Q&A With Neil Gaiman

So here is the transcript of my interview with Neil Gaiman from 2009. Some things that weren’t happening back then: it wasn’t out that he was dating Amanda Palmer (they’re since married), I hadn’t reviewed the novel he wrote after his dad died (which I liked), and I think I’d talked to him on one other occasion, which I didn’t record. This was a weird recording because he was nice enough to chat while he was on the Acela from D.C. (where his son was at school) to Boston (where his wife-to-be lived), which is notorious among politicians, journalists and now at least one really gifted fantasy writer for spotty cell service. I like Gaiman a lot, personally and professionally. His body of work is formidable and he was incredibly nice despite what (you will soon see) are some obvious attempts to impress a guy I’ve admired since I was about 12. That’s honestly probably the reason I haven’t published this before—it’s a little embarrassing. But people like Neil G. and I like him too, so here it is. The occasion of this interview was the musical adaptation of his book Coraline, which got (unfairly, I thought) creamed, critically speaking. It was done with a prepared piano and a bunch of other interesting things you can read about in the (drastically and infuriatingly reduced in size after I’d filed it for some stupid reason or other) feature I wrote on the show. So I got like three quotes from this great interview in it, although to be fair we spend a lot of time going on and on about stuff that is in no way related to the show.

So: you’re a graphic novel writer, a novelist, a short story writer, and now a theater… impresario. What do you actually do?

Well, you’ve left several out. Everybody in the world; I am whatever I was the first time they met me, or the first time they encountered my work. The Theater Impresario is certainly kind of amusing, and the way Coraline has become a wonderful thing on its own that’s gone through so many different incarnations is kind of glorious.

It’s been through a bunch of different media, all of which have very different constraints. It’s not like it’s a short story and then a slightly longer story – it’s a graphic novel, and then animated film, and now a theater piece. Are you looking for a perfect fit, or are just an interesting interpretation?

No, I like the interpretations. I had a lot of conversations with people when we were doing out there on the road for the film; and they would ask me about Coraline and they’d say is this the perfect version? Have you got it right? And I’d say, no, it’s a wonderful version, but it’s no more THE version than the stage play will be. The stage play is awesome! The stage play is marvelous! One of the things that delights me in it is that there were people who grumbled to me about how faithful or otherwise the film was; and I can point to the stage play and say, on the one hand, this is completely faithful to the book. THey used the book as the bible; it was their ur-text. On the other hand, you have to come to terms with a world in which Coraline is played by a 50-year-old lady. Miss Spink and Forcible – one of them is obviously being played by a man. And I love that! THe idea that what it’s exploring is what theater does, which is the use of the imagination, and that something is what you say it is. And that’s the magic of theater – the magic of film is a completely different magic; the magic of film is the magic of actually conjuring something before somebody’s eyes and asking them to see it and believe it.

Whereas theater asks you to deny the evidence of your eyes for the sake of the story.

Well, theater allows you to imagine – you walk onto the stage and say, “Well, it’s been a long trip to Australia,” and you’re in Australia, and that’s the magic of theater.

What is it that you think makes this story so renewable from medium to medium?

I don’t know! And it’s not as if – I had a conversation when the film was first coming out, with somebody, and they said, did you… [drops out]

It wouldn’t have taken me ten years to write if I’d known it was going to be this amazing thing, but it was the story I was writing for my daughters, and it’s the saying about how the cobbler’s children have no shoes – it was always the least important thing.

And that’s why it took so long to write?

Well, nobody was waiting for it. It wasn’t until there were people waiting for it, essentially, that it moved into a placed where I got serious about finishing it – and that was really hard, because nobody believed it was commercial. Even my agent, who is the smartest lady I know and this wonderful person I’m delighted to get to work with, said “Well, it’s obviously not really for children, is it?” And I said, well, actually I think it is, and she said, “But it scared me!” and I said, well, yeah, but I think it’s still for kids, and I said, look, I’ll make you a deal: You read it to your kids, and if it’s too scary for them we’ll give it to the adult section of Harpers and if they do like it – which I thought they would, because mine had – we’ll give it to HarperChildrens. And because Merilee’s daughters liked it, it got published as a children’s book.

That’s very funny. I mean, some of the books I loved as a kid just scared me beyond imagination as an adult – I went back and read the Last Battle as an adult and it was just terrifying.

It is!

Even the Roald Dahl books are pretty scary.

The Roald Dahl books are amazingly scary. I think what is interesting about all this is the first point when I thought that we might have seriously done something right moviewise was the point where I saw the review in the New York Times where they said, “this is a very scary film for children, and that is a good thing.” And I thought “Somebody gets it!” We’re not meant to do this bad Disney sanitizing children’s thing – the whole point of children’s fiction is not that you can safely lead children in front of a screen without them ever being in danger of running into an idea or indeed of ever being troubled, but that they would understand that if they’re going up against something – you don’t paint visions of an impossibly hospitable world for children. You tell them that there are monsters out there, that there are scary things, and that those scary things can be defeated. Send them out into the world with hope.

That’s a wonderful message to come away with if you’re a kid. The graveyard book certainly presents that world to kids – do you want to keep on doing that kind of thing?

Well, to me, the joy of the Graveyard Book is not that it’s a scary book. It’s not hard to scare. I mean, writing – you don’t want to sound patronizing to horror writers who work incredibly hard to scare people, but it’s not that hard to scare people in fiction, or it’s not for me. What I like doing tends to be much less scaring people in fiction, and much more using the tropes and the techniques of horror to give them something new.

Stephen King has a whole thing about that.

He’s such a wise man.

He really is. He said – I think I’m remembering this right – that he really wants horror, and if he cant’ get horror he’ll go for terror, and if he can’t get terror, he’ll go for the gross-out.

Exactly, which is very Steve, but which is not what I do. WHat motivates me is the absolute – there’s a wonderful quote by Ogden Nash, a mostly forgotten American Poet –

Oh, no, I know Ogden Nash. ‘A panther is like a leopard except it hasn’t been peppered…’

Exactly. And there’s a poem – I think it’s “Mermaids Are Too Seldom” is the name of the poem, but it’s just a line: “Monsters Are Too Seldom.” And I think that’s the thing – the monsters and the miracles are incredibly close together. And I think for most kids, if you give them the story of Coraline, they aren’t going to be looking around for mysterious magical doors to avoid, they’re going to be looking for mystierious magical doors to go through.

And I guess you create bolder adults. 

It’s obviously not true that fiction has no effect on people – it does, especially fiction read as a kid. I got through scary and unpleasant situations as a kid sometimes by pretending I was you know, a character from a book, and the kind of character who got through things like that by behaving bravely.

You have that story about the kid who dreams he’s the Eternal Champion.

Yeah, that was very me.

Yeah, me too. Except I wasn’t reading Eternal Champion, more Robert Heinlein. Uh, back to the play, I guess… how was the process here different than Wolves in the Walls?

Oh, Wolves in the Walls I worked on. I was there from the word Go, I was discussing it, and i would go away from time to time, because I didn’t live in Scotland and it was easier and cheaper for them to bring me in only when they needed me. But I was also as I say, writing lyrics and directly involved with the play. WIth this it was very much a matter of going, OK, Stephin, this is yours. My single contribution to the play was huge, but not really the kind of contribution people really thing of, because my real contribution was making it happen. There was a point, as with all of these things, that when the film rights were sold originally, so were the musical theater rights. And they went off as a package. And there was a point some years ago where the option to Coraline the movie was due to expire. I was obviously – so before we get to that, the option was due to expire. there were lots of people swimming around Coraline at that point, becuase it had become a bestseller between that time and the time it had been published. And Bill Mechanic and Henry Selick did not have a deal for it yet, but they I think were hoping to put a deal in place.

How did the Coraline musical come about?

The book was published in 2002; the contract was signed in Feb. 2001, so the book was optioned 14 months before it was published. But anyway, the option was due to expire, and they came to me eight months off or something like that. And rule one of movies is that you don’t give free options, ever, under any circumstances, and you especially don’t do it when there are people swimming around it going we want it, we want it, we’ll pay real money! And I really wanted it with Henry, but I also wanted the Stephin Merritt musical, so I said to them, I will give you a free option if you will give me back the musical theater rights free and clear. That would have been about four and a half, five years ago.

Whose idea was that?

It originally started with Claudia Gonson, who is the Magnetic Fields keyboards player and singer and also Stephin’s manager, and she loved Coraline and told Stephin he had to do it. I believe Stephin had fallen in love with the Wolves in the Walls and was heartbroken that I’d sold the rights on to National Theater of Scotland as an opera. She was the one who said, you guys do Coraline. But at the time that was impossible because the rights were all tied up, but as soon as they got free, within minutes, they’d done the option and they were away.

How has the movie development process been for you?

It’s been very painless. My attitude was very much that I was going to let them do their thing in much the way I’d let Henry and his collaborators do their thing. I loved the collaborative process, but I also really enjoy the thing where you find somebody amazingly talented to do your stuff. It’s just as attractive in a very different kind of way.

Have you been more deeply involved in the musical?

No, I would hear reports back mostly through Claudia of who they wanted to work with. This was Stephin’s project. This was the thing that he was going to do. I loved Stephin’s songs, I loved his music, my novel American Gods was written to “69 Love Songs” played over and over.

I really liked Distortion.

I wasn’t sure about “Distortion” until I’d heard it live, and then I realized that it’s just a Magnetic Fields album under all that.

“Coraline” is a book for kids; is the show for kids?

From what I’ve seen – I’ve seen the first half – I had to go to a PEN gala and leave. I saw half of it and had to leave. Yes I think it is. It’s also for adults. It’s definitely for Neil Gaiman fans and it’s definitely for Stephin Merritt fans. It has an awesome kind of – it’s really cool imaginative theater. I think the reviews are going to be incredibly impressive. You’re going to have kids and adults seeing different shows.

[No idea what this question was, sorry.]

I have, because I felt incredibly guilty after – things keep getting adapted. Mr. Punch in LA won various awards, Wolves in the Walls won a whole crop of awards; Stephin and I had a week in March where we talked about an original play. We talked about an original musical. So I um, I will let you know what happens on that. I have to keep writing it. The truth is I really love live theater. Live theater has a magic. Things that are completely unique. And the prospect of writing for live theater completely terrifies me.

We will go, we will write it, we will have a ridiculous amount of fun together, and then we’ll go see if anyone else likes it and wants to put it on.

What else are you working on right now?

I just published my last Batman story.

I liked that, by the way.

Thank you! I just wanted it to be, you know, a decent Last Batman story.

Right now I’m working on an antibodies movie script for Akiva Goldsman over at Warners, which I’m very very late on, and they’ve been the soul of forgiveness and loveliness on. I don’t know if they’re going to continue to be the soul of forgiveness and loveliness, frankly. And I’m starting work on my next book, which is a nonfiction book about China, and I’ve got some short stories to write, and obviously the most fun that I’ve got right now is that the currently only available through the internet and not even currently available through the internet book “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” Lots of short stories by me, and lots of photographs of Amanda Palmer dead, and very often naked, which obviously is going to be a huge sales drawback.

I can’t imagine anyone moving copies of that.

Amanda has her kit off, but really you should buy it anyway.

She’s another one I wish would do a musical.

I would love to drag her into a musical.

She’s got a new project—NPR is doing coverage of it. Are you familiar with the Neutral Milk Hotel album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea?”

Yeah that’s a great record.

Using that album as an inspiration, she has gone back to her high school, Lexington High School, and with the Steve Bogart, who is the drama teacher there, she and Bogart and the kids have developed a musical of “The Aeroplane Over the Sea” of Anne Frank in a concentration camp fantasizing and escaping a concentration camp, while another prisoner in the concentration camp fantasizes about Anne Frank, using those songs and with Amanda playing the piano and playing the character of Death. I adore her.

Are you gonna write for Doctor Who? 

If I was, do you think I would tell you?

I don’t know, but I was hoping you would.

Well, would you like your answer on the record or absolutely off the record?

We can make it absolutely off the record and I will not print it.

 [Yeah, sorry. News came and went but rules is rules. I pushed super hard to get this confirmed separately but it never happened for me. Anyway, we kind of nerd out about Doctor Who from here:]

Steve Moffatt wrote six of the ten best episodes of the last ten years; he wrote girl in the fireplace, he wrote the “silence in the library” two-parter, he wrote “The Empty Child” with the “are you my mummy?” scenes –

That scared the hell out of me!

– and he wrote Blink!

Oh! Blink is the best one!

It may be said to be the best episode in the series.

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is samthielman.com, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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