Sunday 20 August 2017

Meet the man behind 'American Gods', Amazon's new big budget fantasy series set to rival Game of Thrones

Chris Harvey meets Neil Gaiman

Melting pot: Neil Gaiman's background is a 'giant stew' of Judaism, Scientology and Christianity
Melting pot: Neil Gaiman's background is a 'giant stew' of Judaism, Scientology and Christianity

Neil Gaiman is dressed all in black, with a small lapel badge with an owl on it. The last time we met, in 2011, the bestselling fantasy author with the rock star-like following had just written an episode for the BBC's Doctor Who, in which the consciousness of the Tardis was embodied in physical - female - form. He recently suggested that the BBC's Great British Bake Off host Sue Perkins should take over from Peter Capaldi when the present Doctor leaves the role.

Today, he prefers to name Hayley Atwell, a British-American actress. Definitely a woman then?

"I think it's time. Somebody online got incredibly upset with me about it - basically saying, how can you castrate the Doctor like that? And I said, I think what people love about Doctor Who is the Doctor's mind, not the Doctor's testicles. I find it hard to imagine any great Doctor Who dialogue that could not be delivered by a female Doctor."

It strikes me later that with his floppy curls, the 56-year-old writer of novels, comic books, non-fiction works and children's books would make the perfect Doctor himself. It's not hard to believe that behind his questing green eyes lies a Time Lord's view of the universe. However, right now Gaiman is here to talk about American Gods, the adaptation of the enduringly popular novel he wrote in 2001. The eight-part drama, soon to appear on Amazon, tells Gaiman's fantastical tale of the gods brought to the New World by successive waves of immigrants, such as the Norsemen who made sacrifices to Odin when they landed in the first millennium. Now almost forgotten, these gods live on in down-at-heel apartments, getting by as best they can, while new gods, such as Media (played by Gillian Anderson as a succession of worship-demanding stars from Judy Garland to Marilyn Monroe), have taken their place.

The new gods aim to eradicate all traces of the old, prompting Ian McShane's dishonest hustler Mr Wednesday to recruit a ragtag band that includes a brawling leprechaun, and a terrifying Slavic deity with a fondness for hammers, in readiness for a final battle. It's a dark and sometimes violent drama, which could yet be a rival to Game of Thrones.

In fact, back in 2011, American Gods was going to be produced by Game of Thrones makers HBO. They ultimately let it go. What happened?

"They said a bunch of stuff that wasn't actually true, bless them," Gaiman says. "I think they were really embarrassed when it became international news. Then there were a few public statements - oh we've had lots of writers on it and we've had many different drafts and we couldn't get it right and there's me thinking, that's not true, you guys were really kind of out to lunch on it and it's no big deal. I did three different drafts of the first script and it was obvious I was doing them for people who didn't quite get it."

To avoid accusations of borrowing from those earlier scripts, Gaiman has vacated the screenwriter's chair for series creators Bryan Fuller (who created the TV series Hannibal) and Michael Green (co-writer of the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel). One of their brilliant updatings is the shape-shifting/digitally altering god of the internet, Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), who, Gaiman says, is "no longer a fat kid with acne in a long black trench coat, he's slick and thin and up to the minute - all Mark Zuckerberg".

Gaiman stipulated that the show was cast according to the ethnicity in the book, including its mixed-race main character Shadow Moon (played by Brish actor Ricky Whittle). The race issue came up a few years ago, when Gaiman's novel Anansi Boys - the title refers to a West African trickster god - was in line for a film deal. "A very famous Hollywood director made a fantastic financial offer for it, and they said we're going to make all the characters white.

"They said, yeah, well black people don't go and see fantasy movies. And I said, yeah, well I'm not selling you the book."

Gaiman grew up in Sussex, England, the eldest of three. His parents were Jewish but the family moved to the London commuter town of East Grinstead when Gaiman was five, so they could study dianetics at the Church of Scientology HQ. In 2013, Gaiman told a BBC interviewer Scientology had been the family religion. As a seven-year-old, he spoke endearingly to a BBC radio interviewer about passing Scientology's Grade I course, 'Problems Release'. And, although Gaiman has stated he personally is not a Scientologist anymore, both his sisters are still closely involved with the church. Gaiman's father David, who died in 2009, was the church's chief spokesman in the UK and, for a time, head of their intelligence agency, the Guardian's Office. The young Gaiman also attended Lancing College, which has a tradition of High Church Anglicanism. This "giant stew" of Judaism, Scientology and Christianity, mixed with ideas he read in science fiction, made him the writer he is, he says.

In person, there's a touch of the charismatic cult leader in him - with his patient, teacherly tones and absolute conviction. If he was writing American Gods now, would he have included Scientology - it's a powerful new belief system, isn't it?

"Yeah, but the book isn't about religions," he says. "It's about people coming to America, and then abandoning the things they once believed in to struggle on alone. It began for me with moving to America in 1992 and going, this country is weird in ways that I've never seen in fiction."

Gaiman moved to Wisconsin in 1992 to be close to the family of his first wife, Mary McGrath, with whom he has three children. He got remarried in 2011, to the outspoken, opinion-dividing punk cabaret singer Amanda Palmer. They have an 18-month-old son, Anthony - Ash for short. Gaiman says he is treasuring each moment of late fatherhood "in a way that I didn't with the others, because I hadn't realised how fast it goes". I ask Gaiman why he characterised the internet as an apparently malign force in the shape of Technical Boy. With his 2.5 million Twitter followers and hugely popular online journal, isn't Gaiman himself one of the gods of the internet?

"Yep," he agrees. "But I think that all things can be positive and destructive.

"I think it's a really good thing that the lonely geeky person - the equivalent of whoever I was when I was 11 or 12 - can find all of the other people like them. Do I think it's wonderful that all of the lonely neo-Nazis out there that have been collecting their memorabilia and harbouring thoughts of hate can also find each other? I think that's an enormous problem."

He believes the new empires of the internet - Google, Facebook, Tinder - will all turn to dust in time.

"If you sit down and talk to the Jeff Bezoses [founder of Amazon] of this world, they do not believe they are impregnable. Jeff, if anything, is slightly surprised that something hasn't come along already to replace Amazon. I very much doubt the Google founders would be surprised if some kind of app turns up that renders Google's core business... completely redundant."

American Gods may run to four, possibly even five series, from the material in the first novel alone, Gaiman says.

"There is a very good chance that I will be able to finish the next novel before we get to that point, although right now I'm writing Neverwhere 2 (the 1996 novel and BBC TV series about a magical realm beneath the streets of London)."

He notes, however, that there are lines of dialogue he asked to be included because they refer to things he knows will happen in American Gods 2. One of them is in the first episode. He won't tell me what it is, but again it raises comparisons with Game of Thrones, in which the TV series has now gone beyond the yet-to-be-finished series of novels. Is he a fan?

"I've known George RR Martin since 1987 and we have been good friends since 1997/98. Are the books better? Yes, the books are better. Am I like everybody else in the world waiting for George? Yes, I'm waiting for George. Am I ever going to give George a moment's shit for it? Never, because I'm a grown-up and I know that you can read other books."

The vogue for works of fantasy has brought with it a particularly fervoured fandom. Gaiman once did a blog, he says, "explaining to people that George RR Martin was not actually your bitch, that people have lives and so do writers, that you spending your £10.99 does not mean they will spend every waking moment working on the sequel for your entertainment."

"I think serial narratives have their own power," he notes, when I ask him if TV is better than film for complex narratives. "It's something that comics exploit, that Dickens would exploit, that JK Rowling did with Harry Potter. If you serialise a story then make people wait for the next thing, there is a level of investment which is enormous, and I think we are now getting that in television. It's not the idiot box any more, it's a very, very clever box."

American Gods will stream on Amazon Prime from May 1

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