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Neil Gaiman And The Power Of Storytelling

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We were lucky enough to take part in a press conference with WorldCon guest of honor Neil Gaiman. We asked him about the theme of storytellers in his work. And he talked movies versus books, and his feelings about comics.


We felt as though there was a pervasive theme of storytelling and storytellers, and the power of creation, throughout Gaiman's work, especially after touching base with Gaiman mega-fan Rob Clough. So we asked Gaiman why he thought that element comes up again and again for him.


Gaiman says he tries to do something different with every book he writes — he wants the rabbit to be popping out of a new and different hole each time. When faced with a choice between doing a book that's comfortable and safe, and which all of his fans are clamoring for, versus a different book that he has no idea how to write and has nobody waiting for it, he'll always choose the latter. But in spite of this diverse body of work, he feels like after 25 years, he can look back at what he's done and "the themes start piling up." The power of storytelling is definitely one of them, and so is "themes of doorways and transitions," and also his books often seem to feature a kiss that signals the beginning of the third act.

As to why Gaiman's books include the theme of storytelling so often? "I don't know, because I make them. I don't know that writers have origin stories, and I wouldn't believe any writer who said that he did or she did... So why do I write about storytelling? Why was Sandman such a great huge monumental story about the nature of stories?" He says he thinks stories are important and the imagination is important, but those are things he's saying after the fact, not while he's writing a new story.


On the other hand, Gaiman says that everything that exists is here because someone dreamed it up — we sit on chairs because someone imagined them. And he went to the first officially sanctioned science fiction conference in China, and asked why the Chinese government was sponsoring imaginative fiction after so many years of disapproving of it.

It was because the Chinese had noticed that they were incredibly good at making things, but that other people seemed to be inventing the things that they were making, and they had come out to the U.S., and they had gone around Google and Apple and Microsoft, and one of the very few things that the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft had in common was they were science fiction and fantasy fans from way back.

And because they were science fiction fans, they believed the world could be different tomorrow, instead of just being the same thing day after day.

Comics hitting the mainstream:


Somebody else asked Gaiman how he felt about graphic novels being on the Hugo ballot, and he basically said it's about time. When The Dark Knight Returns came out some 23 years ago, the Hugo Ballot included it — but in the non-fiction category, giving the impression the Hugo voters believed Batman was real. Watchmen got on the Hugo ballot, but only in some special made-up category.

Gaiman sees three factors bringing comics into the mainstream:

  • The formerly rigid distinction between high and low culture is eroding. Gaiman did his first college appearance in 1992, at a St. Louis college, where the Art Dept. invited him and the English Dept. boycotted the event because Gaiman wrote for comics. But some of the English students sneaked in, and they're professors now. And people like Michael Chabon have come of age loving comics and being excited to be part of that world.
  • We're living in a science-fictional age. Just imagine explaining an ipod touch to someone in the 1950s.
  • Hollywood special effects have improved to the point where comic-book storylines can play out credibly on screen, and that means comic-book stories have infiltrated the mainstream to a much greater extent.

Movie adaptations of his books:

Someone asked Gaiman if he writes his books differently now, hoping to gear them for movie adaptation, and he said that he just wants the books to be the best things they can be. He's pleased that many people loved the film of Coraline, but he doesn't see it as the perfected form of the book — the book is separate.


And if you wrote a novel aiming to make it easy to adapt into a movie, it would be a disaster, says Gaiman:

I don't know if you've ever done the thing of reading a novelization of a film, before you see the film, but they're always very very odd. As reading experiences, they're always very unsatisfying, because they have all the beats of the film, and they don't work in the way a novel works. They're things that come from the pre-DVD era [where a book version was the only way you could revisit the film]. If you do that [i.e., write a novel so it will make a good movie] you come up with a very broken-backed story.


He also said that for years, execs from major studios would call him up about making a movie of his novel Anansi Boys, and say "We love this book. Can the characters be white?" Gaiman would reply no, because the book was about the children of the African spider god and the characters in the book are all African American. And the execs would reply, "Black people don't like fantasy." And when Gaiman would accuse them of being racist, they would backpedal and say "No, no, we're just being practical."

Working with Marvel and DC

Gaiman says he doesn't have "a lot of patience left" with the two big comics publishers. "They're sweet people and I love working with them but dealing with them is often a lot like being nibbled to death by ducks." It does sound like he's having fun working on the Metamorpho comics for DC's Wednesday Comics, and he's being super careful to make it look like a comic from 1965-1966, even down to a periodic table of the elements that appears in one upcoming issue, which only shows the elements known as of 1966, and Lawrencium would have the letters "LW" instead of the more recent "LR."


Random other stuff: Gaiman also says he loves "plotting by place," treating places in his novels like characters and seeing how characters interact with different locations. And he says he wrote Stardust and Neverwhere right after he moved to the U.S. and he was homesick for Britain — so he found himself creating a fictional version of London and the English countryside respectively. And then he did American Gods, in which he came to terms with living in the U.S., and tried to understand the place.