Lunching in the graveyard – Neil Gaiman talks with Pádraig Ó Méalóid
Here’s a very special early Christmas present for our readers: Pádraig Ó Méalóid (who is rapidly becoming our Roving Interviewer At Large, following his excellent chats with Todd Klein and Alan Moore) met one of my very favourite writers Neil Gaiman during Neil’s recent busy tour (does Neil do any other kind of tour?) for his new Graveyard Book. While poor Neil had to try and combine actually getting to eat some lunch with an interview Pádraig talked to him about his career, Miracleman, the importance of his blog, conventions, Doctor Who, Stardust, Neverwhere and whether one should have Wasabi or mushy peas with chips. Over to Pádraig and Neil:
This interview took place in the Clarence Hotel in Dublin City at lunchtime on Thursday the 30th of October 2008. This was literally Neil’s lunch, and I got to ask him questions while he had a spare half hour between other engagements. Neil looked very tired, no doubt due in large part to his partying until the wee small hours the previous night in Manchester with Leah Moore and John Reppion, amongst others. I was suffering from a very heavy cold, so between us there are bits of the interview that, even after repeated listening, I’m still not sure what we were trying to say. Still, here it is, in all its glory…:
Neil Gaiman [entering the room]: Leah and John send their love. They told me that Mel [Melinda Gebbie] is coming to stay with you.
Pádraig Ó Méalóid: Mel is coming over for a week. She’s coming over next Monday, and she’s doing a talk, so I get to do the interview with her as well.
[Gestures to recording device on table] I mean, I’ve already got Alan [Moore] and I’ve got you on this, and my friend Catie [CE] Murphy – I was going to mention her later, she’s doing a comic, she’s done a lot of fantasy writing, fantasy novels, and now she has a comic coming out from the Dabel Brothers soon called Take a Chance.
NG: Did I get given a comic by her?
PÓM: I don’t think you did.
NG: I’m trying to think if I… It may have been your friend in Kinsale?
PÓM: Kate, Kate Sheehy. I’m meeting Kate in about an hour, off the train, so… She was kinda cursing herself ‘cause she was going to be here as my lovely assistant, or something like that, you know. I presume your day is entirely filled from here right to the end, so there’s no fear of squeezing in a cup of tea with myself and Kate at any stage?
NG: No, Cormac [from Repforce Ireland, who was looking after Neil’s diary for the day] has built this thing – you are my lunch…
PÓM: Yeah, I know, I feel bad about that.
NG: That’s alright, I can talk to you while eating chips.
PÓM: Yeah, that’s cool.
Anyway, I’m now officially going to start.
NG: OK, start your official interview! And this is for the FPI blog, the one that I’ve linked to in the past?
PÓM: Yes, for Joe Gordon’s thing, and Joe says thank you very much. The Todd Klein interview I did that you put a link to, I sent a mail to the two of them saying, “We got Gaimaned!”
NG: I think they can normally tell when they’ve got Gaimaned.
POM: Yeah, ‘cause it goes Boink! Todd said he noticed an immediate spike in the sales, the orders for the prints.
NG: Todd is so nice. Every time I mention it he gets…
PÓM: Yes, I imagine so.
(Before You Read This, a signed print of a free-form verse by Neil Gaiman (partially obscured to preserve a surprise until you see the actual print) and lettered and designed by Todd Klein, available from Todd’s site)
NG: It’s the strange thing about a blog, though. You kind of imagine that you’re writing to an audience of people who are reading you day by day, and the truth is that you’re not. You’re writing for an audience of people who are coming in and going out, and some of them are reading you day by day, but some of them are going to catch up every Friday, on what you’ve done the previous week, and one of the things that I’ve noticed is, if I mention something I should probably, if it’s something important that I want to mention, and I want people to know about, I will try and remember to mention it three times over a period of about three weeks, because at that point I can catch a lot of people…
PÓM: I used to just drop in and out myself, and then somebody would say, “There’s this on Neil’s blog…”
NG: And they you get caught up for a few weeks, and then you drift out because it’s the way that it goes.
PÓM: Well eventually what I did was I just put it in as a LiveJournal feed, which is what I should have done all along. It’s much easier, ‘cause I don’t have to do it, LiveJournal does it for me, and it’s the one thing I religiously look at every day. I don’t necessarily read everything…
NG: I had to explain to the people at HarperCollins that we used to have one point four million unique visitors a month to the blog, and then over the last few years that’s dropped to about four hundred thousand, and they were going, “We’ve lost a million readers,” and I said, “No, no, no, we really haven’t. Here’s LiveJournal, where you now have seventeen thousand, you know, there’s seventeen thousand nine hundred on LiveJournal subscribed to it. You’ve got this RSS fed here, you’ve got this RSS feed there, and they’re showing up as one hit, but then they’re feeding it to another fifty thousand people here, and a hundred thousand people there.”
PÓM: So you really have to go and search all the bits and pieces to see where it’s all going?
NG: You kind of do, and then you don’t worry, you try not to think about it!
PÓM: Well, somebody somewhere presumably gets to do it. Actually, this is something I was going to ask you about later on. You are very successful, you get a lot of hits on your blog, people tend to know what you’re doing, and what you’re on about, and I think you said something about when you were at Eastercon, that you felt you were…
NG: [As his lunch arrives] Thank you.
PÓM: That is the poshest fish and chips I’ve ever seen!
NG: It’s like a work of art.
PÓM: Isn’t it?
NG: [Pointing to a container with a green substance in it] You’re going, “That could be mushy peas, it could be Wasabi, it could be… How will we ever know?”
PÓM: [Carrying on with the question] I think you said you felt that there was a really nice, a really great con going on in the next room that you couldn’t go to, or something like that. You weren’t being let loose in the wild, kinda.
NG: Well, there’s definitely… I think, I mean the con in the next room, I think I was talking more about the fact that, honestly, more about the con experience than anything else. It’s the point where you look around and you realise you are Jumbo the Mighty Elephant that everybody’s coming to the zoo to see, and everyone’s getting a wonderful day out at the zoo but you.
And as a zoo attraction, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. I miss… I miss conventions, I really do. I would love to be able to go to a convention and people say, when I say that, people say, “Why don’t you come to our convention? It’s a lovely little convention, and there’s only a hundred people there,” and stuff like that, and I used to believe that. Every time people used to say, “Come to our convention. We’ve never had more than a hundred people there, and it’s lovely, and it’s just like little conventions, and we’ll all treat you like family,” and I’d say, “Great.” And I would come to them, and then nine hundred people would show up, and they’d be going, “We’ve never had this many people here before,” and I’d start feeling like a bowling ball on a rubber sheet.
PÓM: I know exactly what you mean, yeah. It’s the black hole thing.
PÓM: It just completely distorts the space-time continuum of the con. At the beginning of this month we were at NewCon in Northampton, and because we were there, and because of one or two other things, Alan Moore and Melinda [Gebbie] came along, and they made an appearance here and there, which I think had people’s necks craning all weekend, but everyone was very nice, and actually didn’t go near him at all, but obviously he could not have set foot near the place if anyone knew he was going to be there, and even at that I think he was quite nervous.
NG: You would have had thousands of people, just coming in.
PÓM: I got to introduce him to Paul Cornell. I was very pleased to introduce the two Captain Britain writers…
It’s unusual in a way for a writer to be the victim of their own success, because they’re generally invisible. You’re not. I mean, you do a lot of touring, you’re doing a big tour for this, you’re going to spend the day doing interviews…
NG: True, but only up to a point, because if you talk to Cormac about how many authors he has come through who tour, he will tell you how many authors he’s had in this month, and it’s not like authors don’t tour, it’s that authors don’t – you know, I was in Manchester last night, and they sell out a six hundred and fifty seat university hall, there’s this giant monstrous signing afterwards, it’s all bizarre, and at some point the head of the programme who was there comes down completely baffled, he says, “We didn’t get a turnout like this for Martin Amis,” and it’s not that Martin Amis doesn’t tour and doesn’t do the media…
PÓM: I suppose it’s that we’re all aware that you’re touring, where we’re not always aware of others. Sometimes someone says, “Did you know such-and-such was in town signing last week?” and no, I didn’t, obviously because we’re not all reading their blog or wherever it’s being mentioned.
NG: That’s why I love the blog, though, because I’m not the victim – if victim is the right word – of whether or not a shop knows how to promote my appearance any more. I’m not, I don’t actually have to worry as much as other authors do about whether a publisher is taking out the advertising and promoting the book.
PÓM: You’re kinda looking after that one yourself.
NG: I’m certainly… I have an amount of control over my destiny from the blog.
PÓM: I see exactly what you’re saying.
NG: Last night I wound up being the first author at Manchester University ever to have a backing band, well, a support band, and, for the end of my signing, they’d more or less been vamping it for as long as they were allowed to, and I went down and made a guest appearance at the Jonathan Coulton gig.
PÓM: With a tambourine, I believe?
NG: With a tambourine. I did the second verse of Creepy Doll…
PÓM: Which is what? It’s a song they do?
NG: It’s a Jonathan Coulton song. It’s lovely, it’s like a little horror… it’s a Stephen King story about somebody with a creepy doll that always follows you. You buy an old house and it’s haunted by this thing and you throw it on the fire and it’s back the next morning. So… And of course you know that because you’ve read the blog already.
And in the evening I was talking to Jonathan after this was all over, and we were talking about the fact that… Jonathan was saying “If I was a medium successful person, when my contract with the record label is up in music, I cannot understand any reason why anybody would ever sign another contract. Why give that percentage of control and that percentage of your income to a record company who needed to exist as a gateway, but why if you don’t need a gateway?” There is no reason to have an intermediary between you and your readers, or you and your listeners. And while I like not being bothered with so many details, and letting people do their jobs, there are places where I feel like I’m now a safety net. Would The Graveyard Book have spent two weeks at number one on the children’s list if I had been, when it came out? Probably not, not with the blog, because everybody who wanted it knew that it was coming out.
PÓM: And another thing I noticed on the blog is that you were getting an awful lot of feedback from people about its availability, its unavailability, and you seemed to be able to chase that up in real time, as it was happening.
NG: As it was happening.
PÓM: There are some misunderstandings that I see that people at Borders are having, but I suppose that’s par for the course.
NG: The trouble with the internet is people don’t read the actual thing, they read what they think they’ve been told.
PÓM: I’m going to run along, because I see we’re already fifteen minutes in and I’ve a couple of things…
NG: Go for it.
PÓM: How was China? What were you doing in China?
NG: Researching a book. I decided it was time to, I really decided it was time to step outside my comfort zone, and it’s been twenty years since I did a non-fiction book, and the last non-fiction book I did was, um…
PÓM: Was that Ghastly Beyond Belief?
NG: Don’t Panic, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book.
Then I thought, I want to do a non-fiction book, so I’m doing a non-fiction book about me going to China, and about Monkey, and about Buddhism, and about seventh century history and sixteenth century literature, and just, mostly it was that thing where nobody is waiting for it, and nobody particularly wants a book by me about China, and it seemed like a really good reason to write one.
(the cover artwork to Batman #686, written by Neil Gaiman, art by Andy Kubert, (c) DC Comics, published February 2009)
PÓM: Mind you I see that you are – having started off as far as I can see as a comics’ writer and then becoming a novelist you’ve kind of gone back to being a comics’ writer. You’re doing a Batman story for DC, and are you meant to be writing the prequel, the Sandman prequel story? I know you said something about doing that before.
NG: I don’t know if that will ever happen. Maybe. It’s weird, because I talk to people who will tell me with a straight face that I stopped writing comics in 1996, and I say, “OK, let’s go to this century. Since 2001, I’d written two adult novels, or had published, two adult novels – Anansi Boys and American Gods; two children’s novels – Coraline and The Graveyard Book; two major children’s picture books…”
PÓM: That’d be, what? Wolves in the Walls and…
NG: Wolves in the Walls and…
PÓM: The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish?
NG: No, actually that was 1998, so, let’s say the MirrorMask book. I’ve done two and a half movies – Beowulf and MirrorMask, and Stardust is my half. And I’ve done three graphic novel-length works – The Eternals, 1602, and Sandman: Endless Nights.
PÓM: That’s a fair body of work just for the past eight years, mind you.
NG: But it doesn’t seem to me that it’s substantially weighted against comics. In terms of page-count that’s three books, each of which was more or less novel length, and about the same the same amount of work it would have taken me to write a novel, and, you know, hearing people describe my career to me as if it was one of those weird little charts where you start off coming out of the ocean and then you become a monkey, and then, you know…
PÓM: I think people can only see you as what they see as the primary part of your output. You were a comics’ writer and maybe other things, and now you’re a novelist and maybe other things, and possibly that’s it, you know.
I was going to ask you, what did you make of Stardust the movie?
NG: I enjoyed it. It wasn’t the film that I would have made if I’d set out to make a Stardust movie, but I thought it was a lovely Stardust movie. I could quite happily watch a completely different Stardust movie, if that makes sense. It was very much a “this is a lovely Stardust movie.” I guess I felt about it, it’s weird, because I suppose – with Coraline in May, over here, you’ll get the Henry Sellick Coraline movie which, from what I’ve seen of it so far, I’ve very much enjoyed. In May on Broadway you’ll see the first performances of the Stephin Merritt Coraline which in terms of plot hews, as far as I can tell, exactly to the book, but he’s doing some weird and wonderful things, including casting a fifty year old lady as Coraline, and casting a man as the other mother, and stuff, and I don’t see either of those as being, “This is now Coraline legitimised, this is what this is,” I see them both as versions, with every bit as much legitimacy as the Irish Puppet Theatre version.
PÓM: I know you weren’t happy with Neverwhere, the TV series…?
NG: I wasn’t.
PÓM: Are they remaking Neverwhere?
NG: There’s a film that’s meant to be made. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, I remade Neverwhere when I wrote the novel. The whole point of the novel was, “No, this is what I meant.”
PÓM: Certainly the novel was far more satisfactory. The TV series wasn’t bad, but it was of its time…
NG: It wasn’t just of its time. Honestly, they could have, its time, it was of its time in the world in which it was up against X-Files. It was of its time in a world in which I am saying, “We need to be forty five minutes long, it need to be shot on film or it’ll look like crap,” and they’re going [adopts posh BBC accent], “my dear boy, we’re the BBC, we’ve been doing things like this for years. It’s like Doctor Who, and that’d twenty eight minutes long and shot on video. That’s what people love. And by the way, in order to accommodate that we’ve thrown out half your script…” You know it was, I wasn’t happy with it, I felt like it had the wrong director, and it was, it needed somebody who was going to say, “It need to be forty five minutes long…” I loved the fact that when Doctor Who came back it was forty five minutes long and shot on film, or looked like it.
PÓM: Are you… there are persistent rumours that you are going to write a Doctor Who story?
NG: There definitely are.
PÓM: And is there any truth to those?
NG: Well, there’s truth in the fact that there are rumours.
PÓM: Well, that would be a good thing. You know that David Tennant has just announced he’s stepping down at the end of next year?
NG: So I heard. I actually, I was rather sad, ‘cause I’d emailed, we were trying to figure out who was going to host my Halloween event for tomorrow, and about a week ago I had this brilliant idea, and I emailed Paterson Joseph and said, “Why don’t you host my event, ‘cause that will drive people mad, ‘cause there’s Doctor Who rumours about you and there’s Doctor Who rumours about me, and if you host the event, nobody in the world, and then, we don’t have to mention anything, but nobody in the world will think, they will feel there has to be something…” and I got a think back from Pat saying he would love to but he’s actually right now in Africa filming for the BBC on something.
I mean, he is thrilled by the Doctor Who rumours, but I think mostly thrilled because it’s suddenly taken him from an actor who nobody really quite knew who he was, you’d have to say, “Well, he was the guy in the Numberwang sketch, or he was the guy from Peepshow, or he was…” to people going, “Yes, Paterson Joseph, he could be the next Doctor Who,” and so it’s done amazing things for him.
PÓM: Doctor Who does seem to turn people into just enormous superstars.
I have to ask you the obligatory Miracleman question. At what stage is Miracleman at?
NG: Currently Todd McFarlane is suing me, claiming he owns all of Miracleman, and I am going, “You are mad, because as far as I can tell right now, neither of us owns anything of Miracleman, it is actually still owned completely by Mick Anglo, who is still alive, and who has asserted his copyright on it, and everything that Dez Skinn said back in Warrior days was apparently a lie, and this thing is Mick’s, so I don’t really see why, why are you suing me now, Todd?”
(Miracleman #23: Silver Age by Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham, published Eclipse and (c)… Well, just have a look at what Neil says!)
PÓM: I can’t help thinking that Todd should just do the right thing and say, throw his hands up and say, no matter what happens, he will never come out the good guy on this one, and just walk away.
NG: Yes. I don’t know why, it’s like, it’s all mad.
PÓM: The thing is, I think I’m doing a panel at Eastercon next year called Who Owns Miracleman? which is obviously what all this stuff is [pointing to a file folder on the table marked Miracleman] and I’m going to write an accompanying article that I’ve been promising to write for at least five years, and every time I look into it, it gets a little more complex.
PÓM: It’s very complex unless you go all the way back and say, “Mick Anglo owned it, and kept the rights to it.”
NG: Yeah, and what was interesting is, there was a trail of lies spread chiefly, as far as I can tell – whether intentionally or unintentionally – by Dez Skinn.
PÓM: Thank you for that, for saying, “intentionally or unintentionally”!
NG: No, I think Dez made some assumptions about the law, I think there were thing that he definitely told people at the time, and that history has proved to be untrue. The biggest one was simply that he’d obtained, you know, there was a version of events in which he had obtained the rights from the official receiver. Then we discovered that Miller & Son was never, it never went bankrupt, it had simply been would up.
PÓM: The L. Miller properties had been sold to Alan Class, as far as I know, was one of the things I had heard said.
NG: No. There are many things that people have said. No, from everything that I can tell, it simply went into voluntary liquidation. It was wound up, and Mick owned Miracleman slash Marvelman before, during, and after. He held the copyrights on it. L. Miller and Son never made any claims to owning it or to having sold it.
PÓM: OK. I was always wondering that, even given that Mick Anglo created Marvelman, Marvelman was obviously, and was meant to be, almost an exact copy of Captain Marvel, who was of course a copy of Superman…
NG: Ah, now there it gets, you know, the trouble is, you have this weird magic world in which it is a can of infinite worms, and every time you reach further in there are more worms come out.
PÓM: Undoubtedly, yeah. Anyway, I’d better move on, or we’ll never get any further.
I have to say, I loved the dragon in, was it in Anansi Boys that there was a dragon who speaks just like Leslie Phillips?
NG: He does! Thank you for noticing.
PÓM: I just loved that, and I felt that he should have a book all to himself because that was absolutely super.
PÓM: And there’s a big man looming over us…
NG: [To Cormac, who is running his diary for the day] You need me? I haven’t even finished my tea, and you need me. What’s next?
Cormac: The filming.
PÓM: Two things: one question, and a photograph.
NG: And something to scribble on, or…
PÓM: I have a few things to scribble on, if that’s OK.
[Pádraig produces a camera and two books for Neil to sign, which Neil then signs, while Cormac takes photographs of the two of them.]
(Neil signing some books for Pádraig; Neil being Neil I suspect he’s having a look at the book and what edition it is. Pic borrowed from Pádraig’s Flickr stream)
Why red balloons? Red balloons come up in your stories all the time.
NG: Well, I was probably bitten by…
PÓM: A radioactive red balloon in your youth?
NG: No! I was going to say PL Travers, in my youth, that amazing story in Mary Poppins where everybody floats in the park on balloons. It’s definitely iconic, in its way, and that would be, if I had to point at anything, that would probably be where the balloons come from.
PÓM: Thank you very much, that’s great. And your public awaits.
NG: They do.
PÓM: Is there any possibility, in the next umpteen years, that we could do a long email interview, or is that just taking too much of your time?
NG: I was saying earlier, every interview seems to end with somebody saying, “Can I send you a few more questions in email?” Several times they started sending me things that are basically new interviews in email, and I hate doing email interviews, only because there’s this point where I’ve sat there and typed for two hours, producing replies, and I think, at least if I was being interviewed, I’d be having a conversation.
PÓM: OK. Let me turn this thing off…
I turned off the recorder, and Neil was led away to his next appointment, cup of tea still unfinished. Exactly thirty minutes and thirty six seconds was what I got, from beginning to end, and I couldn’t help feeling that I could easily have spoken to him for another thirty minutes. He did promise we’d get to do something the next time he was in Dublin, hopefully a longer interview, which I look forward to. Looking at my list of question topics, I saw I hadn’t got to talk to him about the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund, which I know is close to his heart, and which I’d meant to get to, partly because we’d touched on it before the interview proper started, in relation to CE Murphy’s Take a Chance, the first issue’s profits of which are going to the CBLDF, and which he’d seen preview pages of.
I did get to ask Neil one more question that day, however. After his reading at Eason’s bookshop in Dublin he asked for questions, and I stuck my hand in the air and asked, “What’s next?” He told us about Blueberry Girl, a poem he wrote for Tori Amos’s daughter Tash in 2000, which is being drawn by Charles Vess, and which is due out in March 2009, and he held forth at great and comic length about the China book, which is due out god known when. I’ve always felt that Neil would have a good chance at an alternate career as a stand-up comedian. He’s certainly got the comic timing.
FPI would like to thank Neil Gaiman very much for sacrificing his lunch break and risking indigestion to take part in this interview and thanks to Pádraig for conducting it and writing it all up for us to share with you. The Graveyard Book is out now from Bloomsbury and the fourth and final (and rather beautiful looking) volume of the Absolute Sandman has also been published recently; you can keep up with Neil, his writing, appearances and occasional semi-demonic Salsa making by visiting his very fine online journal.