Maybe it would be amusing to start with Gaiman's description of himself as "the wussiest of wussies," which sounds even funnier when heard spoken in that burnished English accent of his, toned down only slightly by eight years of living in Minnesota with his American wife and their children. Likely, Gaiman's legion of fans--a rabid cult of True Believers spawned by Dream and Death and Desire and their Endless brood in the pages of Sandman, a 75-issue illustrated epic that long ago transcended the comics genre--would not think of him as a wussy. Gaiman is, in fact, among the most daring of writers around--audacious, almost to the point of arrogance. Who else would take it upon himself to rewrite our myths, rescue our gods, and refine and defile history to the point of recreating the entire universe in his own black-clad, pale-faced image?
Who else would rewrite Snow White and give it an unhappy ending, show us a hack named Shakespeare willing to make a Faustian deal just for a modicum of talent, or write a children's book about a boy who trades his dad for two goldfish? Who else would take us to a serial killers' convention in Georgia where the honored guest is a demon dream who eats young boys' eyeballs? And who would spend 2,000 pages writing about gods and myths and dreams in a comic-book format, only to walk away from it at the peak of popularity to pursue his ambitions of writing fantastic novels about unfathomable worlds just beneath our feet and gods abandoned by immigrants when they land on the shores of America?
Surely, not a wussy.
"I am a major wuss until I get interested in something or need it for a story," Gaiman insists. "Everything that goes on in the human body is likely to send me a gentle green color, until I need to have a character going to an autopsy and eating little bits of the body while he's cutting off other bits to pickle in alcohol for the autopsy. I run it by my local doctor, who's also the county medical examiner. I'll ask him if something's right, and he'll say, "No, don't forget the kidney.' Enthusiasm will carry me over anything. Interest overrides everything, as does the desire to tell people cool little things. If I wasn't a writer, I would be really boring. I would be Cliff Clavin on Cheers, saying, "Did you know...?' all the time. And people would hate me."
But, of course, they do not: Neil Gaiman is literature's rock star, as evidenced by the throngs of Ankh-wearing Goth gals and leather-bound fanboys who line up to meet and greet him at comic cons or fantasy fairs when he makes a rare appearance. They are, he says, mostly in their 20s, which makes the 39-year-old Gaiman feel particularly ancient at times, especially when they tell him of how they read Sandman when they were in their teens during the late 1980s and early '90s. But their adoration is greatly appreciated. After all, it allowed him fame and freedom enough to leave behind comics for the charts of best sellers, where his 1997 novel Neverwhere, about dark fairy-tale world lurking beneath the London subway system, sat for a moment.
Right now, Neil Gaiman has better things to do than talk to a journalist, an occupation he held until his editor told him to write a story about how Dungeons & Dragons was turning the youth of Britain into suicides and Satanists. He turned down the job, figuring if he were going to make up stories, he'd make up his own. Gaiman initially agreed to this interview to talk about DC Comics' forthcoming paperback release of Sandman: The Dream Hunters, a lushly illustrated novel resurrecting his most famous creation in a tale about a Japanese monk and the fox-female who loves him. The book was done for Sandman's 10th anniversary and in collaboration with Japanese painter Yoshitaka Amano, and Gaiman is quick to point out that despite his own earlier explanations, it is not based on an old Japanese proverb. "I am such a liar," he says, chuckling slightly, "and I feel so guilty."
But he has more pressing concerns than discussing a year-old book. The author is late turning in his fourth novel, American Gods, which Amazon.com keeps insisting will be released in October--despite Gaiman's letters to the online bookseller protesting otherwise. American Gods has simply overtaken its creator: At 400 pages, it is not even halfway finished. The problem, Gaiman says, is that there's so much to say with American Gods, which encompasses 20,000 years of history and includes stories about slavery and America's tackiest, gaudiest roadside attractions. The initial story hasn't changed since he sat down to write it months ago. It's essentially about how the gods of centuries of immigrants have been abandoned and forced to take blue-collar jobs on the fringes of a magical but familiar America. The book is roomy enough to allow the author to run amok, and he can't seem to sit still.
"What you tend to have in your mind is a kind of a map when you begin: You know what kind of place it is, and you know where you're going," he says. "With American Gods, I feel like a kid from New Jersey who announced proudly that he was going to walk to California and see everybody in three or four weeks, and currently, I'm somewhere around Salt Lake City thinking, "How the fuck did I get here? Why has it taken so long? And how the fuck do I get out of Salt Lake City?' When I went on my last book tour 18 months ago, I said there was no reason for anyone to write books the size of giant bricks. And I think the Gods of Authors heard me, and after the third or fourth time I said that, they said, "Right, we'll get you next time.'"