Neil Gaiman has had such an expansive and celebrated career that The A.V. Club assembled a Primer on his work last year; he’s touched on media from comics (most notably with the long-running, much-celebrated Sandman series) to television (with the BBC series Neverwhere) to film (with the book adaptation Stardust) to prose stories and novels. His most ambitious, celebrated, and controversial novel to date, American Gods, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and the news recently broke that HBO was planning on adapting the book as a series, with a six-year funding commitment from Tom Hanks’ Playtone Productions. (The critical and popular success of the George R.R. Martin fantasy-series adaptation A Game Of Thrones may have something to do with HBO’s interest.) The A.V. Club recently checked in with Gaiman to see what he can say about the series (which won’t debut until 2013 at the earliest), how he thinks it’ll differ from the book, and when exactly the robot uprising will take place.
The A.V. Club: How firm a commitment is the American Gods HBO series at this point?
Neil Gaiman: Well, the truth is, it shouldn’t really have been something… There are people in Hollywood in the mailroom—junior lawyers, assistants, and stuff like that—who make money now at $100 a pop or whatever by tipping off websites about things that are going on. Which never used to be the case, because nobody was really interested enough. They were interested in the doings of stars, that was where you got your tip-off money. But nobody would have been tipped off about a TV series in development or whatever. Now, that’s all changed. And there are enough people who are interested, and enough websites where you can… People find stuff out. Which meant that approximately two weeks after it was agreed, you know, we had the meeting with HBO and they said, “Yes, we want to do this.” All that had happened was, the giant contract machine started to roll in, and we started talking and everybody started arguing deals, and what have you. Then suddenly, a fairly full description of what was planned—with a few little errors, but a fairly full description of what was going on and who was doing it—turned up online.
AVC: You’ve given interviews, though, as far as your plans to adapt your novel as the first season, then expand into new stories over the following seasons.
NG: It got to the point where it was kind of silly, because I couldn’t deny it was a project, because it was true. But right now, we’re, I think, about a week away from the final deal-making being done. And at that point, as soon as the final deal-making has been done, then the thing begins. All I can talk about right now is incredibly general. And I shouldn’t really be able to talk about that, except that so much stuff leaked. And because it leaked, then people were asked questions. And because people were asked questions, they’ve answered. Like Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks is basically involved in this because it’s his company [producing the series]. Normally, just because it’s your company doesn’t mean you’re meant to be incredibly personally on top of a project. He’s been out promoting Larry Crowne, and everybody’s been, “So, Tom. American Gods?” And bless him, he’s now said, “This is my summer reading,” which makes a lot of sense. So the overall, plan is, yeah, first season would be the book. And after that, we’ll see.
AVC: If the show does continue for the six seasons Hanks’ company says it’ll fund, how much involvement would you want to maintain? How much control would you want over where it goes?
NG: A fair amount, but not all of it. Because I think part of the joy about series television is that it is kind of organic. Some of the best TV over the years has wound up growing its supporting cast, much in the same way that Sandman did in comics. You do this thing where you bring somebody on for a bit part, and then you go, “That really, really worked. I have to bring them back.” And I think that’s one of the cool, magical things of TV.
There is a giant American Gods story that goes a lot further than the novel. The novel, in my head, was always just the opening blast of the trumpet. The direction will always be the direction of that planned story. But what actually happens inside that, that remains to be seen. How’s that? I feel like a politician! Because I’m giving you answers which are incredibly general, because, honestly, it’s way too early.
What am I concerned about right now with American Gods? I’m concerned about working with the director and getting a pilot script that we’re both really happy with. And getting that pilot script shot, and getting that to work. And if anything after that, I’m concerned about getting the shape of the first season right. And in terms of what would be happening in season five, do I know? Yeah, I guess I kind of do. I’m not gonna say in any kind of interview. No, obviously not. It’s so far down the road. With Sandman, people asked, “When you set out, were you planning this enormous thing?” And I said, “Well, when I set out, what I was really worried about was not being cancelled.” You know, I thought if I could make it through the first year without being cancelled, that would be an amazing thing, and I would be hugely pleased. So with American Gods, what I want to do right now is hope that we can get a really, really good pilot episode done. And that we get the casting right. And that we get the script right. And I know we have an amazing director, and I know we have HBO’s full support, and I know we have a terrific production company. So it’s getting the other stuff done.
AVC: When the book came out 10 years ago, you were often asked, “What was the impetus to write it? Where did it come from?” And the answer you generally gave was that you were trying to figure out America, after moving here and finding it wasn’t what you expected from TV and movies. With another decade in America under your belt, do you think your impression of it has changed? Is that going to be reflected in the adapted version?
NG: I don’t think it would change anything in the first season, in the first book. But I think the second book of American Gods is definitely the one I want to write where I try to figure out more of what’s happened to America in the intervening decade. And also, I’ll get in some of the stuff I simply couldn’t get into the first book. There was this point where I had to grumpily face up to the fact that it was an enormous book. And I’d got as far as I was being allowed to go by my publisher. Just in terms of how many words they wanted to publish in a book by a still relatively unknown author who had no particular bestseller-list clout at that point.
You know, Neverwhere and Stardust sold okay, but neither of them had been on the bestseller lists. Neither of them had set the world afire. They’d just come out and sold very, very, very steadily. I would very, very happily have written a half-million-word American Gods. It would have been over twice the length. It would have meant that I would have been writing for another 18 months. And it would have meant that my publishers would have been waiting for another 18 months. And it would have meant that I would’ve given them a book that was little over twice as long as anything they were prepared to publish. So even the book I originally handed them was too long for them to publish. Which was why it got sort of edited down. So there’s so much stuff that I never got in there. And some of that, I think, is good, because it winds up informing things around the edges. You certainly get the feeling reading American Gods, I hope, that there’s more story than the person telling you has put in there. There’s stuff happening around the edges. And there’s things that simply aren’t explained, because I really did mean to explain them, but they never got their chapter or whatever. The second book, there’s a lot of interesting places one can go.
AVC: You also said, at the time, that you had a feeling that the science-fiction fans would see American Gods as science fiction, fantasy fans would see it as fantasy, horror fans would see it as horror, and you were hoping that mainstream readers would see it as literature, which does seem to have happened. Is that happy coincidence, or is that something that went into the writing? Having not had a bestseller, were you setting out to write one?
NG: No, I definitely didn’t set out to write a bestseller, ’cause I don’t really know what a bestseller is. But I was very willing to take advantage of the fact that I knew this was going to be published as a bestseller. And “bestseller” can be a publishing category as much as it can be anything else. It means that the book is going to be on certain shelves, pushed a certain way. Back then, it mattered. I don’t honestly know that it matters anymore. The whole shape of bookselling has changed. Back then, it meant that your publisher would pay for your book to be on the table by the door when you went into a Barnes & Noble or a Borders. There would be those tables, and the publisher is paying for it to be stacked on those tables, rather than back in a particular area. So I knew that because I was being published as a bestseller, I could be a lot more cavalier with my genre distinctions. And I hoped that people who would like it would find it. And I think eventually they did.
I had huge hopes when it was published that different bunches of people would find it and like it. I’m not sure that the science-fiction people actually—I mean, they gave it a Hugo [Award] and a Nebula, but I’m not sure most of them saw it as solidly as science fiction as I did. On the other hand, the fantasy people liked it and loved it, the horror people liked it and loved it, and the mainstream literature people liked it and loved it. Except, of course, for the ones who didn’t. Which was something that I really hadn’t expected when I was writing it. ’Cause I’d been writing professionally and selling stuff for well over 15 years. And generally speaking, the response to things I wrote was, either people really liked them or they didn’t really read them. So Neverwhere would come out, and most people who read it would like it. And the people who didn’t like it, pressed on by friends or whatever, would go, “Eh. It’s okay. Not really my kind of book.” And that was as bad as it got. With American Gods, I found myself having written this peculiarly divisive book. I really hadn’t expected the idea that it had a solid audience of people who really didn’t like it for one reason or another, and who were incredibly vocal and articulate about why they didn’t like it.
And normally, why they didn’t like it amounted to, “I would have done this. I would have done it this way.” It was something I had to think about last year when it was picked as the first book for “One Book, One Twitter,” which was a Twitter-y book club. And they said, “How do you feel about this?” And I said, “Well, I’d feel so much more comfortable if it was something like The Graveyard Book. You know, you go to Amazon.com and you discover that 75 to 80 percent of the reviewers gave [Graveyard Book] a four- or five-star review, and then a few people gave it a three, and a few people gave it a two, and maybe three people gave it a one. And that’s the shape of things. With American Gods, it looks like a little curve. You have an awful lot of four- or five-star reviews, but one in five people gave it a two- or one-star, found it incredibly wrong or upsetting or whatever. I never thought that would happen as I was writing it. It certainly wasn’t anything I set out to do. And I don’t really know why that happened.
AVC: You just came back from a huge American Gods 10th-anniversary book tour, and you’ve got the pilot for the adaptation to work on. You have your Journey To The West adaptation project, your Terry Pratchett collaboration Good Omens is being adapted into a TV series, The Graveyard Book is theoretically being adapted to film, you’re working on a musical with Stephin Merritt. How do you balance all these things?
NG: You don’t. It’s like being a plate-spinner on one of those old TV shows that they never show anymore, where people would spin plates. Which, it seems to me, could possibly the lowest form of entertainment, plate-spinning. But they’d run from plate to spinning plate. It’s kind of like that, except for the occasional smashing crockery on the floor, as you’d turn around and suddenly a plate that you’d forgotten about smashes down. But I don’t know, I cope okay. Part of it is I have really good people. I have my assistant Lorraine, who guards my time fiercely. I have my agents, who do the same. I have the same agents—my film agent for 15 years, my literary agent for 23. So they guard my time. They put up with my madness. And then there are things that seem like they might be time-sinks that really aren’t. Good Omens is something other people are doing. Terry Pratchett and I get to read outlines and have input. We get to sign off, and then I get to have Skype meetings with people. But the book exists. It is what it is. It is well-loved. And they went out and found Terry Jones, who definitely has a Good Omens-y sensibility. And he’s working away on it.
AVC: We asked you this last time we spoke, as well: If you didn’t have any of these things on your schedule—if you had no commitments, no time restrictions, nothing—what would you be working on right now?
NG: If I had no commitments at all, I would be pushing the Grand Guignol musical with Stephin Merritt way forward, I think. Because that’s stuff I’ve never done, and I really wouldn’t want to live without. That one, more than any of them, is exciting to me because it’s completely new territory.
AVC: You recently forwarded me a video from the 92nd Street Y talk with Lev Grossman, which ended with somebody asking you if robots are going to take over the world. And you said, “No. Definitively, categorically, they will not.” You reassured him specifically as a bestselling author. What makes you so confident? Do you have some kind of inside information?
NG: No, I was lying! Actually, everybody knows that robots are gonna take over the world. But I figured, if you’re the kind of person who is worried about robots taking over the world, and you’re the kind of person who goes to a bestselling author for reassurance, the best thing a bestselling author can do is reassure you. So I reassured him as best I could. But obviously, it’s all a lie. Robots will be taking over. Actually, on Wednesday. So it will be the Wednesday after this interview comes out.