In part two of Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan’s interview with Neil Gaiman, they discuss Fozzy Bear, nudging reality and the effect of Amazon on book tours…
Paul Kane: Have you stayed with Dave (McKean) yet while you’ve been over here?
Neil Gaiman: I have, yes. I did a signing in Canterbury on Bonfire Night at the end of which, after the signing, I drove over to Dave’s and stayed the night.
Paul Kane: In the round room.
Neil Gaiman: In the round room, with the water bed.
Paul Kane: What’s that like, the round room?
Neil Gaiman: Well, it’s a converted Oast House, his house, so it’s got this round bit – the kitchen and dining room on the ground floor and then as you go up, it’s a bedroom…
Paul Kane: Has it got any doors? (all laugh)
Neil Gaiman: One door. Actually it’s interesting, his house is becoming slightly less Dave McKean-ish, or slightly less a certain period Dave McKean-ish. We used to go there and there’d be weird, twisting branches and things everywhere, these twisting, deformed, dead fig tree branches and stuff, and bits of body or something. There’s less of that now.
Marie O’Regan: Was it harder to work with Dave on MirrorMask than, say Sandman or The Wolves in the Walls?
Neil Gaiman: Oh yeah, on Wolves or Mr Punch or any of the other things…Because everything else I wrote, then I gave it to Dave, and he made it. MirrorMask, Dave had an idea for a story; the agenda was could we make a Fantasy movie, kind of like Labyrinth for $4 million. That was our brief. Dave had a story, Dave had a bunch of set-pieces, and he had an idea of how he could do this for $4 million. My task eventually, essentially, turned out to be taking Dave’s story and writing it in a way which would get us from set-piece to set-piece. So that was a very odd sort of thing to do. I’m very proud of it in the sense that I think it doesn’t look like it was made for two million quid, and nobody’s done anything like it before. I think I probably would have fought harder, but I really didn’t know how this thing could be done in the way that Dave wanted to do it. And Dave was the only one who did, so anytime I would suggest something he would normally explain why it couldn’t be done because it would cost too much. I’d say let’s do a scene in a school, and he’d say we can’t do a scene in a school, I’d say why not, and he’d say well it’d cost too much: we’d need six or seven actors, we’d need this, we’d need chaperones, we’d need kids, we could only film for a certain amount of time, we’d need location. And then he’d see my face fall and he’d say, if you need the world to crumple up like a piece of paper and turn into a flower we could do that for nothing. So it was very different.
Marie O’Regan: It’s like working in the dark really, isn’t it?
Neil Gaiman: Well, it was working as sort of Dave’s…I was Dave’s script assistant I suppose. I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed about in that; I’m very proud of having done that. But those people who go to it and go, it’s a Neil Gaiman film – no it’s not. Most of the dialogue is mine, but everything else is Dave’s. In fact Dave went off and did the first draft of three or four of the big set-pieces while we were writing it, because I had no idea what he was talking about. He’d get out this scene where she goes and sees the giants and gets a box from them, and one of them is a male giant and he’s being pulled upwards all the time and the female giant is pushing him down and then they’re floating gravitationally and…I’ll go and write the first draft (all laugh). So for a couple of the scenes that was very much how it worked. But it was enormous fun. Some of the most fun I had was actually writing the children’s book version, because then I actually got to adapt a voice because Helena the heroine, you could tell the story from her point of view and add in some things that weren’t in the film and leave out some things that were, so that it’s not like a spoiler, you get a different experience if you read the kid’s book version. Over here it’s the Bloomsbury version.
Paul Kane: What was it like writing in the Henson family home?
Neil Gaiman: It was chilly, really chilly. I was downstairs in the kitchen and the basement because it was the only place you could get warm in winter. Later I talked to Mrs Henson, Jane Henson, Jim Henson’s ex-wife. I met her and Jerry Jule who recently died – who wrote all the Muppet shows – and I was telling them about that. And there was a sauna down there and she said, oh we always just used the sauna; just to get warm in that house. But after Dave and I stayed there they realised they had this house that hadn’t been decorated in 40 years, and they hadn’t touched it since Jim died, so then they did a whole overhaul so it’s actually much prettier and nicer and more efficient and stuff like that, but I’m really glad we got to stay there when it still looked like it was 1978. The telephones on the wall were rotary dial – you couldn’t get them now or anything.
Paul Kane: And there were things in the cupboards as well, weren’t there?
Neil Gaiman: There were. You’d open cupboards and there would be rotted puppets.
Paul Kane: Fozzy Bear?
Neil Gaiman: No Fozzy, but there…there was a rotted…the thing with the big helmet in Labyrinth, the little imp with the big helmet; that was in one cupboard, and it’s entire face had rotted away so there was just the animatronics underneath and the helmet. And there were a bunch of things from Muppet Fairy Tale Theatre or Muppet Nursery Tale Theatre or whatever, these cats and goats and things.
Marie O’Regan: When’s MirrorMask due out in the UK?
Neil Gaiman: Don’t know. If I had been smart I would have realised that would be the question I would be asked most and would have demanded some kind of answer from Sony that I could actually give people. Don’t know. They showed it very successfully at the Edinburgh Festival and the London Film Festival…
Paul Kane: In Anansi Spider nudges reality to try and get people to do what he wants them to do. What would you do if you had that power?
Neil Gaiman: Oh I don’t know…I think right now I’d persuade Tony Blair to move in to the current Tory party race, because I think he has a better chance than either DD or Cameron of being head of the Tory party and he could just reposition the Tories as the New Conservatives and they could reoccupy the middle ground again. And then you’d have Labour…and then the Liberals, instead of being these rather baffled bastions of left-wing liberatarianism, could go back to operating in the sloppy middle. Put politics back where it ought to be, and I think Tony would be happy to do that. Actually I probably shouldn’t do that because then his 1000 year Reich would continue. I dunno… There was a point about five weeks ago when I was about a week into the Anansi Boys signing tour and on the Monday Beowulf started shooting. On the Wednesday I heard that Anansi Boys had gone in at No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List and on Friday MirrorMask – this tiny little arthouse movie that Dave McKean and I had done – suddenly surprised everybody by getting a proper American cinema release, and I definitely wound up feeling at that point if I had been nudging reality because it all seemed much too unlikely (all laugh). So it was that sort of weird feeling of having read a certain number of fantasy novels and short stories and having seen The Twilight Zone I do know that on the Saturday of that week you are meant to wake up drunk in a gutter and find out it’s all been an hallucination.
Paul Kane: Aren’t you meant to have a pocket watch with you too?
Neil Gaiman: Yeah, and discovering that that had not happened I was starting to wonder whether reality had nudged itself a bit in my favour.
Marie O’Regan: Are you any good at karaoke yourself and what’s your favourite song?
Neil Gaiman: No… I will sing in the shower, if I’ve done a thorough sweep of the shower first, preferably with one of those devices they have in James Bond films, where you make sure the room is not bugged.
Paul Kane: And when you’ve taken out the spiders…
Neil Gaiman: Yes. And I will sing in certain circumstances that will embarrass my daughter – which is to say anywhere in earshot of her. Not you (talking to Holly at the side of him) the other one. But no, I keep having people saying that after doing Anansi Boys we have to take you out for a great karaoke evening. And I say (sarcastically) yes you must, you really must.
Paul Kane: ‘Walk This Way’, I think (all laugh)…The book comes with a set of DVD-like extras at the back…
Neil Gaiman: Yeah, the Headline hardback does. I don’t know if we’re going to let that run to the paperback.
Paul Kane: Are you setting a trend there for books in the future?
Neil Gaiman: I don’t know, it was Headline’s idea and initially I was very resistant. And it actually started because the cut passage was one of Jane Morpeth’s favourites. And I cut it because the pacing of that whole section of the book works so much better without it; I couldn’t get it to mesh. Eventually I just said, life is so much easier for all of us if it goes away. So it went away. And then Jane was sort of grumbly and she said look, I’ve been thinking of doing this thing in the back. And also it’s very weird right now because we are now in a universe we were not in, in 2000. In 2000 books were published in England and they were published in America. And they were published in England whenever they were published in England, and they were published in America whenever they were published in America. It didn’t really matter, and Terry Pratchett and I sold Good Omens over here and we did our Good Omens tour, and we went over to America six months later and did it over there; and it didn’t matter – nobody cared, nobody thought about it. And then Amazon.com changed the entire playing field, and the entire playing field really changed apparently with the third Harry Potter book when they discovered that Americans were buying copies of Prisoner of Azkaban through Amazon.co.uk. Now, in actual fact as far as I know no more than a 1000 copies were sold, it may well have been only about 500, but it’s the sort of numbers that people start noticing. And it’s numbers that publishers don’t like giving up.
And then, to complicate the issue even further, in Australia a law was passed…it didn’t declare Australia an open market, but what it did do was say, if within 30 days of a book or something coming out somewhere in the world it wasn’t officially on sale, released in Australia, Australians could legally buy it from anywhere, import it from anywhere. Which means that if the UK edition of Anansi Boys didn’t come out within 30 days – even though Australia is UK territory, it only stays UK territory as long as Anansi Boys comes out within 30 days of the Americans. So you get the bizarre situation of Anansi Boys coming out in America and in the UK on the same day in September, but me not coming over and doing the signing tour in the UK til 5 th November. And I think part of it, honestly, is that Headline know that they’re competing with the US edition which, given the state of the dollar, is very cheap and is everywhere, so they came up with this idea of doing the DVD extras which I’ve gone along with for the hardcover; I haven’t yet made up my mind whether they’ll make it into the paperback or not. I suspect they won’t; I suspect I’ll have a little grumbly argument on my hands from Headline who’re going to point out that they really need them and I’m going to probably wind up saying no. Because for me the book is the book without the extras; the extras really are DVD extras – and I don’t like the idea of them being automatically in there. I do like the idea that they reward people who were actually willing to pay the seventeen quid, or the ten quid if you’re buying it from Amazon, for the hardback. I think that’s a nice reward, to say thank you for having bought a hardback: they’re big expensive things and there’s that weird knowledge that there are people in the signing lines who had to go without food in order to get the hardback.
Paul Kane: It makes it more special, doesn’t it?
Marie O’Regan: It does. How have you found working on the BFS Calendar the last couple of years and did you like the artwork?
Neil Gaiman: Yes I did, I liked the artwork on both of them. I dunno, it’s one of those things that you do; you get an e-mail and then you say yes, and eight months later you get a series of ever more worried e-mails (all laugh). Then you get the e-mail that points out that you are now the last person and that Clive has delivered his thing and somebody else actually went and did their 100 words and had it tattooed on their back or something, so at that point you get on with it.
Paul & Marie: Thank you very much Neil.
Neil Gaiman: A pleasure, guys.
Interview (C) Paul Kane, Marie O'Regan & Neil Gaiman, November 2005.
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