I met Neil Gaiman in the sunny courtyard of his Soho hotel, the day after the Brexit vote and the day before Gaiman announced his newest book, Norse Mythology, a retelling of the myths of Asgard.
The man is busy. Aside from a new baby with wife Amanda Palmer, he’s working on two high-profile adaptations of his work, American Gods for Starz, and a version of Good Omens, which he decided to adapt after receiving a posthumous letter from the book’s co-author, Terry Pratchett.
Neil Gaiman is kind, warm, and funny, speaking with trailing, layering dependent clauses and making ready eye contact. He is childhood Dana’s imagination of what her favorite author would be like in person.
This meeting was like something out of a party game question card: “Which author, living or dead, would you want to have tea with while getting the chance to ask anything you’ve ever wanted to know about their work?” Considering his resume, which reads like a list of geek culture’s biggest hits—Sandman comics, Doctor Who, and nearly a dozen novels that exist within the mystical and the weird—I could only do my best to touch on as much as I could before I would be infringing on his polite, English hospitality.
Mild spoilers for the pacing of American Gods follow.
OBSERVER: So what’s your involvement like on the American Gods TV show?
NEIL GAIMAN: I’m a kibitzy sort of executive producer. What I can do is read scripts, comment on them, give notes, talk to things in general terms. The last big time when I was out in a writer’s room meeting, and they said “we are stuck on the end of the first season because we want to do this, but we want to do that,” so I said, why don’t you do this and this and this, and they said, “Oh my god, that fixes everything that is so great.”
So that sort of thing I’m useful for. I’m getting dailies from them, and I had to explain to somebody the other day who said, “So what TV are you watching,” I’m watching American Gods dailies; that is my TV these days. Any TV watching time I might have had is spent now sitting there clicking through alternate takes, and I’m not much use on it, honestly. There’s been one place where I watched them do something and sent an email off saying, You did this, it doesn’t actually make sense if you’ve done this, I think you can fix this in the edits though, can’t you? And I got an email back saying, “it’s not a problem, we can fix it in the edits. It’s not a reshoot thing.”
But mostly what I do is enjoy it. They sent me the trailer the other day for ComicCon, which isn’t even the trailer yet—they have to add effects, the have to grade it, they have to do all these sorts of stuff to it. But looking at it, thinking, Oh this is real. And not only is it real, but it looks like people who like American Gods will look at and go, Oh this is real.
Do you have any favorite adaptions of your work?
I love Coraline. Coraline also works because Henry Selick loved Coraline. And he wrote his first script and he sent it to me, and I looked at it, and I called him up and said, “Henry this is a fantastic adaptation of the book but it’s not a movie. It doesn’t look like a movie, it doesn’t feel like a movie, you’ve got to make it your own”. He took it away and a year later he sent me the script, and now it had [the character] Wybie in it, and it had kind of opened up, and now it read like Henry’s movie, and it made me a lot happier.
“What I mostly do is think about it until it’s all there in my head and then sit and just write it very fast.”
You famously had some trouble with BBC’s television Neverwhere…
I was frustrated. Lenny Henry, whose company produced it, has said, “Neil, Please stop slagging off BBC Neverwhere.” and I say, “Do I slag off?” and he says, “Yes, you still do.” But it was one of those things where it was really frustrating. On the other hand, I learned an incredible amount. “The Doctor’s Wife” [episode of Doctor Who] wouldn’t have been “The Doctor’s Wife” if I hadn’t gone through the TV hell on Neverwhere trying to get an idea out. And learning how weirdly malleable TV drama can be in script form.
I’m right now one script from the end of Good Omens; it’s six episodes long, six hours long, and now I’m just about to start episode six, and sometime in the beginning of August I will be attending a read-through of all six hours of script. I know it’s huge and it’s complicated and there are a lot of moving parts. It’s something where I’ve had to, somewhat frustratingly, change things to make it better TV.
There was a point a couple of days ago, in episode five, where I threw away one of my favorite sequences in the book, because at that point in where we are in the TV series, I couldn’t do something funny. I actually had to do something scary and dark and the scene as written in the book was really funny. In a TV series, there are points towards the end where we want to be on the edge of our seats, and where stopping for a gag hurts.
Is your process writing a book different than writing for screen?
My process of writing a book is definitely different than my process in writing a screenplay I’ve adapted from something. An original screenplay is slightly different. That’s sort of similar to book. For original screenplays I probably have notebooks and I’m probably filling them with dialogue and I’m typing them up and moving things around, that kind of thing.
Adapting… I dunno. It’s a bit odd. What I mostly do is think about it until it’s all there in my head and then sit and just write it very fast. And the plot already exists. There’s a bunch of stuff that I just figured out for myself at the end of episode six which I’m really glad, I needed to figure out before I could start writing out.
I’m just frustrated that Terry [Pratchett] is not around. Half because when I get stuck I want to phone him up and say, “Okay this is what I’m stuck on,” so he can go “Ahh, it’s obvious, you’re an idiot.” And half of it is because when I do something really clever, I want to phone him up and say, “I just did this!” and have him go “Alright, that’s a very elegant solution.” And I get neither. And the problem with the book to television adaptation of episode six is the way that it falls right now, 20 minutes before the end, everything is sorted out, and then we have 20 minutes of saying goodbye to characters with nothing else at stake.
Like the end of the third Lord of the Rings movie.
I was going to say, it’s like David Tennant’s last episode of Doctor Who, where he just goes ‘round saying goodbye to everybody. He can die. You can die now. We love you, but…
Some of us didn’t want him to go!
I’m not arguing with that, but I do think it might have been fun if there had been a little plot ticking as well rather than just everybody you’ve ever known you can just say goodbye to them one last time. So I built some plot [in Good Omens] that is kind of set up earlier that will just mean we’ll be watching it until the very end.
American Gods has a really nice climax built into the book—how do you pace that in a show where you don’t quire know how many seasons it’s going to run?
I have no idea. But the first ten episodes of American Gods are basically the first third of the book.
So it takes us through until the House on the Rock.
I was totally overestimating this in my mind.
No, no, no, no, no. We are in the House on the Rock. So we haven’t even gone to Lakeside yet.
That could be an entire season.
That’s sort the idea then, that Lakeside becomes Season Two. Although we’ve got to get to Cairo; there’s stuff that’s got to happen. And some of it is going to be really interesting in terms of how the keep the various clocks ticking. In the books there is a big pivotal thing that happens to Mr. Wednesday—that’s probably something that’s going to happen at the end of a season, but whether it’s the end of Season Two or Season Three, I don’t know yet.
I’ve definitely found myself having to tell Michael Green and Bryan Fuller stuff about the as-yet-unwritten book two of American Gods, which is slightly frustrating for me, because I always like it when this stuff is inside and nothing gets out. But occasionally there are things where I have to say, “Okay, let me tell you enough about the next American Gods book that you’ll know why a few lines of dialogue are important and need to be in there; You will know there’s this little scene that seems like it won’t amount to much but it’ll become incredibly important, so don’t cut that line, because you’re going to need it three years from now.”
“When you start out, it’s magic. Because you have no money, no work, but infinite amounts of time.”
Do you write from an outline?
Mmmmm, not that anybody else would understand as an outline. Lots and lots of notes. There normally comes a point before I begin where I will try and organize enough thoughts. The next book I’m going to write is a Neverwhere novel, and I need to sit down before I begin it and I will list out everything that I know going into it, and probably put together for this one, a character list, just so that I can note when I’m going to meet some of these characters. And I’ve got different people off doing different things in the story, so I’ll probably explain that stuff to myself.
But normally what happens is, I like to know enough to go into it with, and then I’ll write, and then at some point when I’m writing, I’ll do myself another timeline-outline-thing of what I know at that point, and then, maybe in 100 pages time, I’ll do myself an “everything that needs to happen before we get to the end of the book” outline.
With The Graveyard Book, for example, I remember listing the various chapters and I think basically the book more or less followed the original plan. I remember that there was a version of Chapter Seven that didn’t happen because it all had to happen at once. The set-up, the way I was building the book, with each chapter being two years apart meant that I couldn’t have one chapter immediately following another one. It just felt wrong.
I had this whole plot, and when I got to it, I realized it didn’t work with the structure I had built. And it was a lovely plotting, lovely story stuff I was looking forward to writing.
Neverwhere has such a clear, classic hero journey. You can’t tell me you wrote that without an outline.
Ehhhh, kind of did! And also, you know, have never actually finished reading Hero With A Thousand Faces.
I was genuinely interested, and I read, I think, about the first third. And then a third of the way in I went, “You know, I don’t know if it’s true or not. If it is true, I should be doing it anyway, and if it’s not true, it will just make me self-conscious reading this book.” And I would occasionally wind up in Hollywood meetings where they would say things like, [in a cowboy-style American accent] “You know, we’re three quarters of the way through Act Two here, we need the encounter with the father,” and you’re going, “No, I don’t think we do.” It’s a pattern for a certain type of story; it isn’t a pattern for everything, and you’re suddenly realizing why some films feel cookie-cutter.
I hope [Americans] will realize the entertainment value of Donald Trump—which is enormous! It’s enormous. It’s like having a fat, flatulent orange clown with a pumpkin for a head entertaining you all the time. It’s incredibly entertaining.
So it feels like you’ve worked in almost every medium of writing—teleplay, screenplay, novel, nonfiction. Is there anything left you want to achieve?
I’ve got to write a stage play. An original stage play. That’s still a thing—find out if I can do that. View From The Cheap Seats is odd because in my head it was a, not exactly a contractual obligation album because the publishers loved the idea of doing it, but from my perspective I’m going, “Well, it exists because people have asked for it and not because I woke up one morning going, I am going to gift the world a collection of my nonfiction.” It’s not that. People were asking for it, and after a while it just became inevitable.
Do you have a stage play?
[Gaiman gives a coy glance.] I have to get it ready. Mostly it’s all time, these days. When you start out, it’s magic. Because you have no money, no work, but infinite amounts of time. And anything you think of, you could just do. You may not be eating interesting food and you may not be able to afford things you want and you may be struggling a little bit to pay rent, but fundamentally it’s kind of easy.
I need to appreciate my newspaper writer salary more.
Appreciate the fact that you have the time to do whatever you do. Were you to decide to get up and write the Guy In Your MFA novel, you could just do that, because nobody’s stopping you—other than time. But you could do it. Were I to wake up tomorrow morning and go, “Oh my god what a brilliant idea for a novel,” I would put it into this weird aircraft plane-coming-into-land holding queue. And go, “Okay, well I might be able to get you done here but probably it’s more like there,” and it’s not really worth mentioning to anybody that there’s a book I think I’ll be writing in 2022 at that point, is it? I handed in a book the other day [Norse Mythology] that I’m currently proof-reading that I signed the contract to do in 2008. The idea was I would work on it between things and in my spare time and then I didn’t get any spare time.
To change gears just a little bit, how are you feeling about the Brexit vote?
Heartbroken. Heartbroken and worried. And heartbroken and worried because—it is a patronizing thing to say of a country but—from the people I have talked to who were proudly on the side of leaving, I don’t think any of them understood quite what they were voting for. The likes of my mother were definitely voting for it to be 1964 again; that’s what they wanted. The taxi driver who was the Brexit evangelist who drove me explained that actually what was going to happen was that there’d be a Brexit vote, they’d vote for Leave, and then Europe wouldn’t want the UK to leave so they’d give the UK everything they asked for on a renegotiation and then everything would be great and nothing was ever going to change.
Everybody else, you’re sort of going, I think you hate the government and I think you see this as your place to say “Fuck you” to a government of austerity. I think they didn’t think it would happen. I think they felt it would be a serious protest vote.
Anyway. It is heartbreaking. It’s sad. It’s frustrating. It also is a kick in the teeth to Scotland! Scotland voted to remain part of the UK and part of that was being part of the EU. If I were Scotland right now, I would have a referendum, I would leave the United Kingdom, I would remain part of the European Union.
Didn’t every district in Scotland vote Remain?
Mhm. David Cameron definitely feels like the Prime Minister that had presided over the events that broke up the United Kingdom, and Jeremy Corbyn honestly seems a little bit of a tosser. His entire political stance on Brexit seems to have been, “Well obviously leaving the EU would not be a great idea but if this all goes tits up don’t blame me.” Oh you are not a political leader. You are a sad little man who has achieved a position of power accidentally by backing into it. Circumstances demanded leadership and you obviously could not provide it, and I hope they get rid of you too.
Hopefully, if nothing else, Americans can see this as a warning.
I hope they’re going to take Trump seriously after this. I hope they will realize the entertainment value of Donald Trump—which is enormous! It’s enormous. It’s like having a fat, flatulent orange clown with a pumpkin for a head entertaining you all the time. It’s incredibly entertaining. Far be it from me to in any way diminish his entertainment value. But, this is a real thing. And if people actually vote for him, then Trump could get in, and America could be in the same fucked up place that England is headed towards, and unfortunately, as far as I know, there are no handy-dandy alternate universe doors that we can slip through into one of the universes that make sense and are a good place.
No New York City Below.
Exactly. I was always taught as a kid that maybe you couldn’t figure out who you were voting for but you could figure out who you were voting against. I think there are definitely times right now where you better figure out what you’re voting for. Because a vote against is sometimes a vote for consequences that you were not actually anticipating.