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Neil Gaiman on writing and 'American Gods'

(CNN) -- Neil Gaiman is the author of many novels such as "American Gods," "Neverwhere" and "Stardust." Gaiman is also one of the top writers of modern comic books and the creator and writer of the monthly DC comic series “Sandman,” for which he was awarded many of the industry's top awards. Gaiman joined the chat room to discuss his newest book, "American Gods," and his career as a writer.

CNN: What prompted you to write the novel "American Gods?"

GAIMAN: I think the initial motive force was moving to America, where my wife is from, and although I thought I knew all about America from having seen the television and the movies, and having read the books, the longer I stayed out here, the less I realized I knew. So, writing a book to try to explain the place to myself seemed like a sensible thing to do.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Hello Mr. Gaiman, I'm curious, which format of story telling have you found more enjoyable, comic books or novels?

GAIMAN: So far, I've written comics, novels, non-fiction books, short stories, television movies, radio plays and poems, and of all those media, radio plays is easily my favorite, because you get all the joy of movie-making while still engaging the listener's imagination. Sooner or later, I have to write a stage play, and see what I think of those.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is it true that a screenplay for "Good Omens" is being prepared? It's one of my favorite books.

GAIMAN: Terry Gilliam recently announced that he had handed in the second draft of "Good Omens," and was embarking on pre-production and casting. You now know as much as I do. :)

CNN: Despite "American Gods" and other text novels, you are still probably best known for your 10-year-old graphic work. How do you feel about that, and will you go back and forth between the two genres?

GAIMAN: I want to try all media. I'm not sure that I really am most famous for Sandman any more. I may be. It's still the biggest thing I've ever done. It's 2,000 pages long, and took 8 years of my life. It's astonishing, the things one is remembered for. A.A. Milne, in his time, was the most successful essayist and playwright of his generation, and is now only remembered for two volumes of children's stories, and two volumes of children's poems. So, posterity and public opinion gets to pick the things that it remembers. As artists, our job is just to go on making art, and not to worry about that stuff.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Did the gods that turned up as characters in the book have particular relevance to you before writing, or were they included more out of relevance to the story? In other words, how could you possibly choose who to include or not to include?

GAIMAN: For all of the gods in "American Gods" who actually get to come on stage, rule one was that they were half-forgotten or unimportant, at least in an American context. Kali may be huge in India, but she is per force a minor god in America. I wanted characters, gods, who work both in a mythic context as themselves, and gods who would work as fictional characters and fill the kind of roles that I needed for them. I've always had a fondness for the Norse and Egyptian gods, but got to learn about the Slavic gods while writing "American Gods."

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are you intrigued by the way cultures distort their gods, and shape them in new images?

GAIMAN: Absolutely. I think it must be a very hard thing to be a god. You have to be all things to all people.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is your favorite creation, character or story?

GAIMAN: It's like picking the best one of your children! I'm not sure it really works. My very favorite characters tend to be ones I can go back to and look at, and have no idea how they popped out of my head. In "American Gods," I'm very fond of Shadow, because despite being the author, I was never sure that I understood him -- which is a nice place for an author to be. I think with "Sandman" it's probably a toss-up between Delirium and Merv Pumpkinhead. My favorite of all my graphic novels is still probably "Mr. Punch." Shorter work, I think "Murder Mysteries" may be the cleverest short story I've written, but "Chivalry" is probably my favorite.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: It's driving me mad! Who is the god in Las Vegas that no one can remember even the words of?

GAIMAN: I've just come back from an exhausting six week long worldwide signing tour for American Gods, and you forget things.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: There are two fans of yours who are missing this chat today, and will be incredibly sorry that they are missing this. Do you have an online presence, a web site, as well?

GAIMAN: I have a couple of online presences. The most fun is probably at where I keep an online journal, and various other things. You can also find me at the Inkwell section of

CNN: How did you get the idea for your web journal and how much interaction is there with your users online?

GAIMAN: The idea of the web journal was actually one that I had when I started writing the novel. I thought, wouldn't it be really interesting to take people backstage during the whole writing and production part of the novel, having them walk with me, metaphorically holding my hand, at every step of the way through writing and production. And my editor, Jennifer Hershey, talked me out of that, pointing out that a series of entries along the lines of "wrote stuff today, it was great," followed by "wrote stuff today, not so great," would probably act as a soporific. But from the moment I handed the book in, I started the web journal, detailing the entire production process. I was just thrilled with the reaction. We did nothing to promote it at all. We didn't tell people it was out there, just let it happen by word of mouth. One day I looked up, and we had 50,000 people reading it.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Neil: I have a question regarding your work against censorship. Have you found that as a society, Americans are more apt to take a "ban it" attitude than other countries?

GAIMAN: No, actually. I think America is a huge country with an enormous number of shades of opinion. However, what America has, which England and Canada and Australia, and many other countries, do not have, is a First Amendment, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which is at, is an organization which exists to defend the First Amendment rights of comic book creators, publishers, and retailers. The best thing about having the First Amendment is it actually gives you a legal rationale for allowing freedom of speech.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the most exciting and entertaining aspect of going on a book signing tour?

GAIMAN: The best bit is that writing, and especially writing a novel, where you get to sit in a room by yourself with either a pen and a paper or a computer for a couple of years, is a very solitary occupation. You can read sales figures -- a hundred thousand books sold, half a million books sold -- but they are just numbers. The best thing about doing a signing tour is that numbers become faces. I got to sign books for six or seven thousand people, all of whom were dreadfully nice. Everything else, the interviews, the hotels, the plane travel, the best-seller lists, even the sushi, gets old awfully fast. Well, maybe not the sushi.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Where did you get the best sushi you've ever eaten?

GAIMAN: The best sushi on the tour was, of all places, in Victoria, British Columbia, which seems terribly unlikely.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What advice would you give to writers trying to break into the publishing world?

GAIMAN: Well, I used to have lots of pieces of advice for writers, and these days, I've whittled them down to two pieces of advice. Which are, (1) if you're going to be a writer, you have to write. (2) You have to finish things. Beyond that, I suspect all is detail, but I would add to that, that having written it and finished it, you should send it off to somewhere that might publish it, and not get discouraged if it comes back. Keep sending it out again, and keep writing. There is no magic formula. People who come to you, asking for the secret, on the whole tend to want to know how you do it without work. Or even if there is work, they think there is a secret... you must go down to the cellar at midnight, strip naked, and cast the goat bones between the two black candles, and then there will come a knock on the door, and you must go up and answer, and Stephen King, John Grisham, and Danielle Steele will be standing there, in black robes waiting to induct you into the Order of Writers.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Your recent tour excluded the Southern states, even though we gave you Lookout Mountain for the final battle. When will you be heading down south?

GAIMAN: First of all, my apologies. In my defense, all I can say is that I didn't pick the bookstores, and that no southern bookstores approached Harper Collins in a convincing way. I would love to come and do a southern tour. To make up for it, and because I feel guilty, I will be going to a convention in New Orleans later this year, and one in Austin, Texas early next year. Details are in the journal at

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Gaiman - it has been said, "no work of art is ever finished, just abandoned". Do you wish you could go back and change or update any of your work?

GAIMAN: Mostly, I think that's very true. I think you get to the point where you realize that it may not be as good as the thing you had in your head, but it's probably time to move on and do the next thing anyway. I very rarely want to go back and fix things, because I'm much more interested in the next thing, and in taking what I learned from the things that don't work, and applying them to new things that may work.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

GAIMAN: For all the people who came out on the "American Gods" tour, I'd just like to say thank you so much. You were all so incredibly nice. And for anyone who has not yet read it, I want you to do those sensible readerly things, like mortgage members of your family to be able to afford a copy. And I'd like to thank you for your intelligent questions.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

GAIMAN: You are so welcome.

Neil Gaiman joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Monday, July 30, 2001.

• Harper Collins: Neil Gaiman
• Neil Gaiman: 'American Gods'
• Neil Gaiman: Biography

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