Please enjoy this transcript of my 20-plus-years-in-the-making interview with Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself), the bestselling author and creator of books, graphic novels, short stories, film, and television for all ages, including Neverwhere, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The View from the Cheap Seats and the Sandman series of graphic novels. His fiction has received Newbery and Carnegie Medals, and Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, and Will Eisner Awards, among many other awards and honors. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Neil, welcome to the show.
Neil Gaiman: Thank you. Thank you so much!
Tim Ferriss: I have been hoping to have this conversation for years. With a flashback for 10, 15, probably 20 plus years, I’ve been reading your work. I can’t say that about many people I’ve ever met.
Neil Gaiman: You’ve been asking me, incredibly politely, if I could do the podcast or anything vaguely, edging around it and giving me open invitations for a good decade now.
Tim Ferriss: This is true.
Neil Gaiman: I love the fact we’ve managed to do the occasional tiny, goofy thing. I got to do — read a page of your book.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right, that’s right. You read a page of the book, which was incredible, because I find your voice, as many people do, rather hypnotic, and then we got to do a very short chapter in Tribe of Mentors, the last book. Thank you very much for answering those questions. It’s just such a thrill to be able to spend time with you.
Neil Gaiman: I’m loving it.
Tim Ferriss: And I thought we could begin with the glorious beginnings, and maybe for those people who can’t see this, I’ll give some context. I have not just one recorder, but two, three, four different sets of audio. That’s in part because I am once bitten, twice shy when it comes to audio. Then you shared one of your early days stories. What happened?
Neil Gaiman: When I was 15, I really wanted to meet and talk to writers and artists I admired. I couldn’t figure out how you did this. I didn’t know about conventions, if there were conventions back in 1975, ’76. I had a brilliant idea. I would start a magazine. The magazine, as far as I was concerned, didn’t even have to exist. The fact that it went on to exist was really fun, and we called it Metro, which was a name I came up with because it sounded like a magazine.
It didn’t just sound like a magazine, it sounded like a magazine that you have heard of, and I loved the fact that over the years, Metro magazines around the world really do exist now. In 1975, they didn’t, but I could phone up and say, “We’re from Metro Magazine,” and people would go, “Oh, oh yeah.”
Our voices had broken, so over the phone, nobody knew that we were 15. I remember interviewing Michael Moorcock, who was an author whose work I loved with my friend Dave Dickson, who told me recently he just found the tape and is threatening to put it up as some kind of glorious podcast, which I really hope he does. 15-year-old Neil Gaiman and Dave Dickson interviewing Michael Moorcock.
The one that taught me my lesson was the — I think it was the second interview we did. Moorcock was the first, and it was Roger Dean, and Roger Dean is an artist and designer, most famous back then for the covers of Yes albums. This beautiful calligraphy and these floating islands and things like that. I got talking to some kid on the train who said, “Oh yeah, I know Roger Dean.”
We phoned up Roger Dean’s publisher, which was basically Roger Dean — I think they were called Dragon’s Dream — and said, “I’d like to interview Roger.” Went down to Brighton. I remember the sheer amazement and joy of these paintings that were, as far as I was concerned, iconic, religious emblems. I didn’t like Yes very much. I didn’t really like much of the music that he’d done covers to, but I had a copy of his book, Views, and just loved it.
There was a painting he did of some badgers, there were just these things. It felt very Lord of the Rings, it felt very fantastical, and there were these amazing paintings covered in dust, propped up against walls. We interviewed him, and at the end of the interview I noticed that the tape wasn’t going round and got home, played it, and you can hear this 30 seconds of us talking. There’s 30 seconds of us talking in higher and higher pitched voices, faster and faster like mad chipmunks, and then it stops. And that was the Roger Dean interview.
The great thing about that was when, seven years later, I really was a journalist, I really was going round interviewing people. I was interviewing people for magazines that existed and had existed before we decided to do the interviews and things, I always carried spare batteries. I always carried spare tapes.
If I could, at the point where I could afford to, I even carried a spare microcassette recorder, just in case.
Tim Ferriss: Just in case. Two is one, and one is none, as they say sometimes. The gods gifted you with a malfunction early.
Neil Gaiman: Exactly. One good malfunction and you learn your lesson. It’s that pain thing.
Tim Ferriss: We were chatting before we sat down to record, as I was gathering copious beverages, water and tea and so on for us. I’m using the Royal ‘us’, I suppose, mostly for me —
Neil Gaiman: I got water too.
Tim Ferriss: And we were talking about this location downtown where we’re sitting, and I’ve decided in the last few years to use locations outside of my home for a lot of what I do, because I found it, that is, it being sitting at my kitchen table doing a lot to sometimes produce a malaise. This odd association or lack of dissociation between work and home.
I had read at one point that Maya Angelou, and I hope I’m getting that pronunciation right, would rent hotel rooms to work on a lot of her writing. Then you brought up another name.
Neil Gaiman: Back in about 1997, I read an article by Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond books, about how he wrote the James Bond books. You read this article, and you realize something, which is, Ian Fleming did not enjoy the process of writing. I was always fascinated by the fact that several of Roald Dahl’s most famous short stories were plotted by Ian Fleming. Ian Fleming would —
Tim Ferriss: Really?
Neil Gaiman: Yeah, he gave Dahl —
Tim Ferriss: No idea.
Neil Gaiman: The two best short story twists, which are Lamb to the Slaughter, where the woman kills her husband with a leg of lamb and then cooks it, and feeds it to the detective who is going, “I cannot figure out what he was hit with.” is an Ian Fleming plot, and so is the one about the evil antique dealer who finds this amazing antique on some farm and decides to cheat the farmers and explains, “Well, the thing isn’t worth any money, but the legs, the legs are worth some money, so I’ll give you 20 quid for the legs.” He’s about to take away this million pound antique thing, and the farmers helpfully rip off the legs and throw the rest of it away.
Tim Ferriss: “Let me make this easier for you.”
Neil Gaiman: Those plots were both Ian Fleming’s, and you start realizing, “Oh, you really don’t like writing” when you read his thing on how he wrote the James Bond books. You write a James Bond book in two weeks, you check into a hotel, you have to check into a hotel somewhere that you don’t want to be, otherwise you might go out and walk around and become a tourist, you have to check into a not terribly nice hotel room, otherwise you might luxuriate and enjoy it. Instead, what you want to be is focused on getting out. Then, you having nothing else to do in this town, in this place, you settle down and you write like a fiend and you get your James Bond book written in two weeks and you leave this horrible hotel room, and that was how he did it.
I have tried it a couple of times. I did it with the American draft of Neverwhere, that was the first one I ever tried, and I did the entire American draft, which was a big second draft. The book had already been published in the UK, but my American editor wanted stuff done because she pointed out that the book, as it existed, was written for people who knew that Oxford Street was a big street with lots of shops on it, or whatever. It was written for Brits and Londoners, and she wanted something expanded, so I expanded it.
Neil Gaiman: I was in a room with, as far as I remember, no windows in the — I think it was a Marriott in the World Trade Center, which is no longer there, but writing in that hotel room, you just wanted to be out.
Tim Ferriss: It seems to me, and you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, so I want you to certainly fact check me as needed. But you also have or have had some internal rules, so you can use your external environment to assist, but I read that, and again, feel free to correct, but making rules, the importance of making rules like, you can sit here and write or you can sit here and do nothing, but you can’t sit here and do anything else.
Neil Gaiman: That was always, and still is when I go off to write, that’s my biggest rule.
Tim Ferriss: Could you speak to that?
Neil Gaiman: Yeah, ’cause I would go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.
What I love about that is I’m giving myself permission to write or not write, but writing is actually more interesting than doing nothing after a while. You sit there and you’ve been staring out the window now for five minutes, and it kind of loses its charm. You’re going, “Well, actually, let’s all write something.” It’s hard. As a writer, I’m more easily — I’m distractable. I have a three-year-old son. He is the epitome of cuteness and charm. It’s more fun playing with him than it is writing, which means if I’m going to be writing, I need to do it somewhere where I don’t have a three-year-old son singing to me, asking me to read to him, demanding my attention.
I think it’s really just a solid rule for writers. You don’t have to write. You have permission to not write, but you don’t have permission to do anything else.
Tim Ferriss: That reminds me of another one of my favorite writers, you being the one who’s sitting in front of me, John McPhee, a nonfiction writer who has spent much of his life in Princeton, New Jersey, but has written some incredible Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction, and I was lucky enough to take a class with him a thousand years ago. His rule was very similar, although he didn’t state it explicitly. He would sit in front of his first, as a young man, typewriter. He could sit in front of the blank page and from eight a.m. to six p.m., and with the exception of a break for lunch and swimming, it was the blank page or writing. He was disallowed from doing anything else.
Are there any other rules or practices that you also hold sacred or important for your writing process?
Neil Gaiman: Some of them are just things for me. For example, most of the time, not always, I will do my first draft in fountain pen, because I actually enjoy the process of writing with a fountain pen. I like the feeling of fountain pen. I like uncapping it. I like the weight of it in my hand. I like that thing, so I’ll have a notebook, I’ll have a fountain pen, and I’ll write. If I’m doing anything long, if I’m working on a novel, for example, I will always have two fountain pens on the go, at least, with two different colored inks, at least, because that way I can see at a glance, how much work I did that day. I can just look down and go, “Look at that! Five pages in brown. How about that? Half a page in black. That was not a good day. Nine pages in blue, cool, what a great day.”
You can just get a sense of are you working, are you making forward progress? What’s actually happening. I also love that because it emphasizes for me that nobody is ever meant to read your first draft. Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, it can — you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life. Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.
Then, I’ll sit down and type. I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.
Tim Ferriss: Do you edit, then, as you’re looking or translating from the first draft on the page to the computer, or do you get it all down as is in the computer and then edit —
Neil Gaiman: No, that’s my editing process. I figure that’s my second draft is typing into the computer. Also, I love — backing up a bit here. When I was, what was I? 27, 28? In the days when we were still in typewriters and we were just a handful of people with word processors, which were clunky things with disks which didn’t hold very much and stuff, I edited an anthology and enjoyed editing my anthology.
Most of the stories that came in were about 3,000 words long. Move forward in time, not much, five, six, seven years. Mid ‘90s, everybody is now on computer, and I edited another short story anthology. The stories that were coming in tended to be somewhere between six- and 9,000 words long. They didn’t really have much more story than the 3,000 word ones, and I realized that what was happening is it’s a computer-y thing, is if you’re typing, putting stuff down is work. If you’ve got a computer, adding stuff is not work. Choosing is work. It expands a bit, like a gas. If you have two things you could say, you say both of them. If you have the stuff you want to add, you add it, and I thought, “Okay, I have to not do that, because otherwise my stuff is going to balloon and it will become gaseous and thin.”
What I love, if I’ve written something on a computer, and I decide to lose a chunk, it feels like I’ve lost work. I delete a page and a half, I feel like there’s a page and half that just went away. That was a page and a half’s worth of work I’ve just lost. If I’ve been writing in a notebook and I’m typing it up, I can look at something and go, “Oh, I don’t need this page and a half.” I leave it out, I just saved myself work, and it feels like I’m treating myself.
I’m just trying to always have in my head the idea that maybe I’m somehow, on some cosmic level, paying somebody by the word in order to be allowed to write, but if they’re there, they should matter, they should mean something. It’s always important to me.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned distraction earlier and your dangerously adorable son, which I certainly agree with. I had read somewhere, actually, before I get to that, this might seem like a very, very mundane question, but what type of notebooks do you prefer? Are they large legal pads or are they leather bound? What type of notebooks?
Neil Gaiman: When they came out, I really liked — I’ve used a whole bunch of different ones. I bought big drawing ones, which actually turned out to be a bit too big, though I liked how much I could see on the page. Those are the ones I wrote Stardust and American Gods in, big size, but they weren’t terribly portable. I went over to the Moleskines, and I loved them when they first came out, and then they dropped their paper quality. Dropping paper quality doesn’t matter, unless you’re writing in fountain pen, because all of a sudden it’s bleeding through, and all of a sudden you’re writing on one page, leaving a page blank because it’s bled through and then writing on the next page.
Joe Hill, about six or seven years ago, Joe Hill, the wonderful horror fantasy writer, suggested the Leuchtturm to me. My usual notebook right now is a Leuchtturm, because I really like the way you can paginate stuff in them and the thickness of the paper, and they’re just like Moleskines, but the Porsche of Moleskines. They’re just better.
I also have been writing, I wrote The Graveyard Book and I’m writing the current novel in these beautiful books that I bought in a stationery shop in Venice, built into a bridge. Somewhere in Venice there’s a little stationery shop on a bridge, and they have these beautiful leather-bound blank books that just look like hardback books, but they’re blank pages. I wrote The Graveyard Book in one of those. I bought four of them, and now I’m using the next one on the next novel, and it may well go into another one. I’m not sure.
Then, at home, I say at home, my house in Wisconsin, which is where my stuff is, I’ve got my — we live in Woodstock, but I have an entire life’s worth of stuff still sitting in my house in Wisconsin, and it’s become archives. It’s actually kind of fabulous having a house that is an archive, but waiting for me in that house is a book that I bought for myself about 25 years ago, and before I die, I plan to write a novel in it. It’s an accounts book from the mid-19th century. It’s 500 pages long. Every page is numbered. It’s lined with accounts lines, but really faint so it would be nice to write a book in it, and it is engineered so that every single page lies flat.
It’s huge and it’s heavy and it just looks like a book that Dickens or somebody would’ve written a novel in and I’ve just been waiting until I have an idea that is huge and weird and Dickensian enough, and whether or not I actually get to write it in dip pen, I’m not sure, but I definitely want to write it in an old Victorian, something slightly copper plating. One of those old flex nib pens that they stopped making when carbon paper came in, just so I can get that spidery Victorian handwriting.
Tim Ferriss: I’m just imagining you putting pen to the first page. When you finish the first page and what that will feel like. That’s going to be a good day.
Neil Gaiman: It will be either a good day or an incredibly bad day. When you get to the end of the first page, it’s “Oh no! I had this pristine — ” it is the thing that I tell young writers, and by young writers, a young writer can be any age. You just have to be starting out, which is anything you do can be fixed. What you cannot fix is the perfection of a blank page. What you cannot fix is that pristine, unsullied whiteness of a screen or a page with nothing on it, because there’s nothing there to fix.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned a word, and it might be that I’m a little slow moving because I’m from Long Island, but Leuchtturm? What is that word?
Neil Gaiman: L-E-I-C-H, I think it’s T-U-R-M, and then 1917, I think is — their Twitter handle is definitely Leuchtturm1917.
Tim Ferriss: Leuchtturm, and I’ll put that in the show notes for folks, so you’ll be able to find it. Since you gave me — I’m not intending to turn this episode into a shopping list, but I’ve never used fountain pens.
Neil Gaiman: Really?
Tim Ferriss: I have not. My assistant, my dear assistant does. She loves using fountain pens. She enjoys the act. I’ve had a few sloppy false starts and then been rather impatient, but if I wanted to give it a shot, are there any particular fountain pens or criteria that you would use in picking a good pen?
Neil Gaiman: The biggest criteria I would use in picking, if you have the choice, is go somewhere like New York’s Fountain Pen Hospital.
Tim Ferriss: Is that a real place?
Neil Gaiman: It’s a real place. It’s called The Fountain Pen Hospital. They sell lots of new pens, they recondition old pens, they look after pens for you. And try them out, because the lovely thing about fountain pens is they are personal. You go, “No, no, no.” And then you find the one. I tend to suggest to people who are just nervously — “I’ve never used a fountain pen, what should I do?” I will point them at Lamy, L-A-M-Y, who have some fabulous starter pens, and they’re not very expensive, and they’re good. They do a pen called The Safari, but they have a bunch of good starter pens, and they’re just nice to get into the idea of, “Do I like doing this?”
Let’s see, what am I using right now? What have I got in here? This one here is a Pilot. It’s a Namiki, and it’s a flexing nib ever so slightly when you put down weight on it, the nib will spread. It’s a beautiful, beautiful pen. That one’s a Pilot. I think this one here is the Namiki. It’s really weird because Namiki is Pilot, so I don’t quite understand that.
Tim Ferriss: Maybe it’s a Toyota/Lexus thing?
Neil Gaiman: I think it is. It’s that kinda thing. This one here is called a Falcon, and again, you put a little bit of weight on it, and the line will just spread and thicken, which is part of the fun of fountain pens. I’ll go and play. There’s a lovely Italian one. I’ve got my agent, I did a thing some years ago when I realized that I was losing a lot of actual writing time to signing foreign contracts.
Tim Ferriss: This is for books?
Neil Gaiman: This is for books, or occasionally for stories or things being reprinted around the world. The contracts would come in and there would be big sheaves of them because they get printed all around the world, and foreign contracts, a lot of them you have to sign a lot. You have to do a lot of initialing and I would sit there going, “I have just spent 90 minutes signing a pile of contracts, and I love that I got to sign it, but —” I contacted my agent. I said, “Can I give you power of attorney? Would you mind? Would you just sign these things for me?”
She was like, “Absolutely!” Great. I got her — she’d never used a fountain pen and I got her a fountain pen. I actually went to The New York Fountain Pen Hospital with her, and did the thing of showing her pens, “What do you like?” I got her a Visconti, which are just these lovely Italian pens. Mostly I love, there’s a slightly fetishistic bit of having bottles of beautifully colored ink. When you start talking to fountain pen people, they really — they pretend to be interested in what pen you like, but they don’t care, because they’ve found their own pens that they love.
They say, “What do you use?”
I use Pilot 823s for signing. Actually now, I’ve got a Pilot 823, ’cause it’s just a fantastic signing pen. It’s a workhorse, it keeps going, and I got one in 2012 and it was my signing pen. I signed through Ocean at the End of the Lane. Before the book had come out, I had already pre-signed, written my signature 20,000 times with this pen.
Tim Ferriss: I have some footage of you icing your hand after said signings.
Neil Gaiman: That was a signing tour that I really got into icing my hand and wrist and arm. I did the numbers, and as far as I can tell, I’ve signed about one and a half million signatures with that pen, which remained, and I had to send it off to Pilot at one point, not because the nib was in trouble, because the plunger mechanism was starting to stick, and they fixed it for me and sent it back. Then my three-year-old son found a place behind a cast iron fireplace in our house in Woodstock where if you just insert your father’s Pilot 823 pen, which you have found on the table, just to see if it would go in there, you can actually guarantee that without disassembling the house, we actually have to take the entire house apart to uninstall a cast iron fireplace from 1913 to get at the pen. That pen now has been given as a sacrifice to the house gods, so I need to get a new one.
Tim Ferriss: Its strikes me, at least it seems as we’re talking that many of the decisions you’ve made, the tools you’ve found and enlisted, act to make not writing unappealing, or at least boring after five minutes, and to enhance the act of writing to make it something that is enjoyable. I don’t know if that’s true.
Neil Gaiman: That is true, but they also exist for another reason, which is kind of weird, which is to try and trivialize what I’m doing and not make it important and freighted down with weight, because that paralyzes me. When I started writing I had a typewriter. It was a manual typewriter. When I sold my first book, I had the money to buy an electric typewriter.
Tim Ferriss: What was that first book?
Neil Gaiman: Gosh. I actually don’t remember whether I bought the electric typewriter with the money from a book called Ghastly Beyond Belief, a book of science fiction and fantasy quotations I did with Kim Newman, or whether it was for the Duran Duran biography that I did. Either way, I was just 23. What I would do back then is I would do my rough draft on scrap paper, single spaced so that it couldn’t be used, and also so that I could get as many words on. Paper was expensive. I could always do that. I remember the joy of getting my first computer, and just the idea that I wasn’t making paper dirty. Nothing mattered until I pressed print, and that was absolutely and utterly liberating.
And then, a decade on, picking up a notebook, it was for Stardust, which I’d decided that I wanted the rhythms of Stardust to be very antiquated rhythms, and I thought there’s probably a difference to the way that one writes with a fountain pen. 17 century writing, 17th, 18th century writing, you notice tends to go in very, very long sentences and long paragraphs. My theory about this is that one reason why you get this is because you’’re using dip pens, and if you pause, they dry up. You just have to keep going. It forces you to do a kind of writing where you’re going for a very long sentence and you’re going to go for a long paragraph and you’re going to keep moving in this thing, and you’re thinking ahead.
If you’re writing on a computer, you’ll think of the sort of thing that you mean, and then write that down and look at it and then fiddle with it and get it to be the thing that you mean. If you’re writing in fountain pen, if you do that, you just wind up with a page covered with crossings out, so it’s actually so much easier to just think a little bit more. You slow up a bit, but you’re thinking the sentence through to the end, and then you start writing.
You write that, and then you pause and then you write the next one. At least that was the way that I hypothesized that I might be writing, and I wanted Stardust to feel like it had been written in the late 1920s. I thought to do that I should probably get myself a fountain pen and a book, so that was how I started writing that. Again, what I loved was suddenly feeling liberated. Saying, “Ah, I’m not actually making words that are not going down in phosphor on a computer screen.”
Tim Ferriss: This trivializing is very, very important and I’d love to dig into a little bit, because this is something that’s come up quite a bit, initially very unexpectedly with people I’ve interviewed on the podcast. I remember having a conversation with Shaun White, the legendary snowboarder, and I asked him what he said to himself, what was his internal monologue or dialogue right before the gate opened for the last run in the Olympics for the gold medal. His answer was, “Who cares?” Which surprised me and he said, “Yeah, because in effect, if I apply an incredible amount of weight to myself, it’s going to do nothing but handicap me.”
You do see, or there are many examples of writers, of musicians who have crumbled with sophomore syndrome after a success and had great difficulty putting out work. You’ve put out a lot of very, very good work. I’ve read and listened to and watched a lot of your work. What are other things you do to remove that weight, if anything? Are there things you say to yourself when you commit to writing a book? When you sign the agreement with the publisher for yet another novel? Is there any other advice that you would give or things that you do to help remove the psychological performance anxiety?
Neil Gaiman: If you’re me, you tend to do the things that are not actually financially sensible, but make life easier. I like writing things that nobody’s waiting for. It’s much more stressful writing things that people actually are waiting for, that people care about. It’s why it felt wonderful to follow American Gods up with Coraline. Nobody even knew that I wanted to be a kid’s author, and it was an odd thing to be, and I’d just written this giant novel that’s won all of the awards and it’s incredibly adult and it’s thick and it’s a proper book and look, I got the Hugo, and look, I got the Nebula and so on and so forth, and then here’s a book nobody’s waiting for about —
Tim Ferriss: Did you work on — you worked on that before anyone knew. In other words, you hadn’t set expectations?
Neil Gaiman: Coraline was written — I thought Coraline was unpublishable and that I was told it was initially. I started it for my kids, my daughter, in particular, Holly. I showed it to an English editor who told me it was completely unpublishable. We moved to America. The idea was that I was writing it in my own time, but I didn’t have any own time. Somewhere in there I sent it to my friend, Jane Yolen. I mentioned to Jane, who was an amazing children’s author, but also at the time was editing a line of books.
She wanted to buy it and the people upstairs at the publishing house, said, “Absolutely not.” This was just the first third of Coraline. It hadn’t even got bad yet. I put it away, and then a few years on I looked around and realized I now had another daughter. I now had Maddy and she was a baby and she was getting bigger, and if I didn’t finish that book, this book I started for Holly and now Holly’s too old, almost, and I needed to finish it, so I sent it to my new editor, but I sent it to my adult editor. I didn’t have a children’s editor.
Jennifer Hershey at — I can’t remember, were we at Harper Collins at the time or was it still Avon? I think it was still Avon. Avon got bought by Harper Collins, which was how I became a Harper Collins author. She read it and she called me up and she said, “This is great. What happens next?”
I said, “Send me a contract, and we will both find out.”
Bless her, she did, so I went back to writing it, ’cause now it was actually something that actually had a delivery date attached. I did not have the time to write it in. It wasn’t like I had more time. I remember, what I did was I had a notebook by the side of my bed, and instead of reading three or four pages a night and then turning off the light and going to sleep, I would write maybe 50 words of Coraline, which doesn’t seem much.
Tim Ferriss: Right before bed?
Neil Gaiman: Right before bed. So I wasn’t reading before bed, I was just writing before bed, but I’d go to bed and I’d reread what I had written on Coraline, and I would do five or six lines of Coraline.
If you do it that way, you’ve written a page a week and it kept moving forward, and then we went on a cruise, a fundraising cruise for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which is a first amendment thing, and I was working on American Gods and I did not pack — due to a packing error — the American Gods notebooks, but I did have the Coraline book with me, so on that cruise I got to write quite a bit more Coraline. A couple months later, I was in despair of ever finishing American Gods because I’d been writing it by that point for at least 18 months and figured that I had about a year to go, and just said, “Fuck it.” And wrote Coraline and just finished it and sent it off to my publisher and was like, “Here is a book. You can publish this.”
They were like, “That’s great, but we’ll wait for American Gods.”
Tim Ferriss: Do you tend to work on multiple projects at once?
Neil Gaiman: I used to. I used to be really good at working on multiple projects at once. I think I have to start accepting that I’m not as good anymore at that.
Tim Ferriss: What does that mean?
Neil Gaiman: It means that in the old days when I was young, I would have at least three things on the go, which was great because if I got stuck on any one of them, I would do the other. Even when I was writing American Gods, I would always have the next Coming to America short stories in my head so if I got stuck on Shadow, I would just take a week and I’d do one of the Coming to America stories, and then I’d go back to Shadow again.
But, these days, I don’t think I’m as good at that anymore. I think I am, I think it’s great to have three or four things going on, but there is that point when I start looking at myself and going, “Actually, I’m getting less done.” I’m not doing that thing where I get stuck on project A so I just immediately whip over to project B. It takes me a little ramping up time to get to the head space now, on project B. At the point when I have project A, B, C, and D all waiting for me, what I do is look at them, make a noise like Lurch from The Addams Family, one of those “Ohhhhh” kind of noises. I go off and make a cup of tea and play with Ash or something. I think, actually, it’s one of those things where you just know thyself. I think I now have to start going, “Just one thing at a time.”
This also means I’m going to have to say no to more introductions and things, and I love doing introductions.
Tim Ferriss: Introductions? You mean writing introductions?
Neil Gaiman: Writing introductions. Writing introductions to other people’s work, writing introductions and essays and things where you go, “Here is a thing I love. I can get it to the world. I can tell people why I love this thing, and maybe they’ll discover it.” Every now and then, sometimes you know your introduction makes no real difference in the scheme of things, and then sometimes — James Thurber, I was told they would bring The Thirteen Clocks back into print if I wrote the introduction to it. I was like, “Yes, I’m writing the introduction to it.” Because it has an introduction by me, I’ve run into many hundreds of people who I assume are representatives of thousands of people over the years who’ve said, “You know, I picked up that book because your name was on the cover, and oh my God, it’s become my favorite book. I read it to my kids. It’s amazing.”
I go, “Good. That’s what it’s for. That’s why you do this.”
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned writing right before bed. I’d love to talk about the — maybe not the scheduling, but the timing of writing. I was doing prep for this conversation and I came across an interview in which you said, that for nonfiction you can write wherever it happens to fall. If it’s a script it’s something else, but for novels, very often you tend to write between one and six p.m. you’ll handle email, maybe writing a blog post and so on the morning, and I’d love to chat about that because many of the writers I’ve spoken to, and I’m sure it differs person to person, but tend to write either very late or very early because they feel like they avoid distraction.
Neil Gaiman: When I started out, from the age of about 22, when I was a young journalist, 26, 27, a starting out comics writer, all through there I was a late, late, late night writer. Nothing really happened until the kids were in bed. Nine o’clock, I might have faffed around a little bit during the day, but now it’s all done, and now I’m getting done to work. At two or three o’clock in the morning, and I’m writing in England at this point, I may phone a friend in America just to talk enough to make sure that I’m awake.
That’s what I did, and I was a smoker and a coffee drinker and it was great. I moved to America in ’92, gave up smoking ’93, stopped drinking coffee, went over to tea and tried being a late night writer. Tried carrying on being a late night writer and gradually realized that I wasn’t anymore. What tended to happen was somewhere around one in the morning, I’d be writing away and then I would lift my head from the keyboard at four o’clock in the morning and have 3,000 pages of the letter M, and just go, “Okay, this doesn’t really work anymore for me.” Then I started rescheduling, trying different things out.
Part of what I discovered, particularly about being a novelist, is writing a novel works best if you can do the same day over and over again. The closer you can come to Groundhog Day, you just repeat that day. You set up a day that works for yourself. The last novel that I actually wrote, I was at Tori Amos’ wonderful house in Florida. She has this lovely house on the water that she’s lent me many times to go and write in. I went down there and I would get up in the morning, I would go for a jog, come back, do my yoga, get dressed and get in the car, drive down to a little café where there were just enough people around that I knew that other people existed, but nobody that I would ever be tempted to talk to, and I would order myself a large cup of green tea, sit in a corner, and just start writing.
I would do that day over and over and over and over. A couple of months later looked up and I had The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was only meant to have been a short story anyway, it just kept going. That, I think, works really, really well. I also think that the most important thing for human beings is to be aware of the change. The biggest problem we run into is going, “This is who I am, this is what I’m like. This is how I function.” while failing to notice that you don’t do that anymore. I’m perfectly aware that I may one day become one of those people who wakes up early in the morning and goes and writes.
My friend Gene Wolfe, who is now in his late 80s and is one of the finest writers that America has, for years was an editor of a magazine about factories. It was called Plant Engineering. He’d get up at four o’clock in the morning and write for an hour before anything else, before the day started, before he had to leave for work, and before anybody else was up, and that was how he did it. I cannot imagine getting up in the morning and just writing. That’s not how my head works. I need a while to get here, but I can absolutely imagine that one day I’ll have become one of those morning writers, from having been a late night writer in my youth, and an afternoon writer in my middle age. In my dotage, I can absolutely become a morning writer.
Tim Ferriss: In your dotage. I think that’s going to take a while. I do want to ask you a question related to a name that came up earlier, and that is, this of course, I think I’m getting right, because it comes from a reliable source, which is your blog.
Neil Gaiman: My blog is a pretty reliable source.
Tim Ferriss: I think it’s very reliable. For those who know your work outside of the blog, I would really encourage to read some of your work on the blog. There’s some really touching personal work, one in particular about your gorgeous white dog whose name I’m —
Neil Gaiman: Cabal.
Tim Ferriss: Such a beautiful piece, in fact, I owe you thanks for because it led, in part, there were many factors, but to me getting my first dog, as an adult, Molly, which I put off for decades. Thank you for that. This question —
Neil Gaiman: You’re welcome.
Tim Ferriss: Beautiful piece. Is related to Holly. I’m going to use this as a very sneaky way to ask you a question that you probably dislike being asked, and it involves 57-year-olds. My understanding is you’re convinced to speak to your daughter’s class about where ideas come from. What I noted here, I’m not going to ask it that way, but the line that stuck out is you get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. What if — what if you woke up with wings? If only. If only real life was like it is in Hollywood musicals. I wonder — If this goes on, this is one I really liked, if this goes on, telephones are going to start talking to each other and cut out the middleman. Wouldn’t it be interesting if —
The question I’m going to ask is a follow-up. It doesn’t have to map perfectly with this, but I would love to hear the genesis story of The Graveyard Book. The reason I ask about that book specifically is that it is my absolutely favorite fiction audio book of all time. I remember the exact moment when I finished The Graveyard Book in audio, and multiple versions, people have asked me, I have not listened to the ensemble version.
Neil Gaiman: It’s really good.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sure it’s spectacular, but not to sound creepy, I do find your voice very soothing. I finished it as my plane — not my plane, let me rephrase — as a plane was landing and I had a few minutes before we landed and I thought about restarting the book. It’s had a wonderful place in my heart and my mind. Where did that book come from?
Neil Gaiman: Actually I can give a slightly better answer to that now than I could’ve done a year ago or I have done in previous years, because I found something accidentally, recently, which gave me an insight. I was 25 years old. It would’ve been 1984, ’85, maybe even into ’86. I was living in Sussex, a little town in a very tall house. My dad owned the house. Actually, what he owned was a shop underneath, and the house came with it.
Because little old English towns go back for a long time, the house was at least 300 years old. It was across a little lane from a country graveyard, and the house was incredibly tall and incredibly thin. You get a couple of rooms, then you get stairs. I had a son, who, at that point was two years old. His favorite thing was his little tricycle. The problem with little tricycles is you cannot ride them around houses like that, otherwise you die. You hit the stairs and you die.
Every day I would take him and his little tricycle over the road into this little churchyard and he would pedal happily round and round the paths through the gravestones. I remember just the thought process. I remember going, “He looks so happy here. He looks really comfortable.” There is something very sweet about a little kid riding a tricycle through a graveyard. I thought, “I could do a story! Wouldn’t it be fun to do a story about that? It would be like a kid in a graveyard getting brought up by dead people.”
And then I thought, “Well actually, Kipling already did that once with The Jungle Book, which is a kid in a jungle being brought up by wild animals and teaching him the things that wild animals know, so I would have to have a kid in a graveyard being taught the things that dead people know.”
I went up to my office, my little office, and I sat down at my typewriter and started to write. When I told people this in the past, I’ve said “I wrote a couple of pages and realized that it wasn’t good enough, and I was wrong.” I actually wrote an entire first chapter, I discovered. About a year ago, looking for something else, I found it and it wasn’t very good. What was fascinating and delightful about it was the portrait of the kid, which was very obviously a really, actually looking back at it, a quite good pen portrait of my son Mike who is now a —
Tim Ferriss: That you did.
Neil Gaiman: I’m describing the baby and I only knew one, so it’s Mike. And that was really interesting, but the story doesn’t work. I think I’ve got a — there’s a demon in it who I think is the person who winds up being the person who accepts him into the graveyard. Nothing’s quite right, but yet there’s a central idea there. I remember writing that and just going, “Okay, this is a better idea, and I am a writer, so I need to put this off.”
About a decade later, I came back, tried it again, and this time, at least according to memory it was only a couple of pages and again, I went, “Oh, no, still not good enough for this.”
Tim Ferriss: May I pause for one second?
Neil Gaiman: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: You must have ideas for potential stories all the time.
Neil Gaiman: Yeah, but this was different. This was one where I knew it had legs and I knew it was real and I knew it was good. In fact, it was interesting; there was a point when I thought I wasn’t going to do it, and I gave the idea to Terry Pratchett. We had our photos taken in a graveyard and we were talking about graveyards and kids. I said, “There’s this book that I was going to write, and this is what I was going to do in it.”
What is lovely is Terry didn’t do that, exactly, but he wrote a book called Johnny and The Dead, which was taking some of the stuff, but it wasn’t close enough that I couldn’t then still do my story. What was great is I knew that this was still important and I still wanted to tell the story and over the years, I would just let it accumulate. Finally, in about 2003 I finished writing, I think it was Anansi Boys —
Tim Ferriss: Which I also listened to on audio.
Neil Gaiman: Ah, Lenny Henry, isn’t he brilliant?
Tim Ferriss: He’s incredible. Such a great read.
Neil Gaiman: I got to the end of Anansi Boys and I thought, “I don’t think I’m getting any better. This is now, as a writer, I’m probably me. This is probably it. I may improve a tiny bit, but it’s not going to be the leaps and bounds that I know that I was. I have absolutely no excuse for putting off The Graveyard Book. But when I’ve started the other two times and it didn’t work, I started with Chapter One. I’m going to start right in the middle,” and I wrote the first two pages of The Witch’s Headstone, Chapter Four, and did, emotionally, the same thing I always do. I had all this down at that point with The Graveyard Book, which is go, “Oh, it’s not good enough. It’s not good enough.” My daughter Maddy, because at this point we’re in The Cayman Islands on a small holiday, me, Maddy, and Holly. Maddy comes out of the sea, wanders over to me and says, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m writing a story.”
She says, “Read it to me.” I read her the first page and a half that I’d written, and she said, “What happens next?” So I kept going. I think I would’ve absolutely have been capable of giving up and failing at that point, except Maddy wanted to know what happened next, so I kept writing. By the end of that, I’d written a story that felt like it worked. I had the tone, I had the voice, I had Silas, I had all of that stuff.
Tim Ferriss: What a great character, by the way.
Neil Gaiman: He’s so lovely.
Tim Ferriss: Silas.
Neil Gaiman: Then I started it from the beginning. The one thing that I have no idea where it came from, because it was just sitting in the notebook when I came to start, it’s like I’d written it at some point in the previous five years knowing that I would have to start at some point. It was just a line that was, “It was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.” Knowing that that was the first line in the story, and having very mixed feelings about that because on the whole, this story is going to be very loving. It’s going to be very tender, it’s going to be about growth, it’s going to be about families, it’s going to be about villages, it’s going to be about people, but the first few pages are going to be absolutely terrifying. That was the first line.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve certainly delivered on the first few pages being very, very terrifying. I’m going to go back and listen to that again. Maybe I’ll try ensemble this time around.
Neil Gaiman: The ensemble is really — I’m not just saying this because for me, listening to one of my own audiobooks is a lot like back when you were young and you had answering machines and you would be listening to messages people had left for you and then you’d suddenly hit your own voice. “No, I don’t sound like that!” It’s Derek Jacobi, who is one of England’s greatest actors, as the narrator. The cast of people, Miriam Margolyes, Reece Shearsmith, just this fabulous cast.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned the name that I was planning on bringing up anyway, and that is Terry Pratchett. I think many people who, at least in the United States, are less familiar with Terry than perhaps, they should be. Could you tell us who Terry is and how you first met?
Neil Gaiman: Terry Pratchett, later Sir Terry Pratchett, was an English writer who died in March, 2015. He was a humorist, a satirist, best known for the Discworld novels set on a flat earth, which is on the back of four elephants on the back of an enormous turtle swimming through space. He was my friend.
Terry and I met when his first book, the first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, was due to come out in paperback and we met — for years and years, we would tell everybody that we met in a Chinese restaurant. Again, a few years ago, I found my desk diary from 1985, and I thought, “Ah, there’s Terry and me meeting in February, 1985. I wonder which Chinese restaurant it was?” It turned out we actually met on the 28th of January and it was Bertorelli’s Italian restaurant in — was it Goodge Street? I think it was Goodge Street, proving that memory is gloriously fallible.
Embarrassingly so, since I’d actually filmed a piece to camera in a Chinese restaurant about Terry’s passing. I was a young journalist. Terry, at the time, was working as the press officer for the Central Electricity Board in the UK, and we hit if off in a way that’s just that sort of thing where you go, “Oh, you have the same kind of mind that I have.” Not exactly, but the Venn Diagram of overlap is — it was the point where we got onto the subject of grimoires, of occult books, and Terry mentioned that he had come up with one called The Necrotelicomnicon, The Book of The Telephone Numbers of the Dead, and I said, “That’s really weird, I’ve just come up with one called The Liber Fulvarum Paginarum, the Book of Yellow Colored Pages.” And he’s going, “Oh, we have the same kind of head that goes to the same kind of places.”
We became friendlier. After a while, Terry would start sending me his books to read as he was writing them. A floppy disk would arrive and it would have 30,000 words on it of a novel, or my phone would ring and Terry would say, “‘Allo, it’s me. So which is funnier?” He’d just be writing and he’d want somebody to talk to.
I had written a book called Don’t Panic. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion, which was great. I got to work with Douglas Adams, I got to rummage through Douglas’ filing cabinets and obscurity stuff. I’d written the whole book of who Douglas was and what Hitchhiker’s was. I realized, by the end of it, that I could write in that style. Classic English humor with funny footnotes and things like that. That was something that I could do.
I had an idea for a book inspired, really, by reading The Jew of Malta. I’d been reading Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and there’s just a line in it where these evil Jews meet and they compare evil that they’ve done. I thought you could do that scene with demons and it would be really nice if you got Demon Number One who’s done lots of evil, Demon Number Two, who’s done lots of evil, and Demon Number Three, who just hasn’t, really.
That was the start — so I wrote and I had this idea about a baby swap, kind of like The Omen, but it all goes wrong and it becomes a nice kid. So I wrote 5,000 words of this thing, and I sent it to a few friends to look at, and then Sandman and Books of Magic took over my life and my time and didn’t really think about it. I knew it was a thing, I knew that I’d get to it one day, and then I got a phone call from Terry.
Tim Ferriss: How much later was this?
Neil Gaiman: Maybe eight months, nine months. He says, “That thing you sent me. Are you doing anything with it?” I said, “Well, no, I’m doing Sandman. I’m doing Books of Magic.”
He said, “Well, I know what happens next. Either sell me the idea of what you’ve written so far, or we can write it together.” As far as I was concerned, that was a lot like Michelangelo ringing me up and saying, “Do you want to paint a ceiling together this weekend?” I loved Terry’s craft. Terry became, somewhere in there, before the arrival of J. K. Rowling, the bestselling novelist in the UK.
Tim Ferriss: Tens of millions of copies.
Neil Gaiman: Millions upon millions of copies. This was before that. This was, he’d just retired from the electricity board to become a full time writer, but I knew how good he was, and I’m like, “This is a fabulous apprenticeship.” Even though I didn’t have the time, I said yes, and my life, when I look back on it, I’m just really glad that I was 27, 28 when I was doing this, because I couldn’t do it now, just physically and mentally couldn’t do it now, but I would write Sandman until midnight, I would write The Books of Magic from midnight until about 2:30, and I would write Good Omens from 2:30 until about 6 a.m., and then I would get up at one o’clock in the afternoon and my answering machine would have a little blinking light on it and I would press the button and the tape would rewind and then Terry Pratchett’s voice would come out of it and he’d go, “Get up, get up you bastard! I’ve just written a good bit!”
That was the process of writing. It was very fast, very mad, and was the first draft. Second draft took us much longer, but we had Good Omens. We had this wonderful incredibly collaborative book. It was almost immediately bought by Hollywood, and Terry and I went out and had one of those hellish awful Hollywood experiences that you laugh at when other people tell you in their stories about them because you’re like, “It can’t be that bad.” No, it really is that bad. It really was that bad.
Then over the years, Terry Gilliam tried to make it into a film, which we loved the idea of, then we were going to do it as a TV series, and we couldn’t really find somebody to adapt it. Eventually, Terry and I had a deal that we would never do anything individually on Good Omens. It had to be together or not at all, and then one day he emailed me, and he said, “Look you have to do this. You have to do this because you’re the only other person who has the same amount of love for and understanding of the old girl that I have, and I want to see it before the lights go out.”
I said, “Okay.” And then Terry died, which meant that now it had become this last request and if the upcoming Good Omens series is good, which I believe it is, a lot of what makes it good, a lot of what, because I was the showrunner. I wrote it and I showran it, but I think what makes it good is I wasn’t prepared to compromise on it, and I am normally very prepared to compromise. I am encouraging when other people want to bring ideas to the table. I’m like, “Yeah, go do something fun with this. I’ve already done the book.”
In this case, I had Terry Pratchett in the back of my head who I had to please, and the producers would say, “Neil, I know you’ve written this sequence where Agnes Nutter, the witch, is taken out and burned and we have villagers and it’s the 1640s and you’ve got a giant bonfire and an explosion and all this kind of stuff, and we thought we could save a lot of money and do it just as well if we had wood cuts of what happened, and the narrator telling the story.”
I would be like, “Okay.” And then I would stop and I would think, “What would Terry think about that?” Terry would have nothing polite to say about any of these people and “I’m sorry, we’re going to have to do it the way I wrote it. And the way it is in the book. We’re not doing it with woodcuts.” It was like that all the way through, just trying to hold the line and make this thing that Terry would’ve been proud of and using stuff that we came up with in the book, using stuff that we’d come up with talking after the book, stuff that we would’ve put into the next book if there ever had been one, and just making it all something that Terry would’ve been proud of.
It’s been really wonderful. This South by Southwest has been the first time anybody has seen anything from Good Omens, and we showed some clips. Hearing audiences laugh was kind of amazing. “Oh, it does work. They’re liking it. They’re loving it.”
Tim Ferriss: It does work. You showed me only a very short clip, but I know the book and I’m familiar with it and with the work you’ve done or any work or characters I deeply care about, I collected comics for my entire childhood, still have probably 10,000 polybagged comics that I refuse to get rid of, and every time a comic book movie would be made in my younger years, because they were not done, generally, very well, I would peek through a crack in my fingers to see how characters would turn out, and it was always very stressful for me, because I had so much invested in many different characters. Just want to get a thank you to Hugh Jackman for getting Logan in Wolverine right. It was a huge relief. And seeing this clip, it really gave me the feeling that you’d pulled it off. That it lived up to my experience as a reader and a listener.
Neil Gaiman: I think, mostly, we have. I think a lot of that is casting. Michael Sheen and David Tennant were perfect, and they’ve never really been in anything [together] before, because they go up for the same parts because they are very similar actors, and people were like, “Why would you cast them? It’s like casting the same person.” Yeah, it kind of is, actually, and it’s one of the reasons why it works so well. They have joked about — and I’m not sure if they’re joking about if ever I write a stage play version of Good Omens, they would go on tour with it and alternate roles each night.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a brilliant idea. Wow. I want to — first I should say, and we’ll put this certainly in the show notes and everywhere else and as people have already heard, in the introduction, where can people learn more about Good Omens?
Neil Gaiman: That’s a really good question. One thing that I would recommend you do is read the book. Good Omens, the novel, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It won’t spoil anything for you with the TV show. There’s enough stuff in there that I put in for people who knew the book. There are Easter eggs in there where only somebody who has read the book will know that something is funny or know why something has happened, but there’s also things that people who read the book will not be expecting.
That’s the first thing. YouTube or any Amazon Prime ads have the ad for Good Omens up, the trailer. You can go and watch that. It’s a lot talkier than the trailer. The trailer, a lot of it is things going bang, because that’s what they like putting in trailers. If it were me, my trailer would’ve just been three minutes of two characters talking. “Here you go, here’s the trailer. If you like this, you’ll like the show.” I think, very wisely, they put in giant walls of fire and Heaven and Hell, and hellhounds and all of the glorious stuff.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned a word: apprenticeship. What are the types of things that you learned from Terry, or picked up?
Neil Gaiman: The biggest thing, looking back on it, that I learned from Terry was a willingness to go forward without knowing what happens. You might know what happens next, but you don’t know what happens after that, but it’s okay because you’re a grownup and you will figure it out. There’s lots of metaphors for writing a novel and George R.R. Martin, for example, divides writers into architects and gardeners. I can be an architect if I have to, but I’d rather be a gardener. I would rather plant the seeds, water them, and figure out what I’m growing as they grow and then prune it and trim it and pleach it, whatever I need to do to make something beautiful that appears intentional, but at the end of the day you have to allow for accidents and randomness and just, “What happens when things grow?”
The joy of Good Omens — the best thing about Good Omens was having Terry Pratchett as an audience, because if I could make Terry laugh, I knew it’s like hitting that bell, hitting the thing in the circus with the hammer. If you bing the bell at the top, and that’s what I did when I could make Terry laugh.
Tim Ferriss: He is no longer with us, and I’d be curious to know how he faced mortality, because I, for instance, have Alzheimer’s on both sides of my family, so I’ve had the opportunity to observe people with Alzheimer’s, which can be very, very difficult. How did he approach his own mortality?
Neil Gaiman: Terry made an astonishingly powerful — he faced it head on and he made two or three incredibly powerful documentaries, one about Alzheimer’s. The one that ripped me up emotionally was the one about assisted suicide. It was the one about the right to die, which Terry became a very firm believer in and made his film as a piece of polemic about should he be allowed to turn off? Should he be allowed to go, “Okay, this is the situation I’m in and I’m in this body and I am done?”
He followed a man to Switzerland where he went through the end of life process and he turned off the cameras while he did. It was incredibly moving. Terry, the last time I saw him, confided in me very proudly that he did have the death cocktail and that it was hidden away, and it was there for him when he was ready. I knew at that moment he was never going to take it, because Terry had a rear-brain Alzheimer’s. Memory was basically okay, but shapes weren’t. The physical world had fallen slightly apart on him. He couldn’t see things. He couldn’t perceive objects. He could still think straight, but all of your spatial recognition, all of your object recognition stuff was failing.
I thought, “Even if you’ve got the stuff, you can’t find it. You can’t get something from a hidden place. Nobody else is going to get something from a hidden place for you.” Also, I thought, “You’re now actually beyond the point where you ever wanted to be. You didn’t want to be here. You wanted to have stopped four or five months ago, but now you’re here, and if you’re here, you’re here ‘til the end.”
Indeed, a few months later, he fell into unconsciousness and a few months after that, he stopped completely. But it was inspiring. It was inspiring watching Terry talk about Alzheimer’s, bringing Alzheimer’s, which everybody has to deal with one way or the other, into the public consciousness as something that was okay to talk about. Not as something slightly shameful that happens to Grandpa. Also, just talk about the right to die, and talking about it as a human right and I understand, you can list out to me all the reasons why it’s a bad idea and here’s a creepy family and if they could kill Mum for the money they would, and right now they’ve got her in a home. They would’ve killed her and announced that she wanted to do it herself. I get all that, but also, I get that the right not to be alive, the right to end it all, the right to go, “Okay, I’ve come as far as I can in this, and it’s okay to stop before I become something that is a shallow shadow of who I once was.” That has to be all right too.
Tim Ferriss: How does it feel as such a close friend of his, to be able to share this work that you created together and to have?
Neil Gaiman: Weird. Really, really weird. Mostly it’s wonderful, and then sometimes it isn’t. Saturday night, Amazon had taken over a 19,000 square foot lot, turned it into The Garden of Earthly Delights. It has a bookshop on a corner and hairdressers and a giant tree in the middle that serves alcohol. It has wings that if you stand in front of them and activate some kind of Instagram filter, or maybe it was a Snapchat filter, will make the wings start to flap. Just filled with wonderfulness and I’m there and we have singing nuns and then a Queen cover band come on, and I’m looking around and there’s Jon Hamm and David Tennant and Michael Sheen and all my guys from my lovely American Gods cast come over and they’re hanging out, coming over and I get to introduce — it’s like introducing two families.
I was kind of melancholy, because I knew that I should just be enjoying it, I knew I should just be going, “This is magical. This is the kind of fun, wonderful thing that you don’t get very often in your life and I should just be exulting in it,” and instead, I’m just thinking, “I wish Terry were here.” He would’ve loved the nuns. He would’ve had a great time with the Queen cover band and he would’ve been just grumbling to me about tiny details and enjoying it.
Or, taking enormous pleasure in tiny details and deciding which color wings he liked having best. Whatever, he would’ve loved it, and he’s not around. And then, by the same token, I know Terry well enough to also know that the way that Terry was built and who Terry was, we probably would never have gotten to this point had Terry been alive, because if you’re doing something like making a big TV show or something, something this big, this complicated where things can go wrong, sometimes when things are getting weird or things are going wrong or the BBC are going a bit mad or whatever, the only thing you can do is just focus on the outcome and just keep going and keep a steady course and so on and so forth. I knew Terry well enough and worked with Terry long enough to know that he was absolutely, constitutionally incapable of doing that.
At the point where things, any one of a dozen places where all we would have to have done is just keep on going and Terry would’ve been making the phone calls to the head of the BBC or the head of Amazon, telling Jeff Bezos exactly what he thought of them. Just the wrong thing to do right now, so there’s also that weirdness of going, “Had Terry been around, we probably never have got here, but getting here was all about making this thing for Terry, which he also wasn’t here for.”
A giant interwoven panoply of strange emotions. Absolute joy in having made it. Joy in having made it for Terry, because nothing else would have stopped me writing novels for three and a half, four years, but that did.
Tim Ferriss: I think, I have to imagine he’d be thrilled to see you in this amazing circus just before this piece of work is released to hopefully millions more people who will be impacted by the work.
Neil Gaiman: I think, and I think he would’ve loved so much of this and also being Terry, he would’ve loved the fact that then people would come pick up Good Omens, the book, and then they’ll go and read Discworld books, and that will make Terry even happier.
Tim Ferriss: Neil, this has been so much fun.
Neil Gaiman: It can’t be 90 minutes already.
Tim Ferriss: 90 minutes.
Neil Gaiman: That flew.
Tim Ferriss: It did. It did, and I certainly hope it’s not the last time we have a chance to —
Neil Gaiman: We’ll have to do it again.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. I’d love to. I’d really love to. I know we have — maybe not state it that way. Many, many of my fans are your fans. Just as Terry shared his gifts with the world, you continue to share yours, and it has an impact. It helped me through some very tough times, was able to transport me, delight me, shock me, scare me, and take me through a whole range of emotions I didn’t, at the time, even know I had access to. I want to thank you for making good art and sharing it with the world. You’ve done a great job.
Neil Gaiman: You are so ridiculously welcome. Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any closing comments, thoughts, remarks, anything you’d like to say before we wrap up?
Neil Gaiman: No, not really. I genuinely enjoyed — one of the great things about having you as a fan is the books arrive from you, and they actually get read. I learn from them because you go off and explore parts of things that I’m never going to. I appreciate that too, enormously.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you so much. For everybody listening, we will include links to everything we’ve discussed —
Neil Gaiman: Including fountain pens.
Tim Ferriss: Including fountain pens. This might be the time to buy some stock. Everything that came up will be in the show notes, as always, at tim.blog/podcast. You can just search Neil or Gaiman and it will pop right up. Neil, once again, thank you so much. I really, really appreciate it, and to everyone listening, until next time, read widely, check out Good Omens and we’ll chat soon. Bye.
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