Neil Gaiman: Man in Black
(April 12, 1999)
“So much of what I do is daydreaming. I just shut up and listen while I’m daydreaming. … I am somebody who loves imagining. I love the freedom of imagining.”
At the start of the year, a friend of mine alerted me to a comment made by author Neil Gaiman to the St. Louis Post Dispatch about our review of his novel Stardust. Blythe Barnhill, who wrote the review, is one of the toughest reviewers at AAR, and her B+ was high praise indeed. So when I heard that Mr. Gaiman accused AAR of, in essence, grading the book down because “it’s not steamy enough,” I went into investigative mode.
What I discovered, of course, was that Mr. Gaiman had been shown a copy of the review in a hurry, had seen the grade and our sensuality rating, and assumed one referred to the other. Through his publicist, and later personally, he was very apologetic. Since Blythe had been so taken with his writing, I asked our other reviewers if they had read his work. I was quite surprised to discover that three of our reviewers were tremendous fans. I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and read a few of his books myself. After having read Neverwhere and Good Omens, I decided an interview would be in order. So, on SuperBowl Sunday, when the rest of the country was getting ready to hunker down for the game, I spent some time with Neil Gaiman, who has an incredible voice – dark, deep, and veddy British. The combination of that voice, the fact that he is an unabashed “bookie,” and is a talented author who is equally at home writing fairy tales, graphic novels, and an hilarious book about the end of the world had me glad I did.
As I said before I ended our interview together, I found talking to him to be, like reading his books, fascinating. Our time together was limited, and I realized he was like that cocktail party guest everyone wants to invite – the one who reveals just enough of himself to interest guests but leaves them all wanting more. That’s most certainly true about Neil Gaiman the man, and Neil Gaiman the author. While graphic novels just don’t do it for me, some of his short stories and full-length books certainly do, and I’ll continue to read his work.
–Laurie Likes Books
I have a small apology to make to you before we get started. I got a huge kick out of the review. It was a huge and complete surprise for me to be reviewed on your web site. It’s like a completely new audience for me. What’s been fun about doing publicity for Stardust is getting introduced to new audiences like yours. It’s quite lovely.
Thank you. Several of our reviewers have been fans of yours for years, and since they are more familiar with your work than I, I asked them to contribute questions for this interview. Blythe, the reviewer of Stardust, found it incredibly creative and wanted to know were there stories that were read to you when you were a child or that you read that inspired you?
Oh definitely. I was one of those kids who had a book wherever I went. Whatever I did, I had a book. My family would tease me because I’d read books walking down the street and almost never walk into anything. They’d frisk me before I got to family events to make sure the book wasn’t there. So, I was a bookie kid. Not, I think, a particularly geeky kid in the way that there seems to be a sort of weird connotation in the States about loving books and being a geek. I was explaining it to my son once about loving books and he said, “Oh you were the geek.” And I said I don’t think so, I don’t think it quite worked that way in England – like divided up – I was just, you know, the kid with the book. I think that the most important books in many ways that you read are those you read as a child. In my case, what I read was everything. Anything I could get my hands on, from children’s books to books knocking around the house. I remember going over to my cousins’ house, I had all these cousins that were girls, and I’d sit and read their books – the Angelique books and so forth. Anything I could get my hands on.
I can relate. I was a bookie kid. Everybody I know from working at this site was a bookie kid. My husband was not a bookie kid and he doesn’t understand, so I agree about the division you mentioned – there are two kinds of people in the world.
The funniest thing I find is the question that non-bookie people ask bookie people when they walk into their houses. They look at the books and they ask, “Have you read all these?”, as if the idea of reading all these books is like some kind of terrible, awful punishment. It’s as if they would actually be relieved if the answer were , “No, no I haven’t read all these. These are purely for wall decoration. We buy them by the yard.”
When did you realize you were kind of different? This is not the bookie versus non-bookie difference, but when people are children we have amazing imaginations and can come up with all sorts of stories. As people get older that tends to go away, but for some people it stays and in your case, it seems like you have sort of a dark inner child inside of you. When did you notice that person?
]]> Support our sponsors I think that I still remain very unconvinced that it does away for everybody else. So much of what I do is daydreaming. I just shut up and listen while I’m daydreaming. When I was a kid I’d make up stories in my head and when I was a teenager I’d make up stories in my head. When I was in my early twenties I was still making up stories in my head and then for a while in there I was a journalist and then later I went back to making up stories, but made a living doing it. I don’t know that there’s a precise moment that I can point to and go, this is the moment that I realized that I was special because I don’t really believe that I am. But I am somebody who loves imagining. I love the freedom of imagining.
Let’s veer off on a fork in the road for awhile – this has to do with the darker aspects of imagination. One of the things that fascinates me about the difference between America and England is that in this country is the American view of the faery as being a benign little sprite or the tooth fairy. In England and throughout the British Isles, there’s a much darker universe of faery. How can there be two such different views?
Well I think one of the places that it comes from…I mean just look at the word faery, you know, it comes from the fair folk, which is the kind of a way of talking about something that you’re scared of. It’s a euphemism. When I was in Ireland some years ago, I was looking at buying a house which I never wound up buying for various reasons, most of which had to do with the fact that my wife didn’t want to go live in Ireland. And I was talking to a little old lady whose house I was looking at buying and she was talking about the field opposite and the stones in the field opposite which she was explaining were faery stones. I asked how she knew that and she said there was a farmer once who decided to move them. He was told he couldn’t move them because they were faery stones, but he announced he was bloody well going to move them. So one day he went down there and hauled the first of these stones away and that night he had a stroke and as far as this woman was concerned, there was a one to one correlation between these events. The fair folk still to this day, in places that believe in the fair folk, believe in them as things you don’t want to f__k with. And as I say, it’s a euphemism. I think the faery in some ways serves the same kind of function in English and European culture that right now the idea of these strange, anal-probing aliens do in American culture. They’re definitely not somebody you think of as cute. They’re not like ET for the most part and if you believe in them, you don’t think of them as creatures you want in your house.
I’ve read three of your books now, and enjoyed them, but I get lost in exactly what a graphic novel is. Can you explain it to me?
Almost, yes. When I was in England four years ago I was at a literary party. It was one of these Christmas parties that magazines throw. I was invited and I went along and I got talking to a guy who turned out to be the literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph. He asked what I did. When I answered that I write comic books, he looked at me as if I had confessed to shoplifting or something. So we’re standing there having a drink and he’s looking uncomfortable, but before I can walk away he asked what kind of comic books I write. When I answered they were the Sandman series, he looks at me, says, “Hang on, I know you, you’re Neil Gaiman. My dear fellow, you don’t write comics, you write graphic novels.”
So as far as I can tell, it’s just a difference between being a hooker and a lady of the evening. Basically. The nice thing about calling them graphic novels is that people who can’t quite cope with comic books can cope with them under the term “graphic novels.” And in the case of something like the Sandman series, it’s more or less a marketing term. You’ve got an epic sort of story with Sandman. All ten volumes I tend to think of as a graphic novel. It’s 2,000 pages long. It’s one huge, great, wonderful, gigantic story.
About this series, you once wrote that, “One of the basic things that runs all the way through Sand Man is the male/female dichotomy, male/female friction and the difference in men’s and women’s outlooks on the world. I like writing women. I feel that women are far more sensible than men and I like the sensible characters.” Tell me more about that.
I think part of it, especially in comics, was a reaction against the kind of women that had been written in comics before Sandman. None of whom were women. The peculiar thing about women in comics pre-Sandman is they seemed to have been written by people who had managed somehow to go through their entire lives never actually meeting a woman. Which I think is weird cause they must have mothers or something.
Instead, when a woman was meant to come on in a comic book they were normally either these simpering creatures who were simpering or scheming creatures, or were weird like Lois Lane. Or they were basically men with large breasts. In fact, normally, they were men with absolutely enormous breasts and big guns. When I was writing Sandman one of the things I really wanted to do was write about real women, I mean, who were women – who happened to be female, half of the human race – as opposed to women who generally were to be found in comic books. I thought it was a fairly sensible thing to want to do. Now, what was very peculiar about that, was that I immediately started getting comic store owners coming up to me and shaking my hand at comic’s conventions and thanking me for bringing women into their stores for the first time. And one of the things that is still true to this day is, at signings, half of the people in the line waiting to get their books signed and their comics signed, are women.
Something that I noticed, and at least two of our reviewers noticed is how you treat villains in your books. I’m in a black humor phase right now. I don’t know what it is but I really like that so it was a particularly good time to read your stuff, I guess. I wanted to talk to you about the creation of villains, how you create these people that do horrible things and yet are funny – you want to read about them. They’re just not what we’re used to reading. In a suspense novel, for instance, the villain is always the smartest person ever on the planet because he’s plotted this thing out for ten years. In a romance novel, villains are nearly always unrelentingly mean and without a sense of humor. It’s a real joy to read a villainous character, or two, or four, who are just fun. How do you do it?
Well, mostly for me one of the tricks to writing is to base all of my characters on me. Which means that when I want a villain I tend to start with me. Just as when I want a hero I tend to start with me. Nobody is ever a villain in his own head. At least I used to think that. Occasionally I’ve met people who actually seem to take a certain amount of pleasure in being purely bad. But mostly, mostly people have got everything so well justified. It’s not hard to write a sympathetic villain, it’s not hard to write a fun villain. You just have to see what they’re doing and why. And I love my characters. The nicest compliment that I ever got on my characters that I can remember was somebody who once said that the best thing about Neil Gaiman characters was if you met one of them at a party, you’d want to carry on talking to them.
I remember once reading a novel by a brilliant novelist, I mean, a far finer class of person than I could ever be. And I’m reading this novel and, I mean, the author’s a good friend of mine and I’m halfway through it and slogging on and then suddenly realized that if I met any one of these characters at a party I’d make my excuse and head for the kitchen. I wouldn’t want to meet any of these people. The thing about good characters and any character, actually, good or bad, funny or not, is you should want to spend time in their company. It should be a little bit sad when you have to take your leave of them.
I can see that. I was particularly impressed in Neverwhere by the hero who was just sort of a guy who ended up in this place he didn’t want to be, doing what he didn’t want to do – things he didn’t think he could do, and yet it was romantic in a vision quest sort of way. The book was quixotic for such a dark book. I was also surprised at how visual it was in its reading. I understand it was a television series first, but the writing was very visual. I don’t know if that comes across the right way or not. It’s hard to explain, but the imagery was such that I could see it – when you described the darkness, I could see it. . . .
I hope so. One of the reasons I wrote the novel was out of a slight sense of frustration of the TV series in that the pictures that I had in my head didn’t quite get across in the TV series. So, for me there was a level on which I really wanted to write a very, very visual book.
You’ve done an awful lot of collaboration. I found…when I was looking through your back list, that you had written a book with an author who I’ve read before, Kim Newman (author of Anno Dracula – where Dracula is Queen Victoria’s consort). What was that book?
The book that Kim and I did was our very first book. We were 23, no…actually that’s not true. I was 23, he was just 24 and I thought he was so old. And it was called Ghastly Beyond Belief and it was a book of the worst quotes we could find and the funniest quotes we could find from old science fiction/fantasy and horror books and movies and book blurbs and movie posters and things like that. We had a great time doing it. We actually wrote together above five years, Kim and I, along with a free-floating bunch of other people who’d come in and drift out, though Kim and I were always the constant – under the name of the Peace & Love Corporation.
I understand you have a book coming out in a couple of months called Art of Vampire: The Masquerade. You’ve also written Snow Glass & Apples, a vampiric re-telling of the Snow White story, which was originally published on behalf of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. We’ll get into the CBLDF later, but for now, how did you get the idea for turning Snow White on its head?
My contribution to The Masquerade is simply a short story. The publisher, White Wolf, also published a children’s book I wrote called The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish.
As for Snow White, I was lying in the bath with a book edited by Neil Phillip, called the Penguin Book of English Folktales, which is a collection of about a hundred Gaelic legends, and I was surprised because they presented some stories in ways I hadn’t read them before. One was the original English re-telling of Snow White. In the English telling of Snow White it’s made very, very explicit that Snow White ages when she’s under the witch’s spell in the glass coffin. She ages from being a girl to coming into her sexual bloom in the coffin in this old folk story. And all of a sudden I had the idea. An author once said that you can look at something 999 times and not see it, but if you at it the thousandth time, you run the risk of seeing it. All of a sudden I saw it. There was this moment when I said to myself, “What kind of prince sees a corpse in a glass coffin and says, ‘Oh boy, I’m in love, I’m gonna have her, I’m taking her back home with me.’?” This is seriously kinky. This is rather depraved. Having thought that, I thought well, what kind of young lady can you put in a coffin with skin as white as snow, lips as read as blood, and hair as black as coal for a couple of years who isn’t gonna die? Once I thought that through, the entire story was there. And I got to tell this sort of monstrous story of this little vampire Snow White and this necropheliac prince and this poor woman, possibly not quite as blameless as she makes out, but is, certainly maligned by history. And so I told the story from the point of view of the wicked witch. It was a delight.
You do work every year for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. You said some time ago that, “I come from a country where free speech is something you must work for. I do these things to raise money for the CBLDF. We don’t live in a perfect world. The CBLDF is more important now than ever before.”
You can now get Snow Glass & Apples in my short story collection Smoke & Mirrors which just came out in hard cover – it’s a beautiful hard cover short story collection I’m very proud of. When the story was originally published, all the profits went to the CBLDF. I like doing things for them. Every year I’ll do a reading tour for the defense fund to make money. As I said in that interview, part of it is me coming into a country and having an automatic right to free speech. I came to America and I found it amazing, and that perhaps some people here don’t know quite how lucky they are to be heard. I come from a country without such incredible freedoms, where there is an Obscene Publications Act, a set of testament laws that were actually drafted originally to cover the importation of dangerous plants and vegetables and then were modified and somebody added literature to it. So if customs objects to something that you’re bringing into the country they can seize everything else coming in with it and things like that. It somehow contaminated the rest of the batch.
I consider free speech enormously important and I feel that comics, having grown up writing comics, are tremendously vulnerable. They are probably more vulnerable than anything else to censorship and abuses of free speech. It’s very hard to immediately come out against a film because people have to sit and watch the whole film. It’s very, very hard to come out against a novel, because you have to print a section of the novel and people have to read it. With comics all you have to do is take one panel out of context and then say whether it’s true or not, and it normally isn’t – that this is what your children are being exposed to. It’s easy to exploit, all you have to do is say, “You thought your children were reading Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but this is what they are really reading.” And you’ve got an instant TV news story, an instant platform for any small town sheriff.
ly the CBLDF told me about a Florida police captain who walked into a comic store and was shown my book Death, the High Cost of Living. The back of the book contains a seven-page public health notice about safe sex. It’s not visually explicit in any way. But it’s something that was done because teenagers are one of the highest risk groups in unsafe sex and all of it and with all of its ramifications. This is something that was done years ago. It’s been used in schools. The City of Milan printed up 75,000 and handed them out. Regardless, this police captain walked into this store and told them that if they continued to shelve the book, he would close them down. And they contacted the legal defense fund and the legal defense fund acted immediately. Their attorneys fired off a letter explaining free speech and the Constitution and so forth to these people and we never heard another peep out of them. But the price of liberty genuinely is taken for granted by most people, and it’s something I never do.
You’ve collaborated on so many projects. Is that something that you enjoy doing or do you give a preference for working alone or with people?
I like the balance. I like to have both. Part of the joy for me of collaboration is that I can often enjoy something more than if I’ve done it myself. If it something that I did all alone, on my own, I tend to look at it and go, what is that comma doing there? If it’s something that I worked on in collaboration, for instance, I can look at Good Omens (written with Terry Pratchett) and go, this is a really funny book because I only wrote half of it. I can enjoy it. That’s why I love doing comics. It’s such an amazing collaborative effort. Having said that, I’m starting to enjoy these days the power of prose. And the power in doing it all myself am I getting power mad? Because I find I just sort of enjoy being able to do exactly what I want because I say so?
Good Omens was such a clever book – I laughed out loud while reading it, and that’s fairly rare for me. One of my favorite on-going themes was the proliferation of Queen music every time they’re in a car. You and I are nearly the same age – was that your idea?
That was a mutual joke that Terry and I had going on for awhile which is that any tape you leave in a car longer than a couple of weeks turns into the Best of Queen, cause we’re always finding things like Best of Queen tapes we can never quite remember buying and they get in the box in the glove compartment. At the time we actually spoke to American friends and some of our mates said that it was normally a copy of the Best of Bruce Springsteen that they find that they couldn’t remember ever buying.
I think it just sort of struck me, not for that reason but just because I sort of became of age with Queen music. I enjoyed so much of that book. It was very clever and was a very skewed look at the world, with sweetness and a lot of darkness.
I talked to several people who apparently may have even met you. And you’ve been described to me at both ends of the spectrum. At one end you’re really just a nice guy who likes to joke and tease and at the other end, you’re endlessly cynical and flippant. Are you somewhere in the middle or are you all of those things?
Am I terribly cynical? I may well be flippant, but when asked something in a public context where I’m answering questions for 300 people, I will probably go for the easy laugh and keep going. To be honest, I’m forever hearing from people who’ve never met me that I’m dark, brooding and Byronic – which they tend to get from the comics.
Well, and I think it comes from all those pictures of you wearing black everywhere.
Before we end, let me ask you about Stardust – will we be seeing another book from in such a romantic vein?
One of the reasons why I got such a kick out of Stardust getting reviewed with you guys is because in many ways, it’s probably the friendliest book I’ll ever write. It’s probably the only thing that I will ever write – I don’t know about ever write – but it’s certainly one of the very few things that I will write that is purely and unabashedly a love story. My other books may have happy endings, but I really did enjoy doing something that was basically a fairy tale and I was happy to have it be a romance. I’m really pleased that people who would enjoy that are starting to pick up on it.
Neil Gaiman’s writing shows that his mind can be a scary place; a couple of his short stories from Smoke & Mirrors, like his take on Snow White reveal a darkness in connection with obsession and sexuality. As I read more and more of his work, there are more and more questions I want to ask, the first being – are his children ever afraid of their dad or the stories he tells them? But his mind is also a fun place – his children’s book The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish, albeit a bit too obviously multi-cultural in an all-inclusive sort of way, was loads of good, clean fun. Here is an Amazon.com link for Good Omens – one of the most clever books I’ve ever read, and an Amazon.com link as well to Neverwhere, which is also wildly imaginative. You can find an Amazon.com link to Stardust following our review.
–Laurie Likes Books
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