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A Conversation With Neil Gaiman
by Lucy A. Snyder
(conducted February 14, 1999)
Gaiman is a prolific British writer who is perhaps best known as the
mastermind behind the popular and ground-breaking Sandman comics.
His other work in comics include Miracleman, Violent Cases
and Black Orchid. Originally a journalist, he began writing
fiction early on, and his novels include Good Omens (co-written
with Terry Pratchett), Neverwhere (which was
done as a TV movie by BBC), and his recent novel Stardust. For more
information, visit The
Dreaming: The Neil Gaiman Page, The Neil Gaiman Collection,
and The Other Side
of the Sky
How are you feeling today?
I'm feeling very fried ... just yesterday, I finished the 6-week-long, 21-city
Stardust signing tour where I talked with 7,500 people.
No doubt you're quite exhausted.
Yes, this is the completely fried version of Neil that you have here.
How did the Signal To Noise opening go last weekend? [One of his early graphic novels, Signal To Noise, was adapted for stage and played at Chicago's NOWtheater until March 14, 1999. Proceeds from the play went to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.]
Very well, I think, all things considered. It was very interesting going
to see a stage adaptation of something you've written, especially when a
good 50% of the words you're hearing on the stage are not the words you
wrote. It was interesting. I'm really looking forward to going back, if I
can, and seeing it before the end of the run. Because what I saw was essentially
the dress rehearsal, the preview. It was the first time they'd done everything
on the stage with the lighting cues, etc. As it began, the actors were rather
nervous. But it warmed up as it went, and it seems to be getting quite good reviews.
Yes, a friend of mine attended the opening, and she thought very highly of it.
How did this production compare with the production of Violent Cases, which I know was done several years ago?
Oh, there'll be no comparison. I had no input at all into
Violent Cases. With Violent Cases they simply did the graphic novel
on the stage, more or less as a monologue. Which is why when I saw the
first script for Signal To Noise about 18 months ago, my immediate reaction
was, "Well, for Heaven's sake, guys, open it up more, it's not a graphic novel.
Take some of the monologues and make them dialogues, feel free to show more, to do more." And they did.
Do you anticipate that any more of your works will be adapted for theatre?
Oh, I'm sure they will. I'm always getting letters,
saying "Can I turn this into a play, can I turn that into a play?"
Anything solid yet?
You never know how really solid they are until the first night,
you know? Signal To Noise was another one of these. It was every bit as solid as
5 or 6 others that are floating around unproduced right now. And
then there are other ones done in other countries that I simply never get
to see. There was an Edinburgh theatre that did a version of Mr. Punch
recently, and a Portuguese theatre company
did The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish. And I hope they went well, but I have no idea.
I know that the Signal To Noise production was done as a benefit for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. How long have you been working with the CBLDF?
Pretty much ever since I came to America, or very shortly thereafter.
I was just dumbfounded by this wonderful First Amendment thing and how
absolutely great it was. You see, I was coming from a country where that
doesn't exist. I should add here that I am still English, I have no intention
of giving up my citizenship and so forth. But coming from a country that has
no concept of the First Amendment -- you know, most of the rest of the world
has no concept of the First Amendment -- getting out here and seeing that you
guys genuinely have freedom of speech guaranteed was incredible. You don't have
an Obscene Publications Act, you don't have bizarre customs laws, you actually
have the freedom guaranteed. And that's so amazing. But the flip side
of that is my feeling that it's not necessarily something that gets treated as
the amazing thing that it is. Nor is it something that necessarily gets
respected as it should be. And it's very, very, very easy for something like
this to be eroded. And the erosion of individual liberties, the erosion of
freedom of speech is very easy, because people can just decide freedom of
speech simply means freedom of speech they agree with. And comics are a very
easy target for attacks of various kinds. Just look at the kinds of cases the
Fund has been defending over the years. For instance, a California tax authority
decided to reclassify comics from literature to sign painting.
What in the world...?
They did this about 6 years ago. And we had the longest, most expensive
legal fight the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has ever had.
They went after a guy named Paul Mavrides who does the
Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics. They informed him that what he does
is sign painting, not literature, and would be taxed as such. A writer handing
a manuscript into a publisher doesn't have to charge them sales tax, but a
sign painter does. And we fought that case and we won.
Compare that to Mike Diana,
a young man in Pensacola, Florida, who did a fanzine called Boiled Angel which
had his own comics in it. And they [the authorities] decided the comics were
obscene. He wound up getting put in jail for 3 days before getting out. And
in the actual legal case, he was found guilty of obscenity, becoming the first
American artist ever to be found guilty of obscenity. This was about 2 years
ago. And the penalty he got included a 3-year suspended jail sentence, 1,000
hours of community service, a $3,000 fine, a journalistic ethics course at his
own expense and psychiatric counselling at his own expense. And he was not allowed
within 10 feet of anyone under the age of 18, which considering this was a
kid who worked in a convenience store was rather problematic. And to cap it
all, he was forbidden from ever drawing anything that might be considered
obscene again, and the local police were entrusted with the responsibility of
making random, 24-hour spot checks on the place where he lived to make sure he
was not committing art or doodling while on the phone or anything.
My God, that's like something out of 1984... I've heard of child
abusers who haven't gotten that kind of sentence.
Exactly. We tried to take it to the Florida Supreme Court, and lost the
appeal. Then we tried to take it to the US Supreme Court, but they declined
to hear it. And the fact that we lost that case troubles me more than the
good feeling I got from the ones that we won. And the flip side of this is
that no one's heard of this case. So that's what I mean by saying that unless
you're out there manning the parapets on the whole First Amendment business,
they will take it away.
And that's why I've been actively working with the Legal Defense Fund for the
past 6 or 7 years, holding benefits, doing reading tours, donating things
to them. The most recent things are a video of me done by KCTS TV in Seattle
as a part of a pledge drive benefit. And so KCTS gave that to the Legal
Defense Fund. And I've also given them the Babylon 5 script I wrote,
"Day of the Dead." They sell it on their Website and stuff like that. And
that was one of those things that really occurred just because I got e-mail
from lots of people after the episode went out asking if I could send them
or post up the original script. I was going to put the script up on
Compuserve, but Joe Straczynski said "Don't do this, don't put it up, because
if you do, people will download it, print it out, and sell it for $30 or $40 at
conventions as an original Babylon 5 script." So, I thought, "Well, fair enough,
but I want people to be able to see this; why not do it as a Legal Defense Fund
benefit?" So I annotated it, and Joe did an introduction, and people can buy it
at www.cbldf.org. And everybody's happy.
Very good. Speaking of new productions, is there any more news on the
Henson/DiNovi production of Neverwhere?
Everything looks amazingly good right now, but there's many a slip 'twixt
cup and lip. It looks like it's going to be happening at Dimension Films.
If you could (and obviously you can't), how would you cast it? If you were
king for a day, and you could have any actors you wanted, who would you pick?
I'm not going to tell you. 5 or 6 years ago, I would happily have told
an interviewer. I'd burble off and tell you my dream cast. The problem you get
today is you get interviewed, and you talk about your dream cast, and the next
thing you know is you're actually trying to get your dream cast together. And
you're playing a big game of, "Oh, we could take you or leave you" with an actor's
agent, and they say, "Well, according to news.com, my client is the first choice
for this part." And I've actually seen stuff like that happen. And I, normally
the most garrulous of individuals, am having to learn to keep my mouth shut.
Because so many things can be read by so many people. The one that I learned my
lesson on was a conversation that I thought was off the record.
I was having lunch with a reporter some years ago in Atlanta, and he asked who my
top choices for a Sandman movie would be. And the tape recorder is off and we're
just chatting, and I started saying, "Oh, maybe this person, and that person," and
the next thing I know it's syndicated by the New York Times. And it's in all the
papers. And there are some parts that I do have very, very real preferences
for. For instance, I know who my Croup and Vandemar, in a perfect world, would
be, and who they always have been. But I'm afraid you're going to have to
wait. Ask me again after the movie's made, and then I'll tell you.
Well, if you could cast it with only dead actors, who might you cast?
Oh, that's fun. If I could cast it with all dead actors, I'd have Peter
Sellars playing ... an awful lot of the parts! [laughs] Hm ... Oh, that's a nice
one. I dunno, that really moves into dream casting.
You could get the young Brigitte Bardot playing Door, and Alec Guiness playing
anybody Peter Sellars isn't. The young Alec Guiness, not an Obi-Wan Kenobi. And
maybe Louise Brooks playing Hunter. Or anything, really, I don't mind what Louise
Brooks plays; if all she wanted to do was hang around the set and make tea, I'd be there!
How is Good Omens coming along? I know the original treatment got approved some time ago.
Bear in mind that the original treatment was done in 90-91 for a company
called Sovereign Pictures, which then went bankrupt. Terry [Pratchett] and I got
the rights back, and our experiences with Sovereign Pictures did not
lead us to feel that we were particularly desperate to get into it again. So
it just sort of sat there for a while.
And then last year, Peter Samuelson -- they made Charington and Tom and Viv
and the Oscar Wilde film -- having now made 3 movies about
late Victorian/early Edwardian artists out on the sexual fringes, they figured
they were the perfect people to make a funny film about an 11-year-old
Antichrist. And we figured they were, too! Last thing I heard from them was
that they'd gotten the perfect director to do it. And your next question is,
"So who is the perfect director?" and again, I can't tell you. But I believe
that the deal is being finalized. But you're just going to have to take my
word for it; this is the perfect director.
Obviously, you're always working on a great many projects all at once, and
in an earlier interview, you likened it to juggling a whole bunch of
chainsaws. How do you keep your chainsaws all up in the air? How do
you keep the different parts of your work in balance, and your work as a
whole in balance with your family life?
Well, stumbling off a 6-week tour, not only am I 6 weeks behind in work
that I had to do before the tour, but more significantly I now have 4 major
projects I didn't have when I set out on the tour. One of which is going back
and doing the last draft of the Neverwhere script. And another of which
is doing a Stardust movie. I'm just sort of keeping my fingers crossed
that 1999 is not the year that Neil drops an awful lot of chainsaws all over
himself. And then you see little fingers wiggling... bits of blood and flesh
everywhere and me saying "I'm sorry!" a lot. Normally, I can get just
about everything to work because I love working on different things at the same
time. I like multi-tasking. And I like having the equivalent of a story
or a script in the background. So if I get stuck on the big thing I'm supposed
to be doing, I can go work on the little thing. And that's always a delight for
me. And what I'm getting right now is a certain amount of fear... I've got one
book that's 3/4-finished but should've been finished by December, one novel
that has to get written by the end of the year, two movie scripts, at least one
pilot episode for a TV series, and if the TV series is a "go", several more scripts.
What will the TV series be about? I know you probably can't talk about it in great detail.
Right. I can't talk about it in great detail, but it will essentially be
a fantasy series. And it would be done with Imagine Television, which does
Felicity and Sports Night and things like that. They came to me, and I put
together an outline, which they really liked, and then they asked for a beat
sheet for the pilot episode, which I have done for them.
And they said they really liked that, and I was sort of foolishly and
optimistically hoping to get the pilot episode written while I was on tour.
It's probably a good thing that I didn't wind up committing to that, because
it wouldn't have happened. On previous signing tours, I've gotten on
aeroplanes and got to work. On this signing tour, I've gotten on aeroplanes
and fallen asleep. It's been fairly murderous. Wonderful, though, and the
sheer number of people I got to sign for was great fun.
As was the feeling that I was getting away with something. I mean, here am I,
doing a signing tour, and in every story I went to, I was either the biggest
signing they'd ever had or easily in the top 3. And yet, on the other
hand, I'm still one of those people who people ask, "Well, what do you
do?" "I'm a writer." -- and they always sort of say the polite thing to writers
you've never heard of, like "Oh, well, what name do you write under?" I get
to be breaking records on the one hand, and on the other I still have this
incredible amount of privacy. Except perhaps in Toronto, where things got
very, very strange. Fans were actually coming up to me on the street and
stuff. But normally I have the most amazing amount of privacy.
So what did happen in Toronto?
Oh, Toronto was fun. We did lots and lots of interviews. Did you ever
run across a TV show called Prisoners of Gravity? It was a lovely show
that ran in Toronto on City TV for years. It was fundamentally about literary
SF and featured interviews with SF people. And they'd do a show on dreams,
and another on memory, etc. and I did many, many of them. And because it was
very popular in Toronto, and because I kept winning all the "Favourite Guest"
awards and things like that, Toronto is one of the few places in the world
where I have face recognition. They actually know what I look like. So I'll
be standing in a record shop, and a kid will come over and sort of do that
Home Alone thing, you know, hands on both sides of the face, jaw dropping,
and he'll ask "Are you Neil Gaiman?" But I'm relieved that that doesn't happen
anywhere else in the world. It's one of the reasons why I tend to say "no"
to doing TV interviews. I'll do it with specific projects, but I've always
said "no" to the Letterman kind of thing. I value my privacy, and I don't
want to be a celebrity. I want to be a writer. If I wanted to be a
celebrity, I'd have become an actor.
Going back to writing, I know that you'd mentioned at the signing in
Dayton that you wrote Stardust in longhand with a pen. How do the
tools you use affect your mental processes?
Oh, enormously! Normally I write on computer. And when you write on
computer -- for me, anyway -- it's a little bit like working in clay. You
put down a blob of the kind of thing that you mean, and you work with it.
I find computers lovely for getting rid of writer's block, because what you
put down is so impermanent; if you don't like it, you can immediately change
it or just delete it.
Whereas if you're writing with a fountain pen, you actually have to think
about what you're doing. It's a different kind of process. Part of writing
Stardust for me was wanting to write the kind of book they wrote in
the 20s, before there was a fantasy genre. I didn't want it to be a genre
novel. I wanted it to be a fairy tale for adults. So I liked the idea of the
pen as opposed to the computer from that perspective. But also, I liked the
fact that you write differently. You don't put down your blob of clay and
then work it into shape; what you do is you think about it, and then you put
it down. And also, of course, you end up with a very real discontinuity
between your first and second drafts. I wanted that; I very much knew that
with Stardust I wanted a first draft and a second draft as opposed to
a rolling and improving first draft.
With a computer, what you end up with is a really, really good first
draft. Or an ever-improving first draft. But there's never a discontinuity
between the drafts. There's never a point at which you finish the story in
the first draft, and a few days later you take a deep breath and started to
type it out and change it as you go.
That was one of the things I noticed when I was editing
The Sandman: Book of Dreams. We were getting a lot of short stories
which read like 3,000-word short stories. They had all the rhythms of
3,000-word short stories. Five, ten, fifteen years ago, they would have been
3,000-word short stories. And yet they were 5,000 words, or 9,000 words.
They just sort of bloated. Because when you have a choice on a computer of
writing one or two things, you just write both of them into a single story.
Speaking of computers, considering you've done so much work in so many
different media, do you have anything on your plate involving digital interactive media?
Well, what happens -- and it's happened enough times that it seems
almost inevitable -- is that a digital interactive company will come to me
and say, "We would like to do X." And I say, "That sounds terrific, that
would be really fun." We go away, we sign a contract. I put in 3 or 4 months
of work on the thing over a period of about a year and a half, and at the point
where everything seems to be coming together, the finances of the company in
question completely fall apart. Despite whatever track record they have, they're
just sort of belly-up. If you're lucky, you get a nice letter from them before
they go. And it's happened many times now, so I tend to regard the whole
interactive world as a rather transient one.
I'm much less keen these days to throw myself into the wonderful wacky world of
interactive stuff, just because I've lost so much time over the years to really,
really cool and interesting interactive projects that never really happened
because the economic pipeline and distribution still don't quite work. There
was a point a couple of years ago where you had something like 1,000 CD-ROMs
being released each month, and enough shelf space in the places that sold them
to cope with about 14 new things each month, if that. And there were things
that simply weren't even getting to shelves. One of the companies that I was
doing a lot of work with was InScape, who did the wonderful Edgar Allan Poe
"Dark Eye" project. They were real people. And one day their financing got
cut off, and that was it.
Having said that, I've just agreed to work on a Sony PlayStation
Neverwhere game. So we'll see what happens with that.
How's your new children's book, Coraline, going?
Oh, I think it's going fairly well. It should've been done by now.
Unfortunately, the trouble with the way this year's been going, it didn't
quite get finished by December, and that meant that I haven't touched it
since the end of December because I've been doing Stardust promotions
ever since then. Since December I've managed to get one whole short story
written for the World Horror Convention program booklet. But I'm really
looking forward to getting back to Coraline. Currently I have a
small girl just about to be locked into a closet with four other children,
each of whom died about 400 years apart. And they need her to get
their souls back for them. And I've been feeling very, very guilty, because
they've been hanging around in this closet now for about 9, 10 weeks, and
it's my fault they can't get on with things.
You've mentioned that in your head you see this book being illustrated
by Edward Gorey. Is that a feasible reality that Gorey might illustrate it?
I don't know, to be honest. Mr. Gorey is a very elderly gentleman, and
I believe very picky about the projects he takes on. Let's see what happens
after I finish it. He's certainly the first person I'd ask. And if he doesn't
do it, I still want strange, spooky little black-and-white illustrations of
little children who somehow look both more and less innocent than they actually are.
I think that answers all my questions ... thank you very much for taking time out of your day to talk with me.
It was my pleasure.