by Rudi Dornemann and Kelly Everding
Neil Gaiman's writing career began in journalism, that most reality-oriented of approaches to the word. He first made a name for himself in comics, a genre that isn't usually connected all that closely to reality. But Gaiman's writing blends and balances things that aren't ordinarily combined: reality and fantasy, humor and horror, the fairy tale and the novel, the personal and the cosmic.
Gaiman's alchemy was amply evident in his influential Sandman series for DC Comics, which was remarkable not just because it was so well done, but because it was done so much on its own terms. As opposed to the reimagining of older heroes that was the trend, Gaiman gave us a whole new imagining, inventing the saga of "the dreaming" and its denizens as he told it. Certainly, he wove in connections to older comics and even older stories and myths, but his Sandman went its own way. Some of this uniqueness came from the central character of Morpheus, neither hero nor anti-hero, who had the ring of archetype, but remained an original creation. Some of it came from the variety of kinds of stories Gaiman wrapped around the character—everything from horror stories to historical vignettes to wonder tales.
Since bringing Sandman to a close, Gaiman has written several novels, a collection of short stories, and even, with frequent collaborator Dave McKean, a children's book (The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish.) His new novel, American Gods, follows the story of Shadow, an ex-convict who becomes mired in the machinations of pagan deities brought to America by immigrants and then abandoned for the newer gods of technology, drugs, and money. In picaresque fashion, Gaiman interweaves the broader story of a brewing storm, an all-out war between gods, with shorter tales of different people who came to America as indentured servants, slaves, and prosperity seekers. The amalgam explores America’s spiritual center and centerless spiritualism through the timeless archetype of the mythical hero.
Sipping on a tall cup of chai, Gaiman spun animated and eloquent answers to our questions. A shorter version of this interview appears in the Summer 2001 print edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books.
Rain Taxi: You dedicate American Gods to "Kathy Acker and Roger Zelazny, and all points between." How do you view the literary continuum, and how do you see yourself in it?
Neil Gaiman: It’s an interesting dedication because it’s about three things. It’s about absent friends, and it’s about writing a book for absent friends. It’s also about the literary continuum—there’s this thing that runs from here to here and very elegantly and peculiarly, it runs from A to Zed. In the ’90s I lost a number of friends, but the two big friends I lost who were also writers were Kathy and Roger. Roger was someone who I had not known as well as I should have done. We’d see each other at conventions and things and talk on the phone, and we’d always have long conversations about how sooner or later I had to come down to New Mexico and hang for a week . . . it was always something I figured I had plenty of time for. When he died it really shocked me, and I did wind up going down to New Mexico for the memorial. Kathy was somebody who I was very good friends with in London from 1985 onward. I remember I got an email one day saying she was dying, which seemed a little odd because I had spoken to her six months before. I phoned some friends of hers in England and was told: No, no, she’s just being a drama queen, she’s fine, she’s got flu, whatever. I sent back an email to these people saying "my people say she’s just got flu." "No, she’s dying in a hospital in Mexico, here’s the phone number." She was in room 101—I thought, there you go, there’s a literary reference. It was good, I got to say my goodbyes, tell her I love her, tell her to hang in there. We said a few words and she was dead a couple of days later. That one hurt. So I wanted to write something for them. In many ways, I have no idea if Kathy would have liked it. I think she would have done. I know she would have liked chapter two with the extreme sex in it—that was there for Kathy. But I sent a copy of the book to Jane Lindskold who was Roger’s partner in his last few years. She wrote back and she said, you know, Roger would have loved this book. I felt very happy about that. It was interesting because I wasn’t trying to write a Zelazny-ish book. I think Roger was probably the best fantasy/SF writer of the ’60s and ’70s when he was on form. I really wasn’t trying to emulate him. I was just trying to write a book that I thought he would have liked.
In terms of where American Gods fits on the literary continuum . . . I’m not sure. I’m enjoying not being sure. With most of them I can tell. Neverwhere is an urban fantasy adventure novel. Stardust is a fairy story. Sandman is a giant sequence of ten graphic novels. Mr. Punch is a magical realist memoir. American Gods is a thing that will probably be read by science fiction people as SF, by the fantasy people as fantasy, by the horror people as horror. We’ll see whether the mainstream and literary people read it as literature. For my part it was very much a way of trying to use the tools of fantasy and some of the tools and engines of horror to try and describe the world.
RT: Representative of the mix of cultures making up America, American Gods tells the many tales of immigrants who came to this country and brought with them their gods. Little by little, the gods become dysfunctional and their mortal manifestations turn into prostitutes, grifters, criminals, and the forgotten elderly. Is this a political fable for you—is this the story of the decay of values, American or otherwise?
NG: I would not describe myself as a political writer except in the sense that the personal is political, which is something that I do strongly believe. And in that sense American Gods is a very personal novel and a political novel. I was trying to describe the experience of coming to America as an immigrant, the experience of watching the way that America tends to eat other cultures. It’s very interesting going to Canada because that doesn’t happen. If you’re wondering around Toronto, whatever, you feel that there’s no attempt to turn any of these other cultures into a Canadian thing. As a result of which, you have a much more interesting, to my mind, mixture. In America, to quote Michael Moorcock "Art aspires to a condition of muzak"—everything homogenizes, it blands. I think I was trying to talk about both the blanding of other cultures, the way the rough edges get knocked off very quickly and the way the things that make them special and unique get forgotten or lost or abandoned or subsumed into the "American Dream." In addition to that I wanted to talk about future shock: the way that we are currently slamming into the future incredibly fast and what that means, and what it means that the future that we were heading for in 1984 now feels incredibly dated. For that matter, 2001 feels incredibly dated. Where does that come from? So trying to take all of that and put it into a framework that would also let me write about the House on the Rock, and do these little historical short stories as well, which were such a joy to write.
RT: What about place? Most of American Gods takes place in the Midwest and the South, in sparsely populated places. You identify sacred places and ones of "negative sacredness." How does place fit into your vision of American spirituality?
NG: I think what was for me the most interesting thing was not necessarily what I did there but how it’s been received by readers on the East and the West coasts. The reaction is sort of "Gee, your making those fly-over states sound almost interesting. Who knew there was anything going on there?" There’s an awful lot going on in all of these places. It’s another convenient fiction that life exists on the West coast and life exists on the East coast, and there’s a little life in Texas; that you could take a map of America and sort of color in the places where there’s life. And someone would grudgingly draw a little circle around Minneapolis, which they’ve heard of. But this would be the only place with any life until you got to Chicago, which is the next place they heard of which has life. What I was trying to say is that there is an incredible amount going on in these places, and it goes very deep, and it’s really interesting, and really cool. I try and define what it looks like and what it feels like.
I’m normally not an on-the-ground researcher. The point where I discovered the joys of on-the-ground research was actually after I had written Neverwhere as a TV series, but before I had written it as a novel. I spent a day on a location scout looking for places the TV series could be set, which meant that I actually got to wade through the sewers; I got to wander through some of these strange decaying backstage places. When I came to write them later it was incredibly useful having that knowledge of what it’s like down there—stuff I made up became very solid. With American Gods, I wanted to use that, and I would actually do things like go on little road trips. I’d say if my characters are going from here to here, I need to sort of follow the kind of places they’re going and see where they wind up. We get that wonderful chapter in Cairo, Illinois; it exists because I had to drive from here to Florida and thought I’d do it by taking back roads. I liked the sound of the name. When I got there I discovered it was this wonderful town that had once been full of history and that history had now passed by. The time when the Mississippi and the Ohio were trading rivers. Everything was happening on them—they were the arteries, the confluence, a wonderful place. Now it’s sparsely populated, with a sign saying "Welcome to historical Cairo." That’s about it. I walked through the customs house museum which was one of the saddest little buildings I’ve ever walked through. So what can you have in Cairo? The Egyptian gods seemed so perfect for that.
RT: Did you do other research to unearth the myths and legends that populate American Gods?
NG: To some extent, although a lot of that stuff was stuff washing around in the back of my head. I have a very functional knowledge of things like Norse myth. There were a few I ran across while I was doing the book that I wanted to learn more about. The most frustrating of them, of course, was Czernobog and the Zorya, the Slavic gods, because there’s so little about them actually known. I ran across them while I was beginning the book, and I loved the idea of Czernobog the black god and his brother Bielebog the white god, and the Zorya, these sisters of the dawn—the morning star, the evening star, and the mysterious midnight sister. And then I spent weeks trying to research them more. At the end of three weeks of solid research I had nothing I hadn’t had in some little Peterson’s book of gods at the start. There’s so little known about the Russian Gods. The Catholic church and the Russian Orthodox church stamped out most of it, and then Napoleon burned the rest of it on his way to and from Moscow.
RT: As an English writer living in the U.S., you're surrounded by American speech—from the people you encounter to the media you see, hear and read. Do you find this influences the language you use as a writer?
NG: It influences the language I use to communicate. With American Gods I was trying very, very consciously—there was a level at which it was a little like trying to write a novel in French—you know, "this novel is to be written in American." I allowed myself Wednesday, who while very American, I allow some Anglicisms into his speech. I loved doing things like writing my little Essie Tregowan story, with the English girl getting transported from Cornwall to here. The strangest thing about doing it was actually the copyediting process. That was weird because I had the English edition and the American edition. An American copyeditor went through the book, and pulled words that were invisible to me, like "hessian" and "burlap." Where I described Johnny Appleseed as picking up a hessian sack, they said no, it has to be burlap. I kept it hessian in the English one and changed it to burlap in the American one. After eight or nine years out here my accent is just a mess. Americans still think I have an English accent, but English people are very surprised to discover that I’m actually English!
RT: Your writing has drawn upon material and subjects from several cultures: British, American, and recently—with your Princess Mononoke script and Sandman: The Dream Hunters—Japanese. Are there differences in the stories native to different peoples and different places?
NG: I think that the biggest, quickest and hardest thing to learn for a writer is that what we think of as the unchanging verities of story are a load of bollocks. Absolute rubbish. There are no unchanging verities. Furthermore, the shapes of stories, which is what we’re conditioned to think in—you know when something’s a story because a set of things have happened—there is a very specific western one, and by Western I will take in all the way through Iran, Iraq, that kind of area. As soon as you’ve hit India, the shapes of stories change completely. Once you move into China and that whole area, the shapes of stories again change completely. Africa, again different story shapes—what constitutes or satisfies that moment of satisfaction. I remember reading a wonderful essay by Chip Delany and I unfortunately forget who he was citing, he was citing someone else, who flush with joy about the eternal verities of story was in the African bush. They’d been exchanging stories—he and some Africans. He told them the story of Hamlet. And he got to the end of the story, and they all expected him to continue. He said, "well that’s the story." And they said, "did they find the witch? They need to find the witch and kill her." In their stories, the things that happened in Hamlet could only have happened because there was a witch—these kinds of events occur and the ghost comes in and you find the witch and kill her or him. And here is what we consider one of the great stories!
In Sandman, I happily gave the impression that these are the stories that continue forever. But the fact is they are very Western. With Mononoke, I remember talking to Miramax and saying all you really have to do to make this film move from being a wonderful art house film into something that Americans will take warmly into their hearts is you chop ten minutes from the end, you add a thirty-second sequence of Prince Ashitaka going back to his village with San as his bride and the villagers saying hurrah hurrah it’s over and throwing confetti. I wasn’t saying do it; I should make it really clear it was not something I was recommending. But that would have given the film the closure that a Western audience would have wanted. We know stories begin with the Hero having to leave his village and being sent away. If the prince is sent away from the village because evil has struck and so on and so forth, he goes out, he finds his bride, he comes back to his village. The prince comes back as the king, and in Mononoke that doesn’t happen. It ends on a very ambiguous note: he’s simply living in the town and helping the girl, and they’ll be seeing each other, but there is no joining of cultures. He certainly isn’t bringing her back to his village as his bride. He’s not going back. That area fascinates me—the things that aren’t part of what Campbell liked to think of as the unities.
RT: I’m glad you mentioned the theme of the Hero, because much of your writing is concerned with the meeting of mortals and immortals, that moment in which they collide for better or worse—like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of God and Adam touching fingers. This can be an explosive moment, a moment of self-realization and transition; the hero of American Gods, Shadow, experiences this moment and becomes a conduit between the supernatural and natural worlds. What inspires this tendency in your work?
NG: That’s one of those questions that I’m useless at. It’s like when people ask "Why do you write about angels?" and I say, I don’t know; I try to keep them out, and they crawl back in like cockroaches. In order to be able to answer that with any kind of accuracy, I worry that I would have to pin it too hard to the board, and it would never get up again. A lot of it is because you want to talk about humanity and you want to talk about people, but people are icebergs. So much of us is underneath. The imagination and the place that dreams come from is so huge and so important. I’m trying to write about the real world, in that I’m trying to write about whatever it is the experience that makes us human, the things that we have in common. I don’t feel that writing about the real world means that I should be constrained to a version of reality that you see on the 11 o’clock news or read in the New York Times. I do not see why every single weapon in the arsenal of the imagination can’t be mine.
In the case of American Gods, one of the things that really made it concrete for me—which I tip my hat to in the text—was reading Herodotus, which I did when I first came to America. The lovely thing about being an auto-didact (as all writers to some extant are, is you learn very quickly how to teach yourself cool stuff, learn cool stuff, read cool stuff, and get the meat of something out of it. And give the impression that you know so much more about it than you really do). In the case of Herodotus, and there are a few moments in Suetonius as well, you’re reading about a world view in which you’re being told who won this battle and the strategy and the tactics. There are people here who are obviously the grandchildren of the people in this battle, and you’re getting all the information. Then, we sent a runner from here to there to tell the people in Marathon that we had won. On the way, the runner met Pan in a clearing, and Pan said to him "Why don’t you build me a temple? I want a temple and I want it built on this spot." The runner said okay and he kept running and he was almost dead when he arrived, and they revived him, and he told them that the Greeks had taken the battle and also that Pan wanted a temple. These days we would tell the event as: Greeks won the battle. That’s the real thing that happened. The runner seeing Pan we treat as either apocryphal or as imagination or as an over-stressed mind. (On the wonderful list of barking-mad theories comes that nice gentleman with his origins of consciousness in the bicameral mind, who claims it was all the left brain talking to the right brain. The right brain is going, [making puppet motions] I am Pan. The left brain is going, oh, all right. God knows how you’ll transcribe that!) The point being that you had a world in which the gods were written about and treated as simply part of the world. And I thought wouldn’t it be a really cool thing to try and put that into the here and now. If people did come over with their gods, what are their gods doing, how are their gods doing? That’s really where the whole thing sprang from.
RT: It seems that despite our modernity and dedication to technology and progress, and the elision of the imagination you are referring to, Americans are still somewhat steeped in pagan ritual; vestiges of paganism have been subsumed by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Have we lost something by forgetting the history, etymology, and significance of these rituals?
NG: You guys actually have more of the weird shit ritual stuff going on than you would imagine. Coming over here from England, I was awe-struck by what Americans do at Halloween. I find it magnificent. In England, you get the occasional fancy dress party. One of things I wanted to do in American Gods was remind people about where some of these things come from. One of my favorite sequences to write was when we meet Easter; you get this whole conversation in a San Francisco coffee house about the origin of the word. And I love that, the fact that Easter is somebody’s name. Easter is a slight modernization of Eostre of the Dawn. She’s the one you get the estrous cycle from. She was a fertility goddess whose high feast was at planting time in the Spring. She was worshipped with symbols of fertility—eggs chiefly, and rabbits, and flowers, and couples going off and copulating, and so on and so forth. All that stuff was completely subsumed which is why you get people today making jokes about whether the Easter bunny was crucified. I love that. This is something old that overlays something else. You had better be aware when you’re getting your Easter eggs and doing your Easter hunt that this is for Easter, she was Eostre of the Dawn. And it’s perfectly possible that that was a corruption of Astarte—God names wandering westwards.
RT: You've written in many different forms—comics, novels, film and television—and quite a few of your books and stories have started out in one medium and then had a later incarnation in another. Which elements of a story translate well and which don't?
NG: It’s always a learning process. What I tend to do is move stories from medium to medium because I’m interested in how it works. I just finished doing a movie adaptation of Death: The High Cost of Living—
RT: Oh, good.
NG: Yes, I’m really pleased with it, or at least pleased with where I got to by the end of it and really looking forward to doing the second draft. When I was a young man I sat in a theater audience and watched Violent Cases, my first graphic move, being done on the stage—good stage adaptation, intelligent director, good actor—and I sat there saying the lines under my breath along with the people doing it, and realizing that it didn’t work. It didn’t work because they had simply taken—there was no effort to translate it to the stage. It had been trans-literated. They basically took the graphic novel and put it on the stage, and the dramatic high points were not high points now that they were on the stage. Little things became huge. Huge things became small. That fascinated me completely, and taught me a great deal. The weirdest thing about American Gods is that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s my first novel. I’d written Neverwhere first, but Neverwhere was very specifically my own adaptation of my TV scripts, so it wasn’t really novel-shaped. It has beats that aren’t novel-shaped, it has highs and lows, and there was nothing much I could do to it in the writing other than get the descriptions in and stuff like that. Stardust was a very interesting book, but Stardust was essentially something that I was writing as an illustrated project—with Charles Vess. Good Omens was enormously fun, but Good Omens was a collaboration with Terry Pratchett, and an enormous learning experience for me. Terry was by far the senior partner on that.
With American Gods, it was the first time that I had actually gone, okay here’s a blank book—one of these big leather-bound black sketch books; some store was clearing them out, had a major sale on these big sketch books, 500 pages. So I bought a bunch of them, and sat down and wrote the words "American Gods" with a fountain pen on page one and turned it over and started to write. That was a very, very conscious thing. I really wanted a second draft. It’s my experience with computers that they do not give you a second draft. Computers give you an ongoing, ever-improving first draft, but there is no discontinuity there. I wanted that, so I wrote the book by hand, and after every few chapters I would stop and type up what I had done so far.
RT: You've written a lot of what, on the surface at least, are very different stories—ranging from kids with goldfish to young men looking for fallen stars to hidden worlds under London. Are there any themes you see yourself coming back to from one piece of writing to the next?
NG: The trouble with common themes is that they’re things that people point out to you. Themes tend not to be things you notice yourself, and when you notice them or when they do get pointed out to you, they can freeze you. For example, somebody once said to me, that they always knew when they were entering the final act of whatever I was doing because there was always a kiss. And it was a terrible thing to be told. Up until that point it had been completely unconscious. And of course the odds are that it’s probably there in American Gods. I haven’t stopped to think about it. I kind of hope it isn’t, but I’m sure somebody will be able to say, Oh look, here it is. What I try and do is to sit and go with the story, which is not a commercial way to write. There’s that wonderful quote by Freud or Jung or one of those German gentlemen with beards, when asked how somebody could achieve fame and success, the reply was "you shit all in the same place." Which I always took to mean you keep doing your thing until you have an enormous pile of it! I’m very, very lucky; I have nothing to complain about. But the people who go and live on the best seller list tend to do it by writing more or less the same book, more or less once a year. Do the same thing once a year and your bank manager will thank you. The last thing I wrote was a fairy tale. This is a huge sprawling, picaresque novel about America and its imagination. The next book of mine that will be published next May is a very short novel aimed chiefly at children and those who, in their hearts, remain children, about a very small, very brave girl who goes through a door that shouldn’t be there, to a place that shouldn’t be there, and encounters her other mother who is a very scary lady with black buttons for eyes, and who wants the little girl to stay with her for always. So everybody who loved American Gods is going to go, what the fuck is this?
The lovely thing about writing comics for so many years is that comics is a medium that is mistaken for a genre. It’s not that there are not genres within comics, but because comics tend to be regarded as a genre in itself, content becomes secondary; as long as I was doing a comic, people would pick it up. And they got very used to the fact that I’m going to go where my inclination takes me and wherever that takes me is going to be wherever I go. So I kind of trained people to expect that. With the world of books I don’t know if I’ve trained them all yet. The people who were with me back in the comic book days, they’re much more forgiving. If they didn’t like Mr. Punch they’d come back for the next thing.
RT: I think you’ve answered our next question—we were going to ask if you write with different audiences in mind or if you imagine an ideal reader who's generally genre-agnostic.
NG: My ideal reader is me. And yes, my ideal reader comes with me and is forgiving. And will re-read. I don’t know in this day and age whether it’s a quixotic goal or not. Gene Wolfe, one of my favorite writers in any genre, defined good literature as that which can be read with pleasure by an educated reader and re-read with increased pleasure. One of the delights of Gene Wolfe’s fiction is that you can go back and read a book you’ve already read and knowing a little bit more about it you will find more there. I always try to do that with my stuff. Even the short stuff. There will be something else there you probably won’t get on the first reading that will be waiting for you. If American Gods works, it’s like a magic trick, it’s like a sequence of magic tricks.
One of the great things about being a writer who gets read is that cool people turn up at your signings. Last week I was in Los Angeles, I was master of ceremonies at the Nebula awards. Great fun. The day before I did a signing at the LA book fair, and there was a man named Michael Ammar in the signing line. And he said, "Look I’m doing the Magic Castle tonight, would you like to come and see me as my guest?" I said, sure. I came and watched him, and the guy was incredible, one of the top sleight-of-hand magicians in the world. Technically flawless and a delight. He also gave me a video showing how he does stuff, teaching some basics. And he finished his act with the cup and the balls, which is one of the great classics. One of the moments that was most impressive was he had three cups and he’s produced two balls for you and you’re not quite sure how he did it. For the third ball, he twirls his wand [motions upward] and he says now, and you look down and the ball is already sitting there. And every single person in that audience gasped as they looked. Somehow it had appeared there. Watching the video, knowing that was what I was looking for, I took even more delight in the fact that as he waved his wand he simply put the ball on the table—no effort made to hide it—but secure in the knowledge that he was directing our attention well enough that he knew of the hundred people in that room there were two hundred eyes on that wand at the precise moment that he was just placing the ball on the table. As he directed our attention back to it, it was as if it had magically appeared.
There’s a lot of stuff in American Gods where I’m directing your attention. If the novel is working, you are looking over here while I am putting something on the stage, setting something up, so when you get two chapters on, or ten chapters on, or in one case eighteen chapters on, you’re going to go Oh my God, I should have seen that coming. It’s both enjoyable and frustrating. One of the nice things about doing that stuff is that next time through the book, somebody can actually enjoy watching my hand put that little thing there.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001