Interview – Vancouver Sun

Mallon, Matthew . “Neil Gaiman in the U.S. of A.” Vancouver Sun 07-28-2001: H17.

Once the leather jacket and the shades come off, Neil Gaiman is all floppy locks and a storyteller’s soothing lilt. He’s at the very end of a six-week book tour, a tad crumpled from a cross-country Canada 3000 flight, and he’s been talking about his book for so long that there’s no question for which he doesn’t have a thoughtful response. A charming, sweethearted and generous professional who likes an audience, he’s poised to gain a massive, Stephen King-sized one with his latest novel, American Gods.

Sitting across the table from me in front of a mountain of sushi, he’s a little bit rock star (the leather jacket), a little bit self- deprecating English schoolboy. (He tells an amusing anecdote about the jacket: It was a gift from friend and fellow writer Jonathan Carroll, who’d bought it for himself but then realized that some people can wear a leather jacket and look good, while others just look “like complete dickheads.” FYI, Gaiman looks pretty cool in it.)

Fuelled by green tea and raw fish, Gaiman says that having started work in the much-maligned medium of comics opened him up as a writer. “I was essentially free to work in any genre I wanted within comics, and nobody cared. That was where I did my apprenticeship as a storyteller.’ ‘

He has since moved on to prose and film but hasn’t really left comics behind. “I’m hoping to go back and do some more comics around the second half of this year, write some stuff for a book for DC, which they’ve apparently announced is coming out by December.”

About nine years ago, Gaiman moved from England to America. But not glitzy N.Y./L.A. America: He lives in the heartland, Minnesota. The move was initiated by his American wife, who had family roots in the Minneapolis area. “When the children were of an age when she felt they should encounter that side of the family, I told her if she could find me an Addams Family house, I would move.”

He stops, delivers a smile of domestic happiness. “She took it as a challenge, and she went over, found me an Addams Family house.”

That change of locale led directly to American Gods. His relationship with America is “like one’s relationship with Disney World or Las Vegas. Initially you cannot believe them. Then you realize they exist without irony. And then you realize they go down much further than you think. And then you realize that, as a writer, you have an awful lot to say about them.

“Coming out to the U.S., I discovered there was a whole world that not only had I not written about, but it didn’t seem like anybody had ever written about. All this strange Middle American stuff. There’ s all these Los Angelenos and New Yorkers who would say, `Why have you set an entire novel in fly-over country?’ And it’s like, well, because nobody else does. Because I was living out there and seeing all this weird sh–.”

American Gods is a fun read, certainly, but it contains what Gaiman self-deprecatingly refers to as “trenchant social criticism.” One of the major themes is particularly au courant in these days of anti- globalization rage — that of regional idiosyncrasies put at risk by homogenized mass culture. We’re all being dragged into the Yankee melting pot, whether we like it or not.

“Of the two models, `the melting pot’ and `the mosaic,’ I prefer the Canadian one. I like the idea that nobody is expected to give up anything. You take on the attributes and you proudly bring stuff to it. In America, one always feels there’s this sort of attitude that you are meant to arrive here and give up lots and lots of cool things.”

But Gaiman believes regionalism may be a tougher beast to kill than strident critics of globalization imagine. “There are things left around the edges,” he says.

“One of the reasons I liked writing [in American Gods] about the little bit of Wisconsin is that in the upper peninsula, that little area of Wisconsin, they have [Cornish] pasties. And I put that into the book. I just found it terribly interesting. You have this tiny little area, maybe 40 to 50 square miles, in which you can get pasties.

“The Cornishmen came over to do the tin mines at the turn of the century. They’ve all gone, but they left one food behind them. So there was this little regional thing you can only get there. That is so cool.” Big grin.

American Gods is also about the relationship between the past and the future. “I haven’t quite figured out where Canadians stand on this one,” he says. “Europeans and the English have a very nervous attitude toward the future. They sidle into the future. They are quite sure that for every cool thing you get from the future, you have to give something up.

“Yes, you can a have a big store on the outskirts of town that sells everything, but you may have just lost all those nice little corner shops that have been in that same place for a hundred years and are really handy at 11 o’clock at night when you’re out of stuff. So there’ s always sort of a going backwards and forwards.

“America tends to head into the future rather like a lover running in slow motion over a field of poppies in a Tampax commercial. They just want it. They want the future so badly. And I wanted to try and talk about that.”

In this context, Gaiman brings up one of American Gods’ more unpleasant new deities, Technical Boy.

“What was weird was when I started writing him, in 1999, the height of the Internet, I tried to make him feel ever so slightly dated. I was using Bill Gibsonian tropes, Bruce Sterling tropes, little Neal Stephenson tropes, just to build him up. He comes from a future that’ s just a tiny bit past its sell-by date…

“There was that line, which, when I wrote it, was still just about hip — where Bilquis [a minor character] says to him, `So you must be one of those dot-coms I’ve read about.’ And he says yeah. What I love is how dated that is. It’s an eight-month-old line and it’s dated. That’s so cool.

“Because everything I got to say in there about the sell-by dates on futures, about the nervousness of these new gods — yes, they get completely believed in, but they are also completely disposable.”