Once Upon a Time

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

Neil Gaiman thinks of himself as a lazy writer. Which makes me want to shoot myself. Because, in some 15 years of writing, Gaiman has published two novels, two short-story collections, six graphic novels, a children's picture book, two satirical nonfiction titles, and 75 ridiculously influential issues of the high-goth comic book The Sandman. Not to mention radio and movie scripts and the 1998 Babylon 5 episode "Day of the Dead." This month, Avon releases his lyrical fairy fantasy Stardust (his third novel), which is a prose version of the illustrated DC Comics collection. This is, the Brit-born, Wisconsin-based author admits, "a respectable quantity of stuff." Especially for someone who says he'd rather play with his three kids than clock 3000 words a day.

Sitting with this black-clad, shaggy-haired man over sushi at Kikugawa, I get the impression that playing with the kids may inspire Gaiman as much as it distracts. Certainly his hallucinatory fictions--mixing sundry denizens of fairy tales, classic poetry, Shakespeare, and alternative rock--reflect the child's tendency to spin "What if...?" inquiries into the radically unknown. Among the best pieces in this fall's Avon collection, Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions, is one called "Chivalry" that matches a tea-and-lace-curtains English hausfrau against the knight Galaad in a polite struggle for the Holy Grail. Another, "Troll Bridge," revives the old "fol rol de ol rol" fable with a world-weary disillusionment that would seemingly deny such magic. Even Sandman, under its veil of melancholy, addressed heavy truths with brash irreverence--embodying Death, for instance, as a sassy punk-rock babe.

Gaiman contends that books encountered in childhood serve as the richest compost for whatever an author creates as an adult. He read H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, T.H. White. (His children read Gaiman, which is a bit scary.) There is in his work, and even in his speaking voice, a kind of once-upon-a-time rhythm of enchantment; if he is not, perhaps, the most effective poet, the poetry of the fable lives in his prose.

He will accept the label of "fantasist" (although he's far happier--putting on a well-worn faux humility--with the designation of "someone who makes stuff up"). And as a fantasist, Gaiman is pleased that Stardust will be marketed as mainstream fiction. Partly because he finds much current fantasy "hidebound and dull" and wants to attract readers who ignore the fantasy racks. But mostly, I suspect, because he believes all fiction is fantasy and chafes at the genre hierarchy that values realist fiction over fantastic metaphor. (Or fantasy over the illustrated story: When he recalls winning a World Fantasy short-story award for Sandman #19, his punch line is the fact that the shocked governing body thereafter barred comic books from competition.)

The tale of a country yokel who, aiming to please his beloved, sets out on a quixotic quest through fairyland, Stardust is simply, almost transparently told. Its earthy ease surprises, especially after the shadowy urban machinations of Gaiman's 1996 novel Neverwhere, an appropriately twisted yarn about the London Underground. It's perhaps as much of a shock to learn that this pale, leather-jacketed, sushi-snarfing, erstwhile Damned fan has been kicking his heels in rural western Wisconsin for the past six years. Gaiman presents various reasons for abandoning England for the Midwest: exchange-rate fluctuations on U.S. paychecks, his American wife's Minneapolis-based relatives, and like-minded Minnesotan authors from Steven Brust to Will Shetterly. But I like to see both Stardust and the move here as a kind of return to the bucolic, magical fields of Gaiman's childhood in Southern England--and to the dark wild lurking just past the walls.

 

CITY PAGES: Novelist Steve Erickson once wrote that you live on, and write from, the horizon between consciousness and dream. And my thought was, "How could anyone get any work done there?"

NEIL GAIMAN: That is mostly where I live. It's the imagining place. So many of my stories are plotted by just getting up to the point where I know what happens. And then stopping, and going to bed. And lying in bed, turning it over and over in my head. Sooner or later you notice that you're dreaming--or you fail to notice that you're dreaming because you're dreaming. And then waking up in the morning and going, "Oh, I know what happens next."

Especially when I was doing Sandman, people would ask whether I wrote about my dreams: You'd always have to disappoint them. You don't really, because dream logic isn't story logic. It's more just following certain trains of thought that I assume, possibly wrongly, that everybody has, only sometimes you're willing to take them a little further. Most of Neverwhere came to me from traveling round London, just looking at the signs on the Underground and wondering about them. The Angel Islington. Well, who is the Angel Islington? Earl's Court. And making up an earl and giving him a court.

CP: The theme of being dissatisfied when you achieve your heart's desire comes up in both Neverwhereand Stardust.

GAIMAN: In Sandman, somebody says, at one point: "The price of getting what you want is getting what once you wanted." It's one of the things that forever fascinates me. Here am I, about to go out on a 21-city author tour, and chiefly what I'm concerned about is keeping my physical health and sanity. Whereas if you'd told me 10 years ago, "OK, you're going to have a major book-promotion 21-city tour of America," I'd be like, "Oh, I want that." I never really had a career plan; I just had a list of things I wanted to do. Luckily, it's not done yet. I'd like to do a Broadway play. I'd quite like to do a musical. I'd like to do a solid book of poems--not that anyone is expected to read it!

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?

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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