Neil Gaiman talks 'The View from the Cheap Seats,' 'American Gods,' and nonfiction
Neil Gaiman is one of the world’s foremost authors of fantastic fiction. In works like Sandman and American Gods, Gaiman breathed new life into old mythologies by bringing them headfirst into the modern world. But his latest book is somewhat of a departure from what fans are used to: The View from the Cheap Seats is Gaiman’s first full collection of nonfiction.
Even as Gaiman wrote his fantasy novels and comic books over the years, he managed to squeak in quite a few essays, introductions, and interviews. The View from the Cheap Seats brings these pieces together for the first time, from his viral “Make Good Art” commencement speech at the University of the Arts to his first-person account of attending the 2010 Oscars.
Ahead of the book’s May 31 release, Gaiman spoke with EW about finally writing a book with an index, the difference between journalistic and fictional notions of truth, and even previewed the highly anticipated TV adaptation of his novel American Gods.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: These pieces were written over a number of years. Why collect them now?
NEIL GAIMAN: I think partly it’s a kind of hubris. There’s all this stuff that probably should be collected, and as the years have gone on, more and more people have asked me when it was going to be collected and under what circumstances. I initially went from “I don’t know, probably never” to gradually going “Okay, it actually seems like people aren’t just being polite, they do want this stuff.”
I did the only logical thing, which was get a friend of mine, a really wonderful writer named Cat Howard, and I emailed her probably about 4,000 pages worth of introductions, articles, reviews, essays, and so much nonfiction, and said to her “I have no critical judgment. Tell me what you would like to see preserved in a book.” She read it through, she made a rough suggestion of what to keep and what to throw out, and then she and I were horse-trading up to the wire as I gradually built it up into a book.
In at least in one case it turned out that not only had she not seen a particular piece, but I didn’t have a copy anywhere. But we knew it existed, and I wound up finding one of the Neil Gaiman superfans who has everything I’ve ever written ever under any circumstances, and I got hold of him and said, “I’m looking for a piece about Charles Vess in the program booklet of a convention circa 1998.” And he faxed it over to us, which was wonderful.
How did you settle on the title, The View from the Cheap Seats?
If you’ve ever been a journalist, which I assume you have because we’re talking to each other on the phone, you will at some point or other have written a title for a piece and your editor will have changed it to something else, and you’ll be grumpy. I wrote a piece about the Oscars in 2010. I’d been to the Oscars for Coraline, and it happened to be the first anniversary of my father’s death, which affected me rather deeply. I wrote this piece called “The View from the Cheap Seats,” which was mostly about winding up and being out in public on the days when you’d much rather be alone in private. When The Guardian published it, they published it under the title “A Nobody’s Guide to the Oscars.” I thought, no. I knew you were allowed to change titles, but that wasn’t about being a nobody, it was about melancholy. And I was so grumpy about the fact that I never got to use my title for it that I wound up saying “ok let’s titled the book The View from the Cheap Seats.” It was almost inevitable: yes, I am restoring my great lost title.
But it also seemed like a nice title, given that a lot of what I’m talking about all the way through the book is what, when I first started writing, would’ve been referred to as “junk culture.” I’m writing with, I hope, critical enthusiasm about things that people may have started to care about now but definitely didn’t care about when I began writing about them: Fantasy and science fiction, children’s books, comics. You never feel anywhere in any of those essays that you are getting the view from the fancy seats at the front. All of the stuff I’m writing about here is slightly on the disreputable side. So I like the idea of the title, it is the view from the cheap seats.
Some of these pieces, the comic-related ones especially, were written back when you were still working on Sandman. Together with last year’s long-awaited prequel comic Sandman: Overture, have you been reflecting on Sandman a lot lately?
I have. Sandman definitely was front and center for me. There’s a weird sequence of essays in that book, because you’re going from the first ever real speech I ever gave in April 1993 to a bunch of comic retailers. That was the high point of comics, that was as big as it ever got. Millions of dollars being generated, and I was getting up there at the height of the boom saying, “This is fraudulent, it’s gonna break and you guys are f—ed.” That whole process where you getting me standing up and saying that, and then five years later in the wreckage of the boom I give a talk to creators who are basically looking at fleeing work in comics for other things, and then coming in five or six later than that and saying, “Well, this is the wreckage that we’re standing in but now it’s building up again, and I think it’s building up to a very good thing. We are now heading for a golden age.” That was fascinating for me, looking at the process of that. From the point of view of the man who wrote Sandman, it’s been really really strange.
My terror with Sandman, coming back and doing Overture, was just desperately not wanting to Phantom Menace this.
Some other essays cover your first experiences with movies and TV. How has your experience been different with [Starz’s adaption of] American Gods?
I hoped I’ve learned things from some of the things that didn’t work. It’s weird because my fundamental attitude is that you’re always trying to guard the soul and the heart of whatever it is, but at the same time you have to allow people to create, and you have to allow people to have fun and build and make it their own. To me it’s kind of a peculiar tightrope, and you don’t want to fall off on one side or the other. At least in script stage, I am very not shy about telling [series creator] Bryan Fuller, “I love this, I love this, I love this, and that thing you had, that’s over my dead body and you have to change it.” But right now they’re 10 days into shooting, and the only thing I am absolutely sure of is that this American Gods is its own thing. I’m watching Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle bring my characters to life but also going, “This is absolutely its own thing, it has its own life.” If it succeeds or if it fails, it’ll be on its own terms. I know I’ve never seen anything that looked like it.
You were talking about common themes running through the book. Do you think they climax in the “Make Good Art” speech?
I think they probably do. The “Make Good Art” speech was very much me going, “I’ve been doing this stuff for 30 years. What would I have loved to be told at the start? What have I learned that I can pass on? Here’s everything.” I hope that it was all practical. I thought practical information is important.
It was also interesting for me that the book starts sort of beating the drum, it starts very much cheering things on, cheering on literature and reading and art, all of these things, and then as you get towards the very end, you get to the sense that things are bigger and darker than that, this sense of death in the wings. Getting to write pieces about refugees, getting to write pieces a little bit weirder and more complicated. Ending it with the Terry Pratchett piece, which when I did the audiobook, when I was reading things together in sequence, the Terry piece we got to the end of it and I found myself crying. We had to do another take because I cried my way through the last couple paragraphs.
You started out your writing career as a journalist. Does nonfiction scratch a different itch for you than fiction?
It’s so interesting for me. I left journalism because I felt it was easier to tell the truth while lying. It was easier and more honest to go into something saying, “I’m making stuff up but I will tell you true things,” rather than do the journalism thing of “sources are telling the truth.”
If you read any articles about anything that’s happened in politics in America over the last year, and you go, “Anybody writing this has an agenda, and if they don’t, their editors have an agenda, and everybody has a place where they stand.” None of this is objectively true. And if it is, you can’t tell bc there’s so much noise going on. So the idea was to get away from that and all the other weirdness of journalism by making shit up. It is very strange to look around and go, “I’ve written millions of words since then that I’ve had to go and do research on.” This is the first book I’ve ever written that has an index, and as I found myself proofreading the index, I was going, “What am I doing here? Shouldn’t I go back to just making stuff up?”