Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 28 Jun 01 17:00
Our next guest is truly one who needs no introduction. That didn't stop me from asking his interviewer, Martha Soukup, to write one, anyway, and in response, she graciously provided the following: "Neil Gaiman writes everything, or at least some of everything. He did some journalism and then he changed comics just a touch or more with the Sandman series. Dark and funny and sad and smart and curious, it had some of everything in it, and it won all sorts of honors from comics people and non-comics people, but it was just a bit of what Neil wanted to write. "So he has written graphic novels (Mr Punch, Signal to Noise, and others) with his brilliant artist friend Dave McKean; and short stories (collected in Angels & Visitations and in Smoke and Mirrors); and a television series for the BBC, Neverwhere; and a children's book (The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish); and songs (for The Flash Girls); and poems; and the English version of an anime script (Princess Mononoke); and quite a few novels already (starting with Good Omens, with Terry Pratchett, and continuing through Neverwhere and Stardust, also as an illustrated novel with Charles Vess); and a radio play (of Signal to Noise); and a silly bit of doggerel to introduce a short-story collection; and several film screenplays, many of which Hollywood is bound to eventually get around to making in its fits-and-starts way. "_American Gods_, Neil's longest work since the Sandman series, is already a New York Times bestseller. After living in a mysterious house in the middle of America for most of the last decade, Neil has written about a country even stranger than it looked from the outside, a country that takes its soul from everywhere in the world, and transforms it into nothing you could have expected. His protagonist, Shadow, a big, thoughtful man deeply in love with his wife, has spent three years in prison staying out of trouble, serving his time. Trouble, he learns even before he meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, is waiting on the outside. His old life is over, the gods are afoot, and a storm is brewing--" Martha Soukup will be interviewing Neil, and maybe we can get her to tell us more about this "silly bit of doggerel as the introduction to her short story collection, _The Arbitrary Placement of Walls_", that she keeps mentioning. She has won nowhere near as many awards as Neil Gaiman, but she does have a Nebula around somewhere. It gives me great pleasure to have Neil and Martha in inkwell.vue. Please join me in welcoming them to this discussion of _American Gods_.
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Fri 29 Jun 01 13:39
Thank you for the introduction, Linda and Martha... I`m looking forward to the interview. Ask the first question...
Martha Soukup (soukup) Fri 29 Jun 01 20:09
Hi, Neil. Here I am in Las Vegas, where I wasn't this morning. Halfway between my hotel and the Bellagio's box office is a small storefront with a big sign that says TOURS and WIN and FREE INTERNET. I asked the chipper uniformed woman in front, "What's the catch? ", which seems a fair question to ask just at random moments in this city. "No catch," she said. "You got in and there's Internet." So I went in to start the interview there. The catch: one iMac station, two people ahead of me, nothing to do but read brochures about taking a helicopter to the Grand Canyon and having lunch by the Colorado River. Half an hour later, under the sign that said PLEASE BE COURTOUES, I found I couldn't telnet to my e-mail and I didn't remember the command to enter this topic. So I'm in my hotel. I dropped exactly one quarter in a slot in the casino downstairs. And being here, after waking this morning in cool San Francisco, prompts this question: How do you possibly approach writing a book--one book--that is set in San Francisco and Las Vegas and Wisconsin and Chicago? What can just one book say about all of America and its mythologies? You did say a lot--but what made you think you could? Now I am going to the bachelor party of my ex-Mormon friend from Utah, who moved to Brooklyn, which are another two very different Americas.
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Sat 30 Jun 01 00:34
Well, I wasn't sure that I could, and I'm not quite sure whether or not I did. But I did know that I wanted to try. Living in the US for the last 8 years I've seen so many things that seemed to me to be strange and interesting and unlikely, and I wanted to explain them and understand them and describe them. Las Vegas, for example, is in the book because I wanted to try and describe it. The same with winter. Writers tend to input for a while. Then they ponder. Then they output. I've been seeing a lot of America, and doing a lot of pondering for 8 years. Charles Brown of Locus asked me why I thought that Clive Barker and I were the only writers of the fantastic who tackled America as a mythological place. And I said I didn't know. Bbut thinking about it, and allowing that the initial statement is true (which it may or not be, and probably isn't) it might be because americans, being surrounded by america, do not write about it because it's neither exotic nor strange to them. (Although I can't see how anyone could not regard any of it as exotic and strange.) (And I'm not sure I've ever been anywhere, on any continent, that wasn't exotic and strange on some level.)
Martha Soukup (soukup) Sat 30 Jun 01 17:18
Still in Las Vegas, having had an interesting time at the (boys') bachelor party and another interesting time at the Elvis wedding. I wish it would be winter in Las Vegas. Right now. I want to ask a little about your protagonist. In your earlier books Stardust and Neverwhere, you went the fine old route of having for your protagonist someone who was a naif, and innocent of the world he was entering, and who grew up and became more assured and useful from a rather flustered start. Shadow is in some ways a naif. He knows nothing of the world of gods he finds himself embroiled in as he gets out of prison at the start of the novel. But he's a grown man, a married man, a strong and self-assured man from the start. We feel there are things we don't know about him and maybe that he doesn't know about himself. And he's very much in love with his wife, which does create difficulties for him. But it seems to me also that it's not the usual thing in a big fantasy story of a questish sort to have a married human protagonist. I liked him, in short. Can you talk about him a little and what let you spend so many hundreds of pages with him yourself? I might have thought it would be tricky making someone who seems like just some guy as interesting as or more interesting than all the flashy gods he comes across.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sun 1 Jul 01 15:01
Just a reminder to those who are reading along on the Web and aren't WELL members: e-mail your comments and questions about American Gods to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will see that they get posted here for Neil to respond to.
Dan Wilson (stagewalker) Sun 1 Jul 01 18:25
Ah, we get to ask questions already? Well then.... Neil, with Sandman, you created a world that was so richly populated and delightful and strange and interesting that a whole slew of authors were quite willing to play in it, thus creating the Book of Dreams. In American Gods, you have created a world that is just as rich for exploration. What are the odds of seeing a short story compilation based on the gods and humans encountered in American Gods? It's probably entirely too early to even think about this, but I did, and so I'm asking. *grin* Dan
Lenny Bailes (jroe) Sun 1 Jul 01 20:29
John Barth's Giles Goat Boy and Robert Sheckley's Journey of Joenes are two stories that have tackled America as a mythological place. But both of those were satirical pastiches of Greek literature. They transposed Greek gods to American settings but didn't explore mythic figures that grow naturally on American soil.
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Sun 1 Jul 01 22:23
Martha -- sorry about the delay in replying. I was fried last night. Today I did a 7 hour signing and may now be equally fried.... There were two things that were important in making Shadow, I think. One of which was being sick and tired of the C.S. Lewis line about how writing about how odd events strike odd people is an oddity too much. It was something I'd tried to stick to in Neverhere and in Stardust -- both conceived at the same time, and with similar heroes making the transition from boy to man -- but which I was really feeling was fundamentally dishonest, not least because it makes one pretend that there are people who *aren't* odd. And I'm not sure I've ever met any of those. And I missed Sandman, in which I don't think anyone was normal or usual, because once you saw them from the inside no-one is. So that was part of it. The other part of it is aging, I suppose. I liked the idea of writing a man who was a man as the story started. The hardest thing with Shadow was realising that he had to be third person. The first draft of the first chapter was also a first person narrative -- but a very frustrating one, as he didn't tell you what he thought or felt, just what happened. I let it sit for several months knowing it was wrong. Likewise the arrival in Lakeside, which I'd originally started as a short story for the 999 anthology, and abandoned, was in first person. When I recast it in the third person it worked like a charm. I liked spending time with him. Occasionally I'd get frustrated with editors who would say things like "But he's just a big dumb guy, how does he know who jackson Pollock is?" and I'd know that I'd failed in making Shadow work as someone who embodies contradictions. And somehow is much more real when he pretends to be things... Dan -- there's a story with Mr Nancy I want to do soonish that's much shorter than American Gods. Lenny -- exactly. And they neither of them take any delight in or explore the Americanness of things -- the Pentagon scene in Joenes isn't about the Pentagon, for example. I remember the Sot-weed factor as being much more american than Giles Goat boy, but I was only 13 or 14 when I read them and it was a long time ago.
JaNell, wondering about the fate of Yggdrasil (janell) Sun 1 Jul 01 22:41
Neil- Lakeside is Menomonie, Wisconson, correct? If so, is the meaning of the root (Latin, not Native American), 'Main Entry: men- Variant(s): or meno- Function: combining form Etymology: New Latin, from Greek mEn month -- more at MOON' in short, 'Moon', purposeful, or coincidental? If it was purposeful, is this multiplicity of levels of clues consistant elsewhere in the book? I'll end up feeling like Humbert Humbert, without the pedophilia... A brief search also yielded this: "Just sixty miles east of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota..."
Martha Soukup (soukup) Sun 1 Jul 01 23:29
Shadow is clearly a big quiet man who doesn't mind (and sometimes finds useful) people thinking him dumb. I thought that was clear even before you described his childhood as a bookish, bullied boy. I hesitate to ask another question while you're recovering from a seven-hour signing. Let me see if I can think of a short one. Do you think it's important for readers to recognize the gods in the book to "get" the story?
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Mon 2 Jul 01 00:17
JaNell -- no, Lakeside's not Menomonie any more than it's Fond du Lac or Rice Lake. Lakeside's in Northeast Wisconsin, for a start. It's not a college town, which Menomonie is. And it has a town square. Keep looking... And while Shadow's name(s) have a variety of meanings that's certainly not one of them. (menomonie/menominee etc mean "wild rice", of course, and it's native american.) martha -- I hope not. I tried to give enough information that people would go "Oh, I get what kind of person this is," without needing to know who they were. Obviously the Cairo stuff works better if you know who Thoth and Anubis are, but mostly I felt like I'd buried enough information in the book to keep people who didn't have a clue about mythology reading and enjoying it, even if they didn't get everything they could get out of it.
Linda Castellani (castle) Mon 2 Jul 01 08:44
E-mail from Maggie: Hi Neil! First I'd like to thank you for taking the time to come out for signings, and for devoting so much time to your journal and this topic. I was at The Stars Our Destination signing with my sister and two sons - you signed my eldest's TDISMDFTG and my newsgroup t-shirt. (Our pictures were a wash, alas.) Thank you again, you made our entire year! What I've really enjoyed about AG is the little flicker of recognition after meeting a character, the "Hey, I know who this is!" realization that sneaks up on you with each god we meet. What influenced your choices of the gods that we meet? Thoth and Anubis were instantly recognizable, but others not so (the Czernobog and the Zorya, for instance...I really had to think about them for a minute!) Was it your intention to be very obvious with some, and rather subtle with others? I'm re-reading, after having gobbled up AG over the course of my ride back to Ohio and the following morning. It's amazing to me, how many little details escaped me the first time through - you've inspired me to brush up on my mythology again and reminded me how much I always enjoyed the old tales. Maggie UIN 10248195 http://www.chocolatefiends.com "I will. For chocolate."
JaNell (janell) Mon 2 Jul 01 09:01
I was actually cheating a bit, looking for an intelligent question (failed) after checking other people's guesses. Do you really want us to look for the 'real' names of the charectors? I mean, for instance, the tree Shadow (Baldur?)is sacrificed on seems to be the Yggdrasil, the women there the Norns or Nornir (the Fates), and the water is from the Well of Urd? The temptation here is to actually critique the book, or the storyline, and I'm not sure that's what y'all are looking for, either. A question I do have- its seems that (most of the) women /goddesses who have sex in AG, like in horror flicks, must die. Why?
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Mon 2 Jul 01 10:49
Maggie -- I remember you! Sorry that the photos didn't come out. I didn't want a recognisable line-up. I like the fact that nobody really knows the slavic gods -- and that there are gods of lots of different levels of fame out there. i tried to build AG to be re-read. The first time everything's a surprise. The second time you see patterns. I hope. JaNell -- do I want you to look for the real names of things. Real in what sense? I mean, yes to the tree, the women and the well, but there's nothing hidden about that. Women who have sex dying like in horror films? Hmm... I think you're simply wrong on that, or reaching for somethign not there. Men and women and gods have sex and don't have sex and have sex on and off-stage in the book. All of them die in the end, obviously, except the ones who are still living when the story's done. Essie Tregowan certainly has sex, and she dies, but I'm not sure I see the link. Bilquis has a sex scene at the beginning, and she has her unfortunate run in with the technical boy later in the book, just as an arab taxi driver in New York has sex and he may well have been killed by a fallen girder, but it's not in either case a punishment for the sex, it's because a war is on and people are getting killed. Certainly the only person who makes love to Shadow in the time frame of the book survives comfortably to the end, and beyond.
JaNell (janell) Mon 2 Jul 01 10:51
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JaNell (janell) Mon 2 Jul 01 10:56
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JaNell (janell) Mon 2 Jul 01 10:57
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JaNell (janell) Mon 2 Jul 01 11:03
Honey, I just like to see what's underneath... the layers and patterns of things are fascinating to me... so I was looking for those, went way too deep, and then unfortunately lapsed into teasing you a bit.
Kelly (kellyhills) Mon 2 Jul 01 12:23
We can ask questions? :-) Maybe I won't be so tongue-tied in front of a computer... Neil: I was curious how you chose which gods to use as characters, and also curious why you used the Norse gods as the 'main' gods? ... I quite liked one description of Loki, which immediately popped to mind a mental image of a Sandman comic; did you use the Norse gods simply because you had before? -Kelly
abbe (abbecohen) Mon 2 Jul 01 12:58
Are the Slavic gods real? (Oops, no, I didn't mean to just ask "does God exist?" or "are the gods real, or figments of our imagination..." or any such philosophical questions... but having typed them, I am amused enough to let them stay.) Rather, do they come from a particular nation's mythology, and did they really have those names in the original mythology? If not, what was the inspiration for using such literal names? As I'm busy trying to become conversant in a Slavic language, I was entertained when I realized I could decipher the names down to Black-god and White-god, and the slightly more puzzling "Zorya" Morning, "Zorya" Evening, and "Zorya" Midnight. I believe Zorya means dawn, or at least in the Slavic language I'm learning it does: which makes little sense if taken literally - but perhaps if you take "dawn" to mean "the beginning of" it juxtaposes better.
JaNell (janell) Mon 2 Jul 01 15:06
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Rebecca (nefertiti) Mon 2 Jul 01 16:24
Neil--I'm clinging to Kelly's shirttails in asking: Which gods sprang immediately to mind, and which revealed themselves as characters upon research? Which did you have to cut, which ones were you saddest about cutting (if any), and which came knocking at your door, so to speak, too late--after you were done with American Gods? I suppose my impetus for writing extra stuff onto Kelly's very nice question is that I live on a farm in KY (I came to your Lexington signing), and it struck me as I was working with our cows that, given the popularity (at least in parts of the country) of livestock shows, etc., it's a shame that Hathor (Egyptian cow-headed goddess) didn't show up. After all, those shows (and come to think of it, most animal shows...), and all the attention paid to the animals, would be a veritable banquet of worship to their respective deities. Or...does being a cow goddess pretty well exempt you from bloody combat? (And if you think so...you should meet some of my cows...) Thanks, Rebecca
Rebecca (nefertiti) Mon 2 Jul 01 16:28
It comes to mind, of course, after I've posted my last question, that all kinds of gods could have been in the background...just not the foreground. Sorry bout that.
Martha Soukup (soukup) Mon 2 Jul 01 23:40
Neil, you already have a lot of questions on the table, so you can table this one for later if you like. Did you have a larger scheme in mind with the parts of America you use in the book? Or are they just all places you'd wanted to write about? (Which could be a scheme itself.)
JaNell (janell) Tue 3 Jul 01 05:29
Glad you asked, Martha, I was wondering about that, too... how/why did you come to use Rock City? Was it just that's it's a primo example of America's merchandising of historical, landmark, and sacred places? I have a theory about that tendency, that it's a matter of controlling or diminishing things we have no power over, didn't make ourselves, and don't understand... Even though I lived in Chattanooga for six years, I've only been to Rock City once, as a very small child, but I'll hide that story on 115.
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