Neil Gaiman discusses his career with David Howe
‘I always wanted to be a writer,’ muses Neil Gaiman seated in an office in the impressive headquarters of Hodder and Stoughton books in London. Gaiman is in the UK promoting his latest book Stardust and yet, as I look through his credits, it becomes apparent that he has never been one to stick with a single field or subject.
His first books published were Ghastly Beyond Belief – a collection of fantasy and science fiction quotations, written with Kim Newman – and a factual book on the pop group Duran Duran, both in 1985. From there he wrote Don’t Panic, another factual book examining the work of Douglas Adams, popular author of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Gaiman is, however, best known for his work on the comic Sandman. It was through the incredible covers for this work that Gaiman’s name became almost inextricably linked with that of artist Dave McKean.
‘I met Dave through a magazine that never happened,’ explains Gaiman. ‘It was called Borderline and … well, it never happened! They got together a bunch of people to work on it, who were innocent and inexperienced and didn’t know that it was so likely not to happen and one of them was Dave and one was me.
‘This wasn’t my first work as a comics writer. I’d actually written two scripts, one of which, strange to say, is being drawn as we speak! I’d met comics author Alan Grant at a British FantasyCon and I wrote these two trial scripts to see if I could do it. One was about John Constantine’s fridge (Constantine being a character from Alan’s Swamp Thing comic series who later came to prominence in the Hellblazer series of comic books created by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben) and Alan really liked it. And then I wrote one called Jack in the Green, which was a ten page story about a man dying – very ‘Neil Gaiman’ really in that nothing happens…! A Seventeenth Century swamp thing waiting outside his house as he dies of the plague … that sort of thing. And I wrote this and gave it to Alan and he said it was good, and of a professional standard, and it was that script that my editor used for many years as something she could send out to say that I’d like to write comics. She actually phoned me recently and said that they wanted to do a collection of my short works that we’ve published over the years, and did I remember this script…? She then asked if we could get it drawn, and that was fine by me. It was long enough ago that I felt that someone else had written it. So she then asked me who I’d like to see draw it, and I suggested Steve Bissette, and John Totleben … So they’re working on that at the moment.
‘Sandman was actually originally proposed by DC Comics as a solution to Black Orchid. Black Orchid was the first comic that Dave and I worked upon – it wasn’t the first to come out as it happened – and at the time the publishers got very nervous. They were worried because Dave and I were two guys that nobody had ever heard of, doing a female character that nobody had ever heard of, and, what’s more, female characters don’t sell (they said).
‘The solution was for me to go and write a monthly comic, and for Dave to paint a Batman graphic novel being written by Alan Grant: Arkham Asylum. That would mean that Dave could be promoted as being a Batman artist and that I’d also have some sort of profile, and the company could then survive releasing Black Orchid. So that was more or less what happened. I proposed several things, one of which was Sandman, and they liked it so I ended up working on that for seven years. They also eventually decided that they wouldn’t sit on Black Orchid after all and when that was finished, they released it without any problems.’
In the middle of all this confusion over the comics work, Gaiman apparently decided he wanted to be a novelist, and so a book co-written with Terry Pratchett appeared called Good Omens, the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.
‘People tend to forget that Terry wasn’t “Terry Pratchett” back then. He wasn’t this continent-sized, vast, one-in-every-three-books-bought-in-the-UK-is-a-Terry-Pratchett -type author. He’d done half a dozen or so books, and was doing OK. We even talked about whose name would go first on the book and we decided that his name would go first in England as he sold more copies than I did in England, but that my name would go first in America because I sold more than he did there. What’s strange is that I still sell more than he does over there, despite his incredible popularity in the UK.
‘Good Omens started because I’d written about 5000 words of the book – up to the birth of the Anti-Christ – and showed it to a few friends, one of them being Terry, and I then went off and did a pile of other things. I then got a phone call from Terry one day asking if I still had that fragment and whether I was doing anything with it. I wasn’t because I was up to my eyes in Sandman and also not wanting to become known for writing funny fantasy books, because Don’t Panic was in that style as well, complete with footnotes! So Terry said that he loved the start, and offered to either buy the idea off me or that maybe we could write it together… It went on from there, really. It was enormous fun to write, and we both had a good time with it.’
From non-fiction to comics, via pop groups and humorous fantasy novels, I wondered where the idea of writing a fairy tale had come from.
‘I just wanted to read one,’ he shrugs. ‘I had been reading and re-reading a lot of stuff written in the 1920s by Lord Dunsany and others … wonderful stories … and those people wouldn’t think twice about writing a fairy tale for adults. There was no fantasy genre at that point, it just didn’t exist, there was just stories.
‘I wanted to do something … not a fantasy novel, not a mainstream novel. I wanted to write a fairy story, with the weight and clean lines of a fairy story. I’d just done ten volumes of Sandman. 75 issues, 2000 pages, 7 or 8 years of my life. It’s a story where everything is grey. All the characters are shades of grey. Nothing is wholly black and white; everyone has five different motives for everything they do; little things in one place turn out to be important things in another … and vice versa … and I just wanted to do something simple and elegant.
‘When I mentioned this to some people, they told me that Angela Carter had done the whole deconstructing fairy tales thing, but I knew that. I didn’t want to deconstruct one, I wanted to construct one! I wanted to build a story that could be easily read. I was pleased when American publishers described it as a Thurberesque fable: that’s not a bad way of looking at it.’
One of the things about this type of writing is that it can stand up to several readings, with the reader getting more out of it each time. This is certainly something that Gaiman intended all along. ‘I wouldn’t want to write something that you could only read once, and so it does have layers and levels.
‘Gene Wolfe once wrote that good literature is such that it can be read once by an educated reader with pleasure, and then re-read with increased pleasure. For me that’s part of the fun. If Stardust just existed on one level, then once you’ve read it, that’s it. But I tried to build it so that when you read it the second time, shapes, resonances and significances will change. Why people are doing things will change. You understand much more about the people the second time. They gain dimensions because you know more about them.
‘So I wanted to do this story, and I had the idea of Stardust in my head. I was then talking with Charles Vess, a fabulous fantasy artist, and he suggested that I do it as a novel as he didn’t want to draw it as a comic, but he did want to do some illustrations for it. So I wrote it and sent it to him to illustrate. I then sent the text to my editor at Avon Books in the States, because the novel of Neverwhere in America went huge, and I thought they might be interested. They were and then offered it to Headline in the UK along with a collection of short pieces called Smoke and Mirrors and also my next novel, when that’s finished. Headline picked it up, and here we are!’
So where does Gaiman see himself going. With a career as eclectic as it has been …?
‘I like being eclectic, I’m dangerously eclectic. I want to keep exercising that as long as I can. If I had to write nothing but children’s fairy tales from now on, I’d go mad. The joy for me is that I keep moving.
‘The next novel’s got zombies in it and blow jobs and ambiguous people with ambiguous motives. I describe it as being half way between Kathy Acker and Roger Zelazny – so that’s roughly around ‘L’ in the alphabet … It’s got a working title of American Gods.
‘Neverwhere the movie looks like it’s going to happen. Stardust the movie, I’m meant to be working on the outline right now rather than doing this UK visit. Princess Mononoke is also coming out soon. That’s a Japanese film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki which was the highest grossing Japanese film of all time until Titanic recently overtook it. It’s animated but is an astonishingly good film. My involvement is that I’ve written the English language script for it, and it’s being voiced by Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton and Gillian Anderson, and that comes out in the States in October, but I’ve no idea when it might be scheduled for this country.’
David J Howe