"It's likely that in 100 years' time, people will say, 'You mean, the guy who wrote that book about the kid who traded his dad for two goldfish wrote something else as well?'" Gaiman says, insisting Sandman will not be his legacy. "A.A. Milne was a successful novelist, a leading West End playwright, one of the major Punch essayists of the 1920s and '30s, but if you go to Amazon and type in his name, all you will get are 500 different editions of Winnie the Pooh. He's known for two books of children's short stories and two books of children's poems...and that's it. On the one hand, it's kind of sad, but on the other hand, it puts him way ahead of most of the playwrights and authors of the '20s and '30s. Posterity gives, and posterity takes away, and posterity is a very peculiar beast that calls the shots it wants to.
"If, in 100 years' time, I'm remembered for being the guy who wrote the story about the kid who swapped his dad for two goldfish, there are worse posterities to have. And I am very proud of it. I'm a lucky writer. I know too many writers, many of whom sell more books than I do, who consider themselves trapped. It's a very sad and solitary thing to be talking to a writer who says, 'I would love to write Book X or Project Y, but my publisher won't hear of it.' I am in this amazingly enviable position, because I write Neil Gaiman stories, and people know that you will get something entertaining, something you've not read before, and you will probably get something that isn't anything like the last thing. And if you don't like it, that's OK, because you'll probably like the one after that."
The wussy: Neil Gaiman is the rock star of the comics industry, as evidenced by the Goth girls and fanboys who line up to meet him at comic cons.
A never-used illustration for Gaiman's most famous creation, the Sandman
And there will be plenty "after that": Gaiman likes to talk not only about American Gods, but of several other forthcoming projects, all due to appear in the middle of next year. In addition to his "brick of a book" and The Wolves in the Walls, Gaiman also will publish Caroline, a horror story for older children he began in 1990. He also expects to begin filming the screen adaptation of Death: The High Cost of Living, which he's halfway through writing. (He will have nothing to do with the on-again-off-again film version of Sandman, which, Gaiman says, is once more alive at Warner Bros.)
He is busy but also very lucky: Gaiman always knew he wanted to be a writer, having spent his childhood buried in the confines of a library filled with leather-bound books written in the early part of the 20th century. When other children his age dreamed of becoming astronauts and firemen, he wanted to be C.S. Lewis and Michael Moorcock. For a while, he thought he would specialize in science fiction. He also used to dream of disappearing into an alternate universe with a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which wouldn't exist in this parallel existence. Gaiman would take credit for Tolkien's work; he would be celebrated as a visionary, without having done any of the heavy lifting.
But somewhere along the way, he was surprised to find he had little interest in creating imaginary lands, discovering instead that there was enough magic in this land. His stories were rooted in "the real world," even if his characters slipped in and out of dreams and dimensions; his gods actually existed.
It's not surprising to discover that Gaiman's favorite short story of his is "Chivalry," written in 1993 and contained in the 1998 collection Smoke and Mirrors. It's a wry and beguiling tale about Mrs. Whitaker, an old English woman who, while perusing a local thrift shop, casually stumbles across the Holy Grail. She takes it home and puts it on the mantel between an old photograph of her late husband and a small china basset hound. She would trade Christ's cup for nothing, even when Sir Galahad shows up at her door, requesting the Grail. They strike up an odd friendship. The knight takes to helping her with chores around the house; she makes him lemonade and cream cheese-and-cucumber sandwiches. To provide the punch line would ruin the magic of the story, which might one day be made into a movie. Just days ago, Miramax Films' co-founder Harvey Weinstein optioned "Chivalry."
"It's a gentle, funny, human story, and one gets to say a bunch of things about growing old and about the nature of time and about people which I couldn't say in any other story," Gaiman says. "I love that. That, to me, is the joy of things. I get to ask questions in using fantasy that I don't think I could ask if I was just writing romantic fiction. You get to ask some of the really big questions and some of the really cool questions. In American Gods, I get to talk about things most of my readers will have seen 100,000 times in ways that will make them look at them for the first time. That, I suppose for me, is the power of fiction. That is where the magic lives."