By Jason Ahlquist
Originally Published in MarsDust
He’s just won yet another major award for Coraline (the Nebula), the buzz on the Death movie is heating up and MirrorMask, the movie he’s making with Dave McKean is in post-production. Somehow with all this going on, Neil found time to sit down with Jason Prentice Ahlquist and chat about coming to America, liberty and Janet Jackson’s terribly scarring breast.
I’m trying to figure it out now. Sitting here at my iMac, thinking about Neil and how I can capture him and bottle him up in this text jar. I’m surrounded by all the magic things I have collected over the years, trying to cast a journalistic spell on the elusive and clever Mr. Gaiman:
The cat skull from the field in back, the foundation stone I pilfered from the Thoreau house excavation site at Walden Pond, the signed portrait I did for Kurt Vonnegut, the Swamp Thing I painted on a chunk of leather torn from a jacket once owned by 9-11 Commissioner Slade Gorton. On the table behind me are piles of Neil’s work. Little voodoo dolls that I have been sticking probes into in hopes of extracting some sample of his Atman — the vital principle fans and critics recognize applaud.
Nothing will come loose.
It’s not that I hadn’t gathered my intelligence. Before the interview at Penguicon 2.0, I had scoured the web, gathered and examined his works. I had whispered into the ears of those who had met him before and tried to seduce secrets from them.
And it’s not that I did not have a strategy for stealing his essence at the convention. I came armed with piles of his works to keep in my head, two photographers – my own Cain and Abel (one seductive and piercing, and the other puckish and glib). They came equipped with the finest soul-stealing equipment money could buy (and lighting and a velvet backdrop – just in case). And I had an appointment.
But to paraphrase another great story artist, no wizard arrives on the schedule of others. There had been some misadventure on the way from his home in Minnesota to Novi, Mich., and he was unable to keep our appointment. So I was left to scramble for information and opportunity, dissipating the considerable numina I had built up.
Eventually, I ended up in the green room where all the convention luminaries chill out and there he was – obviously exhausted, but still skillfully entertaining the small crowd of supplicants that he is known to attract.
“So,” Neil said as I sat at the table, “would you like to do that interview now?”
With Seductive and Piercing in tow (Glib and Puckish was at a drumming circle) I pulled notes and whatnots from my bag – preparing for complex auguries.
As I fumbled about with this, Neil vanished into the suite adjoining the green room and re-emerged with a plastic container of grocery store sushi. He sat and began to pick questioningly at the octopus. I let the magic begin!
Ummm… so what’s new Neil?
“I won the Nebula for Coraline last night,” he chimed up forgetting the tentacles in front of him, “which is sort of funny because it’s a story I’ve been working on sporadically for about ten years. “
Ten years? That seemed like a long time to work on a novella.
He read my mind and continued, “I don’t believe in writer’s block you know, but I do believe in getting stuck on things. When that would happen, I would work on Coraline. In fact most of it was written while I was stuck on American Gods. Had I known it would be received so well, I would have been a bit more industrious”
Coraline has been industrious for Neil though, the Nebula just the cherry on a whole sundae of critical acclaim the short, dark children’s tale has earned in addition to a Bram Stoker Award and a Locus Award for Young Adult Novel.
With the 2003 publication of Wolves in the Walls, Neil is shaping up to earn a big spot in children’s literature almost as assuredly as he has garnered consistent attention writing comics and novels.
The sushi didn’t seem to be disappearing very quickly off Neil’s platter. I couldn’t tell if he was just too tired to eat or had smelled what I had smelled coming from it.
By now a larger crowd had gathered around us. Photographers I’d never met began distracting me with flashes.
I had become the magician’s lovely assistant.
I struggled through the distraction long enough to get out something like:
Umm… so what else is new?
“Well, Mirrormask, the movie I’m doing with Dave McKean is progressing very well. Principal shooting has been completed and we are in post-production. Of course, with a project like Mirrormask, post-production is about 80% of the job.”
“And the movie of Death: The Time of Your Life is moving as well. We’ve got a solid script and should get approval from the studio this weekend. I can’t tell you which studio yet. Check my website and I’ll post the info as soon as I can in the journal section.”
MarsDust will update readers as soon as more information becomes available
I remembered that he’d moved to America back in 1992. I asked him what made him decide to become a Yankee.
“Well, I’m not quite a Yank yet. We’re still waiting for everything to become official. My wife is American, so that had a great deal to do with it. Aside from that, the reasons were mainly financial. Most of my income is freelance from America. With fluctuating currencies, I found it to my advantage to live in America where I can better spend American money. So we bought a 130-year-old ‘Adams Family’ house and live there quite happily.”
I asked if he got back to England enough to curb homesickness.
“Never,” he replied resolutely, “I always miss England, every moment of every day.”
America has become a special attraction in the Neil Gaiman circus. His big-show novel, American Gods exemplifies this. The book swept up scads of awards and came close to eclipsing the recognition level he had received for his Sandman comic books – or even the persistent mention he gets in Tori Amos lyrics.
In fact, during my research, I had sensed hidden patterns between American Gods and Tori Amos’ Scarlet’s Walk, which were written around the same time. Both chronicled epic journeys across the American landscape – Tori had even mentioned Neil in some lyrics. Was Tori in American Gods? Or was I just falling prey to speculation?
“No, you’re not imagining that. Tori was one of the main ‘beater- readers’ for the book. I can trust her to tell me the truth about my writing. In fact, the first third of American Gods was written in Tori’s house. Hell, the farmhouse in the book is that house.
“There were a lot of corollaries like that between our world and Shadow’s world. Some of them were weird. Some of them went from weird to *RADIO EDIT* weird. For instance, the hotel at the center of America was something that I had just made up. Later on, to my astonishment, I found out there actually was an abandoned hotel near the geographical center of America – just like I had concocted. *RADIO EDIT* weird.”
After that, the sushi platter was pushed aside, the octopus still intact.
There was fascination and love in Neil’s voice as he spoke of America – almost as much love as he had previously expressed for England. It was seemingly more than just a tourist’s fascination. There was something there – I smelled one of those soul-bits I had sought to capture. Perhaps this excitement came through best when he spoke of his involvement with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
I’ve been involved with the CBLDF for nearly twelve years – since I moved to America. I thought it was important for me to be involved because in England we didn’t have anything like the First Amendment.
“Not many Americans realize it, but you can’t just go and print or broadcast what you want to in England. They have an Official Secrets Act, while America has a Freedom of Information Act. Book banning in America is rare, but in England, there are many things you just can’t read. I remember always wanting to read The One-Hundred Days of Sodom, but couldn’t because the Marquis De Sade was on the list of prohibited authors.
“So it seemed to me that if you have something as wonderful as the First Amendment, it’s something you should be manning the ramparts for – be willing to die for. Working with the CBLDF seemed like the least I could do after suddenly being given such freedom read and learn and grow.”
So did the current crackdown by the Federal Communications Commission raise more concerns for the safety of these liberties?
“I think they’re all twits. They’re going way overboard with their efforts. In fact, it’s a bit comical that the bill to clarify what ‘profane’ has to be the filthiest worded bit of legislation in history.
So did he think the Janet Jackson incident at the Superbowl was handled poorly?
“Personally I was scarred by that nipple – horribly, psychically scarred.
Laughter erupted from the peanut gallery.
“No, actually I think the whole thing was overblown. I don’t think anyone really knew what they had seen until the media played it back for them over and over.”
With that, Neil said he was very tired and concluded the interview. It was nearly fifteen minutes before he could make it through the onlookers with requests and cameras. Eventually ha vanished back into sanctuary, leaving me with my story – which could possibly be a little bit of his soul.
– Jason Ahlquist