A History of the scene
Tale-Trader The Legend of Twarin
Hellblazers Delano and Ennis
An Interview with Neil Gaiman
by David Carroll
First appeared in Bloodsongs, Issue 8, 1997
Neil Gaiman is a literary juggler. He gained his fame in comics, with beautiful works such as Violent Cases, Signal to Noise (both in collaboration with artist Dave McKean), and of course Sandman, America's most successful adult comicbook. Even early on, faced with DC's superhero theatrics in Black Orchid he thrived, doing justice to both DC continuity and finding the human face in its inhabitants. That seems his most remarkable ability. Whatever his subject and his medium -- from the adventures of Adam the Antichrist (the novel Good Omens, co-written with Terry Pratchett), short stories of myth and murder mysteries (collected thus far in Angels and Visitations, and the CD Warning, Contains Language), and of course comics (about a boy's life, or the stories of the seven Endless who are greater than gods and perhaps less than human, stories about stories themselves) -- he has taken intricate detail and shown the humanity behind it. He has written poetry and song lyrics, and co-edited books ranging from Ghastly Beyond Belief (the bible of SF quotes), Now We are Sick (humourous poetry) and most recently the Sandman anthology of short stories (which is rather good, but proves just how difficult the Endless are to write for). And since we're on the subject he does a damn fine John Constantine. Recently he has turned his eye to TV and film, first with the story of Neverwhere, a London Below of Vampire Ladies, monsters and saints.
Photograph © 1995 Kelli Bickman.
The US release of this series and its companion novel -- Gaiman's first solo -- is still forthcoming, whereas his anthology The Sandman Book of Dreams has just been released here in paperback. Recorded late last year, Neil talks about these projects, as well as history, life after Sandman, dealing with Hollywood and the attraction of Death.
David Carroll: Well, I'll start with the obvious. How is Neverwhere going?
Neil Gaiman: Right now it's in that bizarre limbo position between production and being shown. The first episode is playing on Thursday in England, and the reviews are starting to come in, from people who have seen advance copies. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground. It's either love it or don't watch it, or... I've never seen anything so wonderful. It's dividing TV critics. And the novel appears in the shops in ten days time.
DC: Will that give away the end of the mini-series, or will it have played by then?
NG: No, it will give it away. If anybody wants to find out what happens next they can read the novel. Actually, in England, even stranger than that, if they want to find out what happens next, they can buy the video -- the BBC is bringing out the video about a week after the actual series begins. So for the six week long series, for anybody who can't stand the suspense...
DC: It probably is quite a good marketing strategy then.
NG: Well it's an interesting sort of marketing strategy. I initially thought it was stupid, and then they said, well, supposing a hundred thousand people run out and buy it, and don't watch the TV series -- our viewing figures will have dropped from 6.1 million to 6 million, and we'll have the best selling video in England. So all right, if that's what you want. I'm just watching all this with a sort of bemused fascination, and possibly the same expression a rabbit has as a large lorry bears down on it, and it stays there staring up at this thing, wondering if it can outstare it. Neverwhere is a much bigger animal than I am, and I feel like the lady on the prow of the ship -- I'm fronting this thing, but it's now become this enormous entity, and I just watch in fascination to see what's going to happen. Whether people will like it, whether they won't...
DC: I heard you were hoping a second series would be made.
NG: Yes, we're going to wait and see if a) people like it and b) people watch it.
DC: Was it deliberately built open-ended so a sequel was possible?
NG: What we did was, we built a world. Although the stories of some of the characters actually finish, there are characters whose stories you only get little tangential bits of. It's a world. You can do more stories in a world.
DC: What is it about London that lends itself to this sort of world?
NG: A lot of it is just the age of the place. London is a 2000 year old city, and there is an awful lot of oddness there. You could do something... I was about to say you could do something like Neverwhere using less fiction, but frankly there were moments of actually making the TV series where all of a sudden we were wandering around in Neverwhere. There were moments of sitting and talking to people like station masters at abandoned Underground stations, where you'd say 'has anything weird ever happened here?' They'd say 'well, I remember there was one young man -- he came out of one of the tunnels and I went after him with me light, and we had this whole chase, and I got him into a dead end and there was nobody there' -- this abandoned Underground station. You're going... good Lord, maybe it's truer than I thought it was.
What makes London that way is that it is so old, there is so much to it, there are so many layers of culture, a patina of stuff that's secreted over the years.
DC: It seems under-represented, especially by films.
NG: It tends to be taken for granted. And yes, London is much less mythologised than New York or even LA, but it also suffers from the same thing I think Sydney suffers from. Nobody ever tries to represent Sydney -- what they do is show you the Opera House. Cut to the Opera House, right, that's everything you need to know about Sydney and now we'll do you a generic story that could take place anywhere. With London you just want that one shot of Big Ben, and maybe a shot of Trafalgar Square, and that's all you ever need to know about London.
I've been reading my way through a book on London street names -- it's fascinating, especially when you're in the older parts. Each street name comes with a huge chunk of city, and of history. You discover that Love Lane was originally called Grope Cunt Lane, and you realise what kind of love was for sale in Love Lane. Apparently most major cities had a Love Lane, or a Grope Cunt Lane, or something, and it was always very near the cathedral, which I find interesting.
DC: About what century is that?
NG: Grope Cunt Lane was abandoned as a name in the Fourteenth Century. That was about the point that 'cunt' became a rude word and stopping being a perfectly natural description... fill in Chaucer.
We filmed a scene in Neverwhere in Wardrobe Court, and I was just interested -- why is this tiny little street called Wardrobe Court, and discovering in the Seventeenth Century it was the King's wardrobe. He had so many clothes that he bought a house and installed the Master of the Wardrobe, and let him know from day to day what the King would be wearing, and they'd send down the clothes. There's a little chunk of history with every name. With Neverwhere I was playing with that. Having a mad old man on a roof called Old Bailey, or an Angel called Islington, or having an Earl, and giving him a court. It's another way of taking a look at things that make the familiar unfamiliar again, which I thought would be the most interesting thing about it.
DC: Do you think it will be different for people actually living in London?
NG: I think it'll be a lot weirder for anyone living in London, because they'll actually start passing places and looking around nervously -- with any luck. I think it may do an awful lot, in a weird kind of way, for the tourist trade, insofar as people looking at the Tube Maps when they arrive in London with a new and rather wary eye.
DC: England in the 1980s produced a rather large number of fantasy and horror artists...
NG: And we all knew each other, which was also pretty bizarre.
DC: Do you have any theories why this happened?
NG: I don't know, it may have been something in the water. It may have been that the Eighties were a point where you got the generation growing up and entering the point where we started to write, early twenties and so forth, who'd grown up with Doctor Who, which began broadcasting in 1963, who'd grown up with an awful lot of kid's fantasy in the background. We all have very similar cultural references, of which Doctor Who is definitely one... The Avengers is another. There's an awful lot of that weird cultural detritus, which I think achieves its apotheosis in Kim Newman's work. Kim is like an old man living on the junkheap, this cultural junkheap, and it's 'look at this, look what I've found here'. I should add that Kim is nothing like an old man sitting on a junkheap -- he rather resembles an Edwardian dandy transported here by time machine. He's more the Adam Adamant type -- to quote another, almost forgotten TV show.
DC: OK. Let's talk about Sandman for a bit. It's been a couple of months here since it's finished, and a bit longer for you I guess. Are you getting nostalgic over the monthly schedule?
NG: No... I suppose what I'm missing right now -- I was talking to Dave McKean about this today -- what is odd, for both of us I think, is not knowing more or less exactly what we're going to be doing in the future. By which I mean, if you'd asked me in 1991 what I was doing in the next three years, I could have told you. I probably could have told you for the next four or five years. Right now I'm in a position where I'm working on three or four things, but they're all in that weird wasteland where there are a few things I know I have to start work on and my life is going to be scheduled around, but I don't know exactly what I'm going to be doing from month to month. I have a project called Stardust which I'm working on for Charles Vess, there's a novel called Time in the Smoke which I'm committed to doing for Avon, which is another novel about London, and about time, which will be rather seriouser and weirder than Neverwhere, but there's also three movies floating around. There's a short film I just wrote last week -- which it suddenly occurred to me I'd never written, and would quite like to, so I dropped everything and wrote this short film. I'm giving it to all the producers who come up to me and say 'Hey, we love you', and I say 'Well, here's a short film I just wrote. I'd really like to direct, and I'm glad you love me and there will be no market for this except in film festivals -- but if you love me as much as you're saying you love me, could you budget this and find me the money'. I figure at least one of these producers may come through with it.
It's very odd. I miss that tick-tock regularity of the Sandman. On the other hand, in 1990 it took me two weeks in every month to write a Sandman script, and my life was occurring, and anything else I did occurred in that other two weeks of the month. By the time I was finished it was taking me at least six weeks of every month to write a Sandman script, and anything else I wanted to do wasn't happening -- or if it did happen, if I did take those two weeks that would get us two months between Sandmans. So I'm pleased that it's done with right now. I haven't yet missed it, though I miss the shape of my life. And I'm really enjoying getting to do other things. The most fun that I've had in the last eight months was doing the radio play.
DC: Was that Signal to Noise?
NG: That was Signal to Noise.
DC: I can't imagine this.
NG: I think it's going to work really well. I was meant to hear it last month, and then the director went away to Katmandu for three weeks, in which she was teaching people in Katmandu how to do radio, and when she came back she discovered that somebody had managed to break into a locked cupboard where the hard disk with the entire radio show was stored, and had erased it, and put their own show on it. Which means she now has to... she has the DAT tapes and has to build it up again from scratch. I got a very sweet fax from her saying 'Dear Neil. I have returned from Katmandu and am incandescent with rage'. And I don't blame her. But that was the most fun. It was quite marvellous -- much more fun than film-making. It didn't have the boredom of film-making. Doing the film of Signal to Noise would take months, coming in from this shot, cutting back and forwards and doing all this stuff. We had a studio for a weekend, we had Warren Mitchell playing the Director, quite nice having Alf Garnett as our Director, and some terrific actors. I wound up acting in it -- only because there was a part Dave McKean was meant to do -- the artist Reid who was based on Dave -- and Dave got chicken-pox the weekend we recorded, so I was informed I would be doing it. And there was a feeling of enormous pride knowing I was acting in the middle of Broadcasting House, the same studio where all the radio went out in the 1930s. If it wasn't for the fact that I and my family would starve to death I could happily chuck it all in and go to do radio -- just write radio plays.
DC: That's obviously very different from comics...
NG: Actually, I think in a bizarre kind of way radio and comics are so close to each other. Comics has everything except sound, and radio has sound and nothing else, but they're both existing to a great degree on dialogue, and on building pictures in people's heads, using the inside of people's heads, and it was fun. Dave McKean actually wrote all the music for Signal to Noise, and tried in the music to create acoustic versions of things he'd created in paintings.
DC: How did the actual comics medium affect how Sandman turned out, especially the Dreaming and the Endless?
NG: To some extent we didn't have the budget limitations we would have if we'd tried to do it on TV. There aren't that many periodical forms of literature around there anyway. We might have been able to do it as TV, but the Dreaming would have been an awful lot cheaper. It's like when I talk about the castle -- just being able to have a different castle with a different look every time you saw it. Just being able to change styles visually with every artist. You couldn't have done it. We might have done it, but there would have been so many more compromises. I look at Sandman and it's basically uncompromised. It's what I wanted to do, good or bad. I think the wonderful cheapness and the uncompromising nature of comics and the fact they can afford to put out... I'm watching the various go-rounds in Hollywood right now, with people trying to do Sandman scripts -- I get all this stuff second-hand, from the writers and directors who see what's happening, but two things are becoming more and more apparent. One of which are the bits of script that they write, that work, they lifted directly word for word, scene for scene from the comics. The other is that the producers have actually, apparently, noticed this, also keep telling them 'why do you think a guy who writes comics knows what he's doing? Where's the fucking love interest? This is an action adventure, can we put some more action in it?', and all this sort of shit is going on. Meanwhile the stuff that works is the stuff they simply cut and pasted from the comic, and the love stuff and the action stuff doesn't work, so they keep trying to fix it more -- it's really strange and sad and amusing, all at the same time. Meanwhile I'm wondering quite how mad I am pursuing this writing/directing deal on Death: the High Cost of Living. But at least I figure with Death: the High Cost of Living there's not an awful lot they need to do to it to make it bigger and longer -- rather than the Sandman which is just not film-shaped. To make it film-shaped it's like taking a baby and cutting off both of its arms and one of its legs and nose and trying to cram it in this little box, and filling the rest of the box up with meat. I don't think it works that way.
DC: How do you think the film will cope with the Dreaming itself?
NG: Well the director, Roger Avery, had this wonderful idea of, whenever they go into the dreaming having someone like Jan Svankmajer take over, and doing it as Svankmajer or Brothers Quay kind of animation stuff, which I think could be incredibly interesting. Have you ever seen The Street of Crocodiles, the brothers Quay film?
NG: Brilliant, haunting stuff. It feels a bit like Dave McKean. Or for that matter Svankmajer's film Alice. They animate things... animate lumps of liver, bird skulls stuck on pipe-cleaners and things. I think that's the kind of feeling that Roger wants to go for, which I think would work very well.
DC: Whilst reading the anthology it struck me that that something as fluid as the Dreaming would perhaps be better represented as words, and yet this series of static images is so effective.
NG: It's using different sets of techniques. There's stuff you can actually do with just words, in prose when you're mucking round directly inside someone's head, which you can never hope to get away with in comics. My favourite example of that is the way that the line 'Ford, you're turning into an infinite number of penguins' works in Hitchhiker. It's a great line -- in radio it's amazing, in print it's wonderful, in any other medium it's risible, reaching nadir with the appalling TV moment -- the attempt to actually try and show it. They press the little button that makes things reduplicate across the screen, and Ford Prefect in penguin makeup... It's like, no, no. It would have worked if you'd gone hard in on Arthur Dent's face and have him say... you know. But it has to happen inside someone's head. The trick with the Dreaming was always taking different approaches, letting the captions do things, letting the pictures do things that would never be commented on in the text. So all of a sudden people are walking through a forest of hams, or whatever, and you never make a big deal out of the fact. Or some of the things you'd see when walking through the castle, whether it's a couple of cats in one corner playing cards... I'm trying to give the impression this is a huge place that went on forever.
DC: Do you think all this new technology, film and more recently computing and the like, is that changing how people relate to mythology, or take it in?
NG: I don't know. I think it's going to create a bunch of new mythologies. The mythologies of the internet are an interesting type of thing -- and the urban legends of the internet, the fact that it is big enough so that everything is probably true for one person. I recently had a very eminent American editor, whose name I won't say because he might one day read this and it might embarrass him, but it was a friend of mine. He got very grumpy with me about eight months ago when I was pointing out that I found it vaguely offensive that to try out my five free hours on America Online, every variant of my name had already been taken by people impersonating me. None of these versions of my name were available to me -- I went through a few posting of fake Neil Gaimans, Neil Gaimans who had gone into chat rooms to chat up women and God knows what else. And this guy was remarkably supercilious when I was complaining about this. I was being luddite and foolish -- I was the exception and things like that didn't happen to real people. I was talking to his wife last week and she told me how somebody had got on to the internet and was forging posts from him in some science fiction forum. And I just smiled at myself very sweetly. Given the size of the internet, all of this weird stuff will happen to everybody.
But do I think it changes the way we relate to mythology? I don't think so. Sometimes we are very slow in noticing what our mythologies are. There is a Twentieth Century mythology, but it is the mythology of the urban legend, and we laugh at the Greeks for believing stories that end up 'and that is how the bird got its red breast', or whatever. But we listen to stories about people who fill cars with cement, and other people who have tarantulas in their beehive hairdos, and people with hooks in country lanes, and so forth, and take these almost literally. Most people seem to believe that. I think that is the mythology with have now.
DC: Onto a couple of your individual projects. Whatever happened to the Sweeney Todd comic?
NG: What happened was basically the thing that it was in stopped publishing, which was Taboo, and so we stopped at that point. Then after that Michael and myself were both busy... I told Michael that in 1997 one way or the other we'll figure out what to do with Sweeney. Whether we carry it on as a comic, or whether we decide to do it as an illustrated novel or whatever -- what I'd really like to do with Sweeney is to do it in some art form that is not yet invented, where the prologue is a comic, chapter one is an illustrated story and chapter two is a song cycle you play and listen to.
DC: Is there anything about the actual story that lends itself to that?
NG: The thing I love about the story of Sweeney Todd is the fact that when I began to research it in the British Museum -- I kept reading version after version of Sweeney Todd. Here is a couple of Victorian plays, over here would be some Penny Dreadfuls, here's something from the 1930s. It was like watching a cheap road company, going through the motions of the play in which one thing was always the same, but every character with the exception of Sweeney was allowed to go off stage and come back... they'd throw dice to see who came in as a good guy or a bad guy. A hero of one would be killed in Act One of the next. There is no consistency. There is a sort of cast of about six people who always seem to be in it. There's always Mr Fogg in his lunatic asylum, there's always Toby Ragg, there's normally a sailor. There's always Mrs Lovett, there's always Sweeney Todd, there's always a judge. But after that it becomes so amazingly fluid, and I think that was what attracted me. Also what attracted me was very much the location, because originally I went into it going, well, I think the Sondheim is as good as anything can be, the musical. What else is there to say? I started to realise that the Sondheim is completely brilliant, but the problem it has, from my perspective, is that it might as well be Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Pittsburg. You know, anywhere with two syllables. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Brisbane, and it would work, it's the same story. What started fascinating me was that all the old Penny Dreadfuls and plays were very location specific. His barber shop is built into the structure of St Dunstan's church, and connected by an underground passage to Mrs Lovett's pie shop in Bell Yard down the road. It's just next to temple bar, across the road from the temple where the Knights Templar were. It seemed a beautiful way of talking about Fleet Street, about London, about the nature of London. That really is the stuff I wanted to do -- one day.
DC: A couple of words about the anthology which has just come out. Was that an easy project to get organised?
NG: No, it was horrible. Marty Greenberg, who is the co-editor on the book is, I believe, in the Guiness Book of Records now -- he's edited more anthologies then any other human being alive, he's up in his five hundreds. And he says it was the most unpleasant project he's ever been involved in. It was nightmarish. But, there are great stories. It was the stories that kept stopping me quitting whenever DC's business affairs department became particularly irritating. I remember the day that I got a fax from them. We handed in the manuscript and it was mucked around, and we got a fax back in return saying 'we've just realised that none of the people who've sent stories have written an outline for us to approve, and signed a contract first. Please reject all these stories and tell them to start again with new ones'. You're talking about stories from the likes of Gene Wolfe, John M Ford... these are major authors writing major stories. Like I'm going to ring them up and say, 'well actually they haven't read the story you gave me, but they've decided you have to do a new one please, so throw that one away'. It was a complete nightmare. Then the manuscript wound up sitting on somebody's filing cabinet for eight months until I started phoning up to find out why no-one had been paid, and nobody had bothered reading it. It was quite bizarre. But it's a great anthology, I'm really proud of it. I'm proudest of all, I think, of having the Susanna Clarke story, Stopp't-Clock Yard. I believe it was her first published story.
DC: I read the book last week, and it's such a wonderful story.
NG: It really is. She's going to have another story, which is actually her first one she wrote, in an anthology that's just about to come out, it may have actually hit Australia, called Starlight, edited by Patrick Neilsen Hayden. She has a story in there called The Ladies of Grace, Adieu, which reads like Jane Austen's lost fantasy novella. Quite remarkable.
DC: You've had quite a bit of horror content in your work, particularly the early Sandman and other works. What part does fear play in the storytelling process?
NG: I think it's very, very powerful. I tend to think of fear and humour as very, very close together. And to be honest I think pornography completes the triangle, because they are things that to work need to evoke a certain reaction. With pornography, if you don't get hard or wet, depending on your gender, it didn't work. With humour, if you don't laugh it didn't work. And with horror, if you don't get scared or haunted, depending on what it's trying to do, it didn't work. I'm fascinated by those three categories. I don't do as much horror as I did, I suppose because... because I did it. For example the first eight Sandman episodes there was the joy of going, OK, there's my Dennis Wheatley done, let's do a Ramsey Campbell, that kind of dancing round in the horror genre. I like horror, but I tend to like it as seasoning. I'd get very bored if I was told I had to write a horror novel. I'd love to write a novel with horror elements, but too much, and it doesn't taste of anything else.
DC: What about the fear of Death, which is usually very horrific?
NG: A lot of it came together... a interesting one was the series from the Kaballah I once read that you die because you see the Angel of Death, and you fall in love. And you fall in love so hard your soul is sucked out through your eyes, and that's the moment of death. It's a lovely, strange old Jewish legend. And I was thinking, what kind of anthropomorphic death would I like to meet? I decided I wanted somebody nice, and I wanted somebody sensible. And I thought, if you actually were this, it would be the kind of job that would breed niceness and sensibleness, because it gets you out of the house and you meet a lot of people. There is this tremendous practicality. The more I thought about it, the more I liked this idea of a Death like that, because every other literary death I could think of was either miserable, either [Death voice on] 'Ohhh, I am an anthropomorphic Death and I wish that I were a shoe salesman', or they are cold, forbidding Deaths, [and again] 'I take your life...' Even when you get somebody like a Terry Pratchett Death, he talks in capitals. It was great fun, I wrote 95% of the Terry Pratchett Death in Good Omens. I did that because I loved his Death and wanted to write it.
DC: You didn't think of putting your one in there, did you?
NG: Well, no, because I'd written my Death. I was doing all the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse stuff and I thought, great, I'll nick Terry's Death. But even then you're talking about somebody who is by definition distant and imposing, given to scary last sentences, and the face of the skull... and I wanted somebody nice -- I liked the idea of a sensible Death. And I was pleased the way she sort of took off. Everybody else loved her too. What I thought was fascinating was that she rapidly became almost a cliche, you know, other people would use her. One thing I find almost sad and scary is the knowledge that when I die -- actually not necessarily when I die, but if I die anytime in the next fifteen or twenty years, when people still know what Sandman is -- every comic buyers guide and comics journal is going to be filled with fucking cartoons showing this bloke in a big leather jacket and dark glasses being led off by this cute girl with an Ankh.
Um. I'm sorry about that, my assistant who is sitting on the other side of the room doing her Email had a mouthful of tea when I said that, so I was watching what happened. I don't think she got any on the furniture... it was a very, very close thing. [Off] Yeah, it's inside her nose. You know, it's true, and it's sad. All the more reason for staying alive.
DC: So are dreams more terrible than death?
NG: Yes. What's really scary about dreams is that moment when you wake up and it's ruined your whole day, and you get scared of going back to sleep again. You lie there at night hoping you don't go back to sleep because you couldn't handle another one of those strange dreams. I don't think it's like that with death. You get it once. I mean, nobody has recurring death problems.
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