An interview with Neil Gaiman - SciFiNow

An interview with Neil Gaiman

SciFiNow caught up with Neil Gaiman on Halloween to talk about his new novel, The Graveyard Book, his career in writing, and that pesky Neverwhere adaptation…

LONDON, 31 October 2008 —

What was your inspiration behind The Graveyard Book? There’s clearly an influence from Rudyard Kipling and The Jungle Book in there.
The original idea was incredibly simple. To the point that you normally don’t get, because normally as a writer you come up with ideas, you come up with books, and it’s pretty hard to find what the little bit of grit that turned into the pearl was. In 1985 I was living in a very very tall, very very thin terraced house in Sussex. Every floor was separated by stairs, and every room was separated by stairs due to it being very tall and thin, so you had to get the stairs anywhere. And I had a two year-old son who loved his tricycle more than anything in the world, and I couldn’t let him ride it in the house because he would have died. We didn’t have a garden, so I would take him down these endless stairs every day and cross over the lane to the little country graveyard opposite. And he would peddle backwards and forwards in the graveyard. I just remember looking at him one day and thinking ‘he looks really at home here, the small boy in the graveyard, and very happy here. What a great place to raise a kid.’ And I suddenly thought The Jungle Book, Kipling’s Jungle Book is about a small boy whose family are dead, wandered into the jungle, pursued by a vicious killer and adopted by animals, and brought up to know the things that jungle animals know. And I thought I could do that, I could something called The Graveyard Book that would be about a small boy brought into a graveyard, brought up by dead people, and taught all of the things that dead people know. And I sat down and tried to write it, I wrote a scene and thought ‘You know what? This is so much better an idea than I am a writer, aged 24. I’ll put it aside until I’m good enough’. And finally a few years ago, I thought ‘I don’t think I’m getting any better any more.’ It used to be that I could look back at work I did a year ago and think that I was a better writer now. But now, I’ve got to the point where I’m about as good as I’m gonna get. I don’t know about peaked, there’s things that I’ll learn how to do before I die, but then you could actually see me learning my craft. Whereas somewhere around Coraline times, somewhere in American Gods, I’m now a quite good writer in terms of putting down a sentence, I can do it. So, once I came to terms with the fact that I didn’t seem to be getting much better, I decided that I had to start writing The Graveyard Book.

The Man Jack reminded us a lot of Croup and Vandemar from Neverwhere. Was this intentional?
I love Croup and Vandemar. They’re probably my two favourite villains that I’ve ever written, my favourite villainous team. I think that there may be a flavour of them in The Man Jack, but I really just wanted somebody who was absolutely implacable. I didn’t want somebody with…really I think it came partly from the whole Shere Khan side of things. When you’re being pursued by a tiger, a tiger is an implacable killing machine. It’s not something that you’re looking at going ‘this tiger has a good side, we must get to know this tiger’. No, this tiger wants to kill you. So with The Man Jack, I had to create a character who would not be on stage for most of the book. He’s there in chapter one, he comes back at the end. But you had to be able to accept that this kid is going to be kept in a graveyard, and stay there because it is not safe for him outside. And you as a reader had to buy that it was not safe outside.

You had to feel his presence even when he wasn’t there?
Exactly. I liked all the Jacks, they were incredibly fun to write. And I sometimes think that it might be fun to do…if I did anything more set in that world…there are a lot of people who would like another Graveyard Book, or another book with Bod in, but I’m tempted to think of it these days as The Lord Of The Rings, to which The Graveyard Book would have been The Hobbit, in that it would be much bigger, much more adult, and you would learn things that you simply don’t know. Like what Silas was doing in the graveyard in the first place, who the Jacks are and what else is going on, what the Honour Guard are doing. Because there are huge quantities of backstory, some of it I know and some of it I’d love to find out by writing.

Is that something that you think you will do in the future?
It’s certainly not out of the question. The big trouble with me and books, and me and everything, is that there’s only one me, and no matter how much I try I can’t make time stretchy. I used to be able to do it a bit, I’d be able to lean on a Monday and maybe get 26 hours out of it. Now I can’t, and I no longer juggle things easily. I start trying to juggle things and I notice that something has hit the floor and broken.

So is Silas a vampire?
What do you think?

That’s what was implied to us. He only appears at night, dead but not dead…
He also doesn’t have a reflection, he only eats one food and it’s not bananas. Part of the fun for me with Silas was making my readers work a bit. And I think everything that you need to know about who and what Silas is, is in there. For me, the big scene where I thought that nobody is going to be in any doubt about this is where he goes headfirst down the steeple. It’s straight out of Dracula, although I’ve ran into a lot of people who have said that they don’t get it until he’s got his chest where he sleeps, with the earth from his homeland in it.

We’ve heard that there’s going to be a live action film of The Graveyard Book, can you confirm this?
You can never confirm that there is going to be a film of anything until the day that everybody’s sitting in the cinema and watching it. You can’t even confirm that there’s going to be a film when it’s shot, because I have friends who still have films in the basement when the film company decided that they would be better off to just write off 20 million and never release it. But yes, I’m working with Framestore, who are a special effects house who have started getting into film production. They’re lovely, and they said all of the right things, and there were a lot of…it actually all happened a bit faster than I probably would have liked, but…you don’t really actually credit in real life that film companies have spies. It’s something that you hear about, but don’t actually believe. I didn’t believe it until I’d emailed the finished manuscript to my editor at Harper Collins, and it was being spread around the offices there. And suddenly it was on the desk of every film company in America. We didn’t even know about it until Disney phoned up to pass on it. So we were like, ‘Well thank you for phoning up and passing on this story, that we haven’t given you to look at.’ I started finding out that everybody had it at that point, and we went out with it officially because of that. I think I would rather have waited until the book was published, but it was fun. Lots of people wanted it, lots of stars wanted it, lots of people fell in love with it, and I went with Framestore because I like them, and I trust them. I get to be a producer on it and I have a little more say than…I enjoyed being a producer on Stardust and with this I get a little more say than that.

You worked on Beowulf of course, but do you have any plans to write any more films in the future?
I’m currently working on an Anansi Boys film for Warner.

Are you co-writing with anyone else?
That one’s just me.

The perpetually ambiguous rumour circuit also has word that there’s something going on with Neverwhere?
There sort of is. Neverwhere’s gone in this weird cycle where I was hired by Henson to write a Neverwhere movie in about 1997. I wrote about eight drafts, but I quit after three years in 2000, saying that I couldn’t do it any more.

Why was that? Was it too much of a drawn out process?
I don’t like doing draft after draft after draft. You start feeling like a word processor rather than a writer, and I didn’t feel that we were getting any closer to getting a film made. At the time a director came on board, took my draft and did his own version with it, and I wasn’t impressed with what he did, but thought that I wasn’t going to win any arguments because he’s the director, so I quit. Then he got to bring on his own writer and do another draft which I was told was so bad that the film company and production company fell out over who was going to pay for it because neither of them did. But I was safely out. Then they hired another writer who did a bunch of drafts. And then, about 18 months ago, a director came along and just asked my agents about Neverwhere. They looked in their files and pulled out the last Neverwhere script that they had, the last one that I’d written in 2000. They sent it to him and he said ‘this is great,’ then he sent it into Henson’s, who had been developing it for the previous six or seven years and they said ‘we don’t seem to have this in our files any more, but it’s great, we should do something with it, oh my gosh this is really good.’ So that script went to Harvey Weinstein, and he said that he wanted to do it. So that was Harvey and Henson’s. I’m contractually meant to do one more draft, they have a polish from the original script deal in 1997, and Harvey wanted me to do that, and he was going to go out and get a director. So I said ‘Harvey, whoever you go and get to direct it is going to want another draft of the script, because that’s how it works. If you get me to do my draft now, that’s fine, but that’s your last cheap draft from the 1997 contract. And after that you’re going to have to pay the kind of rates that people do to get me to write scripts now. So you’re probably better off getting a director and then using that final polish, because you get the incredibly cheap draft, otherwise you’re going to be negotiating with my agents in a few months and you will hate it.’ Harvey saw reason on that one. So I believe now that they’re looking for a director.

Does the continued success of your books such as American Gods and Stardust ever surprise you?
No. But Sandman does. Sandman really does surprise me, because I look at it, and when I was writing it I figured I was writing something that would be ancient history very soon, and was periodical, that would go into a bin and be forgotten about. And maybe ten years for now people would talk about it in a nice kind of way. The idea that 20 years after it was first published, it would be read with the same enthusiasm and sell more copies each year…putting in into context, my biggest year of reading comics as a young man was probably 1975-6. The idea that a comic written in 1956 could have been as huge in 1976 was just baffling. But we’re living in a world where that’s true, and this is the 20th birthday of Sandman, in fact, probably right around now [31 October]. Yeah, I think the beginning of November, maybe the beginning of December. No, it would have been November because it came out with the January 1989 cover date, it was a few months advance. So yeah, around now, Sandman was published.

Growing up, who were your main influences on your writing, who did you read most?
Depends on what age I was. The first writer ever to make me absolutely obsessive was probably CS Lewis with the Narnia books when I was about seven. Then, when I was about nine I discovered Ray Bradbury, JRR Tolkien. Bradbury was enormously important. And Michael Moorcock. When I was 12, Moorcock was the most important author in the universe. When I was 13, it was probably Samuel Delaney, or Roger Zelazny, maybe Harlan Ellison by the time I was 14.

So you turned a bit more towards science fiction as you got older?
Yeah, I think I was lucky growing up in an age where the science fiction new wave had happened, and you had that whole Moorcock  contingent, you have the whole Judith Merrill contingent in America. You had writers like Fritz Lieber who had been writing forever, amazing stuff, and were still around. You had people who brought style on board.

How did you get into writing in the first place, you worked as a journalist for a while, right?
I was, I was a journalist, doing much what you’re doing now only with a micro-cassette recorder instead of an MP3 recorder. I wrote a couple of non-fiction books during that time, and then stumbled into comics, which wanted to…I really wanted to do comics, they just seemed so cool, and all of my friends thought I was mad. But for me it just seemed like this amazing thing that you could do that was just different to anything that had been done before. Writing The Graveyard Book for instance, it’s a children’s book. This means that it’s on the same shelves as, bears comparison with, and has to at least stand up to Alice In Wonderland, The Wind In The Willows, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, the JK Rowling books, the Phillip Pullman books. You’ve got this solid world of amazing children’s books, and here I am putting one on the shelf, and you do it diffidently because there’s an awful lot of giants on the shelves. With Sandman, I was doing stuff that nobody had done before. I wasn’t on anybody’s shelf; I was metaphorically taking my machete and hacking my way into the jungle, clearing a new path. And it was great! So I did that, I wrote Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, I wrote the Neverwhere television show. I was really miserable about the Neverwhere television show. My original plan for Neverwhere had been…when the BBC originally asked, I wasn’t going to do a novel, I liked the idea that we’d just do a script book with photos. And then, the thing that the BBC were making started drifting further and further from the thing that was in my head and the thing that was written in the scripts. At that point I said alright, I’ll write a novel, because every time I lost a scene I’d go ‘Oh, I’ll put it back in the novel’.

As a consolation for losing it?
Well sort of as a consolation, but every time I’d write a character description I’d write what they were wearing, and then the costume lady would tell me what she’d put them in. Disregarding it completely. I designed Door’s clothes because I knew what I wanted her to be in, what it would say about her, as I was used to doing in comics. A lot of it felt as if I’d said ‘Okay, the Sandman’s gonna be tall with dark hair, and this long black cloak’, and the costume person had come along and said ‘Well, you know, black is very last year darling, so we’ll put him in a nice brown suit.” You know, we actually had a reason for doing it that way.

Do you still read much fantasy and science fiction?
It’s interesting, I got amazingly and magnificently burnt out in 1991-92, because I was an Arthur C Clarke awards judge. And if you’re an Arthur C Clarke awards judge, you have to read every work of science fiction published in the UK in that year. And actually, what I should have done was quit after one year, because one year left me reeling, by the end of year two it was like aversion therapy for science fiction. So it took about six or seven years before I picked up another book that had anything approaching a rocket ship on the cover.

Some writers have said that we’re living in a golden age of fantasy at the moment, would you agree with this?
I guess, I mean the golden age of fantasy publishing for me was probably 1970 through to 1974 because you had the Ballantine adult fantasy line. I think it’s really interesting that you’ve now got a generation of writers about my age or a little bit older who are releasing amazing work, most of whom if you talk to them grew up with the Ballantine adult fantasy line, which was Lin Carter, who was a terrible writer and a really good editor. He had really good taste as a reader, even though his stuff was beyond dire. So Lord Dunsany, and James Branch Cabell, and all of these amazing writers – Ernest Bramah – all came into print for the first time gathered together in a fantasy line. In terms of a golden age, I don’t know. The truth is, as far as I’m concerned, all you’re seeing is Sturgeon’s Law in operation, the idea that basically 90% of everything is crap. So 90% of everything was crap in fantasy 20 years ago, but there were three fantasy books coming out a month. Now there may be 20 fantasy books coming out a month, so the odds are good that you’re gonna get some good stuff. Honestly, I don’t look at it and go ‘oh my God, we’re being led by the hand into a Golden Age’, I just look at it and go ‘there’s an awful lot of good stuff around because there’s an awful lot of stuff being published.

Do you think that the growth of electronic media and communications has benefited new writers?
Yeah, because you learn most as a writers when you’re putting things in front of an audience. You learn most when it’s published, when it gets out. When I was a young man, I was writing short stories and I think that there were two places in the United Kingdom where I could get them published. You had Imagine magazine, the Dungeons and Dragons magazine, and you had Interzone, which meant that you had Gatekeepers – the editor of Imagine and the editor of Interzone, or the editorial board of Interzone. And if you didn’t get it through there…

You weren’t getting it out.
It wasn’t getting…exactly. I remember the joy of getting stories published in Knave because they were publishing it, and they were giving me money for it, and it was published. It had an audience, and that made me so incredibly happy. And now, you have no Gatekeeper, there was nobody between you. I gave a talk at the Open Rights group the other night, a woman put up her hand and said ‘Would a publisher publish something that had gone up on the web?’ I said yeah, because they do. Publishers have frequently found novelists on the web and gone ‘Yes, you’re really good.’ So I think, just from that perspective, we’re living in a world in which it’s easier to be a writer. It’s definitely easier to get yourself read.

You also wrote an episode of Babylon 5 as well as Neverwhere, do you plan on returning to television?
Yep. Actually the BBC have been really sweet, they did apologise. There was a point where they came to me and said ‘we did not do right by you’. I think it was just one of those places where you had the old guard, and the new guard had not yet turned up. You still had people who thought that science fiction meant the model that they had been making Doctor Who under a decade earlier. Except we were in an X-Files world at that point. I was saying ‘okay, we’ll shoot on film, and it’s 42 minutes long’. And they were saying ‘it’s 28 minutes long and it’s shot on video, that’s science fiction’. So it suddenly meant that all of these scripts started getting reshaped, and things went away, and things got shortened.

Do you think there’s a bit more respect for the creator these days?
No, I think they shot Doctor Who for 42 minutes on film and went ‘oh fuck, this is huge’ and…I don’t know. If they did Neverwhere properly, it might not have worked, but at least it would have been a real thing, as opposed to what we got. Which was directed by a sitcom director, and it didn’t look good. But on the other hand, you had Paterson Joseph in it, which was marvellous. I still love Paterson’s performance, that was magnificent, and I’ve been taking an enormous amount of joy in watching him be propelled to the number one spot in the next Doctor Who race. I actually e-mailed him last week before David Tennant said that he was stepping down and said ‘Do you want to come and introduce me? It’ll drive people mad if you introduce me at the reading I’m doing tonight.’ He said ‘I would love to, but I’m in Africa’, of course.

So what’s after The Graveyard Book? Do you have any more novels in line?
The next book is going to be non-fiction. Because it’s time for me to do a non-fiction book I think. It’s going to be about China, and monkeys, and 7th century Buddhism and 16th century literature, a big strange book about me breaking my finger halfway down a mountain.

Coraline’s going to be released next year, have you seen much of it?
I’ve probably seen three quarters of it.

Have you been impressed with it?
Very impressed. As far as I can tell, it’s probably the most ambitious stop motion film ever made. It’s astounding. Because they were shooting it in sequence and sending it to me in sequence, I was a bit worried that it wasn’t scary enough. I saw the first 20 minutes of it and said ‘Oh it’s nice, but it’s not really…it’s not very scary’. And then with the last chunk that they sent me, we’ve moved into act three, and it was getting nice and creepy. So I was like ‘Oh okay, this is good.’ I was worried that they’d decided to make a film just for eight-year-old girls and their mums that would exclude all of the other Coraline fans.

An abridged version of this interview appeared in SciFiNow issue 24.