The Sandman Of NeverwhereInterview by Will Christopher Baer
The writers and artists of comic books may live in the dead zone between novels and film, borrowing narrative technique from the one and the visual vocabulary from the other-but it's the dead zone as defined by King, who gave Johnny Smith the power to see the past and future, and to step into alternate realities. The pages and panels of a comic book allow for infinite variations of composition and dramatic sequence, giving comic writers and artists the power to routinely rewrite storytelling physics, to not only stop time, but to treat time as a liquid and spin ripples in it. To make our eyes track from right to left and left to right at once, to read along verticals and diagonals-such dreamweaving stunts that filmmakers and novelists rarely attempt; and more rarely pull off.
The most accomplished writers and artists in the narrative dead zone cause us to reconsider how we tell stories, how we hear and see our dreams. Some of these guys, who spin new myths for a living and walk in the long shadows cast by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, have become myths themselves. Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell, J. O'Barr, and Neil Gaiman, among others, dragged the comic industry from its death bed in the 1980's and 90s and laid the groundwork for the Hollywood behemoth that comics, for good or ill, have become since.
Gaiman's long-running and wildly popular Sandman comics spanned ten volumes plus one, brought him both cult status and record sales, and put him on a first name basis with sci-fi and horror gods Clive Barker, Stephen King, Gene Wolfe, and Harlan Ellison-not to mention the most acclaimed comic artists walking the zone. And when the Sandman run came to an end, or interlude, Gaiman, who was still not yet 40, took a breath and began writing novels and children's books, with the odd short story thrown in for good measure. The novels include Neverwhere, American Gods, Stardust, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett) and the newly released Anansi Boys. Gaiman's short stories can be found in his collections Angels & Visitations and Smoke & Mirrors, and numerous anthologies. The children's books, which may be the ones Gaiman loves best are Coraline, The Wolves in the Walls, and The Day I Swapped My Dad for a Goldfish. And somewhere in there, Gaiman managed also to write a new graphic novel, Melinda, and the story for Dave McKean's lovely Mirrormask.
While doing some Google-hopping to prep for my phone interview with Gaiman, I stumbled onto a Sandman test-similar to the infamous Dante's Inferno test that evaluated one's responses to a series of questions then banished you to one ring of hell or another. The Sandman version promised to designate respondents as most like one the seven Endless-Destiny, Dream, Destruction, Death, Delirium, Desire, Despair. I answered the Sandman questions as honestly as I could and was told that I was Dream, without question. I then took the test twice more, trying to shine my responses in such a way that I might bluff the software and be given the nod as Death, because even though Death in the Sandman comics is a girl who bears a faint resemblance to Winona Ryder kicking heroin, Death is deeply, endlessly cool. Still, the program wasn't having it, and twice more pronounced me Dream-wraithlike keeper of stories who is known by more names than he has friends. Appropriate, no doubt. But I was tempted to complain, irrationally, when I got Neil Gaiman on the phone. At the very least, I thought I'd ask if he had ever owned a 'Free Winona' t-shirt, as I had. Instead, I stuttered nervously for a few awkward minutes about how I was a big fan of his work. Gaiman was infinitely gracious and patient, as expected, and after a round of standard pleasantries, I mentioned the Endless test….
WILL CHRISTOPHER BAER: I stumbled onto a Sandman fan site the other day with an Endless test hat asked you a series of questions and then told you which of the Endless you most resemble-I took it three times and kept getting tagged as Dream---and it got me thinking about the balance of power among the seven Endless; the axis seems tipped to the female…
NEIL GAIMAN: No.. they're perfectly balanced, three and a half on either side-with Desire coming in as the swing vote.
WCB: Even with Destruction taking a never ending powder?
GAIMAN: Destruction did quit, so I suppose there's an argument there.
WCB: Reason I mention it, I read somewhere that you prefer writing female characters-and with Death, Hunter, Door, Coraline, and now Helena, you do have some strong women in your stories-not just strong women but strong characters. Is that a conscious thing, or more left to chance?
GAIMAN: I'm very fond of writing female characters, they're just really enjoyable to write-I think for the simple reason they tend to be much more sensible than my male characters-which may say something about the way I view women and men.
WCB: Would you say that women make for more interesting characters because they can't as easily resort to muscle? Or is it a matter of having more complex desires, compared to men?
GAIMAN: If we're speaking of Sandman, I'm not sure any of the Endless have simple or straightforward desires-more a bit all over the place, which was a big part of the fun of writing it. But I know what you're getting at, and I suppose that for me, when I was just starting out, there was a frustration with the female characters I'd most often meet in comics-especially the comics of the time [circa mid 1980s] with the exception of someone like Alan Moore, and obviously the Hernandez brothers-there just seemed not to be any female characters in mainstream comics who seemed remotely to be real people. They were men, really, with tremendous melons strapped to their chests and guns blazing…
"There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandermar apart: first, Mr. Vandermar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of faded china blue, while Mr. Vandermar's eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandermar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelry; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing alike." -from Neverwhere
WCB: That trend is still going strong today, with Lara Croft.
GAIMAN: MShe doesn't have the world's biggest boobs, at least. But for a long time that was about the best you were going to get, and I thought I'd see what I could do in terms of writing women characters who were interesting and real, and who were women.
WCB: How did you like Molly, of Gibson's Neuromancer? She was mid 1980s, I think.
GAIMAN: She arrived in 1984.. I thought she was lovely, but she did have that whole female assassin thing going on, and you know, Molly is lovely the way Elektra is lovely… They're wonderful characters but neither of them are doing much to dispel the nervous prejudices of teenage boys who believe that all beautiful women want to do is cut out your heart and eat it.
WCB: Right… well, shifting gears but staying with the subject of Elektra: I haven't read all of Marvel 1602, so maybe I've missed her, but does she ever make an appearance in that series? She would have been a perfect fit, I think.
GAIMAN: No, for Marvel 1602 I only did characters prior to 1969-and I wouldn't have done Elektra anyway because she's Frank Miller's character, and Frank always said he didn't want anyone writing her except him. And though Marvel has often, ah…violated that, I would not. It wouldn't be right.
WCB: You've been quoted as saying that Sandman the motion picture was 'trapped in development hell, where it belongs.' That sentiment have more to do with the horror of the Hollywood machine, and slogging through that process, or the near impossibility of distilling Sandman-a sprawling otherworld story of stories within stories within dreams-into a two-hour film?
GAIMAN: No, I don't think it would be easy, or easily possible. And sometimes… the thing is, Sandman was a comic, and I think ultimately that was what it did best…
WCB: I always thought that comics were the dead zone between novels and film, in narrative terms. Comics could borrow from the other forms while pulling off story maneuvers that neither of them could manage-even with special effects to the 11th power, there were always comics that seemed would be impossible to translate. Then came Sin City…
GAIMAN: Right, I think that if Sandman gets made into a successful movie, it won't be-or it will only be because, somewhere up the line, a director will come along to whom it will matter, the way Sin City mattered to Rodriguez…as with Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson, Spider-Man and Sam Raimi, one of those directors who feels strongly it's their duty this movie and do it right. So, if we get to that point, I expect it will be very cool. Failing that, it won't happen.
WCB: I imagine the hardcore Sandman fans are divided; some are dying to see Death and Delirium on the big screen while others may dread seeing a beloved comic possibly desecrated by the wrong director. But I have a feeling there's an executive somewhere, looking at Sin City's numbers, and the wheels are turning in his head…
GAIMAN: Yes, but they never think along the right lines. They never look at a movie like that and say, "Sin City was great because it was faithful to the material." They're more likely to say: 'it was a success because it had Bruce Willis in it'… For instance, somebody at the head of a major studio explained to me…They'd been trying to figure out why Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter were so hugely successful, and he said they had finally come to the conclusion that it was because those films each had a clearly defined evil. They didn't want to do a Sandman movie, he said, because it lacked a clearly defined evil…
WCB: I'd love to see the Pythagorean formula they cooked up to arrive at the 'clearly defined evil' formula.
GAIMAN: It's just very, very odd.
WCB: Sometime after I read Neverwhere, a nine-hour DVD of the BBC series was released over here, and whichever cable channel it was that showed the Black Adder ran Neverwhere in the middle of the night as a BBC castoff. And while I enjoyed it, I remember wondering why Tim Burton wasn't directing it for a big studio. Then I looked closely at the various dates and realized you first wrote it as a screenplay for the BBC.
WCB: I've always thought that was cool and strange, and couldn't think of another novelist having done that, exactly. How did that come about? And did having what must have been a thousand page script as a template, did that make the job of writing the novel harder or easier?
GAIMAN: It was easier, like having a fantastically detailed outline.
WCB: According to internet myth, you wrote Neverwhere the novel partly out of some dissatisfaction with the way the series turned out-specifically, the Beast of London was made to look like a cow? Do I have that correct, or have I just spat up some partially digested fan rumor?
GAIMAN: There were a lot of things not done terribly well with that production. The Beast was one of them. And it wasn't that the Beast looked like a cow, it was a cow. Regardless that in the script, I had it as a giant boar...The way I look at it-my version of Neverwhere is the novel, sort of the director's cut.
WCB: Have you been involved at all in the new Neverwhere comic series that Vertigo has out?
GAIMAN: Not really at all. I read the original script-Mike Carey's script for the first episode-and enjoyed it, signed off on it. Beyond that… I could either force Mike to only use dialogue straight from the novel, and require Glenn Abrey to draw the characters exactly as they are in the novel, or I could let them create. And I just felt it was much wiser to let them go and make things up.
WCB: Let them breathe, or risk suffocating the source material?
WCB: What are the chances of a second Neverwhere book? I thought the first one ended cleanly, no loose threads and without exactly promising another installment. But it must be tempting to go see what happens with Richard and Door in London Below, plus you have the seeds laid in for a near bottomless franchise-I'd think it would be a lot of fun to write a Neverwhere novel set in Tokyo Below, Moscow Below, Saigon…
GAIMAN: Oh, yeah… There's no end to things I could do with Neverwhere, just as there's no end to the other things I want to do. And, well… you know, you've only got so much time to write in a day.
WCB: Sure... But you've been prolific as hell, by anybody's standards. You're the sort of writer that makes other writers wonder if you've got a clone down in the basement, typing away, while you're having a cup of tea and talking to me on the phone. But you must keep a fairly strict work schedule. What's a typical writing day like for you, if there is such a thing?
GAIMAN: It depends on the day, honestly… if I'm writing a novel, the morning is spent dealing with telephone calls, email and that sort of thing. I might make a blog post [neilgaiman.com] as sort of a five-finger exercise to loosen up. And then by one o'clock or so, I'm off to work on the novel. I try to write a thousand words a day, at least, and typically I do around fifteen hundred, or two thousand, and I get home around six. This is when I'm in the middle of the novel, the bulk of it.. If I'm in the process of trying to start a novel, or finish one-then I've probably gone away somewhere to sort that out. With short stories, they most often get written when people start calling me and shouting, 'Hey, that short story you promised is due in about now." And everything else just gets fitted in, in the cracks somewhere.
WCB: Those 'cracks' are what people wonder about most. Really, it's the mundane questions that people-- especially the hardcore fans and young writers never tire of. For instance, do you write on a laptop or by hand?
GAIMAN: It depends, as well. If I'm writing a screenplay, I work on the laptop because I appreciate the screenwriting software-it does a lot of the work for me. If I'm on a novel, I'll normally write in a notebook and stay in the notebook because there's nothing, and nobody, in the notebook to distract me. Nobody's trying to pop up an urgent message. I'm not going to suddenly decide to check the origin of a particular word, and Google it-and look up four hours later in the middle of some eBay auction. If I'm in the notebook, I stay there. I don't want the machine that I'm using for writing to be an entertainment machine as well. If I want to know the capital of Hungary, and look it up in a book or on the map, I won't later find myself at some fascinatingly obscure Budapest travel site-and yes, I am someone who does that.
WCB: And it's getting worse, with wireless access everywhere---I barely remember the days of going to my bookshelf to look something up. What about word processing software itself? Do you think the ability to cut and paste has altered the way we write?
GAIMAN: I remember noticing this in 1996, when editing an anthology…The stories that came in were all the sort of stories that should have been around three thousand words. But they were coming in at six to nine thousand words…And I did think, the biggest problem was computers. A lot of people have gone away from the process of doing a first draft in rough, then re-typing the next draft-now they were just working inside the one draft on the computer and whenever they thought of something good, they just popped it in. And that becomes like working with clay-throw down your clay and off you go… That was about the time I began to write my first drafts only in notebook, because what I really, really wanted was a discontinuity. I liked the idea of having a first and second draft that were actually two different things.
WCB: When you rewrite something from scratch--with a blank page or screen in front of you and a stack of pages beside you marked in red, how different are the results than if you just throw down more clay?
GAIMAN: I find that in the process of typing something up from the notebook, I'm much more willing to lose stuff, it's suddenly not so precious to me. If I've got something typed up on the screen, I'm not as likely to say, 'I should delete these five pages…' But typing from the notes I can come to those same five pages and I'll say, "Oh, this is crap.' And so I won't bother to type it in, which I think is a good thing.
WCB: When you've got a new story coming to you, do you immediately know if it's going to be a novel or a comic or screenplay? Or do you just start writing and wait for the story to make its intentions known?
GAIMAN: Sometimes it takes me a while to figure it out. Anansi Boys, for instance. I had the idea for that ten years ago and thought it might be a TV movie or something, I just wasn't sure what it was and it took me ages to figure it out….Finally I decided it felt like a novel, or a series of novellas. I told my editor what I was planning, and described the thing, and she said, 'No, that's going to be a novel.'
Neil Gaiman and David McKean
WCB: I picked up the little Mirrormask book that's out now, the one for children, and Dave McKean's drawings are really beautiful… You guys have worked together for years and I'm curious, what's the collaboration process like between you two? How much are the words and images coming out of your head affected by his art, or does he mostly draw what you describe?
GAIMAN: Most of the things we've done over the years started with me writing something up and giving it to Dave, who would then go away for a while and create images and give it back. But with Mirrormask, I was Dave's hand…. Dave had the story in mind, he had this strange dream about this girl in the city of Light and Darkness. He had a lot of major set pieces-the stone floating giants, for instance-and he had very specific ideas about who the characters were and what they looked like…So, I wrote the dialogue, and got us from scene to scene, but it was very much Dave's movie.
WCB: I saw echoes from earlier books you'd done together, particularly Mr. Punch and Coraline-I don't mean to imply you're repeating yourselves, by the way-more like expanding on a particular world. And it made me think of characters from different works who never cross paths in a story but might pass each other in the street-something reassuring about that…
GAIMAN: I think that for good or bad, we all tend to fall back on what we're most comfortable with. Cats with human faces, for instance. Dave has been drawing those for as long as I've known him.. And for me it's the notion of following the unreliable guide-it's just something I tend to go back to.
WCB: I know some writers who feel like each new novel is really just the next chapter in the great, endless novel in their heads-and others seem to be retelling the same story over and over again, as if they're just trying to get it right. Do you ever feel you're in one of those camps?
GAIMAN: In my head, everything is different. But when you look back, they do all sort of line up… It would be very easy to drive yourself nuts-the thing is, you don't write for the audience, you can't. Because what the audience tends to want is something familiar. They want the same book they liked last time, with just enough things different that it feels fresh, which is why serials are so successful. The danger for an author is you may turn into MacDonald's.
WCB: Billions of satisfied customers…
GAIMAN: But the artists I most admire-take musicians. I tend most admire those musicians who don't give you the same record every time. Elvis Costello, for example. The album he did with Burt Bacharach might leave you completely cold, and you just wish he would do My Aim is True again, that stripped down rock. Or you could be someone who loves the Juliet Letters and never much liked anything else he's done. And that's when you realize that Elvis isn't doing those for you, he's doing them for himself. And I think that I'd rather be an Elvis Costello… As a writer, I've got to keep myself interested, and it's like the Neverwhere II questions. I'm not in a big hurry to do that because there are so many other things I've never done… At the same time, that was the joy of doing Sandman-I knew these characters, I knew this world. I could always go back there… And when I went back a few years ago and did Endless Nights, it was the author's equivalent of comfort food-it was meatloaf with two veg, and mashed potatoes. And gravy. But most of the time I'd rather build something new, and go somewhere I've never been before, something no one is expecting. Because doing that makes me happy and makes me feel like I'm learning something. And for me it may be a matter of a short attention span. But Neverwhere II isn't a decision I've got to make for a couple of years, because I've got a new children's novel I'll be working on next…
WCB: Yeah, I wanted to ask about the children's books. A friend sent me Coraline when it was first published, along with a note that read: 'Some maniac put this terrifying book in the children's section.' I read it with my son-I think he was six or seven-and we both enjoyed it, but there were a few spots where he looked a little pale. And I hope you take this as a compliment, but when my daughter was born, that book was one of a handful that my wife physically removed from the kids' room because it might seep into the baby's head and give her nightmares.
GAIMAN: [Laughs] I love the idea of a book being so powerful that simply being near it gives one nightmares-that's the book I hope to write one day.
WCB: You have children, right?
GAIMAN: Oh, yeah. And I read Coraline to my six-year-old daughter before I let it out into the world. I figured if she had been terrified by it, or terribly upset by it, then I'd have put it away. But what I've found is that kids tend to treat Coraline as an adventure, whereas their parents see it as a much darker, more menacing thing-adults see it as a "child in danger" story. And adults often don't cope well with seeing children in peril. Also, they tend to see it as bringing back repressed childhood terrors-whereas children tend to have fewer repressed childhood terrors, because that's where they live anyway. They haven't yet figured out how to repress them. They still lie in bed at night with their eyes open and see the shadow of the bathrobe hanging on the hook as a monster that's going to kill them if they get out of bed… That's sort of the matter-of-fact reality they live in. Adults forget how ruthless children are. Kids listen to a story where someone does something terrible or wrong to someone else, and then gets eaten alive or killed in some gruesome way, and kids just nod and say, 'Well, that makes sense. He got what he deserved and the world is in order.' Adults, on the other hand, see everything as much more complicated than that, and the bad guy might have some nice qualities and didn't deserve such a harsh fate…
WCB: So you're saying children have a primordial sense of crime and punishment: If you steal chocolate from the sleeping giant, and get your arms and legs pinched off….oh, well-you shouldn't have been stealing?
GAIMAN: Exactly. It's the difference between old Disney and new Disney. In the new Disney films, the villain is plopped down in a puddle of manure, and more lumps of manure falling on his head, and he says: 'Curses, curses, curses-I have lost and children are laughing at me.' In the old Disney, the wicked queen in Snow White gets struck by lightning and dies, and that's that. Children's stories didn't use to be so safe and tidy, and I think the best kids' fiction today isn't always safe. And kids aren't stupid-they know the world isn't made of cotton candy. And they tend to have good instincts about what they can handle and what they can't.
WCB: If you want to really freak a kid out-an eight-year-old boy, say-just put a kissing scene into the story and listen to them scream.
GAIMAN: [Laughs] There's nothing more horrifying, more certain to have them covering their eyes than a really icky kissing scene.
WCB: Mr. Gaiman, thank you.
GAIMAN: You're most welcome...
Neil Gaiman's latest novel Anansi Boys is in stores now. You can order it through our site by clicking here!
Neil Gaiman also has a new movie out he wrote with Sandman illustrator David McKenan (director) called Mirror Mask. The film is currently playing in select cities, but you can check out the illustrated screenplay by clicking here!