A life in writing
Neil Gaiman: ‘I like being British. Even when I’m ashamed, I’m fascinated’
The award-winning author on his new book of Norse mythology, Brexit and being an Englishman in New York
Saturday 4 February 2017 08.00 GMT
eil Gaiman wanders into the Crosby Hotel’s colourful parlour in lower Manhattan looking like the Platonic ideal of himself. He’s all wild hair and gracious manners, dressed in a lived-in black wool coat, which he keeps on throughout. He loves this hotel, he says, not least because the concierge writes a comic about Houdini with the former concierge.
Gaiman started out in comics, reading them as a child and eventually writing them too, including his famous Sandman series. So does this happen to him often, his very presence tempting out underground comics enthusiasts all over the globe? “I wish I could say yes. It would be a much more interesting and sort of Pynchon-esque world. But no, it’s just here.”
Gaiman looks a little tired. He has just come from feeding breakfast to his toddler youngest son, the progeny of his second marriage to the singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer. (He has three children with his first wife, Mary McGrath.) His creative life is a whirlwind of projects. The television version of his 2001 novel American Gods is to air in the US in April. He has also been at work on an adaptation of his 1990 collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, for Amazon and the BBC, on which he is serving as showrunner. Meanwhile, there is the matter of writing books, the latest of which is Gaiman’s retelling of Norse myths in the straightforwardly titled Norse Mythology, out this week.
It has clearly been a struggle to find the time. “I would look up every now and again and go, ‘OK, I have a week. Good, I will retell a story.’” These are drawn from the 13th-century source texts for many Norse myths, the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, which he first read in his 30s, after absorbing the superhero stories inspired by them in Marvel comics as a child growing up in West Sussex. With such a haphazard schedule, it has taken around eight years to write the book, the idea for which was first floated by his American editor at Gaiman’s birthday lunch in 2008.
Listing all of Gaiman’s achievements could fill a book on its own. In addition to the comics, he is the author of novels for adults and children including Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He has written original screenplays and seen his work adapted by others, too, such as the 2009 stop-motion version of Coraline. He has been nominated for and won countless awards, including the Hugos, Nebulas and Eisners.
Gaiman’s love of Norse mythology surfaces frequently in his work, not least in American Gods, which captures a battle between Odin and Loki. But in embarking on the retellings in Norse Mythology, Gaiman found himself faced with new limitations, as much information about the gods is missing. “On Greeks and Romans, for example, we have scads of stuff, but the Norse weren’t writing it down,” he explains. “They were telling the stories, so everything we have was written down after the event.” The holes and the contradictions that result from the oral tradition presented creative choices, but he felt an acute responsibility to be faithful to the traditional versions.
“I have to play fair with the Norse scholars and I have to play fair with kids who pick up the book and read it and think they know the stories. And so I may add colour, I may add motivation, I’d go and put in my own dialogue. I may draw inferences,” he says. “All that stuff I’m allowed to do, but I feel like I’m not allowed to just go, ‘OK, there’s a patch of canvas missing here. I’m going to draw something in … ’”
Even so, Gaiman’s personal sensibility is apparent in the text. His affection for Loki, for instance, shines through: “Loki is very handsome. He is plausible, convincing, likable, and far and away the most wily, subtle and shrewd of all the inhabitants of Asgard. It is a pity, then, that there is so much darkness inside him: so much anger, so much envy, so much lust.”
Gaiman attributes his love of Loki to his novelist’s eye. “You always end up fascinated by who changed, and how they change, because the engine of fiction is who are you at the beginning of the story and who are you at the end. Thor, bless his heart, has no narrative arc: he is the same person all the way through. He is not the brightest hammer in the room, but he’s good hearted, and you know he will die at the end, but he dies the same person he’s been all the way through.” In contrast, Loki is both the devil and the saviour of the gods. “Almost every story where they’re in trouble, it’s because Loki got them into it. Also, an awful lot of the time, he’s the only one smart enough to get them out of it.”
He declares “a real joy in passing these things on. It’s like being given something that belongs to humanity and polishing it and cleaning it up and putting it back out there.”
Gaiman’s enthusiasm for myths also extends to the Egyptians and the Greeks. He can reel off similarities between ancient stories, and says he doesn’t just tell the stories, he feels them on some emotional level. “The glory of some of these myths is that they feel right,” he explains, although he also concedes that every now and then “you’ll hit a myth and go, ‘No, I can’t really get behind that. Really, we get licked out of the ice by a cow? OK, if you say so.’” (He’s referring there to the myth of Audhumla, which he includes in Norse Mythology, despite his scepticism.)
As Gaiman wrestled with these stories, he says, he had no idea he was writing a topical book. But then, as political events unfolded in the second half of 2016, he could not help but draw parallels. “For me, it was Ragnarök,” he says, referring to the apocalyptic end of the gods. It begins with a long winter, continues with earthquakes and flooding, and then the sky splits apart.
The view that Brexit and the election of President Trump have brought about chaos and even a sense of impending doom is widely held, but Gaiman’s version of it is particularly eloquent. “I remember the 80s and the nuclear clock and the cold war and Russia and America and [thinking] ‘I hope you guys don’t press buttons and it would be very nice to not live in the shadow of everything ending’,” he says. “But at least at that point, what you were scared of was just one action. Now one is scared of the accretion of a million actions and a million inactions.”
He says there is “a strange kind of magical thinking” afoot and tells me about waking up the morning after Brexit in a hotel in Scotland and checking the result, then having “that sort of moment at the end of Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston sees the Statue of Liberty ... I was going, ‘Oh, no. Are you really … ’”
Gaiman has, in recent years, divided his time between the UK and the US, but he is not an American citizen and has fallen off the electoral roll in the UK, so he wasn’t able to vote in either the Brexit referendum or the US election. “I’m frustrated not being able to vote over here,” he says. “I’m like, well, I pay lots of taxes to the US and the UK, but I don’t want to become an American citizen. I like being English. I like being British. Even when I’m ashamed, I’m fascinated.”
Indeed, he clearly is. He does a very good imitation of the cab drivers he encountered in London leading up to the Brexit vote, who seemed to believe that, ultimately, the thing they were about to do was of no consequence: “The EU’s not going to let us go ... ”. Regarding the Trump vote, he says: “At the end of the day, what I think was being voted for was change. People were saying ‘We’re fed up and we’re not being listened to’, and unfortunately that wasn’t being offered by the other side. The appeal of Bernie Sanders was he was standing up there saying ‘This thing is fucked’, and the problem with Hillary was she was standing up there and saying ‘Things are good, they’re getting better’.”
Genuine worry furrows Gaiman’s brow, but he has plans to respond to current events. His following is huge, including 2.5 million people on Twitter and the millions who read his books and his blog and watch his television shows. He intends to use that platform to highlight the plight of refugees. He hopes, too, to double down on his longstanding activism to promote freedom of speech. “I wrote an essay on my blog in 2009 called ‘Why Defend Freedom of Icky Speech?’,” he says, “Which just becomes more and more timely. I have a 14-month-old son, and a four-month-old grandson. I have no idea what kind of world they’re going to grow up in. I’m going to do my best with the time and the intellectual effort remaining to me to do whatever I can to give them a good world,” he says.
Ragnarök, as Gaiman writes in Norse Mythology, is of course “the end” of something. “But there is also what will come after the end,” he adds. In his version the sun comes out. Something glitters in the grass. The gods’ children find a set of golden chess pieces waiting for them. They arrange them on a board, and then one of them makes a move. “And,” Gaiman concludes, “the game begins anew.”