July 24, 2014

 



Photo Credit: Kelli Bickman


Interview:
Neil Gaiman

By Dan Epstein



 

We figured that since American Gods has recently been released in paperback that it was now a good time to talk to Neil Gaiman.

But where to begin? It is near impossible when talking to someone like Neil to not retread over things that he has spoken about a thousand times before. So, we decided to let him talk and in doing so, he sang us a song about TV shows and told how the Pulitzers can sometimes seem like the Special Olympics.

Not only that, no, not by a long shot.  We also discuss his future work with Marvel Comics, his thoughts on the Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings movies, and all the latest news on his many film projects, including Books of Magic, Death: High Cost of Living, Good Omens, and an adaptation of his new children's book, Coraline.  If you've been looking for the conclusive Neil Gaiman interview, well, let us be so bold as to say that you've found it.

Thanks to Lorraine Garland for helping set this up and be sure to check out Neil’s website at neilgaiman.com for information on his new children’s book Coraline.

 

Dan Epstein: You researched American Gods for a long time. What originally inspired the novel?

Neil Gaiman: I did, although I researched it incredibly lazily. The most exciting thing that I did to research it was move to America. In some ways it was being researched and other ways it was an attempt to try to understand the country I had moved too.

What began my fascination was the way that a lot of the English and European folktales that have crossed the Atlantic had lost their magic. The stories were still there; the Appalachian Jack stories being the perfect example. Like Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant Killer, except after being told in the Appalachians for a few years by the English people who came over, they made all the magic go away.

That fascinated me. Just one of those weird things you found. Then trying to make sense of America by wondering if there were huge gulps of America that I wasn't getting. Just as there is in England. But I gradually figured that there wasn't, not in the same way anyway. There is a very “what you see is what you get” quality to America.

However, there is a lot of local history, which is because of the strange and frequently transient nature of America. Fifty percent of the people you bump into in whatever town you're in are from totally different states than the one you are in. Then some of them have been there forever. That's fascinating to me and so is the fact that so many of both those kinds of people lived near me in Minneapolis.

When I did the interviews for the hardcover edition of American Gods I kept talking to journalists based in New York or Los Angeles who really loved it but would always say during the interview implicitly or explicitly, "The only thing I don't understand is why you set a book in flyover country." As if there wasn't enough reality in the rest of the country. Like America really is like that weirdo New Yorker poster with just New York and L.A. and that’s it.

The joy and fascination of America is to go on the roadtrips that I sent Shadow [the main character in American Gods] on. I took all those routes; I would just head out and drive before I wrote those sequences. I wanted to know what kind of things you would see and run into. I also wanted to get a spatial sense of America, which I didn't have. The weirdest thing about traveling in America is that if you travel by plane, and I have for all my book tours, I've probably been to more American cities than the most Americans. But it’s like being in a transporter beam. You show up at an airport, you get into a plane, you wait a period of time and you're at another airport just like the one you left. You forget the distances involved, how far away everything in America really is. I wanted to put all that in the book. And meanwhile I spent ages just getting books on America. I've been researching mythology and folklore since I was six so that was the easiest part. Except every now and then I would want to put a certain god in and even the Internet couldn't help.

DE: The library could often be a better choice.

NG: Well, a library is often a better choice. It's astonishing given the nature of the Internet, with how broad it is but at the same time how not deep it is. We think of the Internet as something with an enormous amount of information, it's only at the point where you try to research Slavonic gods that you find its limitations.

DE: Many artists start a project to figure out why they started it. Is that what you did and did you figure it out?

NG: Absolutely. I didn't start writing American Gods because I knew what I thought about America. I started the work to figure out what I thought about America. I think I figured out a lot. For instance, the view changes from where you are standing at least from this position. There is stuff there to be interpreted but there is also stuff that had a huge effect on the nature of the plot and ended up changing it. Initially I was really into the new gods versus the old gods and as I wrote it I realized that when you’re a new god in America its very easy to become last month's new god.

DE: A lot of gods get put into prison in America.

NG: Right, it's very easy to fall from grace. I tried to get that in as well.

DE: Mike Mignola recently did a Hellboy novel that involved Norse mythology [Hellboy: Bones of Giants written by Christopher Golden]. I asked him if he felt that Norse mythology was treading upon Marvel's Thor books. Mignola said that one of the reasons he did it as a novel and not a comic book is because he would have been drawing too much like one of his main influences Jack Kirby or writing too much like Stan Lee. Was that something that occurred to you?

NG: Like so many others I got hooked on Norse mythology through the Kirby/ Lee stuff. Having said that, what they created is not very much like Norse mythology. Every kid who gets bit by the mythology bug through Mighty Thor thinks this is cool, and then they go out and get a copy of Tales of the Norsemen [by Roger Lancelyn Green. Puffin Books 1960] or The Norse Myths [by Kevin Crossley-Holland]. Then they sit down, read and find that Thor is this red-bearded cuckolded idiot, this over muscled guy that everyone is scared of but he's not very bright. Plus every other character is much more interesting than him. Particularly Odin.

DE: Was American Gods always meant to be a novel?

NG: Oh, yes. I had rehearsed some elements of American Gods while I was doing Sandman. I remember there was one great speech I had written for Loki during the final Sandman storyline, the Kindly Ones. I had Loki speak of the new gods of freeway. It stuck in my head because it was much too big and weird.

But I really wanted to try doing things. I love comics. If it's not my favorite medium then it's probably my second favorite medium. My favorite is probably audio plays. There was definitely a feeling with American Gods that I wanted to do something that was very much a life as a novel. I was going to use some of the techniques that I figured out for Sandman, like the short stories in the novel, they allowed me to expand the scope of the story I was telling. That was very much something I was doing during Sandman. You can do a short story set in another time period and it will give you a much broader picture of what you are doing. I figured that stealing from yourself doesn't count.

DE: There's a great quote by Julius Epstein, co-author of the screenplay for Casablanca. He had the perfect formula for all stories. "Act I, get your guy up a tree," he explained. "Act II, throw rocks at him. Act III, get your guy out of the tree." It doesn't work any other way. Is something like that why you started Shadow, the main character of American Gods, from such a low point?

NG: Yes, I guess in many ways it is. But also I wanted explore someone who lost everything. Not only are you up in the tree but you're naked, there's thunder and lightning, you have nothing to eat, and the friend who was going to join you in the tree just died. It was how far down can we start. I wanted someone who had nothing to lose. Looking back on it I wanted to write someone who is essentially a vacuum, and slowly fill it. To write someone who was not a hero in any way but someone we would understand by hanging around with them.

There is a quote from C.S. Lewis where he says, "Alice in Wonderland works because Alice is a normal little girl. To write about how odd things happen to odd people would be too much." So I took that to heart with American Gods a little. Having abated that in Neverwhere and Stardust, in some ways the books were lesser than they could have been. Because Richard [Mayhew, Neverwhere's protagonist] was this wonderful, cheerful twenty something everyman and because Tristran Thorn [main character in Stardust] was this Victorian everyman. I thought, Shadow is not going to be anybody's everyman, he's going to be very much himself, this dark very ambivalent figure whose life and history we're going to figure out as we go.


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