– The photographer asked me to climb down the ladder into the water! It was a very good thing that you weren’t there, because you would be going “No! What if my author slips? What if my author dies?“, says a cheerful Neil Gaiman to his Norwegian publisher’s communications manager right before he greets us at the lobby of the The Thief hotel in Oslo.
There is apparently not a lot the very hospitable author will say no to when he meets journalists. Even though he has a full day ahead of him packed with interviews, a huge event and, what he has become known for, book signing.
– The problems of success are better than the problems of failure
Gaiman was scheduled to meet Norwegian journalist Fredrik Wandrup for a discussion at the Literature House in Oslo. So many people wanted to participate that the event was moved to Rockefeller, one of the biggest music venues in town.
– You are a celebrity author and it seems like everybody wants a piece of you. Are there any downsides to being that successful?
– There are a few different downsides. The first time I came to Norway, which was in 1998, I was here for four or five days and, in that time, I did a signing, I did a few interviews, I went up to Bergen, visited the Hardanger falls, I got to learn all about Theodor Kittelsen, I hung out with people, I ate good food, I went for walks. It was five magic days and I left for home feeling happy. This time I’m doing Norway and Sweden and Spain, all in a six-day period. I only have time to do interviews and signings. And, you know, that’s the downside of being very popular. Everybody wants to talk to you.
– But it must be nice too…
– You know, I’m not grumbling. I am very aware that the problems of success are better than the problems of failure. And given the choice, I will take the problems of success rather than the problems of failure.
Thousands of signatures in a single evening
Gaiman's first book was a Duran Duran biography. Shortly afterwards, he created the series The Orchid for DC Comics with Dave McKean, followed by the groundbreaking series Sandman.
Since then, the popularity of the British author har skyrocketed. He has written a long list of bestselling novels, comic books and children's books and received an impressing amount of awards.
He also has a vibrant voice on social media (at the moment he has almost two million followers on Twitter) and it seems like there is no limit to how many fans he is willing to meet when he's on tour.
Last year he was challenged by the people behind Guinness World Records try and beat the world record in book signing.
– They asked me on Twitter, because I realized that I was signing more during any one signing than they had… you know, their top number was four and half thousand or whatever, and I was doing like six or seven thousand a night.
– Wow! How do your hands still work?
– By week two my hand and arm were swollen. I would get a bowl of iced water and I just put my hand in to get the swelling down, says Gaiman, who, according to his own count, signed about one hundred thousand books last year alone.
– Why do you do it?
– Guilt, he answers quickly before taking a somewhat more serious tone.
– I don’t know. I think partly it’s the culture I started in, when I was a young writer. Doing a book signing is something that allows young people who may one day want to be writers to go “Actually, that writer that I love is a human being. If that guy can do that and his hair is all over the place and… then maybe I can do it”. And I think that’s hugely important.
– It didn’t work anymore
Gaiman tells us that last year he decided not to continue going on large-scale book signing tours.
– Last year I did what I decided was my last American book signing tour. It’s not the last time I’ll ever do a signing, but it was the last time I was going to go on tour. Because it didn’t work anymore. You can comfortably sign for six hundred people. You can easily sign for two hundred people. At the point where two thousand people are turning up every night, it’s no fun. It’s two thousand people. You’re gonna be doing it until four o’clock in the morning. And those people are gonna be there from four o’clock in the afternoon. I don’t think it’s fun for them and it’s not fun for me. And you can’t let people down either.
Even though he's extremely busy, Gaiman says he still finds time to read.
– I don’t get as much time to read as I used to, and I miss that. Although I’m starting now to use my Kindle, my iPad and my computer much more than I did.
– Do you read a lot of fantasy and science fiction?
– No, actually most the fantasy and science fiction that I read these days, I’m reading because I’m writing an introduction to something, or because my friends are asking me to read something they wrote. Most of what I’ve been reading ever since Sandman began, is non-fiction. Because that’s where you go to learn stuff that you’re gonna be putting into your stories.
– I suppose it’s like a painter. When you’re a young painter you go and look at all the other painters to get inspiration. When you’re an older painter you go and look at rocks and walls and suns and flowers to get your inspiration to do your paintings. You don’t go into the gallery thinking “I need inspiration”. You want to go back and you want to see the flowers. For me, I’m much more likely to get inspiration for fiction from non-fiction.
– What a great question!
Not unexpectedly, Gaiman lights up when we tell him that we brought questions sent to him by our Twitter followers.
(What kind of impressions were you left with after visiting refugee camps in Jordan?)
– It was how fragile civilization is, how everything we see out there can vanish. You think you’re safe because you own a home, somebody can bomb your home. You think you’re in a good world because you can turn on the taps and the water will appear, and there’s electricity and you can feed your children, and those things can go very quickly. But also how resilient human beings are, and how people can take things that would break them and just keep going, because they have to. Those two things, I think, are the things that I took away.
(Have you ever seen the Northern lights?)
– Not in Norway, I haven’t, which I would love to. I’ve only seen them once in America, and the Northern lights that I saw in America were very disappointing because it was one of the ones where it’s all white. So I got to see the flow and the pulse and the sky looking like a magical painting, but there was no purple and no green, I just had white flowing around. It’s like watching the Northern lights in black and white.
(A movie based on Sandman has been rumored for quite some time. Does he think it will ever happen? And does he think it will be good?)
– I don’t know. The thing about the «long-rumored» Sandman movie is that I don’t control Sandman. Sandman is owned by DC Comics, not by me. Right now, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is working as a producer on Sandman. Every now and then they tell me what they’re doing and I spend a day with Joe and we just talk it through. I hope that they don’t screw it up. I would love for them to make a great movie. But I don’t get to make it. I don’t control it.
– What about the tv series based on American Gods?
– That’s looking like it’s gonna happen. It won’t be with HBO. The company that is making it is called Freemantle and I believe they’ve just signed their show runner. It’s looking like it’s happening.
(Which of his own characters would he like to meet and why?)
– What a great question! If I had to meet anybody, I think I would like to meet Lettie Hempstock from The Ocean at the End of the Lane, because I think she’s nice. And most of my characters I go, yeah, would it be nice to meet Silas from The Graveyard Book? Yes, it would, but he might kill you. Would it be nice to meet death from Sandman? Yes, but it’s sort of a final thing. So I think I’ll take Lettie Hempstock.
This article was originally published in Norwegian.