Neil Gaiman Interview, National Book Festival, Washington, DC, USA, October 9, 2004

The first thing that struck me about the National Book Festival was the banners. The Festival consists of a forest of white tents that covers the length and breadth of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. On every tent, light poll and spare space banners proclaimed, "National Book Festival: Library of Congress and Laura Bush, 2004." Speaking as a native of Washington, D.C. who's seen her share of official events, it's very unusual to see a living person's name all over a national festival. This led me to the uncharitable assumption that the Bushes were trying to coopt Literature for the Republican Party.

By way of background, the The National Book Festival, now in its fourth year, is an annual one-day celebration of literature that features readings by leading authors from a wide variety of genres including fiction and imagination, history and biography, home and family, mysteries and thrillers, poetry, science fiction and fantasy, and teens and children. There also are book sales and a book signing area.

My interview with Neil Gaiman was scheduled for 9 a.m. Since I have spectacularly bad appointment karma and I wanted to scope out the site anyway, I arrived early. On my way to the media check-in, I noticed a line forming at the book signing area. It was only 8:30 and the first book signing didn't start until 10 a.m.

Wow! I thought. I wonder who all that's for? I should have guessed!

Gaiman arrived around 9:35. Due to a communications glitch between a publicist in Minneapolis and a publicist in NYC, he had no idea he had a 9 a.m. interview. Though the Library of Congress staff were very anxious that Gaiman start in on the book signing as soon as possible, he very graciously insisted on going ahead with the interview.

The literary Man in Black had a neatly trimmed beard, dark, rumpled, longish curly hair, black jeans, a black t-shirt and his trademark black leather bomber jacket. (I was in shirtsleeves and I idly wondered to myself if he would still have worn the black jacket if the book fest had taken place in August with Washington's typical 90-degree temperatures and 90-percent humidity. Was the jacket the equivalent of the towel in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?)

I asked Gaiman how he came to be invited to the Festival and he replied, "I thought it was a hoax initially." He explained that his invitation appeared to be the result of a posting he put on his blog . When Laura Bush passed off an excruciatingly bad love poem as being written by her husband when it actually wasn't, Gaiman wrote a satirical entry in his blog explaining the true significance of the poem. He said that it represented a cynical conspiracy by White House power brokers to hide George Bush's poetic genius from the world because having a president who could write exquisite poetry would upset the balance of power. [Click here to read the actual posting.]

A day after posting the fateful entry to his blog, Gaiman received an invitation to the Festival.

This was the first year that Science Fiction and Fantasy had its own pavilion at the Book Festival, so I asked Gaiman how it felt to be part of the mainstream.

"Are we in the mainstream?," he responded. "I was very puzzled to see that the tent next door [to the 'Science Fiction and Fantasy' tent] is 'Fiction and the Imagination.' If there's a 'Fiction and the Imagination' tent, then what is 'Fantasy?'

He felt that the growing size and importance of the Festival had led to the inclusion of Science Fiction and Fantasy. "What you've got," he explained, "is a process whereby the National Book Festival is growing. The first year they had 30 authors and I don't think they had enough Science Fiction and Fantasy authors to merit their own tent."

I asked how he found the time and the mindset to write given his very busy touring and promotional schedule, his daily blog and the multitude of projects he is involved in.

"Time and the mindset to write is easy," he responded. "Time and the mindset to recreationally watch television I've lost. And time and the mindset to write long, chatty and interesting e-mails to friends who cannot figure out why I do not write long, chatty and interesting e-mails to them has gone by the wayside."

"When you write," I said, "you always seem to be doing it in an idyllic country house setting. How do you manage this?"

"I'm very lucky to have friends who have more houses than they have bodies. Most people like myself have a one-to-one house-to-body ratio but I'm lucky in having friends who have extra houses. I don't actually have any friends who have extra bodies, but extra houses—yes."

"In addition to drifting from house to house," I said, "you seem to move with remarkable freedom from genre to genre. How did you keep from being typecast?"

"The main way that I was able to avoid that was that I started out in comics. Comics is a medium that people mistake for a genre. Within that medium I was allowed to do anything. Even doing Sandman, I was allowed to do historicals, horror and fantasy. Nobody minded and I found that I really enjoyed that freedom. So when I decided to become a prose author, I knew too many friends who would cry into their whiskeys over the fact that no publisher would buy anything by them that wasn't whatever it was that they do. You know, the horror guy complaining about that nobody would buy his funny novel about the steamboat race on the Mississippi or whatever. I thought, 'I don't ever want to be one of those guys. I'd rather that people buy my books because they like Neil Gaiman books, whatever they are.'"

I asked what new projects he had in the works. This week he is working on the Mirror Mask script. He is creating the script book which entails going through the drafts of the script and finding the lines and scenes that got cut out in filming. He's also writing an introduction and afterword for the script book. He is simultaneously working on The Anasi Boys, a novel about Anasi's two sons, Fat Charley and Spider. He set out to write it as a funny novel because the last funny novel he did was Good Omens and people assume that Terry Pratchett wrote all the gags. "People have forgotten that I write funny stuff as well."

He described The Anasi Boys as a novel that mixes genres; it's funny and scary with fantasy and romance elements and Gods in it. He said he was very lucky to be a best-selling author. Otherwise the stores wouldn't know where to place it on their shelves.

"The nice thing about being a best-selling author is you just go to the front of the shop and you let them figure out where to put things afterwords. If this were my first novel, I'd have no idea where they'd put it."

In addition, he is publicizing Neil Gaiman's Thirteen Nights of Fright which consists of 13 scary films he will be hosting that will be shown on Fox Movie Channel for the 13 days before Halloween. He's writing two children's books--Crazy Hair, and The Dangerous Alphabet. The latter book had its origin in a Christmas card poem he sent out three years ago. Then he's working on a hardcover version of 1602 and hopes to script and direct the movie version of his graphic novel, Death: The High Cost of Living. The Coraline movie with stop motion animator Henry Selick is still in negotiation and he's negotiating Miracle Man with Marvel. Early next year he'll be promoting Mirror Mask.

Gaiman summed his work schedule up by saying, "There's always a million things going on."

I asked, "How do you juggle all that?"

"Well normally you do very well, and every now and then you leave somebody waiting for 35 minutes outside a tent. You juggle, you cope."

"You also do a lot of collaborating," I said. "Do you work best in a collaborative relationship?"

He said, "I love collaborating. Collaborating is fun because it's very hard to laugh at your own jokes. The thing I love best about doing comics is that enormous thrill when your fax machine or e-mail spews out the pages. You wrote what they look like, and you may have imagined them and suddenly something comes out and it's more perfect and more beautiful than you ever could have possibly imagined."

I asked, "Which of your characters do you identify with the most?"

To my surprise, he said, "Merv Pumpkinhead from Sandman. Merv tended to be the version of me that would quietly be going: 'this is all very silly, isn't it?' On the other hand, he's filled with a peculiar sense of his own importance and has a pumpkin for a head and I'm very big on pumpkins."

At Mythcon, you identified C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton as your early influences. How much did their religiosity influence your writing?

"None, he said. I was in an interesting position of being the little Jewish kid at the high church, Church-of-England School. It was a nice sort of position because it didn't matter what was going on, you always felt like an outsider. I was the little kid who would win the religious studies prize each year along with the English prize and people were sort of uncomfortable about that but they'd give me the prize anyway."

I asked, "Has Judaism influenced your writing?"

"I don't really know. I think everything you do and are affects your writing. What you put on the compost heap to rot down is all of your life experiences, everybody you ever met, everything you've ever thought. That's what's producing the books," he said.

He continued, "If somebody asked me which box I was going to go into; if they held a gun up to my head, and they said 'okay, you can go into one of these boxes, which box would you go in,' I'd probably go into English author because Englishness is probably more important to having created me and having made me what I am."

After the interview, I had plenty of time to roam. I wandered over to the book signing area to marvel at the line of Those Who Neil (the Gaimian Horde?). I was briefly tempted by the selections in the book sales area, but when I saw the long lines and learned it took a half an hour to check out, I was able to tear myself away. I was also fascinated by the limited and rather odd selection of foods available to Festival-goers: vegan food, pork barbecue, sugared almonds and ice-cream – I couldn't help but imagine the chef presenters in the Home and Family Pavilion keeling over with apoplexy at the sight of this strange smorgasbord. I reached the Science Fiction and Fantasy Pavilion in plenty of time and was able to hear some fascinating presentations from two Science Fiction writers whose works I read as a child, Ben Bova and Frederick Pohl.

Despite my careful planning, I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of people who descended on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Pavilion for Gaiman's 1 o'clock reading. I found myself squashed between two strapping lasses who were built like SUVs and thought myself lucky, because the majority of the audience could barely find standing room.

Gaiman explained to the audience that he grew his "little sinister beard" for his gig as horror host on Fox Movie Channel's Thirteen Nights of Fright. After filming was finished he promptly shaved it off only to have to grow it back again for promotional photos when it was time for the premiere.

He read a comic chapter from his new novel, The Anasi Boys. It was all new material that no audience had heard before. The Anasi Boys, he explained, is derived from African and West Indian stories of the trickster spider god, Anasi. Mr. Nancy's/Anasi's storyline from American Gods is continued as Gaiman chronicles Mr. Nancy's dysfunctional family life and also reveals what the Gods do on Karaoke night.

The excerpt he read told what happened when Spider, the magical brother, filled in for Fat Charlie at the office. The reading was accompanied by tremendous roars of laughter and approval from the crowd. I was reminded of 19th century descriptions of the enthusiastic crowds who mobbed media sensation Charles Dickens's readings. It also reminded me of being in a rock concert crowd (albeit a small and very well-behaved one).

After he'd finished reading, he spoke about the impact of the blog. His entry on mysterious sock disappearances had borne fruit at the Festival. During the book signing, someone gave him a pair of black socks. He said the blog has produced some strange social situations. “People whom you've never met know the names of your cats. I get 600,000 hits a month and I don't even know if they read my books."

During the Q & A, he was asked how he wrote and how he managed to do so much research. He responded that the research was forty years of non-stop reading. For him, he continued, writing is like composting. He had been piling up a wide and unrelated mass of thoughts and information over the years. "If I weren't a writer, I'd be like Cliff Clavin on Cheers, a guy who hangs out at bars spouting endless useless information that no one wants to listen to."

Gaiman's signing was extended, so after his reading he went back to the line to sign more books.

[Liz Milner]