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Speaking with the Sandman: Neil Gaiman

On tour to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the writer gives a preview of his upcoming novel AMERICAN GODS.

By Steve Fritz     October 20, 2000


AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman
© 2001 HarperCollins
Neil Gaiman is hardly suffering from a lack of work. 'No,' he concurs. 'If anything, I've got too many things going on, and I have a bunch of people very mad at me right now.' For the record, here's an abbreviated list of Gaiman projects between now and sometime in 2001:

*An animated children's series based on his book THE DAY I TRADED MY DAD FOR TWO GOLDFISH. The studio is Sony Wonder and design is by Gaiman's old partner in crime Dave McKean.

*There are also two more children's books. The first, the 25,000-word CORALINE, was originally going to be illustrated by Edward Gorey; unfortunately, it's now the lateEdward Gorey, so McKean is again on the job. 'It's the only job in recent memory I made David audition for,' Neil quips, 'but he's coming up with ten spectacular illustrations that truly fit in the Gorey legacy.'

* The other book is entitled WOLVES IN THE WALL. It's based on a quick quip once uttered by one of Gaiman's daughters, who swore there weren't rats or roaches infesting the Gaiman abode. From there it wasn't hard for the author to extrapolate a story. McKean is again illustrating this much shorter work.

*Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's collaborative novel GOOD OMENS is now being turned into a movie by Terry Gilliam (BRAZIL, 12 MONKEYS). 'I don't know if it will be a great Gaiman-Pratchett movie,' says the author, 'but I'm sure it will make a wonderful Terry Gilliam movie that I would actually like to see.' Gaiman says the director will begin production as soon as he finishes up work on his current DON QUIXOTE project.

*Speaking of movies, Gaiman is not only writing the script but is also slated to direct the movie based on his comic DEATH: A DAY IN A LIFE.

*Gaiman managed to regain the rights to his comic LAST TEMPTATION , which was originally published by Marvel. Based on the eponymous record album by Alice Cooper, it featured the likeness of the aging shock star as one of its central characters, the Mephistophelean master of ceremonies at a supernatural circus. Gaiman is now having the original miniseries published through Dark Horse.

*Then there's another project with another of Gaiman's great collaborators, Yoshitaka Amano. It's entitled HERO and will span a large number of media ranging from animation to games to comics to whatever spouts out of Amano's head next.

'The thing about HERO is it's Amano's great project that he wants to take into a number of media,' says Gaiman. 'What I'm doing is more or less a thank you for his doing SANDMAN DREAM HUNTERS. Now Amano is great and creating ideas and images. He's not necessarily great at producing plot. So he has all these images and characters, but it's not necessarily plot-driven. You can tell that Amano read a lot of Moorcock when he was a young illustrator. But HERO is as much Cordwainer Smith, and it's also as much just Amano. We're trying to tell the tale of a legend 10,000 years from now, only we're telling it 100,000 years later.'

Then there's Gaiman's great work of the last year, the novel AMERICAN GODS. With a title like that, the book could be about anything from such Native American idols as Coyote The Trickster to the deification of modern day personalities like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

'Well, they're in it,' Gaiman admits. 'Everything. The big trouble with AMERICAN GODS is I finished the first draft last night, six-to-eight months late. It was particularly hard to write. When you look at this book, it's about 175,000 wordsa 600-page novel. And I only got it to 175,000 words by leaving out several places that I really would have liked to be able to have gone.

'For instance, I never got to do something about a Japanese internment camp during World War II. One of the things they don't talk about is they were so scared of the anti-Japanese sentiment that they built the camps way out in the deserts. What was interesting from my point of view is that you had so many Japanese together in one place that their original gods started coming back. There were cases of fox possessions ,and badgers and animals not native to those parts were seen. I love that. I think it's wonderful.'

In some ways, this sounds like something Gaiman would naturally tackle. Born in the United Kingdom some 40 years ago, he studied religion before becoming a rock journalist in the mid-'80s. Always a tremendous fan of comics, Gaiman would eventually meet up with another incredible rock fan and comic book writer named Alan Moore. Moore was riding high, having published such epic works as The Watchmen and the SWAMP THING series. Moore recommended his friend to DC, where Gaiman initially made a good impression reworking an old character, Black Orchid, into a very modern mode.

Then the student would go on to surpass the master with the next major project he took, a reworking of another golden age comic hero, The Sandman. Gaiman's new Sandman wasn't the mysterious detective of the 1940s who would put criminals to sleep instead of killing them. Gaiman's 'hero,' if you could call him that, was one of seven eternal beings who ruled the world of dreams and was also a powerful force in the 'real' (i.e., waking) world. Darkly romantic and heavily atmospheric, it was a comic that aspired for, and attained, high literary merit. Like any major work, it also was victim of a number of incredible misinterpretations.

For instance, along with THE CROW, SANDMAN was considered a major piece of literature for the modern Goth rock crowd. Gaiman doesn't think so. 'I'm always baffled and a little bit amused by people who haven't read your stuff, and then ask what is it you write. If you look at the broad body of fiction laid out, you have a fairly wide area. You have the people who read a few issues of SANDMAN or at least have heard of it. They give you the impression what I do is exclusively extremely pretentious, prissy, Byronic stuff about pale people wearing exclusively black and an awful lot of silver jewelry, which I don't actually think I do. That's kind of what we have with Sandman. In 1988, when SANDMANbegan running, there wasn't any Goth's around. I started noting Goth entering our lives in 1993-4, when SANDMAN was already an enormous hit.'

Gaiman says that his new book, AMERICAN GODS, 'is almost like a Rolling Stones record: it's very street level and blue collar. It is also very spooky.' To illustrate, he points out one particular element that sticks out in his mind. 'For one sequence I knew I needed an abandoned motel, and I wasn't quite sure where or how I was going to do it,' he recalls. 'I thought I'd have to make it up. What was really weird is at the same time there was an element in the plot where something had to be handed over. I thought it would be really neat if what was handed over was at the exact center of America. The problem was I wasn't sure of where the center of America was. So I went looking.

'What I discovered was, although there are several different versions of it, the place that rings loudest and longest is Lebanon, Kansas. In the 1930s or '40s, they measured out what were then the 48 states and they found the exact center was in this man's pig farm. The farmer didn't want tourists coming around and upsetting his pigs. So they went a little away from there and put a little paved area, park, sign and a motel. They even put up a tiny little portable church. But nobody ever came. So eventually the motel closed down except for once a year when a bunch of Texans use it for a hunting party. To me it was just so bizarre and spooky that the place I needed for my book...well, there it was.'

If anything, what AMERICAN GODS is about is such places. They are all over the country but the U.S. public is incredibly ignorant of them. 'Yes,' Gaiman concurs, 'and it's great fun. That's really what the novel is all about. It's also a clash between the old gods and the new gods. It's also a love story between our hero, a guy named Shadow, and his wife, who is killed in a car crash early on in the novel.

'There's a quote from Joe Lieberman that I've been very tempted to use as a chapter head, and I would if I thought it wouldn't date the book so badly because what tends to happen to American Vice Presidents is people forget who they are. He said people should remember that the Constitution gives you freedom of religion not freedom from religion. I found that kind of scary. That's what's happening with the book. If you can imagine SANDMAN coming out of a much more dark and American veneer.

'There's a murder mystery. It's a crime story. It's a war story. It's a short story collection. It's mythic. It's all of those kinds of things. After living in America for seven years I thought it would be interesting to write about things I liked and things I didn't like. I wouldn't say that religion is the central theme, but gods are. More than that I dare not tell you.'

Well, not quite. Gaiman states that the book will be published by Harper Collins. While a definite target date hasn't been set, it looks like it will hit the market around May/June, 2001.

'Originally, Harper Collins was going to rush it out,' says Gaiman. 'Now they think it's truly remarkable, and they want to do the whole bound, author-proofed, and build-it-up approach.'

That isn't all Gaiman's doing. A longtime supporter of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Gaiman is going to be going on a reading tour to help raise money for the CBLDF starting next week. It's a fact these tours do a great job of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the First Amendment advocacy group. But another reason to go is Gaiman will recite excerpts from AMERICAN GODS.

'Of those 175,000 words, 40,000 are short stories running throughout the book,' Gaiman notes. 'The nice thing about having the short stories is I can read some of them. I wouldn't normally read excerpts from a novel on a tour, but the fact is this is the last tour. So I'll probably do some greatest hits as I go. I will figure out and try to decide what were some favorites that I did during the past tours. For instance, I stopped doing 'Chivalry' about four years ago. Before then I used to do it at every single one. So I'll probably read it again for this tour just because, dammit, I can. I figure it will probably be like Lou Reed going on stage and doing 'Walk On The Wild Side.''

The fact is, one of Gaiman's best points is that he's an excellent reader and/or performer of his own works. He's been doing them for nearly a decade, and developed a wonderfully soft-spoken, low-key, yet extremely hypnotic way of entrancing his audience when rendering his words on stage. As far as Gaiman is concerned, he's following a tradition that was set by some of his own favorite authors, among them Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and particularly Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens.

'Back then that was about the only way that authors used to make any money,' Gaiman admits. 'When I was a kid, I saw Emlyn Williams doing bits of Dickens and doing it as Dickens. I thought it was wonderful! It was so good. Another thing about doing the tours is reading to people who haven't been read to. There will always be five or six. It was rather strange. That's part of the fun for me. It gets people hooked.'

Probably one of the reasons why Gaiman's readings are so highly enjoyable is he does see them as a performance. Even though his reading style is quiet and subdued, that doesn't mean it doesn't capture an audiences attention. In fact, it probably does a better job of luring in the reader than a more manic performance like a Patrick Stewart's interpretation of Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Not that Stewart's readings aren't impressive in their own right, but Gaiman's material is a lot different than Dickens. Gaiman is very aware of this.

'The first time I ever readI think it was DragonCon in 1991I had never read to an audience before, never even had thought about it,' he recalls. 'I did it, and the audience went wild. It was wonderful. Then the next guy came on, and it was all in this strange, flat monotone. Now Burroughs read in a flat monotone, but there was at least a magic and an appropriateness to the way he did it. This guy was just somebody who wasn't into reading. That's when I realized two things. One of which is there really are people who don't hear the music. The other is, I'm good at this. I can do this, especially with my own stuff.'

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