The Guardian Book Club: American Gods Ten Years On, with Neil Gaiman
Edinburgh Book Festival – 21 August 2011
Chaired by John Mullan
On Sunday I went to this event thanks to a kind soul on Twitter who couldn’t make it and gave me his ticket for free. Thanks @failedtheo! I took notes of what was said and have re-expanded them into this summary. Since I was taking down the most important points, the little connecting bits that link the paragraphs together are often not there, so please ignore the fact that it doesn’t all hang together properly. Also, please bear in mind that these are not all Neil's words exactly, but the gist filtered through my brain.
I arrived to a packed marquee-theatre and squeezed into one of the few seats available, right at the end furthest from the entrance. As I sat down I noticed that the guy sitting literally right in front of me had a badge saying “Author: Ian Rankin”. Maybe not such a bad seat after all. Ian, if you’re reading this, I hope I didn’t jab you in the back with my notepad too many times.
JM: The format is usually that I ask lots of intelligent literary-criticism-type questions and leave time for a few questions from the audience at the end. But today I’m going to rein myself in and allow more from the audience.
NG: And I know Ian Rankin has a question. [Ian Rankin puts his hand up to acknowledge his presence. Alas, he didn’t ask it in the end.]
JM: You have to be very well-informed to read Fantasy these days. When writing American Gods, were you hoping for or expecting readers who knew the mythology (Ragnarok and so on), or were you also thinking about the ones who didn’t know so much?
NG: It was a tricky book to write: I was writing for an ideal reader who was me. But if you didn’t know the mythology, I wanted it to be at least comprehensible that there was a book going on. And everybody has their mythological blind spots – you might know lots about Thor and Odin but not much about the Slavic gods. I didn’t want readers to feel the book was being clever at their expense. Myths are something I’ve enjoyed since I was about six years old, but I knew there would be readers who didn’t have a clue about it. I thought about adding a glossary, but never did because I find I always read ahead to them and pick up spoilers. But someone has put up an American Gods glossary online.
JM: These things are so different nowadays to when TS Eliot said to Ezra Pound “In order to understand this, people have to go away and look it all up.” But it’s easier nowadays.
NG: It’s a pleasure as a reader to learn stuff, or get a mental flag to go away and learn more about something, or when you come across it in a different context years later. The House on the Rock in American Gods is a real place, and since the book was published they’ve noticed a bump in the number of visitors. Instead of strange lonely people, they now get strange lonely people holding books. Lookout Mountain in Tennessee is exactly as described, except for a typo in some editions, where an overenthusiastic copy editor changed “blacklight” to “backlight”.
JM: You wrote American Gods while travelling around America. How important is it for the book that the places are real?
NG: 19 years ago, I moved to the USA, planning to stay for three years – I’ve not got around to leaving yet. When I moved there, I thought I understood America from TV, films, books and occasional visits. People would ask how I could write stories set in New York when I wasn’t American, and I would say that while I maybe couldn’t write New York as well as a New Yorker could, I could do it as well as someone from Seattle who’d never been to New York could. And people were happy with that, and so was I. But then when I went to live there, I discovered it was... weird... in a way I hadn’t realised, and in a way that I wanted to tell people about. Americans couldn’t really see it. For example, in Portsmouth, NH recently I was being driven to an event by a traditional old lady who didn’t believe in satnavs, but in stopping to ask someone the way, and then forgetting whether it was left or right and choosing at random. So on the 45-minute drive (which took me seven minutes to walk back afterwards) through most of Portsmouth, NH, I looked out the window and saw a nuclear submarine half-submerged in a grassy verge beside the road. Then at the event people said “All that weird stuff in American Gods – it’s not real”, and I said, “But you’ve got a nuclear submarine half-sunk into the grass by the side of the road, for no reason!” “Oh yes, so we do...” It’s like the new fish in a goldfish bowl saying “This water’s a bit funny”, and all the other fish who’ve been there forever saying “Don’t be silly – this is just what water’s like”.
Another example is how cold it gets. When you’re from Britain, from Scotland, you think you understand cold. Cold is when water turns white and fluffy and falls out of the sky; cold is when you need a hot water bottle; cold is when puddles go crunchy. But in America, you learn things like that when you go outside and your nostril hairs freeze, and you can feel them all individually, it’s 0°F. When you go outside, take a breath, and feel as though you’ve been kicked in the lungs, that’s -30°F.
One of the most notable things about America is wondering “Where has the magic gone?” On a Good Omens tour with Terry Pratchett we once got stuck at a Halloween party. As more and more people came past wearing incredible costumes, he remarked. “You couldn’t have something like this back where I live. Things would happen.”
We’re all familiar with “Jack stories”: fairy tales about smart English lads who have magical adventures involving e.g. a giant and a magical beanstalk – not necessarily very nice lads, but smart – and who get what they want in the end, often leaving a dead giant behind them. Someone went into the Appalachian mountains to collect these stories, and found they’d all been preserved, except that the magic had been taken out. They were the same stories, and even had the usual fairytale trappings – there was still a king, even though nobody knew what a king was, so they just thought he was a man who lived in a big house down the road – but instead of there being any magic, Jack just lived on his wits.
The “immigrant experience” is very different in America to what it is here. In the UK you have Italians and Germans and all sorts, and nobody expects them to stop being what they are. But in American there’s this sense that as soon as you become American, you have to sever some ties with the place you came from, and suddenly embrace a culture of McDonald’s and freeways and not be Italian or German any more. Stories about magical creatures are still told, but they always take place in the old country, never in the storytellers' new home. It’s like that Richard Dorson quote at the beginning of American Gods: “They're scared to cross the ocean; it's too far”. American Gods is about me wondering “What happens when they do?”
Someone once asked me whether I know the ending of a story before I start, presenting me with a quote that “you wouldn’t begin a story without knowing how it ends, any more than you would do so with an anecdote”. But I find that I don’t write because I have an answer; I write because I have a question.
JM: I remember being so surprised at the end of American Gods that I hadn’t worked out, in a book all about gods, the significance of Low-Key Lyesmith. It made me feel quite stupid!
NG: Yes, that was a trick I stole from stage magic. I had to read a lot for the coin magic in American Gods. What I learned was that if you bring something on as a prop halfway through, people will expect it to be some sort of trick. But if you have it there from the very beginning, people think it must be part of the scenery, and then you can surprise them with it. So if you want to have a wastepaper basket that makes things disappear, it’s got to be there when the curtain goes up, so people think it’s just a wastepaper basket and aren’t thinking about how it could be more than it seems. Low-Key had to be there on page 1, because if I’d brought him in on page 50, by which time you’ve started looking for gods, everybody would have worked it out straight away.
JM: In the genre of Fantasy, how far in advance do you have to decide the rules. For example, the big one in American Gods is that people can come back from the dead – it happens to the protagonist, and earlier on it happens to his wife, not in an “I must be dreaming” sort of way, but such that she actually comes and talks to him and helps him out – she really comes back.
NG: I love how people act as though there’s a strict division between real life and fantasy, and as soon as somebody comes back from the dead, you say “Aha, this is Fantasy, and has no impact on real life”. We have 2,000 years of history based on arguments about whether, and in what way, a man came back from the dead, and whether eating some biscuits is an act of ritual cannibalism in reality or only in idea. And people have fought and bled and died and had their lives ruined over this, and still do. We fight about imaginary things because they’re the only things that matter.
Richard Dawkins famously quoted Bertrand Russell: “We’re all atheists about other people’s gods. I just happen to believe in one less than you do”.
Questions from the audience.
Q: I’ve heard rumours about an American Gods miniseries with HBO. How has writing a script for it changed your perception of the characters?
NG: About that, I got an e-mail yesterday saying that the contractual to-s and fro-s are over, and I can start writing within the next two weeks. [Applause] About the characters changing: people who’ve read the book will definitely have an advantage, but there’ll still be a few surprises.
Q: Who do you think should direct it.
NG: I know who’s directing in. About every 8 months in the 10 years since the book was released, I’ve had a phone call from a director saying “I’ve read American Gods and it’s great. I want to make it into a movie.” And then they invariably say “How?” So I have to apologise that I wrote it at a time when I was doing a lot of screenplays, and was very annoyed with having lots of 124-page stories that all had a beginning, a middle and an end, and therefore became determined to write a long, rambling novel with several ends, and middles all over the place.
Bob Richardson is actually a first-time director, though he’s won two Oscars for his cinematography. You should check him out on IMDB. He first came to me about five years ago and wouldn’t let go of the idea of putting American Gods on screen. I’m delighted that I’m going to be working with him, and we’ll be writing the pilot together.
Q: As an American living in Scotland, I love the way you describe America. Why haven’t you done anything as good for other countries?
NG: Well, there’s Neverwhere, which is really written for people who are about to go to London for the first time, so they can get there and go “Oh my god, there really is an Earls Court!” There’s also a short story in Fragile Things called Monarch of the Glen, in which Shadow goes to Scotland and Beowulfy-type things happen to him.
Q: Are there any mythologies you regret not including?
NG: Unfortunately I didn’t have space for everything. The editor originally insisted I lose 150 pages, and I argued it down to about 40 (and of course they’re all now back in the Author’s Preferred Text). I’d planned a story about a kitsune, or fox-woman, showing up in the middle of Kansas where the Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, but I had to grit my teeth and not write it.
Q: [Didn’t quite catch the question, but it was something about Neil having worked with Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, and making their mode of humour his own.]
NG: I actually think American Gods is a funny book, but it’s an opinion I tend to keep to myself. Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett find humour by imagining an unrealistic situation and thinking “What would it be like if this were real?” The humour of American Gods isn’t like the humour of Anansi Boys, which has jokes in it, or like what Adams and Pratchett write.
Q: You’re a very eclectic writer: you do books, films, TV... [Something about using different media – possibly asking which one is his favourite.]
NG: My favourite medium is actually one I don’t use very much: the radio. It’s great because there are fewer budget constraints when you don’t have to have amazing visual special effects. I try to do some about every five years just because I love it so much, but – I don’t know if anyone here has ever worked for BBC radio – I never make enough money from it to pay for a flight to London. I tell people I’d actually make more money by sending my children into the street to dance for pennies. But it’s great that we still have a culture of radio drama over here – it just doesn’t exist in America. When you tell Americans you’re interested in radio drama, they think you’re absolutely mad, and look at you as though you’ve said you like riding Brontosauruses – it’s like this thing from a bygone age that nobody would even think of doing any more.
Q: Can you, do you, talk to your characters? Or do you just take dictation from them? If you do talk to them, do they know they’re characters?
NG: That’s a great question. It’s mad, but I love it. [Laughter] It really depends on the character. From Delirium in The Sandman, I just took dictation. I came up with the “straight” line, and then wrote it how she said it. Some of them definitely know they’re characters, and some definitely don’t. Some of them have lives offstage and go off to do other things after the story has ended – I can check in on them a year later and find out what they’ve been doing. Shadow is one of those. But others just disappear without a trace – Barbie from A Game of You, for example. I tried to check in on her several times afterwards, but she’s never come back yet.
Q: [Something about the level of creative control with his Doctor Who episode.] How much creative control is HBO allowing you with the miniseries?
NG: You can only write from home, and see where a fair wind takes you. Fifteen years later, I still feel irked when watching parts of the Neverwhere TV series and seeing bits that I think they got wrong and told them should be different. I’m really glad that the folks at HBO love American Gods for what it is and don’t want to soften it, and are excited for the second book. I will be involved – and it could all go horribly wrong! These things can. We can only hope. But the Game of Thrones TV series has done very well by being faithful to the book – they’re saying “we’ve got this thing and we want to bring it to the world”, rather than trying to fix it.
With American Gods, I’m very keen to hold onto something that a lot of Americans most want to jettison, and that’s the racial aspects. Shadow is mixed-race. The perfect person to play him, if he hadn’t already become a huge star, would be Dwayne Johnson, “The Rock”. He’s mixed-race, big, and looks dumb – one thing about Shadow is that he’s actually smarter than he looks. He’s rather like my friend Pete, who’s 6’8” and is the kind of guy you can just ask to move the sofa, and he’ll do it by himself. He makes a living working for rock bands moving around huge pieces of equipment on his own. So people expect him to be stupid, and treat him as such. But when I sit down and talk to him, I find he’s read more than I have, and knows more about it too. So I’ve been able to ask him what it’s like to be 6’8” and have everyone assume you’re stupid.
Q: What was it that helped you congeal the concept of America as portrayed in American Gods?
NG: It congealed in Iceland. I was there for a stopover on the way to Norway, landing at 6am (midnight body-clock time). I got out of the airport at 7am and thought “I’ll just keep going until it gets dark”. This was the 3rd of July, and I was in a hotel room with a curtain that didn’t close properly. At about 3am it was as though the sun had gone behind a cloud for half an hour, and then it came back. So after about 56 hours of wakefulness I went wandering around Reykjavík and found myself in the tourist area, looking at a diorama about Leif Eriksson. I thought “I wonder if they took their gods with them” – and then instantly all these half-formed ideas that had been sloshing around in my head came together into a story. I went straight back to the hotel and wrote a letter to my publisher with my idea, and gave it a working title of “American Gods” until I could think of something better. Two weeks later she sent me a mock-up of the cover with the words “American Gods, Neil Gaiman” on it, and I thought “Yeah, actually, that’s a book cover”.
Q: I heard that you got the idea for American Gods from Diana Wynne Jones’ Eight Days of Luke. Is it true?
NG: Diana was a great friend of mine and I miss her very much. I had an original plan for American Gods where we would meet Mr Wednesday on a Wednesday, and all the other gods on their respective days of the week. Then I realized that would I’d thought of was precisely Diana Wynne Jones’ Eight Days of Luke. So I immediately scrapped that idea, but I told Diana about it later. There’s actually more Diana Wynne Jones influence on The Sandman, but people don’t realise this. For example, the Endless are very like the family in Archer’s Goon.
Q: How much do you think Fantasy needs reality to leaven it? If you look at George R.R. Martin, it’s very “other” – there’s nothing of our own world in it.
NG: When I was a child, I always thought I would grow up to write hard Science Fiction. Or if not, I’d write the kind of books with maps in the front. I even drew some of the maps while bored in geography class, when people were less likely to notice that the maps I was drawing weren’t accurate. I have no explanation for why all my novels begin in a world that resembles real life. Even Good Omens, which has a lot of Terry Pratchett in it, is set in our world rather than on, say, a Discworld.
Q: About the quotations at the beginning of every chapter of American Gods – are they all carefully chosen or did you put some in just because all the other chapters had one?
NG: There are some of both. And there are some that are only there because the one I wanted would have cost £4,000 to put in. Like Sister Midnight by Iggy Pop – wait, was that taken out or did it get in? No, I wanted to put that in, but it turned out it would cost too much, so we used Midnight Special, which is public domain – yes! Most of them were put in right at the end after I went back and read it all again.
Most authors while reading other people’s work experience something known as “You bastard, you’re writing my novel!” I turned that same experience into “Ah, a quote!” and used them in American Gods.
Q: In “A Writer’s Prayer”, you said “Oh Lord, let me not be one of those who writes too little; a decade-man between each tale, or more”. Were you thinking of a particular dark patch in your career?
NG: Don’t forget that I also said “Let me not be one of those who writes too much”. With that bit I was thinking of GK Chesterton - he wrote too much. When reading his essays I always think that if only he’d written half as much, it’d be twice as good – there just wasn’t enough of him to go into all those essays. For the bit about writing too little, I was thinking about my friend Mike [didn’t get the surname]. He’s actually sped up a bit now, but he used to publish something about every ten years and you’d just think “What have you been doing all that time?”
JM: Well, that’s the end, but any budding authors have learned that sleep deprivation is the way to go!
Afterwards I queued for almost 1½ hours to get my copy of Neverwhere signed, and chatted briefly with Neil. I asked if he’d thought about writing a sequel to Neverwhere set somewhere like New York. He said he’d thought about one which went to places other than London – ‘cause it would have to – but hasn’t written it yet, the problem being that there are so many books to write and only one of him.