed four ounces. I’m going to have to pour away half of my shampoo before I can put it in my quart bag and put it in my carryon. Which is really bizarre.
And that’s because of people arguing over things that many people regard as imaginary. Chiefly, gods, religions, and national boundaries, which are absolutely imaginary. They’re completely notional. They don’t tend to exist. As soon as you pull back half a mile and look down at the Earth there are no national boundaries. There aren’t even any national boundaries when you get down and walk around. They’re just imaginary lines we draw on maps.
I don’t know where I got to from that. It was more sort of a rant. I just get fascinated by people who assume that things that are imaginary have no relevance to their lives. Things like mythology have no real relationship to what happens to them day by day. There. End rant. Sorry.
What’s up next? You have Stardust and Beowulf.
They’re editing Stardust currently. Editing is where I tend to hold my breath a lot. While something is being shot, you tend not to hold your breath. Everyone’s just making a film, what will be will be. In the editing phase, there is so much that can wrong. Everyone is so close to it. They showed me a scene when I was in London the other day, and it was the opening scene of the movie. We got to the end, and I said, okay, you have to put back a lot of the stuff you cut down. They said, “Well, we’re really concerned about pace.” “That’s fine, but what you shot was the absolute minimum needed to tell the world that Dunstan and this girl at the faerie market really like each other, really fancy each other. He’s besotted with her, she’s really taken with him, and she’s given him this flower, and now they’re sneaking into caravan in order to get up close and personal. And that information was what you had. You actually trimmed that down for the purposes of pace and speed and now what it looks like is she must be the market slag because they meet and nip off for a quick one.” And they actually had the incredibly had the good grace to hang their heads and say, “Oh my god, we hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right.” I very much hope that in the next edit, they expand it again.
Having said that, I also know that they spent an interesting few weeks doing things like, they had a version of the film where the opening of the film is a flashback halfway through. They decided they should start with Tristran, stuff like that. Right now the film has at least three endings. From the point of view of those people who have endured Lord of the Rings, that’s at least one ending too many. Which is in some ways my fault because in a book I can do lots of different endings. I do them fairly fast in an epilogue.
Do you have enough distance so that if it’s bad you can just walk away?
No. No, not at all. I will lose sleep if it’s bad. Obviously what I’m really hoping for is a film that is absolutely brilliant in every way, beautifully shot, wonderfully made, funny, lovely film I can be absolutely proud of every detail, and then comes out and is a huge and surprising box office hit of absolutely enormous proportions all around, but after seeing it I want people to still sidle over to me and say, “That Stardust movie was amazing, but the book was better.” That’s what I want.
I’m sure all of your hopes will be fulfilled without question.
That’s much more honesty than you’ll normally get from somebody getting interviewed about… probably, that’s what all authors want. You want the most amazing movie in the world, but people coming up and saying, “But the book was better.”
There’s stuff they’ve done that is incredibly faithful, and there’s stuff where they’ve gone on their own tack. Some of those things I liked, and some of those things I don’t particularly like, and some of those things leads to moments like the amazing Ricky Gervais Robert De Niro scene which is improvised and absolutely one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen and wouldn’t have given up for the world.
Any time you get Ricky Gervais in fancy dress…
Ricky Gervais in a funny hat, yes. And his delivery is amazing.
What about Beowulf and Coraline?
Coraline I don’t know much about, and that’s not me trying to distance myself from a flop. Given the process, it’s stop-animation thing. I’ve seen some scripts. The ones that I’ve seen they’ve gone in and recorded. You’ve got Ian McShane and Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher, which is, um, okay. Songs by They Might Be Giants. It’s also that knowledge that this is all going to take… once they’ve got all the voices done, probably right now they’re making sets. It’s not like you can go in and watch a day’s shooting. In a day’s shooting, someone’s going to go like (points).
Beowulf is really interesting. November 22, 2007 there will probably not be a human being alive in the western world alive who will not know Beowulf is out. I know what I’ve seen so far is a film that looks like Sony Playstation characters. In about a month or a bit less, I go out to Southern California to spend a few days with Roger Avery where we’ll get to see a complete cut of the film. I know that Polar Express was like version 1.0 version of the technology and Beowulf started when it was version 3.0 of the technology and it keeps leaping forward while they’re working on it. They’re up to version 3.8 or 3.9, and it might hit 4.0 before it gets released. I don’t think it’s going to look like anything else. I’m enormously proud of the fact that I seem to have written the first animated film to be widely released in America aimed at adults. Beowulf is not a kid’s film. I think we’re only going to make PG-13 because Grendel’s blood is green and the dragon’s blood is golden. That actually allows us just to get PG-13 rather than the R.
It may be terrible. If Beowulf is a disaster, it’s going to be a really interesting cool. Which oddly enough, I have to say I’d be perfectly happy with.
Why do you have more distance to Beowulf than with Stardust? Because Stardust was yours first?
I guess because in the case with Beowulf, I’m the one doing the damage to the original thing. I’m the one saying, this is how you turn it into this other thing. Let’s turn it into a movie while being faithful, but without hesitating to do damage to the poem if it makes a better film.
With Stardust, I’m the one who made the equivalent of the original poem, and Matthew Vaughan is the one not hesitating to do damage to the book if it makes a better film, but I’m the one prepared to nervously start whimpering in the corner if too much damage is done. Yet really loving so much of what I’ve seen and feeling we’re really in there with a chance of something magical happening.