Ford, Rory, at “Sandman is coming”, Evening News, 28 June 2001, p.4
NEIL GAIMAN writes fantasies and wild flights of the imagination but it’s unlikely that even he could have come up with anything as outlandish and, frankly, unlikely as his own career.
Nearly 20 years ago he was a struggling hack in London, writing articles for porn mags. Ten years ago he was penning four colour fictions for even more maligned publications – American comic books. Now he’s one of the most popular and respected British authors of his generation. What went right?
Gaiman’s six-year run on DC Comics’ Sandman, an epic collection of tales concerning Morpheus, Lord Of Dreams and his similarly eternal family, has been kept in perpetual print ever since the series ended in 1995.
The book collections are the cornerstone of all those rather sinister looking ‘Graphic Novel’ sections that lie on the fringes of any large bookstore and have won him fans as diverse as Norman Mailer, Stephen King, Tori Amos and Quentin Tarantino.
Next month he visits Edinburgh’s Waterstone’s West End to read from his new novel American Gods in an event that is guaranteed to sell out. Yet his name still isn’t as well-known in this country as several other (lesser) British writers. If you haven’t heard of Gaiman before then that is almost entirely down to the critical elitism that refuses to acknowledge that anything worthwhile could come out of fiction that actually stretches the muscles of the imagination.
Gaiman writes about gods and monsters, near-myths and dark fables. However, the Great British Literary Establishment prefers thinly-veiled autobiography – novels written by novelists who leave their wife and three children to write a novel about a novelist who leaves their wife and three children etc. And as for anyone who dabbles in the adolescent wasteland of comics, well …
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Gaiman upped sticks and moved to America nine years ago. Another hot writer chasing the American dream? The reason for the move was far more pragmatic he insists.
“My wife’s family moved back to Minnesota and they wanted to see the kids,” explains Gaiman. “I was also getting very pissed off with the international exchange rate because I was being paid entirely in dollars. My wife proposed we move and I said ‘only if you can find an Addams Family house’ and, bless her, she did.”
Now Gaiman lives out his childhood dream of living in “a large rambling house of uncertain location with a weird turret and a huge wraparound staircase.”
He admits his new novel, American Gods, is an attempt to understand his adopted homeland, a country that even now seems to leave him in a state of humorous bewilderment.
“This place is no melting pot,” he says on the line from the States. “Middle America is filled with people who have come from all over the world and it’s almost like they jettison everything they bring with them so they can embrace a culture which is led by David Letterman,” puzzles Gaiman.
One of the things that the tired and huddled masses reject when they enter the land of the free are their old gods and mythical figures. “People from other countries in America will happily talk about fairies and leprechauns, but only in the context of things that exist ‘back in the old country’. If you ask them if there any leprechauns in America they’ll just laugh at you, so obviously there are not,” says Gaiman wistfully.
Gaiman has been courted by Hollywood. His collaborative novel with British comic fantasist Terry Pratchett, looks set to go before the cameras under the aegis of Terry Gilliam. Gaiman won’t be holding his breath, however. A scripting job on a proposed Modesty Blaise movie with Quentin Tarantino five years ago came to naught.
“The thing I love about books or comics is I write it, I give it to a publisher and they publish – I love that. With movies you get obscene amounts of money – really obscene amounts – but after writing the script there’s no guarantee that a film will be made.”
Frustrating it must be, but it’s still a long way from writing articles for Penthouse, hardly the most august of journals from which to launch your literary career? Gaiman laughs. “It was actually an incredibly practical decision on my part. In the first few weeks out of the starting gate I sold an article to She magazine and an article to Penthouse. She paid me #80 and never published it and Penthouse paid #300 and it wound up in the next issue.”
Fast forward a decade and Norman Mailer was praising Sandman as “a comic book for intellectuals”. Quite a leap, but it demonstrates the potency mythical figures can still have when used to examine contemporary culture. “I don’t believe that gods walk the streets of America, but I believe that metaphors do and gods are an enormously powerful metaphor,” says Gaiman, who is earnest about the power of the fantastic as medium for serious work.
“I think JK Rowling is saying more about what it means to be a kid by writing about a bunch of kids going off to a magic school than somebody probably would do by writing an earnest and exact novel about kids in an inner-city comprehensive because you don’t have to talk about what’s real to say something that’s true.”
It’s a gracious compliment when you consider that Gaiman had published a four-part series, The Books Of Magic, about a bespectacled boy who was schooled in the ways of magic, back in 1990. Harry Potter was still a twinkle in Rowling’s imagination. Her first novel, Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone wasn’t published until ’97 but there’s certainly no rancour on Gaiman’s part.
“I think there are a lot of similarities,” he concurs, “but I am so far from the first person to create a kid with magical potential and JK Rowling was so far from the first person to create a kid who went to magic school,” he chuckles.
“It would probably be far more accurate to say that we both owe an awful lot to TH White and The Sword In The Stone and probably to CS Lewis and a whole bunch of other sources.”
Gaiman’s new opus is a road novel that imagines what becomes of the disenfranchised figures of myth and legend as they try to eke out a living where the new gods are mobile phones, TV and the internet. Babylonian love goddesses end up as hookers while Odin pumps gas – sadly appropriate in a country that seems content to forget about its collective history.
“Take Scotland, for example,” offers Gaiman. “Now, there’s a country that’s got a happy, solid 2000 years of history – you can be pretty sure of which clan was killing which 500 years ago. In America they have absolutely no idea. People come from all over the world, they end up in this gigantic country and then they go to eat at McDonalds,” he laughs dryly.
“I remember Terry Pratchett and I were watching a Hallowe’en parade one night in New York. It was a parade of monsters and creatures, hundreds and hundreds of them just walking down the street and Terry turned to me and said: ‘They’d never do this in Britain, because there are things there that would wake up,’ and who am I to argue.”
It becomes apparent from talking to Gaiman that nine years in the US has left him “enormously homesick for Britain, I miss the irony and the sense of pace,” he says.
Even now he is “embarrassed and a bit shocked” at being recognised in the street. “Whenever I’m recognised in the street my jaw drops,” says Gaiman. “That’s why I’ve always refused to do the David Letterman show or appear in People magazine.
“Stephen King told me that if he had his life to live over again, he’d probably do it all the same, including the mistakes, except he wouldn’t do the American Express ads again. It was when he did this ‘do you know me?’ ad, that was t
he point that everyone in America knew what he looked like,” Gaiman shudders.
Like it or not, It’s something that Gaiman will probably have to deal with soon – whether he appears on chat shows or not.
“I always used to like the fact that the New York Times Review of Books didn’t know who I was – I think they do know. “The point where everyone starts taking you seriously is a strange one and, for me, it’s immediately followed by the thought; ‘hmmmm, maybe I was more comfortable in the gutter.'”
Neil Gaiman, Waterstone’s West End, Monday July 9, tickets free, available from Waterstone’s