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Neil Gaiman on politics, porn, and Nazis

We talked to Neil Gaiman about “American Gods,” politics, porn, and Nazis

Neil Gaiman first started coming to America nearly four decades ago, cloaked in obscurity and the smog that wreathed the New York City of the early 1980s. It wasn’t until 1987 that the place truly came alive for the Englishman, showing its potential as a home and a backdrop for rich storytelling.

Thirteen years later came the novel “American Gods,” about the old deities immigrants brought to America, the new ones looking to replace them, and the ex-con widower caught up in the middle of it all.   

And now, just about 17 years later, “American Gods” will be the first of Gaiman’s novels to be turned into an American TV series. The TV version, with “Hannibal” adapter Bryan Fuller at the helm and starring Ian McShane as Odin and Ricky Whittle as Shadow, the aforementioned ex-con, premieres April 30 on Starz.

Starz found success turning a fan-beloved book into a TV show with Scottish time-travel romance “Outlander” (based on Diana Gabaldon’s book series of the same name), and looks to be repeating the formula with “American Gods.” Fuller’s work on “Hannibal” felt like he was creating the most beautiful nightmare you’ve ever had, and he’s putting those skills to excellent use in rendering Gaiman’s surreal world, in which women shove worshipping men whole into their vaginas. (It’s a love goddess thing.)

What’s odd is that, with “American Gods,” Gaiman set out to write a book that couldn’t be turned into a movie or series. “I had written film scripts and was very tired of writing 120-page stories that were comprehensible to studio executives,” Gaiman tells VICE News. “I wanted to write something big and weird and put everything I thought and felt about America in there, and everything I didn’t understand about America; it seemed like this was something that could only be a novel.”

But the intervening years between the novel’s publication and its debut in a new medium have made the translation possible. The author spoke with VICE News about immigration, the double-edged sword of technology, and gay porn.

The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

VICE News: The major conflict in the material comes from there not being enough belief to go around, sparking a war between the old gods like Odin and new gods like Media and the Technical Boy. But these days, it feels like a large number of Americans no longer believe in anything.

Neil Gaiman: The thing that baffles me mostly now is, stuff that I wrote 17 years ago that I did not think was in the slightest bit contentious suddenly is. Like the idea that immigration is a good thing. That people have been coming to America from all over the world for years and years, voluntarily and involuntarily, and bringing wonderful things with them, and making this country richer — I didn’t think that was open to debate. I didn’t think it was in any way contentious having characters from all different beliefs and cultures and skin tones, because that makes America. I didn’t think it would be contentious having a mixed-race lead, because that is America.

All of that stuff, which seems to me the least controversial stuff in the world… I’m seeing headlines now like, “Is ‘American Gods’ the most political series of 2017?” Maybe we are, but these are truths that I thought we held as self-evident, as the phrase goes. We were describing the world we saw, and we’re now running into people that have other beliefs.

What do you think happened?

In many ways I blame the Technical Boy. One of the things that was great about the internet and social media, when it started, was that it allowed the dispossessed to find each other. I was a little geek kid who liked science fiction and there was no one in my school who liked science fiction, and I went to another school and found maybe one person or two people who liked science fiction and comics like I did. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I found my people.

So it was this idea where there were people like me in every town and every school that had no voice or power and were suddenly becoming a mass power and could talk to each other and go, “Oh my gosh, we’re not alone,” and that was wonderful.

What never occurred to me is that in every town you also have a Nazi who had been sitting there going, “I can’t talk to anyone about being a Nazi. I can’t talk to anyone about my belief that people should be killed and the races should be cleansed.” They went online too, and they found each other, “Oh wow, actually, there are hundreds of thousands of us! And now we’re all together now too!”

It’s the phenomenon of the long tail, where suddenly the people whose opinions would have been regarded as noxious and condemned to the fringes are now suddenly edging together in groups. That is probably the Technical Boy’s fault.

As we’re speaking, in fact, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg just delivered a speech in which he addressed the fact that someone streamed a murder on Facebook and then segued right into talking about augmented reality.

And then there’s the other side. Do I think the level of violence by police against people of color in America who have done nothing wrong has increased? Probably not, but the fact that is being caught on video and social media, and it’s being shown that sometimes the police lie and try to cover things up among themselves, does that change things? Yes it does. Could that be something that occurs for the better? Yes, probably! On the other hand, what you’re seeing now in some parts of Americans is that it simply becomes illegal to film a policeman, and you go, hold on a minute, that’s not actually the solution, guys.

What’s your “coming to America” story?

The first time I ever came to America, I think it was 1981. And the thing that I remember is landing at JFK, which at that time was the sleaziest, scuzziest, bus terminal of an airport you could possibly imagine, and looking out of the window and seeing the most glorious sunset of my life. And I suspected it was probably due to the amount of smog around back in those days, but it looked like the sky was set on fire.

The America of those days now seems like ancient history. The idea of an America where there were no cell phones, where there were no computers, where people drove 1980s cars and had just recovered from the gas shortages.

But the first time I really started actually enjoying America was when I came out here in the late ’80s as a young comics writer. It was the end of ’87, and I was couriering pages from “Black Orchid.” New York in 1987 was still a bit of a scary place. There were streets you didn’t go down, places where there were pickpockets. But it felt more alive than anywhere I’d ever been, and felt more alive then than New York now feels. Everything feels incredibly safe, which I think is a wonderful thing, but I do miss that little weird soupçon of danger.

Handing over your work to be adapted can be tough. Were there scenes you thought wouldn’t make it into the show?

Even in a world in which the nature of television has changed, the point where I’m watching the Salim and jinni sequence [in which the two male characters make love] on screen as I wrote it — I never imagined, when I was writing it, I would see it on a screen of any kind. And when I read the script for that episode, I said, “They say they’re going to do this, but obviously that’s not what they’re going to do.”

But then I’m watching it, and I appear to be watching the best gay porn I’ve ever watched. My sampling of gay porn is basically just this, but I’m watching it and I can’t believe they’re doing it. You feel like boundaries are being pushed, and that makes me very proud.

The old gods in “American Gods” were brought by immigrants. If we were living in that world, what would you have brought with you, riding in your mind across the Atlantic?

If I brought anything with me, it would probably have manifested as a library. And I would have brought over some England with me. The Englishness I would have brought with me would be faerie — the British belief in faerieland and the faerie creatures. And so it would have manifested as a faerie library, a library that you could wander in forever, and where you only find the books you were never looking for.

You travel a lot. Do you bring physical copies of particular books with you as reminders of home, or are you strictly a Kindle kind of guy?

Well, no Kindle, because I lose those, I leave them everywhere. But I love the apps: Kindle and Google Play Books and iBooks, because you find different things in them.

But I love traveling with a copy of one of the volumes of Henry Mayhew’s “London Labor and the London Poor,” published in the 1850s and 1860s. It’s interviews with people in London — workers, the more poverty-stricken classes. It’s like a weird, plotless Dickens novel that goes off in all directions, about people I really want to write about.

 

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