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Neil Gaiman: ‘Is it right that people are punished for what they say? No, but it’s always been done’

'Can I sing if somebody puts a gun to my head? Absolutely!': Neil Gaiman on his first album Signs of Life - Monica Schipper
'Can I sing if somebody puts a gun to my head? Absolutely!': Neil Gaiman on his first album Signs of Life - Monica Schipper

Neil Gaiman is late. I’ve been waiting an hour when the author pops up on Zoom, a boyish 62, tousle-haired and apologetic. He says he was writing and lost track of time. But writing what? “I can’t tell you.” Go on, give us a hint. “I can’t. Everything is a bit mad right now.” He’s referring to the American screenwriters’ strike that “might be coming at the beginning of May. How do I put this? Hypothetically speaking, one might find oneself in a position where things that had not technically yet been commissioned have to be written very fast …”

I can’t guess which “things” he means; Gaiman has fingers in so many pies. There’s an adaptation for Amazon of his 2005 fantasy Anansi Boys, which reintroduces the African trickster from American Gods, his 2001 novel which has already spawned a lavish TV series of its own. The Sandman, based on Gaiman’s comics, was Netflix’s most-watched show last summer and is due for a second season, so it could be that – but the streaming site is also adapting his Dead Boy Detectives, so it could be that, too.

Then there’s the sitcom Good Omens – in which an antiquarian bookseller angel (played by Michael Sheen) and a sly devil (David Tennant) team up to stop the apocalypse – based on a novel Gaiman wrote more than 30 years ago with Terry Pratchett. They met when Gaiman, then a journalist, was sent to interview the Discworld author; they became fast friends, and published the book five years later.

Pratchett passed away in 2015 but, for Gaiman, working on the show “makes it feel like he’s not dead … Einstein apparently once sent his condolences to the wife of a dead colleague. He wrote, ‘You need to understand that he’s still alive, he’s just not alive where you are, when you are.’ If I’m working on Good Omens, that’s with my mate Terry. He’s still there doing that, he just isn’t here now.”

Gaiman says that if there is a third series – which he may or may not be writing – it will go beyond the book to tell a “story that Terry and I plotted in a hotel room in Seattle, very late at night on Hallowe’en 1989”. There’s a subtle nod to Pratchett in the show’s bookshop set. “On the first day of shooting, [Pratchett’s former assistant] Rob Wilkins turns up in the bookshop and hangs Terry’s hat and scarf on the coat-rack, and …” Quietly, Gaiman starts welling up. “I dunno. Makes it feels like he’s there.”

Friends and co-authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in 1990 - Beth Gwinn
Friends and co-authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in 1990 - Beth Gwinn

Gaiman has sold some 50 million books, but – comics, collaborations and children’s books aside – it’s been a decade since his last novel, his fifth, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. A lyrical fantasy which draws on his childhood (in Gaiman’s writing, as in Alan Garner’s, the fantastical is everyday) it inspired a stage version that has become the National Theatre’s biggest touring hit since War Horse.

If Gaiman is now one of the busiest people in TV, he seems half-bemused, half-annoyed about it. “It certainly wasn’t anything I wanted to do. What I’m really looking forward to is becoming a retired showrunner, who in his retirement writes novels. I love that idea, my agent loves that idea, my bank manager loves that idea. All of these people who know how much I make for writing novels, and how little I make for showrunning, would love me to leave television now, and come back and just harvest the fields of prose.”

He wrote The Ocean… for his wife, the flamboyant punk/cabaret singer Amanda Palmer. They split up in November, prompting a deluge of online gossip and unwanted advice from newspaper pundits. (Some, ignorantly, blamed the fact that theirs had been an open marriage.) “When we put up the thing saying ‘we’re splitting’, I then just spent three weeks away from the internet, because that way lies madness.”

Double act: Michael Sheen and David Tennant in Good Omens by Gaiman - Chris Raphael
Double act: Michael Sheen and David Tennant in Good Omens by Gaiman - Chris Raphael

Usually, Gaiman is very much online, communicating with his legion of equally online fans. In 2020, a single tweet from him – he has 3 million followers – saved a bookshop from bankruptcy.

“Neil has a really hard time saying no,” Palmer told me in 2019. “To me, to his friends, to the publishers, to the people who want an introduction … and it’s like death by a thousand cuts, because what he really wants is to work on his own work … I watch it sometimes eating him alive, and it drives me crazy.”

If you struggle to say “no”, one solution is to make sure nobody asks. I’ve read that, to that end, Gaiman charges $45,000 a pop for public appearances. Is that true? “It’s gone up from there,” he says, breezily. “We have to price it to discourage people.”

The stage adaptation of Gaiman's last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
The stage adaptation of Gaiman's last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Gaiman is a dyed-in-the-wool Londoner; but today he lives in Woodstock, New York, and seems at home in the community, interrupting our chat to lend a neighbour his car keys. Palmer lives nearby; it’s where their seven-year-old son Ash goes to school. How’s that going? “It’s … complicated, in the way that these things always are complicated, but not a day goes by that we’re not texting each other.”

None of this, though, is the reason we’re speaking. We’re meant to be talking about Gaiman’s unlikely reinvention as a pop singer; his first album, Signs of Life, is out this week. While he’s aware he’s no Sinatra – “Can I sing if somebody puts a gun to my head? Absolutely!” – and didn’t plan to make an album, he was tricked into it by degrees, “like a frog in a pot being boiled very, very slowly”.

Signs of Life sets his words to music by FourPlay, an Australian string quartet known for their classical-style covers of popular tunes. “I got sent their albums and I loved them. I think it was the Doctor Who theme that did it.” After meeting in Sydney in 2010 “whenever I’d be in Australia, we’d spend an afternoon working out a song. Lara – she’s lead violin, but she’s also the bossy one – said we should just go into a studio and record some of this stuff and I, a frog in a pot, am not yet aware that the water is boiling …” Before he knew it, they had an album.

Neil Gaiman is releasing an album with string quartet FourPlay - Chris Frape
Neil Gaiman is releasing an album with string quartet FourPlay - Chris Frape

Gaiman speaks most of his lyrics – his touchstones include Lou Reed’s solo albums, and Edith Sitwell’s Façade – but he breaks into song for a couple of numbers: Bloody Sunrise, a Phil Spector-ish ballad in the voice of a lovesick vampire, and The Problem with Saints, in which a resurrected Joan of Arc runs amok: “She said it clears your head/ when you come back from the dead/ with your sword as sharp as anything that cuts,/ and to prove it she bisect-/ -ed three young tourists from Utrecht,/ which rapidly displayed a lot of guts.”

Given all this, it’s surprising to hear Gaiman call the album “deeply personal”. But one track is a poem he wrote for a couple of friends after their miscarriage, and had never felt he could publish. Another, Credo, contains his life philosophy that “you have the absolute right to think things that I find offensive, stupid, preposterous or dangerous, and that you have the right to speak, write, or distribute these things”. Gaiman was born in 1960 – on the day the Chatterley Trial concluded, as he likes to point out – and is an outspoken campaigner for free speech.

When I ask if that extends to people using speech to urge violent action, he gives the example of Trump seemingly encouraging his supporters to storm the Capitol. “Would I personally have stopped Trump saying that stuff? Probably not. I think he had the right to say it.”

Tom Sturridge and Jenna Coleman in Netflix's The Sandman, based on Gaiman’s comics - LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX
Tom Sturridge and Jenna Coleman in Netflix's The Sandman, based on Gaiman’s comics - LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

He remains level-headed about the recent panic over “cancel culture”. “Do I think it’s right that [public opinion] can essentially punish people for having said things? Not really – but it’s always been done. People act right now as if saying things or doing things that upset people has only ever had a consequence as of 2018.”

Gaiman prefers to take the long view. Our conversation ranges from 19th-century Australia to the 30,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf. Several songs on the album play with the idea that time is a loop, or a Mobius strip, like the one his grandfather taught him how to make as a child. Perhaps the past is still with us, the future already here, and lost loved ones waiting just ahead. A beautiful idea – and the perfect excuse for turning up late.


Signs of Life is out now