Neil Gaiman talked with Junot Diaz about Sandman Overture, diversity in comics, and MYTH. It was a lively conversation, followed by a touching ukelele birthday tribute from Amanda Palmer. You can watch a recording of the entire event below, but if you’re pressed for time, I’ve rounded up a few of the highlights.
Junot Diaz and Neil Gaiman were met with what can only be described as screams of joy, as were the mentions of the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, Rutgers University, Sandman, Doctor Who, and Babylon Five. This was a very receptive audience. The two writers had a wide-ranging conversation, which I’ll attempt to sum up below.
Neil Gaiman is planning to spend 2016 as a writer.
Diaz asked if the constant invitations to speak were a temptation for him, and Gaiman replies, “This is my ante-penultimate public event. In 2016 I am just a writer… If you’re going to be a writer, you have to learn to be lonely. Even if you’re filling the room up with people, they’re still only people in your head. Public readings are glorious, but I’m looking forward to being a hermit crab.
Gaiman appreciates his audience.
After a discussion of Sandman’s early days, and Gaiman’s fear of cancellation, Diaz commented, “It’s hard to remember that the audience hadn’t coalesced yet. It was an act of faith for you to keep writing the issues.”
Gaiman replied, “If you look around you’ll notice one important way that 50% of you are different from the people who were buying comics in 1988. (Huge applause) I didn’t want to write women who were just men with watermelons strapped to their chests.
Gaiman thinks he’s “rubbish” at action and plot.
“What I cared about was just the people. If they worked well, they should feel organic. Watchmen is wonderful, but I’d have taken 30 pages of those people living and making decision and making love over ‘Ha ha! Here is the plot! And ‘here’s a giant monster’! And “I did it half an hour ago”! In Sandman I made a virtue of being rubbish at plot.
Diaz commented on Gaiman’s interest in “the consequences of wielding power” rather than indulging in power fantasies.
Gaiman replied, “I started to notice that the superhero who could hit you the hardest was the one who won. And in my experience as a seven-year-old…the people who hit me haven’t won. I’m on the floor, and I hurt, but they haven’t won. I don’t believe that punching solves anything. Morpheus doesn’t touch people, really, and he especially doesn’t punch them. I made the decision that might would not make right. Might would not make anything much.”
When Neil Gaiman tells you to take your pens out, do it!
Gaiman is always scattering wonderful writing advice around like breadcrumbs in a forbidding forest, but this time the “trade secret” he shared was extra-inspiring. “As a novelist, nothing is set until your book is printed. Comics are in an eternal state of first draft, but in a book, if you realize in Chapter 19 that you need to put a ray gun in the umbrella stand, you can go back to Chapter 1, and put it in there! In comics everyone has already looked in the umbrella stand, and they know there was no ray gun.”
Gaiman, like many writers, has a whole host of people living in his head.
After speaking a bit about how Gaiman hoped Overture would fit into the overall Sandman universe, Diaz asked the most writerly question I think I’ve ever heard at an event like this: “After all these years, where are you with Sandman?”
And Gaiman gave the most writerly answer. “Oh, they’re all still in there. When I sat down, I had this fear…what if they’re not in there? What if it feels like I’m making it up? The most wonderful thing is that they were still there.
It took most of an arc for Sandman to find its voice.
Diaz followed up, specifically asking about Death, and quoted Paul Levitz as saying, “Issue 8 of Sandman [Death’s first appearance] is the single best issue of any comic, ever…. (Speaking personally, this was the first Sandman comic I read, and it’s what hooked me on Gaiman’s writing.) Is that when the series gets it footing.”
Gaiman replied enthusiastically, “I look at Sandman #8 and it’s the first one where I don’t sound like anyone else… I’d found my voice. When writers ask, ‘how do I find my voice?’ that’s all it is. You write lots and lots of stuff and you write the other people out of your head.”
“The best thing about people is we’re all different.”
Diaz commended Gaiman on his commitment to creating diverse works of fiction. “People from minority communities are so used to be erased. We don’t often encounter someone who holds the line. Where does that ethic come from?”
Gaiman recounted the first producers who came calling for Anansi Boys with plans to whitewash it because “black people don’t read fantasy” which met with guffaws from the audience. (Obviously, Gaiman turned them down.) His experiences with Bryan Fuller’s American Gods adaptation have been far more successful. “The racial breakdown of the novel stays, Shadow is a mixed-race character and will be a mixed-race actor, and there have been no arguments. It’s been wonderful.” Gaiman’s gotten to review headshots and audition tapes for Shadow, but he didn’t name any names, unfortunately. He went on to talk about diversity in Sandman as well: “For me a lot of the joy of Sandman was putting my friends in. Realizing, my gay and trans friends don’t get into comics. I’m writing a comic. I can put them in” and then, elaborating on Anansi Boys, “I had more fun identifying white characters when they turned up! Sometimes people get halfway through the book and realize, “Oh my god, they’re all black!”
Neil Gaiman dream’s are cooler than yours.
Diaz closed on a question sent in from a fan in Mexico, who asked Gaiman, “Do you ever dream of Death?”
Gaiman replied, “I’ve never dreamed of Death, but I’ve dreamed of Dream, and once I dreamed what it was like to be him. The best bit was feeling what his eyes felt like….and also I was being chased by spaghetti.”
The evening ended with a rousing rendition of “Enter Sandman” on ukulele and kazoo from Amanda Palmer, who then led us all in “Happy Birthday”, as Gaiman held their hiccuping baby close enough to the mic so we could all hear him. I advise all of you to click on the video below and experience the conversation in all its glory!