‘Here I am, nearly 60, with an enormous body of work behind me’
Author Neil Gaiman talks about today’s ‘strange’ universe, Trump and his surprise bestseller
Author Neil Gaiman at the San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre in April. Photograph: Kelly Sullivan/Wire Image
Everyone knows Neil Gaiman can write. He can also talk. If he’s not doing one he’s likely doing the other – the result of some innate and overriding compulsion to communicate ideas, images and stories through any medium available, whether it’s the oral tradition, fiction, graphic novels, screen adaptations or projects that don’t fit into any literary category.
“All of the things about me which were once perceived as bugs are now regarded as features,” Gaiman considers, on the phone from his base in the United Kingdom. “Everybody except my lovely agent was always very aware that if I would simply write the same book over and over, I’d be tons richer. I’d be a lot more successful if I’d listened to the publishers who basically said, ‘Look, American Gods has done well, now can we follow this up with American Gods II and then British Gods?’ And I’d go, ‘No, I’m doing Coraline now. I want to do something funny, let me do Anansi Boys. And then The Graveyard Book. And then The Ocean at the End of the Lane.’ It’s not a thing that makes any sense, but it’s the way that I’m happy.
“What’s lovely is, here I am a few years away from 60, with an enormous body of stuff behind me, and it’s all different. But the flipside is I’m now going, ‘Okay, I need to rethink a whole bunch of stuff, because otherwise I’ll wind up turning into a Jim Henson or a Douglas Adams’ – friends or people I knew of or respected who came down with things and died early. I need to make sure I’m looking after myself. How do I make sure that I’m eating sanely and that the exercise happens and all of that? So I’m rethinking that one too.”
International Literature Festival Dublin
Gaiman will be appearing in Dublin this weekend as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin. He’s been doing these kinds of events for many years now, engaging directly with his audience through sold-out signings, but it seems the rest of the culture has been catching on. From Jordan Peterson’s Chautauqua-like assemblies to Nick Cave’s unmoderated public Q&As, there’s a huge public appetite for town-hall type meetings, bypassing the psychopathology of social media.
“I think what Nick has done is absolutely fascinating, to find out what the people on the ground are thinking, having a platform for 5,000 people to talk,” Gaiman says. “I knew when I was pulling away from doing signing tours that I didn’t want to pull away from public events. I’ve been a university professor [at Bard College] for the past six years, and the process of answering questions for people is a huge and fascinating one. Obviously the one I’m going to be doing in Dublin, because it’s part of the literary festival, has to follow the rules in that it will have somebody moderating and asking me questions and stuff, but more and more these days I like the unmoderated ones.”
Do these events keep him connected to what’s going on in the wider world?
“My audiences tend to be people who like fiction, and people who like the kind of fictions that I do are sort of pre-selected for traits like empathy, which means that you don’t necessarily get a reflection of what’s going on in the world. Right now, it’s like somebody looked at the world’s ratings and went, ‘You know, we haven’t had really great ratings since the 1930s, so let’s re-run that with the current cast and see how it does.’ I would not have imagined that; I thought we were on a slow onward-and-upward that would lead us to Star Trek in the end. I’m hoping that this is a glitch.”
Strange days for any writer of fantasy or speculative fiction. There’s been a palpable sense in recent years that our darkest childhood imaginings, from Fahrenheit 451 to 2000AD, have come to pass. The future has come crashing through our screens.
Wellspring of lore
“I agree – the feeling that suddenly we are an awful warning to others, that there are lots of people out there in nice, sane universes reading what’s happening to us as a kind of amusing dystopian satire.”
Gaiman meanwhile has returned to the wellspring of lore that has sustained his imagination since he was a boy. His most recent book Norse Mythology, a retelling of the Nordic legends, was a surprise bestseller. Myths, he maintains, will always be encoded with contemporary resonances, especially now when the political arena resembles some Manichean heresy in which our controllers – our gods – far from being benign or all-knowing, are in fact agents of chaos.
“[Norse Mythology] was something that was in my head and I didn’t even know if the world needed it,” Gaiman admits. “I’ve never written a book before that was a surprise bestseller. I’ve written failures, things where I went, ‘Ah, the world will love this!’ and the world didn’t. But I’ve never done a book where I went, ‘It’s a little thing that I’ve been working on for six years, and it will sell like a short story collection if I’m lucky, and then maybe it’ll sell to schools.’ And then I watched it sort of rocket to the top of the New York Times list and stay there. I think in some ways people were using it in the same way that they use a tarot card: to try and make sense of the universe. It is a very weird universe out there and it doesn’t quite make sense anymore. The gods are not beneficent, and everything is heading towards Ragnarok.
“I remember doing an interview when the book came out, in February of last year, and a journalist from National Public Radio in America said, ‘So Neil, have we reached peak Ragnarok yet?’ And I went, ‘Obviously not – we’ve got a way to go.’ But we are in what feels like an early intimation of the end of days. Then again, the great thing about Norse mythology is that right at the end it gives you hope, just when you think you’re done.”
And for every Putin or Trump playing Odin or Thor, you have the trickster god Loki incarnated in the form of Steve Bannon or Vladislav Surkov, grey cardinals who emerged from the worlds of avant-garde theatre or public relations, who have produced films and written postmodern novels and sci-fi short stories.
“That sense of, ‘You guys were supposed to be one of us!’ is a huge and fascinating one,” Gaiman concurs. “Mostly people who make up stories or work in avant-garde theatre or whatever are not actually driven by power. Power is not their aphrodisiac, power is not their currency. Politics always attracts power. But hopefully we’re watching some small social redress of that happening.
“The Me Too movement actually gave me a lot of hope. It would give me more hope if it was being used to target the people who are actually dangerous, but they seem to be unshameable. Everybody simply accepts that Trump is the kind of man who would walk into young girls’ dressing rooms at events demanding lip kisses and – what’s that beautiful phrase? – ‘grab them by the pussy’, but that doesn’t seem to do anything, and you wind up taking out a comedian. We should be afflicting the powerful.”
Neil Gaiman appears at the Convention Centre, Dublin, as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin on Sunday, May 27th. Norse Mythology is out now in paperback, published by Bloomsbury.