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“Oh, you’ve got a Sandman!”
The surprise and delight in Neil Gaiman’s voice is such that one would think him a neophyte author about to inscribe his first hardcover. Sitting in the residents’ lounge of the Clarence Hotel – one of Gaiman’s favourite hotels as it happens – your reporter has just produced a copy of Hot Press production assistant Karla Healion’s ‘Endless Nights’ to be signed by its creator, who can’t resist flipping the pages and delivering a panel-by-panel commentary. Which, for any comic book geek, is akin to a walk around the set of ‘Citizen Kane’ accompanied by Orson Welles.
“When I wrote this I decided, ‘Okay, I’ve got all these great artists, I’m gonna do something in a different genre that will work for each artist,” Gaiman says, a softly spoken tousled-haired 40-something who looks more like a scuffed but prosperous musician than a writer.
“So I get to do this contemporary thing that’s also a historical fantasia for the first; I get to do a pornographic comic for Milo Manara because ever since I was like, 13, I’ve loved Milo Manara’s porn comics. I got to do this lovely historical Celtic thing, then I got to do a science fiction one set at the beginning of time, and then I got to do this thing working with an artist called Barron Storey on what despair is about, writing incredibly mainstream stories, beginning with a Catholic priest who’s about to be fired for molesting children – which he didn’t do – going on to a guy who starts feeding cats, winds up with a trailer full of them and then gets a job and just shuts these 70 cats inside the trailer and goes away, to a guy obsessed with his lover on late night TV, to a guy who loses his job and goes out to work each day and doesn’t tell his wife.”
You get the gist. This is why Gaiman’s novels carry a blurb from Stephen King describing him as “a treasure house of story”. Yarns pour out of the man with such fluency that they require expression in a myriad of disciplines: graphic novels, mainstream books, short stories, lyrics, plays and film scripts (his and Roger Avary’s ‘Beowulf’ adaptation, starring Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie and directed by Robert Zemeckis, is in the can, while there’s tantalising talk of the pair also adapting Charles Burns’ ‘Black Hole’). ‘American Gods’, for my money his finest novel, groans with so many stories within stories that it could qualify as an anthology. In an ideal world, someone would hand Terry Gilliam a hundred mill and tell him to come back in three years when he’s finished filming the thing.
Since beginning his career under the aegis of friend and mentor Alan Moore, Gaiman has become a comic book legend and highly respected writer, winning a plethora of awards (multiple Hugos, Nebulas, Locuses and Stokers), earning the praise of peers such as King, Chris Carter, William Gibson, Peter Straub and Norman Mailer (who dubbed the Sandman series “a comic book for intellectuals”) plus musicians like Alice Cooper and Tori Amos.
1989’s ‘Sandman’ was of course his first triumph, a DC Vertigo Comics series that has since gained renown as a cornerstone of the graphic novel canon, up there with Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ and Frank Miller’s ‘Sin City’. He swiftly followed it with the hugely popular ‘Good Omens’ co-write with Terry Pratchett and got seriously stuck into the novel format in the mid 90s when, frustrated by compromises demanded by the BBC television adaptation of ‘Neverwhere’, he wrote it longform for his own satisfaction. Since then he’s been prolific, varied and consistent (‘Stardust’, ‘Smoke & Mirrors’, ‘Coraline’) and currently has two new books on the shelves: the trickster god comedy ‘Anansi Boys’ and the illustrated fantasia ‘MirrorMask’, not so much a children’s tale as a high-art artefact hatched in tandem with artist Dave McKean (“a visionary”), with whom Gaiman has been collaborating since 1986.
McKean’s film of the book goes on release this month, and while the visuals and design are exquisite, Gaiman’s mark can still be clearly seen in the text, specifically his understanding of the laws of dream logic which, while markedly more abstract than those of waking reality, are just as demanding.
“I think in this book particularly, it really was (about) trying to get it to feel like real dream logic, the kind that is really difficult to articulate to other people when you wake up,” he admits. “We’d been offered four million dollars, which is not a lot of money, to make a fantasy film for Jim Henson’s company. That story began as a dream that Dave had, and the moments I was most proud of were occasional moments where it felt like I was getting down there and kneading the dream-stuff, moments where on some levels you’re working out the problems of the day and on other levels there’s stuff that you can only figure out afterwards how it applies on some deep symbolic level. I love what Dave did with this, it’s just a weird and wonderful and beautifully creative use of text that you can only get away with because it’s nominally a children’s book.”
Indeed, the skewed and disorientating perspectives are often reminiscent of the aforementioned Gilliam’s darkest and best film ‘12 Monkeys’.
“I think in many ways Dave is very close to Gilliam because he’s an artist,” Gaiman considers. “Gilliam began as a comics artist and then did the animations for Python and then became a director almost accidentally telling Terry Jones where to put the camera. And as long as I’ve known him, Dave’s been fascinated by film.”
It’s interesting that so many pioneering filmmakers – particularly the French new wavers – believed cinema to be the best medium for replicating the dream experience. “I think that’s true. I’d also go further than that oddly; I’d say film and comics are the closest things to dreams. It’s interesting that the directors who got closest to dream all came out of comics. Fellini started out drawing comics and cartoons.”
I didn’t know that.
“A lot of people didn’t. Isn’t that a lovely thing to know?”
One wonders what Alan Moore would do with a camera.
“You know, if Alan hadn’t been so upset by Hollywood I think he would be one of the most amazing filmmakers out there. I don’t think he’d ever go there, which is a pity. I’d love him to do some of the kind of stuff he’s done on audio, his spoken word performance CDs are amazing.”
Certainly, his William Blake homage ‘Angel Passage’ was a serious piece of work, not least because of the accent.
“You’ve got that wonderful Northampton boom,” Gaiman laughs, approximating Moore’s sub-bass growl. “‘Allo Neil!’ It’s funny because Alan’s one of those people… I started this online blog; it’s now one of the most read blogs on the web, I think, just because I’ve been updating it more or less daily for almost five years now. But one of the reasons I put it there was because of this idea that people had of me. I’d show up places to do signings or whatever, and they’d all be visibly disappointed that I wasn’t the Sandman. They’d obviously be expecting someone who was six foot five and kind of gloomy and all wrapped up in the beautiful sadness of things, preferably talking in iambic pentameter… and they’d get me! And the blog was a lovely way to counter that because nobody expects you to be talking in iambic pentameter when you’ve written about cleaning up catsick at three o’ clock in the morning.
“But Alan is this wonderful contradiction to me because on one hand there’s the Alan Moore who’s been my friend for over 20 years now, and then there’s the Alan Moore of the public persona. People come up to me and say, ‘What’s Alan Moore like? I’ve seen the photos, all the rings and the hair, he must be really scary.’ And I say, ‘No, he’s really funny, absolutely brilliant and charming and affable and one of the most gentlemanly people I know. And he’s smarter than me, and I like that.’ I love the idea that there’s two Alan Moores out there. I just think it’s sort of sad that because he doesn’t get out much, people probably think that this mad, hermit-like figure that they have in their heads, covered in rings and muttering magical invocations under his breath, is the actual Alan Moore.”
This writer had the pleasure of talking to Moore on the phone a few years ago, one of the unexpected benefits of the exchange being the opportunity to question him about 2000AD stories I loved as a boy, stuff like ‘Judge Dredd’ and ‘The Ballad Of Halo Jones’. Among the many subjects covered (and boy, the man can talk) were how tales like the Judge Cal saga and the Strontium Dog ‘Journey Into Hell’ series were plays on classic sources, namely ‘Caligula’ and Dante’s ‘Inferno’ respectively. From this perspective, it seems almost subversive that these comics were exposing nine or ten-year-old kids to classical themes.
“Yes, like getting infected!” Gaiman exclaims. “You were catching a small, easily cope-able with dose of classics. Which goes back to the thing that fascinates me: a lot of the classics still work because they’re decent stories. I think I’ve only ever written one book that’s become one of those things that people have with them as a totem, ‘Good Omens’, which I did with Terry Pratchett.
“Terry and I have written a lot of things that people love, but there’s something about people turning up at signings with their copies of ‘Good Omens’ that have been around the world with them, y’know, they’re swollen ’cos they got dropped in the bath or in some soup or a puddle, and they’re held together with tape at the back and they want this thing signed ’cos it’s become a place that you go when things get rocky or whatever.”
Which is exactly what books are for. Mind you, I speak as someone who avoided the fantasy shelves for years ’cos I didn’t want to read about Conan-type twerps in loincloths or wade through some space opera set in an unpronounceable galaxy. On the other hand, mainstream fiction seemed to suffer from a serious imagination deficiency. I was under the impression, mistaken or otherwise, that apart from stalwarts like Ballard and Banks, both schools of writing had abandoned masters like Wells, Verne, Poe and Bradbury.
“Stephen King, about ten years ago, did a little rant at one point about modern writers,” Gaiman remembers. “Not all of them, but some of them. He said some of them are like beautiful women who cannot carry on a conversation. You look at them and admire them and you want to sit down and talk to them, and they don’t really have very much to say – they’re just beautiful. Which is not to say that I don’t admire beauty and the way people put words together, but I think it’s so subordinate to story. I think style is the thing that helps you get the story in. Which is why ‘Anansi Boys’ is a funny book, because it’s a trickster’s story and it has to be told in a funny style because otherwise it would be ponderous. Whereas with ‘American Gods’, which was a very American story, I wanted to try and tell it in that invisible style, like Stephen King or Elmore Leonard or these guys, where the narrator vanishes and it’s you and what happens.”
What does he make of a pulp master like Jim Thompson?
“He’s another person you feel just stuck his fingers into the sockets of story. Although I always come away from a Jim Thompson novel feeling unclean in that horrible sense of, ‘Oh my god, I could lie to myself like those people do.’ Thompson’s characters, whenever they’ve done something awful, they immediately sort of edit it in their heads. Jim Thompson’s the only author where I have, about three or four times, finished the book and given it away to somebody, really pleased that I’ve read it, really enjoyed it, knowing that I’ll never read it again and knowing that I want it out! Even to the point where I once gave it to the person sitting next to me on the plane.”
Coincidentally enough, a random meeting on a plane kick-starts the long and winding plot of ‘American Gods’. Like some of the best work by Hitchcock, Charles Laughton or Fritz Lang, this 600-page tome was a classic chunk of Americana dreamed up by a European son, the epic tale of Norse, Celtic, Siberian and Native American deities stranded in an incredulous continent, preparing for a showdown with the new secular gods of technology set not on some imaginal plane but the rather more prosaic landscape of turnpikes, Econo-lodges and gas stations. It also reflected an America we rarely see on television, a country ancient and mythopoeic.
“I wrote ‘American Gods’ having lived there for eight years,” Gaiman explains. “But I spent the first three or four years in almost a state of shock that the country was not the place that I’d seen on television and in films. And furthermore, there were huge swatches of the country no one had written about. Why hadn’t any Americans written about all this flyover country stuff?”
Indeed, in the book the east and west coasts are largely eschewed for a mid-western terrain colonised by Scandinavian immigrants whose race memories of Nordic and Germanic myths were still fresh. Gaiman’s story resonated with echoes of the rural Gothicism of Michael Lesy’s monumental ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’, compiled from Charles Von Schaick’s ghostly photographs and contemporaneous turn of the century newspaper reports from the Twin Peaks-ian town of Black River Falls.
“You get a sense from ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ of this world in which round about February you had to start worrying about the hired woman putting broken glass in your food,” Gaiman chuckles. “Have you read Lesy’s book on death, ‘The Forbidden Zone?’ That book became unwittingly one of the touchstones of ‘American Gods’ because I was using the Internet to research some stuff on undertakers and how they kill cows in stockyards.
“It’s so funny talking to you about ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ because I got to feel like one of the keys was this little town in Wisconsin where something terrible would happen every winter, and it would be paid for in children. You get a sense of ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ being all about dead children. I mean, it’s scary, the idea of a world where if you were having children, you’d be burying some of them.”
Here be monsters. This is the point where American murder ballads such as ‘Fatal Flower Garden’ and Scots-Irish infanticide songs like ‘Weela Weela Waile’ become creepy Bavarian fairy tales and general Grimm-ness. All of which lead us down the winding path to 2002’s Coraline, a simply written but deeply creepy tale of a little girl who enters a dark realm populated by doppelganger parents with black button eyes, sort of Lewis and Carroll meets ‘Night Of The Hunter’ (“the hair on her head drifted like plants under the sea”).
I gave this book to my eldest daughter to read as she was entering that troublesome pre-teen twilight zone between children’s stories and Wes Craven films. She came away from it feeling haunted by a residual feeling of eerie.
“I think it really is,” Gaiman admits. “My eldest daughter still gives me shit to this day…at one point when she was 11 or 12 she got very into RL Stine, those Goosebumps stories, so I picked one up. I thought, ‘They’re alright, but they don’t really deliver if you’re reading them for something scary.’ So I went down to the basement, pulled my copy of ‘Carrie’ off the shelf, took it back and said, ‘Here you go, have this.’ It traumatised her – she said it stopped her reading fiction for years! After that it was safe little books about the joys of nature for a very long time.
“But the thing that I get these a days a lot with ‘Coraline’, and sometimes ‘Neverwhere’ too, is teachers coming up to me and telling me it’s really good for the reluctant-to-read ones and the remedial ones. They can be really problematic, ’cos when they hit 14 and they’re just getting the reading, they’re smarter and more story-savvy than anything they’re able to read, and they’re being given things for a seven-year-old that don’t work for them. And for some reason, ‘Coraline’ although it’s short words and efficient sentences, there really is a story going on. So it’s got this weird secondary life as this thing that the remedial English people love using on kids who normally wouldn’t read a book.”
Now, apply that to a readership demographic many publishers and retailers regard as their own remedial class – young males, supposedly non-literate misfits, geek boys and gaming nerds. Yet, when the likes of Pratchett and Gaiman show up to do signings, literally hundreds of these guys with peach fuzz and ponytails and trenchcoats come out of the woodwork to get their stuff inscribed. Where are these guys coming from? And why can’t so-called mainstream booksellers get a piece of that pie chart?
“They’re the ones reading for pleasure,” Gaiman suggests.
Brett Easton Ellis said much the same thing in a recent Hot Press interview, reckoning that most of his fan base came from college types who weren’t yet self-conscious about their reading tastes.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Gaiman says, “the tradition of English language literature, which for me goes back to the Greeks and the Romans and things like ‘The Golden Ass’, it’s all got magic in it. You only lose the magic somewhere in early Victorian days – and even then nobody turned around to Dickens and said, ‘Oh you’ve got Marley’s ghost turning up in ‘A Christmas Carol’, so you’re now on the fantasy shelves. It works for people. In ‘Anansi Boys’ one character gets killed, and I had enormous fun keeping that character around as a ghost for the rest of the book. People say, ‘Well, do you believe in ghosts?’ It doesn’t matter! Ghosts work in fiction and they work in reality as things that mean something to people. They have freight and they have weight, and a world with no ghosts is a different world, a slightly emptier world. It doesn’t matter whether they have any objective reality or not, it’s still part of the head space that we have, like angels. “It’s like the people who tell me I write about imaginary things. Yeah, absolutely, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Why do you think that those people got into aeroplanes and flew them into the side of the World Trade Centre? They did that because of imaginary things. The idea that up in Belfast, in the North, they’ve been fighting for years over something that goes back to 16th century argument about whether or not a farinaceous wheat product would become, when words were said over it, literally, or only metaphorically on a literal level, the flesh of somebody who had died 1500 years earlier. You’re talking about imaginary things that that point. It doesn’t make them any less real or important for people.”
I get the feeling that fantasy fiction, science fiction, speculative fiction, whatever you want to call the kind of fiction that favours ideas over fidelity to mundane realism, is about to burst its banks and bleed into the mainstream again. Apart from the recent spate of graphic novel/film synergies, look at the success of books by Neal Stephenson, Susanna Clarke, and of course JK Rowling.
“For me, I felt for years, even before it happened, that the most important thing about fiction was going to be confluence,” Gaiman states, “ the idea of little streams coming together, and I love the fact that you’ve used bursting its banks as a metaphor – it’s an intermingling. I mean, I was lucky, ’cos I got to work in comics, and comics is a medium that people mistake for a genre, which means that I was allowed to do any genre at all, and because it was in comics nobody noticed or cared.”
“Headline have just reissued all my books in a uniform edition, but I was told the other day that Waterstones have just decided that I’m being moved from the science fiction shelves to general fiction now. But I thought, ‘What does this mean?’ Have I just changed what I do? Have we in any way retrospectively changed what these books are about?” And I mentioned it to a Waterstones guy and he said, ‘Great – with you and Terry Pratchett gone…you were my profit base!’”
With that, Gaiman signs my copy of ‘MirrorMask’ with an antique pen that looks like it last saw action with Thomas DeQuincey, shakes my hand and bids me farewell.
Hangin’ out with the dream king – there are worse ways to spend an hour.
Reproduced with permission
One of Ireland’s foremost music and pop culture writers, Peter Murphy (b. 1968, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford) got a taste for journalism at the age of 17 when he won first place in an EU sponsored competition for young essayists. After ten days of being wined, dined and chauffeured around Europe on someone else’s tab, the only proviso being that he file a report at the end of it, he figured this was the way to live. But first, he had to get the rock ‘n’ roll bug out of his system, and spent most of the next decade playing drums with a succession of bands. He quit music to become a journalist in 1996, quickly establishing himself as a senior contributor to Hot Press. Since then he has written over 30 cover stories for the magazine, accumulating a portfolio of interviews that includes Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Willie Nelson, Radiohead, Public Enemy, Shane MacGowan, George Clinton, Sonic Youth, Television, Henry Rollins, PJ Harvey, Richard Hell, David Johansen, Warren Zevon, Wim Wenders, Iain Banks, Will Self, William Gibson, Billy Bob Thornton, FW De Klerk and many others. His work has also appeared in the Bloodaxe Books anthology Dublines, the Sunday Independent (Ireland) plus international publications such as Rolling Stone (Australia) and Request (US). Miscellaneous assignments include writing the programme notes for jazz legend Miles Davis’ art exhibition hosted by the Davis Gallery in Dublin (2000), collaborations with cult author JT LeRoy for the American magazine Razor (2002), and co-producing Revelations, a two-hour radio documentary about The Frames (2003). He is frequently employed as a rent-a-mouth by the BBC and Irish national radio and television, is a contributor to the online archive Rocksbackpages.com and more recently gave a talk entitled Nocturnal Emissions at the ReJoyce symposium in the National College of Ireland, tracing the influence of James Joyce’s writings on Irish music. He has also been invited to contribute an essay to the liner notes of the 2004 remastered edition of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music, and is currently writing his first novel.
|ENTER MR SANDMAN
Interviewed by Peter Murphy
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