Interview with Neil Gaiman

Byron Merritt from FWOMP has talked to Neil Gaiman

In June of this year my grandfather, Frank Herbert, was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in Seattle, Washington. Neil Gaiman was the Master of Ceremonies and I’d been trying to interview him for some time, but our busy schedules always seemed at odds with each other. Since we were both going to be in the same place on the same day for the same reason, it seemed logical we might get together and chat a bit. Luckily, with the help of the staff at the SF Hall of Fame, we were able to tuck ourselves into “the green room” and talk about Frank Herbert, science fiction, and Neil’s writings.

I’d never met Neil before and I was surprised at how interesting he looked. At first sight he brought to mind the image of a rock star who’d just stepped off a Harley Davidson. A thick swath of black hair dangles into his eyes and constantly gets pushed out of his face, and his angular features are hawkish yet handsome. This was brought to my attention later by my great aunt (Frank Herbert’s sister) who whispered to me, “He is handsome. He looks like a young Neil Diamond.”

Rock star comparisons aside, Neil Gaiman has the writing ability of the greats of our time. His Sandman Chronicles helped launch DC Comics into mainstream literature, and his multiple award wins for his fantasy and science fiction stories are proof positive that he’s no one-hit-wonder.

(Special thanks to Anne Murphy and Brooks Peck for arranging the interview)

FWOMP: We’re kind of coming full circle here at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in that I understand you’d interviewed my grandfather some years ago and now here we are inducting him into the SF Hall of Fame and I’m here interviewing you. What I’m dying to know is in what context did you interview Frank Herbert and what did you discuss?

Neil Gaiman: It was in 1984 or 1985 and he was in London promoting the David Lynch Dune film. The way I remember it is that the film hadn’t come out yet. I’d done a small interview with him but the most fun I had with him was during a press conference. It was memorable because it was so wonderful and odd watching him giving a press conference to these English hack journalists. I’m not even sure if these guys still exist because we’re talking more than 20 years ago and I think they’ve probably died off. There were these guys in grubby mackintoshes with their little thumb notebooks who turn up to ask ridiculous questions. I remember going up to one of these guys and he asked me who I was covering the press conference for and I said Space Voyager Magazine or something like that. And I asked this grubby fellow what he planned on asking Mr. Herbert and he said, “I plan on asking him if he believes in little green men.” And I thought: “What the hell are you talking about? This is Frank Herbert here! Have you even read any of his books?” So the press conference goes very well. Your grandfather talks about the origins of Dune and his writing career and the Dune film translation; some really interesting stuff. And then at the end there’s the question and answer session and this guy in the grubby mackintosh stands up says, “Mr. Herbert I feel as a representative of the English press I have to ask you, do you believe in unidentified flying objects.” And your grandfather says, “That’s a really good question. I absolutely believe — listen to my words very carefully — that there are ‘unidentified flying objects’ in that there are objects in the sky that people have seen that have not been identified. But I’m afraid that’s as far as I go.” “Right,” says the grubby reporter, “so when the little green men come down from their saucers do you think they’re going to take us all away?”

FWOMP: Oh God.

Neil Gaiman: The expression on your grandfather’s face was a delight; purely unable to believe what he’d just heard. So that’s one of my favorite little memories.

FWOMP: I’m sure his look was priceless.

Neil Gaiman: The expression is really hard to convey.

FWOMP: Thanks for sharing that memory.

Neil Gaiman: You’re welcome.

FWOMP: I wanted to ask some questions about you and your career, too, so let’s jump into those waters. When did you start writing and how come?

Neil Gaiman: I started writing when I was about 20, 21 maybe.

FWOMP: And, you’re what, 25 or 26 now?

Neil Gaiman: Oh bless you. I’d always wanted to be a writer and I had a really bad night, the kind of long dark night of the soul, one of those nights you only get once or twice in a lifetime and I got one when I was about 20. I remember being unable to sleep and about four in the morning I keep thinking “I keep thinking I’m a writer. I like to think I could write stuff just as good as anybody else out there but I’m not really doing anything about it.” And that’s not the bad thing. What’s the bad thing is that in 50 or 60 years time I could be on my deathbed and I would say to myself, “I could’ve been a writer,” and I wouldn’t know if I was lying or not. It was the long dark night of the soul that genuinely changes everything. So I said “Okay, I’m gonna try and be a writer because even if I’m not, at least I’ll know that I’m not.” So I started writing. I wrote a children’s book, I wrote a bunch of short stories, and a lot of other stuff and sent them out to people . . .and the stories came back. Then I thought, “I’m doing this wrong. Either I’m not a very good writer (which I choose not to believe), or I’m doing this wrong. I want to understand how publishing and all that works. So I got up the next morning and said, “All right, I’m now a journalist. I’m a freelance journalist.” So I got on the phone to editors and pitched them story ideas about things I wanted to write and by the end of the day—by dint of lying cheerfully about previous experience—I now had several commissions and then had to turn them in.

FWOMP: And how did that go?

Neil Gaiman: It actually went fine although I must say as long as I had a typewriter, which was probably the next couple of years, there was a piece of paper taped to it that said, “Don’t let your mouth write no check that your tail can’t cash.” I think that’s a quote from Muddy Waters. And every now and then it would make me think, “I just got myself into a book contract. How the fuck did that happen? What do I do? I’ve never written a book and now I have a book contract.” So I’d write books. But it was good. There’s nothing for getting you good fast like having to be good fast, if that makes any sense.

FWOMP: It does. But let’s get back to this dark night you had. Do you think that had any influence on how you write now? You write dark fantasy—theSandman ChroniclesAmerican Gods with the Shadow character, and even the angel in Neverwhere who’s a white angel but turns out to be the bad guy—so do you think that dark night influenced your writing career or do you think your style evolved later and independently?

Neil Gaiman: No. I think you wind up writing the kind of stuff you wind up writing. I don’t necessarily think you get to pick. I actually thought I was going to be a science fiction writer. I thought I was going to be a Larry Nivens-style writer; hard SF, Frank Herbert in Whipping Star mode. What’s odd is that isn’t what I tended to write for pleasure, even back then. What I wrote was stuff that had an odd, slightly fantastic, edge to it. I’m sure there’s an alternate universe where I got to become a pulpy science fiction writer. It was incredibly wonderful winning the Hugo Award for American Gods because it felt like I somehow managed to get where I was going without taking the right path. It’s like traveling from New York to Washington and you somehow manage to get there even though you went by Australia. It’s like when people ask, “Why do write about mythology” or “Why do you do this or do that,” and the best answer I can give is “I am who I am and this is what I want to write.” It’s what stories turn up and run around in my head. None of us know where our stories come from. That’s why writers make fun of people who ask us where we get our ideas . . .because we don’t know.

FWOMP: What about reading? What did you read early on and what do you read now?

Neil Gaiman: Now I’m cracked. I don’t have time, which is a terrible thing to admit. In fact, I realized the other day that about the only author I genuinely read for pure pleasure is one of the worst authors in the world, a guy called Harry Stephen Keeler, a long dead American mystery writer. He was probably the greatest bad writer America ever produced. The reason I read him is because I know it’s not work. Anything else somehow seems like I’m working but when I read Harry Stephen Keeler I know it’s not work.

When I was a kid and a young man I read everything. When I was about 23, I was incredibly lucky in that I wound up with several book review columns, which meant that I had to read huge amounts of stuff that was outside my experience and outside my comfort zone. I think every young writer should be forced to read the kind of stuff they would not normally read for pleasure. I’d be assigned articles on big body stripping bestsellers so I’d have to sit down and read several dozen of these things and then suddenly I’m being given hardcore gay fiction to review and I’m thinking, “This is well outside my comfort zone.” Having said that, it was actually kind of cool to have read it and then have it in my arsenal so that whenever I needed something like that I could just whip it out . . .as it were.

I do remember the year I stopped reading fiction. It was 1992 and I was a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Awards. I judged in both 1991 and 1992 and you had to read every single work of science fiction, or associated material, published in the United Kingdom. So I was really good, and I did . . .for the first year. The second year, 1992, I’d do the read three pages bit, then literary toss it over my shoulder. And it was like some kind of horrible aversion therapy. It took me three or four years after that to start nervously sidling up to books and opening them. Even today, though, a book cover with a spaceship on it produces a faint panic. And it was having to read everything that caused it. Bear in mind I thought I was inured to bad writing because I’d done, as a very young man, a book called Ghastly Beyond Belief, which was the science fiction and fantasy book of quotations, especially concentrating on the bad stuff. Which was enormous fun.

FWOMP: That must have involved an incredible amount of research.

Neil Gaiman: Yes it did, and I’ll tell you that it was the reading of Lionel Fanthorpe that helped me with that book. If you read enough Lionel Fanthorpe, your brain starts to turn to jelly and just dribbles out of your ears.

FWOMP: Thanks for the warning.

Neil Gaiman: You’re welcome.

FWOMP: Let’s talk a bit about your Sandman Chronicles. What do you think it was that struck a nerve with the comic book readership and helped launch this series?

Neil Gaiman: You can start making lists of why Sandman did what it did and the number one reason I see is that it was the right time. You had a generation of readers who were about my age—I was about 26 years old when I started writing Sandman — who loved the idea of comics but didn’t have anything to read. They learned how to read comics but stopped when they were about sixteen or seventeen. They felt fondly towards comics and suddenly there’s nothing for them to read. And the fact that there was a comic that spread almost like a virus. It spread from person to person. It even spread sexually, which is kind of cool. I started doing book signings and large men in sweaty t-shirts came up to me and grasped my hand thanking me for bringing women into their stores. These female people, with breasts and everything, had gone into stores and bought Sandman and some of these guys still hadn’t quite got over this. It had this 50/50 male/female readership. The weird thing about Sandman was that we started in 1988, sometime in about 1995 the sort of Goth culture thing became mainstream enough that people started saying, “Oh, Sandman’s a Goth comic,” which was surprising because I’d rarely seen any Goths in the signing lines. To this day I see very, very few Goths in the signing line. I’m quite fond of Goths but I just didn’t see many of them with Sandman books. I see as many grandmothers as I do Goths.

FWOMP: I’m being given the signal that we’re running out time but I think we’ve got time for maybe one more question. Many of your books have been optioned for film. Have you seen any footage and do you have any reservations or worries about them?

Neil Gaiman: Oh you continually worry! The worry, honestly, is because you’re not there making it. You can sign off on a script but you don’t know what’s going to happen.

I’m most interested in Beowulf of all of them. Because if it works it’s not going to be like anything anyone else has ever done before and if it fails it’s going to fail in really interesting ways. And I love that. I’ve seen footage, but because of the way these things are made, it’s more or less akin to watching Playstation characters do Shakespeare, in that they use very simple characters while they’re moving the camera around and making their edits and deciding where the shots are. It looks fascinating. It’s going to be the first animated film for adults given a major mainstream release in America. It’s got people in body suits doing the Andy Sirkus thing (Andy Sirkus was the man who put on the body suit for the Gollum character in the Lord of the Ringsmovie trilogy—Ed.)

FWOMP: MirrorMask was done by the Jim Henson Company. Are they doing Beowulf, too?

Neil Gaiman: Beowulf is being done by Robert Zemeckis in association with Paramount and Warners and DreamWorks.

All I’ve seen of Stardust is a sequence between Robert Deniro and Ricky Gervais. And it was very funny and it just kept getting funnier and funnier take after take as they started improvising and playing off one another.

FWOMP: Who’s Deniro playing?

Neil Gaiman: Deniro’s playing a character that in the book is named Captain Alberic but in the film, for reasons which actually are explained, is called Captain Shakespeare. What the screenwriter did was take a section of Stardust and build it up, just like they did with The Princess Bride. You’ve got to find a spot to build up from then find your actors to fill those roles. And they built it up enough that it was going to be a Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, or a Robert Deniro in that part. So they sent it to Bob, he said “Yes” and suddenly we had a movie.

FWOMP: Okay, I think we’re out of time but I wanted to thank you for taking a moment to meet with me and do the interview.

Neil Gaiman: Well you’re certainly welcome and I’ll see you at the induction ceremony.


Copyright FWOMP/Byron Merritt and Neil Gaiman, September 2006

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