It is difficult to make generalizations about Neil Gaiman’s books. His contributions to practically every literary genre have earned him a place in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as one of the top ten living post-modern writers. His work has been honored with many awards internationally, including the Newbery and Carnegie Medals. His books and stories have also been honored with four Hugos, two Nebulas, one World Fantasy Award, four Bram Stoker Awards, six Locus Awards, two British SF Awards, one British Fantasy Award, three Geffens, one International Horror Guild Award and two Mythopoeic Awards. I have to admit, about ten minutes before this interview began, I had one of those last minute panic attacks. Would there be enough time to ask him about The Sandman (his series widely credited with reinventing comics), American Gods, Stardust, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or any of his other works of prose, poetry, journalism, film, television, drama, and song lyrics? No, there wouldn’t be time. In the end, the only thing to do was to get out of the way and just listen. —Mia Funk
Neil Gaiman: I’m wrapping things up prior to getting into a novel. So, this week, I’m going to write a little introduction for a Terry Pratchett book called Mort, which will mostly be about remembering Terry and looking back at him and the early days of our friendship. And then I’m going to write an introduction to the Penguin science fiction fantasy line of about six books that they feel that everybody should read. And that will be interesting because they gave me their list of books and I can see no commonalities between them, so I’m trying to figure out, rereading myself, looking at threads, and then when that’s done, I’m wrapping up a BBC script and then I’m going to start a novel.
The Creative Process: I’m just wondering about your energy. Do you actually have a clone who’s doing the extra work because it’s amazing. It’s so impressive.
NG: Well you know what’s funny is, I, as a young writer, got to hang around with people like Terry Pratchett, and I got to work with a writer called Kim Newman, and I would watch those guys work, and I would go, “They are prolific.” I don’t think I’m prolific in the same sense. I had a baby – I didn’t do the work, … we had a baby – September the 16th and since then, I’ve done so little in the way of writing, emailing, talking to other human beings. Mostly what I’ve been doing is playing with the baby. Changing a lot of nappies and now I’m just starting to feel guilty. What have I done since the baby was born? I’ve assembled, edited, and done a big final edit on a collection of my nonfiction.
TCP: That’s still quite a lot. In your off time, you are like some writers in their full-time. You were talking about Terry Pratchett, and I guess you really began your writing career with him? Do you want to share some memories?
NG: The two people who I, as a young writer, knew best — who were sort of established writers — were Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Because I wrote a book called Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I got to spend time and work with Douglas and I was friends with Terry. What absolutely fascinated me was they couldn’t have been more opposite. Douglas hated writing, and he was incredibly good at it, but he didn’t like it, because the act of writing was painful, and would only do it when backed into a corner. He would expend energy not writing, which in some ways is really good. He’d create computer games, or he’d do weird projects with computers, learn all about computers and things like that. There was a point where he had to be locked in a hotel room for three or four weeks by his publisher to get a book out on time. They’d solicited it, everything was ready, and they didn’t have a manuscript, and he had given up halfway through, and so, they just locked him in. His publishers would sit outside watching videos, and he’d pass pages under.
TCP: I think Victor Hugo did something like that with his clothing; he wasn’t allowed to have any so he wouldn’t be tempted to go out, so he could concentrate on finishing his book.
NG: Terry was the other way around. You would have had to lock him in a hotel room for three weeks with no paper to stop him from writing a book. He was happy in his head, and he was happy in his head writing stuff down. He was happy making stuff up. I definitely spent the first, 48, 49 years in my life happier in my head, but I always loved making things, I always felt like I was real, and changing things and doing something sensible when I was writing, but I never felt prolific, and now what’s weird is I can look at the shelves and shelves of stuff that I’ve created…
TCP: And it came out of you.
NG: You know, I don’t know that I’m prolific, but I’ve never stopped, except for maybe to change some nappies. I like making stuff up and I like being all over the place. I know that people would probably be happier with my career if I just stuck to one thing.
TCP: No. For me, I think the breadth is great. I think you give enough for each of your fan bases. A number of questions arose as you spoke about changing nappies, and describing this as being an idle period, but I think that perhaps – as you did with The Ocean at the End of the Lane – perhaps now you’re accruing material in this idle period that will become a more feeling-based novel?
NG: I think that’s probably true. The next book is probably going to be a “running-around” book because I haven’t done one of those in a long time, and I think it will be fun. I want to do something like Neverwhere, maybe even a sequel to Neverwhere, just because I want fun stuff.
TCP: I think your fans are waiting for that.
NG: It’s one of those things I feel like, if I want it, they should want it. But I mean, Ocean at the End of the Lane was absolutely feelings-based and that was probably mostly feelings-based because it started off as a short story that was going to be a present to my wife, to try explaining some of my childhood to her – trying to explain not the facts but what it was like to be me when I was seven. She was off making an album in Melbourne, Australia, and I was in Florida, and I missed her so I thought, I’ll write her a story. I’ll just write her a little short story about that time, and I’ll send it to her and it will be a gift.
TCP: It’s lovely and it was very touching and even though you’ve written about families — Sandman has at its core the Endless family— but Ocean felt more personal. I liked that, so I’m waiting for the continuation.
I’m wondering if we could talk a bit about American Gods, which is fascinating and very playful — you’re taking these Gods from different periods. But at the heart of it, even though it’s funny and it’s set in a contemporary period, it seems to have, underneath, the philosophical insight that we’re living in the present but actually we’re repeating lives. We always have echoes of the past. And I was wondering, how do you approach your process? Do you start with a theme that you then want to find characters for? Or do you start with the character?
NG: Both of those things, and sometimes more. What I start with is enough, enough to get going. With American Gods, I had an idea about characters. Somewhere in my head, I had the idea about a couple of people meeting on a plane. One of them seemed to be an old drifter, and the other one had just gotten out of prison, and that was all I knew about them. And, I thought about them. I had been doing a lot of reading about American folklore at the time, but didn’t know how that was going to fit in. I was feeling very weird. I had moved to America, I was having a very immigrant experience that didn’t seem to be something that I had read about in fiction. Being an immigrant in America and dealing with this big, weird country that seemed to have no interest in or respect for where you were before, which was very different than England where, you know, if you’re Greek and you move to England, you’re now Greek, in England. And the same is actually weirdly true of Canada, whatever culture you bring with you to Canada, you are that thing, and you’re Canadian, but you’re also Lebanese or Ukrainian. With America it felt like what you brought wasn’t important — it was as if there was a lack of memory or a lack of attention.
TCP: Americans are obsessed with the new, maybe?
NG: I think the obsession with the new and the obsession with what they were — both fascinated me. So they’re sitting there in my head as huge things and then I went to Iceland, Reykjavík, and was wandering around Reykjavík on a Sunday when everything’s closed. I was really on my way to Norway, but we had to stop over, and I took a day in Reykjavík. I’m sleepless, and I wander into a tourist exhibition and see a little tabletop diorama of the travels of Leif Erikson, going to Vineland, going to Newfoundland and coming back. And I thought, I wonder if they took their gods with them? And suddenly it was as if I had a flashlight. Because I went, OK that’s who those characters are and that’s who this is and that’s what this story is about. And I can do something that’s all about the relationship between old and new. Between culture I can talk about memory I can talk about what America is, I can do all of the stuff and now, I have my characters and I have my story and I have my theme, and I knew what was great about American Gods, which is what is great about Sandman, which is what is great with most of the things that I’ve done right. That is, I’m going into them not actually knowing what I think, and going into them to find out what I think. For me, writing fiction should be, in some way, a voyage of discovery. You assume that the writing part of yourself is smarter and bigger than the human part of yourself. The writing part of yourself, actually, is competent to deal with everything and will find out what the things are, and for me, that’s the difference between your first draft and your second draft. Your first draft you’re figuring it out in a way. And the second draft you read the first draft, and you go, “OK, actually, these are the things, this is what I’m saying, therefore anything that doesn’t help I can lose and I can add stuff in the buttresses.”
Continue reading at Michigan Quarterly Review
| | |
About the Art
This artwork grew out of something Gaiman said to me, “The idea that anything could be a door, the idea that the back of the wardrobe could open up onto a world in which it was winter, and there were other worlds inches away from us, became just part of the way that I saw the world, that was how I assumed the way the world worked. When I was a kid that was the way that I saw.”
It is a theme that often appears in his work – from Neverwhere to Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane to The Sandman – scratch this life and you’ll find a dream, often darker than this one, waiting underneath the surface.
The trick of being a successful artist then, at least it always seemed to me, is to find a way to narrow the distance between childhood and adulthood as much as possible. To retain the openness, fearlessness, and imagination that all children naturally possess while acquiring the skills of survival; the ability to protect ourselves. Gaiman has done this and, for all their strangeness, his books and online interactions are full of positive messages about how readers may do the same. I’m not sure it’s fashionable to say that you believe writers should perform a positive role in society, but some writers certainly engage more than others, and part of their popularity lies in creating characters that remind us that we are not alone, that we are all a little strange. Scratch each of us, and you’ll find a child hiding inside just waiting for the opportunity to come out.
I would like to do another artwork of Gaiman and was tinkering around with one which was inspired by his dream of a house with many books in it, but it came out dark, and I’m better at outdoor scenes with light. I liked this idea of the child in each of us, and I have some photos of his young son Ash, who I wanted to depict emerging like a ghost child from Gaiman’s ribcage. Maybe one day, I will do this. The great gift that a writer like Gaiman presents to any artist trying to paint him is that his writing and conversation are full of images. Pick a random page from any of his books, and you’ll find a world of imagery echoing our shared mythology.
— Mia Funk
The Literary Review is delighted to be part of The Creative Process, an exhibition and international educational initiative traveling to leading universities. As part of the exhibition, portraits and interviews with writers and creative thinkers are being published across a network of university and international literary magazines.
How Can I Participate in The Creative Process?
There are many ways to become involved. If you’re interested in sharing your views on creativity and the humanities, The Creative Process would love to hear from you. Involvement ranges from interviews, podcasts, short films or engagement with other art/educational initiatives.
To participate in an interview or submit your academic essays or creative works: