The Hot Seat: Neil Gaiman
The British author draws on punk rock and Twitter for his inspiration.
Mon Jun 13 2011
Illustration: Dan Park
RECOMMENDED: Full list of Hot Seat interviews
You are very prolific. I imagine you holed up in a dark room with a laptop, chain-smoking clove cigarettes and emerging only to change your black T-shirt.
That's definitely how it was, except they were never clove cigarettes. Sandman was all written late at night in a cloud of cigarette smoke with tea and coffee being poured into me. I'm in an interesting world right now in which I've become significantly less prolific since I got married [to the Dresden Dolls' Amanda Palmer] and fell in love. I'm having to figure out how to get back to being prolific without being an entity that sits in the dark.
Have you revisited your book American Gods in anticipation of the tenth-anniversary release, and do you have any new thoughts about the world you created?
I've had to come back to it a few times over the last six months. Two things were happening at the same time. The first thing was preparing the text for this version: I did the completely mad thing of going down into the basement and finding the various galley proofs of American Gods, and then finding my original manuscripts and going through everything, page by page. Occasionally, winding up obsessing over each comma. But I was really proud to go back there. At the same time, coming almost out of the blue is the prospect of doing an HBO TV series of American Gods. That meant revisiting the text, but it also meant, for both versions of it, having to reread it and have a think about it, thinking—I'd always figured, probably ten years after American Gods, I should probably do the next book in the sequence. And while I haven't actually started writing it, I'm beginning to do that thing where I put together a box of stuff, and I'm going, Now this is something that will go into American Gods 2.
If I looked in the box, would I get a sense of what American Gods 2 is going to be about?
I suspect there are two kinds of novelists. Those who have a point of view and have something to say and then write a novel in order to say that thing, and those of us who write the book in order to find out what we think about that thing. For me, American Gods was a way of making sense of America the first time, and I think if I go back and do American Gods 2, that will be my way of making sense of what America has become, post 9/11 and post post 9/11, a peculiar world in which some things have changed, some things are fragmenting and some things have normalized. You have the smartphone generation with incredibly short attention spans. The Twitter generation. And a world of immediacy. I'm fascinated by the nature of immediacy. All of that stuff is going in there. Probably along with Bigfoot.
Do you feel your presence on social media is an extension of this need to write to figure something out? You have a large Twitter and blog following, and often tap your fans for their reactions to things before they're published.
It's true. You know, things like that can be incredibly useful sometimes. And actually, I learned how to give a pill to a large, grumpy German shepherd who doesn't like to swallow pills through Twitter. I love the immediacy of Twitter. It was fun on the day that the Rapture didn't happen. The night before, I thought, you know, "Waiting for the End of the World," by Elvis Costello, would be on my Rapture playlist. I typed "'Waiting for the End of the World,' by Elvis Costello #myraptureplaylist" and a few people made some great suggestions for a few songs that would be on their Rapture playlists. I retweeted them, and I went to bed. I get up the next morning and #myraptureplaylist is a worldwide trending topic and continues to trend for the next 24 hours. Associated Press did an article on why the Rapture didn't happen and talked about my Rapture playlist. I thought that was so much fun! I got to do a cool thing that got people happy all over the world. Most of them have no idea where it came from, but because I've got 1.6 million people following me, I can toss something out in the air and it gets picked up and does its little thing. That made me happy.
A lot of people want to write, and there are a lot of visionaries out there, but very few writers are able to keep the pace that you do. Do you often take a week and go off the grid to recharge?
Going off the grid is always good, for me. It's the way that I've started books and finished books and gotten myself out of deadline dooms and things. I used to be somebody who did his best work at night. And would wake up about midday, faff around until about 9 o'clock at night and then crank up, and then, you know, 1 o'clock in the morning I'm really buzzing. There's this weirdness of looking around and going: I'm not that person anymore. Now I can't actually count on being able to do great work at night. Probably what I'll do is fall asleep. But the main thing, with all of this, is writing stuff that excites you, writing stuff that interests you, writing stuff that gets you happy.
How does it feel to be a goth hero and touchstone?
Very, very odd! But it's always so odd! I mean, I was a goth icon before there were many goths around. I was just somebody writing a comic. [Sandman] started in 1988, and around 1993 I started looking around and going, this is very odd; there are people saying that this is a goth comic, but I haven't seen any goths in the signing lines yet. And then right around 1995, I started seeing the goths in the signing lines. People would start saying, how does it feel to be a goth icon? And I'd go, I don't know! [Laughs] I still don't know how it feels to be a goth icon. What I like about all the different sorts of variants of being famous that I am is, mostly, they're all fun and in different places. So I guess I get to be a goth icon. But somebody was telling me about mentioning they knew me to a class of 14-, 15-year-old girls, who all got really excited because this is the guy who wrote Coraline, and Coraline is their favorite book. So I get to be a hero for 12-to-14-year-old girls because I'm the bloke who wrote Coraline. There's this whole other world that I've been experiencing over the last couple of years of being Amanda Palmer's other half. Which I actually really like. When it works well, it means that nobody's looking at me at all. I get to be the boyfriend and now the husband, and she gets to be the famous one, which is so much more fun. I'm English, and get self-conscious.
Have you found much inspiration in Amanda's music and storytelling? You collaborated on Nighty Night, an album you recorded in one day with OK Go's Damian Kulash and Ben folds.
The problem with both of us is figuring out time, and when to do things and how to get time together. We were looking at this weird little two-week period coming up at the beginning of November, and we came up with this mad idea and wrote a letter to a booking agent saying, how would you feel if we did an Evening with Neil and Amanda? And we'd just hire a car and drive up and down the coast and stop at little theaters every evening? [Laughs] That's the kind of thing where, you go, well, really, it's just an excuse to spend ten days together without either of us feeling guilty that we're not working because we're both workaholics. So this way we get to do something odd that we've never done before, and we get to do it together. But we're definitely looking at doing 8in8 again. Because Damian and Ben and Amanda and I had absolutely as much fun as you could possibly have in a 24-hour period. And we like the songs! We figure that if we do it again, maybe do it twice, and by the end of that we'd have about, probably 18 songs, and be able to pick the best ones and put together an entire album.
You just wrote an episode of Doctor Who for the BBC, which was very positively received. Are you planning to write more?
I would love to. The biggest problem with doing 11 drafts of a Dr. Who script is while you're doing 11 drafts of a Dr. Who script, you're not doing other things. So there's definitely a level at which I know that I couldn't afford to do nothing but Doctor Who. [Laughs] But I'd love to do another one. I'm definitely now starting to think about 2013, two years from now, is Sandman's 25th anniversary. And we're looking at end of 2013, and I'm going, I think writing my first Sandman comic for a decade would be really fun. For all the books and all the things I've done, people are saying, oh, is there going to be a sequel to the Graveyard Book? Is there going to be a sequel to Stardust? To Neverwhere? And there's me sitting, going, there's one of me! There's only one of me. And I hope so. I would love to write more Doctor Who, and I hope they let me. Because the episode was so wildly received, we're looking at seeing if it's going to be possible for me to do a novelization of my episode. I loved the entire process.
Sandman is a series that has and continues to introduce many girls and women to the world of comic books. Is that something you're proud of in particular?
Yeah! The point that I realized that was happening was about year two or year three, and I'd be going to places like the San Diego comic book convention. Fat, unwashed gentlemen in stained T-shirts would come up to me and extend their hands in gratitude and say, "Let me shake your hand! You brought women into my store." And there was a part of me that always wanted to go, "If you sweep it, they'll come back!" What was great about Sandman was you had a comic that guys would hand to their girlfriends and say, "Look, read this." And the girlfriends would read it and say, "Have you got any more?" When the relationship would collapse, the girls would take the Sandmans, and they would hand them to their next boyfriend or their next girlfriend. Slowly, they became this, like, sexually transmitted thing. Sandman spread. I was incredibly proud of that. It had always seemed to me, just peculiar, that half the human race didn't read comics. I was writing a comic for everybody, trying to keep a gender balance of the characters and trying to write something that wasn't the preadolescent male power fantasy.
Did you ever expect to get involved in so many different types of writing? Not just novels, but short stories, comics, plays, TV shows... Are you more comfortable with one or the other?
I guess I always expected to do this, and I think that's kind of a failing in me in a lot of ways. I have friends who are novelists, and I'm not a novelist. I have friends who are short-story writers, and I'm not a short-story writer. I have friends who are screenwriters, and I'm not a screenwriter. They know the thing they want to do, and they do it, and they do it brilliantly. With me, I just feel like a kid who got locked in a candy store, one of the really old-fashioned kinds of candy stores in which the candy comes in jars, and you've been locked in there overnight. At 9 o'clock in the morning, somebody's going to come in and open the store, and right now I just want to get my hands in as many jars as I can before they unlock the place. That's always been my thing. I want to write a play. I'd like to do an original musical. I should probably put together a poetry collection. Just because, you know, you only have so many hours before somebody opens the door in the morning.
You once said that your biggest influence, for your writing, was punk rock—the idea that you could do something just by doing it.
It still is. You have to be willing to make mistakes, and you have to be willing to make mistakes in public. Sometimes the best way to learn something is by doing it wrong and looking at what you did. When I was 15 going on 16, punk rock, the idea of here's a chord, here's another, here's one more chord, now form a band, is one that sort of always stayed with me. I remember recruiting the drummer in my punk band because he used to hit things. And he used to hit me! [Laughs] I thought, If he's really good at hitting me, he's obviously got a lot of aggression. I sort of sidled over to this guy, who later became my best friend. Up until this point, he had been somebody who punched me on the way to class. And I said, you want to be a drummer? He said, oh yeah I want to be a drummer. So I said, cool. I'm starting a punk band. He said, great! We'll start it in my parent's garage. It still seems to be the smartest, most glorious way to do anything: You do it. People who want to be writers say, what should I do? And you say, write! [Laughs] And they'll say, then what? And you say, well, finish things! And they say, well, then what? Well, write something else. That's how you do it. If you do it over and over, sooner or later you're going to be writing stuff that's publishable. And if you keep doing it, you'll probably get fairly good. You have, you know, a million lousy words inside you, and you've got to get them out. I think there's something very real and very true in that. How do you do it? You do it. Look at other people. Learn everything you can from everywhere. The most important thing is to do it.
Neil Gaiman speaks with Lev Grossman at the 92nd Street Y Tue 21. See This Week in New York. American Gods is out Tue 21.