„I wanted to show I can write a funny book“

On both sides of the Atlantic, Neil Gaiman is more than hip. He told Phantastik-Couch.de about his experiences with over-sized sausages, newspapers in fridges and that we all need fairy tales.

Phantastik-Couch: How do you like Germany?

Neil Gaiman: I like Germany very much. It’s always the little things that remind it's not England or America or Poland. For instance I was in my hotel room when the telephone rang and the receptionist downstairs said „There is a journalist for you down here. You must come down here right now to interviewed. And I said that he is actually early, it’s 7 minutes to 12 and he was supposed to be here at 12, I am writing something in my room. So she said “Alright, then you will be down her inexactly 7 minutes!" That is so German! I cannot imagine the staff in an expensive 4 star hotel anywhere in the world saying that. It was somehow a supremely German moment for me. I really enjoyed this, it was hilarious, very funny.

Phantastik-Couch: And apart from this cliché experience?

Neil Gaiman: No, I like Germany. There is always this national thing with all the local coloring, for instance going out in Cologne for dinner and being served a sausage bigger than my head. It amuses me enormously.

Phantastik-Couch: What about your German fans? Anything special about them?

Neil Gaiman: The flipside of this is that the readers don’t really change from country to country. You can go to England, America or Germany, take photographs of the readers in line for the signing and you say, ok, which is which? They are the same readers, the same people, very often they even look the same. Not too many beardy ones, but there are certainly types. Like the cute curvy girl, the tall intense young man. These days in America I’m getting more and more middle aged ladies.

Phantastik-Couch: Where do they come from?

Neil Gaiman: It’s because Stardust spreads among the Romance readers like a dirty little secret, and then they go on and read the other books. Which is very strange for me. But readers are readers, wherever you go. And sometimes the makeup of the readers is going to change, in Singapore o the Philipines women outnumber men, whereas in Germany it’s 50/50. Also, now I’m a childrens author now with Coraline.

Phantastik-Couch: Which German Fantasy authors do you read?

Neil Gaiman: I grew up reading German Fantasy, one of my favorites is called „The Satanic Mill“ by Otfried Preussler, it was one of my favorite books. I wound up a few days ago in Cologne having an argument with a journalist about Grimm’s fairy tales. He said „you would not actually read these to your children? They must be protected from stuff like that“ And I said, of course I would! What a horrible vision – Germany being cut off from its own culture and roots! Which is not to say the Grimms did not rewrite a lot, and it is not to say that the Grimms didn’t change anything from the original tales. They were thinking they were collecting folk tales, not writing children stories. And then people started complaining, Rapunzel getting pregnant and that, so by the 2nd or 3rd edition she isn’t pregnant anymore.

Neil Gaiman: Also, there are stories that are now being censored, like „The jew in the thorn bush“. In some ways censoring that is actually scary. You need to read that in order to understand the mindset in folktales back then. The jew in the thorn bush is actually innocent, and the kid tortures him to death. You need to understand that this is a story people were telling each other in the 19th century in order to understand what happened in the 1940s.

Phantastik-Couch: Would you protect children from your books?

Neil Gaiman: It depends. From „American Gods“ – if any of them weren’t bored by it, I would probably suggest that it wasn’t appropriate: word fifteen of „American Gods“ is f***, and at the end of the chapter there is someone disappearing in a prostitute never to be seen again. This is what kind of book this is. On the other hand, would I want children be protected from „Stardust“? It has a little violence in it and no explicit sex. From „Coraline“? God, no. Most children are very very good at deciding what they are ready for and what not. And children are mostly the best judge of things. I’m reminded of the Danish journalist, she was reading „Coraline“ to her son. She started getting really scared, and her son said „don’t worry, mom, it’s only a story!“ Adults find the book more disturbing than kids do, because it’s a different genre of story: When an adult is reading it, he reads about a child in danger. When a child reads it, they are reading about a child having an adventure. It’s a different point of view.

Phantastik-Couch: Talking about point of view – Anansi Boys is also about a person’s point of view of his family changing immensely.

Neil Gaiman: Yes, it’s a family story. Fat Charlie learns that his father was the god of stories and that he has a brother. This brother actually turns Charlie’s life upside down, so he has to learn to deal with that.

Phantastik-Couch: How much of your family history is in the book?

Neil Gaiman: Very little. I put my aunt’s fridge in it, all she ever had was in it was bottled water and newspapers – in the book I left out the newspapers because I thought people wouldn’t believe it. Nobody believes the truth. Part of the story is about being embarrassed by one’s parents, part of it is about being embarrassing to one’s children. It’s how little it takes to mortify children.

Phantastik-Couch: It’s also about how people are stigmatized.

Neil Gaiman: Yes, Fat Charlie will always be Fat Charlie – as a child. Except that there is a point toward the end of the book where he isn’t Fat Charlie anymore. It’s always fun to see when readers notice at which point it changes. Anansi Boys a story about family, the ties and obligations of family

Phantastik-Couch: In the book you showed how to take this inevitability on the humorous side.

Neil Gaiman: Sure, you have to. With „Anansi Boys“ I wanted to show I can write a funny book.

Phantastik-Couch: Is Tori Amos in the book somewhere?

Neil Gaiman: Let me think – no, I don’t think she is, although I wrote the first chapters in her house in Ireland. There’s lots of things that aren't in there.

Phantastik-Couch: Could you imagine „Anansi Boys“ being turned into a film? Who would you like to see playing in it?

Neil Gaiman: That’s a good question...I would love somebody like Morgan Freeman playing Mr Nancy, for Spider and Fat Charlie you could go two different ways: You could either have Will Smith play both of them, or you could have two different actors. Good smart actors, anyway. Forrest Whitaker would make a great Fat Charlie, and so would Lenny Henry. For me the joy of it is watching these two characters – one shy and crippled with embarassment, the other self-confident to the point of psychosis – become whole people in the course of the story.

Phantastik-Couch: You write a lot about gods and archetypes – do you have writing superstitions?

Neil Gaiman: No, I’m actually trying to think of something now. I won’t write for money, because when I was a young man whenever I wrote something for money something would go horribly wrong. And usually I wouldn’t even get the money. So I decided if I wrote for art and happiness and something went wrong I would at least have something to be proud of. So I guess not writing for money has becamea superstition for me.

Phantastik-Couch: Do you like writing in other places than home?

Neil Gaiman: Yes, if it’s places I haven't been to. I like writing at places where it’s slightly uncomfortable for me. Like in a place where you don’t want to really go to, in a hotel that’s not too nice. Because if it’s too nice, you’re enjoying the hotel instead of writing. One of the things I always fantasize about is writing on one of those big merchant ships, most of them have one passenger cabin. Just going on one of those ships, signing up for a four-month journey, sit in the cabin and write a novel. I just love that idea, before I die I want to do that.

Phantastik-Couch: What’s next on your project list?

Neil Gaiman: There is a load of stuff that I have to do this year, with promoting movies and and that. But the next big book I’m writing is my next children's novel, which is called „The Graveyard book“ – which will probably be banned in Germany because it’s too disturbing.

Phantastik-Couch: Aren’t Americans much more over-concerned in this respect?

Neil Gaiman: No, it’s Germany. All the countries I’ve ever been to, the only one that wouldn’t publish the original cover illustrations of „Coraline“ is Germany. They thought it was too disturbing. I come to Germany, the first thing I am being asked is "Aren’t your children's books too scary for kids?

Phantastik-Couch: At least your readers are alike around the world. Would you still find special words for your German readers?

Neil Gaiman: he main thing I would say to them is 'spread the word'. I think it’s time for my German readers to be more evangelical. Here, I get the vague impression that the fans love the books, but the rest of the readers here either hasn’t heard of them or simply doesn't know what to make of them. You know, I said to my German publisher Heyne 'Why did you put such an ugly picture with flames and all that on the cover of American Gods?' They said because it doesn’t look like Fantasy. So what I would say to the Germans is go and evangelize, tell people to read these books.

Phantastik-Couch: Neil, thank you for this interview!

This interview was conducted by member of the editorial staff Frank Dudley, March 2007.