Last weekend, the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose hosted a special appearance by writer Neil Gaiman, who was on hand to accept the festival’s highest honor: The Maverick Spirit Award. The award was presented to Gaiman by filmmaker Vijay Vanniarajan, who joined him on stage for a relaxed and illuminating Q&A session.
In the words of Halfdan Hussey, Director and Co-Founder of Cinequest, The Maverick Spirit Award is given annually to a creator who marries “the innovation of Silicon Valley with the creativity of the worlds of film and writing.” Vanniarajan acknowledged Gaiman as one of those once-in-a-generation writers who “define the borders of the rest of our thinking, and expand those borders.” As Gaiman was handed the lightning bolt-shaped award, he noted that it felt “weird. Once you’ve been given a lifetime achievement, you feel like you should go away and die,” an observation which sent the audience into a fit of appreciative laughter.
Regaining his composure, Gaiman continued. “You definitely don’t sit there and think, ‘I am going to redefine anything for a generation.’ You sit there and think, ‘What is the next word? How can I make this character say something that people haven’t read a thousand times before? How can I make this character say something true?’ That’s the weird, sort of horrible fact of it — It’s you versus a blank screen, or a blank sheet of paper. And a lot of the times, the blank piece of paper wins. But you win enough, and after some time, if you win enough, you get a lightning bolt.”
Vanniarajan arranged his questions into four broad categories — Who Are You?, Body of Work, Craft and Miscellaneous — which Gaiman affably selected from throughout the event. The first question from the Who Are You? category was, “What is a sound that you love, and what is a sound that you hate?” In responding to the first part of the question, Gaiman answered, “My wife’s voice,” which elicited a romantic sigh from the audience. “Oh, it’s not that sappy!” he shot back. For a sound that he hates, Gaiman said that, though he finds many typically hated sounds unpleasant, he feels like he possesses “a capacity for liking lots of things.” “I remember once, when I was writing ‘Sandman,’ I was writing an issue set in Hell and I thought, ‘What kind of music can I put on in the background to just put my head in the right place?’ And I went and dug out Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music.’ It’s basically four sides of tape hum/feedback on the kind of frequencies that drive small animals to throw themselves off of cliffs. On the back in the liner notes it says that no one has ever listened to this album all the way through, including Lou. But I did, over and over again, for about a week.”
Gaiman didn’t have to think for a single second when asked for his favorite curse word. “Oh, it’s definitely ‘fuck.’ I love ‘fuck’ because it does so many things! It’s one of the very few English words that you can actually interject into other words for emphasis, which is abso-fucking-lutely wonderful!”
The next question moved the conversation into the Body of Work category, which started with a question about the origin of Dream, the lead of Gaiman’s beloved “Sandman” series.
“‘Sandman’ began when I was invited to write a monthly comic when the Powers-That-Be at DC Comics kind of blinked at a project that [frequent collaborator] Dave McKean and I were doing called ‘Black Orchid.’ Two issues in, I got a call from my editor, Karen Berger, and she said, ‘We are kind of having a problem with this. Two guys that nobody has ever heard of are doing a comic about a character that nobody can remember.'” They gave Gaiman his pick of another book he would like to write, and he recalled asking for many different titles that had all been spoken for by other creators before settling on the largely forgotten Golden Age hero. Of course, Gaiman radically changed the premise of the book as he developed it into the classic it became.
Gaiman continued the story of Sandman’s origin recounting how, in the process of developing the book, he was just about ready to sit down and outline “when a hurricane hit — the first and only hurricane that England had had in 700 years. And I lived in the middle of a little forest, and all the trees came down. Magically, I was without light, without power, and couldn’t do anything with a computer. So I had an extra week of thinking, a really magical week of thinking, all of which led towards ‘Sandman.’ So I finally sat and wrote the outline, and my life slowly changed as more and more people began reading it.”
The most wonderful thing about the success of “Sandman,” Gaiman said, was the fact that it was the first comic that was largely “sexually transmitted.” “For years, male people had wanted to get female people they knew into comics, and they would give them copies of ‘Batman’ or ‘The Punisher,’ and the female people were always strangely unmoved by this. But now, the male people would give the female people that they liked or wanted to know better or perhaps were sleeping with ‘Sandman,’ and the female people would say, ‘Do you have any more copies of this? Where is the rest of it?’ And then, when they broke up with the male person who had given them ‘The Sandman,’ they would take the ‘Sandmans’ with. And then they would go, ‘Ah! There is another male person I quite like! I will impress them with my knowledge!'” Judging by the peals of knowing laughter that accompanied this story, it’s safe to assume many in the audience saw a grain of truth in this telling of the events.
Moving to questions of craft, Gaiman was asked, “Why was storytelling invented?”
“I like this question!” Gaiman exclaimed. “It implies that there was a day before storytelling! That somebody woke up and went, ‘Hang on –‘” But he acknowledged that that likely wasn’t how it actually happened. “Stories fascinate me. They last an incredibly long time. Once you’ve been around for a bit, you start noticing that things don’t last very long. Books that I was very proud of owning as a kid are now sort of falling apart because of age. You watch things yellow, you watch things fade. You watch time eat things. Towns and cities come and go, and yet we have stories that have outlasted the civilizations that created them! As a viral entity, stories are fascinating. And they also have incredible use.”
He recounted a Native American story — “a sort of bog-standard myth” — about a young boy who falls in love with a girl, upsetting the gods, who cause the mountains around them to explode and belch fire. “The story hides the most important thing in itself, which is, from generation to generation, we are telling each other, those mountains over there? They can explode. They’re volcanoes. You had better know that this can happen and you’ll want to get away. Information that gets transmitted in stories often gets remembered better, harder. It gets used.”
Vanniarajan asked Gaiman about religion, whether to him “religion is just a collection of stories,” and if Gaiman ever finds himself “uncomfortable playing with things that some people consider more than myth.” Gaiman responded by professing a love and fascination with religion. “I was lucky, I guess, in that, as a boy, I had a multiplicity of religions going on around me, and was sort of watching all of them feeling like an observer. I didn’t think it was at all weird being the little Jewish kid at the Church of England school getting 100% on the religious studies quizzes.”
“Is there danger in using religion?” Gaiman asked himself. “Sure there is.” He recounted being asked by a major Hollywood studio to write a screenplay for the Hindu epic “The Ramayan.” He turned in a couple of drafts and then started being asked by the studio for incredible changes to the story. “I had to call them up and say, ‘You do understand that for approximately a half a billion people, this is a very, very holy story!” His concerns were brushed off, he said. “That was the moment I felt doomed.” Obviously, he did not write another draft.
The conversation turned to one of Gaiman’s other huge successes, “Coraline,” with Vanniarajan acknowledging the darkness and horror that exist in Gaiman’s children’s book, and asking what lessons the darkness had to teach young children. “The biggest lesson that I wanted to tell my kids was something that it had taken me most of my life to figure out. When I was a kid, I thought I was a coward, and I thought I was a coward because things scared me. But being scared has nothing to do with cowardice. Being brave doesn’t mean that you’re not scared — anyone can be not scared. Being brave means that you are scared, and you do the right thing anyway. I wanted to tell my kids that, and in order to do that, I had to write a book in which the scary stuff is scary!”
Discussing the lasting legacy of “Coraline,” Gaiman recounted the countless fans he’s met at signings who were “mostly girls, probably somewhere around 20 and 25, and they would be clutching a copy of ‘Coraline’ that was so beaten up and so battered, and each of them would, if she could get the words out, start telling me about how the book had come into her life when she was about 11 or 12 and it had gotten her through the dark times.” Through whatever bad things life had thrown at them, these girls would find themselves asking, “What would Coraline do?” “That’s why you put the dark stuff in,” Gaiman explained. “It inoculates against the real dark stuff.”
Gaiman moved on to taking questions from the audience, letting the moderator know that he was excited for this part because “their questions will be stranger than yours.” Sure enough, the first question was “Is there a portal to Narnia hidden in the deep recesses of your hair?” “You people are so weird!” Gaiman proclaimed, the audience applauding, pleased at the compliment.
Then the audience’s questions turned to future projects, including the sequel to “American Gods” (“It’s definitely brewing, and will probably get written in the next couple of years.”) and of course the long-rumored “Sandman” movie.
“There was a saying when I was a kid in Sussex: ‘I’ve lived too near the woods too long to be frightened by an owl.’ Right now there is exciting ‘Sandman’ stuff happening, but I can’t help thinking that I’ve been here before –”
Despite his cautious attitude, Gaiman did acknowledge that things were looking good this time around. “Joseph Gordon-Levitt, of all people, is an enormous ‘Sandman’ fan. He and David Goyer talked about it, they’ve come up, I believe, with a treatment of what they want the story of the first movie to be. They are talking to an incredible writer [Jack Thorne], who I coincidentally already knew, because he did the movie script for ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane,’ so I’ve met him and loved his treatment of my work. And Wednesday afternoon I will be spending with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and talking ‘Sandman!’ That’s pretty much everything I know. Now you know as much as I know.”
This final bit of news elicited another wild cheer from the audience just ahead of Gaiman concluding the event by reading his poem, “The Day the Saucers Came,” quitting the stage and leaving the audience to stumble happily back into the light and dream of the stories yet to come.