I chatted with Neil Gaiman at the vaguely corporate, incredibly messy furnished apartment he rented in Cambridge, MA, for a few months during (then-fiance, now-wife) Amanda Palmer‘s run as the Emcee in American Repertory Theater’s production of “Cabaret.”
Q: I was surprised to learn that you’ve written some songs.
A: Yeah, every now and again. I’m not a songwriter but the best one, I think, is one Amanda did for a while called “I Google You.” The idea was, torch songs are all about being in a bar at 3am smoking a cigarette and talking to the barman about the girl that left you. Nobody’s in a bar now at 3am and talking to the barman about the girl that left them. They’re at home typing her name into Google and trying to figure out if she’s dating. So I wrote a song about that and Amanda did it. [He jumps up and goes to the computer to google "I Google You" and we watch a video of Amanda singing it. He wrote the words. She wrote the music.]
Q: What else is new and different?
A: Personal happiness is one of the things that now counts, certainly for Amanda, and it’s shifted for me, as well. The biggest problem for me is I actually got everything I set out to achieve. I guess from my point of view that’s why I’m pushing myself to do new things. Why spend time working on a giant piece of strange theater which nobody’s waiting for? I love the idea because it’s something that I haven’t done before.
Q: Have your work habits shifted as well?
A: I was a journalist when I started off and could pretty much work anywhere. I can still write an introduction anywhere. On the other hand if I’m going to do a novel I need rituals, just because I’m building a wall. Each day the progress of the wall is imperceptible, but at the end of the year I’ll have a wall. The hardest thing is figuring out where I will write. What I tend to do working on a big novel is I will start it and normally finish it at home. In the middle I need someplace away from home. I’ve got a gazebo in the garden. I did a book at a strange rented log cabin on a lake. The one after that was at a local coffee shop. I’d go in every day from one to six until I was pretty much near the end, and that’s when the manageress came over and said, “One of the girls says you’re a famous writer. Tell us who you are and we’ll give you free tea.” I never went back. I felt like an elf. I had to find another place to be anonymous.
Q: Has what you require from your writing environment changed over time? Are you drawn to different kinds of places?
A: Yeah. The most obvious example is when I started out I was nocturnal. I did most of my writing and important work between 11 at night and five or six in the morning. There was a point when I hit about 33 or 34 and I gave up smoking and stopped drinking coffee and I couldn’t do it anymore. Whatever the engines are that worked me late at night were no longer there. Now if I tried to work between midnight and four I’d get maybe two lines written, and then doze off at some point. It was a shift. The other thing I find these days, and probably this is the biggest one of the actual changes as a writer, as a creator, I will preface by saying when I was a teenager I would go and watch television at my grandparents house. And I’d be reading a book at the same time. And probably a conversation was going on because my grandparents were talking. They would point out that I couldn’t watch TV, read a book, and take part in a conversation at the same time, and I would think they were mad. And I watch my daughter doing her homework while watching TV, while texting her friends, and with half a dozen IM windows open on her computer. And doing it without a problem. I used to write always with the TV on late at night. I wasn’t really watching it. It was sort of company. And I used to try and find the bad TV. It couldn’t be bad enough that I’d want to turn the channel but it couldn’t be good enough that I’d want to pay attention. I love “The Jerry Springer Show” at three in the morning. The ’90s Jerry Springer show. There was no opera. And a run of five late-night satellite-feed Jerry Springer shows one after the other was a terrific thing to write with. I never stopped writing to watch it. It was another stream of stimulation. What I find now is, as I age, I’m only capable of processing one stream of information at a time. And I understand much more what my grandparents were saying. That’s how a teenage mind is built. But as you age…I’m now at the point where its harder for me. I always listened to music when I was writing. That’s getting harder because I want to stop and listen. I feel like I’m heading to a point now where I’m going to have to rethink what music does and what I do with music when I’m working. The lovely thing about the music is it made the environment more comfortable for me when I was working, but now it actually takes a few attention units away from the work, that I actually need for the work. Even music without words. It used to be a mood setter, the music fueled the mood. Now it feels more like chatter. Originally it was a drug that fueled the writing. You’re writing something dark and weird and scary, go put some Iggy Pop on. Ten years after that you’re going, “Well, Iggy will be distracting but I’ll put some Michael Nyman, some soundtracks, that’ll be great.” And now I’m at the point where it’s a little bit like somebody talking to me while I’m trying to think.