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Neil Gaiman

The Dream Hunter

NEIL GAIMAN ” — Fucine Mute 33

Neil Gaiman

The Dream Hunter
interview by Fabio Bonetti

Fabio Bonetti (FB): Have you been influenced by any particular author or specific genre, or do you just have a “natural talent”?

NEIL GAIMAN (NG): I don’t know about a natural talent, but I’m not sure that there was any one author. I remember when I was about 21 — 22, reading an essay, actually not a story, about Harlan Ellison, where he was basically saying “if you want to be a writer, then write and get on with it and stop wasting time” that may well have tipped me over the edge. But I think a lot more of it, was just that was the way my head worked, that was what I dreamed about doing at the age when other kids were dreaming about being astronauts or being traindrivers or famous footballers, I was dreaming about going into a parallel world just like this one, except no one had ever written Lord of the Rings with my copy of Lord of the Rings and then I would go into this parallel world and I could be the person who had written Lord of the Rings… those were my kind of fantasies.

FB: When I read John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” I noticed that some of the names of the Endless, such as Delight and Delirium, have been taken from that book. Could the passage from Delight to Delirium be interpretated as the passage from biblical innocence to the loss of Paradise?

NG: The Delight and the Delirium thing… I reserve the right not to answer, because maybe one day I will write the story. But I think Paradise Lost informed most of all the portrayals of Lucifer. I really loved the idea of taking Lucifer from Paradise Lost…the idea of somebody who would, as Milton said “rather reign in hell, than serve in heaven” just seemed so perfect. The idea that if I was going to take a hell… I enjoyed the fact that the first time we went to hell, I was using the hell of Dante — you know it’s very very explicit, the hell of Dante’s Inferno — and then moving from there into Milton , essentially for Season of Mists and Season of Mists for me, I suppose was a way of writing my own coda to Paradise Lost; in that Milton’s coda “Paradise Regained” is essentially saying that Christ came along and everything got better again, and my adjective is yes, but that still left Lucifer down there, which rather missed the point. So I wanted a story essentially about the redemption of the devil and giving him a sort of limited redemption. But I just loved the idea, that you can stop doing anything, which is one of the themes that runs through the whole of Sandman… all the way through over and over again, its that you don’t have to be there, you can leave…you can go, you’re not stuck.

FB: You began as a journalist, you wrote comics and became famous, you wrote a BBC serial and you have been involved with the cinema. Is there a particular medium which you feel most at ease with? I mean: is the creative process that counts, or does it depend upon the medium you’re using?

NG: I’m always interested in the media, because the medium sets the limitations, it’s like whether you’re playing chess or playing draughts or playing tennis, you have different equipment and different rules although you have the same kind of objectives. The medium which I feel most at ease…that’s a hard one. I think my favourite of all the media I’ve worked in, is probably one you haven’t mentioned…and you haven’t mentioned novels, and you haven’t mentioned short stories, but you also haven’t mentioned radio plays, and radio plays…actually audio plays are my favourite medium. They are the one with the smallest amount of respect, the smallest audience base, I think of any of them. But I love the power of audio drama: you can take some of the techniques of cinema and you can take some of the techniques of comics and you use them to make a person, build up a world in their head, but it’s a drama…a medium in which maybe once a year I set some time aside and write one, and everything else subsides it.

FB: You have worked with some talented artists. If had to tell you two names of artists that I think were a great pleasure to work with, I would say Dave McKean and Charles Vess. Who are your favourite artists to work with?

NG: Sure, they both are two of the people I enjoy working with most in the world, and for very different reasons… with Dave McKean… the thing that I enjoy working most about with Dave, is that I never know what I’m gonna get, he will always surprise me…I will give him something and he will give me something back, which is 180° from what I was expecting and yet is perfect. Charlie…he will give me back exactly what I was expecting, only it will be even better than I expected and both of them. And the other one I would like to add to the list is P. Graig Russell, who like Charles Vess has the quality of just giving you the thing that they thought they would give you, only even better. But all three men are a joy to work with.

FB: Speaking of Dave McKean, who you first worked with, I noticed that in Violent Cases, in Mr. Punch, in The day I swapped my dad for two goldfish, the central theme is childhood, focusing on particular aspects of one’s childhood which are usually forgotten about. I also noticed this in Good Omens, too, and very few artists manage to do this. People like Stephen King and Truffaut have also portrayed this point. Can you tell me a bit about this?

NG: When I was a child and I would read books by adults, very often I would read them with a lot of puzzlement, because I would read them and would go he’s forgotten, how could they write a book with such nonsense…how could they think this is what it’s like to be a child…it’s not like this to be a child at all, and I promised myself I would not forget…and I promised myself if I ever grew up and wrote, I would tell them. For me the best thing about Violent Cases, which is my first book, was the people that would read it would come up to me, and they would say: “it’s when I was reading it, I remembered this and this about my childhood, which were things id forgotten for twenty years”…and I found that very important, the idea that I could give some of these people bits of their memory back that they had forgotten. I don’t think that I have finished writing about my childhood, I don’t think that I will ever finish writing about my childhood, because every adult I’ve ever met is at heart a twelve year old faking it, and I can see that one day I will be an eighty year old writer, who is still a twelve year old faking it.

FB: Just a curiosity: is it true that The day I swapped my dad for two goldfish was inspired by a family happening?

NG: Oh yes, very perceptive…when my son, who has just gone off to college, he’s eighteen now… About ten years ago I just said something to him which was awful and unreasonable like: “I think its your bedtime now”, and he looked up at me with all the fury an eight year old can muster and he said: “I wish I didn’t have a dad, I wish I had” …and you could see him trying to figure out what else could you have, if you didn’t have a dad. And he said: “I wish I had goldfish”, and I just looked at him and thought: “That’s brilliant, what a great story that would be”. And I decided, initially to start writing a story about a kid who got mad and traded his dad for goldfish and eventually the way the story worked better in my head was a father who wasn’t that the kid ever got mad at him, but really…this really cool goldfish…the father was always reading the newspaper and never really noticed. That was the way the book worked.

FB: We have talked about children as characters, and I noticed that also female characters in your work are very important. For example, in the last dance of Ishtar, or in The Kindly Ones, they have an emotional strenght that I would like you to explain.

NG: When I started reading comics or getting back into comics — and for that matter I have to say its true for even today — most comics which have women in, seem somehow to have been written by someone who has never actually met a woman. Which when you think about it, its kind of strange and miraculous, you don’t know how they could have done this…they must have had mothers, they must have encountered women at some point, but when they come to actually write about them, what they tend to write is…men with melons strapped to their chest and giant wigs and big guns just like all the women you’ve met. And I thought it would be much more interesting, when I wrote Sandman, to try and put women into it, because half the human race are women. They’re really interesting and I thought I will try and do it in a radical new way, which I will just write about people and see how that works. And so I did and was astonished very soon when I had people who owned comic stores coming up to me and saying: “I’ve got to shake your hand, your the man who brought women into my store”. And suddenly in Sandman, you know half of our readers were women and I think this was probably because I wrote for human beings, rather than for fourteen year old boys.

FB: You seem to be both fascinated and respectful towards female characters, but I also think that these characters portray a lot of irony towards Sandman, who otherwise would completely be ruled by his own seriousness.

NG: I think it’s true, and I think it is also true of many characters in there, who are not female as well, which on the one hand, one is myth building, one is trying to create a character who lives in, who rules our dreams, who has existed since time began, who is in anyway that it matters completely all powerful. And so having done that, it’s enormous fun to then create characters who take that character down a peg, who essentially anchor them to the ground, and some of those characters are women, because his relationships with women are always doomed and appalling. And some of them are men… I mean, there’s a pumpkin headed Janitor called Merv who essentially gets to be me: everytime the Sandman gets too big and ironic and byronic and so on and so forth I get to write a little Merv scene, just again to slide the pin in and prick the bubble a little bit.

FB: You have said that Sandman is a story about story in general. You used archetypes, myths and legends of all kind which carry a responsability. Did you feel any difficulties is carrying those responsabilities?

NG: Not really, I mean it was never a problem for me, it was the joy of doing it. Yes, you are creating a vast metafiction, yes you are creating a vast story about story and the nature of story and why we tell stories, but it is also a story, which means that everything that you are doing is subsumed in the need to just keep people reading and to keep them going along with the story. What I wanted to create with Sandmanis something you can re-read, so if somebody picks its up once and just reads it as an adventure, they read it for what happens, everything on the surface, that’s fine, there is a story there for them. If five years later having read a lot more and lived a lot more they pick it up and read it again, they may find it a completely different story; and ten years after that, if they read the whole thing again, they may find it a completely different story again… they will see relationships, they will see nuances, they will see things which were not there the first time and that’s intentional; but I hope, I hope everything is like strata. You know with Sandman you can go down farther and the more you know, the more pleasure you can take… but I would like you to be able to take pleasure by just walking on the surface.

FB: You were involved in legal actions with the Comic Books Legal Defence Fund. I would like to know how much you are involved and has there been any specific case, and what was the outcome of those cases if any?

NG: First of all the comic legal defence fund is the organisation which exists to defend first amendments rights, which is to say freedom of speech rights for comics…freedom of speech rights in America have been definitely established for books, for novels; nobody is ever going to say that novel must be taken off the shelves, it contains something that we disagree with or whatever…something obscene. But comics, as I’m sure you have found in Italy, as I have found in England, first of all are a very easy target. To ban a book you have to make people read the book, to ban a film you have to show them some of the film, to ban a comic all you have to do is show them one panel out of context, and then out to a television news reporter standing in front of a bunch of comics and say: “It’s that filth I’ve just shown you that your children are reading and all of a sudden everybody is up in arms”. So for many years I have been raising funds for the legal defence fund and these days, I’m now actually in the board of directors of the defence fund and their function is just to fight in the courts if necessary. But otherwise, sometimes it’s necessary for freedom of speech in comics. So you asked for specific cases… They range from all over the place. A few years ago there was a case in which we won, which was with a comic artist and writer named Paul Mavrides, who does the Fabulous Furry Freak Comics, against the state of California, whose tax authorities had decided to re-classify comics from literature to sign painting, and literature has first amendment freedoms and sign painting does not, and the same went with text…so we fought a case and we won. One that we lost was with a guy called Mike Diana, who had a comic called Boiled Angel, which was a little fanzine he did. He maybe sold three hundred, four hundred copies if that; most of them were sent out to people, one of them was bought by a police officer. Mike found himself spending the night in the cells and then being arrested and charged with obscenity, and we lost. We last fought the case in Pencicola, Florida, and the jury in Pencicolasaid: “no, this was definitely obscene”, and the judge imposed a sentence which included a $3000 fine, three years suspended sentence in prison, a thousand hours of community service, a course in journalistic ethics at his own expense, a course of psychiatric treatment at his own expense, not allowed within ten feet of anybody under the age of eighteen, which meant he lost his job in his dad’s convience store; and as a final thing he was forbidden from ever drawing anything again that anybody could find obscene, and the local police were empowered to do twenty-four hour spot checks on the place that Mike Diana lived, to make sure he wasn’t drawing anything… so sometimes we lose.

FB: Do episodes such as the Pulitzer whis Art Spiegelman won or the World Fantasy Award for A Midsummer’s Night Dream which you won give comics the credit that they deserve?

NG: I think in many ways, right now we’re in one of the best times comics have ever had: I was thrilled to see that Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Boy in the World was nominated for a Guardian fiction prize, again just nominated as a novel, which I think is so much more important than Spiegelman getting a Pulitzer or Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons getting the Hugo award. For each case in the Pulitzer and Hugo, they were given special Hugos: it’s kind of like the special Olympics, you know for the challenge kids who tried hard. Whereas I think your getting more stuff today, it’s competing with other forms of literature, it’s getting in there which is great and you’ve got Dan Clowes with the success of Ghost World the film. I think all that is wonderful, and at the end of the day I think as many of comics strength as its weaknesses came from the fact that it is a gutter literature, and I would not want to drag it out the gutter because there is a lot of power in the gutter; and I think that with all its faults, comics has on the whole more life than you will find in the mainstream part of a bookshop. You pick up these novels and so many of them are desecrated and castrated and devoid of life and blood and then you’ll pick up a comic and you go well… here’s Alan Moore having fun in his America Best Comics series and their goofy and their strange and they have so much blood and so much life.

FB: You started to work in cinema, for example with the English editions of Princess Mononoke and Avalon. There are rumors of the Good Omens movie by Terry Gilliam which seem to be founded. On the other hand, rumors regarding the possible movies for Sandman and Death seem to be just rumors.

NG: Let me see if I can do all of the films, I will probably forget something, but… Yes, Terry Gilliam is doing Good Omens, they have written a script, he and a man called Tony Grisoni; it’s a very good script. Both terry Prachett and I liked it, he’s off in pre-pre production hoping that a funny film about the end of the world is still funny these days, so that’s going very well. Currently, I’m writing a script for Death, The High Cost of Living film. Meanwhile, yes, there is a Sandman film in development. What that seems to me is that you get scripts written after scripts, each script has been successfully worse than the last that I’ve seen for ages; they don’t seem to be doing it very well, and I’m perfectly happy for them to not do it very well. As long as that means they don’t make a bad film out of my baby. Books of Magic seems to be going well, they seem to be putting together a film on that with a director attached and everything and that seems to be moving, and Tim Hunter, the lead character in the film, is no longer a twelve year old English kid with dark hair and big glasses with an owl on his shoulder, because they thought that might confuse people. But other than that its going very well. Neverwhere: there’s a film of that in production somewhere along the line or in development; and Stardust is also moving, not fast but it’s moving. And with most of these things and I’m sure I’ve left some out. Several of my short stories have been optioned for films. What will probably happen is that they will all happen within six months of each other; certainly one of them will happen and all the rest of them will happen and there will be Neil Gaiman films coming out of your ears and then nobody will make another one for the rest of my life.

FB: If I’m not mistaken, you’re not completely satisfied with the BBC production of the Neverwhere series. Are you concerned about your work being transformed into something wich is far away from the original story? Ho much control do you actually have?

NG: Well it depends: sometimes there are some things in which I over exert complete control and some over which I exert absolutely no control. Several of the short stories that people have bought the film rights to… well that’s ok go make a film then. You know I hope they invite me to the premier, but they may not even remember to do that. Whereas with other things, you know…you hope… I mean no I wasn’t very happy with the BBC production of Neverwhere, there are some bits in it and some nice performances, but it really wasn’t the series that I felt I had written. Which is one reason why I then went off and turned my scripts into the novel and the whole point of the novel was much more…no, this is what I meant. If anybody sits and reads the novel and then watches the TV series, they should go ok I see what’s missing, that what it was meant to be. But I don’t think that will be any reason for stopping all future films. What I’m trying to do over the things in which I have control and bear in mind, I have no control over things like Death or Sandman or Books of Magic: these are owned by DC Comics, these are owned by Warner Bros, but the things over which I have control, what I try and do is put them in the right hands, so with Good Omens the perfect person would be Terry Gilliam; for American Gods, many people have come along. Nobody seemed right yet, so I haven’t said yes yet.

FB: Comics and cinema seem to converge in a produtive result more so than the past. In the past most movies which were taken from comics were bad movies, but in the past ten years or so it seems that this trend is of the opposite. Do you agree with that? And are you at ease with giving your stories to somebody who would like to make them into films?

NG: I think, to be honest, that’s it’s as difficult as it’s ever been…I think your optimism is hopelessly misguided, because over the years what is it now! The hundred years, the ninety years, the eighty-five years, we’ve been turning books into films…one thing has proved true over and over again, which is mostly good books don’t turn into great films. Sometimes they do: you’ll get a Rosemary’s Baby, you’ll get a Silence of the Lambs, you’ll get a Gone with the Wind… great films, great books that became great films. But for everyone of those you’ll get a hundred films where you sit and you watch it and you’re going… why do you think this was a good idea, look they have thrown everything that mattered in the book out…and you’re sitting in the cinema and you’re watching Smilla’s sense of snow going I hope somebody bombs the cinema, so I can leave. Right now we have From Hell, which I hear very good things about, and I hear Ghost World, which I hear very good things about. To be honest, I don’t think that will do anything for the status of comics anymore than Men in Black been a huge hit, did anything for the status of comics. Or even X-Men being a hit or the original Superman film. People regard them as a very different media and they are. The process of adapting anything into a film is a very difficult one. The reason why comics get turned into films is because film executives have no imagination and they see the pictures, and they look a bit like storyboards and they get it, and they can get it quicker, and actually sometimes it means you can sell the idea to Hollywood. But whether you’re going to get a great film or not… remains in the lap of the gods.

FB: Just a curiosity: you keep a diary… and we don’t want to know what you actually write in your diary but we would like to know the importance you hold regarding your daily notes and reflections. Do you find them fundamental for your creative process?

NG: I love keeping little journals and keeping little diaries, I’m not a very good…I’m a terrible diarist. But I really enjoy having notebooks. I love the tactile sense of writing with a fountain pen. When I was out yesterday in Venice, I found myself this…which is a moleskin thing, it has a little thing on the back to put things in…and I started writing, and most of it is actually filled with story ideas and little reflections on things that I may use in stories or I may not…and just things that I want to remember. Coming to Trieste for me is fascinating, because most of the places you go have their own story structure, the kind of stories that get told in that place or about that place. You go to Venice and you know what all the Venetian stories are and how Venice creates its stories, and a lot of Venetian stories by definition are old or if you’re going to write a story set in Venice, it’s always somehow about the collision between the old Venice and the new Venice…whether it’s a ghost story in reality or a ghost story on some level, well, I get fascinated in making notes about that. Also it’s fascinating coming to Trieste and going this is really interesting, you have a place that is at the confluence of so many stories…yes you have the Romans coming up here, you also have this is where eastern Europe and western Europe meet, this is where you launch off into the odyssey. I would love to tell a story set in Trieste, and so taking little notes and putting reflections in there, most of which I will never read again and I will never look at again, but that not sort of the point. The point is that they go in there and one day I maybe looking through and something will strike me or just the fact that I’ve written it down it will keep something there in the back of my head.

the interpreter is Sabina Bernardi
transcription by Jamil Ahmad

Neil Gaiman (details)

interview by Fabio Bonetti (details)

Questa conversazione con Neil Gaiman si è svolta in occasione di Science+Fiction, il Festival della Fantascienza di Trieste (21-28 settembre 2001). La presenza del comic-writer è motivata da un incontro con il pubblico tenutosi il 23 settembre, in una tavola rotonda moderata da Enrico Fornaroli che ha inoltre visto la presenza di Sergio Bonelli e Alfredo Castelli.

Di Neil Gaiman, cortese ed estremamente disponibile lungo tutti i giorni trascorsi in Italia, non occorrono presentazioni: autore di fumetti, romanziere, sceneggiatore per il cinema, la televisione e la radio, è tra gli scrittori più quotati degli ultimi anni. Ci ha riferito del suo ritorno ai fumetti al fianco di Moebius e, vista la quantità dei progetti futuri di cui ci ha parlato, trascorreremo ancora molti piacevoli anni in compagnia del Signore dei Sogni.

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