Enter Sandman

Why Neil Gaiman is about to become bigger than death

Whether in comics or novels, Neil Gaiman's peculiar gift has been to tell fairy tales to adults, rekindling a childhood acceptance of the fantastic. His 2005 tour de force Anansi Boys was as unconventional in its treatment of evaporating love as it was in its depiction of an African spider god who is helpless before a sweet female mortal. "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," from Gaiman's new book of short stories, Fragile Things, starts with a boyish conceit—what if girls really are from another planet?—and has the imagination to suggest they would have awesome taste in music.

Four films based on Gaiman's work are slated for release over the next two years: Stardust, Books of Magic, Coraline, and Death (based on his cult-making Sandman comic books). In addition, Gaiman has written two scripts with Roger Avary, a "motion capture" adaptation of Beowulf, the oldest epic in English, and a live-action version of the Charles Burns comic Black Hole. Gaiman wrote last year's CG-muppet adventure MirrorMask, and the National Theatre of Scotland has staged a musical of his children's book The Wolves in the Walls. Meanwhile, the author has re-launched Jack Kirby's The Eternals at Marvel Comics—fans need Gaiman's blog at www.neilgaiman.com just to keep up.

In early October, the British-born resident of the St. Croix River Valley agreed to meet for a City Pages interview over tea at Kikugawa, after months of delays due to sheer busyness.

"I have this thing which in retrospect looks like a career": Neil Gaiman
Jayson Wold
"I have this thing which in retrospect looks like a career": Neil Gaiman

 

City Pages: By my count, you have 27 films coming out next year with your name attached to them.

Neil Gaiman: There was an article in the Hollywood Reporter maybe four years ago, and the story was that I was the human being who had sold the most things to Hollywood that had not been made. The very first thing I ever sold to Hollywood was Good Omens, a novel by me and Terry Pratchett, which 16 years later still looks like it's going to be made. I remember being told in 1990 that Hollywood basically had an 18-to-1 ratio of things that were bought to what actually got made.

When that article came out, I figured I hadn't even reached my first 18 things yet, so I was well ahead of the game. For 13 years, Hollywood had been coming by and buying things without anything getting made, which sometimes was really good, because the Sandman script I saw was one of the single worst things I've ever had to read in my life.

But now it's tipped the other way, and it's all going to look like it's planned. I have this thing which in retrospect looks like a career, and I know it isn't, because nothing is planned. I've got a new short story collection because the stack of short stuff I'd done is finally thick enough for people to read it without feeling cheated.

 

CP: Are you still excited to see your writing turned into movies?

Gaiman: I don't ever remember being excited. Probably the nearest I got was Good Omens in 1990, the point where I was being flown into Hollywood in a jumbo jet, me and Terry Pratchett being fed smoked salmon while crossing the Atlantic. And then we had one of those standard Hollywood experiences where we're being kept in the Chateau Marmont, writing an outline every morning, which we're having a meeting about every afternoon, and realizing they've never read any of them.

We go back, we hand in one draft, they say it's too much like the book. Terry quits, I do another draft according to their specifications, I hand it in, they phone me up and say it's not much like the book. And the following day they go bankrupt and I'm stiffed for $30,000. Which is all fine. I got a grand proper Los Angeles-style Hollywood fucking over, just like the ones you read about. As a result of which, I guess my point of view on Hollywood now is always partly, "It will never happen," and partly, "Isn't this interesting. I wonder what will happen next?"

I wrote Beowulf with Roger Avary in 1998 as a live-action film. It was bought by Robert Zemeckis's company, with Bob as a producer, and they had a deal with DreamWorks at the time where they were able to green-light their own films—they thought. They green-lighted Beowulf, and then somebody further up in DreamWorks made a phone call and turned that green light off again. It took about five years for Roger to get the rights back and clean everything up, and then suddenly the phone rings, and it's Robert Zemeckis saying, "I haven't been able to get that script you guys did out of my head."

Having done The Polar Express, he wanted to do something else with motion capture, but for adults. [The technology] had come a long way. When they did Polar Express, they could have, I think, at most four people in a set filmed for two minutes at a take. During Beowulf, at one point they had 25 people and four horses in this area, and they could go as long as they wanted to. I went to watch, and it was like watching the cast of Tron doing bad Shakespeare.

 

CP: Do you approach the problem of suspending disbelief in different mediums differently?

Gaiman: My approach is always the same. You're the storyteller, somebody else is somebody you're telling stories to, and it's your job to take them by the hand, look them in the eye, and say everything's okay, we're going to walk into dark places, and you can trust me. And then you take their hand, and you walk step by step out of the light, into a dark place. And then you let go of their hand and you walk away.

 

CP: [laughing] But don't you come back and get them?

Gaiman: Sometimes. Sometimes you leave them in the dark forever.

 

CP: Do any of your ideas originate from telling stories to your kids?

Gaiman:The Wolves in the Walls kind of did, in that it began with a daughter having a nightmare, and me telling Maddy stories about me and her, and the evil wolves who'd taken over the house, and how we were brave and rescued things, because she was so troubled by this nightmare of wolves. But the book bears no relationship to any of those stories.

The process of making up stories for kids orally and on the fly is very similar to the process of making up stories that you write down, in that you're using the same kind of engines. I've actually found a few recently, going through some old files in the attic. There was a period when I had to be away for a few weeks, so I'd started emailing Maddy an installment of the story every night when she was about five or six. It was about this princess who, when she was born, a fairy made her an appalling liar. Trying to fix things [years later], the fairy said, "Okay, everything she says from now on will be true."

The trouble was, she continued being an appalling liar, but now if she said to you, "You have two noses," you'd have two noses. It was enormously fun, but it wasn't anything I read and said, oh, I must get this off to my publisher immediately.

 

CP: You have an unusual amount of openness about your family with fans. Where do you draw the line with your private life?

Gaiman: I remember once I said something about my wife, which I thought was just the kind of funny story you put up on a blog. I'm a member of the Deformed Bunny of the Month Club. There's a very nice lady out on the West Coast who makes me deformed bunnies. They used to come monthly, and now they're sort of more quarterly, but they'll turn up, and they'll be strangely disturbing.

A few years ago, one of these bunnies arrived, and it had two heads. It was in a ballet tutu, and it was kind of cute. And my wife said, "Well that's really cute, it isn't even disturbing like the others."

And then Maddy said, "Yes, Mom, and look, one of the heads is dead!"

I just thought that was funny, so I put it on my blog, and the next thing my wife is saying, "I don't feel comfortable being on there." So as far as my blogging world exists, I leave her out.

I can definitely see a point where I would no longer blog, or tour, or do interviews. I think I'm somebody who decided early on that you either do it the whole way, and you have fun with it, or you go the Thomas Pynchon route. I'm not sure I'd be very good at doing the middle ground. I'm now just a bit more famous than I'm comfortable with. Stephen King once told me about the mad lady who lived in his attic, this person who had crept into his house, and his advice was: Do not live where your address is.

 

CP: What makes your writing different from horror?

Gaiman: Somebody once said to me that they didn't like horror short stories because they always tended to end where you want a story to begin. There are probably two stories in Fragile Things that I think of as pure horror, "Closing Time," which is a ghost story, and "Feeders and Eaters," about the old lady who winds up more or less keeping the guy for meat.

 

CP: Last question: How do human beings use stories?

Gaiman: I think we use them in a lot of ways. We use them to tell each other that we're alive. We use them to create and justify a worldview. Except that they are wrong in every possible way, the book-burners have a point. Because stories are dangerous. I think that it's really important for people who don't want other people to have ideas to kill stories with those ideas in them.

I think the scariest thing about the Islamic world, about the Arab world, is not the fact that you get some nuts hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings. I think what's really scary is that there were more fiction books translated into Greek last year than have been translated into Arabic since the days of the Prophet. That's big and scary. If I were the United States government, I wouldn't have started giant, massive multi-billion-dollar wars. I would have started up piddly little million-dollar printing presses and translated Harry Potter. [Editor's note: Actually, Harry Potter books have been translated into Arabic.]

But I love the fact that ideas are dangerous, and I think you counter dangerous ideas with more ideas. I did an episode in Sandman [after the first Gulf War] called "Ramadan," about both the dream of the Golden Age of Baghdad, the reality of 9th-century Baghdad, and the reality of a bombed-out Baghdad now. Then there was my ifrit [genie] taxi driver in American Gods. Particularly in the UK, I get a lot of Islamic kids at signings, so it's not that I think there's anything about Islam that stops them from reading stories. I just wish more ideas would go into Arabic.

NEIL GAIMAN
Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders
William Morrow

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