Interview With Neil Gaimanby Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, July 2001
It would be difficult to find an author who appeals to
Now, with the publication of his new novel American Gods (HarperCollins), which debuted at number ten on the The New York Times bestseller list, Gaiman has attracted yet a new following: serious literary critics and readers of mainstream novels. Kirkus Reviews calls American Gods, "A magical mystery tour through the mythologies of all cultures, a unique and moving love story -- and another winner for the phenomenally gifted, consummately reader-friendly Gaiman."
The novel opens as Shadow has just been released from prison. After learning that his wife has died in a car accident, he is devastated. He then meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday who offers him a job. Shadow accepts and sets out with Wednesday on a mission to round up all the old gods in America, who have fallen on hard times. Shadow and Wednesday have all kinds of adventures and meet all kinds of people and deities, many of whom who would like to wage war on the old gods and claim America's souls for themselves. Gaiman uses this premise to explore many complex and interesting themes. It is a brilliantly written, clever, funny and, at times, disturbing novel. Certainly, some of his observations about American culture and obsessions are uncomfortably close to a truth that mainstream America would prefer to forget, or ignore altogether.
Like Shadow, the protagonist of American Gods, Gaiman's work seems to act as a mirror which reflects what people want to see in it. But whether American Gods is read as an urban fantasy, a shocking mystery/thriller or even as a love story isn't really the point. What is most interesting about the book is the view of America and its beliefs that Gaiman (an Englishman) sees. It is an examination of America's culture, its myths and the pagan influences that exist solidly beside such Americana as roadside attractions and Easter egg hunts. Few people think it odd that their children consume chocolate eggs and chocolate bunnies on a holiday that is supposed to be celebrating the resurrection of Christ, for example. But the early church fathers were a canny bunch: they simply took the underlying pagan festivals and slapped a Christian one on top of it. Voilà! Everyone is happy, and the festival date is the same as it always was. Gaiman does an excellent job of showing the America that is just underneath the surface, delving deep into the American psyche. The book also examines the mythology and belief systems that made their way to America with the emigrants who came here hoping to find a new life. American Gods is certainly his most complex work to date.
In my previous interview with Neil, he speaks about his childhood and how he got his start as a writer. I spoke with Neil again, just before he headed off on a grueling multinational tour for American Gods. In this new interview, he talks candidly about American Gods, book reviewers, and the joys and heartache of blogging. He also shares some of his fondest memories of his friend, the late Douglas Adams.
I've been reading your online journal for American Gods. It's quite entertaining. Do your editors get mad at you? Is it draining off any of your creative energies that you would be using to write more fiction?
No one's gotten mad at me -- yet. The only time it actually does
The fun of the journal for me is getting to try to explain what goes on backstage of an author tour. It's kind of funny; If you went back and read the original Sandman scripts, there's an awful lot of the kinds of things in them that now turn up in my weblog. Of course, no one ever read those original scripts except the artist and the editor. There are all kinds of odd things in there, perhaps even a minor diversionary essay on gardening. What I wanted to do with the journal was to try to show what happens to an author after he finishes a book. Most people have a very vague idea of what happens then. Most people think that it goes like this. You write a book. You hand in the book. You put it in the post to the publisher. Then, six months later, they phone you to say, "Hey, you'll never believe this! Your book has hit the The New York Times list!" Or, "You'll never believe this! I just saw your book on a remainder table." Most people probably don't even think about the second option. I really wanted to try to show the great amount of stuff that is happening behind the scenes when a new book comes out. There is so much that is being done, that is being created, and being built. There is an enormous amount of work going on.
It's a lot of work for a writer. I don't think many writers realize how much work still is to be done, once the final copyediting is done.
Yes. One thing that gets a little frustrating is that I'm not actually totally hands-on behind the scenes of the website and the blogger. Which means that stuff that I think would be a lovely thing to do doesn't necessarily get done, because there are two layers of people who have to implement it, and they are busy people with jobs. For example, I'd love to know how many people actually visit my journal, because I know it's a lot more than visit the front page of the site. Before we had a counter, I had absolutely no idea whether anyone was even reading it at all. My favorite moment so far happened a couple of months ago. I did an online search. I typed the words "Blogger" and "Gaiman" into google.com to see if anyone was even reading it. I found a bunch of links to it. My favorite comment was one that I read on one of those websites. The owner of the site said, "You know, I had always wanted to be a writer -- until I read this horrendous essay on copyediting that Neil Gaiman wrote on his weblog. It's too much work! I don't think I want to be a writer now." I thought, "Oh, good. I've actually done something worthwhile here." So I felt incredibly proud of myself.
Let's talk about the new book, American Gods. Looked at in terms of plots, American Gods is a complex book -- there's a lot going on here. There's a road trip, but there's also a nasty little murder mystery going on in a seemingly charming small town. In a way, the entire book is a bit of a puzzle for the reader to solve. I must admit, I hadn't thought of you as a mystery author before this book, but this is (among other things) an excellent murder mystery. What attracted you to the murder mystery element? How did that part of the plot evolve?
It was all very organic, really. Before I began writing the
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I had one very, very strange conversation with a lady from USA Today, who hadn't read the book, but who was doing an article about me and "Snow Glass Apples," the radioplay starring Bebe Neuwirth which is on SciFi.com. We had this odd conversation. She said that she needed to mention American Gods in the article and would I tell her what kind of book it was. I said, "Well, it's a book about murder." "But, isn't it science fiction?" she asked. I thought for a second and replied, "Yes, if you want to look at it that way. " "Is it a thriller?" she asked. "I certainly hope so," I replied. "Is it a fantasy?" she asked. "Why, yes," I said. "Horror?" "Yes, and it's mainstream literature, too," I noted.
Don't forget the romance!
Yes! There is a romance which some people seem to notice and some people don't at all, which I think is kind of fun. I suspect (and it's hard to say this from the point of view of an author) that's it's the kind of book that repays what you put into it. I've seen a couple of reviews now by people who really didn't get it. Oddly enough, I got an email last month from someone "outing" themselves as an anonymous Publisher's Weekly reviewer who let me know how pissed they were that they didn't get the book to review. Then that was followed by a really dim Publisher's Weekly review which said, "Only the Gods themselves could understand this aimless plot." I thought that was so odd. I mean, it's not a difficult plot to understand. It's not aimless. And it's not beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.
Or, mere reviewers?
Yes, or mere reviewers. Actually, it's fairly straightforward. It is a book which is designed to repay a second reading.
Have you been surprised at the responses to the book?
Well, I'm not really sure what the response to the book is at this point. That's really the joy of this. I think I'm starting to get a sense of the response which is that (so far) the people who were on the wavelength of a book like this, love it and "get it." There was a complete joy in sending out the book to early readers for blurbs. Tim Powers read it, loved and sent me a lovely blurb. He even talked it up to his email list. When people like Peter Straub, Tim Powers, and Jonathon Carroll -- people who are really gifted -- love the book, then that makes me thing that I'm doing something right. On the other hand, there was a review in Booklist by Ray Olsen -- who has given me lovely reviews for everything else -- which showed that he didn't get it, on a world-class scale. I suppose that bad reviews rankle. This was one of those reviews which began, "Shadow, a Stephen Seagal type…"
Yes, Stephen Seagal. Then he says that the book is confusing, has no plot and that it's a huge misstep after delightful books like Neverwhere and Stardust, and here's hoping that Gaiman will write a decent book next time.
Were we reading the same book?
It was just terrible. It wasn't even the kind of review that
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There's definitely a horror element in that scene. It's shocking, I suppose.
Well, I think there's definitely some horror in there. There are some pieces in there which are, in their own way, quite creepy. My favorite pieces are those that take place in the hotel rooms in the middle of America. It's not really horror, but it's one of the creepiest chapters I've ever written.
The road trip -- Shadow's quest across middle America with Wednesday -- is the other place where most of the action takes place. As an Englishman, what was the appeal of middle America? The America that many adults remember from family road trips, with ghastly diner food and strange roadside attractions which seemed quite magical when one was a child. You seem to have a fondness for the whole experience, and to view it through the wondering eyes of a child seeing it for the first time.
I hope so. I am proud of one thing that I did with Neverwhere (and I'm not going to bang the gong saying that Neverwhere is
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At the beginning of each chapter is a bit of a poem, or a song, or an interesting quote. There is quite a bit of foreshadowing, if you will, and perhaps some embedded clues in those little prefaces. How did you choose those quotes? Did you write the chapters and then find something appropriate, or did a quote or poem spark the writing of the chapter?
A bit of both. Sometimes, I knew exactly what I was doing when I started the chapter and had something completely appropriate already sitting in my head. Sometimes I had a few of these little quoty bits sitting in my head and I wasn't sure which chapter they fit with. I would play with it, try out different things, until I thought, "Aha, there it goes. Perfect." Then when I got to the end of the book, I had about three chapters with nothing at the beginning. So I had to spend several hours or most of a day, going through strange old books to find something that really fit and that set things up. The last one to be put in is that wonderful quote about the huge scale of America.
Yes, that is a good one. The one from Lord Carlisle to George Selwyn?
Yes. Chapter 17 begins,
"Everything is upon a great scale upon this continent. The rivers are immense, the climate violent in heat and cold, the prospects magnificent, the thunder and lightening tremendous. The disorders incident to the country make every constitution tremble. Our own blunders here, our misconduct, our losses, our disgraces, our ruin, are on a great scale."American Gods is certainly the most organic thing I've written since Sandman. It was the longest thing I've written since Sandman, When I finally knew what I was doing, I figured that 95,000 words was the longest that it would turn out to be. I thought that I'd just take a deep breath and be done by March. I actually wrote the last page the following January. It ended up being twice as long as what I had originally envisioned, and at least twice as complicated.
I'd like to talk about some characters in the book. Let's start with Shadow, who could be analyzed on several levels. There is the obvious Christ parallel, with sacrifice, the three days, coming back from the dead and redemption. But there is also the quest of a man to find out who he is. How did you create the character of Shadow? Now, obviously your inspiration was the actor, Stephen Seagal? Sorry, I'm kidding. I can't seem to get past that.
(laughing) Nor can I. You know, I'm very tempted -- and I
|"This entire book is a con game. You asked about the mystery, earlier. It's a mystery novel, because if you're going to write about a con game that's what you're writing about. The joy for me of writing a really good con game is, as I say, is putting the ball under the cup before the reader even realizes there is a ball under a cup. And when the cup gets lifted, the reader thinks, 'Oh my God, how did that ball get under there?'"|
Well, quite frankly, as an author you don't know whether your book has been handed to the literary reviewer or the romance reviewer.
Or perhaps the horror reviewer. No, you really don't know. So you don't know what expectations that reviewer is bringing to the book. But I'm very, very tempted. I really may do the giant review of the reviewers and see what happens. Maybe I'll do a little checklist. For example, #1: Did the Reviewer Understand the Book? There definitely are reviews in which it is clear that the reviewer completely did not understand the book.
(laughing) You are a man who enjoys risk, are you not?
Well, I don't know that I'll do it. I suppose that it really is, on some level, breaking the rules.
Ah, well. It would certainly be entertaining to read.
It would be incredibly entertaining. But it really would breaking all these unwritten rules. One of which is that reviewers get to review in a vacuum. And the only thing that an author can do about is a review is this. The really, really stupid authors get quite huffy about bad reviews and write letters to the editor.
Hmmm. Well you could do like Stephen King does and just mention it in your next book.
Actually, my favorite treatment of bad reviews is James Branch Cabell who, in the back of the 18 volume beautiful, huge collection of all of his works the Biography of Manuel, did a final section detailing what the reviewers said for each of his books. The book reviews go like this. The first 5 or 6 books, the reviews he quotes say something like: "Beautiful illustrations by the artist; such a pity about the words." Then you get to the reviews of Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice and the reviews say: "This a terrible book. It has no redeeming features; it's simply awful; a major misstep." And then every single review for every book he wrote after Jurgen begins, "Well, this isn't Jurgen. Apparently the author has lost the facility with which he wrote that delightful book." So he did put this wonderful parade of the ridiculous things that the reviewers said over time. As I mentioned in the blog, the only final thing that you can say about the reviewers, is this. The same day that the Publisher's Weekly review came in which said, "The road trip plot was completely aimless, but I liked the stuff in Lakeside," the Summer Book Forum book review came in which said, "The roadside stuff is amazing -- the novel only loses focus when you get to the stuff in Lakeside."
Well, that stuff will just make you crazy.
If you actually pay any credence to it, it does make you crazy. So you just kind of smile and think, "Maybe someday I'll review all the reviewers someday." But you probably won't.
So, back to Shadow. How did he evolve?
I actually wrote the entire first chapter in the first person. That was my first try at Shadow. It really felt odd. It didn't
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Well, that's true.
So I thought that I would merely write how events strike a person and how they change him, and I will go from there. The hardest thing with Shadow was figuring out what he was called. Most characters turn up with names. I have so many drafts of fragments which would eventually wind up in American Gods. In every version he has a different name.
He is aptly named. He is a bit of a Shadow. But he's also a mirror, which when held up reveal different facets of the people around him.
Exactly. I got a letter from a friend who was scared that she was upsetting me terribly. She said, "I don't like Shadow. But I loved him when he was pretending to be Mike Ainsel, the con man. I really like that character. Why couldn't he have been him all along?" Isn't that fun? One of the strangest things I found when writing Shadow is that he has no personality unless he's with somebody. At which point he will adopt a personality, or occasionally mirror them. His speech patterns are ever so slightly flexible. People would get very confused. Someone who's in the middle of the book said about Shadow, "But he's just this big, dumb guy." "No, he's not," I say. "He was with big, dumb guys at the time, so he was talking like a big, dumb guy."
There are some lovely little weird moments. I love the moment when he pretends to be Andy Haddock, head of A-1 Security Services, for a couple of paragraphs and he has some wonderful little conversations with various people.
Which brings up another part of the book, which is certainly a part of our culture, and that's the grift, or the classic con game.
Yes. This entire book is a con game. You asked about the mystery, earlier. It's a mystery novel, because if you're going to write about a con game that's what you're writing about. The joy for me of writing a really good con game is, as I say, is putting the ball under the cup before the reader even realizes there is a ball under a cup. And when the cup gets lifted, the reader thinks, "Oh my God, how did that ball get under there?" So I knew from the very beginning that there were grifts involved. I knew that there were con games involved. The hardest part for me was making sure that the book did that cool thing that a really good grift does: if you stopped reading it before it finished, you would not understand what the grift had been. You would think that everything was leading to other places or doing other things. I read dozens and dozens and dozens of books on grifts and cons, but actually there was only one which stayed with me. That was the book which contained the story of the line, "Sure it's crooked, but it's the only game in town." It's called The Big Con by David W. Maurer, and it's back in print. I had always heard that line, but I had never put it into context. The context is this. You have crooked gamblers, people who made their living bilking people in the late 19th century by bilking people in games of faro. In their off-time, they played faro, that's what they liked to do. One of these crooks, was playing a crooked game of faro. His friends called him over and asked him why he was playing this game. "They are cheating you and the game is crooked." And he answered, "Sure it's crooked, but it's the only game in town." Thus we have that line, "It's the only game in town." I loved the idea of the end of the game. At the end of the novel, there is so much that is happening. Is it crooked? end of the novel? Well, sure it's crooked. But it's the only game in town.
Another interesting question that underlies the story is: who is really running the show? Shadow gets to go backstage, but we never see who's pulling the strings until the very end of the novel. To what extent are your own religious beliefs portrayed or hinted at in the book? Were you telling us anything of your own beliefs, or were you just writing the book?
I was really just trying to write the book. I wrote most of the book by hand in a great big leather bound notebook. It's a good way to write. I really wanted to make sure that there was a discontinuity between the first and second drafts. Doing a first draft by hand really helped to do that. I didn't end up with four giant notebooks and then have to type out the novel or anything. Every couple of chapters I would stop and type it out. There was one point where I turned to the back of the book and I wrote that the most important thing about writing a novel is knowing what happened. That for me was the challenge with American Gods. I'm not saying that that would be the way to write every book, but I really wanted to just see what would happen. This is what these characters would do, this is the way it occurred, and every now and then when the book would hiccup or stop, or crash to a halt, it was because that wasn't what happened. I remember at one part of the book I knew the characters would be in Cairo, Illinois, and I was going to meet the Egyptian gods there, and it was going to get very exciting at that point. Shadow had escaped from the spooks at that point, so why not make things exciting? Now this was when it was when it was still a novel kind of like Neverwhere. That was the point where the action quotient was going to bump up. There were murders and kidnappings and god knows what else. I wrote about four pages of this, and then I thought, "This is so much not what happened!" So I stopped. I wasn't feeling like I had made a mistake as a writer, it was just that this wasn't the story. A few weeks later, I thought, "Shadow just works for them. He goes and works for Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis -- they are just funeral directors and he's going to work for them." I wrote what is easily my favorite chapter in the book. It was a lovely chapter to write. It was completely pastoral. In some ways, it's the nearest to a break that Shadow gets in the whole book. He even gets to have sex -- kind of. It's sort of nice, sitting and drinking beer and riding the surf.
It made good sense from a pacing standpoint, too.
It did, because of the way the book worked. If it had gotten terribly exciting at that point, it would have been a much shorter book. It was much more along of the lines of, well, this is what happened next.
It also gives him the semblance of a family life for a while.
Yes. And there were several bits which were written and then thrown out. One of the only bits that went with regret, really with huge regret but it had to go because it just didn't work, and some of the other bits that were thrown out were things that I can reuse somewhere else. They will end up in a short story collection, most likely. When Shadow was on the train where he met somebody who very well might have been Jesus. The scene was written where it was a lot like meeting Steven Spielberg. He meets this man who lives in a gorgeous Spanish-American hacienda type of place. He is sitting in this huge office and he has a baseball cap on. He's a good guy, obviously very, very rich, and he and Shadow are having a very pleasant conversation and drinking wine. I wound up throwing it out not because I was worried about offending anybody - God knows, just look at the book! (laughs)
No, you couldn't possibly have been worried about that!
(laughing) No. Someone who was worried about offending people would certainly not have written American Gods. But it was deleted because it just didn't work. It didn't work in context at that point, and there was nowhere else that I could have put it that it would work. Shadow had had too many cool and interesting dreams anyways. I liked that fact that his dreams follow a plot of their own, and this certainly wasn't in that plot. So I dropped it out. I'll probably stick it up on the website, along with a lovely scene with Isis which never made it into the book. In the scene she explains a theory (which happens to be mine) of how things begin as sacred mysteries, then become myth and then become fairy stories. You can follow a kind of progression. You have the holiest of holies which eventually wind up as children's stories. In this scene, Isis cites this wonderful imaginary example of that. It's a story told in completely magnificent faux phrasure (sort of like The Golden Bough) -- so it sounds very, very real. You have a Goddess and a sacred Queen, you watch how that becomes Snow White, and it was a lovely little sequence. But Isis never made it into the book and there was nowhere that it belonged, so it was cut. That's why I like to write by longhand. That way, good scenes are still there, even if they're crossed out. At least while I can still read my own handwriting.
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