Interview – Austin American Statesman

From today’s Austin American Statesman

The world of mainstream comic books lately has turned into an unlikely magnet for writers renowned for their work in other media. Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Brad Meltzer and Denise Mina are just a few of the big-name authors who have recently turned their talents to superhero or horror comics.

Rarer, though, is traffic moving in the other direction. Few writers have turned a successful comic book career into fame in other media. Surely the most prominent is Neil Gaiman, who first gained fame in the 1990s as the author of the popular Sandman comic book. Gaiman has since become a screenwriter and the best-selling author of fantasy novels such as Neverwhere and American Gods. (Though he hasn’t quite left his old profession behind; his Marvel Comics miniseries, 1602, was the best-selling comic of 2004.)

Gaiman stays busy, but this is a particularly hectic month for him. His latest novel, Anansi Boys, came out last week and a movie he wrote, the visually stunning Mirrormask, opens in Austin this week. He’s also on book tour, which brings him to Austin on Monday. We spoke to him by phone from his home outside Minneapolis, where this native Brit now lives.

Austin American-Statesman: I saw a screening of “Mirrormask”, and what struck me was that, more than almost any movie I can think of, it gave me that feeling of almost physical immersion that I got as a kid reading comic books.

Neil Gaiman: Oh good.

Was that a feeling you and (director/visual designer) Dave McKean were going for?

In something like the “Star Wars” movies, they’re spending an enormous amount of money and computer time to make things look like reality — the actors are performing in front of a blue screen, but they’re working hard to make everything look very, very real; they’re making it look like a really real conference room.

I think from David’s point of view — and mine, but I really just got dragged along, saying, “Oh yeah, sure, whatever you say” — there was definitely a level on which we didn’t want to re-create reality. Everybody knows what reality looks like. And furthermore, reality is really expensive; we only had $4 million, so it was much more of a matter of what could we create out of the money we had. Part of it seemed like, “Let’s just create the world! There’s no reason why the sky can’t look like rusting metal.”

Some of that stuff came as a surprise to me. I’d write a scene set in the palace of the Dark Queen and expect it to be vaguely palacelike, with walls and stone floors and giant windows, and then Dave would give me something that looked more like the interior of a human body. Dave’s whole thing was, “I’ve taken the texture of a hummingbird wing” — no, the texture of a dragonfly wing — “and stretched it and done things to it.” And I just thought that was amazing.

The distinction between “tiger stories” and “spider stories” that you write about in “Anansi Boys” — that is, between stories whose heroes rely on brute force and those who rely on cleverness — reminds me of the difference between “Mirrormask” and most special effects-laden movies, which are about explosions and stuff like that. Most special effects movies seem to be “tiger movies.” Is it tough getting Hollywood to greenlight a spider-type movie?

I think it’s tough to get Hollywood to greenlight any movie. When Terry Gilliam was trying to make a movie of my novel “Good Omens,” he had Johnny Depp and Robin Williams as the leads, he had a script, he had Kirsten Dunst, he had $45 million commited from around the world, and all he needed was a Hollywood studio to say, “Here’s $15 million and yes, we will distribute it.” And he couldn’t get anybody to do that, and the film died. It’s very hard. Hollywood is run on fear, and they’re terrified. On the other hand, more and more of my stuff seems to be getting greenlit, and nothing so far that I’ve written has relied on brute force — not even the “Beowulf” adaptation that Robert Zemeckis is currently shooting. So I think we’re OK.

Your novel “Neverwhere” has such a deep sense of London as a place. I’m wondering if you think you’re at a stage — or will you ever get to a stage — where you have as deep a sense of America? Or does your outsider status give you some sort of advantage writing about America?

Well, I think the joy for me of writing “American Gods” was trying to write about a certain part of America, what tends to be known, rather foolishly, as “flyover country” — to give some sense of that place, or at least describe my reactions to it. And what was interesting was when I saw the reviews in places like New York or L.A., people were explaining how I completely missed America. But a lot of people in the Midwest were writing about how nice it was to see somebody writing about the Midwest that they lived in. The main conclusion I came to about America is that anybody who thinks it’s one country is deluding themselves.

Various African disapora folkways permeate “Anansi Boys,” but you hardly make a big deal about the race of the characters. In fact, I don’t think you ever refer to the characters as black — you simply refer to other characters as being white.

It always irritated me that white is often considered the default color in fiction. And I thought it would be interesting to write a book in which the reader was going to have to figure out the race of the characters. You don’t start a book with a white character and say, “This is a white character.”

New Orleans is often thought of as one of America’s more gothic cities. Does the city’s present destruction make it more difficult to write about magic in America?

I don’t think it makes it more difficult to write about magic in America. It does make it more difficult to write about New Orleans. I’ve been working for the past six months with some people on a TV pilot that was going to be set — the series was going to be set — in New Orleans. And now I’ve got a finished script that I’m staring at rather lugubriously, trying to decide whether to keep it in New Orleans — in a New Orleans that we might not ever be able to film in again, or least not for another year or two. I want to keep it there. But what do we do?
–Jeff Salamon

Neil is signing at 7pm tomorrow at Book People603 N. Lamar Blvd., Austin, TX.