For those of you who may be interested, I’m posting the transcript from my interview with Neil Gaiman from a few weeks back. He was a delight to speak with…hope you enjoy!
[Carolyn Turner] With the success of works like Coraline, and more recently The Graveyard Book, do you think these books would have been popular 40, 50, 60 years ago? (The Graveyard book was initially rejected because it would be too scarry). How, if at all, have the ideas of childhood and children’s literature changed over the last century, and what do you believe the major agent for those changes to be? Is this a reflection of our society, or more a reflection of childhood and what it means to be a child? [Neil Gaiman] Yes I think that they’ve changed hugely, but I think that they haven’t necessarily changed in the ways that you’re imagining. Go back 100 years, go back 150 years and you have children’s stories that are absolutely nightmarish. Perhaps the most perfect of those is always der Struwwelpeter or “Shockheaded Peter”, where you have these German poems about if you suck your thumbs then men with scissors are going to come in cut them off. If you aren’t paying attention then you’re going to die. It’s this amazing sort of shockheaded Peter tales, a nightmare. You’re telling kids things aimed at troubling them, giving them nightmares in order to sort of persuade them to behave. You go earlier than that and you’re in the territory of Hansel and Gretal, in which it’s perfectly ok for a father and another to basically ok (or at least obviously ok to put into a story, but not necessarily approved of behavior). For a father and a mother to say “we don’t have enough food”, and to take the children out into the forest to abandon them-because we’re nice people and don’t want to kill them. But we can’t feed ourselves and them. And then you get the things of abandoning them in the forest and them being picked up by an old lady who is some kind of cannibalistic serial killer who fattens and imprisons the boy to try to make him fat enough to eat, feed him food….and she (the witch) is eventually murdered by the girl by being burnt to death. That, in terms of subject matter, that’s definitely something that would not have been approved of in the 1990’s. But I think in good children’s fiction there’s been a tradition of being willing to scare children; of knowing that children like to be scared. And that fear in books is a good thing. Like those people who take small doses of poison to build up immunity; a little fear in a book, in a safe place, is probably something that may help you be braver. But, having said all that, it’s also very true that over the last…there was definitely a period in the 50’s, 60’s, well I guess the 70’s onward, particularly the 1980’s and early 1990’s, children’s fiction got very bland. And there was some kind of idea that it had to be good for you. In England, where I grew up, there was definitely a period in the mid 80’s where a lot of the books that I was getting from publishers to read were considered important children’s books tended to be about kids on counsel estates whose dads had run away and the elder sister was on heroin. And that was the story-there wasn’t really much of a story there. There were things that felt like they were good for you, in some kind of healthy kind of eating of vegetables kind of fiction. One of the things that I think (not to in any way underestimate the importance of awesome people like Diana Wynne Jones, who were writing amazing, cool, readable fiction for kids all the way.) But I think that the biggest thing that J. K. Rowling did was draw attention to the fact that kids like stories, and that plot was important. And the moment that plot becomes important, and the moment stories become important again, then subject matter becomes a free for all. Because what matters and what you’re giving importance to, is the story. [CT] You’ve had several of your works adapted to film over the years, and more recently I read that Neil Jordan will be adapting The Graveyard book to a live action movie…is this true? There’s a saying that a piece of art no longer belongs to you once you release it into the world-it now belongs to everyone. When someone is adapting your work, do you feel that their adaptation should be done in the same spirit of your original, or are they creating a while new work of art based on their interpretation? At what level do you like to be involved in the adaptation of your work? [NG] I like to be involved all the time, but I’m definitely a firm believer in the idea that a film is a film and a theatre work is a theatre work, and what you want is a really good theatre work or a really good film. You don’t want something transliterated, you want something translated. [CT] Are there any of your works that you would like to see adapted to film? Any that shouldn’t be? What about the theatre? Can we expect Sandman The Musical anytime soon? [NG] You may not be able to expect Sandman The Musical anytime soon, but there’s definitely noise out there about Stardust The Musical, for example-partly because I control the rights, and because people came to me and said this is our vision for it, and I really liked them. And I’m actually working on a musical with Stephen Merrit right now, whose work I love. It’s an original thing, about The Grand Guignol Theatre, the French Theatre of Terror. So it’s a musical about theatre. When can we expect something like that? If I can get it together and write the first draft, then we’re probably about 3 years away from getting on stage. [CT] You’re known for your fiction, but right now you’re currently working on a non-fiction book that is based on your travels to China and a 7th century monk…can you tell me more about that project? [NG] This began with me going to China 3 years ago, and realizing that I knew nothing about China, and that all of my expectations were kind of wrong. And that was half of it. The other half of it was feeling like everywhere I went in China, I was able to have translated conversations with people, and they would always ask at some point “You’re a writer, have you ever read any Chinese books?” And I’m talking from the lowliest janitor and guide up to the most important party official or university. I would tell them what I’ve ready, and I would always include “The Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en, to which they would say “who was your favorite character?” So I would be talking monkey and pigsy and Sandi and the monk ______ and the white horse and the adventures that they had. And that was absolutely fascinating to me…just the work of literature that united people. So I started investigating it more and I knew that it was based on a real story, but was absolutely fascinated when I learned the scale of what a real life monk had done in the 6th/7th century: defying the emperor, and how that led, 900-1000 years later, to this amazing work of literature. Then there’s me, 500 years after that, off in China doing a very peculiar journey where at one point somebody tried to sell me a human elbow. [CT] You didn’t take it did you?! [NG] I didn’t. Well I figured the Chinese get grumpy enough-you’re actually forbidden to take real antiques out of China. Although I was in a museum where they tried to sell me some real antiques, and I said to them “you’re not allowed to take real antiques outside of China”, and they said “Ah, we’ll give you a certificate, saying that these are modern reproductions and fakes.” Which I thought was hilarious and funny and strange, because they probably were modern reproductions and fakes, and that was almost definitely what they were trying to sell me. But I loved the fact that they were offering me a certificate guaranteeing that it actually was a modern reproduction and a fake. In the assumption that that would actually convince me that this is actually an antique. [CT] Obviously your works are inspired by world cultures and their mythologies-how do you decide which mythological systems to bring to light? Are you a student of mythology, or does it stem from your travels, or both? Are there any mythologies that you haven’t focused on that could be the subject of a new book? [NG] It’s been a lifelong passion. I remember when I was 6, 7 years old and reading “Tales of the Norse Men” by Roger Lancelyn Green, and then spending my own pocket money on “Tales of Ancient Egypt”, age 7 just going ‘I love this stuff…this is important.’ And I loved myth and I’ve loved story ever since. I loved story before then. [CT] There are obviously numerous benefits to being an internationally bestselling author…but what’s the world thing about it? [NG] Less time to write, because everyone is always disappointed. It would be wonderful to be able to clone myself, and one of my would stay home and write, and the other me could do stuff like this. The downside to appearing at UCSB is that I’m not at home writing. The downside to going an spending a week in New Zealand and the Phillipines and Poland, all of which are places that would very much like to see me, is that I’m not spending that time writing. And writing time starts to become precious. But on the other hand I love the traveling and I love meeting people and I love talking to people. Writing is so antisocial. I remember when I was working on “American Gods” I barely saw another human being for 18 months. By the time American Gods was over I’d more or less lost all social skills. My life consisted of getting up in the morning, driving out to a little cabin, writing, and that was it. [CT] Do you find that you’ve discovered a good balance between the writing and the social? [NG] I need more time. And also a lot of that comes from the Newbury. The Newbury year demanded a bunch of stuff that people ask you to do and I go ‘yeah I should do that’. Another example would be that I’m an Honorary Chairman for National Library Week, which I’m really excited about. I support libraries, I mean libraries are incredibly important things; they’re important to the fabric of community, they are the depositors of information, they are places that you can go to plug into everything. I love and adore and want to support libraries, but that’s a week I won’t be writing, because I’ll be on the road. It’s never perfect, but on the other hand it makes me feel happy…And I would love to clone myself. I mean I could make personal appearances for the next 2 years, but then people would start noticing that they haven’t read anything new by me in the past 2 years. [CT] In all of your works (thus far) to which of your characters would you most liken yourself? (most people would say Dream of the Endless, but would you agree?) [NG] Pretty much everyone in “Sandman” is me, but I’m every bit as much Pumpkinhead as I was Dream in that. And I think I’m funnier, and have slightly better perspective on most things. In them, the only characters who I really sort of just based on me very, very solidly would be little Charles Rowland in the middle of “Season of Mists: in a huge school he was left alone at a school (although I was never really left alone at a school), but he was pretty much me at that age. And other than that you steal from yourself, just as you steal from lots and lots of other people when you write. That moment when you start writing, that person that you’re writing becomes the character in the story, so even in those places where…. Probably the nearest I’ve come to writing about someone is actually 100% me, was a story called “The Price”. It’s about a black cat who turns up at night and saves a family. And that’s my house, and I really have that cat (although I didn’t actually see him fight the Devil one night). [CT] In your opinion, who is the most underrated author of all time? [NG] Out there writing right now, I would probably point to Gene Wolfe as the finest, smartest writer in American who is not on the giant, critical, “these are the most important people out there” radar. I keep waiting for the world to say “Ah, Gene Wolfe, most important writer out there”, and I’m starting to come to the conclusion that maybe it’s going to occur 20 years after Gene’s dead. Or maybe Gene will just remain this writer that people love. There was an amazing article written by Michael Dirda of the Washington Post, where he says ‘We have our Kipling and we have our Dickens and it’s Gene Wolfe, and no one’s ever heard of him’. [CT] What was your favorite book of 2009? Favorite movie? [NG] Does it sound really wanky if I say Coraline? It wound up having this huge crate of emotional baggage for me that no other movie actually did. There were other movies that I liked in 2009, but Coraline was the only one that, every moment of it had my heart, because I knew what it had taken Henry Selick to make it and to put it on that screen. And because it was Henry’s movie and I was so damned proud of him, I would definitely say Coraline. Favorite book, probably Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis really fascinated me, because taking a text that everyone is so familiar with, and telling it very, very straight and somehow by doing that-in setting it in a Middle East that would have looked kinda like the Middle East-rendering it human and dealing with people as they should have been dealt with. It’s made so that it’s like you’re reading something very big and very important. [CT] Have you ever been to Santa Barbara before? If so, what do you like most about it? If not, what are you looking forward to most? [NG] I have, I’m really excited about coming out to Santa Barbara because back in the days…well these days Universities like me to come and talk, and these days there are university courses on Sandman and course on graphic novels; people study Neil Gaiman in children’s fiction, people study him in fantasy, but in 1994 nothing like that was happening. In 1994 the first time I was ever invited to speak at a university it was in St. Louis and I remember the English department boycotting because the Art department actually brought me in, and the English department boycotted it because the art department brought me in and that needed to be disapproved of. And that was true everywhere except Santa Barbara. UCSB had professor Frank McConnell, and Frank McConnell was absolutely the most inspiring, funny, swearing, cigarette ash-bedecked, boozy, wonderful people I’ve ever run into; one of these amazing, larger-than-life guys. And Frank used to have me in to UCSB, and honestly I would come once a year and he would teach a graphic novel of mine-one year it would be “Game of You”, one year it would be “Mr. Punch”- and he would teach these things and I would come in. And I never really knew if he taught them just as an excuse to have me come in, and teach his class at the end of the year. I think it was really just an excuse so we could have dinner. But there was also a level where he took enormous pleasure being essentially the only person in the entire of acadaemia who had noticed me and wanting to show me off. I have enormously fond memories. Of course the late Frank McConnell who died much too soon. [CT] So with your upcoming trip what would you say you’re looking forward to most? [NG] Actually mostly just going back to UCSB because I really do have such fond memories of talking there and it really was the first place that 17 years ago it was the first place that I went and talked. It was the first talks I ever gave, and it was terrifying to me, but it was made easy by Frank. So that’s what I’m looking forward to. [CT] Thank you so much for your time, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed speaking with you. Congratulations on your engagement to Amanda Palmer…what a wonderful way to begin the year! [NG] I’m so happy! (straightening up and grinning madly…only moments before he he’d been slowly sinking from view of the Skype Cam in his great, black swivel chair) I’m the luckiest man in the world!