Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Neil Gaiman – Using Genre to Effect

It’s not Gaiman’s first attempt at humour (indeed throughout both his ‘serious’ work, and this conversation, a dry wit is rarely far from the surface). In 1988 he co-wrote Good Omens with Terry Pratchett. “I had found that people were starting to believe that Good Omens was actually written by me writing a serious novel, and then Terry Pratchett going through the book behind me slipping in jokes,” he laughs.”I think it’s often easier to write comedy
as a partnership, because if you throw out a line and the other guy laughs, you know that it works. If I’m writing and it’s funny, I probably laugh at my own jokes. I make weird little snorty noises and people stare at me”.

Talking about Anansi Boys, Gaiman can’t help but place it in context with his other work, in particular American Gods. Like siblings, destined to be described in connection with each other, Anansi Boys and American Gods share common genes, as it were, but have gone in different directions. “When I wrote American Gods I was consciously writing a book that you’d have problems filming. It didn’t have a nice three act structure. It was mishapen. With Anansi Boys I liked the idea of writing something with a three act structure. One of the reviewers, I think it was in Booklist of Library Journal, described it as a ‘screwball comedy’. Screwball comedies are a 1930s film genre, and I loved the idea of someone describing it in those terms.” Anansi Boys for Gaiman is “a funny novel. It goes scary. It goes weird, and does all those things that you expect from me, but most of all I wanted to write a novel that made me feel good at the end. Something that made you happier, that added to the joy in the world. American Gods was a big, serious novel, but I don’t think you necessarily came out of American Gods going ‘Whehey’ [an approximation of his clipped joyous exclamation].

We’ve talked about comedy, and fantasy, both of which genres Gaiman has had considerable success with, but what about straight realism? Has he ever been tempted to ditch the trappings of fantasy, which touch upon virtually all of his published work, and tell a straight story? “Probably the nearest I’ve come to strict realism has been Signal to Noise [Editor’s note: a 1992 graphic novel with long-term collaborator artist Dave McKean, dealing with the dying days of a film director plotting his last film] because by definition it couldn’t exist in a Universe where you had anything odd or different going on, but beyond that I tend not to. My overall feeling with this stuff is that when I get to write, I’m a God. With any luck, when fantasy works, it works because it’s showing you something that you kind of know from a direction that you’ve never seen it before. I get to write about families, family relations. Stuff that you might not want to read or listen to if I put it in a realistic novel. By showing them something they’ve never seen before from that angle, you can sneak it in”.

“As a child of the Seventies, – he continues, – the phrase that I kept hearing was ‘the personal is political’, which is something I still believe in. I thought it was really interesting that, a couple of years ago when the Americans were shelling and the first troops started marching into Baghdad, a story that I’d written exactly ten years before, a Sandman story called Ramadan, which is about the nature of stories and the Arabian nights, wound up being talked about in newspapers all over the world, because it was one of the few places that anybody had actually talked about the relationship between Baghdad now, the city of bombs and rubble, and the place that was the city of stories.”

Gaiman’s output is prodigious. His book output alone would put most authors to shame, let alone taking into consideration his TV and film work. With all this work, does he ever worry about writer’s block? “I don’t really believe in ‘writer’s block’ per se. I do believe 100% in getting stuck on things, but I figure if writer’s block existed then I wouldn’t be able to do my blog in the morning , or reply to emails. Yes, you get stuck on things, but dignifying the idea of getting stuck with the magic phrase ‘writer’s block’ is a bit ridiculous. You don’t get a gardener coming in in the morning and saying, ‘well, I don’t know. I’d love to garden but right now I’ve got gardener’s block. The tulips are lovely but I’ve got gardener’s block’. Or a house painter who goes ‘I’d love to paint your house but I can’t, I’ve got house-painter’s block’. You don’t. You get stuck on things occasionally happens. You get on with it”.

But surely it’s slightly different, with all due respect to gardeners everywhere, there are practical things that present themselves to be done in that sphere. As a writer, you’re faced with creating something from nothing. “Well, I think you’re probably doing a tremendous disservice to gardeners – Gaiman interrupts me. – It’s very easy to write a poem in the white hot heat of inspiration. Everything’s magical, you’re inspired, you leap in and write the thing. You walk away and go, ‘Whehey, beautiful poem’. You can probably, if you’re lucky, write a whole short story in the heat of inspiration. I’ve done it at least once, maybe two or three times. You’re never going to write a whole novel in the white hot heat of inspiration because it simply isn’t going to last that long. There are going to be days when you don’t feel like writing. There are going to be days when you have to appreciate that it’s going to be magic, and days that are everybit as romantic as digging a ditch. Somebody asked Stephen King, ‘how do you write a novel?’, and he responded, ‘put one word after the other, and when you’ve done it a hundred thousand times you’ve got a novel’, and there’s a horrible truth to that”.

He gives a practical example, with Anansi Boys: “This was a very odd book. I got half-way through it and suddenly a whole load of things happened in the story that I hadn’t planned on, wasn’t expecting, but seemed very true to the characters. At that point I had to stop writing it for about four months while I figured out what happened next, which is very odd [slightly perplexed]. But, I did figure out what happened next and I wrote it, and you can’t really see where that break is. Or at least I can’t”.

Gaiman is wonderfully open, regularly posting all sorts of information, that his publishers probably wished he wouldn’t, on his engaging blog for his huge following. “I’ve started my next novel, but I need to get a lot further into it before I can talk about it,” he says, before continuing to give a teaser. “It’s my next children’s novel. The last one was Coraline, which scared adults, and scared children less, I think. I wound up talking to a group of children, here in Bologna the last time I was here, and they thought it was hilarious that adults were scared by the book. However, it’s very odd. Anansi Boys is an adults novel. It has some serious topics in there, amongst the jokes. There’s no sex in it, no swearing, and I wouldn’t have any problem with a kid picking up, and enjoying Anansi Boys. Now I’m writing a children’s book, which begins with four pages of a serial killer walking around a house with a knife covered in blood, having killed all the family but the baby, and he’s trying to find the baby. It’s going to be called The Graveyard book, and if you remember The Jungle Book where a child gets lost in the jungle and is brought up by animals, well this baby gets lost in a graveyard and is brought up by dead people. Learing to do all the things that dead people do!”

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