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Writer Neil Gaiman is best known as the creator of the Sandman series of graphic novels, which helped launch DC Comics' Vertigo line and established Gaiman as one of the most innovative and thoughtful writers in the field of contemporary fantasy. His most recent works include Smoke And Mirrors, a collection of short stories; The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, a children's book illustrated by Dave McKean; and the modern fairy tale and novel Stardust, which was recently published by Avon Books. Gaiman recently took a break from his national book-signing schedule for Stardust to speak with The Onion about fame, America, and London's sewers, and to confess to just making all that stuff up.
The Onion: So, how's it going?
Neil Gaiman: Well, it's sheer madness, of course, doing a signing tour at this time of year. I was really looking forward to it, a giant countrywide tour, going to the Arizonas and the Floridas and the Texases, all the nice warm places. So of course I'm signing in the Pittsburghs and the St. Louises and the Madisons. Plus a couple of days in L.A. and a couple of days here in San Francisco in the fog and the wet.
O: So you normally enjoy signing tours?
NG: "Enjoy" is the wrong word. It's... There are bits of it that I really enjoy. I love doing the readings. The readings are the fun bits... The readings are probably the things that actually keep me going on these. If I couldn't do the readings, I wouldn't do the tours. I get to stand up there and read to a bunch of adults who in many cases nobody's read to in years, since they were about five. They just squat on the floor. That's enormously enjoyable. The actual physical process of signing lost its romance for me about 12 years ago. Occasionally, you get little moments of triumph. I keep being told on this signing tour, "Oh, you've set a new record! The largest signing before you was..." I don't know, Martha Stewart or something. It's rather nice, but it's also really exhausting. There is no romance to it. And I thought there was, once, before I was an author. Then, if you told me, you know, "Hey! You'll get to do a 21-city tour of America, and do 30 signings over six weeks," I'd have thought, "How glorious! Travel and hotels and things." Only it's not particularly glorious. And you stumble into those hotels at midnight and set the alarm for six o'clock the next morning to make the next plane out, and so on. So it's like everything Once you actually get what you want, you don't really want it any more.
O: Many authors I've spoken to have seemed to enjoy being famous but not really recognized. Then book tours come along and sort of ruin all that.
NG: Well, you still don't get recognized, really. The amount of people who've seen you is so small. I love being... Well, no, fame I can take or leave, really. I'm probably slightly more famous than I've been comfortable with. Famous enough to have my phone calls returned is about as famous as I want to be. But even so... You sign for perhaps 10,000 people on a book tour. That's not really all that many people. More people would see you if you were on an infomercial at four o'clock in the morning. So in any real terms, I'm not famous. The little ugly kid who played Bud Bundy [David Faustino] is much more famous than I am.
O: Didn't you move somewhere in the Midwest in order to avoid your fans?
NG: What? No! [Laughs.] No, not at all, really.
O: Really? Your press information led me to believe so. In almost as many words, actually.
NG: How peculiar! Yes, I saw something in there about how incredibly... Well, it's odd: Some newspaper has inferred from that press release that I refuse to divulge my age. They've taken some line about how I'm in my late 30s and had a whole thing about it. How can it be that I don't divulge my age when I write "born in 1960" at the beginning of everything? So I don't know. The reason I moved to America is very, very simple: I have a nice American wife, and we have three very nice English-slash-American children, and it was time for that side of the family to get a crack at the kids. Mary's mother was getting on in years, and they'd all moved from relatively sunny Los Angeles back to the old ancestral stomping ground of Minneapolis. So we were looking to join that. Plus, I told my wife that I'd really like an Addams Family house. You can't get them in England! You can get real Tudor houses built by real Tudors in Tudor times, but one thing you can't get is a proper, honest-to-goodness Addams Family house. I wanted Victorian Gothic. I wanted proper creepy. I wanted a tower. So I set out to find one and found one immediately. That's another wonderful thing about America. They throw all those things out! And they look so cool. They really are wonderful American Gothic houses. Creepy! Every year, we get in supplies of Halloween candy and put out a stack of comics. And every year, we put away the candy and the stack of comics because no kids actually dare come up to our house. Just never turn up.
O: You're touring to support your new novel Stardust, which was published first as a sort of comic book...
NG: As a serialized illustrated narrative. Basically, DC had left me the rights for all the words. I don't think they thought they were worth very much. But it began... Well, the history is actually kind of fun. Here we are in 1999, and I'm on the road promoting a book which, much to my delight, is actually lurching its way onto bestseller lists, which Neverwhere did in hardback a tiny little bit. But Stardust is just galloping out there and making friends like a large and affectionate dog. Bouncing up the bestseller lists. Never done that before. And it began in 1991, actually, when we won the World Fantasy Award. That night, I found Charlie Vess, the artist, and we talked about the next thing we could do. Originally, it was going to be a comic, and then about a year later Charles called me up and said, "How would you like to do it as prose?" I said it sounded good, but why? And he said, "I hate the idea of drawing the next panel. I'm very tired of just drawing the next panel. I want to try something where I get to go on to the next painting." And I said okay. So we put together a big presentation for publishers at the World Fantasy Convention in 1993. All of the big ones were there, and we did this pitch, this presentation, of Stardust with illustrations and lovely original paintings, and we said, "This is what it'll be: a big, illustrated, beautiful book." And we waited for the big pile-on when the auction started. And nobody bid at all! They all said that they were scared and troubled by the fact of all those pictures. They couldn't cope with it. And DC Comics said, "We are not scared or troubled by pictures! We've been doing pictures for ages!" So we negotiated a deal with them. But not for the print rightsI got a whole prose novel because DC didn't think anybody would really read one! And when I finally finished it, I sent the manuscript to my editor at Avon and told her, "Here's something I think you'll really enjoy reading." I hadn't really thought it through beyond that. And I got this phone call from her saying, "I love it! I really want to publish it, and I've given it to the publisher, but there's only one problem: He hates fantasy." So the next morning the phone rings, it's the publisher, and he says, "First, I hate fantasy. Second, I love Stardust. We're publishing it, and we're launching Spike Books with it." And I said, "Okay. What's Spike Books?" He says, "Spike Books is our pop-culture line!" I said, "Okay. Why is a fairy tale set in Victorian England pop culture?" And he says, "Because you wrote it!" So I discovered at that point that, merely by existing, I am pop culture.
O: Why, congratulations!
NG: Thank you so much. I'm so proud. So I got to launch the Spike line along with a biography of Keith Moon [Moon: The Life And Death Of A Rock Legend]. Which I desperately want, actually. Hopefully, now that I'm a member of the Spike family, they'll slip me a free copy. So, that's the Stardust story. I had to do some little noodly rewrites that always happen before a manuscript is allowed to actually be finished, and we published it. I didn't really expect anything. The point when I started to go, "Hang on, this is really weird and different; they're awed with this one," was the point where, over a two-week period, Booklist, Kirkus, and Publisher's Weekly all gave it a starred review. "Oh," I thought, "this is really weird." Since then, we've been getting reviews in of the kind that normally you couldn't actually get by kidnapping the reviewers' children, and which are lovely. People are saying, "Look! It's a fairy tale!" There hasn't really been a fairy tale for adults since The Princess Bride, and that was some 20 years ago or so. And I've done something that people like. Not that I've never done anything that people like before, but my stuff is done for me, always with myself as the audience. And I didn't really expect Stardust to do what it's done. All of a sudden, okay, great! I've written a book that lots of people like. Which is good, because the next thing I write, they probably won't. That's going to be much more problematic, because it's full of gods, zombies, and blow jobs. It's going to be my big weird American novel.
O: In the Lolita sense of a big weird American novel, or more of the Travels With Charley sense?
NG: It has a working title of American Gods. I've been vaguely working on it while I've been on the road, along with some short stories. It's about how, when people came to America, they brought their gods with them. And then they just weren't very interested in them anymore. So these gods are now wandering America, unemployed, unloved, depressed. Odin pumping gas, that sort of thing. A beautiful Babylonian love goddess, hooking. It's using gods in the clash between old gods and the new gods of the telephone, the Internet, the freeway... It uses them as a metaphor for the way people arrived in America, treated America, and have or do not have beliefs in America. The nature of belief, American beliefs. It seemed like time to write something about America. It's a really peculiar country, in case you hadn't noticed. I don't know how much I've learned about it, but everything that I have learned will go in. Oddly enough, everything about the book came into focus for me when I had to go to Scandinavia. I was in Iceland. It was much in the way of how I've been living here and writing books about England such as Neverwhere and Stardust. I may wind up staying in Ireland to write the American book to keep America in my head.
O: How is the book structured? I only ask because, you know, most novels about America are road novels. It's the sheer size of the place, I suppose.
NG: A lot of this will be a road novel. There are places I need to go, a number of places I need to see. There will definitely be some L.A. stuff. I'm definitely, definitely doing some Wisconsin stuff. It'll be Weird Wisconsin. I don't know if it's a tradition in all Wisconsin towns, but I have seen it in two or three, where they'll drive cars out on the frozen lake and wait for the first thaw day to see them crash through, and that's their lottery... Wisconsin is one of those places that isn't there yet. It isn't that inexplicable funny New Jersey place, where people think it's funny without knowing why. It's sort of... People from sitcoms are from there. Of course the nice people are from there. And it's the only place in the world with The House On The Rock. Which is America; it's Americaland. It exists for the purpose of existing. I've been there with the kids trying to understand it, and it's not meant to be understood. It's a Zen creation. There are amazing antique things next to bad recreations. It's an artificially created Grandma's house that goes on forever, and whenever it occurs to them that it doesn't go on forever enough, they put up a giant new addition. America. There's definitely going to be some Rockies, definitely some New Orleans, and it'll be starting and finishing somewhere really weird and dull. Like Pittsburgh, which seemed weird and disturbing the last time I was there about 1989.
O: Are you going to do much about the American South?
NG: Probably not. I may nip into Florida, because I know Florida a little bit, but I don't feel I know the South well enough to write about it. I've never really been a believer in the whole write-what-you-know thing, but I think you're much better off writing on what you at least know something about. I write specifically about places I've been, and less specifically about places I haven't. I can actually write pretty convincingly about places I haven't been. If I'd never been to the South at all, maybe I could write really good South. Knowing that I don't have it in my head, though, I'll probably stay out of the South. Or maybe I'll go on one of those novelist's expeditions. I've never done one. Maybe I ought to. I'd get to go out and research. The most [research] I ever did was with Neverwhere, when we were filming that for the BBC. Once I'd actually written the TV script, before it was filmed, I got to go on all of the location expeditions under London, in the subway and in the sewers. I got to put on big Wellington boots and walk through the sewers. You see, the power of television is such that all kinds of places the public cannot go can be reached simply by saying you're looking for somewhere to film. Then you're allowed to go. So there were three of us wandering through the sewers and then wandering through the deep sewers and the under-sewers, and at one point you're wandering around up to your waist in human sludge. The thing about London's sewers is that they're really a magnificent feat of engineering. They were all done in the 1860s following the Great Stink. You see, originally, all the sewers just fed straight into the Thames. They all just ran north or south, basically. This was fine until one day it all became a bit much for the Thames. In 1859, people fled London, Parliament closed down, and they had to hang carbolic drapes over the windows and such. At that point, finally, they built a new sewage system. The new system runs west to east, and it was marvelous wandering around in there. It's all hand-built of brick. They're like brick cathedrals. Most of them are not unpleasant at all. Just water running through, the old rivers of London. The Fleet River is entirely underground now, and I'm one of the few people who have ever seen it. I remember asking the old sewerman, who let us down in, what the big misconceptions were. He said, "Well, people think they stink, and they don't stink. And they think there's all sorts of shit down there all the time and there isn't. Third, they think there's all sorts of rats down there, and you hardly ever see a rat." And I'm mentally revising all the stuff I've done for the book about these stinking, rat-filled, shit-covered sewers. So, yes, I actually have done some research. Maybe for American Gods I'll go to bars and strip joints and stuff like that.
O: Do you know yet when you're expecting to have it published?
NG: End of the year. Right now I'm still working stuff out, putting stuff together, jotting stuff down. Probably what will happen is sometime around August, I'll look at how much I have, figure out how much there ought to be, and then hole up and write like a madman.
O: It sounds as if you're slowly becoming more of a prose writer. Do you have any plans to go back to comics?
NG: Well, I'm not doing that much in comics right now. I suppose what I feel is that I got fairly good at writing comics. I learned my craft. There was a period of eight or nine years where I was pretty much a comic-book writer. And I got pretty good at it. On the other hand, when I was writing Sandman, there were other things I wanted to do, as well, most of which I couldn't at the time. Good Omens, which I co-wrote with Terry Pratchett, was done in 1989, when it was taking me two weeks a month to write Sandman. So there was plenty of free time, you see. And I wanted to write more proseI wanted to do television and film, and I wanted to write a playbut there was no spare time. Most of what I've been doing since I finished Sandman are things I couldn't do back then, like putting Neverwhere on as a BBC TV series, which I learned a lot from, or my Babylon 5 episode, which showed me that you could actually get something close to what you wanted on the TV screen. And these are things that I'm not yetat least it's my beliefterribly good at. I have not yet written a novel I was satisfied with. Stardust is the nearest I've gotten: I was much more satisfied with that than I was with Neverwhere, with which I was really not terribly happy. It was a good start. I'm hoping, with the next one, that I can really get it right. I'm looking forward to doing another TV series now, because I think I've learned enough to make one I'm happy with. Doing film. It was good doing the Princess Mononoke script. It's all very different than writing comics. They're different media, comics being a collection of static images which, I think, have a lot more in common with prose than with film. It creates effects that are much closer to prose. With film, the thing is moving the whole time. People are actually doing things all the time, actually talking. You have to be less obsessive about your baby. You can't have something you think is perfect, absolutely what you want: You have to know that, no, it's only a blueprint. I just want to make things up, really. All my life, I've felt that I was getting away with something because I was just making things up and writing them down, and that one day there would be a knock, and a man with a clipboard would be standing there and say, "It says here you've just been making things up all these years. Now it's time to go off and work in a bank." Because my grandmother or whoever would always warn me, as they always warn children, "Don't make things up! You know what happens to little boys who make things up!" But they never tell you what happens. As far as I can tell, it involves being able to spend a lot of time at home, plus a bit of international travel, and staying in nice hotels, and lots of very nice people who want you to sign things for them. So.