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Neil Gaiman:
We Tell the Lies that Tell the Truth

February 1999 By Paula Guran

Neil Gaiman Once upon a not so very long ago time there was a little boy who was cautioned, as most little boys are, that there would be dire consequences if he continued to "make things up." But he liked making things up and, besides, he was the sort of little boy who, upon reading a werewolf story, decided to sympathize with the werewolf. So the boy -- Neil Gaiman by name -- continued making things up and taking the side of the monster and, as a grown-up, has had a pretty wonderful time creating a career of it, suffering nothing very dreadful at all -- except, perhaps, the rigors of book touring.

Gaiman, although probably still best known as the creator/writer of the darkly literate, tremendously popular, and highly influential graphic novel series The Sandman (and its related titles) has also established himself, among other things, as a novelist, short story writer, and, lately, a screenwriter. His dark fantasy novel Neverwhere (which spawned a BBC TV series and has been optioned for film by Jim Henson Productions) hit bestseller lists and his children's book The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish is now being marketed in softcover through the Scholastic school-distributed book flyers that brought R.L. Stine to millions. His latest books are a collection, Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions (Avon) which was published last fall and, just out, Stardust(Avon/Spike), a fairy tale more or less for adults.

"Stardust is lighter, and friendlier overall, than most of my fiction," he admits. "But it has dark moments." Gaiman is often noted for his tendency to mix the dark and the light, the humorous with the horrific. "I suppose I mix that stuff up because that's how life is: you can start a morning in a love story, wander into a slapstick comedy and have a horror lunch in real life. And I mix them up because that's the sort of head I have.

book cover He gets "criticized from time to time for inconsistency, by people who don't want humor in their horror, truth in their fantasy, light in their darkness, blood in their chocolate or chocolate in their blood. I'm not sure quite what to say to them, other than to plead guilty and to apologize: but I can't see myself reforming."

Gaiman often uses that sort of paradoxical juxtaposition in his work. His novel Neverwhere, for instance, is literally about people who "fall through the cracks" of modern society and into a "London Below" -- a very dark, weird underworld that is a distorted reflection of the familiar "London Above." "Fantasy -- and all fiction is fantasy of one kind or another -- is a mirror," he writes in the introduction to Smoke and Mirrors. "A distorting mirror, to be sure, and a concealing mirror, set at forty-five degrees to reality, but it's a mirror nonetheless which we can use to tell ourselves things we might not otherwise see." He also cites G. K. Chesterson, who once wrote: "Fairy tales are more than true -- not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be defeated." Gaiman wrote his fairy tale "because we -- meaning adults -- don't get fairy tales written for us any more. The last one I can recall is William Goldman's The Princess Bride, and that was written twenty-five years ago. And I wanted to read one. Seeing that no-one else was going to write it for me, I had to write it first." Stardust was originally written as a graphic series illustrated by Charles Vess -- "Actually," says Gaiman, "he was illustrating it, AS I was writing it" -- published by DC Comics in four parts and then as a limited edition hardcover. Avon decided to publish it as a "words only" book and Gaiman was given the opportunity to "do the kind of rewrite one does when one gets the opportunity to go back and tinker with a book one thought one was done with -- polishing sentences and so on."

book coverStardust follows the magical adventures of a young man on a quest. Along the way, he encounters various oddities in a land of faerie enchantments. One, a copper beech tree who was once a "pretty cute" wood nymph, is a fictionalized version of his friend singer/composer/musician Tori Amos who sings about Gaiman on her albums Little Earthquakes, Under the Pinkand Boys for Pele. "The first time I ever got to read anyone a big chunk of Stardust was two years ago, when it was half-written, and we sat on the beach near her house being dive-bombed by slow pelicans, and I read her everything I'd written at that point." Gaiman will balance Stardust with something darker for his next book. "The next novel's going to be a contemporary American drama called American Gods," he says "It may be the darkest thing I've written (if you leave out a couple of episodes of Sandman.)"

Gaiman started out writing comics and achieved a level of literary success that no one has, as yet, equaled, "I'm horrendously proud of everything that I accomplished in comics and in Sandman How could I not be? I certainly don't think of any of the stuff I'm doing now as being more 'legitimate' than the comics work. It's all storytelling, just in different media."

In comics, he says, "I felt like I learned my craft and that I'd done what I set out to do. There are lots of different media out there where I haven't yet done anything to my own satisfaction. I'd rather do that stuff for a bit." He's written radio plays and is currently working on a pilot for a US TV series for Imagine TV , did the English script for MONONOKEHIME, the Miyazaki animated film, which Miramax will release this year, and is working on the Neverwhere movie (for which he did a screenplay) and a few other film projects. Doing a Broadway musical is an idea that fascinates him, as well.

Gaiman's just spent January and February on a twenty-one city tour in support of Stardust. Although he likes "slow touring, wandering a bit," doing a tour like this has been "seriously punishing." At two weeks in he admitted to being "a bit punch drunk" and he still had another three weeks to go when we caught up with him. He fears that by the end he'll be ready to be cremated and felt, at that point that "'I bet your hand hurts' is not, perhaps, the best mid-signing conversational gambit." However, "the tour is doing what it's meant to do. We're getting the reviews and the media and we're making the local bestseller lists around the country. And doing the readings is fun." Gaiman will top off his stint on the road as toastmaster at the World Horror Convention in Atlanta March 4-7.

When not on the road the native of Sussex, England, lives in an "Addams Family" style house in Minnesota. How did a Brit wind up in Minnesota? "A question I ask myself from time to time," he admits. "My wife's family are from there, and I'd always wanted an Addams Family house."

The epigraph for Smoke and Mirrors is a quote from Ogden Ash, "Where there's a monster, there's a miracle -- something Gaiman believes, "God yes. That's why I love horror fiction -- the kind with weirdness and magic and strangeness in it." If the creatures of Dark Myth "actually turned up and became quantifiable...if they existed then we cold no longer invent them and the world would be poorer...they have to be imaginary. I don't want them locked down and codified."

But even if the creatures are imaginary, there's always more to Gaiman's storytelling than simple escapist fantasy. Something about Gaiman's writing reminds one of the opening lines of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie: "Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." The strongest, most effective voices in fantastic literature today do just that. They write Truth in an entertaining, accessible form. Gaiman agrees, "That's what all of us do, who make things up for a living. We tell the lies that tell the truth."


Read a more recent interview with Neil Gaiman by Paula Guran from the July 2001 issue of The Spook..

Gaiman has two authorized Web sites. NeilGaiman.com and The Dreaming.


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