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You are here: Home » About Neil » Interviews » Neil Gaiman's Otter Tricks by Chris Bolton, (August, 2005)

Neil Gaiman's Otter Tricks by Chris Bolton, (August, 2005)

A spectacular interview from

Ten years after ending his groundbreaking Sandman comic series, Neil Gaiman is enjoying success as unprecedented as it is richly deserved. The Sandman has only become more successful in its afterlife, thanks to the collected editions whose sales continue to climb a decade later. Gaiman has gone on to write the novels Neverwhere, Stardust, and Good Omens (co-written with Terry Pratchett); a bestselling novel for children, Coraline; several picture books in collaboration with artist Dave McKean, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls; and the bestselling breakout novel American Gods, which won every single fantasy award in existence (sometimes twice), as well as racking up critical accolades rare for a "genre" novel.

Gaiman's latest novel, Anansi Boys, is his best yet; it has already received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist and is poised to win Gaiman an even bigger and more devoted readership than American Gods. Gaiman describes it as a "magical-horror-thriller-ghost-romantic-comedy-family-epic" — and that only scratches the surface. In addition, this fall will see the release of MirrorMask, a film from Jim Henson Productions that was written by Gaiman and directed by McKean; the mass market paperback of Gaiman's wonderful story collection, Smoke and Mirrors; and the trade paperback of Marvel 1602, Gaiman's first experiment with the Marvel Comics pantheon.

With several weeks of publicity tours for Anansi Boys and MirrorMask ahead, Gaiman somehow found the time to speak with us by phone.

Bolton: What was your inspiration for Anansi Boys?

Neil Gaiman: Well, the inspiration was a lot of things. Part of it was the desire to try and get a novel right.

Bolton: You don't feel like you've gotten one right before?

Gaiman: Not in the sense of just writing an honest-to-goodness little classical novel. Neverwhere began life as a TV series and I always felt like it was rather too episodic. Stardust was an illustrated thing to begin with, so it always felt a little short because there were so many places where I could be original where I'd been relying on Charles Vess to fill in detail that I didn't have to. American Gods, I think, was the first thing that was a real novel, but I definitely didn't feel like I got it right. I loved doing it. And it was huge and I decided it would be fun to write a road novel and write something big and meandering. But having done that, I thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting to try and write a novel that's classically structured, a proper novel, that does all of those things only a novel can do?"

And it's a comic novel. I wanted to write something that would be a comedy in the sense of making people feel happier when they finish it than they did when began it. American Gods does an awful lot of things, but that was never anywhere on the list of things that I wanted to do with that particular book. I think the other thing that I really wanted to do was try and emulate people like P. G. Wodehouse and Thorne Smith, some of the people who wrote really cool comic novels that I read when I was growing up. Particularly Thorne Smith, who's long forgotten... completely forgotten, now, alas.

Bolton: Aside from Cary Grant movies.

Gaiman: Well, people remember Topper, and a few people would tell you that I Married a Witch is based loosely on Thorne Smith's The Passionate Witch — and that, several iterations down the line, spawned Bewitched. But he wrote these lovely little comic novels, normally about the eruption of something supernatural and strange into people's lives. And I thought that would be a really fun place to go with fiction.

Bolton: It's interesting you mention feeling like you hadn't really written a novel before, because in a way Anansi Boys seems like an amalgamation of the novels you've written previously. It almost feels as though you've picked through the best bits of the previous ones, and found something new while incorporating those into this one.

Gaiman: I don't know if that's true, but there was definitely a feeling of wanting to write something that most of the people who liked my stuff would enjoy. One of the things so far that's been so very apparent to me as a writer, is that normally when I write a book, half of the people who read it enjoy it, and half of them don't, and if they're smart they'll go on and read something else I've done because they're all completely different. And I do know that writers are meant to do the same thing over and over again, it's just that mostly we don't.

I read a lovely interview yesterday in Locus with Lois McMaster Bujold in which she says that Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who is an editor at Tor, once told her that the big problem with authors is you can't train most of them. We don't train very easily because we're like otters. You know, a dolphin you can train. You can say, "Do this, and you'll get a fish." With an otter, if it does something cool and you give it a fish, next time it will try and do something cooler. [Laughter.] With Anansi Boys, I wondered if it would be possible to do something that would be cooler, but would be lovable. See if you can go deep but also, while going deep, just be really fun.

Also, I've already won all the awards. Authors know that you should never really write a funny book because funny books do not get awards. Comic novels will not get awards. Great, big, serious novels always get awards. If it's a battle between a great, big, serious novel and a funny novel, the funny novel is doomed. But the nice thing now is, I've got them all. [Laughter.] It's not like I'm gonna go, "Well, am I sacrificing my chance for an award on this book?" No, I don't care. I want to write a funny one.

Bolton: Though there could be a Comedy Writers Association Award, maybe, that you're eligible for now.

Gaiman: If there is an award for comic novels, it's certainly not one that anyone's ever made any fuss about. Really, what I just like about Anansi Boys was getting to write this thing. And it had been in my head since about 1996. It was a pretty long time sitting in there.

Bolton: Did you actually have the idea before American Gods?

Gaiman: Oh, yeah. I borrowed Mr. Nancy from a book that I hadn't written yet, if you see what I mean. It was rather the wrong way around. I'm going to keep telling people that Anansi Boys is not in any way a sequel to American Gods. But what's fun is if you go back and reread American Gods after Anansi Boys, there are a few places where you may go, "Oh, my gosh, he knew that back then."

Bolton: I reread the Mr. Nancy parts in American Gods after I finished Anansi Boys, and now it feels a bit like there's a special guest star from another book who's been plopped down in the middle of this novel.

Gaiman: Absolutely. And that really was exactly how it worked. I borrowed him from a book I hadn't written yet. [Laughter.] Mostly because I knew that the first thing he did in Anansi Boys, and I don't think this is giving too much away, is, of course, die. I realized suddenly, doing American Gods, that this really was my only chance to write him. And I had him in my head, and he was such a nice character.

Bolton: Was this the most fun that you've had writing a novel?

Gaiman: It was all the most fun I've had writing a novel except for the four months in the middle, when not a word got written. Which was, perhaps, the least fun I've ever had writing a novel. [Laughter.] I'm one of those writers who tends to be really good at making outlines and sticking to them. I'm very good at doing that, but I don't like it. It sort of takes a lot of the fun out. But I had my loose outline for Anansi Boys — I was fairly sure I knew what happened, what kind of book it was. And I got about two-thirds of the way through the book, maybe a little over halfway, and suddenly something happened.

[Spoiler Alert: The following paragraph reveals crucial details about the plot of Anansi Boys. Click here to skip to the next paragraph, which is perfectly safe for all eyes.]

I was at the very moment when Maeve Livingstone was going upstairs to see Graham Coates in the lift, and I suddenly thought, "If she goes in to see him, he's going to kill her." It was one of those absolute moments of, "Oh my God, that isn't in the plan, that's not meant to happen at all. Graham Coates was just meant to be this minor, irritating character in the background, and Maeve was just decoration, and he's going to kill her, and... oh my God." And he did.

[Okay, you're clear. Safe to read on.]

And then I stopped writing for four months while I figured out A) what happened next, and B) what the rules were of the book I'd just written. I was trying to write a book that was a comedy, and suddenly bad things were happening. And I didn't know how bad you could go. And I'm trying to figure out for myself, suddenly spending several months just figuring out, what are the rules of comedy? What are the rules of horror? What do people get in comedy? Eventually I decided that in comedy, people get what they need. And in horror, people get what they deserve.

Having figured that out for myself, as a sort of rule of thumb, and having plotted the end, and having gone off to the Caribbean — I realized I needed to visit the Caribbean, and spend some time out there, in order to write the last third. I'd gone to write at a friend's house in Florida but a hurricane had happened, so I went to Barbados instead, because the house was uninhabitable — and all of that just sort of proved incredibly useful. Finally, last November, I went back to the house in Ireland that I'd started writing the book in — which is my friend, Tori Amos's wonderful house — and when I went back to the book, it was all there, and it was fine.

So mostly it was the most fun I've had writing a book. There's a glorious sense of freedom in comedy, just allowing myself to tell jokes, allowing myself to interrupt myself and tell old African folk stories that I made up — or didn't — and Jamaican stories. I loved writing a book in which, in some ways, it's very, very classical, and in some ways I'm breaking lots of rules about what you can do and what you can't do.

Bolton: I started reading much faster after that scene because suddenly the rules had changed. It's a terrific shift — it has an amazing effect.

Gaiman: It was one of those moments where I knew that I was doing the right thing, I just knew that I had to figure out what it was now. [Laughter.] The joy for me of being a writer — the real joy — is in those moments that weren't there in your head five seconds ago. They're the moments where you needed a scene to happen between two other scenes, and suddenly everything's changed. It was the kind of book in which I had the same experience I had with Sandman, in that I felt mostly I was just the first person to get to read it.

The writing of it was an enormous amount of work. But it's like the romance plot, the who-winds-up-with-who, and how that works, stuff... I didn't know, going into it, who anybody was going to wind up with at the end. And I got to find out. And it was lovely.

Bolton: In Stephen King's book, On Writing, he quotes Amy Tan saying, "Nobody ever asks [popular novelists] about the language." Which is kind of a crime, I think. In a novel this well-paced, the prose can't be accidental. Do you agonize over the prose to get it just where it needs to be?

Gaiman: I'll agonize over sentences. Mostly because you're trying to create specific effects with sentences, and because there are a number of different voices in the book. For the last four and a half years — and I don't know how much longer I'm going to keep it up — I've had a blog, over at, and I've been very good about keeping it up. I started back in February 2001, when it was pretty much just me and a couple of dinosaurs blogging — you know, you get these little blog entries saying, "The pteranadon hurt its wing today." [Laughter.] I quite enjoyed figuring out a voice that I could write my blog in, that was slightly more informal than the normal voice that I'd write prose in. And just sort of friendly.

One of the things I wanted to do in Anansi Boys was to take the blogging voice, which is very funny, and see if I could write a novel with it. And a lot of that was looking at — again, people like P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Going back to the great comic novelists.

As a young man, I wrote the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy companion, Don't Panic, which was enormously fun. Every 25-year-old should get to work with Douglas Adams. A few years later I wrote Good Omens, with Terry Pratchett — and every 28-year-old would-be novelist should get to work with Terry Pratchett. But between them, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett have cordoned off huge territories for themselves, in terms of comedy, and in terms of comic writing. And I wanted to figure out ways that you could write a comic novel which didn't involve doing that. To sort of acknowledge that Terry and Douglas had taken a specific sort of English voice, and a specific territory, and built with it and played with it, and so on and so forth. And I thought, "Well, maybe I could just go in a different direction." And so I did. I mean, the book only has two footnotes in it. [Laughter.]

I would have loved to have done more footnotes, but there were only two. There are places in there where I had to stop myself going for the joke, because it would have been really easy to go for the instant joke, but then you'd sacrifice a the whole of the story. And also willing to be scary when the book got scary, and sad when it got sad.

Bolton: Did you find that Adams and Pratchett were sort of weighing on you consciously as you were writing? Beyond just the jokes and the footnotes, were there other things where you were thinking, "That's too Douglas Adams"?

Gaiman: Not really, because that stuff was stuff that I figured out going into the book. It was much more only wanting to start it when I knew I had a voice that I knew I could write a book in, that wasn't a Douglas voice and wasn't a Terry voice, or wasn't even vaguely Terry. It felt like me, and felt informal and comfortable. I wanted a voice where you're just hanging with somebody who's going to tell you a story, and it's gonna be about people you like and care about, and what happens to them. And that was sort of my grand strategy.

Bolton: How much is genre a consideration in advance? Do you sit down and consciously think — for instance, with Stardust, "This one will be a fairy tale"? Or does the story find you first, and then the genre comes later?

Gaiman: As long as something fits into genre, it's not much of a problem. Stardust is a nice example because, yes, it's a fairy tale, and nobody really argues about what it is. Occasionally I have to explain to people who think it's a very thin trilogy that, no, it's not a giant fantasy novel that I told very quickly, it's a fairy tale. But it got a bit problematic with American Gods because nobody was really quite sure what it was — whether it was science fiction or fantasy or horror, or a mainstream novel, or magical realism, or what. But nobody really minded.

With Anansi Boys, let's put it this way: it's a very, very good thing for me that I am a bestselling author. And it's a very good thing that at least for the first few months of the life of this book, it will be in Powell's by the door. Because the problem then becomes, where do you put it? What is it? I've already seen a description of it in, I think it was Booklist, as a "romantic comedy with ghosts and murdering." Which I thought was lovely. I've seen it described as an incredibly funny horror novel. Kirkus, I think, took the view that it was a comic novel in the great tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark — which it may be, but that leaves out the ghosts, the gods, the magic, and the scary bits.

Bolton: You described it in your preface to the galley as a "magical-horror-thriller-ghost-romantic-comedy-family-epic." Which is hard to shelve.

Gaiman: It really is. [Laughs.] I think I'm really lucky. While I'm not saying that I'm alone in this, there aren't a lot of authors to whom publishers give as much leeway in genre as me. [Laughs.] But apart from having it in my head that it would be what we as children called "comic novels" growing up, I figured that Anansi Boys would be whatever it was gonna be, and I didn't really worry about genre. I figure it's a fantasy, but then, I figure that most books are fantasy, including books that have no magic in them at all, because they contain imaginary people. So it's a fantasy of some kind. "Fantasy" is probably the last word I'd use to describe Anansi Boys, because I think that just conjures up the wrong image in people's minds of what kind of book it is. So it's quite easier to describe it as a magical-ghost-horror-thriller-detective... it sort of skimped on the police procedural stuff.

Bolton: Actually, it comes out really well, I thought.

Gaiman: Oh, good.

Bolton: It sort of hits all the right notes without the little details that nobody needs anymore.

Gaiman: I actually had computer-y friends who read the first draft going, "But you need to explain a lot more about what Daisy's doing, and you should explain how she gets the hard drive, and duplicates this and the other..." And I'm sort of going, "Honestly, if I just say, 'She's looking at the screen and she's clicking,' everybody's going to be fine."

Bolton: [Laughs.] After fifteen years of Law & Order, everybody knows the procedure.

Gaiman: Exactly.

Bolton: I want to shift gears for a moment to Sandman. I realized the other day that it's been ten years since you ended the series — which is a little spectacular to me, because I remember where I was when the last issue came out, and I can't believe it's been that long. Looking back, is there any particular achievement with the series that you feel proudest of?

Gaiman: What I feel proudest of, honestly, is the fact that you're looking at a series of comics that I began to write seventeen years ago, that finished a decade ago, that is still in print right now, and selling more than it ever has. When I was writing it, there was this enormous hubris involved in simply the idea of doing Sandman, the idea that I was going to write a monthly comic that they were going to finish when I was done, and that was going to be a great, big novel of the fantastic, that would be over 2,000 pages long, and that it would be around. That was ridiculous just starting out, when the only way you could find back issues was in the quarter bin, before eBay. And when ongoing series did not get collected as graphic novels. When stuff came out and went away. And when they didn't let you finish when you were done, they just put another writer on. Looking back on it, that's the stuff that I feel was the biggest achievement, and the stuff that I'm proudest of. Here we are, in 2005, and you can go out and get your copy of Season of Mists. And Preludes & Nocturnes is in — whatever, its sixteenth or eighteenth printing.

Bolton: It's still one of our bestsellers.

Gaiman: That makes me so happy! It's like the people who ask me, "Well, did you imagine it would be like this when you started Sandman?" And I say, "No! What I wanted was not to be cancelled at issue twelve." [Laughter.] Because that was the normal fate of a new comic book. When I started writing Sandman, with a very few exceptions — some of Frank Miller's stuff, some of Alan Moore's stuff — critical success was absolutely equivalent to commercial failure. All you knew about a comic that the critics liked and the smart kids liked [Laughs], or the few adults reading comics liked, was that it was going to be cancelled pretty quickly.

Bolton: And it was billed as a horror comic, originally.

Gaiman: It was! And, actually, that was how I started out: Preludes & Nocturnes is me doing my best to do about six different genres of horror. By about issue seven, I felt like I was more or less done with horror. Though I nipped back a few times. What was nice was, having done all that stuff in the first eight issues, for the rest of the series everybody knew that I was a dangerous psychotic who could kill a character you loved at any moment. [Laughter.] And nobody felt entirely safe, which I think is a good place to leave readers.

Bolton: And the dangerous psychotic came back for Anansi Boys.

Gaiman: Oh, yes. Well, he's always peeping out. Stephen King talks about the "boys in the basement" in our writing. As a writer, you learn to rely on "the boys in the basement." You trust them. One always has to be prepared to follow any thought into the realms of the unthinkable, just in order to see where it goes. As a writer, I think that's sort of our job.

Bolton: How are you feeling about 1602?

Gaiman: The main thing that I regret with 1602 was just that I started out with such a huge cast and such a huge scale — and also, the original plan for 1602, when I plotted it, was that it was going to be done with six comics that were 32 pages long. And that suddenly turned into eight 22-page comics after the first issue. So I wound up having to cope as best I could with the fact that I lost a bunch of pages from the story. And, I only counted when it was all done, but I'd had something like thirty-five major, speaking-part characters whose fates you were interested in.

I would have loved to have slowed the end down. There were things that happened in places where I would have liked to have done it differently. But in terms of what I set out to do, which was to write something that was my little love letter to the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko/Gene Colan comics of my youth, the first round of Marvel stuff, I was very pleased with myself. I thought I did that, and loved doing it. I was actually faintly surprised to discover that there was stuff that I was doing in there that I assumed was more or less white knowledge. I just assumed that all comics readers would probably know this stuff. And was very surprised to realize that, no, they don't. The early years of Marvel have now been forgotten.

Bolton: In the Afterword to the hardcover collection of 1602, you mentioned that you'd gathered all the issues together in a boat, and you drifted across a lake on a sunny day and read through them, and it brought back that feeling of being a child, reading comic books in the summertime. Which was, by a strange coincidence, or maybe not, the same experience I had, months before the collection came out, where I had bought all the issues and read them in a single summer day. And a friend of mine was telling me recently that he'd had exactly the same experience. It was almost a way of channeling the inner eight-year-old who was reading all of those Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics out in the field on a summer day. How do you account for that? Was that intentional, was that a feeling you were after?

Gaiman: That really was the feeling I was after when I wrote it and I'm [Laughing] just pleased that it worked for everybody. In some ways it was the single most self-indulgent thing I've ever done. [Laughter.] The idea was, I can write a Marvel comic. And I thought, "Well, wouldn't it be fun just to write a Marvel comic that feels like all that stuff that I used to love, but then I'll change all the times and characters a little so that they don't come with baggage and so I'm not copying Stan and Jack, and I'm getting to do it all myself for the first time." But then I can play off that stuff. There's just a delight in knowing that Count Otto von Doom is called "The Handsome," because you know his face is gonna get it at some point.

Bolton: [Laughs.] Right.

Gaiman: And you keep waiting for Peter Parquagh to be bitten by the spider. That stuff was just enormously fun. And it quietly went on, in an incredibly quiet sort of way, to be the bestselling comic of the year. Which nobody really noticed, but I thought was very sweet. Diamond Comics gave me an award to say thank you. And the graphic novel came out and sold gazillions of copies, and that also is terribly nice, I'm glad it did.

When it came out, everybody was going, "But this isn't Sandman." But that's what people always do. Going back to the place we were at in the beginning of this conversation, where I was saying that as a writer you try to be an otter, you know what the audience wants, and what the readership always wants is the same thing it got from you last time that it liked. "Can I have some more of that?" And if you're someone like me, they're not gonna get that. But you really hope they're gonna like what they get this time.

If I could be McDonald's and standardize the product, I'd probably be a much more famous author, and a much more wealthy author. If American Gods had been followed immediately by British Gods, or More American Gods, or something like that... [Laughter] But I'm never really going to be one of those people. I'm going to be the kind of person, if you really like the hamburger one day and you come back, the next thing you'll be served is sushi. And the next thing you'll be served is ice cream. I look forward to the day when I do my second project for Marvel and people begin complaining that —

Bolton: It wasn't 1602.

Gaiman: — it's not like 1602. [Laughter.]

Bolton: So, when the book tour's all over and MirrorMask has opened, what's your next otter trick?

Gaiman: Well, there are some odd little otter tricks going on in the background right now that nobody can see. About eight years ago Roger Avery, who co-wrote Pulp Fiction and wrote and directed Killing Zoe and Rules of Attraction, and I wrote a script for Beowulf, which Roger always wanted to do as a low-budget, live-action movie. And much to our surprise, last January, Robert Zemeckis bought it and began making it as a giant, animated, motion-capture film starring people like Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone.

Bolton: In the Polar Express style?

Gaiman: In Polar Express style, but it won't look like that. It'll be for adults and they've learned from all the mistakes they made and are moving forward. So that's getting made. The next novel is gonna be Graveyard Book, which is something I've started writing, my new children's novel.

With American Gods, I knew that I wanted to write an adult novel. There were ways that I was happy to signal that, which were things like using... you know, word number fifteen was obscene. And there was a very hardcore, nightmarish, extreme sex scene at the end of chapter one, because I figured that if you have a problem with it, you may as well jump ship at that point. I wouldn't suggest American Gods for high school libraries — or at least, the middle school libraries. Actually, I know of several high school courses that have taught it, and it tends to go very well. Whereas with Anansi Boys, there's really no swearing, no sex — because that wasn't the kind of book it was, and it didn't need that, and it didn't want that. So I was very happy to leave that out.

I'm now doing my next children's novel, and while it doesn't have any sex or swearing in it, it does have the single scariest scene I have ever written in twenty-two years or whatever it is now of writing. Actually, it's the opening scene.

Bolton: [Laughter.] I can't wait to read it.

Gaiman: Well, I can't wait to finish it.

Bolton: Thank you very much for speaking with us.

Gaiman: You're very welcome. I love the fact that Powell's is still there. You guys were the first people I ever very, very nervously bought a book from online, in like, 1996. Back when the world was young and fresh, and there was barely an Internet. And it was a very nervous sort of thing to do.

Bolton: I hope you got it on time.

Gaiman: I did, actually. It was a book on grammar, I think, by... oh God, I've forgotten now... It was a book about grammar.

--Posted with permission