With many thanks to Laura Watkinson for all her work in translating this profile reported by Bart Holsters in De Morgen from the original Dutch!
Original title: American Gods
Translated by Hugo and Nienke Kuipers
524 p., 26.95.
Original title: Coraline
Translated by Henny van Gulik and
173 p., 21.95.
Neil Gaiman on his writing
If you’ve read American Gods, you’ll know that Neil Gaiman is an author to keep an eye on. His career path is an illustration of the theory of evolution: he began at the bottom of the ladder as a reviewer, has demonstrated his command of a variety of genres and is now on the verge of breaking into the mainstream. So there is still hope!
Neil Gaiman (1960), a Brit who has lived in the United States for years, began his career as a journalist and reviewer for racy English magazines such as Penthouse and Knave, then became a creator of quality comic strips and gained a huge cult following in America with his Sandman series. But that was only the beginning. He published children’s books, wrote a fantasy novel together with Terry Pratchett, made the British television series Neverwhere, a strange story set in a mysterious world under London, wrote screenplays and worked on his first big novel between these projects. Since the publication and international success of American Gods, Gaiman has not stood still: this spring saw the publication of Coraline, a dark tale about a small girl who enters a sinister parallel world and does not know how to get back, and in the United States, Wolves in the Walls, another children’s book that can also be enjoyed by adults, has just come out.
Everything that Neil Gaiman touches seems to turn to gold (so we’d rather not shake hands with him), but he remains very level-headed about it all. When reviewers compare Coraline to Alice in Wonderland, he takes it with a healthy pinch of salt: “Of course it’s flattering, but you might as well compare apples and pears. I love Carroll, but Alice is completely different from Coraline. Alice is just a guide to Lewis Carroll’s fantasy world, she doesn’t actually do anything and you don’t find out much about her; Coraline is a much more real character.” What the books do of course have in common is the fact that big people can enjoy them just as much as little people. Gaiman: “For adults, Coraline is a horror story. I’ve noticed that children find it a lot less creepy, because they miss some of the references. But they do find it exciting.”
Hasn’t a horror book written for young children unleashed negative reactions in America, where some schools and libraries have in the past had no qualms about putting books such as the Harry Potter series on the banned list? “It’s not that bad. The success of Harry Potter has changed a lot of things.”
He explains that the process of writing Coraline was a long one: he began the book at some point in 1990 for his first daughter, Holly, then moved to the United States and couldn’t find the time to write, so the manuscript lay untouched for seven or eight years. “Then my second daughter came along and I thought: it’s now or never. But when I showed my publisher the first few chapters in 1991 or 1992, he said: this is the best thing you’ve ever written, but we can’t publish it, a book written for adults and for children, a kiddies’ spine-chiller, no one will buy it. I am convinced that what he said was true at that moment in time. But that was before Harry Potter. People understand that this sort of book is not really about the dark arts, but that it’s all about metaphor.”
He repeats the G.K. Chesterton quote that is used as the introduction to Coraline: “’Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.’ I have had hostile reactions in the past, with Sandman. When my publisher received a letter from Concerned Mothers of America, who vowed to launch a campaign against what they referred to as the violence, sex and magic in the stories, we knew that it would be a bestseller. (laughs) But it is true; there are a lot of mad people in America. In many respects it’s a crazy country.”
That madness is portrayed in abundance in American Gods, a surprising fantasy thriller with leading parts played by a mishmash of gods that have accompanied different groups of immigrants from all corners of the globe and are slowly being forgotten. Gaiman’s American gods have become marginal figures:
“It is a metaphor for the experience of the immigrants. If you come as a Greek to live in Amsterdam, you’re not expected to stop being Greek. If you move to London as a Turk, no one asks you not to be a Turk anymore. But if you emigrate to America, you want to become American and are prepared to give up your culture and your past. That’s where the metaphor of the gods comes from.”
He is somewhat of an emigrant himself – he has been living in the States for more than ten years – and is still fascinated by “what isn’t in America and what is. What isn’t there? The image that you bring with you as a European. You think that you know America, because you’ve seen it in films and on TV so many times. I was attracted to all that American mythology – America as a black-and-white film from the 1950s, but I soon found out that the mythology is wafer-thin. Instead, you discover a completely new dimension, a land full of surprises, with places and people that you could never make up.”
American Gods was a bull’s eye. It scored just as well with the critics as with readers and won not one, but all three of the top American prizes for science fiction, fantasy and horror: the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award and the Bram Stoker Award. Does that make him the Genre King?
“What meaning does that have now, a genre? The distinction between genre and mainstream is becoming more and more blurred. This is partly because culture itself has changed. We now live in the world of the old science-fiction stories. Clones, mysterious epidemics, terrorists carrying out insane attacks… the world has turned into a Hollywood B-movie. Terrorists hijacking planes and crashing them into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon – that’s Schwarzenegger, isn’t it? Reality has caught up with fantasy and many definitions have become irrelevant. And, actually, you do notice that modern mainstream writers, people like Michael Chabon, have been inspired by genre fiction. They still aren’t genre writers, but they are genre readers. And, conversely, can you still call someone like Elmore Leonard a genre writer?
“A long time ago I read a book by a film critic – I can’t remember her name right now – who made a very interesting comparison between hardcore porn films and musicals. She saw an identical scheme in them. In a musical, the plot is there to keep the songs apart. You have different kinds of song – the boy’s song, the girl’s song, the chorus, the two girls together, and so on – and the plot makes sure that they don’t all get sung at the same time. It’s just the same with porn: the plot is there to keep the different kinds of sex apart. When I read that, I realized that you could use the same rationale to sort out what is genre fiction and what isn’t. It shows the difference between a Western novel and a novel that is set in the Old West: in the first one, the plot’s just there to keep the gunfights apart, but in the second there might not even be a gunfight. Or it shows the difference between
a spy novel and a novel about spies… To me, that’s the best way to look at genre and mainstream.”
But there still is a distinction?
“Nowadays it’s mainly a handy way to find what you’re looking for when you go into a bookshop. No one says that Coraline’s fantasy; no, it’s a children’s book. But what they really mean is that you can find it in the children’s department in the bookshop. American Gods is placed in the literature section almost as often as it is in the science-fiction and fantasy section, so I suspect that in ten years or so I’ll be mainstream myself.”
Coraline also demonstrates the blurring of the genres. But isn’t writing for children a little different from writing for adults?
“It’s more difficult, because adults know a number of conventions that are still new for children. Every word has to count. And you know, even though American Gods won all those prizes, I think that Coraline will outlive it. I often think of A.A. Milne, the spiritual father of Winnie the Pooh. In the 1920s he was the assistant editor of Punch and had a great deal of success as a playwright. In just one season, five of his plays were on at the same time in the West End. He wrote dozens of books and was a famous author. If someone had told him that fifty years after his death we’d only know him because of his children’s books… So you see how relative it all is.”