FRAGILE THINGS: an interview with Neil Gaiman

by Eric Lorberer

photo by Jayson Wold

When last we sat down with the prolific Neil Gaiman, he had just published American Gods, a novel that introduced his already acclaimed storytelling skills to the realms of bestsellerdom. Since then he's released an astonishing array of work, including the young adult novel Coraline, the graphic novels 1602 and The Sandman: Endless Nights, the radio drama Two Plays for Voices, the short film A Short Film About John Bolton, the novel Anansi Boys, and, with longtime collaborator Dave McKean, the children's book The Wolves in the Walls and the feature length film Mirrormask.

Never one to rest, Gaiman has written the script for the eagerly anticipated film Beowulf, is currently writing The Eternals for Marvel Comics, and had two new releases this fall, giving us plenty to talk about. Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders (William Morrow, $26.95) is a collection of 31 (or 32, if you find the "hidden track") stories and poems, a delightful showcase for Gaiman's ability to range widely along the fantasy-postmodernity continuum; the book contains everything from genre pastiches to a strange conversation between the months of the year. The Absolute Sandman Volume 1 (DC/Vertigo, $99) is a lavish hardcover omnibus of the first 20 issues of Gaiman's groundbreaking comic book series The Sandman; with a bevy of "extras" (including Gaiman's astonishingly in-depth proposal for the series) and with dramatic recoloring for this edition, the book is a fitting celebration of a title that thunderously displayed the vast literary potential of the comics medium.

An excerpt of this interview was published in the Winter 2006/2007 print edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books.

Eric Lorberer: I love the theme of fragility in the new book . . .

Neil Gaiman: Thank you! I love the fact that I have a publisher who would actually let me take a theme all the way from the design of the dust jacket into the heart of the book for a short story collection.

EL: Did you participate in the jacket design?

NG: Oh yes. I said I wanted the transparent paper that's been cursed by librarians and booksellers all over America. My editor Jennifer Brail and I sort of free-associated on fragile things we wanted on the cover. The only thing that I think didn't work as well as it could have done is the butterfly; we hadn't realized until we actually saw the whole thing finished that you sort of lose the brokenness—you fail to see that it's a dead butterfly on broken wings.

EL: Yes, it pretties up from the transparency. Of course, everyone will remove the dust jacket and investigate what's under there.

NG: That's true. And I got my Little Nemo panel in the frontispiece . . .

EL: I noticed! You know, it's partly the result of the time we live in, but the history of comics seems to be informing so much work right now.

NG: Part of that is, as you say, the time we live in, in that it's now available—I tell people now that this is the golden age, and they don't believe me. But I remember when if you wanted to read an old comic you had to hunt for it a bit. If you wanted to read Little Nemo, you couldn't because it wasn't there, or if you wanted to read some Krazy Kat, there was maybe one old Krazy Kat collection from the early '70s, and you were going to have to find that thing. These days everything's in print, everything's available.

EL: And more coming out by the month: The Complete PeanutsDennis the Menace, everything . . .

NG: Yes! I feel guilty—do you have the Peanuts collections? I keep buying them but I haven't read them yet.

EL: I love them—they're fun to plow through and see that whole world we know so well develop from scratch . . .

NG: I remember what it was like to read Peanuts anthologies; I would read them out on the grass during school sports events where it was compulsory to go. You know, a cricket game would be going on and I'm just lying in the grass reading Peanuts. Now I have these giant anthologies and I should be doing the same thing: I should be going and lying out in the grass somewhere and reading these Peanuts.

EL: Highly recommended. But back to your "anthology'" . . . it's a great reminder of how storytelling is really your highest value no matter what shape the work takes, but it made me wonder, especially in the wake of the novels, whether you work different things out in short form versus long.

NG: Yes, I think you do. If writing a novel is a year's exile to a foreign country, writing a short story is a weekend spent somewhere exotic. They're much more like vacations, more exciting and different, and you're off. "Look at me, I'm writing something that I will finish by tea time!" Having said that, there are some stories, like "Sun Bird," which took about two and a half years to write. And then there are stories in there, like "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," which basically I went off grumpily down to the bottom of the garden at about 11:00 in the morning and came back at about 5:00 in the afternoon with a finished short story. So both kinds of stories exist. But there's definitely a feeling with a short story that it's pure story telling. You're not really worried about theme. You're not going to stay with these characters long enough to live your life with them. And you have different kinds of relationships with them. There are characters in some short stories who exist as people, and there are other characters in different short stories who exist as purely literary constructs. You know, the young man in "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire"—I probably got that right—is a literary construct, and enjoys being a literary construct. He has no life off stage, whereas the young men in "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" were as near to being real human beings as I could possibly get them.

EL: Another interesting thing is that a lot of these stories seem to be penned by invitation: somebody is asking you for something. How does that affect the process?

NG: It adds an interesting level of desperation. In about fifteen days time I have to hand in a 900-word ghost story to the New York Times for their Halloween edition. I have no idea what I want to say in a ghost story; it's not like I have any ghost stories sitting in my head desperately needing to be told. On the other hand, little engines have started clicking in the back of my head. What ghost-story ideas have I had over the years that I've never really explored, and also what concerns me right now? I would never be so crass—well I might be actually, because I can be crass—but I would never really want to be so crass as to say, Okay, I think the war in Iraq is stupid, I think they went in on unverifiable and mistaken premises and have done nothing but make everything significantly worse, therefore I want to write a story about that—but I could definitely see that being a concern, somehow feeding into what I write, even if the only person who can see the connection is me. Also, what's a 900-word story? At most we're looking at four pages of text. Therefore you have the kind of story—there's one in Fragile Things called "Other People"—which is almost a joke, a short short. It goes in, it does its job, and it gets out again. But I don't want to do a short short, I don't want to do something that feels insufficient, which means that I have to do something that's really compressed. How do I do something that is compressed but still has emotional weight? I have no idea. I may completely fuck up and fifteen days from now I may not have a story to hand in. But right now all I'm doing in the back of my head is chewing it over as a set of problems—and they're really good problems for a writer to have. If you give a writer a pile of blank paper and say you can write anything you like on any subject you want at any length you want, you will probably never get anything at all, whereas if you have 900 words to write, and it's fiction that is somehow op-ed fiction, and it needs to tie in with Halloween . . . okay, those are my constraints, that's where I now need to start building something.

EL: Doing something for the New York Times gives you a certain picture of an audience. Do you think about audience when you are doing other things or things for yourself?

NG: I don't think I do think of audience. I might think of audience just in terms of age. And the Times audience presupposes a certain level of literacy. But no, I can't imagine there would be any real change. I don't know. It's this weird implicit. The only big difference is you're writing for somebody who didn't pick it up to read you—this is somebody on the subway, this is somebody in a taxi, this is somebody sitting at their desk, this is somebody on a plane, and they're just reading the Times because they're reading the Times. They didn't buy it to read me. They also probably didn't buy it in the expectation that they were going to be forced to re-read something—so I probably would try and write something that would deliver most of what it had on a first reading. In Fragile Things I have at least one short story, "Bitter Grounds," which really doesn't give up very much on a first reading. If you go back to the beginning and start again, figures of speech or whatever will start assuming significance and the whole shape of the story and who the hero is and what's going on will change.

EL: You talked earlier about going down to the garden to write, and I know you write a lot while you travel. Can you write anywhere?

NG: Yes. But it's easier to write somewhere where there isn't much of an Internet.

EL: Fewer places like that these days.

NG: I know. Anywhere that I can't check my email is a good place to write!

EL: There were a few stories in Fragile Things I found particularly intriguing. I really loved the ones for the Tori Amos albums . . .

NG: Oh, good! They've been getting odd reviews; one review said, "it was a great short story collection apart from the poems and the Tori Amos-related nonsense." I thought, well, at least one of those Tori Amos related nonsense pieces was picked up for a Best of the Year Anthology, so it can't be total nonsense.

EL: No, no! In fact, I bet this wasn't the one that was picked up, but the one for Strange Little Girls is very hermetic, very dense, very complicated, and yet utterly fascinating if you know the album, since it's a covers album that tries to reinterpret these very male songs from different kinds of female points of view. And then your fictions add another level of interpretation. I wondered how that worked—how involved were you with Tori's process?

NG: I was involved with Strange Little Girls more than any other Tori Amos album, in that I was one of the people who suggested songs, and I was actually the person who went off to the toilet while we were picking songs and came back with a Cindy Sherman anthology saying we could do this... and then I think it was Tori who said I should write a short story for each of them. So I did. And I loved, again, the weird and wonderful constraints of writing short stories, some of which were really short: you're looking at 100-word pen portraits of fictional women. I think my favorite of them is "Raining Blood," where you're given two contrasting lives and you can pick. Really I just loved the idea of just creating something where each short story is a person and it's just a little fragile moment. Again, these fragile things.

EL: So were these different personas coming from both of you or . . .

NG: No, they were her. After I came up with the Cindy Sherman idea, she went off with her makeup artist and then sent me photographs of these women—she had an idea of who was singing each song. So the photos would come in and I would sit there and go, I know your story and I know your story . . . you I want to talk to and find out what's going on with you! Sometimes I had a different point of view to hers, and that's fine. I'd write my story anyway.

EL: You also have stories set in the world of The Matrix, Sherlock Holmes . . . do you like playing in other people's—

NG: Sandboxes? Actually that's what it feels like. Playing in other people's backyards. The Matrix was sort of an invitation before there ever was a Matrix; the film had been made but it hadn't been shown. It was one of those odd, funny, weird moments where somebody phones you up and says they've done a movie and will you write a short story about it for their website. And I thought I was being really clever because I didn't really want to write a story about somebody movie for a web site, so I told my agent that I would happily do it for a ridiculous amount of money—and I thought I named an amount of money so ridiculous that they would say, Oops, sorry, that's our entire budget. Instead, they said great—you've got three weeks! I thought, Oh damn! Then I thought we should have asked them for twice the amount of money. But then I had my idea for the story, and I loved my idea. And I even got to write—I had read the script for The Matrix and there were a couple of things that hadn't quite made sense for me, so I sort of tried to change them a bit: instead of human beings being used as batteries, for example, I had them used for information processing, brains hung out in parallel which seemed, somehow, to make a little more sense.

EL: Possibly my favorite piece in the book is "The Problem of Susan," a beautiful, beautiful story. I'm fascinated on a couple of levels. I love how you take Lewis to task in it, but I also think it's a kind of dissertation about how we process children's literature.

NG: Right—I think people who read that story as Neil telling off C. S. Lewis are kind of missing the point; people who talk about it being about how we process children's literature are closer to it. The actual problem of Susan in the C. S. Lewis books is a moment that I find deeply problematic . . . you have this weird moment that just seems wrong. And if you're a kid and you run into that you're going, No, no, that's not right. She was a queen of Narnia. Once a queen of Narnia always a queen of Narnia, she must know that. Yet, just by dint of liking invitations to parties and lipstick and nylons, she's being forbidden paradise. And then there's this point where you grow up and you go, so hang on, let me get this right: everybody else is killed in a train crash, the entire family is killed except for her, and what does that mean? I was shown some reply by C. S. Lewis to some kid saying, that wasn't fair what you did to Susan. And he said, Ah she still has time. She's back on earth. She's not dead yet. So that gave me the idea of creating a professor who had been inspired by Susan's character and basing it around her, and talking about how we relate to children's literature and what children's literature means. What sexuality means in terms of children's literature. What being an adult means. What it would mean to have to go and identify these bodies. All of that stuff.

Plus it was enormously fun for me. One of the moments in the Narnia books that I've always found oddest is Pauline Baynes's illustration of Aslan in conversation with the White Witch in the very first book, because he's standing up on his hind legs with his forepaws behind his back, and they're off talking. That's a very strange thing for a lion to be doing. It seems to me that one of the most interesting things about God as a concept, if you decide to believe in God, is that God's ways are unknowable. And God obviously, look at the world around you, does or is responsible for some terrible, terrible, awful things. A young girl kidnapped and kept in the darkness and sexually abused. The deaths of six million Jews. A mudslide that buries a village. All of these things. If God is doing the good stuff, he's got to be doing that stuff too. If people are standing up there saying, my football team just won with help from God, then obviously God just pissed over the other team. So I'm thinking about that and this analogy running through the Narnia books, the idea that Aslan is the incarnation of God and he's not a tame lion, everyone keeps saying he's not a tame lion . . . except that he is a tame lion! He's really nice! He doesn't kill anybody, except possibly some really evil witches who kind of deserve it. Lions, generally, especially not tame lions, are not people you want to go off with, because they could eat you. They can turn on you and they can make life really, really bad for you.

EL: They won't keep their paws behind their backs.

NG: They're not people—they're lions and they're dangerous! It's worth remembering that Gods, whether they exist or not, are not tame either. And that's one of the other things I wanted the story to be about, the idea that there is an untamed thing. Somehow I thought I could get that all into a short story, and I'm glad it worked for you. I wanted it to be problematic, I wanted you to reach the end of that story and for it to itch. I like the fact that you can find essays online that are replies to that story; I like that academics have started using that story as a basis for papers, because that story, if it's successful, should irritate. It should get under your skin and be something that needs scratching.

EL: Another recent book that problematizes our relationship to children's literature is Alan Moore's Lost Girls (reviewed in our Fall 2006 Online Edition). I'm about to make us feel old because it's probably a couple decades ago, but I remember an interview in which you praised a book that I also liked quite a lot, an academic study by Linda Williams called Hard Core. I wondered if that paraliterary genre, the pornographic, was something that you ever—

NG: —wanted to explore? I'd love to write some porn, but I don't know if I have the right engines. When I was a young man and I was tempted to write porn, imaginary parents would appear over my shoulder and read what I was writing; just about the point that I managed to banish the imaginary parents, real children would lean over my shoulder and read what I was writing. Being English, the one pornographic story I that have written—called "Tastings" in Smoke and Mirrors, the story collection before this—was deeply embarrassing. It took about four years to write: I would write a page, stop, exit that document with my ears burning and my face red, and then it would be six or eight months before I'd go back and write another page. There's also a little bit of sex in a story called "How Do You Think It Feels Up There?" But I love the idea of writing sex, and I think Alan found a really good model in Victorian porn. There was a period when I was reviewing porn as a book reviewer—I was reviewing everything, but porn was one of the things I was reviewing—and Victorian porn was far and away my favorite. You knew that if a book was written by Anonymous and had a title like "The Oyster" it was going to be fun, because Victorian pornography was just cooler. There was so much societal repression and yet the porn was fun and kinky in all sorts of really odd and interesting ways. The last time I was actually in a hotel and flicked up a porn movie, there was this horrible feeling that these people were really just going through the motions. They had their list of twelve things that had to happen, and they were just ticking them off, and it was joyless.

EL: Well, hotel porn is the lowest common denominator, in that it strives to be pleasing for everybody.

NG: I know. But joyless hotel porn! I think for me, it would be more fun to try and write a really good porn movie than it would be to do a porn comic or even a novel—although the joy of doing porn in prose, in truth, is that people do so much more of the work in their heads than they think they do. There are people who have taken me to task for writing an explicitly sexual scene in Stardust—which doesn't exist, but they bring enough of themselves to that scene that they read it as hardcore porn. There are a couple of scenes in American Gods that I've been told off for as well. One of the most interesting is a supposedly hardcore gay sex scene between a taxi driving Ifrit and an Arabic salesman in New York. And again, I look at it and I think that's really not hardcore sex—you're bringing yourself to it to make it hardcore. Which is one of those things people can do much more with prose than they can with anything illustrative or in film.

I found my biggest problem with Lost Girls simply to be, at the end of the day, the Robin Williams paradox: he pointed out that human males have enough blood to run either an erection or a brain, but not both. And I kept finding myself loving Lost Girls because it was Alan Moore, because it was so dense, because it was so brilliant . . . I was running the brain the entire time. It was not a one-handed read; it was much more like Whoa, there's ten eight-page chapters, and this one is reflective of that, which thematically has this going on, and now it's becoming a meta-fictional construct in which fictional characters are discussing pornographic fictional characters doing things that are obscene and illegal, and yet do not actually exist. Oh my god, this is so cool!

EL: Two people who have pulled it off in recent years, I think, are Chip Delany of course, and also Nicholson Baker in The Fermata. Have you read that?

NG: Oh, I'm intimately familiar with that book—I wrote a film script for The Fermata for Robert Zemeckis! That is a fascinating book, taking a 13-year-old's masturbatory fantasy and then creating it into an adult sexual experience. Chip Delany, I have to say from a pornographic point of view, I read it as science fiction. I loved The Mad Man, for example, but you read it as if he's turned on by flowers—it's not only gay sex, but it's really dirty gay sex, dirty in the sense of unwashed and grimy. Okay, I can understand that for the person writing this, this is erotica, but for me...

EL: Well, that book is more about transgression than arousal. But they really work as pieces of writing.

NG: They're magnificent pieces of writing! I think that if I really were going to try and do pornography, what would fascinate me about that would be walking that fine line between . . . I remember once—I wish I knew what it was called because I don't—but about 16 years ago, on a book tour, there was some porno movie on—this was back when they used to have little TV top units to flip through the channels, and you would get five minutes of the movie free before the scramble. I didn't even know it was a porno movie, it was just the most interesting looking thing on. So I pressed the pay button and carried on watching it and kept getting really irritated when these characters would stop the plot to fuck, because I was actually interested in the plot—the fucking was getting in the way. I think the challenge is creating something, as Baker did in The Fermata very brilliantly, where the sex is intrinsic—where you never feel that you're stopping something because of the sex. Everything has to be intrinsic plot-wise in the same way, to use the Linda Williams analogy but to move it on a bit, as musicals—in old musicals, like in an old Cole Porter musical, you get the action, then they do a song, which reflects a moment—everything stops while that is being sung—and then you restart. These days in most musicals, the plot keeps moving through the song. I think it would be nice if someone constructed some pornography where the sex continues to propel you through the story.

EL: Maybe a pornographic musical?

NG: Who knows?

EL: Let's talk about your comics for a bit. I know you still have your hand in the game . . .

NG: Yes, I'm doing a comic right now called The Eternals.

EL: Are you intentionally keeping active in the field despite the lure of writing prose, or . . . ?

NG: I was very uncomfortable with the way that some people, particularly journalists who like very, very simple stories, were starting to view my move from comics to films to best-selling novels . . . it was resembling those little evolutionary maps too much, where you see the fish, and then it can walk, and then it's an ape and then it gets up on its hind legs and finally it is a man. I didn't like that. I didn't like the fact that there was something rather amphibious about me—at least in their heads—back when I was writing comics. So I like continuing to write comics, if only because it points out that I haven't just started to walk upright or left the water. Actually I don't think it's any kind of progression. It's just a different kind of story told in a different kind of way.

Absolute Sandman

EL: Are you still looking to find challenges there?

NG: I'm very accepting now of the fact that I'm not trying nor do I particularly want to do something on the scale of Sandman. I already did Sandman1602 was fun, because I got to go, okay, as a kid I loved what Stan and Jack did. I wanted to give some of that amount of fun to people and give me some of that fun back. With The Eternals it's much more—okay, I love Jack Kirby, I love even the barking mad Kirby, and I've always wanted to do something with Kirby characters. A really cool thing about The Eternals is that Jack never really got to finish it, and then it got badly incorporated into the Marvel universe. The guys at Marvel came to me to ask if I could fix it, could I at least try to take what Jack did and incorporate it slightly better into the Marvel universe so these characters had value. I thought that's a fun challenge, sure!

EL: People sometimes say, when they see our graphic novel coverage—

NG: I love your graphic novel coverage by the way.

EL: Thank you! It gladdens me because I think a lot of non-graphic novel readers are interested in the medium and want to learn more about it, but they feel a bit daunted by it . . . our feeling is that these are just interesting books, as worth reading as any others.

NG: That's so funny because the reason I went into comics was much the other way around: I looked at the world of books and just went, Oh my gosh, if I'm writing novels, I'm on the same shelves as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and Petronius—whereas with comics, they've only been doing them for a hundred years, and there's stuff that nobody's done before. I think I'll go off and do some of the stuff no one's ever done before.

EL: One of those things was obviously Sandman—newly celebrated in The Absolute Sandman Volume 1. One of the neat "extras" contained therein are some of your original sketches . . . do you often draw out your ideas when writing comics?

NG: Yes, but normally no one gets to see them but me—they're not actually done for other people to see!

EL: Well, it's fun they were included here. The book also presents your detailed script for the award-winning issue "A Midsummer Night's Dream"—an amazing piece of writing. In the middle of the script, you suddenly have this moment of self-reflection, saying, "This is a fascinating comic to write . . . either it'll work really well, or it'll be a major disaster." What was your sense of the risks you were taking at the time?

NG: I have to say that I am somebody who quite likes major disasters! That was my feeling yesterday—I got to see a raw version of Beowulf, which won't be out for a year. I said either this was going to be the biggest movie of next year or it's going to be one of those things people compare to Ishtar. Either way, I'm very, very happy.

EL: And luckily Elaine May's other films are pretty great.

NG: They are! In fact I almost saw Ishtar the other day, because I've never actually seen it. I know it's supposed to be a heinous disaster.

EL: I'm in the same boat. But back to the book: besides all the fun extras the issues have been recolored, and the result is really dazzling—was this done simply for technical reasons, or to suit some vision that hadn't made it into the original series?

NG: It was done mostly because we were never happy with the early coloring, but there was no way to fix things back then. It was also done because stuff that looked okay printed on absorbent paper with the technology we had in 1988 looked progressively worse as time went on—you know, the books have now been in print for 20 years, and we are now printing on these amazing presses on glossy white paper.

EL: It looks fantastic. One last question for you, Neil: at the start of the interview I mentioned how Fragile Things made me realize what an important theme fragility was in your earliest work—which Absolute Sandman absolutely confirms. Has revisiting these early issues caused you to have any new thoughts or realizations about the work?

NG: It's very, very strange. Reading The Sandman opus again, it really felt . . . like it was done by somebody else. In many ways, for the first time ever, I wasn't reading it thinking what was in my head when I wrote this, I was just reading what was on the paper—which you don't get to do often. The main thing I wound up feeling was that it was very much . . . how do I put this? . . . that Sandman was very much part of the oeuvre. Occasionally I run into people who've just read my novels, and they'll talk as if that's the only thing I do, and I'll think, Well, actually, Sandman isn't that at all, and it's the biggest thing I've ever done—it was two thousand pages long, there's a million words of writing there—so if you really want to understand what I write, you need to read it. So part of the joy of doing Absolute Sandman now is getting it into a shape I feel comfortable putting in front of people. And I'm really pleased about the reaction to Sam Keith's art. People are saying, Oh, I hadn't realized the level of cartooning, the level of what he was actually doing . . . and I'm thinking, well of course you didn't realize it, because there was a big wad of flat purple across it!

Click here to purchase  Fragile Things at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Absolute Sandman Vol. 1 at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007