Neil Gaiman, our interview in 2014

Beitrag von Stefan Cernohuby | 24. Oktober 2014

During his tour through Europe, presenting and promoting his bestseller “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”, Neil Gaiman also visited Vienna, Austria. We managed to get one of the very rare appointments for an interview with him. Together with Dr. Bernhard Praschl from the daily newspaper “Kurier” our editor Stefan Cernohuby met with Neil Gaiman. For just over half an hour he was talking to the successful British author, who for example is known for “Sandman”, “Stardust” and “American Gods”…


Neil Gaiman: Hi Guys, nice to meet you. Hi there! Okay, so…

Dr. Bernhard Praschl (Kurier):
We met a few years ago, I've been in the Chunket with stardust in London and that’s been a creative time for you since now.

Neil: It has! (enthusiastic). It's been a really strange seven years. And it's gone in all sorts of odd and unexpected directions. If you'd asked me where I would be in 7 years, back then, I don't think I would have thought that I was gonna be married. Definitely not to a rockstar … or a professor of the arts at Bard college in America. That's very strange. I think also how respectable I am now, would have surprised me. Cause I was twenty-something years an underdog.
And even when people liked me, I was slightly on the outside. And then… 2008, I won the Newbery Medal and the Carnegie Medal and suddenly it was like everything changed. And you had this generation who had grown up reading me who now, who suddenly were the dominant generation. And that changed as well. So It's been an amazing, weird, seven years. And definitely most of the things that have happened, have been things, I would not have expected.

Stefan Cernohuby (Janetts Meinung): As I understood, not even your actual book was really planned like it was. And came a bit as a surprise…

Neil: (laughing): Yeah… well I think the book and the marriage are part of the same sort of thing. Amanda and I, we'd been married about a year, and she went to Australia, to record a record. And although we’d been together by that point, like three years, I'd never been around her while she was in full work mode. And suddenly I was in America, she was in Australia, she was in work mode and I would phone her up and go… I love you … I miss you …
And she would be like: “Yep! great! OK! OK, I’ve gotta rehearse the band now, I’ve got some more songs to write. And we’re working out the orchestration.”
And I thought, I have to do something as a loving and romantic gesture. And I thought I’d write her a short story.

Stefan: A bit longer one. (smiling)

Neil: Oh, I didn’t know. I started a short story. And I kept writing it. And after a week or so maybe it wasn’t a short story anymore. After three or four weeks in, I was going “okay, well it’s gonna be a novella.”. And it wasn’t until I finished it. And I didn’t finish it until Amanda had got back from Australia and she was in Dallas, mixing the album. And I finished it and then I did a word count. And discovered that I’d written a novel. I was very apologetic. I remember writing to my publisher, to my editor to say I’m really sorry. I’ve written a novel you’re not expecting. I don’t know if you gonna wanna publish it. And I didn’t think it was commercial. It was this little thing that I’d written for my wife. It was an adult novel with a seven year old protagonist. That seemed very not commercial. And seemed like an odd thing to do.
And, I definitely would never have planned it as a novel. If you’d said me okay, you gonna have to write a novel now I would’ve gone… oh well, okay, let me write something that at least has a chance out there in the market. And then the book came out and it beat Dan Brown, off the number one spot in the New York Times list. And suddenly I was, and it became the biggest most commercial thing I’ve ever done. And it became the UK book of the year. I don’t know how this happened. This was my little weird thing that I was making for Amanda.

Stefan: And how did she like it, as she is not that much in fantasy?

Neil: You know, she loved it. She loved it because she said it was honest. And it had emotions in it. Putting emotions into a story seems a really good idea because Amanda likes emotions. And she likes honesty. And also I wanted to show her what it was like to be me, when I was a little kid. In a world that I can’t take her to, because all the houses are knocked down. None of the people are there. The fields aren’t there anymore, they’re just covered in houses. So it’s like I wanted to say, let me take you back in time and show you where I grew up. Show you what I was like, when I was seven years old.

BP: What is this special thing about houses? At the end of the road… like in the book. Or kind of farmhouses?

Neil: Well, in that one, it was very literal. It wasn’t an imaginative act. When I was about six years old, five years old, we moved to a house on a lane. And down the lane there was nothing. Half a mile down there was a farm, another half mile along there was another farm. And my mother told me that one of those houses, one of those farms, was in the doomsday book. And the doomsday book, which was the book that William the Conqueror had compiled, was the list that he had compiled of all the property in England when he invaded. Which meant, what my mom was telling me, was that there was a property down there mentioned in the doomsday book. What I thought she was telling me was, THAT farm had been there for a thousand years… that red brick building. Which made me go, um that’s amazing. That farm is a thousand years old! And then, a few years later I was thinking about that thousand year old farm and I was thinking… wouldn’t it be interesting if the people who lived there, had lived there for a thousand years. And that idea fascinated me. And then, by the time when I was a teenager, they were called the Hempstocks, in my head. This farm. This thousand year old farm.

Stefan: So they were already in your childhood. They were the Hempstocks?

Neil (nodding): Yes.

Stefan: Because in your different books they aree not the only Hempstocks that appear there.

Neil: No no, they existed a long before…

Stefan: There is Liza, there is Daisy…

Neil: Yeah. There are.

Stefan: Are they somehow relatives?

Neil: Yeah, yeah. They, both, Liza and Daisy, are great-great-great-great (17 times great) grand nieces of the Hempstocks there.


Neil: Ever so many greats … but I loved the idea. You know, It’s the thing in the book where they talk about the Hempstock men leave the farm, and they go out into the world, and they have adventures, and the women stay home – and they’re actually doing the important things.

BP: You are mentioning Stephen King in the book.

Neil (nodding)

BP: In the afterword. Did he like the book?

Neil: I
You wanna know the funniest thing in the world? I love that you just asked me that. Cause. When I was at the toilet before, I just got an e-mail … from Stephen King. Which finishes … here is my e-mail address if you need it. I’ve been following your tweets not to mention the ocean at the end of the lane, which I loved, Steve. So, I can now answer that question. That would be a yes… he loved it, which makes me so happy.
So yeah, Stephen liked it. He was very instrumental. In me, just really writing that book. I’d been doing an interview with him for the Sunday Times in England. And I was on the other side of Florida to him. It was a three hour drive. And I drove and spent a couple of days with the Kings. His work ethic and his attitude reminded me of the thing that I forget, which is: everything can be solved by doing the work.

Stefan: So he is very methodical in what he is doing?

Neil:Just do the work. You get on and you do it. And whatever are the problems out there, you do the work. I love that attitude. And I love that this is the important thing. Everything else is the trouble you can lose your life to. To phone calls from Hollywood. Lose your life to coming to Vienna and signing books and meeting people. You can lose your life to things like this. And then one day you look up and writing is the number 2 thing that you do and then you look up one day and writing has become the hobby. You know. It’s the thing you do that…

When you have some spare time.

Neil (assertative):
When you have spare time. Then you finally get the writing done. And what I love about being with Steve is now the writing. Writing comes in Nr. 1. Everything else … (pauses)

Some authors have, let’s say, not the easiest relationship to the film adaptions of their books. How do you feel about if somebody wants to create a film based on your book?

Neil: I intend to be mostly realistic. Which is - you do everything that you can, to make sure it’s a good film. There will come a point, at which it will be out of your control. It’s like you’ve got a huge model aeroplane. And you can do the best job you can of running along and trying to launch it of into space. But the moment you launch it, it’s now out of your hands. I’m seeing that right now with The Graveyard Book. Disney owns it. We have a really good director. We do not yet have a script. And there will come a point where I’m gonna have to make the decision on whether to extend Disneys option. Or whether to take the book back. But I only get that decision to make. If Disney doesn’t go, “actually, we’re definitely making this and we’re gonna buy the book out right”, because we have an option against that. So it’s quite possible that in March I could be millions of dollars richer, but it would now be completely outside of my control. In March maybe I’ll get the rights back. I don’t know. Once Disney has paid that money, we make it a great movie. Because my producer is fantastic! And he is committed to the book.
But my producer won’t own the film. You know, that would be Disney. And after that it’s a matter of weird magic. It’s like cooking. Somebody’s gonna go, okay, we got this thing here. You know, we got this book and we’re gonna make it with chicken. Where as some other day it might be we got this book, we’re gonna make it with beef. Or making in Cauliflower. And sometimes somebody makes a fantastic chicken dish. And sometimes you go and see a film and you go, ohh, what happened there? Poor Chriss Paolini, he still talks what happened on Eragon. On the one hand you have a huge international bestseller. On the other hand you have a film that they apparently started shooting without a script.
And It’s not like anybody is setting out to make a bad film.

Stefan: Yeah, of course.

Neil: You know, nobody ever goes: “Hey, let’s make a bad film nobody’s gonna wanna watch!”
I’ve been really luck so far, um. The luckiest I’ve been was with Coraline, I think. Where I found Henry Sellek. I went “I loved the nightmare before Christmas. I want you to do this.” Henry did it. I stuck by him for years. There even came a point where Henrys option had expired. And Disney wanted it. And it was like “Well, I’m sticking with you, Henry. I will give you six months free option. And we’ll get this thing to happen. And it did. I trusted the right person and I loved what he did. But you cannot guarantee that. All you can do is run really hard along the field with your aeroplane. And then hope that you’ve thrown it into the wind in the right direction.

Stefan: And will the aeroplane also start for this American Gods series, or is this still..?

Neil: It’s looking like it. The aeroplane stalled and crashed out on HBO. Mostly because the people, who bought it at HBO, then moved on. And the new people who came in were just like “What is this? We don’t understand!” And with every script they were like “well, can you put more into it? Can you get further through the book, can you explain more? Ah, can you set up the future more? Because we don’t get this.” Well, you didn’t buy it. The people who bought it, understood it. Trust them. The rights came back to me, they were immediately bought by a company called Freemantle Media. Freemantle went out and Brian Fuller, who does “Hannibal”. Because I’d written or co-written the HBO scripts I couldn’t write the pilot scripts for anybody else, because HBO could’ve turned around and said, ah, you’ve stolen stuff, if I’d have repeated a line of dialogue. Even one that was in the book.
But we have Michael Green, who did “Kings”, we have Brian Fuller, who’s fantastic, and and they’re doing it with starz. With a Z. S-T-A-R-Z, which is kind of, the next one down from HBO. At this point they’ve got “Outlander” and a bunch of other things. And they wanna spend the money and they wanna make it right.

Stefan: You did a lot of different work. You wrote novels of course, you did graphic novels, you did scripts for television series, for example Dr. Who. What is the most difficult thing for you or is this all the same just writing or?

Neil: It’s all just writing. It’s all just stories. The techniques that you are using are different. And the ideas are different. Comics is really hard for me right now. But comics is mostly hard because I’m trying to do things that nobody’s ever done before. And particularly things that I’ve never done before, generally speaking and particularly speaking things nobody’s ever done before. So’m definitely not fast. Cause I’ll be going “okay”. You don’t want to repeat yourself. You don’t want somebody picking up same manner which you’re in and going “oh my god I read all that stuff already!” I wanna take you to places that you haven’t seen. I want you at least to go “WOW”, once every issue. If I can make you go “Wow!” once every issue I’m doing my job. I’m really lucky, because I am working with J. H. Williams who is making people go “Wow”! So I think that’s probably the hardest of all for me. But everything has…, they all have their ups and they all have their downs. You know, I am most excited right now by trying to write some live theatre, ‘cause I never have. And I like the Idea of just going to places I’ve never been before.

Stefan: So you rather prefer going forward and doing some other stuff, and you do not plan, let’s say, in near future to come back to some universes you already discovered or you already created?

Neil: Oh, I always plan to come back. My problem – and I’m sure I will –, my problem is that I tend to get distracted. And I tend to get distracted in the way, that on the one hand here is something that I have devoted some years of my life to doing, I know how to do it. I learned how to do it. There’s an audience of tens of millions of people around the world who are waiting for it. And on the other hand here is something I’ve never done before, that nobody cares about, that nobody is interested in. And I will head over here every time.
You know, I am very lucky. Mostly I’m lucky. Sometimes it works and it works beautifully. While we were talking about ocean being a commercial novel. I didn’t expect that. I thought it was gonna be one of those nice things, that publishers bring out. That they basically bring out to keep the author happy. And I thought it would be a few peoples favourite book. I didn’t think of it as a commercial book. I thought it would be, like the sort of “A book between commercial books”. You know the, “The Graveyard book” was a huge bestseller, I figured, probably the next novel that im gonna write would be a big you know one of those thick things..

Stefan: Would you be allowed already to say what it is about or is this still…?

Neil: Not yet, cause I don’t wanna jinx it, but it will be a thick thing. And I thought this was gonna be this little thing in between. And I was wrong.

BP: You’re also very busy on twitter I’ve seen.

Neil: Yup.

You are also very engaged in social aspects or social questions, you’ve been talking to refugees from Syria.

Yeah. In fact I am really proud that today a film that we made of me in Syria went live. And I got to actually push it out to the world. I just do something people could see, could watch, could experience. Could see what it was like for me. And what my experience was compressed.

BP: You've been in Syria?

Neil: I’ve been in Jordan. I’ve been in the Syrian refugee camps. They wouldn’t actually let me go into Syria. They like having me alive. I am fortunate in that I have a megaphone. I don’t have the kind of head that Charles Dickens had or that my friend Richard Curtis has now. Where they will go “This is a huge social issue.”, I will write a piece of drama about it. It will get people engaged. And I think Richard Curtiss' film “The girl in the café” is one of the most brilliant things that anyone’s ever done. It’s about the G8 summit and some piece of drama about that G8 summit and somebody changing their mind. About the relationship between rich countries and poor countries and what your meant to be doing with the money. I couldn’t write that. I couldn’t go “I have an issue here”. But what I can do is say, 'I have a megaphone. I have a soapbox' and I can stand on my soapbox and I can shout into my megaphone. Two million people will hear it on Twitter. Half a million people will hear it on Facebook. I can get out there in the world and I can make a noise. And so there are things that I feel strongly about. Libraries, censorship, education, stories and refugees. It’s probably a few more. I cannot do everything. But I can use my soapbox and my megaphone to try to do some good in the world.

BP: That’s great.

Neil: Thanks. I don’t have any other option. I figured that, you know. You get to be here once, you get to try and leave the world in whatever ways you can a better place, a more interesting place than you found it. I’m using my ways.
But I’m really proud of the little film we made. And Amanda did a piano soundtrack for it and it's just gorgeous.

BP: Can we see that, the movie on youtube?

Neil: Yep! You can see on youtube. It’s up there now. (Shows a part of the film on his smartphone)
We decided not using the terrible really horrible nightmare stories, we just did some sort of a…

Could it be that this experience inspires you for literary work?

Sure. I'm sure it will. What tends to happen with me is things get in there like grains of sand to an oyster and they just irritate. And then slowly you wind up coating them with a story and then you give that story back to the world. And I'm sure that the the refugee things, this refugee issues will remain real. Cause they are. And they're not going away. We have more refugees right now in the world than at any time since the end of world war two. Which is ridiculous. You know we've had, like that film says, over three million refugees from Syria. That doesn't even count internally displaced people. That’s people who've gone over the border. That’s not people who gone “We can’t live here, let’s go there.”
Syrian people love Syria. It’s fascinating to me. It’s not like those people who go “you know, I hated it in my land so we left.' Its like “no, we loved it”. 'We, we stayed as long as we could. I had a life, I had a job, I had a house. It wasn’t until there was no job, there was no life, they drove tanks through the village and there was now no water and no electricity …, there was no food and they mined the fields and we were reduced to eating dogs and cats and I was pulling leaves off the trees and boiling them to try and give my children something and the only water that we could get was from the swamp and we'd have to let it sit, to let the black stuff go out and then try and boil it so it maybe wouldn’t kill us'. And you’re just going “Okay, I get why you are left, why you sold your house.” Sometimes the only thing people take with them is the front door key. And sometimes they take the front door key and there's no house to go back to by the time they go back.
So yes, I am sure it will go into the fiction, because it does.

BP: I’ve read the book “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers. And there is also a guy from Syria. In the main part. He was talking about that all cultures coming form this part of the world.

Yeah, the Fertile Crescent, You know, we start there. One of the biggest saddest things going on right now is the huge archaeological destruction.

I just get the info, that we should slowly come to an end, because the next ones are waiting. Thank you for that interview.

Neil: I thank you.

 All Photos by Michael Seirer (c).

Neil Gaiman, our interview in 2014