Interview – Birmingham Post

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Birmingham Post, 07/18/2001, p13.
“Neil’s odysseys and oddities: Neil Gaiman’s new book is a history lesson for Americans”
Alison Jones

Neil Gaiman know his place in the fantasy fiction pecking order.

‘I would say I’m probably a second division British treasure.

‘Terry Pratchett and JK Rowling are the two most special cases on the planet and if you add in Helen Fielding and Richard Curtis you would have a complete set of the British (writers) who are treasured.

‘They are the ones that everybody knows about and loves. I have always been a specialised taste, though things are changing with this novel.’

This novel is American Gods, a surreal road trip that seems to be part Jack Kerouac, part Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

It follows the modern odyssey of Shadow, a man freshly released from prison to find his wife is dead, his job is gone and everything he had been certain about in his life is now untrue.

He finds himself employed by an enigmatic man called Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a former god and the king of America.

They take the tourist road less travelled across the States, meeting other myths and deities who are now living humdrum lives, pumping gas(in the case of Odin) or becoming streetwalkers (Babylonian love goddesses).

‘I don’t think I could have set this anywhere other than America,’ said Neil who moved there nine years ago.

‘America is a culture where everyone who arrives gives up everything and embraces the future.

‘The British do not embrace the future. We sidle towards it with one eye on the past. We feel that in order to go into the future you have to give up many good things as well. Like you can have giant superstores but you have to lose cornershops which are nice.

‘It’s like the old joke that America is a country that thinks 100 years is a long time and Britain is a country which thinks 100 miles is a long way.’

Neil who looks like a retired rock star with his unruly mop of black hair and uniform of black jeans black T-shirt and black leather bikers jacket, began his writing life as a journalist, doing interviews for national magazines including Penthouse.

He turned his back on hack-dom after penning a quick cash-in biography of Birmingham supergroup Duran Duran.

It went straight to the top of the book charts and a week later the publisher’s bust.

‘I told myself that was the last time I was going to do anything for the money because when I try it always goes wrong.’

Instead he switched to the more financially unpredictable genre of fiction and swiftly became one of the world’s most successful graphic novelists as the author of the cult Sandman series.

It sold over a million copies every year and was described by Norman Mailer as ‘a comic strip for intellectuals’.

‘Out of all the things I have written, novels, short stories, films, novels, the comics are probably the hardest because there is a terrifying economy of words,’ says Neil.

‘You probably have 30 words to a panel, six or seven panels to a page – nine would be pushing it – and 24 pages to a comic.’

His award winning three part series Death: The High Cost of Living became a best seller while his novel Neverwhere was made into a television series.

Collaborators include Terry Pratchett, with whom he wrote Good Omens which is now being made into a film by Terry Gilliam, and Alice Cooper, who named his album after his and Neil’s comicThe Last Temptation.

‘Working with Terry was like being an apprentice to a master craftsman,’ recalls Neil, ‘I would give him stuff and he would say ‘if you change this word it will be two per cent funnier’.’

Not that Neil needs to be unduly modest. He has already won ‘all the awards you can and a few you can’t for comics, and a couple they decided you couldn’t win for comics anymore once they had given to me, which caused great embarrassment.’

His laid-back humour, which borders on glibness, is one of the things he misses about Britain along with ‘irony, good radio, real money, trains and adverts that don’t treat you as if you are an idiot.’

Neil lives with his wife and children in a turreted Addams Family style house near Minneapolis, where they moved to be close to his wife’s relatives.

‘If they had really explained to me about the winters there before I went over I don’t think we would ever have moved.

‘When you get there you notice all these giant hamster tunnels linking the buildings and you realise that is so people don’t have to go outside.

‘And then one day the temperature drops to minus 40 and you are down in science fiction country where the physical properties of matter change.’

As part of his research for new book Neil took to the road to explore the interior of America, discovering cultural curiosities and ‘the places you don’t normally reach in fiction’.

‘There are parts of Wisconsin where you can still buy Cornish pasties, which dates back to the time when the Cornish people emigrated there to work the tin mines.

‘During the summer all over America they hold these Renaissance Festivals where for four to six weeks people get dressed up every weekend and walk around talking in these odd Shakespearean accents.

‘Another time I was driving in the middle of nowhere when I came across these barns with the words ‘See Rock City, The World’s Wonder’ or ‘See Seven States from Rock City’ painted on the roof.

‘I assumed it was just around the corner but this being America it was another day and a half’s driving. Once I saw it I knew I had to set the climax of the book there.’

Although the book is about gods it is not really about religion. It is about the superstitions and beliefs that the immigrants brought with them to the new world, then replaced them with other objects of worship like hamburger bars and television.

The strange attitude the Americans have towards what little past they have, re-writing the bits they don’t like, was brought home to Neil when his son Mike returned from school one day and told him his teacher had said that Neil was a liar.

‘I asked him why and he said ‘because I told him what you told me about how people were transported to America for stealing instead of being hanged in England and that was where a lot of people in the Virginias and Carolinas had come from. My teacher said that wasn’t true and the only people who came to America were pilgrims seeking freedom of religion.’

‘And I thought there you go, a history teacher who knows nothing about history. They know this nice, clean, sterile Disney version they have been taught and they aren’t interested in anything else.

‘So I thought I would put a little real history in the book just for them.’

American Gods is available from Headline and costs pounds 10.