Interview With Neil Gaiman (Part Two)by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, July 2001 American Gods has the feel of a book written by someone who has experienced quite a bit of life and still finds a sense of wonder in creation. Is this the kind of book you could have even started ten years ago?
It would have been a different book. Well, actually, I guess I
|"There has to come a point where you take a deep breath and say, 'It's good enough for jazz.' Perfection is not given to us. Perfection is not something that we get as an option. There comes a point where, as a writer, you have to say, 'You know what? This as is good as it gets. Any more and you face the law of diminishing returns. Maybe I'll get it right next time.'"|
What about from a technical standpoint? How do you feel that you've grown as a writer?
I'm very proud of the book. I'm not sure…but I think that I could have started a novel like this ten years ago, but I probably wouldn't have finished it. If I had started a book this complex ten years ago, I would have gotten four chapters in and said, "Oh, fuck it. What am I thinking?" This time, every four days, I thought. "Oh, fuck it. What am I thinking of??" but I kept going. The strangest moment for me in American Gods -- and this is something that only a writer could understand and probably not even all writers would understand -- was this (which had never really happened to me before except once in a short story). I wrote a first draft and it didn't work. It had much of American Gods in it, but the ending went wonky. I hadn't quite figured out for myself where the book was going. I had written the story, but there were details of the grift that I hadn't quite figured out and it didn't quite come together. And it felt odd. This was at the beginning of October. I then went off on a reading tour, took some deep breaths, and round about November I rolled up my sleeves and wrote another 16,000 words, then chopped it down to 5,000 words or so. Still it was all down to Chapter 18: what actually happened? We'd been building up to the storm, we'd been building up to the battle, what happens then? I took the novel and typed and assembled and cut and pasted some Chapter 18s that I had written. One night I had this thing that wasn't a novel, and next morning I started typing and trying to assemble it together. All the material had now been written, but now I was shaping it. About 4 o'clock in the afternoon, I looked up and realized that the novel was done. It was there. It was real. Chapter 18 worked, which meant that the whole of the book worked.
Was there a lot of editing?
Yes, after it was done I did a great deal of editing. At its longest, it was over 200,000 words. Now it's about 186,000 words. I think my editor would have loved me to cut another 10,000 - 15,000 words. She sent me back a version of the manuscript, with many of the pages with lines completely through them (laughing). Her notes said, "Do we really need this?" So sometimes I'd cut it out. What I tended to cut out at the end of the day was what they refer to in Hollywood as "shoe leather." Shoe leather is things like showing people walking away from a scene, after the scene is done. Coming in and going out of doors, that kind of thing. I lost a lot of that stuff. But there were also places where she said, "We really don't need this." For example, the scene on the Indian reservation. She would say, "You've just done this scene with Whisky Jack, that's lovely, but why don't we now cut to the next exciting thing, perhaps. Why are you doing this whole thing of having Shadow go down to the reservation, going to the pool hall, and watching the pool game, getting this old car that doesn't run. You could summarize all of that in a sentence." If we'd done that, we'd have saved ourselves five pages. I looked at the scene and thought, "Well, I could do that. But if I take Whiskey Jack out of context, then he'd just be another magic Indian. We've had magic old wise Indians in book after book, and film after film, and the whole point of him is that I didn't want him to be that. I wanted him to be something else. He is a Native American who helps put the South Dakota Native American experience into context. The Ocala Sioux reservations are, quite literally, some of the poorest places in the country. I'm not even banging any kind of social drum here. I'm just saying we need this stuff to occur to give this context. The title of the book is American Gods, and it's about both things. It's about the Gods and it's also about America. If you cut scenes so that it's just about the Gods, then you lose the context, and these characters suddenly become superheroes, which is what I really did not want to happen.
It's interesting where in America the book takes us. This is solidly middle and lower-middle American. Shadow is certainly not touring the country clubs and debutante balls across the land. Were you trying to get to the common man's experience? Because it's more real, perhaps?
Yes. I think that it was much more fun to stick the characters into aging cars and having them driving places. There are moments at the beginning of the book where Shadow makes his first big speech. He demands $500 a week from Wednesday. The reader is thinking, "Shadow, you know that's not really a lot of money any more, put in context." (laughing) But that's all he's going to ask for.
You took a risk here with Shadow, in terms of his appeal, which I thought was quite interesting. He's a criminal, in jail when we first meet him. I kept waiting for him to explain that he was wrongly accused, but he never did. He did it, although he does wish now that he hadn't.
It was very odd, because you can -- with a careful reading -- figure out everything that happened that sent him to prison, although there's never a big scene that explains it explicitly. You have to just pick it all up, little bits here, little bits there, as to why he was in prison in the first place. It was an odd thing to do, because I assumed I would have a big flashback scene where the reader finally says, "Aha, this is what happened." But it wasn't really part of the book, so I left it out. What's interesting about that is the two accounts that we get -- or is it three -- all differ very slightly. Mr. Town's account is certainly not Shadow's account of what happened. (laughs)
Shadow is haunted throughout the book by his dead wife. But she's not the most likeable of characters.
Yes. She's such a lovely character. It was very interesting writing her. As I was writing the book, there were editors agents and various other people reading it as I went along, who -- until the end -- were very puzzled as to why he was with her. They all asked me, "What is Shadow doing with that awful woman? Why is he with her? I don't like her. She's manipulative and deceitful." So it was fun writing the sequences at the end of the book where -- all of the sudden -- you feel sorry for her. I'm still not entirely clear about how big a part that Shadow's wife Laura actually played in the events which sent him to jail. I think she was very much running the show.
So you're heading off on a long tour for American Gods. What have you learned from years of touring? Are there any rules for yourself? Any indispensable items you never travel without?
Well, you'll laugh at this. The most indispensable item that I always take with me is a little pillow. My own pillow. It's not a very big one. It's a little buckwheat seed pillow and it's marvelous. Bear in mind that I've done every kind of signing that one can do. I've signed books, comics, and even people. I've had the signings where you sit in an empty store for three hours with nobody there. In Holland, I came in for a signing at a bookstore. The guy who was supposed to promote it and organize it had terrible experiences with authors. The last two authors who were to come in had backed out on him at the last minute, which was quite embarrassing for him. He was convinced that I wouldn't show up at all. So he hadn't done anything at all to tell people that I would be doing an appearance. In fact, he seemed quite taken aback when I actually showed up. So for three hours I just sat there in an empty store. It was very weird.
I've done everything from the kind of signings where you have 12 people, and you have an hour to kill so everybody gets five minutes. I've had signings where it's 10:45pm, the store is going to close at 11 pm and you still have 300 people to get through. The worst thing is that you get back to your hotel so late, and then you have to get up so early the next day, because you have to go somewhere else. So you take along your favorite pillow. I also take my laptop. I wear only black, so I never worry about matching socks. What have I learned? (laughing) To post your underwear home.
You must have an understanding wife!
Yes. I may wind up doing it on this trip because I don't think I'm at any hotel long enough to get laundry done. There comes a point where I am sending gifts and things home, and so I use the underwear, socks and t-shirts as padding and send it off Fed Ex. You're not getting clean underwear, you're not getting laundry done, so you have to improvise, because there is no time. It's a bit scary. This particular tour, I think I am actually in San Francisco for two days, so I think joyfully, "I can get laundry done there!" What else have I learned? Bring pens.
I've also learned that many stores do not understand
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I understand your son recently graduated from high school and left for college. You are quite young to have a son in college. How did his graduation affect you? Did it feel like a milestone in any way for you? How did you feel about that?
I was merely puzzled by the whole thing, actually. I had this conversation with my mother the other day.
"I got this graduation announcement the other day. What exactly does that mean?" she asked me.It's a big deal.
"Well, in America, as far as I can tell, it means that you are supposed to send him a check -- it's kind of a bill, really," I replied.
"Really, dear, why?" she asked.
I said, "Well, they've graduated."
"They don't really wear caps and gowns, do they?"
"Oh, yes they do," I said.
"But this is high school, is it not? I mean, they are basically celebrating the fact of their breathing through the last five years or so? I mean it's not like university or anything is it? What is the significance of this?"
"Honestly, mum, I just don't know. I have no idea." I replied.
I know that it's a big deal, only because people have told me that it's a big deal. I watched it happening. Not only was it a big deal, it was interminable. It's all very strange and quite interesting. He had a huge graduating class. But it didn't have that scary "milestone" quality that taking a short road trip back in April did. We went on a trip to look at colleges who had accepted him to decide which one he would be attending. Now that was scary -- it had "milestone" written all over it.
I'm sure you'll miss him when he goes.
I will really miss him when he goes. Even apart from the fact that he is the one who set up the house's computer network and is the only person who understands it. I've told him to try to set up a webpage where I can reach him in case anything goes terribly wrong. I shall send urgent messages along the lines of "Mike, what do I do now???" (laughing)
I'd like to turn to a sad subject. We recently lost a great author in Douglas Adams. What are some of your memories of Douglas Adams?
First of all, how incredibly tall he was.
That's what Terry Pratchett said when I interviewed him last year! He kept telling me how amazingly tall he was.
Well he was incredibly tall. And incredibly baffled. Not baffled in the kind of Simon Jones or Arthur Dent way, though: "I'm English and I'm truly baffled." Douglas was a combination of bafflement and bemusement, not really quite understanding how it had all happened. Which was always kind of fun. It made him very, very charming. He was a brilliant man. Completely brilliant. I've only known maybe three geniuses in my life. And then there are smart blokes who can do things very well. I would put myself in the "smart blokes who can do things very well" category. I put Terry Pratchett in that category. He's probably the funniest writer alive. But I wouldn't classify Terry as a genius, if that makes any sense. Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Black Adder and so on, is one of the sweetest guys and a most amazing screenwriter. He's a smart bloke who knows what he's doing, and does it with craftsmanship. Not a genius, though. Douglas was a genius. He saw things from a very specific perspective, which was his alone. He could describe things in terms that made you surprised that you'd never seen them that way, but once you have seen them that way, it became the way you had to see it forever. If Douglas had a tragedy it was that I don't think that he really was a writer. He wasn't a novelist. Despite the fact that he made his fortune from novels.
He had trouble with deadlines, did he not?
He had trouble with deadlines in the same way that the planet Jupiter is bigger than a duck. But that wasn't it. It was much more the fact that he didn't enjoy writing. He didn't enjoy writing books. He wrote Hitchiker's with Simon Brett first, then with Geoffrey Perkins, working incredibly hard to get scripts out of him. At one point he had to collaborate with John Lloyd in order to keep writing. He took the stuff that he'd written as radio scripts and turned them into novels. And the novels did well. Certainly, Douglas was a bestselling novelist.
His fans certainly wish he had written more novels.
I think everybody wishes he had written more novels.
|"I've only known maybe three geniuses in my life. And then there are smart blokes who can do things very well. I would put myself in the 'smart blokes who can do things very well' category. I put Terry Pratchett in that category. He's probably the funniest writer alive. ...Douglas Adams was a genius."|
Do you think your journalistic training has helped you to reign yourself in when you have to?
No. I think, well maybe to some extent. I missed by deadline on American Gods by one year. I just didn't miss it by ten years. There has to come a point where you take a deep breath and say, "It's good enough for jazz." Perfection is not given to us. Perfection is not something that we get as an option. There comes a point where, as a writer, you have to say, "You know what? This as is good as it gets. Any more and you face the law of diminishing returns. Maybe I'll get it right next time." You take a deep breath and you write the end, or you do your final edit and say third draft -- it's good. That's enough. I'm not messing with it any more.
But back to the comment about him not being a writer. He was a writer. He just wasn't a novelist. I don't think he was a natural novelist. He wound up a novelist through strange, default means. He started out being a radio writer and he ended up as a bestselling novelist. I think he was something else. I think maybe it's something that doesn't exist yet. Maybe in fifty years' time, there will be people with jobs like "Explainer." Maybe, like his own Slartibartfast, he was a world designer. Maybe there was something else where you would finally say, "Ah, this is what he was." And I could see Douglas looking up and saying, "This is what I've been waiting for my whole life," and suddenly doing that. I think it's a terrible shame that he left us before that happened.
He was extraordinarily kind, as well. I met him when I was a 23 year old journalist, and he was incredibly kind to me and did interviews and stuff. Then I was given a commission to write a Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy Companion which was a book that someone else had been hired to write, but they had never done it. The publisher said to me, You've interviewed Douglas, can you do this? And I said sure. Douglas was incredibly sweet, letting me have the run of his filing cabinets (laughing) saying, "There you go; have at it!" There were old shoe boxes full of information and old scripts and what have you. So I sat there going through it. He was a very kind man. Very kind indeed. Douglas will be greatly missed. He will be enormously missed.
What projects are you working on now? What's next? There's no rest you know. We all must know what's next.
What's next? Hmmm. Well, the next novel, Coraline, was actually handed in to my publisher last May, say 14 months ago. It was a book which I began in 1990. It was meant to be an entertainment for my then-youngest daughter, Holly, who would have been about 6 or 7. The idea was that it was a book that I was writing in my own time. I ran out of the concept of my own time, though. I looked up and realized that I had another daughter who was then five, and that if I didn't finish it soon, she would be too old for it by the time it was done. So I sent the manuscript off to Jennifer Hershey, my wonderful editor at HarperCollins, and said "Jen, read this." She did and said, "It's marvelous. What happens next?" And I said, "If you give me a contract, I will tell you." So she gave me a contract. And I'd write a bit of it every evening. I actually wound up with a notebook by my bed and every night before bed, I'd try to write five to ten lines. That is a very, very strange way to write a book.
You don't write on the computer much, lately, do you?
Well, I write the weblog on the computer.
I remember for Stardust you said you had a special pen and wrote it entirely in longhand.
Yes, Stardust was a special project. Generally, anything script-wise I input directly into the computer. I like computers for writing scripts. I like writing dialogue. I love using screenwriting software for that. I write short stories sometimes on the computer and sometimes by hand. I like the process of writing by hand, for prose. For me as a writer, a lot of the process is fooling myself into writing. When I started writing, it was so much easier to write on the computer because I wasn't making paper dirty. Now, after nearly a decade of writing on the computer, I realize that for me, if I'm just writing on paper it's not real. It becomes real once it actually hits the keyboard. So it's the process of trying to trick myself.
So Coraline will be out next year? And it's a children's title?
I'm working on lots of film projects. What I should be doing today is working on The Ramayana, an animated feature for DreamWorks. Meanwhile, I've been waiting on various scripts which have been handed in to various places to find out what the next move is.
I still find it very difficult to
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The joy for me is that of getting to take people backstage. People can get a fairly clear point of view of what is actually happening backstage, which was a metaphor that I used in American Gods which seemed very applicable here and to the journal as well. You get to come backstage and watch things that you never see like the process of getting blurbs. It was fun.
Everyone who thinks he wants to be a writer needs to read the weblog archives first, in my opinion.
Yes, absolutely. You will have to put up with my occasional meanderings, like on the rhubarb, for example, in order to get to the stuff about writing and publishing. There are things in there like the essays on copyediting, on blurbs, things like that where you are trying to explain to people how it works, what actually goes on. It will be very interesting writing it, during whatever time I get, probably while I am on airplanes doing the little blogs on what happened at each signing.
One of my essays was "The Eleven Things to Remember
|"Really what I'd like with American Gods is for it to be the kind of book where somebody finishes it and says, 'Oh my God, so-and-so has to read this!' And then passes it on to a good friend and says, 'You will love this. Read this.'"|
What reaction to your book by a reader would make you really happy?
The thing I'd like most is for people to want to read it again. Not as a chore. Not as a sort of, "Oh no, I really must go read that again." But as a "Oh, that's so cool. I want to go back and see how he did that." Somebody asked me the other week, it was my doctor actually, oddly enough he is a family friend and a writer in his own right, very nice man. He asked me, "What do you really want from this book? What are your goals?" Which I hadn't thought about. "Do you want to be on the bestseller lists? What are you actually after?" It's important to the publishers that the books make the bestseller lists, of course. But in terms of how my sales patterns work, Neverwhere didn't hit any bestseller lists. But I've probably sold more copies of Neverwhere than the average New York Times bestseller. They come out and they sell all their books in the first few weeks and that's it. Whereas, Neverwhere sells the same number of copies every month. My sales patterns tend to be perennial sellers.
Really what I'd like with American Gods is for it to be the kind of book where somebody finishes it and says, "Oh my God, so-and-so has to read this!"
Neil as a young boy.
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