Interview: Neil Gaiman (english)

Neil Gaiman may be a worldwide literary celebrity - in Germany he is still largely unknown. BRIGITTE.de met with the author to chat about sudden anonymity, his favorite Grimms' fairytale and his upcoming projects.

BRIGITTE.de: Welcome to Germany! Is it nice to walk around here and not get recognized?

Neil Gaiman: It's odd. It's kind of nice, in some ways. Going to Germany is a little bit like going back in time, to a place where I was for the rest of the world, 15 years ago. But to be honest it's one of the things I'm so happy about with The Graveyard Book. The Germans seem to be finding it and liking it, and that makes me very happy. Until now, there's always been a huge German audience, but it's never been reflected in book-buying, mostly because the Germans buy my books in English. So that's one of the things that makes me very happy with The Graveyard Book book doing so well - it's actually people in Germany buying it in German.

BRIGITTE.de: Do you think it's possible that people prefer the English editions, because a lot of subtleties get lost in translation?

Neil Gaiman: I think that is probably a problem for any author that is trying to work the language very hard. The truth is you are always at the mercy of your translators, on the one hand. On the other hand you can be real grateful to your translators. Neverwhere won a huge literary award in France. And I'm very aware that Patric Michele, who translated it, is as much the winner of that award as I am. The countries where I went huge - Poland is a glorious example of a country where as soon as the books came out people loved them, and loved me and it became a wonderful thing. But I'm very aware that I got very lucky with my translators. It's...the eEnglish expression would be "swings and roundabouts". Yes, you lose things through some translators, but you gain things through others. And it always fascinates me how many authors gain in translation. For example, the French love Philip K. Dick. And Philip K. Dick was a great ideas person. But as a writer, just putting words together, he's very dull and kind of sloppy. Not always. But he tended towards the sloppy because his books were written very, very fast. His French translators have made Philip K. Dick look very good.

Video: Neil Gaiman

Kultur: Interview: Neil Gaiman

BRIGITTE.de: A few years ago the German publishers had issues with your children's book - the original covers were deemed too scary, etc. Has there been any trouble with the German edition of The Graveyard Book?

Neil Gaiman: It's not the case with The Graveyard Book. It's out there, and I think the German cover, which is the tin box, is my favorite of all The Graveyard Book covers. I think all books should come in bullet-proof tin boxes. It's such a great idea! But it's still true in some cases. The German edition of Coraline is still the only case in the world where they haven't published the Dave McKean illustrations, which were deemed to be too disturbing or scary for the German market.

BRIGITTE.de: So - have there been cases of traumatized children? Neil Gaiman: Adults and children are reading completely different genres of story. For a child - they're reading an adventure story about somebody who goes up against something scary and wins. And adult is reading a story about a child in danger. It can be a much more traumatic book for an adult than it is for a child. I think that's honestly the same as the first pages of The Graveyard Book. Basically you have a killer walking around the house in the dark with a knife having just killed 3 or four members of the family looking for the baby. And for an adult, especially with what an adult brings to that, it's a very very scary opening sequence. And I think for kids it's much less scary. The story is just starting, they're finding out what's gonna happen, and what's interesting to them is: Baby heading off to the graveyard? That is so cool! They don't sit there going: We must mourn this family! This is a tragic and awful thing! They go: We don't know these people, and they've been taken offstage the same way James' parents were taken away by a rhino in James and the Giant Peach on page one. Just to get them offstage. BRIGITTE.de: Children don't mind a little bit of darkness?Neil Gaiman: I'm saying that children have very little problems with darkness in fiction. I'm saying if you take any well-known children's story, and you break it down and you tell it to an adult it can sound horrifying. If you compare anything I do in Coraline or The "Graveyard Book to Hansel and Gretel - mine don't even come close. It was also a story that the Grimms, who were very very careful about what they allowed children to get, were perfectly happy to give to the kids. Because what people were complaining about in the first edition of the Grimms was the sex. That what it was thought necessary to keep people away from. So you have for example in the first edition of Grimm's Fairytales, the story of Rapunzel. The witch realizes that Rapunzel has had a man up in her tower because Rapunzel says: "Why is it that I cannot do my shirt up anymore and my dress is so tight? My belly is swelling, what's happening?" And the witch goes: "Aha! She has had a man up here!" And that's the point where she gets the prince up and blinds him. And of course Rapunzel goes out in the wilderness and gives birth to twins, which is what she does next in the story. But in the rewrite Rapumzel has now become incredibly stupid. Rather than just being interestingly naive because she has been brought up in a tower and has nobody except the witch, so has no idea of what sex is and what the consequences are, which is really interesting. Now she is just stupid, because now she says to the witch: "You know, you are much lighter than the prince is, who comes up my hair.", at which point the witch knows that she is seeing a man, and which is much less good. But it's the version that now comes down to us. They made sure they took out any mention of reproduction. Bellies don't swell in Grimm's Fairytales, but people still get eaten, and eyes can still be cut out and all that.

BRIGITTE.de: Most of your work has fantasy/horror elements in it. You're probably too aware of the condescending "if it's fantasy, it has no literary merit" attitude. Where do you think that comes from?

Neil Gaiman: I don't know because it isn't there in world literature. For me it's always Shakespeare. If you're gonna say "Shakespeare is literature", you're gonna have to allow your fairies and your asses' heads, and you're gonna have to allow your monsters and you're gonna have to allow your ghosts. You cannot have Shakespeare without your Macbeth and your Tempest and Stuff anymore than you can talk about world literature and exclude Faust. You know, as far as I'm concerned, anyone who says "World literature cannot have monsters, the devil and fantastic elements" just said "Goethe's Faust is not literature". Which is, as far as I'm concerned, a way of saying: "I am a very stupid person."

BRIGITTE.de: You've once said that you could tell if a horror story works or not, because successful ones cause the physical sensation of being scared. Can books still do that to you?

Neil Gaiman: Sure! What I said was: Horror is one of the three primal forms of literature, where you can actually tell if they work or not. They have a function. And they would be pornography, horror and humor. With pornography, if you're aroused, it works. With humor, if you laugh it works. And with horror I feel there should be creeping chills. Really good horror can still do that thing where the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and where I'm sort of prickling and where you realize you're breathing a little bit faster.

BRIGITTE.de: For instance?

Neil Gaiman: For instance...Stephen King can still do that to me, when he's good. Bag of Bones, he did it. I'm now reading a book of his called Under the Dome (Ed: King's new book which will be released in November). And there are plenty of places in there where I go: "You're doing it!" And I remember It, reading it at 3 o'clock in the morning at a friend's house and actually, suddenly realizing I'm scared. And it was a wonderful feeling to know you're a little bit scared, and you're scared in a safe way.

BRIGITTE.de: You have kids yourself - where do you draw the line, when it comes to what books are okay for them to read? Do you draw a line at all?

Neil Gaiman: No, I screwed up the other way! I did it completely wrong. My daughter Holly, when she was about 13 was a huge fan of R.L. Stine and those Goosebump-books. And I said: "You know, if you like R.L. Stine, you'll like Stephen King. Here's Carrie. What do you think of this?" And she read Carrie, and suddenly her reading completely changed. She went on to nice books, Little House on the Prairie. Things where happy people went out to carve things out of the American wilderness. So when her little sister, Maggie, dug out all of her Goosebump-books when she was 12, I said nothing. I just let her get on with reading.

BRIGITTE.de: Since you're so incredibly active online with your blog and twitter, have you ever thought of telling a story online in a way that wasn't possible elsewhere?

Neil Gaiman: If ever I came up with something that would only work online, I would do it. Which is not saying you can't do it and people have done it. What I want when people read my stuff in some ways is the opposite of the internet, the opposite of twitter. Because the internet is designed for a short attention span. The internet is absolutely perfect in a world where somebody can send you a link to an article, from which you find a link to a cool youtube video of somebody pushing a lemon up their nose, to go back to some other e-mail, to a really funny photo of a kitten being cute with a duck. And it doesn't demand concentration. It doesn't demand your attention. And when I am writing I demand your attention. I want you to pay attention. And I would much rather create a story in something like this (holds up book) where nothing is gonna pop up at you while you're reading it. Where there is quiet, and there is a page and there is text, and you get to do all the work in your head. I like that. I like the feeling that it's just you and me. And I want that.

BRIGITTE.de: So - what are your working on right now?

Neil Gaiman: I'm working on a mostly nonfiction book about China and myth. I'm working on two different short stories right now, one of which is a big strange historical story, partly set on the Isle of Sky, and one is a contemporary story about a man with an imaginary girlfriend. And when they are done, I will probably go back to work on the Anansi Boys screenplay which I meant to do. And an episode of a tv series that I wrote, which I need to revise. And I want to write a sequel to Odd and the Frost Giants, so...that's the next thing I'm getting on.

BRIGITTE.de: You've rececently directed a short, silent movie - are you tempted to direct a feature-length film?

Neil Gaiman: I was talking with the producer of the silent film about the idea of maybe doing a film based on some of my short stories. And getting a bunch of directors in to do one story each, and do it like the old Amicus films or things like Creepshow. And maybe do one of those. The truth is: I could absolutely give up two months of my life to doing it, but I can't give up 18 months of my life.

Henning Hönicke

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