Neil Gaiman on Good Omens, Sandman film rumours and his next book

Last modified: 05: 31 PM GMT+0

Good Omens, Neverwhere, Coraline, American Gods ... the genre-defying author joined us to answer your questions

Neil has to go!

Thank you so much to Neil for giving us his time today - and thank you all for your questions!

And yes, he has an answer for the very popular baboon versus badger question:

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...and there we are! Out of time. I'm sorry if I didn't get to your questions. I typed as fast as I could.

Thank you for coming. Thank you for wonderful questions, whether I answered them or not. (Ash has been reading my books since my agent gave him the CHU board books as a gift. I think anyone who thinks my books are too wild and unstructured doesn't understand structure as well as they think they do, although I'll cop to wildness. And Ian McShane is indeed having a hoot in American Gods.)

(And the badger would win.)

jonty101 says:

You seemed to have been heavily involved in the Good Omens adaptation, what was your role exactly and how did that differ to your role on the American Gods adaptation?

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With American Gods, I'm at the end of the phone or at the end of an email, or even around for a meeting if people can come and find me, and I'm always willing to offer advice and help, but it's the showrunners' show: Brian and Michael for Season 1, Jesse for Season 2.

For Good Omens, I was showrunner. I wrote it, worked with Douglas Mackinnon the director to cast it and make it, and was there, behind the director in the video village, and next to him on the sofa, through the production and post-production process. It was my show, and I was making it for Terry Pratchett.

magoway says:

Your Nordic Myths book is fantastic. I grew up reading these stories, but I don’t think I’ve ever read them so alive and powerfully told, except in their original versions, but those can be terse and difficult, being written in Nordic 1000 years ago. I’m curious what books you relied upon when you wrote these stories, and what methodology you used to retell these myths in such a strong, simple and human way?

And furthermore, did you enjoy writing this book? What did it do for you?

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I loved writing Norse Mythology. The stories in the book are 99% retellings from Snorri's Prose Edda and from the Poetic Edda, with 1% of bits from other stories or from Norse scholarship creeping in at the edges. My aim was always to take the stories we had, and then do whatever it took in the telling to make them sing.

Leftfielding says:

I loved the work you did on Sandman and Mr Punch in particular. Does knowing which artists you will be collaborating with on an issue ever inform the way you write the story e.g. would you craft the tale differently if Sam Keith was illustrating than you would if say Dave McKean was?

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Yes. The first thing I do when I know I'll be working with an artist is ask them what kinds of things they like drawing, and what they dislike drawing. It makes you as a writer look good.

'There's something VERY Doctor Who-ish about Good Omens'

StumblingHome has a question about Neil’s episode of Doctor Who, The Doctor’s Wife:

Have there been any talks about doing another episode? My daughter (10) is just discovering both Doctor Who and the Graveyard book, so combining the two again would blow her mind.

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There's something VERY Doctor Who-ish about Good Omens, and not just because David Tennant is one of our stars. I suspect your ten year old would enjoy it when it comes out. (Parental Caution: it contains two bottoms, one of them Eve's; three swear words; and a lot of maggots coming out of a telephone.)

Neil Gaiman's writing tips

MimHaworth asks:

I’m taking your Masterclass right now, generously gifted by a nice person on Twitter who raised more than she needed to to take it herself. What was it like recording something like this? How did you plan out your lessons? And what’s the most important piece of advice you’d want to pass on for people who simply can’t afford it?

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My 8 pieces of advice are in here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one

and they're most of what's important:

1 Write.

2 Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

3 Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

4 Put it aside. Read it pretending you've never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.

5 Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

6 Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

7 Laugh at your own jokes.

8 The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

MissLupescu has a question on behalf of their 10-year-old son:

Have you any plans to write any more children’s books?

He loves that you narrate your audio books and his pronunciation of Norse words far surpasses mine now, thanks to your storytelling skills.

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Yes! There are two children's actual books that have been waiting for me to finish making Good Omens and come back to them. One's about Odd (from Odd and the Frost Giants) and one is about frogs in Central Park.

LLCoolJ says:

I’m currently reading Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery and was delighted to find you and Amanda Palmer mentioned in the introduction. Did you ever collaborate with Gorey? Have you read the book?

User avatar for NeilGaiman Guardian contributor

I got halfway through it and then moved out of the hosue we were in, and had to box up the books.

I had wanted Gorey to illustrate Coraline, and we had started to reach out to him about it. And then, on the same day, I finished writing the book, and he died. I think there's a little Gorey in the back of everything I do, though.

'George Saunders told me The Graveyard Book helped him write Lincoln in the Bardo'

Peter Macqueen asks:

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? If so, how does it feel to see another story using concepts that seem so original to your work in a story?

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I have. I loved it. And when I met George Saunders (oddly enough, in a men's restroom in Santa Barbara) he told me that he'd read the Graveyard Book to his kids, and that it had helped him write Lincoln in the Bardo. Which just made me even happier.

I like it when I see things I came up with used elsewhere. Terry Pratchett used to say that literature was a stew. As a young writer, you ladle stuff out of the communal stewpot. As an older writer sometimes you realise you've added a few leeks, several carrots, a potato and a turnip to the stew that it didn't contain before. The stew bubbles on.

DeRichleau says:

I’ve often heard you say that the famous ‘dragons’ quote isn’t actually Chesterton… Were you paraphrasing, or did you make it up entirely? I quote it often and would like to know who to attribute it to. Thanks!

(The quote is: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”)

User avatar for NeilGaiman Guardian contributor

I was paraphrasing a much longer Chesterton passage from an essay in Tremendous Trifles.

When I started writing Coraline, I wrote my version of the quote in Tremendous Trifles, meaning to go back later and find the actual quote, as I didn’t own the book, and this was before the Internet. And then ten years went by before I finished the book, and in the meantime I had completely forgotten that the Chesterton quote was mine and not his.

(I’m perfectly happy for anyone to attribute it to either of us. The sentiment is his, the phrasing is mine.)

megisacruddywriter asks:

Would you ever consider touring for high schools in America, and teaching students about writing, or creating stories?

User avatar for NeilGaiman Guardian contributor

Having kids means that you wind up in their schools, talking about what you do. Which is always a delight.

I've been teaching at Bard College for the last 6 years, along with teaching a couple of Clarion SF/F workshops (sort of a 6 week bootcamp for writers) and love the teaching process. It was why I agreed to teach a MasterClass. But the problem with teaching is when you are teaching you aren't writing. And I need to do more writing...

A little preview of Neil’s MasterClass:

The genre-defying, award-winning writer behind Coraline, American Gods, and The Sandman, our newest instructor has spent the last 30 years inviting readers into his imaginative worlds. Introducing @neilhimself’s #MasterClass on the Art of Storytelling: https://t.co/xquvTyJiKf

— MasterClass (@masterclass) January 29, 2019

'My favourite writer of children's fiction is Diana Wynne Jones. She's marvellous, and I still miss her'

Direleafehall says:

Hi! I can’t make it to the webchat as it will be 3AM, Tassie time, but I’d love to ask Neil for his favourite book recommendations by children’s authors, women authors and people of colour, and if he’d like to share any little-known authors he adores - ones who haven’t made the big time, but who he considers worthy of great things. Thank you for taking the time, Neil!

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My favourite writer of children's fiction is Diana Wynne Jones. I don't know if she's well-known or not, but she's marvellous, and I still miss her. There are so many fantastic writers out there, so I'll pick a few rather than turn this into a huge name-list. Nalo Hopkinson and Nnedi Okorafor are wonderful writers of colour (oddly, Diana Wynne Jones put me in touch with Nnedi, well over a decade ago). Margo Lanagan is an astonishing Australian writer who deserves to be better known. And Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, is one the finest and funniest pieces of near-future fiction from long ago.

KatyaB, who is writing their dissertation on Gaiman’s books, asks:

Do you think fantasy is important for helping people understand themselves?

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I think it's important for a thousand reasons, and one of them is understanding ourselves. Another, just as important is understanding other people. And understanding the world we are in is a third. And the great thing about the fantastic as a tool is it allows you to change things, reflect things, play with things, isolate things, and make people think things they haven't thought before.

'Budding writers are fragile. Say the wrong thing and they may go off and become trombone players or meteorologists'

FirebirdMolloy says:

A friend asked my opinion of their manuscript. It isn’t great. I’m too nervous of upsetting them to be completely honest with my feedback. How do you deal with providing criticism, especially if it’s somebody you know?

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I try to find out what they want first. Some people want "rip it to shreds" criticism. Some people want fulsome praise. Some want something between the two.

And writers are fragile. Budding writers doubly so. Say the wrong thing and they may go off and become trombone players or meteorologists.

Mostly I try and encourage. Any written novel gets a writer closer to getting a book published than a novel they only ever think about. And mostly what young writers need to do is write the next thing. So I never feel dishonest when my feedback is "where's the next chapter?".

Kevin Chiat has a Sandman question:

Why did you decide to have Lucifer end Seasons of Mists on a beach in Perth?

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It was far away from the England I lived in, and the beaches faced west.

Yii-Jen Deng says:

When you write a story with someone, how does it change your perception of them? Are people very different once you write together?

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Not really. But there's a special feeling to making something up with someone else that I don't really know any equivalent to in any other field.

And by the same token, when you stop collaborating and you are suddenly completely in control of the keyboard, that's magic too.

'I know that I'd probably be more commercially successful if I wrote the same kind of book in the same voice over and over again. But I would get bored by book two'

franhunny asks:

Have seen Coraline in our local theatre, have read the Graveyard book and have read Good Omens (even if not along with the Reading Group but decades ago) - all very different in style. The difference to Good Omens is easy to explain, as that is a book you wrote in collaboration (you do not even know by half how much I envy you for having not only met Sir Terry but also to have been able to work with him).

But how come your other stuff is varying so much? When I write stories (no, they are not worth publishing - I just write for my own fun), the tone is mainly the same. How do you develop so many different voices? Is it part of the writing process? Do you sometimes start out in a different style and then rewrite parts later on?

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That's a terrific question, and not one I have an easy answer for. Other than, you try and pick the style (or I do, anyway) that's right for the story you want to tell. American Gods had to be told in a different voice to The Graveyard Book. Coraline needed a different voice to Anansi Boys. Ocean at the End of the lane needed a different voice to Fortunately The Milk, although I wrote them at the same time. Good Omens was a book I started on my own, so the voice -- Classic English Humour Writing -- was there before Terry came on board.

I suspect I was spoiled by doing comics when young. The joy of Sandman was it was whatever I wanted it to be that month: ghost story or historical fiction, allegory or horror.

Intellectually, I know that I'd probably be more commercially successful if I wrote the same kind of book in the same voice over and over again. But I would get bored by book two, suicidal by book three, and disappear, never to be seen again, half way through book four, if ever I made it that far.

'There have been rumours of a Sandman movie for 28 years'

Lynden71 says:

There’s always talk about a Sandman series or movie and I have learned to take it with a pinch of salt unless it comes from you yourself. So, is there anything productive happening on that front?

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There are rumours, but as they used to say when I was growing up, "I've lived too near the woods too long to be frightened by an owl". There have been rumours for 28 years.

Oleg Mihailik asks:

What’s going on your family? Your wife Amanda [Palmer] is so cool (as are you), can you tell us a bit about your family life, do you go on holidays, do you do much events together? What’s the personal dynamic between two such opinionated people?

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This comment has been chosen by Guardian staff because it contributes to the debate

We were just getting into a sort of a rhythm when Good Omens came along, and Amanda found herself married to someone with a day job, for whom weekends and evenings tended to be things that happened to other people. So for most of the last 18 months she's just been very patient. But now I'm home, am looking after our 3 year old son, Ash, while she is off making a rock video, doing press, and generally getting ready to go on tour for, er, about 18 months, for her new upcoming record. (It's called There Will Be No Intermission. I haven't heard it yet because she wanted to play it to me and be there when I heard it.) So it's a bit of a juggling act right now.

'I love the idea of having tea with Peter Ramsey and talking Ziggies Stardust and Thin White Dukes and Aladdins Sane...'

OlivesNightie says:

Duncan Jones recently tweeted that he would grant permission for his dad’s music to be used in a film project based on Bowie’s characters if it were created by yourself and Peter Ramsey. What were your initial thoughts? Is this something you would want to do or not?

User avatar for NeilGaiman Guardian contributor

A sort of jaw-dropped "I wonder if he means it" and an "Even if he doesn't, that would be amazing" and then just a sort of sadness that we don't have a David Bowie any longer.

Long ago, I got a fax from Bowie, asking me if I would meet his son Duncan, who wanted to be a film director. So I did, and have been friends with Duncan for decades now, and a huge admirer of his work, and completely understand why he wouldn't want to make such a film. Sometimes you're too close.

And, if nothing else, I love the idea of having tea with Peter Ramsey and talking Ziggies Stardust and Thin White Dukes and Aladdins Sane...

WillC95 has a question about the upcoming adaptation of Good Omens:

Do you think the humour of the show is different in any way to the books? I imagine it would be difficult to adapt the funny notes at the bottoms of pages to the screen.

User avatar for NeilGaiman Guardian contributor

Good Omens the TV show is its own thing. But you'd be surprised how often a footnote crept out and into the plot.

noirnoirnoir asks:

Is it true that when you sit down to write you like to trash the space you are writing in first? If so do you do any structural damage or just damage the furnishings?

User avatar for NeilGaiman Guardian contributor

Actually, Terry Pratchett and I shared a fondness for improving spaces we were in. When we were on the Good Omens book tours together, having heard about rock bands trashing their hotel rooms, we would instead improve ours. We would put up shelves, or new wallpaper.

'These days I don't begrudge the stories and projects that are like fireworks that don't go off'

ID8068668 says:

I’m interested on your thoughts of failure, the process of it and how to do it magnificently.

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I think that's an ongoing project, for me.

Normally when I do anything successfully, I've done it and failed at it several times before. So these days I don't begrudge the stories and projects that are like fireworks that don't go off: I am relatively certain they are needed for the ones that do.

And anyway, sometimes the failures are the ones you treasure.

ID586642 says:

I’d like to ask, if he had to pick, who would he like to meet him upon his death, his Death or Terry’s?

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I'd like my Death.

I suppose, because I wrote the kind of Death I would have liked to imagine would be there for me, one day. Someone upbeat and nice and understanding, who would say “You know, you really should have looked both ways before corssing the street,” but would say it with kindness.

I loved Terry's Death, though. Which was why the Death in Good Omens was closer to Terry's Death than mine: I was writing all the Four Horsemen stuff, and I wanted a Death who spoke in All Capitals. (Although I think the Death of Discworld is kinder and less intimidating than the one in Good Omens, too.)

'I – reluctantly – put down the novel I was working on in April 2017'

charliesdad writes:

Hello Neil - hope you are well. It’s been a while since you gave us a big, fat, engrossing novel for us to dive into... any plans? An American Gods or Neverwhere sequel would be super; thanks.

We need taking away from this bloody horrible real-life we are all going through at the moment.

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I -- reluctantly -- put down the novel I was working on in April 2017, and planned to pick it up again as soon as Good Omens The Television Series was done, or my part in it, at least. But my part in it expanded hugely, and the breaks I had expected didn't happen, and I came home from making Good Omens 6 days ago.

I took the blank book containing the novel out of my backpack, in which it had been sitting for the last two years just in case, and put it by my writing desk. I hope all the characters are still waiting for me, and haven't given up and gone home.

GrowlyProff starts us off:

My favorite question for anyone I adore and respect: what are you reading right now?

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This comment has been chosen by Guardian staff because it contributes to the debate

For pleasure, right now, I'm doing a big Gene Wolfe reread. I wrote an introduction recently to the Folio Society edition of The Book of the New Sun, and to write it I picked up The Shadow of the Torturer, just to refresh my memory about the first couple of chapters, and I was lost. Five books later I was scrabbling through the short story collections to find the three Book of the New Sun short stories, and I was marshalling theories about Severian's enviable propensity for survival, and pondering why he omits mention of sex when it happens, but tells us about it later.

I'm reading Laurie Eustis's poetry collection Despair: Movement One. I'm reading it slowly because it breaks me, over and over. Joy Harjo's "Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings". J. D. “Sandy” McClatchy's Sweet Theft: A Poet's Commonplace Book.

Neil Gaiman is with us now!

Post your question now, or simply lurk for the next hour if you want to read his answers.

Join us for a webchat with Neil Gaiman on 8 February

I’m overjoyed to tell you that Neil Gaiman will be joining us for a webchat on 8 February at 4pm GMT.

Gaiman needs no introduction. Except, it’s fun to introduce him anyway because he’s done so much fantastic work. Starting his writing career as a journalist in the 1980s, his first published book was about the band Duran Duran. (Sadly, it is now out of print, in accord with his wishes.) He also wrote Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion, and Ghastly Beyond Belief, a book of quotations co-authored with horror buff and critic Kim Newman. By the end of the decade, he began writing comics, including the hugely influential Sandman series, and made friends with one Terry Pratchett, with whom he wrote his first novel in 1991 – the beloved classic Good Omens.

Since then, he has written more than a dozen books for adults and children, many of them genre-defining bestsellers such as Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods and Coraline. He was the first (and only) author to win both the Newbery and the Carnegie medals for the same work, The Graveyard Book, and last year he was shortlisted for the alternative Nobel prize for literature.

Many of his books have been adapted for film, radio and TV, and he has written screenplays for Doctor Who, Babylon 5 and the English version of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. He’s even appeared on The Simpsons.

As if that isn’t already more than enough fuel for conversation, you might also like to know that a TV adaptation of Good Omens is on the way later in 2019, starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen. He has also recently written Art Matters, “a call to arms” in defence of imagination and creativity illustrated by Chris Riddell.

I’m sure he has additional projects in the pipeline, but I’ll get out of the way so you can ask Neil himself. He will be answering questions from 4pm GMT on 8 February – but do feel free to get yours in early in the comments below.

Updated

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