Interview – Cleveland Plain Dealer

Washington, Julie E., “Author’s own fantasy is good night’s sleep”, Plain Dealer, 4 July 2001, 5E.

Fantasy author Neil Gaiman was fresh from a nap on a futon in the basement of Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Shaker Square.

Most authors dash into the bookstore, sign some autographs, shake a few hands and leave. Gaiman wasn’t most authors. Gaiman was exhausted. He had been at a Dayton signing until midnight the previous day, then ate bad room service food at 1 a.m. and caught an early plane to Cleveland on three hours’ sleep. The nap was necessary.

Gaiman, 40, sees his nerve-shredding book tour as a means to a goal: making his latest novel, “American Gods” (HarperCollins, $26), a New York Times best seller. His tour began June 17, two days before the book was published.

“American Gods” “has the opportunity to be something big and serious,” Gaiman said over an omelet at Yours Truly. He believes it has the potential to be the book that propels him out of the fantasy and comics genres and into mainstream success. Gaiman’s previous books, “Neverwhere” and “Stardust,” have sold steadily, but not enough at their initial publication to attract the Times’ attention. “With ‘American Gods,’ we want to make it happen,” he said.

The book is about Gaiman’s two biggest obsessions, love and death. A war is brewing between the Old World gods and new gods worshipped today. “People believe in television,” Gaiman said. “People believe in the future, the Internet, the media and Wall Street and Monday Night Football.” The character Shadow is released from prison early when his wife dies in an accident. Shadow gets a job working for Mr. Wednesday, a grifter, crook, liar and charmer. He is also the Viking god Odin. Wednesday and Shadow travel the country, asking other gods to join Wednesday’s side in the coming battle.

Gaiman spent five years researching mythology and American folklore, and visiting the weird tourist attractions that figure into the book. “American Gods” is also part thriller and murder mystery, elements that Gaiman thinks will appeal to nonfantasy readers.

On a deeper level, the novel is an outsider’s examination of American culture as a polyglot of influences and beliefs from Europe, Africa and Asia. Gaiman grew up in Britain, where the culture is thousands of years old.

“I was trying to explain [America] to myself” using myth and fantasy, he said.

He realizes that most readers are what he called “mythologically challenged,” but he thinks they’ll enjoy the novel even if they can’t pinpoint who the disguised god-characters are.

“You don’t have to know anything at all about West African spider gods to know [the character] Mr. Nancy is a funny old man,” Gaiman said. “If you recognize them, it’s brownie points.”

He’s publicizing his book tour and giving readers a peek at the publishing world with an online journal posted at www.neilgaiman.com. Entries include what it’s like asking other authors for blurbs, what an author escort does and advice for fans coming to book signings (“Know your own name, and be able to say it under pressure”).

He hopes the journal ends with the news that “American Gods” made the Times’ best-sellers list. Most people assume the prestigious list reflects the books that sold the highest number of copies, but actually it reflects sales for only a select group of authors that the newspaper tracks.

When he learned that, Gaiman said, “It made me feel partly amused. I don’t quite see why the New York Times list is regarded as so much more important than any of those other lists.”

Gaiman first earned prominence with his Sandman horror graphic novels. Currently he’s working on a screenplay for a movie adaptation of three-part graphic novel series “Death: The High Cost of Living,” published in 1993.

He also plans to direct the script, something he’s never done before. “I’m pretty confident,” he said. “I just don’t want somebody else to screw it up. If I make a mess of it, I make a mess.”

When he got stuck in the middle of writing “American Gods,” he started a new project, a children’s book titled “Coraline.” She’s a little girl who discovers she has another set of parents, who are much cooler than her original mom and dad, except they have buttons instead of eyes. “It’s scary and strange and wonderful, very much for children of all ages,” Gaiman said. “Coraline” is due to be published next summer.

Gaiman sees good things happening in the fantasy genre, and is heartened by the legions of children reading the Harry Potter books.

“It’s a place [young readers] can go that is unlike any other place, and it’s welcoming, and it’s a book place,” he said. “And one day, when they’re old enough, I will take them by the hand and take them to my place.”

Postscript: Last Thursday, Gaiman learned “American Gods” will debut at No. 10 on the July 8 New York Times best-sellers list.

“I’m a) delighted and b) absolutely exhausted,” Gaiman relayed by e-mail, “and I don’t think either of these things is a surprise.”

E-mail: jwashington@plaind.com Phone: 216-999-4539