Interview with Neil Gaiman, June 27, 1997.
David Roel: How's the tour going thus far for you?
Neil Gaiman: (Laughs) Well, it's fine, I mean, it's... you know, you turn up at a new city each day, you do a reading which I enjoy, you do a question-and-answer which I enjoy, and then you spend anywhere between two and five hours signing things for people. The fans are lovely, and I love meeting them, and I love, you know, getting to say hi, and they give you presents and so on and so forth, and that's all fun...
DR: Well, if nobody's done it, I would personally like to welcome you here to California.
NG: Thank you. This is California?
DR: You've been here before. Do you like California?
NG: Yes, I like California enormously. I have this theory, though, that the weather gets bad whenever I leave, I'm sure it can't be this good all the time. But I've been really enjoying it--it's fun answering questions for people, which is something I decided to do just to give myself something more to do on signing tours. Because the last signing tour I did with Dave McKean was in 1994, when we signed a book called Mr. Punch, and it was an enormous signing tour, and it went on for ages and ages and ages and ages and ages. And by the end of it, we were completely fried, and I swore I would never do another signing tour.
DR: I remember you saying that, that's why I was curious about this Neverwhere tour. Did they force you into this, or anything like that?
NG: No, but I decided to try and do it differently. That was one reason why I decided to do readings at every stop, and question-and-answers at every stop, because at least it gives me something to do, otherwise, I feel like... I wind up feeling like some kind of strange fraud: you just turn up somewhere and you sign--people put books in front of you, and you sign and they say thank you or they give you little presents. I thought if I'm actually at least getting out there and doing readings, I'm doing something. And it's fun answering the questions. Some of them are the same questions at every stop, and some of them are new questions.
DR: I think you'd have an interesting perspective on this: I know one of your favorite writers is Jonathan Carroll, and I remember reading an interview with him... If you look at Jonathan Carroll's bios, they're very brief, it just says he lives in Vienna, and his other books, and that's it. One of his comments was there comes a point where the audience is buying the guy, rather than the work. I think you might have some interesting perspectives on that comment.
NG: I think that's very true. I think that ... I sometimes wonder how much they're buying the guy, how much they're buying the work... Except that, I suppose I don't mind it because it gets the work read. I mean, the joy of it for me is that people read the books and find out the stories.
DR: Ah, but is it read with a somewhat more lax critical eye? If Neverwhere came out as just by Joe Anybody, would it get the same amount of uncritical praise?
NG: I don't think that you get uncritical praise, I think, if anything, people hold you to a higher standard. It's much, much easier to come out with a first novel from nowhere, than it is if you have some kind of public persona, reputation, and four gazillion awards hanging on your wall; people don't just lie down and roll over at everything you've done, they actually give you a much harder time for it.
DR: So what problems have you with Pink Floyd?
NG: I like the early Syd Barrett stuff, right at the beginning. Occassionally one hears strange Syd Barrett stories of, last seen shambling nudely across the street, or something... I suppose that I was very much a child of my time. I think it's interesting that David Gilmour and Floyd generally hate Bowie, because I think at the time, at least in England in my day, we divided up into the ones who liked Floyd and the ones who like Bowie, and I fell into the Bowie camp, and stumbled from there into punk. These days it'slike arguing about two obscure religious sects from the dark ages; "Well, what exactly was the difference between the pre-nomials and the anti-nomians..." By the time I was sixteen, I was a little punk with shades, red hair, and leather jackets and dog collars and trying to teach myself how to spit. And at that age, the last thing one would ever want to listen to was Pink Floyd. They weren't just boring old farts, they were the boring old farts. They had transcended boring old farthood.
DR: I don't listen to them anymore, but I just liked them for their ambition, I just thought they were doing something that at least didn't insult your intelligence.
NG: I wouldn't argue with that at all. The fascinating thing for me was actually going to the Pink Floyd concert, and suddenly getting an idea of what it must have been like to have attended Hitlerian candlelight rallies. Eighty thousand people chanting in unison...
DR: What do you think of Tom Waits?
NG: I love Tom Waits, I think he's wonderful. I just got this bizarre, marvelous album by a lady named Holly Cole, about whom I know nothing other than she's doing these amazing Tom Waits covers.
DR: The Holly Cole Trio, that's the Temptation album.
NG: Oh, it's marvelous. Who else am I into right now? Heavily into John Cale right now, listening to an awful lot of John Cale...
DR: But what did get you onto the Alice Cooper thing?
NG: The Alice thing really began one day when my phone rang, about five or six years ago, and I answered the phone and a voice said "Hey, Neil, this is Bob Feiffer from Sony Records and we have an artist who wants to do a concept album. And I said, "And?" And he said, "Well, he wants to know if you have a concept." And I thought this has got to be some kind of joke. And I couldn't think of anyone on Sony apart from Michael Jackson and Barbara Streisand and I didn't really want to work with either of them. I said, "Who are we talking about here?" and he said "Alice Cooper." I thought about it for a moment... I loved the idea of Alice Cooper, Alice is a comic book character, Alice isn't real. Alice has become one of these sort of strange, horror icons. So I was interested, so they flew me out to meet with Alice in Phoenix, and had a terrific chat, and I liked him, and we wound up going away and doing The Last Temptation album together. I came up with a plot, Alice then wrote the songs, I did a comic, and it did amazingly well all over the world, except in America, where they couldn't quite figure out how to release it or when to release it or anything. But it was great fun and it got amazing reviews, saying it was Alice's best album in fifteen, twenty years, and I felt perfectly happy with it. And it was my first-ever involvement in a concept album. So that was the story of the Alice Cooper thing.
DR: How did Neverwhere come about?
NG: Neverwhere began 'round about the same time, actually, when I was talking to an english actor named Lenny Henry, and Lenny mentioned that he'd started his own film company, and wanted to do some kind of story about "the tribes of London," that was his only idea, the homeless tribes in London. And I thought about that, and I said, I have this idea of this kind of "magic city" novel, this idea of this place where you fall through the cracks. And I went away and wrote a script, and after awhile the BBC commisioned more scripts, and eventually I wrote the whole story. The fun thing with the BBC is that you're not doing a series that will run forever; the idea is you'll do something with a beggining, a middle and an end. So I wrote it, the BBC started to film it, and really, on the day of filming, I decided it was time to start writing the novel, mainly because I really wanted the power of "because I say so." Which is something that writersuddenly loses as soon as somebody starts making a tv series, as soon as things start getting filmed...
DR: Because there's more money involved.
NG: Well, also because there are a hundred different people making decisions. You're like a general back at base, who's suggested a way of doing something, but there are an awful lot of soldiers in the field, and they all have their own ideas, they all have their own input.
DR: So would you say the novel is the truer vision than the show?
NG: Well, the novel is definitely the vision that was in my head, the novel is the story that I wanted to tell. Let me try and find an example for you: There's a thing in the book called The Great Beast of London, and that's based on a real urban legend in London from the 17th century about a piglet who ran away in Fleet Street, got into the Fleet Ditch, which is actually what the Fleet River had become, disappeared into the sewers, and grew eating the gubbins, and the excreta and the dead cats and things, whatever he could find in the sewers of London back then, and it grew huge, and they would send in hunting parties after this enormous boar that prowled the sewers under London. I loved this idea, it kind of antedated the whole alligators in the sewers bit, and it seemed like a fun and interesting idea and something that will be nice to play with. So I wrote this thing in, the Great Beast. And after awhile, I go off to Australia for a week to be guest of honor at the Australian national science fiction convention, and I come back and they show me the rushes for the first of the Great Beast sequences. And here am I, I've described this pig the size of an elephant, this boar with enormous tusks, with old spears and swords sticking out from the side of it like Moby Dick, and you can imagine my surprise when a large, hairy and rather amiable-looking highland cow shuffles around through the sewer, and I'm going, that was not what I wanted, that was not what I had in my head. So for me, the whole novel experience was just a way of gaining complete and total control. It's my story, it has an unlimited budget because the only restriction is the imagination, everything I want to be in there is in there.
DR: It would seem foolish to want to avoid that creative autonomy by going to Hollywood. We've fought for so long in the comic book industry to fight for creator's rights, why would anyone abandon that...
NG: Oh, I agree completely. I think the wonderful thing about working in comics is you have an amazing amount of control; nothing ever happens randomly in comics, in so far as you don't get a character breaking their leg on page three and being out of action for the rest of the comic, as happened to one of our actors, you don't run out of time on the location, and every panel costs the same amount to draw.
DR: Well, are you trying to... If you're going to be primarily a prose writer now, would you be trying to equal in prose, that which you accomplished in comics?
NG: I don't think of myself as being primarily a prose writer, just as I never thought of myself as being primarily a comics writer, I think of myself primarily as a storyteller.
DR: Okay, but I guess the question is, you have accomplished a certain whatever in comics, a certain history, are you going to duplicate that in the prose field?
NG: I have no idea, that's not why I'm writing, and it's definitely not what's driving me on this, what's driving me is the urge to tell stories. If you're asking me if I'm worried that in twenty-five years time, I'll still be Neil "Sandman" Gaiman, I suppose that worries me a little bit, but it really is only a little bit. What I'm much more worried about right now... I recently brought out a book called The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish which Dave McKean illustrated, and it was a children's book, and it came out very quietly, and immediately started winning friends and influencing people, and Barnes & Noble made it a Father's Day selection, and so forth, and people who have no idea and don't care that I've written anything else are staring to turn up at signings, with 506 copies of the goldfish book because they want to give it to friends, and what I'm much more scared of right now, is that in fifty years' time, somebody's going to turn to somebody else and say, hey, you know, the guy who wrote that book, The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, he did other things too. I'm much more scared of that right now. The agenda is not new worlds to conquer, I must win as many awards in prose as I did in comics, or something. The agenda is do I have interesting stories to tell, and am I going to have fun telling them?
DR: Well, if not necessarily for commercial acclaim or any benefit, do you have any thought for "writing for the ages," you know, how this is going to look centuries from now, or anything like that?
NG: I don't think any of us have any idea of that. It's a fascinating, salutary and deeply scary thing to sit and look at the best seller lists from the year 1900 to now.
DR: Yeah, you know who I'm reading right now? Wlliam Dean Howells, you know who he is?
DR: You don't know William Dean Howells? Oh, you've got to find him. He is a flawless writer, find his Criticism and Fiction, he's a better prose writer than George Bernard Shaw, and that's saying something. The style of his writing is flawless, the closest to flawest writing I've ever found. But my point was that he was very popular in his day, and he's forgotten.
NG: That's precisely my point. James Branch Cabell, is one of my favorite writers; In about 1921 or 22, the New Yorker said, "Of the current crop of writers, the only one that we can be certain is destined for immortality is James Branch Cabell." He's only remembered slightly as a minor fantasist now, and occassionally of interest because people like Scott Fitzgerald were big fans of his, but most of his work is out of print, he's mostly fogotten. But you look at best seller lists, and the only books on there, on the whole, that have stood the test of time, tend to be ones that gotfilmed very badly, and nobody's gone back and re-read the original. "Giant" is remembered because it was the James Dean film. So, you have no idea what decision the ages will make, why they embrace Dickens and left a large number of Victorian writers standing in the dust... And you don't really write for the ages; mostly you write for yourself, you write to try and entertain yourself, very often, you just write 'cause you have this story in your head, and you want to tell it.
DR: In Neverwhere, in another context, Richard Mayhew asks "What are you looking for?" and I'd like to ask you, "Neil, what are you looking for?"
NG: I don't know, I suppose just somewhere quiet to write, and right now, an end to the signing tour... I don't want to have to sign my name anymore. The other night, somebody handed me something right after a five hour signing for about four hundred people, and it was a big poster, and he said can you sign this? and I wrote "Love, Bill." And then they pointed out to me my name wasn't Bill, and I said you're quite right, but I couldn't remember what it was.