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A Conversation With Neil Gaiman
An interview with Lucy Snyder
February 14, 1999

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is a prolific British writer who is perhaps best known as the mastermind behind the popular and ground-breaking Sandman comics. His other work in comics include Miracleman, Violent Cases and Black Orchid. Originally a journalist, he began writing fiction early on, and his novels include Good Omens (co-written with Terry Pratchett), Neverwhere (which was done as a TV movie by BBC), and his most recent work, Stardust.

One of his early graphic novels, Signal To Noise, has been adapted for stage and is currently playing at Chicago's NOWtheater until March 14, 1999. Proceeds from the play are going to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Stardust
SF Site Review: Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions
SF Site Review: Neverwhere
SF Site Review: The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish
SF Site Review: The Sandman: Book of Dreams
The Dreaming: The Neil Gaiman Page
The Neil Gaiman Collection
The Other Side of the Sky

Neil Gaiman

Design: Russell Gorson

Art: J.K. Potter
Smoke and Mirrors:  Short Fictions and Illusions

Art: Amy Halperin Neverwhere

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish

The Sandman: Book of Dreams

Art: Charles Vess

How are you feeling today?
I'm feeling very fried... just yesterday, I finished the 6-week-long, 21-city Stardust signing tour where I talked with 7,500 people.

No doubt you're quite exhausted.
Yes, this is the completely fried version of Neil that you have here.

How did the Signal To Noise opening go last weekend?
Very well, I think, all things considered. It was very interesting going to see a stage adaptation of something you've written, especially when a good 50% of the words you're hearing on the stage are not the words you wrote. It was interesting. I'm really looking forward to going back, if I can, and seeing it before the end of the run. Because what I saw was essentially the dress rehearsal, the preview. It was the first time they'd done everything on the stage with the lighting cues, etc. As it began, the actors were rather nervous. But it warmed up as it went, and it seems to be getting quite good reviews.

Yes, a friend of mine attended the opening, and she thought very highly of it.

How did this production compare with the production of Violent Cases, which I know was done several years ago?
Oh, there'll be no comparison. I had no input at all into Violent Cases. With Violent Cases they simply did the graphic novel on the stage, more or less as a monologue. Which is why when I saw the first script for Signal To Noise about 18 months ago, my immediate reaction was, "Well, for Heaven's sake, guys, open it up more, it's not a graphic novel. Take some of the monologues and make them dialogues, feel free to show more, to do more." And they did.

Do you anticipate that any more of your works will be adapted for theatre?
Oh, I'm sure they will. I'm always getting letters, saying "Can I turn this into a play, can I turn that into a play?"

Anything solid yet?
You never know how really solid they are until the first night, you know? Signal To Noise was another one of these. It was every bit as solid as 5 or 6 others that are floating around unproduced right now. And then there are other ones done in other countries that I simply never get to see. There was an Edinburgh theatre that did a version of Mr. Punch recently, and a Portuguese theatre company did The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish. And I hope they went well, but I have no idea.

I know that the Signal To Noise production was done as a benefit for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. How long have you been working with the CBLDF?
Pretty much ever since I came to America, or very shortly thereafter. I was just dumbfounded by this wonderful First Amendment thing and how absolutely great it was. You see, I was coming from a country where that doesn't exist. I should add here that I am still English, I have no intention of giving up my citizenship and so forth. But coming from a country that has no concept of the First Amendment -- you know, most of the rest of the world has no concept of the First Amendment -- getting out here and seeing that you guys genuinely have freedom of speech guaranteed was incredible. You don't have an Obscene Publications Act, you don't have bizarre customs laws, you actually have the freedom guaranteed. And that's so amazing. But the flip side of that is my feeling that it's not necessarily something that gets treated as the amazing thing that it is. Nor is it something that necessarily gets respected as it should be. And it's very, very, very easy for something like this to be eroded. And the erosion of individual liberties, the erosion of freedom of speech is very easy, because people can just decide freedom of speech simply means freedom of speech they agree with. And comics are a very easy target for attacks of various kinds. Just look at the kinds of cases the Fund has been defending over the years. For instance, a California tax authority decided to reclassify comics from literature to sign painting.

What in the world...?
They did this about 6 years ago. And we had the longest, most expensive legal fight the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has ever had. They went after a guy named Paul Mavrides who does the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics. They informed him that what he does is sign painting, not literature, and would be taxed as such. A writer handing a manuscript into a publisher doesn't have to charge them sales tax, but a sign painter does. And we fought that case and we won.

Compare that to Mike Diana, a young man in Pensacola, Florida, who did a fanzine called Boiled Angel which had his own comics in it. And they [the authorities] decided the comics were obscene. He wound up getting put in jail for 3 days before getting out. And in the actual legal case, he was found guilty of obscenity, becoming the first American artist ever to be found guilty of obscenity. This was about 2 years ago. And the penalty he got included a 3-year suspended jail sentence, 1,000 hours of community service, a $3,000 fine, a journalistic ethics course at his own expense and psychiatric counselling at his own expense. And he was not allowed within 10 feet of anyone under the age of 18, which considering this was a kid who worked in a convenience store was rather problematic. And to cap it all, he was forbidden from ever drawing anything that might be considered obscene again, and the local police were entrusted with the responsibility of making random, 24-hour spot checks on the place where he lived to make sure he was not committing art or doodling while on the phone or anything.

My God, that's like something out of 1984... I've heard of child abusers who haven't gotten that kind of sentence.
Exactly. We tried to take it to the Florida Supreme Court, and lost the appeal. Then we tried to take it to the US Supreme Court, but they declined to hear it. And the fact that we lost that case troubles me more than the good feeling I got from the ones that we won. And the flip side of this is that no one's heard of this case. So that's what I mean by saying that unless you're out there manning the parapets on the whole First Amendment business, they will take it away.

And that's why I've been actively working with the Legal Defense Fund for the past 6 or 7 years, holding benefits, doing reading tours, donating things to them. The most recent things are a video of me done by KCTS TV in Seattle as a part of a pledge drive benefit. And so KCTS gave that to the Legal Defense Fund. And I've also given them the Babylon 5 script I wrote, "Day of the Dead." They sell it on their Website and stuff like that. And that was one of those things that really occurred just because I got e-mail from lots of people after the episode went out asking if I could send them or post up the original script. I was going to put the script up on Compuserve, but Joe Straczynski said "Don't do this, don't put it up, because if you do, people will download it, print it out, and sell it for $30 or $40 at conventions as an original Babylon 5 script." So, I thought, "Well, fair enough, but I want people to be able to see this; why not do it as a Legal Defense Fund benefit?" So I annotated it, and Joe did an introduction, and people can buy it at And everybody's happy.

Very good. Speaking of new productions, is there any more news on the Henson/DiNovi production of Neverwhere?
Everything looks amazingly good right now, but there's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip. It looks like it's going to be happening at Dimension Films.

If you could (and obviously you can't), how would you cast it? If you were king for a day, and you could have any actors you wanted, who would you pick?
I'm not going to tell you. 5 or 6 years ago, I would happily have told an interviewer. I'd burble off and tell you my dream cast. The problem you get today is you get interviewed, and you talk about your dream cast, and the next thing you know is you're actually trying to get your dream cast together. And you're playing a big game of, "Oh, we could take you or leave you" with an actor's agent, and they say, "Well, according to, my client is the first choice for this part." And I've actually seen stuff like that happen. And I, normally the most garrulous of individuals, am having to learn to keep my mouth shut. Because so many things can be read by so many people. The one that I learned my lesson on was a conversation that I thought was off the record. I was having lunch with a reporter some years ago in Atlanta, and he asked who my top choices for a Sandman movie would be. And the tape recorder is off and we're just chatting, and I started saying, "Oh, maybe this person, and that person," and the next thing I know it's syndicated by the New York Times. And it's in all the papers. And there are some parts that I do have very, very real preferences for. For instance, I know who my Croup and Vandemar, in a perfect world, would be, and who they always have been. But I'm afraid you're going to have to wait. Ask me again after the movie's made, and then I'll tell you.

Well, if you could cast it with only dead actors, who might you cast?
Oh, that's fun. If I could cast it with all dead actors, I'd have Peter Sellars playing... an awful lot of the parts! [laughs] Hm... Oh, that's a nice one. I dunno, that really moves into dream casting. You could get the young Brigitte Bardot playing Door, and Alec Guiness playing anybody Peter Sellars isn't. The young Alec Guiness, not an Obi-Wan Kenobi. And maybe Louise Brooks playing Hunter. Or anything, really, I don't mind what Louise Brooks plays; if all she wanted to do was hang around the set and make tea, I'd be there!

How is Good Omens coming along? I know the original treatment got approved some time ago.
Bear in mind that the original treatment was done in 90-91 for a company called Sovereign Pictures, which then went bankrupt. Terry [Pratchett] and I got the rights back, and our experiences with Sovereign Pictures did not lead us to feel that we were particularly desperate to get into it again. So it just sort of sat there for a while. And then last year, Peter Samuelson -- they made Charington and Tom and Viv and the Oscar Wilde film -- having now made 3 movies about late Victorian/early Edwardian artists out on the sexual fringes, they figured they were the perfect people to make a funny film about an 11-year-old Antichrist. And we figured they were, too! Last thing I heard from them was that they'd gotten the perfect director to do it. And your next question is, "So who is the perfect director?" and again, I can't tell you. But I believe that the deal is being finalized. But you're just going to have to take my word for it; this is the perfect director.

Obviously, you're always working on a great many projects all at once, and in an earlier interview, you likened it to juggling a whole bunch of chainsaws. How do you keep your chainsaws all up in the air? How do you keep the different parts of your work in balance, and your work as a whole in balance with your family life?
Well, stumbling off a 6-week tour, not only am I 6 weeks behind in work that I had to do before the tour, but more significantly I now have 4 major projects I didn't have when I set out on the tour. One of which is going back and doing the last draft of the Neverwhere script. And another of which is doing a Stardust movie. I'm just sort of keeping my fingers crossed that 1999 is not the year that Neil drops an awful lot of chainsaws all over himself. And then you see little fingers wiggling... bits of blood and flesh everywhere and me saying "I'm sorry!" a lot. Normally, I can get just about everything to work because I love working on different things at the same time. I like multi-tasking. And I like having the equivalent of a story or a script in the background. So if I get stuck on the big thing I'm supposed to be doing, I can go work on the little thing. And that's always a delight for me. And what I'm getting right now is a certain amount of fear... I've got one book that's 3/4-finished but should've been finished by December, one novel that has to get written by the end of the year, two movie scripts, at least one pilot episode for a TV series, and if the TV series is a "go", several more scripts.

What will the TV series be about? I know you probably can't talk about it in great detail.
Right. I can't talk about it in great detail, but it will essentially be a fantasy series. And it would be done with Imagine Television, which does Felicity and Sports Night and things like that. They came to me, and I put together an outline, which they really liked, and then they asked for a beat sheet for the pilot episode, which I have done for them. And they said they really liked that, and I was sort of foolishly and optimistically hoping to get the pilot episode written while I was on tour.

It's probably a good thing that I didn't wind up committing to that, because it wouldn't have happened. On previous signing tours, I've gotten on aeroplanes and got to work. On this signing tour, I've gotten on aeroplanes and fallen asleep. It's been fairly murderous. Wonderful, though, and the sheer number of people I got to sign for was great fun. As was the feeling that I was getting away with something. I mean, here am I, doing a signing tour, and in every story I went to, I was either the biggest signing they'd ever had or easily in the top 3. And yet, on the other hand, I'm still one of those people who people ask, "Well, what do you do?" "I'm a writer." -- and they always sort of say the polite thing to writers you've never heard of, like "Oh, well, what name do you write under?" I get to be breaking records on the one hand, and on the other I still have this incredible amount of privacy. Except perhaps in Toronto, where things got very, very strange. Fans were actually coming up to me on the street and stuff. But normally I have the most amazing amount of privacy.

So what did happen in Toronto?
Oh, Toronto was fun. We did lots and lots of interviews. Did you ever run across a TV show called Prisoners of Gravity? It was a lovely show that ran in Toronto on City TV for years. It was fundamentally about literary SF and featured interviews with SF people. And they'd do a show on dreams, and another on memory, etc. and I did many, many of them. And because it was very popular in Toronto, and because I kept winning all the "Favourite Guest" awards and things like that, Toronto is one of the few places in the world where I have face recognition. They actually know what I look like. So I'll be standing in a record shop, and a kid will come over and sort of do that Home Alone thing, you know, hands on both sides of the face, jaw dropping, and he'll ask "Are you Neil Gaiman?" But I'm relieved that that doesn't happen anywhere else in the world. It's one of the reasons why I tend to say "no" to doing TV interviews. I'll do it with specific projects, but I've always said "no" to the Letterman kind of thing. I value my privacy, and I don't want to be a celebrity. I want to be a writer. If I wanted to be a celebrity, I'd have become an actor.

Going back to writing, I know that you'd mentioned at the signing in Dayton that you wrote Stardust in longhand with a pen. How do the tools you use affect your mental processes?
Oh, enormously! Normally I write on computer. And when you write on computer -- for me, anyway -- it's a little bit like working in clay. You put down a blob of the kind of thing that you mean, and you work with it. I find computers lovely for getting rid of writer's block, because what you put down is so impermanent; if you don't like it, you can immediately change it or just delete it.

Whereas if you're writing with a fountain pen, you actually have to think about what you're doing. It's a different kind of process. Part of writing Stardust for me was wanting to write the kind of book they wrote in the 20s, before there was a fantasy genre. I didn't want it to be a genre novel. I wanted it to be a fairy tale for adults. So I liked the idea of the pen as opposed to the computer from that perspective. But also, I liked the fact that you write differently. You don't put down your blob of clay and then work it into shape; what you do is you think about it, and then you put it down. And also, of course, you end up with a very real discontinuity between your first and second drafts. I wanted that; I very much knew that with Stardust I wanted a first draft and a second draft as opposed to a rolling and improving first draft.

With a computer, what you end up with is a really, really good first draft. Or an ever-improving first draft. But there's never a discontinuity between the drafts. There's never a point at which you finish the story in the first draft, and a few days later you take a deep breath and started to type it out and change it as you go.

That was one of the things I noticed when I was editing The Sandman: Book of Dreams. We were getting a lot of short stories which read like 3,000-word short stories. They had all the rhythms of 3,000-word short stories. Five, ten, fifteen years ago, they would have been 3,000-word short stories. And yet they were 5,000 words, or 9,000 words. They just sort of bloated. Because when you have a choice on a computer of writing one or two things, you just write both of them into a single story.

Speaking of computers, considering you've done so much work in so many different media, do you have anything on your plate involving digital interactive media?
Well, what happens -- and it's happened enough times that it seems almost inevitable -- is that a digital interactive company will come to me and say, "We would like to do X." And I say, "That sounds terrific, that would be really fun." We go away, we sign a contract. I put in 3 or 4 months of work on the thing over a period of about a year and a half, and at the point where everything seems to be coming together, the finances of the company in question completely fall apart. Despite whatever track record they have, they're just sort of belly-up. If you're lucky, you get a nice letter from them before they go. And it's happened many times now, so I tend to regard the whole interactive world as a rather transient one.

I'm much less keen these days to throw myself into the wonderful wacky world of interactive stuff, just because I've lost so much time over the years to really, really cool and interesting interactive projects that never really happened because the economic pipeline and distribution still don't quite work. There was a point a couple of years ago where you had something like 1,000 CD-ROMs being released each month, and enough shelf space in the places that sold them to cope with about 14 new things each month, if that. And there were things that simply weren't even getting to shelves. One of the companies that I was doing a lot of work with was InScape, who did the wonderful Edgar Allan Poe "Dark Eye" project. They were real people. And one day their financing got cut off, and that was it.

Having said that, I've just agreed to work on a Sony PlayStation Neverwhere game. So we'll see what happens with that.

How's your new children's book, Coraline, going?
Oh, I think it's going fairly well. It should've been done by now. Unfortunately, the trouble with the way this year's been going, it didn't quite get finished by December, and that meant that I haven't touched it since the end of December because I've been doing Stardust promotions ever since then. Since December I've managed to get one whole short story written for the World Horror Convention program booklet. But I'm really looking forward to getting back to Coraline. Currently I have a small girl just about to be locked into a closet with four other children, each of whom died about 400 years apart. And they need her to get their souls back for them. And I've been feeling very, very guilty, because they've been hanging around in this closet now for about 9, 10 weeks, and it's my fault they can't get on with things.

You've mentioned that in your head you see this book being illustrated by Edward Gorey. Is that a feasible reality that Gorey might illustrate it?
I don't know, to be honest. Mr. Gorey is a very elderly gentleman, and I believe very picky about the projects he takes on. Let's see what happens after I finish it. He's certainly the first person I'd ask. And if he doesn't do it, I still want strange, spooky little black-and-white illustrations of little children who somehow look both more and less innocent than they actually are.

I think that answers all my questions... Thank you very much for taking time out of your day to talk with me.
It was my pleasure.

Copyright © 1999 by Lucy Snyder

Lucy A. Snyder is a writer and Web designer who publishes Dark Planet Webzine in her not-so-copious spare time. She currently lives and works in Columbus, OH.

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