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.'"
couldn't have started it ten years ago because I didn't live in America. The joy of American Gods for me is saying, "Let's take some ideas, and work with them. I have something that I want to tell you." One of the most perceptive reviews was from a lady I know who said that when she went to live in Australia that it was two or three years before she realized that there was a whole world underneath that she didn't see because she thought she knew Australia. And that when she moved to America, more or less the same thing happened. She thought that she knew America because of the media, but it took her a while to realize that there's so much going on and it's so different than what she originally thought. For me, I couldn't have written American Gods. I could have written something like American Gods, but it wouldn't have been as true.

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 sureā€¦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
Cover of Preludes and Nocturnes: Sandman Book 1 by
Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg, and
Malcolm Jones III
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why they are doing signings. They actually don't understand what a signing is for. I'll tell you what a signing is for, because someone may read this who runs a store and it will be good for them to know this. A signing has three purposes, and they are (in this order): 1) To bring people into your store and to let them know that your store exists (this is the most important purpose, by the way); 2) to reward long-time customers. Make people who visit your store feel happy and so forth; and 3) to sell books. You must do all of those things. Stores that try to do it in reverse order, who mainly try to sell books, are going to have problems. Stores who only concentrate on rewarding their faithful clientele, again, are going to have problems. The most important thing they should be trying to do is bringing people into the store and giving them a nice experience while they are there. Too many stores organize signings as if they are some kind of huge bother, treat the people that turn up as problematic cattle, and then wonder why that of the 400+ people came into the store, not one of them ever comes back again to buy a book. Their memory of the store is that it was a real pain. One of the things I try to persuade stores to do is to hand out numbers. Not like a deli counter, but like in the airport: "Now signing everyone from numbers 1-150." That means that the people with the later numbers can go get something to eat, or walk around your store and buy other things. If you're trying to keep everybody in one long line where they can't move around your store, you'll never sell anything else to them, and by the time they get to the front of the line four hours later, they're miserable. They just seem so much happier if they can go off to dinner, then come back and get in line later.

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.
"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.
It's a big deal.

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."
I don't think he enjoyed the process. It's interesting, I'm a sort of midway writer. I've worked with people like Terry Pratchett and Kim Newman, who are the kind of people who might have to be locked in a hotel room for a week in order to stop them from writing a novel. But Douglas wasn't like that. I don't know how long he was working on his latest book, The Salmon of Doubt, for example. Was it like 10 years or so? I have to say, I was hugely saddened when I heard that they are going to go through his laptop and try to make a novel out of what they find. They won't get anyone to write filler bits, but they are going to try to put together a novel from what he has. I think, "But he didn't want it published. If he had, he would have submitted it for publication. Why do it? No, please don't do that. Let it go. Collect his essays, collect the stuff that he was ready for people to see, but don't do that." I don't think that it does anybody a service to publish a book that you know isn't ready to go out. On the other hand, and I think this is true of everything, up to and including me and American Gods, I could still be writing American Gods. I could have written a novel the size of The Stand. Very, very easily with this kind of material.

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?

Photo of Neil Gaiman
Coraline will come out sometime next year, in 2002. It's a very strange book. What tends to happen is that children read it as an adventure story and adults read it as a horror story. This is said without any braggadocio. Adults who read it say, "Oh, my God. This is too scary for kids." I mean, it gave me nightmares. Kids don't have those problems. Because kids are quite sure that our heroine will come through the story unscathed. Whereas, adults know the things that could be happening and worry much more. I'm very proud of it. It's being published by Bloomsbury in England and HarperCollins in the U.S. It will be published in some kind of crossover format. Who knows? Maybe when it comes out in paperback, it will come out in two completely different editions.

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
Cover of Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
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treat anything that happens in Hollywood seriously. The money is always nice though. I spent three days last week working on a poem for an anthology on the Green Man. I was asked to contribute a poem to this anthology. I wrote a poem, which at one point was five pages long. By the time it was finished, I had cut it down to about sixteen lines. I was very proud of it, and it had gone through several transformations. At one point it was a sestina, at one point it was a sort of John Benjamin kind of thing. Finally it ended up as a weird little iambic thing that worked and had a really haunting little ending. It was about three days' work to produce this one little poem, for which I will probably be paid about $15. If it's picked up as a best of the year, I might get another $20 out of it. I look at Hollywood as the entity which subsidizes my being able to spend three days working on this one little poem. (laughing) Which is really a puzzling and bemusing kind of thing. My weblog will probably end at the end of the signing tour. But I might do another one for a movie or something, though.

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.'"
at a Booksigning." For me, the most important thing for people to remember at a signing to meet a favorite author is: don't worry. It will be fine. The hardest thing, and the thing that is actually painful, is seeing people who have been in line for three or four hours who have worked themselves into a state of genuine worry and fear about "What do I say?" They get to the front of the line and worry, "Will I say something stupid?" And then they say something silly, and they look so chagrined. When I look up at them, I ask, "Who would you like this signed for?" and they say, "Me." And I say, "Do you have a name?" and they say, "Yes! I certainly do!" "What is it?" I ask. "Alfred. No wait! It's Albert. OH MY GOD." So I sign it to Albert. And I know they're thinking, "Oh, my God. He thinks I'm the biggest idiot he's ever seen at a signing. I wanted to meet my hero or say thank you and he must think I'm an idiot. Things are ruined forever now." All I'm REALLY thinking is, "I wish people wouldn't worry. It's fine." They aren't the first person to say, "Me!" when asked their name, or even to forget their name altogether, or the first person to have rehearsed in their heads something they wanted to say so many times, and by the time they get to the front of the line it comes out all garbled. All these things happen. I never think, "Oh, he's an idiot." Never. The people that come to my signings are good people. They are nice people. and I am so grateful to them for reading my books and wanting to come see me. The Stardust tour was like 31 huge signings over 29 cities, and it was quite hellish. I remember from that tour only one guy who was a bit of a prick at one signing. Because of the crowd, we had a three item rule, and he had six or seven items he wanted signed. So I signed about five of them, because it was easier to sign a couple of extra things than to argue with him. And then I said, "You know what? This is really not fair, there are so many people behind you. Let's stop at five, shall we? That way everyone will get his book signed. You've already gotten more than anyone else, ok?" And he made a fuss, and complained to the management and was generally quite obnoxious. My point is that among the 10,000 or so people who came to signings during that tour, only one person was a bit of a prick. That leaves us with 9,999 lovely people. I would say that I have now signed for over 200,000 people, maybe more. Because I've been doing this a long time with very, very large crowds and it adds up to a lot of people. In all of that time, I can remember one crazy person, one creepy person and that guy. I think I'm doing incredibly well, that's a great record I think. I have such nice fans. I am just very grateful to them.

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!"
Photo of Neil Gaiman
Neil as a young boy.
And then passes it on to a good friend and says, "You will love this. Read this." The other thing that I'd love is for it to be one of those books that doesn't go away. There are some books that are always just sort of there. They're always in the bookstores. They never have to be bestsellers or anything like that. I'd love for it to still be around, 5 years from now, 10 years from now, maybe 15 years from now. I'd like American Gods to be one of those. Just one of those books that is out there, and if you go into a second hand bookstore you will see copies which have been read to death and their covers are all bent out of shape from being read so much. That would make me very happy.

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