Neil Gaiman, author of ‘Sandman,’ ‘American Gods,’ to receive 2023 St. Louis Literary Award
There are a lot of credits and awards to Neil Gaiman’s name. The English writer won the Newbery and Carnegie medals for the young adult novel “The Graveyard Book.” He’s also well known for his works “Coraline,” “Neverwhere,” “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” “American Gods,” “Stardust,” and “The Sandman."
His career covers many genres and many of his works have been adapted for the screen.
Gaiman will receive on Thursday night another accolade: the 2023 St. Louis Literary Award. The award is presented annually by the St. Louis University Libraries and it recognizes a writer who “deepens our insight into the human condition and expands the scope of our compassion.” Past recipients include August Wilson, Salmon Rushdie, Stephen Sondheim and Margaret Atwood.
Following is a transcript of Gaiman’s appearance on St. Louis on the Air.
Elaine Cha: We’re lucky enough to have Neil Gaiman here, in studio, to talk with us about his work, and his creative process, before he accepts the 2023 St. Louis Literary Award tonight. Neil, welcome to St. Louis on the Air. What a treat to have you right here, and here in town.
Neil Gaiman: What an honor to be here. Thank you.
Cha: The intro listed just some of your work and the accolades you've received in your career. But I'd like to start with a question my 7-year-old asked after we reread "Pirate Stew" together last night: Why is Neil Gaiman famous?
Gaiman: Even Neil Gaiman isn't actually quite sure, because being a famous writer is such a peculiar thing anyway. Most writers are only name-famous, and I used to be name-famous, and I was very comfortable being name-famous. And then somewhere in the last five years, I became face-famous as well, and now it's just a bit weird.
Cha: That weirdness, did it find you?
Gaiman: I think what I did was work in lots of different fields, which normally is a recipe for disaster and failure because if you're going to be famous and successful as a writer, you should do the same thing over and over again and then people know where to find you and they know what you do. And I've been doing lots of different things over the years in lots of different puddles. But I think what's happened is the puddles have all filled up and overflowed and become an enormous pond.
Gaiman: So over here was the children's fiction and over here was the graphic novels and the comics work, and over here I was writing adult fiction and then there was the nonfiction and the essays and the work supporting libraries. And then in another corner, I've been doing stage, screen and television adaptations. And they all just sort of met in the middle.
Cha: Well, that gets to something that I was thinking, because if someone were to Google your name, the thing that comes up is "writer." Do you see yourself still primarily as a writer, or has the experience of the last five years sort of helped you expand and sort of think and approach things differently.
Gaiman: I think I'm fundamentally a writer. I think I'm fundamentally a storyteller. What I will always be at default is somebody who makes things up and writes them down, because I can write them down better than I could tell them in conversation. But what I'm not is, for example, a novelist. I have friends who are novelists and what they do is they build novels and they know that they're working if they're writing a novel, and I have friends who are poets. I have friends who are short story writers. I have friends who are screenwriters, and they write fabulous television and film scripts. I'm none of these things. I'm kind of an amphibian. I move very happily between media. As long as I'm telling a story, I'm happy.
Cha: That's really the baseline then. Is storytelling something that you wanted to do from the time you were young, because I asked that question about "Pirate Stew," and then "The Graveyard Book" is a work that is, I guess, ostensibly just for kids. Is it something that you always wanted from the time you were a child?
Gaiman: Absolutely. I mean, I remember taking my mom aside at the age of 2 or 3 and dictating poems and little stories to her because I couldn't write them down yet. And I also remember as a kid, reading stories and some of them and some authors I would love and sometimes I'd read a story and I'd go, "You've forgotten, you don't know what it's like to be a kid. You don't know who you're writing for." And I would promise myself that I wouldn't forget. I'd promised myself I would remember and I would try and write books for kids when I was old enough to write books for kids that I hadn't forgotten. So that for me is why I think "The Graveyard Book" works so well for kids and for adults, is it's been written on both levels.
Cha: And so the work that you've done is so well loved. It's well known. As I was preparing for this interview I thought, "Neil Gaiman has done so many interviews, scores of interviews over the course of your career." So I'm guessing that this is your first one in St. Louis?
Gaiman: Second one.
Cha: The second one. Well as the second one, here in our studio, and because this is St. Louis on the Air, our team figured that asking our listeners, many of whom are serious fans of yours, to send us their questions, so that this could be an experience that is special for them, but also is special for you.
Cha: Here's one that we got about the Midwest, and this is from Kim in St. Charles, who left us a voicemail. Her question is tied to your book, "American Gods."
Caller, Kim: I was wondering, with references to Cairo, Illinois, and other odd roadside attractions in the Midwest, have you had any opportunities to explore St. Louis or any Missouri oddities while you're in town?
Gaiman: Not yet. Although there are things that have been on my list of places I want to visit, like your museum, that have been on my shortlist of wonderful things to do in America.
Cha: And which museum is that?
Gaiman: Isn't it just the St. Louis Museum?
Cha: The art museum?
Gaiman: What's the weird one? Oh, city, the City Museum.
Cha: Yes, delightfully weird.
Gaiman: That's one of those places. The first time I read about it, I went, "Oh, this is one of my places." And then in conversation with Jon Hamm once, who is one of my favorite people, on the set of "Good Omens," we started talking, and he started explaining to me why I needed to go to the City Museum.
Cha: Well, it's great that you're here. Hopefully you will get that opportunity and you should definitely wear sneakers and comfortable pants when you go. As a followup, how have your travels — because of your work all around the world — informed what you write about and how you do so?
Gaiman: You know, one of the things I love about traveling is it's never the big picture but it's always the tiny, tiny details that give you a story. I spent ages in China researching a project that I still haven't actually done yet, but most of the stuff about China that I saw, I could have written just from knowledge of China from films and from books. And then I was halfway up a mountain and somebody on the side of the mountain had set up a little stand and they were selling snow-white honey from their own hives halfway up this mountain. And I not only bought a jar, but I got a fabulous short story out of it, and it was just that moment where you see something and you're not expecting it but you know that somehow you've found a story.
Cha: Does this mean that you are a writer always and everywhere. So when you experienced that, going up that hill, the mountain in China, did you have a pen or a pencil on your person? Or do you just remember things and then translate them to the page or the screen sometime after?
Gaiman: That's a great question. And there are two answers, both of which are true. One of which is I'm obsessive about having pens on me always and little notebooks and things because you never know when you're going to get caught with a fabulous idea and you just need to scribble. The other is that you realize what was important afterwards. And normally, things happen in your life. They can be tiny, odd things like the snow-white honey, and then they're like a little little bit of grit inside an oyster, and they accrete nacreous layers, and suddenly you have a pearl of a story.
Cha: And it's an entire world that you end up building then. Now there's a quote attributed to you that sets up this next question, I think pretty nicely, and you can confirm whether this actually came from you: "Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of job. It's always you versus a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen and quite often the blank piece of paper wins."
Gaiman: I did say that, yes. And it's still true.
Cha: Does writing ever get any easier?
Gaiman: No, and it's incredibly unfair. I've been, you know, alive now for 62 years. I've been making my living writing for 40 of those years and when you start out, you're not quite good enough. But every idea, every sentence, everything you're doing, you're doing for the first time, so you're desperately trying to get better, but at least it's all new and original. And then suddenly, you're my age, and you're going, "I know exactly how to do this brilliantly but, you know, I can't really do that because I wrote that 20 years ago. So that idea and that sentence, I need to dump them. And I just need to do this a slightly different way." So no, never gets any easier.
Cha: So that relationship with writing, one of the first emails that we got came from Dennis, and Dennis is actually someone we work with and here's what he sent. He said: "I read 'American Gods' several years ago. It was a bit off my traditional reading path of commercially popular geopolitical intrigue novels and more obscure Scandinavian/Icelandic crime mysteries, but I heard about it on NPR and was intrigued. Last year, when I finally succumbed to my wife’s insistence to rid the house of at least most of the hundreds of books I have read over the last several years, I held back a few … a very few. Included among those in this pile of a dozen or fewer cherished treasures, alongside an old family Bible and a tattered copy of 'On the Road,' is a pre-owned copy of 'American Gods.' Mr. Gaiman has that quote-on-quote ‘something.’ He has insight, vision, imagination that genuinely excites me. In my own little mind, he himself is a true American God, not THE GOD ALMIGHTY perhaps, but maybe, just maybe, one of those other, underestimated gods."
Now, another thing that Dennis had included in that email, and we kind of edited a little bit, was that after reading your work, he gave up on trying to write because he felt like he could not achieve or attain the kind of quality that is in your writing. What would you say to someone ...
Gaiman: I would be sad. I would tell him, "No, no, no, you've got to write. If you wanted to write, just keep going." You know, for me, I'm never happier than when I run into a young writer or just a published writer: somebody who tells me that some book of mine set them off on the path to becoming a writer. And often, I'm happiest when they say, "You made it look like fun." I look back on the writers who inspired me, people like Roger Zelazny or Harlan Ellison or Ursula K. Le Guin, and a lot of them, one of the things that I would look at, is it really looked like they were having fun writing. It looked like they were enjoying themselves, and I wanted to have part of that fun.
Cha: So the joy, it transports and it transfers.
Gaiman: I hope so, and I also hope that it inspires a little so I would be so sad if somebody said, "Oh, no, I read your thing, and I didn't write because you'd said it all and you've done it all. That would be like, 'No!' And you think about the fact that we human beings as a species have been around for half a million years, something like that, and I'm sure we've told an awful lot of stories to each other in that time. But it's OK, we can tell them again. We can. They're ours and we're telling them in our time, and my stories will never be your stories and your stories will never be somebody else's stories. So we get to tell our own stories.
Cha: And telling us some of his story in our studio today is Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman, prolific and celebrated writer, and recipient of the 2023 St. Louis Literary Award. We also had a comment come in from Lillith from south St. Louis, who wrote: "I was fortunate enough to take Neil's MasterClass, and it was wonderful. I'm wondering how much control he had over developing the curriculum and how he went about designing such an informative class."
Gaiman: What a lovely thing. When the people who do MasterClass basically came to me and they said, "We've basically read everything that we can ever find that you've written about writing and we've seen every interview and we have lots and lots of questions." So, half of it was from their questions and half of it was from the fact that I teach at a college near me in New York state called Bard College, and I've been teaching twice a year, just, you know, 15, 16 students, and we do a course on adapting Shakespeare, we do a course on writing and reading the fantastic whatever.
And it was fun just being able to take all of what I'd learned from them and what I learned from teaching them and go, "OK, I want that in here, too." I want to be able to talk about: Why do we write, how we write ... if you're a writer, how do you deal with writer's block? If you're a writer, how do you make characters different and interesting? How do you write a short story? What is a novel for, what is fiction for, and just talk about all of those things in the hope that I could send some of the people who watch the MasterClass out into the world as writers themselves. And also, I wanted to demystify it. I mentioned Harlan Ellison earlier, a writer who is now dead, who was my friend, and one of the things that Harlan did when I was just a kid was he would write stories in shop windows and bookshop windows and they'd set him up with this typewriter. And I asked him about that. I said, "Why did you do that?" And he said, "I wanted to demystify the process. I wanted to show people that writing, at root, is a blue-collar occupation. You are sitting there and you are typing and somebody's doing this." And I loved that idea of just demystifying it enough to tell people, "No, you can do it."
Cha: That's lovely. And speaking of writer's block, what has writer's block been like for you? For instance, is this something that takes up residence before you realize it's there? Or do you know and feel it immediately?
Gaiman: For me, I think writer's block ... writers are really clever. We are incredibly imaginative. And I think we invented writer's block. I think we invented it and it sounds really convincing. It sounds like it's a thing. But on the other hand, you know, people who sell shoes don't have shoe-sellers block. *laughter* Chefs don't have chef's block. What writers I think have is actually getting stuck. And the moment that you say "getting stuck" rather than "writer's block," you're demystifying it a little bit, but you're also removing it from the gods. Because writer's block is obviously something that the gods decide that you have to suffer from and endure and one day, they may lift it. Whereas if you're stuck on your book, that's something fixable and you can ask yourself, "OK, why am I stuck? Am I stuck because I went off the rails somewhere on this thing I was writing. Did I take a wrong turn, in which case I should backtrack? Have I simply run out of ideas? OK, then I need to stop and look at what I'm doing and look at what the ideas are?" So I think for me, the key is just rephrasing it. If you start with the idea of, OK, I'm stuck, then you can figure out how to retrace your steps and how to get unstuck.
Cha: And get going again. Now, you had mentioned earlier: Over the last five years, these puddles — many puddles turned into a pond. And one of the ways that many people are now finding their way to your written work is through what you've done with adaptations which is another form of writing. But we'd like to hear a little more from you about that. Courtney from south St. Louis left us a voicemail asking about your work being turned into film.
Caller, Courtney: I would love to hear more about the experience of turning your work into screen productions because a lot of your work has been translated to film and other kinds of programs and some adaptations seem to work better than others, like "Coraline" was wonderful. And "Sandman" was probably one of the most anticipated. It's brilliant. So I wondered if you could talk about the magic that goes into that that makes a difference in the success of an adaptation and I wonder, can you tell when it's in the works if it's going to be particularly amazing, like what makes you really excited about how it's going, and what makes you uneasy?
Gaiman: One thing that I have now that I didn't have when we started out was control. So when I started out and adaptations were happening, or even if I was working directly for the screen, I only had as much power as the writer has in that I could write a script or I'd written the original work that was being adapted. But I was often at the bottom of the pole or not even considered as somebody who had any importance. "Sandman" was in movie development for about 30 years, and they wanted to make big movies and the one thing they were all agreed on was that obviously the guy who wrote the comics should have nothing to do with that. And then they'd write terrible scripts and they wouldn't get made. And when we went out with "Sandman" as a TV series in 2019, and we went out to Netflix and various other people, Warner Brothers went out going, "What we have here is something very special because we have 'Sandman' and we have Neil.
Gaiman: So I think, you know, and that was because I'd made "Good Omens" particularly. So I think having some control, having some oversight really helps. And I think having said that, I think I've also been incredibly lucky, I think "Coraline," what I did on that was pick Henry Selick and send Henry Selick the book before it was published and say, "I think you should make this." And Henry read it and agreed, and then I stuck with Henry for almost 10 years in the time it took him to get that film off the ground and get it made. I'm very fond of the film "Stardust." I think "Stardust" is a film that people now are starting to rediscover and to discover and go: "Oh, we love this. It's kind of like the "Princess Bride. It's one of those things." And that makes me really happy, but it is definitely less stressful for me getting to make things like "Good Omens," like "Sandman," where I have a say and people listen and the fact that I know more about this thing that they're making than anything else actually becomes useful because I can give them my knowledge.
Cha: Right, a little inside bits of information that make it into details that we remember.
Cha: You mentioned "Stardust." And "Stardust" is one of the books in addition to "The Graveyard Book," that you will be focusing on in your 2023 Campus Reads on St. Louis University's campus. Why is it that you chose those books to talk about with university students?
Gaiman: Well first of all, I have to confess that I didn't choose them, and I was enormously pleased that they didn't make me choose.
Cha: Oh, OK. *Laughter*
Gaiman: Because when...
Cha: When you've done as much as you...
Gaiman: When you've done so many things, it's like OK, you know, pick your favorite children.
Cha: That's exactly what I was thinking.
Gaiman: I have no idea what to pick. So I was thrilled that the people administering the award, they got to do the picking. And I got to go, "Oh, what lovely choices and it makes me very happy. You know, “The Graveyard Book," I suppose, is an obvious choice because it won the Carnegie Medal, it won the Newbery Medal, it won a slew of other awards, and it's sort of gone on to be regarded as classic. But "Stardust" for me is one of those books that despite the fact it's become a beloved film, despite the fact it's been a bestseller for decades now, it still takes people by surprise. It's the kind of thing they think they read, but they haven't. And it is a fairy story for adults. I just started feeling very strongly that it wasn't fair that people didn't write fairy stories intended for adults, and I thought I would. And so it's a confection, and I think it has stuff going on underneath but at the end of the day, part of what "Stardust" is intended to do is just make its reader very happy.
Cha: Well, I think you will be making many people very happy tonight, when you go to the Sheldon for the acceptance of the award, as well as what you're doing with the students. Neil Gaiman, celebrated multigenre writer and gracious conversationalist. Thank you for including us among your St. Louis stops.
Gaiman: Oh, that was so much fun. Thank you.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.