Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 19 Oct 05 08:24
Our next guest first joined us in Inkwell more than five years ago and he's been hangin' around intermittently ever since, much to our delight. Welcome again, Neil Gaiman! Neil is a messy-haired white male author trapped in the body of an identical white male author with perhaps even less-tidy hair. His books and comics have won many awards. He thanks you for your offer of a comb but does not believe it would do any good. Despite being English, he lives more in America than he does anywhere else in the world, and is currently somewhere in his mid-forties. He wrote ANANSI BOYS especially for you. Leading the conversation with Neil is author and former Inkwell host Martha Soukup. She modestly describes herself thusly: Martha Soukup is extremely obscure, but is known to have a book collection of short stories called _The Arbitrary Placement of Walls_ (DreamHaven), and a play running at the Exit Theatre in downtown San Francisco through the end of October, called, obscurely, "Manumission". She has won many fewer awards than Neil Gaiman and so feels it is all right to mention that there've been some, but mostly wishes to mention again that, if you're in San Francisco and October isn't over yet, you can see some very funny actors in that play.
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Wed 19 Oct 05 10:54
And it doesn't seem five years since we did the first of these (for Sandman: Dream Hunters, wasn't it?). Ah well. I'm here. Hullo Martha. What would you like to know?
Martha Soukup (soukup) Wed 19 Oct 05 11:31
Hello, Neil. There are so very many things I really would like to know. And many of them are things I'd like to know about this book! But I guess we should start with the very basic question about this book. In _American Gods_, you had a huge canvas with gods of many countries, continents, and times. But this book concentrates on one god, Anansi. (And a few other animal gods who come in and out of the picture.) Tell us why an entire novel for Anansi--or the children of Anansi?
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Wed 19 Oct 05 14:15
Well, it's not really a book for Anansi, what with him dying when the book begins, or it is, because it's an Anansi story and all stories are Anansi stories, after all. Mostly I just liked the idea of writing a book about families, something small and light and funny that would make people feel happier at the end than they were when they began. And I had the title and the story - well, the situation -- of Anansi Boys in my head years before American Gods, so borrowed Mr Nancy as a special guest star for it from something I hadn't written yet. And I didn't want to write a book that would take several years to write, like American Gods did, like my next adult novel probably will. I wanted something about the same size as a P. G. Wodehouse novel (and I failed - at 105,000 it was about 30,000 words longer than I was hoping for).
Martha Soukup (soukup) Wed 19 Oct 05 16:53
But it moves along quickly. So, then, if it's Anansi for the stories, why Boys? Mr. Nancy's children are his sons; no daughter. Though every positive figure in the lives of Fat Charlie and his brother, I think, pretty much--yes, every figure of family and friend is a woman. Young women for friends and more than, old women for grandmother figures, and Maeve Livingstone (whom I loved). Just because you're a boy? If that's because, this is a very simple question and we can go right on to the next one.
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Thu 20 Oct 05 09:29
Well, the place the story began was the idea of the one-bloke-who-is-normal and the charming-psycho-magic-brother-from-hell who comes into his life. That was the thing in my head right at the start, a decade ago. Beyond that... Well, I'm not sure that I'd be as binary as every woman is positive (The Bird Woman isn't a positive figure, and I don't think you could describe Rosie's mother as positive, although she was enormous fun to write, and the four-old-ladies-in-Florida bring decidedly mixed blessings) and every other male figure as negative (Mr Nansy is positive, though embarrassing if you're Fat Charlie, and somewhat dead, and Morris Livingstone is pretty positive although slightly more dead than Anansi, and I was quite fond of Benjamin Higgler although he didn't get a lot of page time, and three separate nice male taxi drivers). Some of it possibly came from a desire to keep the cast numbers down, and because I had two men in the spotlight and a third in a ghost-light upstage... Does that help?
Martha Soukup (soukup) Thu 20 Oct 05 11:23
I loved Morris Livingstone at least as much as Maeve, even though we mostly only heard about him. In fact I'd like to see a whole story about the most popular short Yorkshire comedian. Maybe partly because I just don't know enough about Yorkshire stereotypes. You didn't have room in this story for more of that couple than there was, though! I wasn't thinking about Benjamin. Cheerful young fellow. Or the poor taxi drivers. Not thinking all the men were Bad and the women Good--just that all the family, family-type people and of course romantic prospects Fat Charlie had, after his father died before the book started, were women. ("Of course", of course, even though he's a Nancy boy. Did you know there's a grooming-products-by-and-for-queer-men line called Nancy Boy? Apparently their claim to fame is that Queer Eye recommended their shave cream to one of their butcher makeover clients.) Three different countries go into making Fat Charlie: America where he spent his early childhood; England where he spent his late childhood trying to learn how to fit in; and the island where his family came from. (A certain part of America--Florida; a certain part of urban England--South London; and a certain island; all nicely drawn and not interchangeable with say Chicago or Devon or Haiti.) That seems very plausible in a more and more mobile world, but why did you like it for his story?
midget gems (riffraff) Fri 21 Oct 05 16:57
"I just don't know enough about Yorkshire stereotypes." feel free to ask me, Martha, I've fled from them all my life without success. Hi Neil! First of all, I think the book got put down once, due to an interested two year old - picked it up wednesday and done yesterday. I guess my first question is.. what would you recommend for further reading on collections of west african anansasem? (that the right word?) I loved that the tarbaby story was orginally an anansi tale, and I wondered how many others (i know, i know, all of them) I'd recognize. And, I guess I thought the characters were sons partly because it then led into the title/wordplay - anansi boys/nancy boys. And lastly, for my first batch.. St Andrews.. based on anywhere in particular?
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Fri 21 Oct 05 17:44
Riffraff -- my favourite of all the books of stories I found is actually online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/jas/, and I highly recommend it. (These are Jamaican retellings.) St. Andrews is built mostly from Barbados and St Lucia, albeit with the extradition rules of several other islands. Martha, in a very early version of the story in my head, Fat Charlie was a Lawyer in Baltimore. But I liked the idea of spreading the story across the world more, and I was confident of my ability to write an English Fat Charlie and less so of my ability to write a Baltimore Fat Charlie. St Andrews sort of grew during the story -- it became increasingly obvious that the story was going to wind up in a (literal) Caribbean and in a (metaphorical) Africa.
midget gems (riffraff) Fri 21 Oct 05 18:57
Martha Soukup (soukup) Fri 21 Oct 05 19:16
There's a bit for Fat Charlie; then to what seems more the hard part--how do you approach writing a brother with godly (demigodly?) powers? Especially the parts from his point of view? Where do you start with that?
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Fri 21 Oct 05 21:47
I don't know where you start, Martha. I've been writing from the point of view of Gods, demigods and other unpersonly entities since about 1987. In the case of Spider, he had to be charming, a hair's breadth from dangerously psychotic, funny, confident and -- well, everything that Fat Charlie wasn't. I did what I always do with characters, sort of go and find the bit of you that's him, and write from that point of view.
Martha Soukup (soukup) Sat 22 Oct 05 11:11
The book is a quick and fun read, for all that it's longer than you'd envisioned. Was it a quick and delightful write too? Are some things more fun to write than others? (And if so, what makes the difference?)
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Sat 22 Oct 05 12:11
There were some quick and delightful days writing it. Mostly what I remember was writing the first two chapters, convinced it was a huge mistake and I should go and write something serious and sensible instead, the point about half way through where I realised a) I wasn't three quarters of the way through and b) the whole plot structure I'd been building didn't work, because it all seemed to be heading somewhere else, and I needed to stop writing it and figure out what it wanted to be, like a failed stew that's going to be an amazing curry. It's an odd process, writing something that you want to be funny, because if you're doing your job it ought to read like something knocked out on a sunny afternoon in one long fit of inspiration while the Muse was in a particularly giddy sort of a mood. But really it was written just like anything else -- some good days, some days where you stare gloomily at the page, some days when you know what you're doing, some days you feel like you're edging forward on a thin rocky ledge over a chasm in the fog.
Melanie Hamilton (hamilton) Sat 22 Oct 05 16:52
Hello Neil. Since you're talking about process, I was wondering how you come to dress your gods in their human skins. Do they choose by directing your attention to a particular person's looks or behaviors? Or, are you inspired by something from this person or that and you then say, Hmm, maybe Spider does that; or, that's definitely a Charlie moment? Thanks
Martha Soukup (soukup) Sat 22 Oct 05 17:58
I wonder what the point was in the story that you realized you had to stop and think and make it a curry instead of a stew? Do you want to say where you'd thought it was going to go, except it wasn't working out to go that way? (I always find this kind of interview tricky, because I don't know how mindful to be of spoilers. Maybe everyone in this topic has read the book already?)
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Sat 22 Oct 05 20:25
Martha -- the exact moment I knew the book wasn't going where I thought it was going to go, was when Maeve Livingstone was in the lift on her way up to see Grahame Coats, and I knew what would happen if they met. I wrote that scene then barely wrote another word of it for four months, although I did go to the Caribbean for research. Melanie, I don't think so, or at least, no more than I do with any characters. One steals from life, from time to time, but mostly it's a set of branching paths. What I mostly did for research was to go places -- I stole lots of places from real life, and then put imaginary people in them.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Sat 22 Oct 05 21:28
(Those readers following this on the World Wide Web who are not members of The Well can nevertheless join in the conversation by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to be posted, as, for example Randal has done.) Randal writes: Been reading "Anansi Boys" and am coming to the end (no spoilers, please), and I wanted to ask Neil, what is your educational background? I've read most of your works and saw (and enjoyed) "Mirrormask" and wonder, how did you get into this stuff? Greatly enjoying "Anansi Boys," by the way, Anansi isn't a diety we hear much of in the States. This leads me, indirectly, to a rather invasive question, which is, why did you move over here? It seems to me that the sheer amount of raw story material in the British Isles must be very rich, do you find that the States offers something unusual by way of material? Randal Doering San Francisco, CA
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Sun 23 Oct 05 00:18
Randal -- I don't think so, although I'm sure I couldn't have written AMERICAN GODS without having lived here. But the book grew out of the living here, rather than coming to the US to get material for a book. As I recall, it was a combination of having an American wife who wanted to see her family again, being paid by DC Comics in dollars which, under Bush senior, weren't worth much if you were in England, and discovering that I could buy an Addams Family house with 15 acres of woodland in the midwest for the same price as a one bedroom flat in London. But it was all a very long time ago. I think I was always "into this stuff". At least, I can't remember a time when I wasn't. But that wasn't from education, or it was, but it was the bits that happened round the edges of the education -- discovering school libraries filled with books from the 1930s, and so on, and reading them -- that made the difference in the long term.
Martha Soukup (soukup) Sun 23 Oct 05 10:14
What kind of research did you do in the Carribean? Just soaking things up and seeing what happened, or were there specific things you were looking to discover? Have you also spent time in that part of Florida?
from KWASI KWAKWA (tnf) Sun 23 Oct 05 13:18
Kwasi Kwakwa writes: Hi Neil, I'm the person Pam had you sign a book for. Thank you, by the way. I was wondering if it was a conscious decision to make very little explicit reference to the ethnicity of your main characters, and why you decided to go about it that way
Melodious Thunk (sjs) Sun 23 Oct 05 13:43
I just started ANANSI BOYS. Thank you for my dedication. On the same page you tell of your respect for, among other ghosts, P.G. Wodehouse -- so I smiled later on when you described Mrs. Higgler as 'far from gruntled.' I'm looking forward to the rest of this.
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Sun 23 Oct 05 16:16
Martha -- yes, spent a lot of time in that part of Florida. Even went to a funeral there (picked out of the local paper). I'd already been to the Caymans, but that wasn't what I wanted for the book. So last October I went to Barbados, and also took a day trip around St Lucia. I was very industrious -- going on day tours, talking to local people. It was interesting -- left to myself I'd probably just have sat on the beach reading a book, but there was something about knowing I was there for research that actually made me research. (Incidentally, I checked my blog and you'll see me starting the novel --a lthough I wouldn't get back to it until November -- in March 2003, at http://www.neilgaiman.com/journal/2003_03_16_archive.asp.) Kwasi -- yes, it was a conscious decision. I don't think it's very hard to figure out the ethnicity of each of the characters, and I was very good about identifying white people as white whenever they entered the text. I knew that most of the characters would be Anglo-Caribbean going into the book, so decided that that was the default. It bothers me in fiction going in that white is the default. I'm occasionally surprised by getting, for example, one letter explaining that the foods at the funeral -- curry goat and so on -- were all wrong for the american south and were more the sort of food that you'd expect to see in e.g. Jamaica (I suppose I thought that since I'd noticed there was a large Caribbean population in Florida, other people had too, but possibly not), and it's obvious that some people have managed to read the book and fail to realise where the various characters in it come from, but I think most readers figure it out somewhere in chapter two, if they haven't already. sjs - you're welcome.
midget gems (riffraff) Sun 23 Oct 05 18:22
I especially liked that moment, when you realise that referring to a "white girl" means we're out of that whole white-centric POV and man, reading it made me *really* want Jamaican food, which considering I'm in Oregon for the next couple of weeks means I'm SOL so, back to questions - having heard over and over again the chestnut about how a book is never really finished, just abandoned, I'm wondering if, now it's out there, is there anything you considered doing differently, and if so, what that might be?
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Mon 24 Oct 05 09:21
Well, that's true, but you only abandon it when it's done. As for anything I considered doing differently...? Well, yes. Everything, pretty much. You start out with an infinite number of possibilities, and each branch that you reach in the story you could go any one of a number of ways, until you're at the end of the book looking back at what actually did happen. A bit like life, I suppose. I was reading Alan Bennett yesterday (his Untold Stories) and in one essay he wrote, "Always beneath the play you write is the play you meant to write; changed but not abandoned and, with luck, not betrayed, but shadowing still the play that has come to be." I think it's more or less the same with novels.
Coleman K. Ridge (ckridge) Mon 24 Oct 05 09:49
I have had much pleasure talking with my teenage son about _Anansi Boys_. Thank you, Neil. _Anansi Boys_ is in part a story about what kinds of stories there are, and how stories shape tellers. As Anansi tells it, Tiger stories are about strength and badness, while Anansi stories are about trickiness and wit. Anansi says that Anansi stories are better for tellers than Tiger stories. Does this distinction inform your own story-telling, and, if so, how?
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