Once Upon a Time

Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman follows the fairy tale into the darker realms of adulthood

CP: You've said before that writing dark fantasy gets the demons out of your head--and by that I guess you mean the odd murderer or rapist. But it seems that you also exorcise more mundane frustrations--like feeling you have a more settled life than you had ever envisioned for yourself.

GAIMAN: Sure. Definitely. I like feeling unsettled. And one reason I like being in America is 'cause I still feel like an alien. I really like that. The next novel is going to be the big American novel. It has the working title of American Gods. I want it to be all about everything I've learned after six years of living in America. [Laughs] About the relationship between America and its gods: all the old gods that people brought with them and then abandoned--everybody from Odin and on--who are working in gas stations and doing whatever they can to make ends meet. Then the new gods of mobile telephones and televisions.

CP: How much of your writing process is about reading?

Fantasy Island: Writer Neil Gaiman
Daniel Corrigan
Fantasy Island: Writer Neil Gaiman

GAIMAN: Some. Fiction doesn't feed the well for me anymore. It's like being a stage magician: You may admire the skill with which something is done, but you're not going to worry [whether] the girl is actually going to get cut in half. These days, wandering through a bookstore, I'm much more likely to go, "Wow, they've got this book on 1930s Japanese funeral customs--I have to get that!" The second half of Stardust was written while I was getting obsessed with nursery rhymes, which is why "How Many Miles to Babylon" and "The Lion and the Unicorn" both crept their way in. The last thing I got completely obsessed by was Australian bio-geology. I don't mind spending eight months researching something and then never writing anything. Because maybe one day I'll turn around and go, "This is where all that stuff fits in."

CP: Quite often in your stories or in your introductions, you'll mention the technology you used to write them. Does the technology affect the writing?

GAIMAN: I know that the way you write it, it's different. You use different parts of your head. The last time I edited a short-story collection was about 1995, when I did The Sandman Book of Dreams. The time before that was about '87. And I noticed things had changed--everybody was now using a computer. And all the stories were too long. When you're writing on computer, it's easier to grow something. You never make a second draft. You only ever have an ongoing, rolling, improving, and expanding first draft. When I started writing Stardust, I thought, "OK, I want to write something that will feel, except for the sex scenes, as if it were written in 1920." So I went out and bought a fountain pen. I wrote it more as you'd write a short story--and my theory with writing short stories was always: Write as if I'm paying them by the word.

CP: Stardust offers fitting comeuppances to some gender and literary archetypes: the beauty-consumed woman and the paranoid, violent king. I wondered what comes first, the story or the gloss?

GAIMAN: Oh, the story. Although there were things I knew I wanted to do going into it--one of which was very quietly to almost offer a reply to John Donne's "Song," which is the single most misogynist little piece of poetry in the entirety of the English language. It's the epigraph to Stardust. It was also fun constructing a book in which the heroes and the bad guys never intersect in the way that they're meant to--the good guys never come face-to-face with the bad guys and win. Even when they do meet, they have no idea of what's going on. The reader has so much more of a picture. It works like a fairy tale--and I think all of the power Stardust has, it has because fables and fairy tales still have power over us.

CP: In your children's book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish [illustrated by Sandman artist Dave McKean], the father is hidden behind a newspaper, inert and almost useless. Whose father is that?

GAIMAN: Oh, it's me--an exaggerated version of me. One night, I said to my son, "Isn't it your bedtime?" And he got mad and said, "I hate you! I wish I didn't have a dad. I'd rather have a...a goldfish!" And I stood there, after he'd gone off, and thought, hmmm...

I'm going to write another one, called Fortunately, the Milk, where the dad gets his turn. He goes out to buy milk, and when he returns he's had all these amazing adventures: He gets abducted by aliens...and each of his stories ends: "Fortunately, the milk was alright."


Neil Gaiman will sign books Friday, January 8 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Edina Barnes and Noble; (612) 920-0633. He'll visit the Lake Street Dreamhaven Saturday, January 9 from 2 p.m.to 4 p.m; (612) 823-6161.

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