Neil Gaiman: "There Are Some Glorious Head Explosions"

Tom Nicholson
·11-min read
Photo credit: Gary Miller - Getty Images
Photo credit: Gary Miller - Getty Images

From Esquire

Neil Gaiman is trying to work out how to get back to New Zealand. His latest plan is to get a bit-part in Lord of the Rings.

"I could be Neilo Proudfoot, the Jewish hobbit. I’d be in the back, and every now and then people would say, 'Oh, what a tall hobbit Neil is.'"

There are few bigger cult heroes in British writing than Neil Gaiman. Since his first book – a biography of Duran Duran called The First Four Years of the Fab Five – he's become a giant within comics, film, TV and novel writing. His knack for mixing big ideas, vivid worlds and high fantasy with whimsy and poppy accessibility puts him in a lineage with Douglas Adams and Sir Terry Pratchett, who was a close friend, and he has built an intensely devoted fanbase which has only grown since last year's hit adaptation of the devil-and-angel buddy-up Good Omens. He's absurdly prolific too, always skipping onto the next thing. But right now he's looking back at his first big hit.

When we speak in mid-July, Gaiman's still on the Scottish Isle of Skye, where he's been since mid-May. His 12,000-mile trip there from New Zealand, where his wife and child stayed, did not go down well at the height of lockdown. A mea culpa on his blog – entitled 'An Extremely Apologetic Post' – followed.

"Probably not here for much longer," he says. Though flights are frozen for the foreseeable, Gaiman is sizing up ways to return to New Zealand. "I'm stuck and there’s a five-year-old boy that I talk to every night and every morning and he misses me and I miss him."

For now, though, he's on Zoom, settled into a winged leather armchair with a Yorkshire Tea in hand, to talk about Audible's mammoth, star-stuffed adaptation of his landmark Sandman comic series. Running from 1989 to 1996, it showed the full scope of what graphic novels could do, mixing fantasy, myth, ultraviolence, Shakespeare and talking cats with a hard philosophical edge. Before Sandman, graphic novels mainly stayed underground; after it, they could get onto bestseller lists, and had a new cultural heft.

This new production features a cast that would be impressive for a summer blockbuster, but is frankly ludicrous for an audiobook – James McAvoy, Riz Ahmed, Michael Sheen, Taron Egerton, Joanna Lumley, Andy Serkis, Miriam Margolyes, Samantha Morton, and so on, and on, and on – who tell the story of Morpheus, an impossibly powerful being who controls dreams and stories, over 11 hours of painstakingly realised drama.

Gaiman knits the whole thing together as a wry, twinkling narrator. In conversation, however, he's more deliberate, unafraid to lapse into silence while he marshals his thoughts. You always get the sense that he knows not just where his sentences will end, but his paragraphs and his chapters, too.

You’ve been talking about, thinking about and writing about Sandman for more than 30 years now. Has doing the audio version pulled at any new threads?

It is very weird revisiting things that you’ve been doing for more than half of your lifetime. The weirdest thing I think with Sandman audio was things that I thought I knew intimately to the point where there would be no emotional involvement, or I wouldn’t be an audience for them. '24 Hours' [a legendarily horrifying issue in which a diner full of normal people are tormented into madness and murder by supervillain Doctor Destiny]: I wrote that. I remember the misery of the two weeks that I wrote it, and how hard it was, and those people, and feeling bad for them with the worry and the darkness. But you come out the other side and after a while you’re just looking at the pages of art and thinking, ‘Yes, this is the sort of thing, let’s get them to tone down this, let’s cut off this panel so you can’t see her stabbing her eyes,’ and stuff like that. And after a while it’s just a comic that you wrote a long time ago. And them I’m sitting in my chair with the lights down listening to all of Sandman on audio over a couple of days, all 11-and-a-half episodes, and I got to that episode and I cried. It’s scary and it’s upsetting and it’s visceral, and I feel like I’m in the audience for it. All of a sudden I’m not sitting there fixing – that line, that sound effect. I’m not criticising my performance as narrator, I’m not trying to figure out if something sounds a little bit too hokey one way or Radio 4 the other way.

What do you lose and gain in transporting a comic into an audiobook?

The biggest thing that you lose is silent panels. One thing I loved – I loved it for timing, I loved it for emotional resonance, I loved it for all sorts of reasons – was having silent panels. Beats of reflection, beats where you look at somebody’s face. And you can’t have a silent panel in audio drama, that’s the one thing you don’t get. You don’t have a camera, we don’t have an artist, we don’t have panels – you’re suddenly very aware of that. But I do think that the brain-story interaction between audio and comics is weirdly similar. If I give you a story in prose that I’ve written, you are building it. I’m like an architect who’s just handed you plans, and as you read it you’re building a place to live in. And some of the quality of the place you’re living in is up to you and some of it’s up to me, and it is utterly collaborative. In comics I’m giving you pictures, and I’m giving you written words, but because they’re still pictures you’re having to use your imagination to get from panel to panel, from page to page, you’re having to create sound, you’re having to create motion. So you are engaged. You’re not passive when you’re reading comics in the way that you are passive when you’re watching TV or a movie. And audio drama isn’t passive either. I’m giving you sound, and you are building up place and people in your head. And I think the fact that comics intersect like that is a glorious thing.

Do you have a favourite sound effect from this audio drama? There’s a very satisfying head explosion in the first episode.

There are some glorious head explosions. My favourites are probably – I love 'Midsummer Night’s Dream'. It’s not one sound effect, it’s the cumulative effect of feeling like you’re in the open air and you are surrounded by fairies and they’re dangerous and mad. There’s something about that that I absolutely love. What else? It’s weird, because when things work, I’m not going to talk about sound effects any more than I’m going to watch a movie I love and people saying, ‘What was your favourite special effect?’ If you stop to notice the special effect then it means that you weren’t watching the film and believing it and accepting it. What I love about our three graphic novels in 11 hours is that, mostly, you’re there. That is such a tribute to Dirk [Maggs, Sandman's director] and his team. Having said that, the other special effect that I think we have and we use really, really well is James McAvoy’s voice.

Photo credit: Mike Marsland - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mike Marsland - Getty Images

What makes him the right voice for Morpheus?

I think the presence, and the weight. And the balance – he hits this wonderful balance. We never feel that he’s over-analysing everything, but it’s the balance between being emotional and being unemotional. For Morpheus, you’re always meant to feel that everything is happening under the surface, but there’s also a level on which once you lose the visuals, then James is having to compensate with his voice, and he does that so well. He is the centre in episodes where he is on stage all the time, and he’s the centre in episodes where he comes on and says a line.

Did you have any specific inspirations in mind for characters when you were putting Sandman together? You’ve said before that Lucifer came from mid-Seventies David Bowie.

There were a few. When I was writing Hob Gadling, it was very much with Bob Hoskins’ voice in my head. When I was writing Destruction it was definitely Brian Blessed. But most of the time, I wasn’t going to actors. Most of the time I was going to people I knew, sometimes images. Death’s not really based on anyone, although I kept meeting people who could have been her while I was writing her. And then I remember going and seeing Beetlejuice and thinking, ‘Ah!’ A young Natalie Portman would make a good Death.

But there’s also the weirdness of the way that time has gone. There was definitely a point when young Johnny Depp – when he was still Johnny, and seemed to wear it well – might have been a great Morpheus. There was a point when young Benedict Cumberbatch came along, and I thought he would have been a really good Morpheus. But time keeps ticking, which is part of the weird relentlessness of this, but it’s also one of the lovely things about audio: people don’t necessarily have to look like the person they’re playing. And given that we had 60 actors playing hundreds of characters, maybe it’s a good thing.

Sandman is all about dreaming, and everyone’s dreams have gone weird over lockdown. How have yours been?

My dreams always kind of off the deep end. Dreams are definitely, for me, much more interesting than real life, because in any given week the most exciting thing that will happen is I will drive four miles to the post office and stock up on some groceries and post some letters. That’s probably not going to happen more than once a week, and it’s as exciting as anything’s going to get. Other than that, I’m in a house on Skye, I don’t get to see anybody and nothing gets to happen. So dreams are always more interesting, because I get out and I get to travel.

How is Skye? What's the response been to you coming over from New Zealand?

You don’t bump into a lot of people, but now that you’re allowed to meet people for socially distanced cups of tea in the garden I’ve been doing that. And everybody’s been lovely. Most people are like, ‘But you didn’t actually do anything wrong!’ I did actually, technically, follow every piece of government advice, including where I went. Which was why I wound up on Skye. I remember going at the time, ‘Well technically I could probably stop off in the south of England and break the rules, but you know, Skye is my primary home so I’ll go there even though it’s a bit remote and a lot of work for everybody.’ High on the list of things that [I would do] if I could have my time over again, [is that] I would take me in New Zealand aside and explain that you really want to stay here – it’ll make your life easy. I would do that.

But also the experience of travelling back when I travelled was haunting. It was the strangest journey I’ve ever taken, and one day it will work its way into something I’m sure. There was that period of time where I kept turning on the radio and going, ‘It can’t still be news that I did this, something else must have happened.’ No, we’re on day three and it’s still news. And then Dominic Cummings went out and started driving around the country to see if his eyes worked. He really did make me look so good. Probably I should have sent him a book token.

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