Neil Gaiman Talks AMERICAN GODS, DOCTOR WHO, Writing a Musical, Ray Bradbury, China and More

     June 30, 2011


Neil Gaiman is a brilliant storyteller, whether it’s in books, graphic novels, scripts or just in speaking to an audience. He has been one of my favorite writers from the moment I was first introduced to his work, and he has been a huge inspiration on my own writing and life, in general. So, when it was announced earlier this month that Tom Hanks’ Playtone Productions was set to produce an open-ended series of American Gods, based on Gaiman’s award-winning novel, for the fearless cable network HBO (to debut in 2013 at the earliest), and that Gaiman himself was on board as an executive producer and writer, I certainly got very excited.

Now in its 10th anniversary, a special hardcover edition of American Gods has been released and Gaiman is currently on tour promoting it. Instead of the typical book signing, where fans wait in line for hours and barely have time to say more than a passing greeting, the acclaimed and much-loved writer instead sells pre-signed books and uses the time to chat about everything from where his ideas come from to his writing process to what he’s currently working on. Hosted by Patton Oswalt, who is a self-admitted Gaiman fanboy, and including a reading with him, the author and actress Zelda Williams (daughter of Robin Williams), the conversation included the things that Gaiman wants to make sure are in the television adaptation of American Gods, what supplemental material he would like to include with the series, the story he’s looking to write for a Ray Bradbury tribute, how much it meant to him to be able to write an episode of Doctor Who, how China has inspired him to do some projects related to the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, his next children’s book, Chu’s Day, and his latest venture, writing his first musical with Stephin Merritt. Check out the highlights from his June 28th book appearance in Los Angeles after the jump.

american-gods-book-cover-imageFor those not familiar with American Gods, here is the book synopsis:

Locked behind bars for three years, Shadow did his time, quietly waiting for the magic day when he could return to Eagle Point, Indiana. A man no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, all he wanted was to be with Laura, the wife he deeply loved, and start a new life. But, just days before his release, Laura and Shadow’s best friend are killed in an accident. With his life in pieces and nothing to keep him tethered, Shadow accepts a job from a beguiling stranger he meets on the way home – an enigmatic man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. A trickster and rogue, Wednesday seems to know more about Shadow than Shadow does himself. Life as Wednesday’s bodyguard, driver and errand boy is far more interesting and dangerous than Shadow ever imagined. It is a job that takes him on a dark and strange road trip and introduces him to a host of eccentric characters, whose fates are mysteriously intertwined with his own. Along the way, Shadow will learn that the past never dies’ that everyone, including his beloved Laura, harbors secrets; and that dreams, totems, legends and myths are more real than we know. Ultimately, Shadow will discover that, beneath the placid surface of everyday life, a storm is brewing that is an epic war for the very soul of America, and he is standing squarely in its path.

Now that American Gods is being adapted into a TV show, are there things that you want to make sure get in or don’t get changed?

NEIL GAIMAN: One of the things I’m concerned about is that I really want to make sure the races of all the characters are kept. I don’t like it when black characters become white in movies, or things like that. That was something I found deeply problematic with the attempt by some people who had a lot of money and a lot of clout, and who wanted the rights to Anansi Boys, at one point. Somewhere in there, they made the fatal mistake of saying to me, “And, of course, the characters won’t be black in the movie because black people don’t like fantasy.” They were suddenly very surprised that we were no longer interested in selling them the book. So, I want to keep the racial mix in American Gods the same. And, I want to make it faithful, but also would like it to have a few surprises for people who read the book. I hate that thing where people have read the books and they go, “Oh, I know everything that’s going to happen.” I want to be like, “Okay, no you don’t.” I want there to still be some surprises.

In the 10 years since publication, what are some new deities that would inhabit the world of American Gods?

GAIMAN: I do think the networking thing fascinates me, and the short attention span fascinates me. The fundamental law of American Gods, that new Gods are scared, which runs all the way through American Gods, has me fascinated by things like the God of Television. The network television Gods are in decay and decline. How sorry does one feel for the God of MySpace? It happens fast. Twitter is great and it’s glorious and it’s easy, but if somebody comes up with something kind of like Twitter tomorrow, that’s better or smarter or more useful, in three weeks time, Twitter could more or less be history because that’s how fast things go now. There are definitely places in which I look at American Gods as dated, but it’s less than I thought. If I had been predicting it then, I would have said, “Well, 10 years from now, the entire book will be historical.” There are travel agents in it, which some of you may remember. The set-up in airports is not the set-up in airports now. But, apart from that, it’s dated less than I thought it would be.

No one just makes a TV show anymore because there are websites and all kinds of interactive stuff involved. Are you looking to do supplemental material as well?

GAIMAN: Yeah. One thing that I get from a lot of people with American Gods is people saying that they would love some kind of glossary with a list of all the Gods and who they are, so that they can look them up. It’s one of those things that I thought about doing when I published the book the first time around, and then came down against. And then, I thought about it a little bit with this version, and then came down against. There is at least one website where somebody has done a very good first stab at listing everybody. But, that’s the kind of thing that it would be really fun to do, and actually give people background on these characters.

You’ve explored many different mediums of writing. What would you like to explore next?

GAIMAN: The one that I’m excited about is that I’ve just started to begin working with [singer/songwriter] Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, The Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes. Stephin and I are putting our heads together on building a musical based around the Grand Guignol Theatre of Horror in Paris in the 1920’s. I have never written a musical. I have never written a weird, interactive piece of theater. I wanted to do something that would be disturbing. It will be disturbing theater with songs. There will be no people on wires. The Sandman musical can happen without me. I have a weird thing about Grand Guignol. That’s probably the next one of those things on my bucket list of things that I need to write before I get hit by that car.

What’s the story that you’re writing for Sam Weller’s tribute book for Ray Bradbury?

GAIMAN: I don’t know. He’s doing a tribute book to Bradbury, which I think is a wonderful idea, where writers are allowed to do anything within any of the worlds that Bradbury has created. I do know the story of Bradbury’s that affected me most deeply, apart from The Homecoming – which I loved but don’t really want to do something in that world – was a story called Usher II, which used to be in The Martian Chronicles. It’s about people walking through an Edgar Allan Poe-like thing on Mars. I loved that. That was where I discovered my love of Poe. I had never heard of him. I was 9, reading this book, and here was Ray Bradbury enthusing about Poe, and everybody in the story was getting killed by Poe-like methods. Maybe I’ll do something with that.

Was the experience writing an episode of Doctor Who fulfilling?

GAIMAN: Oh, god, it was fulfilling, yes. I’m English and Doctor Who was this thing that I’ve been watching since I was three. I loved Doctor Who. I had all the Doctor Who annuals. I didn’t just have the Doctor Who annuals, I had the Dalek World annual in 1965, which contained all this stuff about Daleks. I knew what Planet Skaro was, I knew what TARDIS stood for, and I knew that Daleks couldn’t see the color red, which worried me because there were red Daleks. I remember just worrying that they’d be shunned by other Daleks who would be going, “Did you see that? It was like a bunch of Dalek bumps in the air just went passed.” And, another Dalek would say, “Yeah, and a plunger. That’s spooky.” So, this was my first mythology and the one that I loved. I was incredibly lucky. I had a marvelous dinner with Stephen Moffatt, who has taken over the reins of Doctor Who. It was this weird dinner where we spent the first half of the dinner beating around the bush. I knew that he was probably going to be taking over, and he knew that I knew, but neither of us were saying it. And then, finally, he being Scottish just said, “Look, you know I’m taking over Doctor Who. I know that you know. I know you want to write one.” And I said, “Okay, what can you tell me?”

So, the lovely thing about plotting my episode back then was that there were things that I wanted to do, that we could set into motion, all the way back then. I wanted a TARDIS set to remain, so they kept up the old TARDIS set, which was incredibly damaged, but they kept it up for me, for an additional 18 months passed the point where it was meant to be taken down. People walking past, every day, would ask why it was still there, and they would be lied to. There were all sorts of imaginative answers about why they left that set up. A lot of people believed the thing about the cost of dismantling it. That was fun. But, mostly for me, it wasn’t about any of that kind of stuff. It was about the sheer, raw, naked power that I felt.

There have been two times in my life where I know how God feels, and only two. The first was in 1988, writing Black Orchid, the first time I brought Batman on and had him say words that I’d written. I was like, “Batman is saying words that I’ve written. If the world ends tomorrow, I will still have made Batman talk. It probably won’t, and this comic will be published, and Batman will be in it, and he will have said stuff that I wrote.” It was this incredible power. So, there was that, and then there was the first time I got to type the words, “Interior: TARDIS.”  There was the knowledge that I was creating something that was part of this mythology that I loved. It really wasn’t until it was broadcast and discovered that people really liked it that I went, “Okay.”

Why are you working on projects about China, and why do they interest you?

GAIMAN: In 2007, I went out to China and was mostly fascinated by China. I’d been to former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, shortly after they stopped being Communist countries, and they were horrible, grey places where all the people looked miserable, for many, many years. And then, I went out to China and it was the most optimistic place I’d ever been. At that time, everybody I met was pretty much convinced that their children would have it better than their parents had had it. It was like being in America in the 1950’s, with this deep optimism about the future because everything was getting better, and that fascinated me. And, I love Chinese mythology, particularly Journey to the West. I thought I should write about the journey to the West, but I hadn’t written a non-fiction book in years, so I did a couple of journeys, over the next few years, to China and started researching the journey to the West. While I was working on that, I wound up being approached by a Chinese film producer, who wanted to make a film of Journey to the West as three big movies, and volunteered a western screenwriter who was interested in the material and cared to write it. So, I went back out and started talking to him, and I just finished a great, big outline. I take so long on outlines. It’s easier for me to say, “I’ll go and write a script.” I enjoy writing scripts. I can find out what happens. With an outline, I feel like I’m doing an architectural diagram of something. So, I’m working on that.

And then, there are weird little things that happened as off-shoots from that. The last time I was in China, I was very puzzled because none of my children’s picture books are in print in Mainland China. They’re in print in Hong Kong and in Taiwan, in complex Chinese characters, but they are not in print in Mainland China. I asked my producer, “Why aren’t any of my children’s picture books in print in Mainland China?,” and they said, “It’s because of their disrespect for authority.” I said, “Really?!” And they said, “Yeah, look at them. The Wolves in the Walls is about this little girl who tells her parents that there are wolves in the walls, but they do not believe her. There really are wolves in the walls, and thus her parents are proved wrong. And, in The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, these kids swap their dad. If that happened, society would crumble.”

So, suddenly, it became a goal of mine that was almost a little obsession to write a children’s picture book that would be published in Mainland China, that they could not help but publish, but still could have all of the things that are in my children’s picture books, and I did it. I wrote this book and it’s being painted right now by this wonderful artist, and it’s called Chu’s Day, and it is about a baby panda who sneezes. There is no way that anyone can resist a baby panda who sneezes. This is the single cutest book I’ve ever written. It is written for two-year-olds and is designed in such a way that I’ve tried it on kids and it actually works that when you get to the end, they just look at you and they say, “Read it again!” The only words on page one are, “When Chu sneezed, bad things happened.”