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Neil Gaiman : RevolutionSF Interview
© Jayme Lynn Blaschke
May 28, 2002

Best-known for his groundbreaking work on The Sandman from DC Comics, Neil Gaiman has quickly become one of the most important fantasists of contemporary literature. The best-selling author of several novels including Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, and Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, Gaiman has also authored the critically-acclaimed children's books The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and the forthcoming Coraline. His short fiction has appeared in the collections Smoke and Mirrors and Angels and Visitations. A native of Great Britain, Gaiman currently resides in a gothic mansion in the American Midwest.

Your Sandman stories were essentially complex, serialized epics in a marginalized medium. As your stature as a writer grows, I can't help but see a parallel with the career of another product of Great Britain, Charles Dickens. Have you ever considered the parallels between your careers?

I don't know if I particularly considered parallels. I do remember, toward the end of Sandman, I was reading Bleak House for pleasure. There were points in there where I'd go, "Okay. You know what you're doing with this. You don't know what you're doing with this. This is just something that you're writing to fill in a few pages, but you're putting something in that may become important later. This is something where you think you've done something that isn't important, but actually it will become important to you later."

I recognized the beats. I recognized the technique reading that. There's a level on which you know something when you're going into a story, but a lot of the stuff will turn up on the fly and you'll use it. You have to sort of learn to be open to the infinite. You learn to toss balls in the air, not necessarily knowing how they'll come down, but knowing they will be descending at the point where you'll need them.

Terry Pratchett had a character in a book recently—the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, who quit before they became famous. His name was Ronnie Soak, and Terry had written him without knowing which horseman he was. He just named him Ronnie Soak, because it sounded like the right kind of name. There came a point where he was writing Ronnie Soak going past a shop window in which everything was reflected, and you'd see his name reflected in the window. And it said "Chaos." That was the moment where the penny dropped for Terry, who this character was. You can ask yourself questions: Did you know this unconsciously before? And when you're involved in serial narrative, you don't necessarily know.

So is that kind of sub-conscious, serendipitous writing unique to the serial form?

No, what it does is . . . In the serial form, you realize early on you are locked in. In normal writing, if you're working on a novel, and you get to chapter 11 and you realize you need a gun in the desk drawer, you just go back to the desk drawer when we saw it in chapter two. You make sure that you mention there was a gun in it, and when people read the book, they go "Ah yeah. Got a gun in the desk drawer." When somebody goes for it in chapter 11, it's there.

You can't do that if people have already seen that drawer, and they've already seen that it was empty in chapter two. So you learn to make decisions without necessarily knowing why you've made that decision. You'll put a gun in that drawer because something has to be in the drawer, and then in chapter 11 you'll look around and go, "Oh my god, I need a . . . Oh, I've already put it there." That is a very weird and specific kind of thing.

If anything, the whole serial nature of fiction taught me not to go for perfection. You know, perfection—you're heading for the horizon. You'll never reach it. Get to the point where you've done enough, you're willing to let it go, it's as good as it's going to be. Let it go. Move on. Do the next one.

In a 1997 Interzone interview, you commented that once you accomplish what you set out to in any particular medium, you would abandon it and move on to some other form. Have your thoughts on that changed any in the intervening years?

I stopped writing comics feeling like that I'd done a few good ones. Having said that, that was five years ago. I'm now starting to get interested in comics again as a medium. I'm partly going, "I wonder if I could still do it?" You know, there's that old gunfighter kind of mentality.

The flip side of that is, for me, the point where there's not challenge anymore, the point where I really don't have anything left to say. I stopped journalism because I was done. I stopped book reviewing because I was done. What's nice now, is that every now and again I can actually pull out those old skills and use my journalistic skill when I'm doing an introduction or whatever. Once or twice a year I'll do a book review for the Washington Post. It's kind of nice. It's like revisiting old skills, speaking German when you haven't spoken German for a while.

Mostly, I'm simply aware of how good one can be and how good I'm not. I just finished a script for Robert Zemeckis. Everybody loves it, which is nice. And they love it for what it is, which is nice. But I look at it and I go, "Yes, but . . . I couldn't really have done anything else." Most things filmically, I look at and I realize I couldn't write that. I'm not terribly good at action-adventure. I don't care enough about the beats of action-adventure. If I did, American Gods might have been a different kind of book. If I did, it would've delivered a nice, satisfying hack-em-up, cut-em-down war at the end, which I never had any intention of delivering.

The Zemeckis script you mention is an adaptation of Nicholson Baker's novel The Fermata. How does the experience of adapting someone else's work compare with doing your own material?

Actually, I love adapting other people's stuff. What I'm crap at is adapting mine. Adapting mine is horrible. I will never do it again—I've tried it a couple of times. The lovely thing about adapting somebody else's stuff is I can go, "For a movie, I like that, that, that and that." I love good adaptations that other people have done of my stuff. Bad adaptations set my teeth on edge. I've seen some very good adaptations. David Goyer's script for my story "Murder Mysteries"—doing that as a feature film—I thought was brilliant. Henry Sellick's script for Coraline was terrific. And each of them took huge liberties. They changed things and they moved things, they rearranged things and they added things. And they were all the right things to add to turn it into a film, to make it 90 minutes, to give it the ups and downs of where everything fell. I couldn't have done that to either of those stories. It's like a path that you walk, and you can't necessarily walk any other path. Whereas, I think adapting somebody else's story, sometimes you can get a sort of helicopter view of it. You can go, "Well, there's another path over there that still hits those same high points, but just does it differently."

How does that compare with Neverwhere's evolution? You started with a television script, adapted it into a novel, and from that into a feature film script.

What was interesting with that was turning it from a TV series to a book was not hard. I still have my doubts about how successful it was, but I know a lot of people love it. I still don't feel that the beats are right for a novel. I think it's too episodic. It was written as episodic TV. For me the novel was written essentially not as a novel, but as a correction action to the TV show. It's like, this is the TV show, but it's not what I meant. This is what I meant.

The TV show . . . It was like standing up in front of an audience and being translated. You're standing there and you're saying, "Thank you very much for inviting me here, and I'm going to have a wonderful time." And your translator gets up there and says, "Mr. Gaiman is very pleased to be here, but his stomach hurts." There's a level on which you publish something like Neverwhere in order to say, "Actually no, I didn't say my stomach hurts—I said I'm having a wonderful time."

With Neverwhere, it was very much a corrective action. This is what I meant, this is the feel I wanted, this is the look I wanted. When people talk about Neverwhere, I want them to talk of the book. I want them to understand the book. The TV series has some stuff I'm proud of in it, and some stuff I'm not. But it wasn't my thing. I can't defend the TV series. I can't stand behind it in the way that I can stand behind the book. Everything in there is what I wanted it to be.

So is the movie script everything you wanted it to be?

Turning it into a movie was nightmarish. I think I went through about eight drafts before I quit. The big problem was that it wasn't film-shaped. It really is absolutely episodic in six parts. You either have a three-hour-long story or then you must be cutting and pasting the movie around. Finally, I said, "Look, I've had enough." And I stopped.

So is the Neverwhere feature now dead?

No. It's got a different writer. A young guy who's name I've forgot did a couple of drafts on the script. I may come back for a final polish and try and make the dialogue sound more like me. I may not, I don't know.

It's got Vincenzo Natali as director, who did Cube, which was a lovely little science fiction film. Neverwhere may well happen.

The trouble is, after 10 years, I'm very cynical about film in a very easygoing kind of way. Some things happen, but lots of things don't. There's never necessarily a reason why some of them do and some of them don't, except for odd little circumstances that are completely out of your control as a writer. If I wanted to become a producer, that would be a different thing, but I don't. I'm happy being a writer, and I'm happy to let the producers have the ulcers.

But you're not adverse to trying on the director's hat with the Death movie? How do you reconcile that?

God knows. Let's just see what happens when I finish the script. I'd very much like to direct it only because I don't want somebody else to fuck it up. I'm not saying I won't fuck it up, but if I do fuck it up, at least it'll be the thing that I'm trying to make. I got very frustrated on Neverwhere with the director, who was trying to make something other than what I'd written. I figure you can do one of two things in film—you can write something for a director and you let them make it, or if you don't want them to do that, then you'd better direct it yourself.

Continued . . .

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