Rest assured, Mr. Gaiman didn't smell like several days sweat, and he looked pretty much like you'd expect a comic writer and fantastical novelist to look: all in black, including the leather jacket. And if he felt like he was in the middle of one of the most common types of nightmares, he didn't seem disoriented.
In fact, he didn't even tell us about his travails and he pretty much carried the interview (along with my co-host, Diana Brown), while your humble host (that's me) was in something of a somnambulant fog brought on by that day's health issues (I'll spare you.)
And then there was the presence of Paul McEnery, who had interviewed Gaiman for Mondo 2000 back in the mid-1990s. "We broke him in America," he assured me. I had ignored his pleas to participate in the program, not wanting to crowd the show with too many cooks, but there he was, and so he was invited to kibbutz.
All in all, it worked. This is a damned fine Neil Gaiman interview.
Gaiman, noted for his Sandman comics, the novels American Gods and Anansi Boys, and so much more, has been touring America promoting his new collection, Fragile Things: Short Fiction and Wonders.
To listen to the interview in MP3, click here.
RU SIRIUS: His New York Times bestselling novel American Gods was awarded the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Bram Stroker...errr. How 'bout that? The Bram Stoker award.
NEIL GAIMAN: The horror people actually call them the Strokers.
RU: What do they give you? I'm imagining a bucket of viscous red fluid.
NG: That would be wonderful. Actually, it's one of the prettiest awards. It's a little sort of haunted house designed by Gahan Wilson. You open the door and the name of what's won the award is behind the little door. It's kind of cool. It's much prettier than most.
RU: That's real effort. Do they have a ceremony?
NG: I think they did try to have a reasonably good ceremony. The trouble was, I'd logged on to their website that morning and their webmaster had been overly enthusiastic and put up the results. At nine in the morning, I discovered that I'd won. And then I had to go through the rest of the day pretending that I hadn't. People would come over to me and say, "Good luck!" and through gritted teeth I would say, "Thank You."
RU: One of the things I love in your work is the importance of the figure of the trickster or the rascal that runs through pretty much everything. It's like this figure Mr. Nancy, who appears in the last two novels. And it seems like this may be the sort of person who can bring magic into our world and it's perhaps the sort of person that we don't have room for any more in America.
NG: Oh, I think there are tricksters in America. I think they hang around the edges, which is, I think, the place where tricksters ought to be. You don't want a trickster at the center of your life because they will...
RU: ...or as President.
NG: You definitely don't want a trickster as President, although you'd have a really interesting country for 4 years, or perhaps for 3 or 4 weeks until he absconds with the money from the treasury.
RU: Do you think that fiction is the best way to express the value of that sort of character? You can't as easily write prose justifying the trickster as you can fiction.
NG: I think evoking the trickster is best done at short length. Mr. Nancy, one of the best things you can say for him is that he does die on page one. And then he hangs around the novel refusing to go away.
I always loved trickster stories. My favorites; obviously the Anansi stories are wonderful; the Coyote stories are marvelous. You run into these stories where Coyote will get into an argument with a rock...and lose.
RU: That's happened to me.
NG: The thing I think I love best about tricksters is that they lose from time to time. Gods and heroes win. Tricksters are just like the rest of us. They win sometimes; they lose sometimes. They screw up every bit as often as people do, only with more style.
RU: The comedy of that fucking-up comes across in Anansi Boys
NG: I think Anansi Boys is pretty much a comedy of embarrassment.
RU: Particularly your main character.
NG: Which is why I wanted to do a character that was English. Because the English do embarrassment better. We have raised it to some kind of slightly awkward apologetic art form. American's understand the concept of embarrassment...
RU: ...we just don't engage in it.
NG: I was talking to an American friend who told me that she was in England making out with an Englishman in a parking lot in the rain. He got very scared and upset and wouldn't continue making out with her. She asked me, why not? And I told her, "Basically, it's because you are an American. You were making out in the parking lot in a car in the rain and your attitude is 'Anybody walking past, I don't know these people. What the hell? This is my life. Go away.' Whereas his was the profound certainty that the moment that things went any further, not only would somebody knock upon the window; if he rolled the window down, it would be someone he knew and standing just behind him would be everyone else he'd ever met and they would all be staring disapprovingly." That's just how the English are built.
RU: A sense of propriety still exists.
NG: And a wonderful magical sense; a sort of conviction that the world is designed to make you slightly embarrassed and slightly ill at ease. But I actually like that.
The lead character in Anansi Boys is divided up into Fat Charlie, our hero, who is very English and very embarrassed; and his brother Spider, who is semi-fictional and God-like and for whom the world just sits up and begs and does more or less whatever he wants it to do.
RU: The sense I get is that neither is complete without the other. Charlie is perfect neurosis and the other is perfect pathology.
Terry Gilliam has loved Good Omens for years. He recently came to us and said, "What is it going to cost me to get the option for myself?" Terry Pratchett and I put our heads together and thought: we want this to be a Terry Gilliam film. We don't want this to be an anybody-else film. We've said no to lots of people who want to make it into a cool big commercial film. So we decided that it should cost him a groat.
DIANA BROWN: I was struck by the title of your new collection, Fragile Things, and your take on the title. And I'm quoting you: "The peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile are how tough they really are." And you talk about eggshells and butterfly wings and hearts and dreams. And the line I like best there: "Even dreams, the most delicate and intangible of things can prove remarkably difficult to kill." So what was your impetus to put this collection together and name it Fragile Things?
NG: The only thing that makes me feel like it's OK to write short fiction and take the time away that I could otherwise spend on a novel is the idea that every eight years or so, I can put it all together and I will have something book-like. It was eight years. I had enough stories. It was time to put them all together in one place and see what they did. Which is something very cool for a writer because the themes take you by surprise -- you put all these stories together and they have something huge in common. Things repeat. When I was reading it aloud for the audio book I would discover that even certain phrases would repeat themselves from story to story. And I thought, "Should I take them out?" But I rather like the fact that they repeat.
What gets harder is: what order do they go in? I couldn't figure out how to do it. So eventually I turned to my editor and I said, "I have no idea what order I want these things to go in. Would you do me a list?" So she sent me her list. And I looked at it and I said, "That's not right" and promptly put them into the right order. I really needed somebody to send me a list so I could go, "What are you thinking of, woman."
The original title that I had in my head was "These People Should Know Who We Are and Know That We Were Here." It's a quote from "Little Nemo." It was all going to be first person narratives and unreliable narrators talking about their lives. But then I kept coming up with stories that couldn't follow that pattern. And then I kept telling people that the title was going to be "These People Should Know Who We Are and Know That We Were Here." And everybody I would tell that title to would look at me and tell me, "Oh nice title. A bit Dave Eggers-y isn't it?"
And then finally, I'd written a song from a dream. It was one of the very few occasions where you wake up from a dream with words in your head. You write them down and they seem to be lyrics. And there's a band called One Ring Zero who did a wonderful album where they came to a bunch of authors and asked for words. And I gave them these lyrics, which we called "On The Wall." And there was this line in there: "think that I would rather recollect a life misspent on fragile things than spent avoiding moral debt." That line started haunting me. And I thought, "I wonder what those fragile things could be?" So I started thinking about the nature of fragility and people and hearts and stories and all of the things we think of as fragile. And suddenly I realized that was the title of this collection.
DB: Do you find yourself working within a particular construct of a story and the story insists on going in a different direction?
NG: Definitely. You write the story wherever it will go and sometimes you'll run into enormous trouble if you have an idea of where a story is supposed to go and it's not going there. I was about halfway through Anansi Boys. It was going completely on track. I knew where the plot was going. I knew everything about it. I'm writing away very happily. I've got a character going up in an elevator to see another character, and I thought: Hang on, if you go up to see him. And you have the conversation with him that I think you're going to have; he's going to kill you. That's not part of the plot. That's not even where I thought this story was going. That makes it much darker and derails everything. And suddenly these characters who I thought of as wallpaper, came up and started doing things.
RU: I loved that character, Mr. Coats (the murderer). I feel as though I've met that guy and maybe you have too.
NG: I loved writing him. I took enormous joy in writing a character who was everything that I could hate. He's every crooked agent that I have ever encountered.
I've had very good agents. But every once in awhile, you see a friend of yours winding up with a rotten apple. Poor Douglas Adams. I remember going to see Douglas once, and he looked very down in the dumps. So I asked him what was wrong. And he said, "I've just discovered that my accountant who has just advised me to by a new house and told me I was fine, had actually cleaned out my bank account, and having been caught, just killed himself."
DB: You start the book with "A Study in Emeralds", a fabulous literary mashup in which Sherlock Holmes meets the world of H.P. Lovecraft. What is your favorite Lovecraft story?
NG: My favorite Lovecraft at exactly this moment that you happened to ask me is probably "The Outsider." It was the first, and I had no idea of what to expect. And suddenly I'm climbing up in the darkness with somebody who has been down in this dark place, and he's climbing up and up and up and up and he finally comes into the sunlight and comes out and everybody who sees him starts screaming. And we realize he's a horrible creature and he goes back down. It's an incredibly simple plot idea and it completely took me by surprise and told me that I was with an author who would take me to strange places and whom I trusted. And for whom everything was atmosphere. The joy of Lovecraft is not plot. You don't read Lovecraft for those brilliant twists and turns.
DB: You're immersed in it.
NG: You are. You're adrift on this clotted adjectival froth that floats on top of the story and it carries you away.
PAUL MCENERY: I wanted to ask you about the theme: Gods who have fallen on hard times. That's what is really going on in American Gods and Anansi Boys. And you're revisiting it with a comic book that is coming out right now, The Eternals. Is that why you went back to The Eternals?
NG: Not really, although thematically it does seem to be an odd sort of fit with these things. It was definitely a theme that began in Sandman. I can point to "Calliope" in Sandman 17 about a muse who has been kept prisoner. Most of the Gods in Sandman are Gods who are no longer believed in, no longer worshipped and no longer anywhere near as powerful as they would like to be. And then in The Kindly Ones, I wrote this sort of weird rant that Loki has as he's killing a young lady. He does this rant about the new Gods: the gods of mortuary and ambulance and the gods of freeway and television. So I thought, "There's something here that I'm trying to say." And that all stewed, until one day I was in Iceland for a 24 hour plane stopover. So I had this plan to keep going until it got dark. And I didn't realize that on June 23 in Iceland, you don't get any dark. So I've been awake for 36 hours. And I'm in a little tourist office looking at the little maps of the Viking incursions into Newfoundland and back, and I think, "I wonder if they left their Gods behind"?
So I walked back to my hotel and I started typing out an outline. I wrote "American Gods" at the top. I was thinking, I could do a road trip. I can talk about the America that has been fascinating me. And I can talk about the fact that there are things that are missing -- spiritually missing -- in America. It's the weirdness of the American predilection towards giant roadside attractions.
DB: The Enormous Ball of Twine.
NG: The Enormous Ball of Twine. The House on the Rock. All of those kinds of things that seemed to fulfill the same kind of place in the soul that the holy places in Europe and Asia...
RU: They're not quite Stonehenge.
NG: Yes. They're not quite Stonehenge. So when all that was done, I really wanted to tell the Anansi Boys story. That is much less a story of Gods falling on hard times and more a story of how your family is embarrassing. And Gods seemed like a lovely way of super-charging that. Giving it more weight and more power. That's one of the things that Gods do. It's the great thing about Gods in stories and in our collective consciousness. They embody something. So Nancy as the trickster; as a God of storytelling; as a God who would go out and pick up loose women; as a God who would come home drunk -- this was somebody I wanted in my story.
RU: Two Englishmen, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, both are very outspoken about their beliefs in the occult and psychedelic drugs and all kinds of weirdness...
NG: Alan worships an imaginary Roman snake god. I remember the day. I was sitting at home and the phone rang and it was Alan, who had always been a devout rationalist -- a man who would have made Penn and Teller feel that they were superstitious. So Alan called me up and said [Cockney accent], "Neil. It's my 40th birthday next week and I've decided to get me midlife crisis over with, so I'm becoming a warlock and I'm going to be worshiping an imaginary Roman snake god. Just thought you'd like to know mate. Alright?"
Unfortunately, him having done that, growing a really long beard, I think, wouldn't it be great to grow a really long beard. But Alan's already done it. So I can't imagine myself -- if I became a sort-of psychedelic warlock, people would say, "Oh, he's just doing Alan Moore."
RU: Has it surprised you that so much weirdness has managed to leak its way into the world of comics?
NG: No, not at all. We are wonderfully weird people. It's a pity really that it isn't as true these days. I'll always meet people who will explain to me that they're going into comics as a career move. Which is like somebody telling me that they're going to live in Belgium as a career move. It's just wrong.
Those of us who got into comics, at least before the early 90s, most of us got into comics because it was a really cool, strange, odd place that nobody was watching.
RU: That's what I was thinking, but to a certain extent, still nobody is watching. It's like a really big cult.
NG: I don't think it's a cult any more. I think it's hit the stage of religion. It may fall back to cult. Comics is in this weird world now where all the places that are reviewing stuff will just cheerfully review comics alongside everything else. This is what we were fighting for 25 years ago -- to be sold in bookshops. As far as the likes of me and Alan and Grant and the rest of us are concerned, we are now living in the Golden Age. This is utopia. There are zeppelins and flying cars and a cure for cancer in this perfect future. This is what we dreamed would happen. Back in '86, nobody was reading comics. I remember the sheer amazed befuddled joy when we in England discovered that Kathy Acker read comics for pleasure. And it was magic. It was so cool. She was this weird figure, but almost part of the literary establishment...
RU: Almost a legitimate intellectual. She would love to hear that.
NG: It's true. She was almost legitimate and she read Love And Rockets. And she got into line to get her copy of Dark Knight signed by Frank Miller at a signing. The reason it was so cool was that this had never happened -- somebody from that world coming into our world. These days, everybody reads comics. I go to a big author event or book expo or something like that and all these authors sort of sidle over and ask me how they can get into the business. You want to say, "Go away you latecomers! We want none of you! We spurn you."
RU: I guess anybody who's anybody has to do a graphic novel now.
NG: Exactly. It is kind of true. I actually kind of like it. I love the fact that we live in a world where you can get Michael Chabon and Will Eisner collaborating on a comic. That's magic. I'm glad we're living in a world where Art Spiegelman is taken absolutely as seriously as anybody else in American letters. But it's so easy to forget the way things were.
RU: You're doing something with Terry Gilliam, who is absolutely one of my favorite directors.
NG: Bless! I hope that it happens. Terry has been working for many years on Good Omens, which is the novel that Terry Pratchett and I co-wrote about the end of the world...
DB: It has just been re-released.
NG: Absolutely. Terry Gilliam has loved the book for years. He has been working on it for awhile. He recently came to us and said, "OK. I'm going to get the rights back to the script that I wrote with this guy called Tony Brusconi a few years ago. What is it going to cost me to get the option for myself?" Terry Pratchett and I put our heads together and thought; well, we really want Terry Gilliam to make it. We want this to be a Terry Gilliam film. We don't want this to be an anybody-else film. We've said no to lots of people who want to make it into a cool big commercial film. We like the idea of it being a Terry Gilliam film. So we put our heads together and we decided that it should cost him a groat. And I don't believe they've actually made groats, which is an old English coin worth about four pence since about the 1780s. Which means he is going to have to go to EBay.
RU: He's going to have to do some searching... a magical quest.
NG: They're cheap. I mean frankly they're really cheap. We figured out we were going to need Farthings to pay the agents -- the agent commission on a groat. I went to EBay and picked up a farthing for practically nothing.