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Neil Gaiman Last Angel Tour Interview
interview courtesy of Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
August 2000

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, was adapted for the stage and played at Chicago's NOWtheater, with proceeds from the play 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
Last Angel Tour

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
In the last 10 years since concluding the award-winning comic book series Sandman, writer Neil Gaiman has stretched his literary legs to write a number of popular and critically-acclaimed novels, a children's book, the English-language screenplay for the Japanese film Princess Mononoke, a television series for the BBC, and too many other things to name. Gaiman has also expended a considerable amount of time and energy raising money for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), a non-profit organization which defends the First Amendment rights of artists, retailers, and other comic-book professionals.

Despite a busy schedule completing his next novel (American Gods, HarperCollins), developing his next comic-book project with painter John Bolton (Dark Horse Comics), and beginning work on the forthcoming Death movie (Warner Brothers), Gaiman agreed to take time out this October to barnstorm the country for a series of live readings to benefit the CBLDF.

Gaiman will appear for one night only in New York City, Chicago, Portland (Oregon), and Los Angeles in what is being billed as THE LAST ANGEL TOUR. Since 1993 Gaiman's readings have generated over $100,000 for the CBLDF. As the title suggests, this will be his last reading tour for a very long time, and Gaiman is committed to making the most of it. THE LAST ANGEL TOUR is projected to raise over $50,000 to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

The following interview was conducted by Shawna Ervin-Gore in August 2000.

Let's start by talking about the Fund itself. Why do you support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund?

Because I come from a country that has no First Amendment. I don't know of any other country in which freedom of speech is guaranteed, legally. And I also don't know of any country -- most other countries treasure what freedom of speech they have -- that is so gifted and appreciates it so little. In America, where you have guaranteed freedom of speech, I don't particularly feel like it's treasured and treated as the miracle and really cool thing that it is. A lot of people seem very uncomfortable with it, and because of that you will have things happen like the Mike Diana case.

Mike Diana is the cartoonist in Florida who was taken in by the police because his work was deemed "offensive," right?
Yes. This is a case where somebody is found guilty of drawing offensive comics and is sentenced to a three year suspended jail term, must seek psychiatric treatment at their own expense, and are not allowed within ten feet of anybody under the age of 18; ordered to take a course in journalistic ethics, 1,000 hours community service, $3,000 fine and forbidden to draw -- forbidden to draw! -- with the local sheriff's office empowered to make 24-hour spot searches of their abode to make sure they are not committing art and flushing it down the toilet.

That is truly amazing, and yet it happened not too long ago.
At that point, you realize what a fight this is -- and that was a case that we fought and lost! And what you don't hear about are the ones we win and the ones that never go to trial. Without the Legal Defense Fund, things would be so much worse. Which is why I am out there fighting for it continually, because I consider freedom of speech and the freedom to be able to read things that people have written an incredibly important one.

Is that one of the reasons you moved from the UK?
Not in particular. But it was one of the delights of coming out here. But it is a brief, frustrating delight. It is a very bright double-edged sword. Because on the one side, you guys have this really cool thing, and on the other hand...

What happened to Mike Diana is always a possibility.
Yes, it is taken for granted and things like Mike Diana happen. So, my attitude is that I should be doing something about it. I don't think it is coincidental that some of the biggest funders, you know, supporters of the fund, in the last seven or eight years have been Canadian, English, Irish -- an awful lot of people are supporting the fund, both American residents and people who live outside of America.

Let's talk about your Guardian Angel tours. For a number of years, you have been participating in reading tours to benefit the CBLDF, and these are engagements where you do live readings of your comics work and short stories in a theater-like environment. "The Last Angel Tour" is coming up in October. How many have you done before this?
We have been doing them since -- well, I believe the first of the gigs was in '93, and we've done one or two a year from there on. It wasn't until about three years ago, that it sort of solidified into a real tour. Up to that point I was just doing an occasional gig, like we'd rent a theater somewhere and just do it. One of my very favorites was in Boston, Massachusetts, which is near the headquarters of the Legal Defense Fund. There's a beautiful old theater there that we have rented for these performances. I was doing one a year, maybe two a year, and then we decided life might be easier if I went out and just went on the road, as part of an actual tour.

What happens on these tours? I think it's hard for some people to understand that you, or any writer, would read their work aloud as entertainment.
I think it is just hard for somebody to understand that it can actually be an enjoyable experience listening to somebody read, which is even weirder. This is something that people used to do a long time ago, and it hasn't been done for years and years and years. You know, Charles Dickens used to go on these huge reading tours and so forth.

And that's how writers used to really earn their income, right?
Oh, completely. That was how a writer made his or her living; it was the way that Oscar Wilde and Dickens and any writer for many years was able to earn an income. They'd come out to America and do American reading tours. When I was about 10 or 11, I went to a local theater in Sussex to watch an actor who, if memory serves, was Emylin Williams, do a recreation of one of Dickens' readings. It was amazing. This actor stood up in front of an audience, reading passages from Dickens, and some short stories, and he held an audience utterly spellbound for a solid theatrical evening.

That was the place I realized one could do it. And years later, I'd never actually done much reading out loud or anything like that. And then, The Beguiling in Toronto -- which was probably the best comic store in the world -- said "We are going to rent a theater for you. Come up here and do an event for us, and raise money for our legal fund." The idea had not really occurred to me before that. It certainly wasn't something that had me thinking, "Oh, my God -- this is what the world has been waiting for!"

Before that, had you given any thought to performing your work?
Nope. I was terrified. But somehow it ended up working. We figured out the basics of what we have done ever since at that same show. A format for these readings has evolved, and that first one helped determine it. We said "Okay, how do we run this?" And we came up with something like this: start off with a thoroughly enjoyable short story, do some shorter pieces, do another solid short story, break for, oh, 20 or 30 minutes, so the people can (a) go to the toilet, (b) stretch their legs, and (c) write down any questions they might have. We do a portion of each reading as a Q&A., and it works much better if the audiences writes the questions down on a slip of paper, so we can go through the questions backstage and pick the best ones to cover. That way, when the reading starts again, I can run through as many of the questions as I can do in however much time we have got. It helps prevent repeat questions, and we get to be selective about choosing questions on interesting topics.

After we've covered the question, we then do a couple of show pieces and one big one to end with. I usually try to do something special. That brief first show, I had just finished writing the story "Snow, Glass, Apples", so I read it to the public for the first time. And the next one, which I think was Northampton, I had just written The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish. I read that to an audience for the first time. And on this tour, I am sure that I will do something very, very similar.

What is your experience while you are doing these readings? Do you find yourself getting more lost in the stories or thinking about your performances as a reader?
Mostly, I just enjoy it. I mean, it's a lovely experience. There have been a few that weren't great, like when we did one on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. That was frustrating because the acoustics were really weird. From where I was I could never quite hear myself, so it was a little bit weird. But mostly you are just watching a bunch of adults with the kind of rapt expression on their face that you normally only see in a room of five-year-olds. And they are sitting there incredibly happy, maybe never having realized that they could enjoy themselves with somebody reading to them.

I think people forget about that pleasure. The moment it stops when you are a kid, nobody really reads to you again.
Oh, exactly. And all you tend to meet as an adult are really boring readers -- they put you off for life! That's one of those things I have never quite been able to understand. I'll go to readings, you know, occasionally, with a major author reading where I have also been invited to come read. And you will be up there and you will finish telling your story and then the next guy is there, and all of a sudden you are listening to something like this: [feigned monotone -- ed]: "and the door opens and the sultan's men came all brandishing their swords. I said please get out of my way, none of them did, and one of them slashed at me with his swords so I leaped for the drapes and jumped over his head and then I got out of the room and don't stop don't stop she shouted as I laughed." And you are just listening to these readers droning on and on -- and I'm thinking, "Can't you hear the music when you write this? Don't you hear the voices?" That's something I do -- the voices, which is part of the fun. I used to think I had no desire to act, but that's not true, I guess. It's not that I don't want to act. I discovered something when I was in Signal to Noise, the radio version. I wrote a part for Dave McKean [artist on Signal to Noise -- ed.]. And then, when it came time to record it, Dave had chicken pox. And our lead actor, the older actor, Warren Mitchell, had not had chicken pox, so Dave couldn't go into the studio. And that meant I ended up acting with Warren as a place-holder. It was enormously fun, because I got to go out there and act, do my bit, and I never, ever have had to be embarrassed by people listening to me because eventually the producers went in and filled in my parts with Dave's acting. But I love performing. I could never do it, and I need an excuse to do it, and these readings are that excuse for me.

Have you documented these readings at all?
I did, a few years ago, a CD called Warning Contains Language, which Dreamhaven put out, and it did fairly well. It had some problems through Diamond, its distributor, because we could never actually convince them that the name of the CD was Warning Contains Language. They thought this was some sort of warning. They kept putting it in their catalogue as "Neil Gaiman's CD Contains Bad Language." I thought it was a really cool, clever, funny title, but it confused at least a few people. The other problem with it was the fact that nobody knew it was a double CD. It had a $30 price tag on it, so everyone must have thought, "My God! This is expensive." It was actually two CDs, and at least a few people have it. That bit of me performing is out there.

So you've dabbled in performance, then.
I dabble occasionally with doing readings in the studio, and I'm thinking of doing another one. But we're looking right now at taping or filming much of the upcoming tour, partly because it's the last one, and partly so that we have actually got something that the Legal Defense Fund can have to sell after it's all done.

Now that you're more of a popular media figure, I guess that makes your public appearances a bit more of a "to do." How do you feel when you hear that there are people, presumably fans of your work, who have paid, I think $1800 at an auction to get VIP tickets to your readings?
That was one of these spur of the moment things that I decided to do with the CBLDF, and of course it's flattering. We also auctioned off my leather jacket for the Legal Defense Fund. I was talking to Chris Oarr from the Fund, and he had this big auction going, and I suggested we auction VIP tickets, and maybe throw in a nice dinner and a backstage pass. And I think Chris was expecting to get maybe $200 for each ticket. When they started crossing $1,000 we were blown away. But for people who have been to these readings before, and if they support the Fund, I think these events might actually be the most fun you can have without a partner and a little privacy (laughs).

I think your role -- as far as your fans are concerned -- is more like that of a storyteller rather than a comics writer or a novelist.
Yes, I think so.

How old were you when you started telling stories?
Oh, let me think. I was a kid. I mean, my first stories were what my daydreams were. When I was a kid, my daydreams were the kind of daydreams where you would be tumbled into a parallel universe with the only copy of The Lord of the Rings in existence -- a universe just like this one but they hadn't had Lord of the Rings. So I'd bring a copy along and get it published under my name, and that way I'd be the guy who wrote Lord of the Rings. That was one fantasy. And there was another that was really kind of fun where I kidnapped all of the writers that I liked through space and time and imprisoned them and made them work on a giant fantasy novel just for me. I had the plot for this 12-book series based on this one daydream. I must have been 11 at this point.

This must have been before you realized that you possessed the talent to actually create the stories yourself?
Completely. That was when I was sort of a kid, and before I had any concept that I could write. But I knew that was what I wanted to do. I just couldn't see at the time that I was going to be good enough. I knew I couldn't sit down and write a great novel, so that was my solution at the time. And as I got older, I still loved telling stories. This is what I am; it's what I do. I make stuff up. I have the kind of head to make stuff up.

Did you just discover your talent for throwing all the words together and making it sound pretty, or is that something that developed once you started taking writing assignments in school?
I was always one of these kids who did incredibly well in English, but it was what I loved doing. It wasn't work. You get to sit down and make up a story, and I could never think of anything I'd rather do.

You just mentioned Lord of the Rings and a few other books. I am assuming you were really inspired by other people's stories when you were a kid. What other works inspired you?
Depends which age. When I was seven, it was the Narnia books. When I was nine, it was Michael Moorcock. It was fantasy and science fiction that always struck some kind of deep chord with me. It wasn't that I didn't read everything, I was the kind of kid who did read everything. But it always seemed to me that fantasy is a very, very useful tool. It is a very useful mirror -- very useful way of seeing the world. You can say things in fantasy that are difficult to say in any fiction that's meant to resemble the real world.

Plus, I always felt that as a writer, you get to be God, and as the storyteller you get to be God. And, if you're going to be God, you may as well have the power to do absolutely anything you want, you know. Whether it's to have a small boy be able to swap his dad for two goldfish, and bring him back. Or to create a world underneath London, or to decide what cats dream about. You have that power as a storyteller. The act of storytelling has always seemed to be supremely exciting.

Is there a format you prefer? You write graphic novels, and you write novels, and you do some poetry. Which of these feels more comfortable for you, or is it all part of the same process?
Well, its really all part of the same thing. However, radio plays are probably my favorite.

Oh, really?
Yes. I did a radio play for the BBC a few years ago (Signal to Noise), which was just brought out on CD. And I did a similar thing last year for the Sci-Fi channel website, adapting my short story "Murder Mysteries." In each case, I loved it. It's like comics that you are actually creating inside somebody's head, because as they're listening to the words, the images are forming for them. But it's not a medium that people sit still for for very long, which is kind of why it is fun to do these tours for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

I know you have a new book coming out next year. You've written a number lately -- Stardust, Neverwhere, Smoke and Mirrors. I heard the next one is called American Gods?
This is true. American Gods got started almost a year ago -- I started it just before San Diego [The San Diego International ComicCon -- ed.] last year. So over a year ago. And I swore a mighty oath when I really started it seriously that I wasn't getting a haircut until it was done. (laughs)

And now, I am this appalling mess. I look more and more like Howard Stern.

It's been a while since I saw you at the Small Press Expo -- I guess about a year.
Exactly. Then I looked completely human. Now, I am -- I am faced with the bizarre -- definitely Howard Stern territory. So I will be enormously pleased to finish the novel. The novel has got much too long and so has the hair.

That's the story on the hair. What about the book?
I guess I would start by saying it's the closest thing I have done to Sandman, since I finished Sandman.

Other than that comparison, how would you describe American Gods?
Well, it is either a fantasy novel or a theological thriller. Or a murder mystery. Or a short story collection, depending on which way you want to see it. It includes all those things in its makeup. And its also a horror novel. And has some -- you know -- some congealed blobs of sex in there as well.

I like the concept of a novel also being able to be read as a series of short stories. There are a few writers who have pulled that off successfully.
What I did in this is one central narrative that goes through the whole novel. There was a lot of stuff that I needed to do that was outside the frame of the novel. So I just started writing them as short stories, and I ultimately decided that they actually belonged in the novel. So every few chapters you stop and you get a short story, illuminating an aspect of America's history.

Is this focusing on any particular period of American history?
The novel is set in the present day, but the first of the stories is set 14,000 years ago. The first short story has people coming across the land bridge, the Siberian land bridge. Although I love the fact that just as I get into the novel, it changes. I go heavily into fictional ways that different races have turned up in America. One must admit that it becomes desperately, hugely archaeologically and scientifically arguable and there are theories that maybe the Ainu people came down this way and we think maybe the Polynesians came up this way, and actually lots of people were turning up in America all the time. Which is lovely. I love all the mad theories that are coming in and they all, every mad theory, helps the novel.

And you are still exercising a sort of fantasy aspect with this novel, too?
Oh, sure. It's a novel about God -- an abandoned God. A forgotten God. A blue-collar God. And it's a war story and it's historical. And the scientists, you know. And there is some crimes in there too. I mean its basically one of these things if I am hugely lucky that HarperCollins will be publishing as a bestseller, because it doesn't really belong anywhere else. Which shelf do you put it on? A big one.

So other than Sandman, this is probably one of your more epic works?
It is, and I was so hugely optimistic, I thought I could hash out a first draft of it in three months. Instead, it's closer to a year. I spent a few months noodling with it, but it has taken about a year. But I've had an awful lot of fun with it.

What about film work? I hear you may be directing a movie?
Yeah. Currently what I am spending most of my time doing is apologizing to people who were meant to have things written this year. But I am late with the novel, and I am not starting those things 'til the novel is done. So, the thing I am really meant to be working on now is the Death movie, which I am also meant to be directing. And there are some very pissed-off producers at Warner Brothers whom I would like to just take this opportunity to apologize to -- and to promise they will get their script when the novel is done.

So that's where the Death film is. Any insight into what story the movie will tell?
It will be a lot like "Death: the High Cost of Living," only bigger. "The High Cost of Living" was an enormously fun story, but if you filmed it, its probably about 40 minutes long. I wanted to take that core -- the idea of the boy with everything to live for -- who doesn't want to live. He meets a girl who claims to be Death, and the film follows them around New York for 24 hours, seeing what kind of scrapes they get into and watching them learn things.

So, you have done radio broadcasts, but have you ever dealt with a film before?
Not exactly. I did a TV series with BBC -- the original version of Neverwhere. And, of course, last year I did the English script of Princess Mononoke, so it's not entirely virgin territory.

Is this really the last "Angel" tour?
Probably. We may follow up at some point, but I don't have as much time on my hands as I did when we first started. To do these tours, we give up two weeks and go off and do L.A. and San Francisco and Seattle -- or last year it was Washington and Boston and so forth. And that's two weeks that I don't get to do other work. I have too many more stories to tell right now. So it's time to call it a day, but this will be one fun last tour, and I think we're really going to make an impact.

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