Neil Gaiman on Minnesota, Sandman, and why he can't do another signing tour

Neil Gaiman before his Minneapolis signing in July. Check out more behind-the-scenes photos.
Neil Gaiman before his Minneapolis signing in July. Check out more behind-the-scenes photos.

This year, writer Neil Gaiman has juggled more projects than you can count on two hands. These include releasing a children's book and an adult novel, writing his second Dr. Who episode, and gearing up for a prequel to The Sandman series. We caught up with the author on the Minneapolis stop of his last U.S. signing tour to chat about a little of everything, like what chilly Midwest winters have taught him and how he feels revisiting Sandman.

Here's more from our interview with Gaiman for our cover story: The dark night returns for Neil Gaiman.

See also: Amanda Palmer on Neil Gaiman: He desperately loves to be surprised

The pressure is on for Sandman: Overture, since it's the 25th anniversary of the series. Does it get to you?

Yeah, it definitely feels weird. I think I like writing things best when nobody's waiting for them, nobody expects them, and nobody knows what they're going to get. So you know, The Ocean at the End of the Lane was enormously fun because it was just a short story that I was writing for my wife that got out of hand, and just kept going.

The Sandman... nobody seems quite sure, I think DC was saying seven million sold in the latest press releases, but seven million was the same number they were using in 2003. I know that we've been selling a quarter of a million, half a million copies of graphic novels every year plus electronic stuff. I'm going, 'It's got to be a lot more than that...' I'm thinking nobody's actually ever gone out and counted. [Laughs] There's definitely a kind of weird feeling, like 10 to 15 million people are looking over my shoulder going, 'This has got to be good.'

Has this story always been hovering in the back of your head? Or has it developed more over time?

It was one of the ones that was there before Sandman 1 started. And it's hinted at... there's a thing about it in Sandman 8, and Sandman 42. It just never really fit the Sandman that I was doing at the time. It was always just sort of pushed away and I went, 'Ok, when I finish Sandman 175, at some point, I'll have this little story to tell.'

I was going to tell it for Sandman's 20th anniversary, and then I didn't, mostly because DC Comics at the time were perfectly happy for me to do it under the terms that I signed up to do Sandman in 1997, and I was of the opinion that I should get something slightly better. Not hugely better, just something slightly better. Like, 'Guys, I was 26, please give me a slightly better deal now.' They said no, they couldn't because then everybody would want one. Then a few years later they said, 'Well, it's the 25th anniversary, do you still want that deal?' And I was like, 'Okay, come on, let's do it.' We got J.H. Williams [to do the art], and we're all excited because we've got Todd Klein and Dave McKean and the old gang is back together again.

In Amanda Palmer's blog about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, she noted that the long distance between you two was taking its toll. Did that affect the way the story turned out?

I think it did. I think mostly it was just that it's weird. I've only ever written two things for specific people going, 'I'm writing this story for someone that isn't me.' In each case, they sort of grew and transformed and got out of hand. One was of them was Coraline, which I wrote for my then-five-year-old girl, Holly. I started it for Holly, I finished it for Maddy. And one of them was [Ocean], which in my head was just a short story. I was just going to send it over to Amanda from Florida, and I liked that. She was making an album. So there wasn't a lot of missing going on, she was really busy. I missed her.

Each day, I'd keep writing, and then I'd sort of know what was going to happen the next day, so I'd write that, and I'd know what would happen the day after that, so by then I'd know what was going to happen next. There was this point where I didn't know how long it was, I didn't know what it was. I just thought, 'Okay, I'll keep going with this thing until it's done, and I'll send it to her.' And you know, it came as a surprise to me.

We got together when she came back from Australia in Dallas, Texas, where the album was being mixed. I went into Dallas, and I typed up the book that I'd been writing, finished it up in a coffee shop, did the second draft, did a word count, and went, 'I appear to have written a novel. Did not plan that.' And then had to go all... 'Can I make this fatter? Because it's now a novel, and it's a 56,000 word novel. It's longer than The Great Gatsby, it's about the same length as Stardust. Can I make it fatter? I don't know where any more words go, it's just my story.' I read it to her, each night, back then. She liked it. I don't think it was until she read the whole thing, when it was published -- she got an advanced copy. I gave it to her, she went off and read it, and only then she went, 'Oh my god, this is beautiful.'  

Neil Gaiman at his last Minneapolis signing in 2013.
Neil Gaiman at his last Minneapolis signing in 2013.

Has your time in and around Minnesota infiltrated your work at all?

Absolutely. I know that it affected the stories. I would see things, and I would meet people, and I would talk to people, and I would try to make sense of it. [Minnesota was in] a lot of American Gods, you know. The winter in American Gods is me just trying to make sense of winter. I lived in England, I figured that water got white and fluffy and fell from the sky. At that point, it was cold, and that was as cold as it got. I didn't realize there was cold under freezing. All the clever things we learn to do in this part of the world -- you walk outside, you breathe in, the hairs on your nose freeze, you go, 'Oh, it's below zero.' You walk outside, you cough with pain a couple times, you go, 'Oh, it must be about minus 25.'

[There's] lots of other stuff, too. Things that I'd see, people I'd meet, people I'd encounter, and some of them didn't ever make it in. McCosh's house of books. Melvin McCosh -- Santa Claus's anorexic brother -- a few times a year, he'd send out a piece of paper. He'd say, 'You need these books more than I do,' and book people would descend upon his place. The books would be filling all these old drawers and filling the showers. I've always wanted to put McCosh's house of books in something. He's long dead, and I'm sure the place is long gone, but it's still sitting there in my head.

This is your last tour. Besides feeling physically and emotionally drained, how do you feel about closing this chapter of your life as a writer?

What I keep telling people is that it's my last U.S. signing tour, and that's what it is. I will never do another signing tour. I might well do another reading tour. I might well do an interpretive dance tour, or a studies in beekeeping tour. All of that stuff is possible.

Last night I signed for 1,700 people, and I signed until three o'clock in the morning. By the end of it, everything hurt. I looked online this morning on Tumblr and Twitter, and there's happy people, and then there are people that gave up at two o'clock in the morning and had to go home. 'I saw Neil Gaiman, and it was kind of miserable. And I stood in line, but my husband had to get to work, and it was just sort of getting ridiculous.' You sort of look at that and you go, this doesn't actually work anymore -- the signing.

It's great if you are an author and you can get 150 or 200 people in a shop, that's great. It's fun and you can get through those 150 to 200 people in about 90 minutes, 100 minutes, and then you go off and have dinner and everybody feels happy and it's great.

Hour five of a signing is no fun for anybody. I am punch-drunk. I have to try and remember how to spell common names like 'Bob,' and it's horrible. It's lovely hugging people and they want to tell you they have presents for you, and it's all magic. But I can't do this anymore.

Really, I couldn't do it after Anansi Boys, which is why we didn't do it that way for the Graveyard Book tour when I did the reading tour and pre-signed books. For this, I just went, 'I decided this is going to be my last tour.' I could've done this as a speaking tour with pre-signed books available. But I just went, 'I want to tell everybody.' I want to actually let them know if I'm going to do this, the ethical way to do it is just to say: This is the last signing tour, this is where it stops.

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