Interview - The Luckiest Boy in the World, Neil Gaiman
|Photo by Kimberly Butler|
"Are you here for the interview" Fred asked.
"Ah, yes" I replied surprised. I should have expected that there would have been more people than just me there.
The concierge motioned to a large, luxurious sofa where I sat sweating bullets. Panicking that the writer whom I most admired would think me to be a prat, or worse, a hack. The lump in my throat rose and fell every time someone entered the lobby. Was it him? No. It was a middle aged couple wearing middle aged couples clothes, linen shirts and boat shoes. A 30 something year old man approached me and asked if I was there for the interview to which I enthusiastically replied "yessir". He then went on to ask for my resume... wuh? My resume? It turned out that he was conducting interviews for bar staff in the hotel. After an awkward few moments before we both realised that a) I wasn't there for a job as bar staff and b) I would be a lousy employee anyway.
I sat back down on the couch and read through my questions, over and over and over. Why was I even here? Surely I'm just wasting his time, I don't deserve to speak with the Neil Gaiman. I felt as though all of my doubts were becoming reality. My hands were becoming increasingly sweaty and clammy. Great, not only would I be performing a shitty interview but his first impression would be of me shaking hands with a cold kipper like fist. Before I could swallow the whole coconut that had somehow made its way into my throat, out he came.
He strode out in his usual monochromatic attire. A black suit over a black sweater over a charcoal t-shirt which was doing it's best black impression. His hair was it's trademark mess, swirled like the smoke that only burned paper creates. I was instantly at ease when he extended his hand, shaking my kippers and smiling. He has taller than I expected.
"Sorry that I kept you" he sounded like a jovial Alan Rickman. His voice made me feel like a commoner, like I should have rolled in some cow excrement an called him guvna'. We walked towards the bar which he decided had too much "jingle jangle" so instead we sat on a 3 seater couch in the closed off lounge before being served a pot of English Breakfast by George. We both took it the same, white and no sugar. I told him that as a gift I had bought 20 copies of "Odd" that I would be donating to local libraries and he seemed to like this.
Yes. The weirdness about World Book Day is that with World Book Day you're giving kids free books and everybody is working within certain parameters. The printer is donating the paper and the printing so they don't want to put out any more than a hundred page book because that's how much they could cost out. I was limited to fifteen thousand words and I managed to come in at fourteen and a half thousand. But also there's the knowledge that if I were to have written this book without a fifteen thousand word cap it probably would have been twice as long.
I have just started writing another "Odd" book thinking that I'd just write another fifteen thousand word book but having just written half the first chapter and thinking, this things going to be massive. Odd gets to go, it's got a working title now of "Odd's Seachange". Odd goes on holiday and it comes from somewhere with the Saga of the Orkney men where the Orkney's they would come with this wonderful story of how one of the Duke's of the Orkney's decided to go on holiday, well not so much on a holiday but more so on a pilgrimage. But in order to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from the Orkney's you get in a boat and you go to Spain and then you go through the Mediterranean and then you eventually get to Jerusalem and you look around for a bit, buy a souvenir ashtray and then they go home again. I thought, that, that I'm going to send him on.
How do you go sticking to something that has to be one hundred words when Neverwhere is three hundred odd pages while American Gods is six hundred or so pages and you're also known for your short stories. Do you ever feel that you have to make concessions when you're restricted to a page count? Is there anything that you have to leave out?
Sometimes. If Odd and the Frost Giants had have been twenty thousand words I think that there would have been an awful lot of shouting and running about at the end. But then, you're in this thing where it's like writing a sonnet. It has to be fourteen lines long and the last two lines need to rhyme. So if you're writing a sonnet people may ask if you let things out and of course, yeah, otherwise it wouldn't have been a sonnet. There are things that I'm really proud of in Odd that may not have happened otherwise. The biggest of which is the way that he defeated the Giant at the end, defeated is probably the wrong word, the way that he convinced it to go home. If I had a lot more space, I might have done something much trickier and more exciting and this, that and the other but as it was, I didn't. So at the end of it I decided that you're (Odd) going to have to talk directly to him to him and you're (Giant) going to have to go home. I didn't know what that conversation was going to be until I was writing it. Having to write a conversation in which a smart kid persuades something a hundred thousand times his size to go home was the challenge. But it wouldn't have happened without that size limitation. So that was really part of it.
Let's get in there with a spoon, perhaps then we'll have something drinkable. (he leaned over and stirred the tea bags in the pot with a spoon before I poured two cups).
In that way its like a sonnet, where you have fourteen lines, so sometimes you have to squeeze things in and that's half of the challenge.
|The Luckiest Boy and the Happiest Boy In the World|
I can't help but notice that you're wearing the same mask that I am (pointing at my sunburned nose and forehead). From being out at the festival yesterday.
Yeah, the FourPlay Nose I think it's called. I also have great t-shirt lines right across my arms. I tried to use my friend Diana as a sun block. There I was, ducking behind this small woman (laughs). It really was one of those things, arriving just on time to see FourPlay and grabbing the only completely available area. Then slowly realising that it was the one completely because in time we would cook. But, you know, it was worth it. The were astonishing. There was stuff towards the end where I closed my eyes and suddenly there would be drummers and mad electric guitarists and synthesisers and suddenly you're watching Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin and then you open your eyes and it's a string quartet.
That really occurred to me when I was listening to the latest CD, Fourthcoming, where on the first track you could be forgiven for thinking that there was an electric guitar with the distortion pedal cranked right up.
I've been lucky enough to see The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains both at Graphic in Sydney and here in Hobart. You have just four stringed instruments on stage yet you have Lara's haunting voice throughout, percussion and a fully grown wolfish Scotsman hanging from a rope. Putting these elements together you get such a full experience. When watching that, I felt that there was an obvious admiration between you and Mr Campbell. Something in the way that he speaks of you and the way that you appreciate the art that he'd created for your story. I also noticed that during any break in the narrative you were transfixed upon FourPlay. How did this big collaboration come about?
Um, the idea was Jordan Verzar who was working with the Graphic festival and he asked if I'd like to come and do something. That was very open and he asked if I'd like to do something with FourPlay and maybe an artist. The moment that he suggested that I though about the Truth is a Cave, it hadn't been published and it was something that nobody had ever seen. It was the perfect length and it would give them something to work with, and I thought that Eddie would be the perfect artist for that and he's in Australia. It just felt right, the Scottishness and the Australianess meant that I'd be getting something right. The thing that I love about it is that you look at the pictures and they look right. He threw in some new ones, I shouldn't say threw in, he painted a few extra painting and one of them he'd painted because he felt that it made something earlier in the story clearer. There is a part where I talk about a big impressive house, a little white two up, two down house and then later you see a little crofter's house and you get an understanding about why a little white two up, two down house is so the kind of house that a rich person lives in.
Anyway, so I sent the story to FourPlay, they sent music back to me, I sent them notes on what they'd done with some suggestions rather nervously and then we had a day to rehearse the day before the show. Which was basically me reading with them playing at the same time and at the end of that, that was when we made the big notes. "The way you're doing the end it too upbeat, it needs to be more haunting until the end and then move back into the moving theme and then you need to punch up the Lara singing to happen here and here and here to link in the theme and memory" it was that kind of thing. And they would go off into these huddles. FourPlay squabble and huddle better than anybody. It's amazing. Lara is bossy and they all have their roles, like the Fantastic Four. You know? I'm not even going further into that because I know people will start saying "are you saying that Tim or Peter is Mr Fantastic?" and I'm not going to get into that.
Since it's the Fantastic Four, we could always just leave it with a bit of 'nuff said.
Exactly! Apostrophe - Nuff - Said. (laughs) But really, they are great. They go off and they huddle and then I come back and we try something else and by the end of it we really knew that we had this thing. For me, my favourite bit of it, and nobody knows this yet, but we're actually going into the studio in a week and record it which is nice. We were thinking, we should do this, we should actually have a nice clean recording. There are places where I start reading and I almost feel like I'm the fifth instrument. A lot of the time I'm there and I'm telling the story, but there are a few places where they'll be playing and I'm reading and because I know where the beats are I can hit the beats with the sentence and it combines and becomes something great.
There is one part where things get a little manic and you and the music rise to a grand crescendo...
So you're recording The Truth...
Yes, we're recording The Truth when we head up to Sydney.
The recording aside, are there any plans to perform The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains further down the track?
You know, that's a very interesting question because this was just a one off. It was something that we just did for the Graphic Festival. But then having done it, the Mona Foma people had heard about it and they'd already asked Amanda in. They knew that they had a better than average chance of getting me because of Amanda, so they went after FourPlay and suddenly everything worked so we did it again. But it really wasn't until we'd done it again and got off the stage that I thought "we should do this. We should really do a clean studio recording". We wanted a Sydney Opera House recording but the sound didn't work on the professional recording that we were having done and there was twenty seconds missing in the middle. So, it wasn't even something that could be cleaned up.
We actually did tape the other nights performance but I really think that a nice clean studio recording would be good but we have no real idea of what we're going to do with it. People ask us if we'll do a book. Eddie wants to do another five paintings but we need to figure out what we'd do with the paintings and the story and the audio. In the meantime, the word on this thing is starting to get out, which I kind of like. It's not like we've been promoting it. You know, there were two thousand people in the Sydney Opera House and they've been talking about it and it's from them that Jordan's been getting nibbles from promoters and concert halls throughout the word asking for it. Right now, this is all it's about. It was a fun but it's like "okay are we doing this? Do we want to do it in Albert Hall in the UK, do we want to do it in Disney Hall in LA"
I'd have to say that you'd have your pick, you could just about play anywhere couldn't you?
I think we kind of can! I like the fact that it is unique. It's not like anything I've ever done before. You can't really point to a great tradition of authors telling stories while string quartets improv music over it to giant painting being projected behind it. I'm not saying that we're the first to do something like this but I certainly don't think there is a great tradition that you can point to (laughs).
I totally agree, I've tried to explain it to people and explain how great it was but the general response that I hear is "I don't get it".
Yeah! The easiest way that I've now found to describe it to people is that the effect is that you're making a movie in your own head. The way that it works is that you've gone to this place and at the end of it you took the pictures and the music and the story and you've combined them and made a huge 360 degree full colour all senses art in your mind. You made that movie. And that at least persuaded a couple of thousand people to sit down the other night before we started.
When you convinced the crowd to sit down, you personally broke my heart.
My wife and I were there for Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen and as they finished the sea of people parted and my wife and I were right at the front. You were to my left and FourPlay to my right, it was perfect! (laughs)
And then you sat down and you were behind the barrier! (laughs) I'm sorry.
No not at all, we just moved back a little and found some space to park ourselves. You said before that Mr Campbell added a few extra paintings. I think you could be forgiven for thinking that he may have just phoned them in but I'd have to say that they added to the overall story.
The ones that he added were necessary. The ones that he put in were ones that, after the Sydney Opera House, we thought that sometimes the screen was dark too long or we held an image for too long. I think there's still another four or five to be added after seeing it on Saturday night. But I think it is a unique thing and if we do wind up going on tour with it next year for a little bit I think even that would be a one off. Its not like we'd, you know, go through LA or New York and then be back doing it two years later. It would be the only time. I've gotta say though that it's bringing FourPlay to the people, or at least to an audience that wouldn't have heard their work.
You've always been a proponent of music. You're well known for your friendship with Tori Amos, there are numerous allusions that could be drawn between each others work. You're married to Amanda Palmer who is a musical juggernaut in her own right and you've collaborated with FourPlay. How much influence does music play in your creative experience?
It's really strange, because it changes as I age. I'm finding it harder and harder to write with things with lyrics going on in the background and I'm hating the fact that I'm actually losing that as an ability. I used to write with lyrics! In fact I used to get faintly irritated, there was a time when pretty much the only thing that I would play that didn't have lyrics was Michael Nyman. Pretty much everything else was stuff with words. I used to like having words around me when I was writing but that doesn't work any more. These days I find that I stop and listen if I have things with words. Now I have to completely stop and think about what sort of thing I'm going to write to. I either play the things that I know so well that I don't hear the lyrics or, more so, things that are wordless. I love the wonderful unplugginess with music. I'm working on a short story at the moment and between FourPlay and Phillip Glass I've figured out everything that's got to happen next and a few of the high points on the way to the end and I know that if I hadn't had the music flowing through me I wouldn't have had that. Just letting my mind go just a little bit more, daydreaming powerfully and gloriously and suddenly going to that weird sort of place where you've realised that you've stuck you hand into the light socket. It just wouldn't have been the real thing if the music hadn't have been going.
This is the one question that I'm most worried about because it sounds like a broad hack of a question. Apart from the touring, the money and the success, why is it that you write?
The strange this is that the success and the money and the touring tend to be distractions from writing. They give you a whole lot of problems that make me look back fondly at being 28, virtually penniless, with no need to tour. I remember the point were I queried the electricity bill, knowing that it was completely correct but knowing that if you officially queried it they would have to send someone out to look at your house and walk you around and explain why it was what it was. Then it would give me the two weeks that I needed to pay the electricity bill (laughs). I look back at that time and loved the sheer freedom to write and loved the fact that there were no expectations. Nobody knew who the fuck I was and nobody expected anything. Every time I did anything even faintly clever or good I was treated like a kid that had just written his name "my god, you've written your name, that's so clever!" and then one day you look around and you're fifty and you write your name and people say "well, obviously. You should be able to write your name by now, you're fifty!".
Why write? In the beginning it was (sighs), looking back at being 19 or 20 I was so young. I was trying to figure out my future and, um, I remember having a bad night. It was the kind of bad night that you have, it may have been the very first sleepless night that I'd ever had. Throughout my life I think I've only ever had four but this was the first and it was the worst. I'd never experienced the feeling when you lay in bed and you don't go to sleep, your mind just churns. I remember thinking "you know, I think I could be a writer. But I don't actually know. I could go out in the world and I could do something that I know that I can do, PR or whatever" but I would wind up spending my entire life going "I'm not really a writer, but I could be a writer". That wouldn't be such a bad thing. What would be a really bad thing would be at 75, in hospital on my death bed thinking "I could have been a writer". What would be bad is that I wouldn't know if I was kidding myself. That bit would be the killer and that's the bit that made me think that it would be so much better if I at least tried to be a writer. That way I could say "well I'm not a writer and that's fine" but I wouldn't die thinking that I could have been a writer. I'd at least die having learned that I couldn't be a writer and that would be just fine. That was what set me off, thinking that I was just going to do this. Year one as a writer I earned 300 pounds and year two as a writer I earned 5,000 or 6,000 pounds which at 25 pounds a week rent isn't so bad. You know? Starting out with a manual typewriter I remember the point when I sold my first book contract and took the money and I went out and bought myself an electric typewriter! It was that sort of marvellous slow build like cooking the frog in the pot metaphor. I didn't get to be successful fast, I didn't get to be famous fast. It was a lovely, slow very, very comfortable process and I've enjoyed it but I wasn't doing it for that because those sort of things weren't even thought of. My goals were always comparatively honest, I really liked the idea of having a couple of books with my name on the spine and not starving to death. Being able to pay the electricity bill...
Without having to call out the inspector for an extra two weeks...
Being a writer has always been a dream of mine, and until literally just now, a pipe dream. I always though that there was no way that I could ever have a book on the shelves next to the contemporary greats like yourself, Sir Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. One of the hardest things I've found is finding the time while still holding down a day job. What advice would you give in that respect?
The best advice I can give you, if you're trying to hold down a real job is to do what Gene Wolf did. Get up an hour earlier every morning. He was editing "Plant Mechanics Magazine" and he would get up at 4:30 in the morning when the house was dark and he would write until 5:30. Stephen King, one of those great realisations that if you simply write 300 words a day at the end of a year you have written a novel. That's one page a day and you now have a three hundred and sixty five page novel or a three hundred and sixty six page novel every four. And if you get up an hour earlier and write your page then at the end of a year you've got your first novel done. The other thing I'd say, if you can, check out things like the Clarion South or even Clarion North or Clarion West or one of those sort of things, writers bootcamps. I think they're really good for giving you an insight into whether this is the sort of thing that you want to do. There were writers at my Clarion, I taught a week of the six week course where every day you write a story, that story gets critiqued and then you write another one. There were guys at my Clarion that were brilliant and there were guys that weren't so brilliant. One of these guys came up to me and said "can you tell who's going to make it? Who's going to be a writer?" I told him that I absolutely did not. I said I could tell him that when looking at this mob I could tell him who was writing good stories and I could tell who out of the mob was writing stories every day. What I couldn't tell is who would go back home and polish a chair with their bottom while their back hurts, making stuff up. But the ones that would be winning Hugo Awards and the ones that would be earning a living from their writing are probably going to be the latter in the race between genius and work. The prize normally goes to the workers. Which is the last thing anyone wants to hear. Talent is part of it but so is turning up and so much more. You write a hundred stories and send them out and the odds are really good that a few of them are going to be brilliant and a few of them are not. But if you don't write any of them, or if you just try and write the one that is going to be brilliant and wait for the applause and for people to come to your house and hand you a the keys to a car saying "here's a free car because your story was brilliant". You're going to wait a long time. The most important thing is that you keep on going, you move onto the next thing and the next thing. For me, because I don't really like repeating myself I like to keep moving around in terms of genre and story because that keeps me awake and interested.
You've inspired a new generation of writers but in a certain way, you're a genre unto yourself. There are recurrent themes and the injection of classic English comedy, dry and sardonic. But I don't think that you can be classified as a fantasy, sci fi, comedy writer. But your books are always unmistakably Neil Gaiman books.
Yeah, I think that this can be traced back very specifically to how I started out, as a journalist. I wanted to learn how the world works. I just announced that I was a journalist and then I was! So I would do interviews in the same way that you're doing interviews and I would talk to authors that I liked. A lot of those people, a lot of the authors, when the interview was over and we were sitting in the bar we would start chatting about their revolution novels that nobody would publish or the funny author who wrote a serious novel that nobody would do or the science fiction writer who wrote a historical piece that nobody would look at and I thought, you guys are really successful, for my definition of successful, except that they are only every allowed to do the things that they are known to be successful at.
That was something that I knew, something that went and lived in my head. I then got to write comics for a great proportion of my life. Comics is a medium that people often mistake for a genre, but in comics nobody minded if I did an autobiographical thing followed by a science fiction thing followed by a historical thing because it was all comics. The fact that I was completely free to do whatever I wanted was fun. Then when I stopped doing as many comics and started looking at book publishing I was incredibly, painfully aware that I needed to make sure that nobody put me in a box. Because, the only thing that I had figured out at that point was that once you're in the box, getting out was impossible. You are in the gravity well. As long as you're not in the box, you may not be as successful. You will be so much more successful if you write a novel about Floppy the Hard Boiled Detective Gnome and then you write another book about Floppy the Hard Boiled Detective Gnome and then you write a book about the Big Hard Boiled Detective Gnome Crime Thriller before a book about some Hard Boiled Brownies. That way you build up a big body of work and people know that if they want a book on Hard Boiled Pixie Detective Crime Thrillers they're going to go to you. That's generally how you get successful. You write a whole bunch of things that are similar and then when people run across one of your books and they like it, you have an audience for all of your books.
But I wanted to do something much, much odder. Which was to try and get to the point where if you liked this book... the next is going to be different. But it'll still be me and it'll still be me and it'll have the same sensibility... whatever that is.
Do you think that some writers suffer from Mark Hamill Syndrome where they rocket to success with their first book, writers like Stephenie Meyer, Dan Brown and JK Rowling that shoot to the top but don't ever get to break free from that success...
Do you think that, because your career has been a much slower burn, has helped you to not necessarily be pigeon holed like that?
I think that both JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer are a phenomena. But would I prefer to be me than JK Rowling? Well, yeah. Um, the world is waiting to see if she does another Harry Potter book or will she do an adult book? And if she does, will anyone come? How will they relate to it? That's not a problem that I have because nobody knows what the fuck I'm going to do next. I'm allowed to adult novels an I'm allowed to do kids novels. I'm allowed to do comics and I'm allowed to do movies. I'm the luckiest boy in the world and I love that. Right now I'm writing a story and it was originally started for an Australian editor, Jonathon Strauss from Perth who wanted a story about witches for an anthology that he's doing. I'm quite worried because the story seems to be determined, as we came in about a story being determined by length, this is sort of a voyage of discovery. I have absolutely no idea whether I'll come in at a length that I can give to Jonathon or a 30,000 word novella or I'll just have to figure out what the hell I'm going to do with it. I'm loving the fact that what I'm writing right now have a 7 year old view point character and an 11 year old heroine who is probably 11,000 years old, but I have no idea if it's for kids or not. I probably won't know until I've finished it and showed it to a few people. That for me is fun, I've never had that before. I've never written anything and had no idea... you know...
Where to shelf it?
Yeah exactly. Where does it go?
I think that pretty much wraps us up. Thanks again for your time, on your honeymoon no less.
No this was great. I just have to make sure that I leave at 11:45 for Nerdzilla... whatever the hell that is...Look, you asked some really good questions. Some really good questions that left me wanting to answer them. The best interviews are always the ones when people don't have anything to sell like me now. Not that those other interviews are necessarily worse, but if they're on the road promoting then they have probably answered the same questions two or three thousand times before. You're just asking the question and they're giving you the answer that corresponds. This was good.
Thanks again, this means a lot.
You know, it was really good meeting you.
After an hour of chatting and banter we stood and had a snapshot taken before Mr Gaiman left for his next appointment.
This interview was not only great fun but an incredible experience and a revelation. Mr Gaiman left me with a head full of ideas and a belly full of fire. Considering that I was so nervous leading up to the interview it was surprisingly easy. It just felt as though I was having a chat with a charismatic and creative new friend. It just so happened that this person was my favourite writer. Have I fooled myself into thinking that Mr Gaiman will remember me or our interview? Not likely. I'm almost certainly just one of a million interviewers with a million more to come. If nothing else, I was thankful that by the end of our chat and our impending farewell handshake, I had released the kippers.