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Books have sexes; or to be more precise, books have genders.
They do in my head, anyway. Or at least, the ones that I
write do. And these are genders that have something, but
not everything, to do with the gender of the main character
of the story.
When I wrote the ten volumes of Sandman,
I tended to alternate between what I thought of as male
storylines, such as the first story, collected under the
title Preludes and Nocturnes, or the fourth book,
of Mists; and more female stories, like Game
of You, or Brief
The novels are a slightly different matter. Neverwhere
is a Boyís Own Adventure (Narnia on the Northern Line, as
someone once described it), with an everyman hero, and the
women in it tended to occupy equally stock roles, such as
the Dreadful Fiancée, the Princess in Peril, the Kick-Ass
Female Warrior, the Seductive Vamp. Each role is, I hope,
taken and twisted 45% from skew, but they are stock characters
on the other hand, is a girlís book, even though it also
has an everyman hero, young Tristran Thorne, not to mention
seven Lords bent on assassinating each other. That may partly
be because once Yvaine came on stage, she rapidly became
the most interesting thing there, and it may also be because
the relationships between the women Ė the Witch Queen, Yvaine,
Victoria Forester, the Lady Una and even Ditchwater Sal,
were so much more complex and shaded than the relationships
(what there was of them) between the boys.
Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish is a boyís book.
Coraline (which will be released in May 2002) is
a girlís book.
The first thing I knew when I started American Gods
Ė even before I started it Ė was that I was finished with
C. S. Lewisís dictum that to write about how odd things affect
odd people was an oddity too much, and that Gulliverís
Travels worked because Gulliver was normal, just as
would not have worked if Alice had been an extraordinary
girl (which, now I come to think of it, is an odd
Alice in Wonderland thing to say, because if thereís
one strange character in literature, itís Alice). In Sandman
Iíd enjoyed writing about people who belonged in places
on the other side of the looking glass, from the Dreamlord
himself to such skewed luminaries as the Emperor of the
Not, I should say, that I had much say in what American
Gods was going to be. It had its own opinions.
American Gods began long before I knew I was going
to be writing a novel called American Gods. It began
in May 1997, with an idea that I couldnít get out of my
head. Iíd find myself thinking about it at night in bed
before Iíd go to sleep, as if I were watching a movie clip
in my head. Each night Iíd see another couple of minutes
of the story.
In June 1997, I wrote the following on my battered Atari
A guy winds up as a bodyguard for a magician. The magician
is an over-the-top type. He offers the guy the job meeting
him on a plane Ė sitting next to him.
Chain of events to get there involving missed flights,
cancellations, unexpected bounce up to first class, and
the guy sitting next to him introduces himself and offers
him a job.
His life has just fallen apart anyway. He says yes.
Which is pretty much the beginning of the book. And all
I knew at the time was it was the beginning of something.
I hadnít a clue what kind of something. Movie? TV series?
I donít know any creators of fictions who start writing
with nothing but a blank page. (They may exist. I just havenít
met any.) Mostly you have something. An image, or
a character. And mostly you also have either a beginning,
a middle or an end. Middles are good to have, because by
the time you reach the middle you have a pretty good head
of steam up; and ends are great. If you know how it ends,
you can just start somewhere, aim, and begin to write (and,
if youíre lucky, it may even end where you were hoping to
There may be writers who have beginnings, middles and
ends before they sit down to write. I am rarely of their
So there I was, four years ago, with only a beginning.
And you need more than a beginning if youíre going to start
a book. If all you have is a beginning, then once youíve
written that beginning, you have nowhere to go.
A year later, I had a story in my head about these people.
I tried writing it: the character Iíd thought of as a magician
(although, I had already decided, he wasnít a magician at
all) now seemed to be called Wednesday. I wasnít sure what
the other guyís name was, the bodyguard, so I called him
Ryder, but that wasnít quite right. I had a short story
in mind about those two and some murders that occur in a
small Midwestern town called Silverside. I wrote a page
and gave up, mainly because they really didnít seem to come
There was a dream I woke up from, somewhere back then,
sweating and confused, about a dead wife. It seemed to belong
to the story, and I filed it away.
Some months later, in September 1998, I tried writing that
story again, as a first person narrative, sending the guy
Iíd called Ryder (who I tried calling Ben Kobold this time,
but that sent out quite the wrong set of signals) to the
town (which Iíd called Shelby, because Silverside seemed
too exotic) on his own. I covered about ten pages, and then
stopped. I still wasnít comfortable with it.
By that point, I was coming to the conclusion that the
story I wanted to tell in that particular little lakeside
town ... hmm, I thought somewhere in there, Lakeside, thatís
what itís called, a solid, generic name for a town ... was
too much a part of the novel to be written in isolation
from it. And I had a novel by then. Iíd had it for several
Back in July 1998 I had gone to Iceland, on the way to
Norway and Finland. It may have been the distance from America,
or it may have been the lack of sleep involved in a trip
to the land of the midnight sun, but suddenly, somewhere
in Reykjavik the novel came
into focus. Not the story of it Ė I still had nothing more
than the meeting on the plane, and a fragment of plot in
a town by a lake Ė but for the first time I knew what it
was about. I had a direction. I wrote a letter to
my publisher telling them that my next book wouldnít be
a historical fantasy set in restoration London after all,
but a contemporary American phantasmagoria. Tentatively,
I suggested American Gods as a working title for
I kept naming my protagonist: Thereís a magic to names,
after all. I knew his name was descriptive. I tried calling
him Lazy, but he didnít seem to like that, and I called
him Jack and he didnít like that any better. I took to trying
every name I ran into on him for size, and he looked back
at me from somewhere in my head unimpressed every time.
It was like trying to name Rumpelstiltskin.
He finally got his name from an Elvis Costello song (itís
on Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours and Rendezvous).
Itís performed by Was (Not Was) and is the story of two
men named Shadow and Jimmy. I thought about it, tried it
on for size...
...and Shadow stretched uncomfortably on his prison
cot, and glanced across at the Wild Birds of North America
wall calendar, with the days heíd been inside crossed off
and he counted the days until he got out.
And once I had a name, I was ready to begin.
I wrote Chapter One around December 1998. I was still trying
to write it in the first person, and it wasnít comfortable
with that. Shadow was too damn private a person, and he
didnít let much out, which is hard enough in a a third person
narrative and really hard in a first person narrative. I
began chapter two in June 1999, on the train home from the
San Diego comics convention (itís a three day train journey.
You can get a lot of writing done there.)
The book had begun. I wasnít sure what I was going to call
it, but then the publishers started sending me mock-ups
of the bookís cover, and it said American Gods in
big letters in the top, and I realised that my working title
had become the title.
I kept writing, fascinated. I felt, on the good days, more
like the first reader than the writer, something Iíd rarely
felt since Sandman days. Neither Shadow nor Wednesday were,
in any way, everyman figures. They were uniquely themselves,
sometimes infuriatingly so. Odd people, perfectly suited
for the odd events they would be encountering.
The book had a gender now, and it was most definitely male.
I wonder now, looking back, if the short stories in American
Gods were a reaction to that. There are maybe half a
dozen of them scattered through the book, and all (but one)
of them are most definitely female in my head (even the
one about the Omani trinket salesman and the taxi driver).
That may have been it. I donít know. I do know that there
were things about America and about its history that it
seemed easier to say by showing rather than telling; so
we follow several people to America, from a Siberian Shaman
16,000 years ago, to a Georgian pickpocket two hundred years
ago, and, from each of them, we learn things.
And after the short stories were done, I was still writing.
And writing. And continuing to write. The book turned out
to be twice as long as I had expected. The plot I thought
I was writing twisted and snaked and I slowly realised it
wasnít the plot at all. I wrote the book and wrote the book,
putting one word after another, until there were close to
200,000 of them.
And one day I looked up, and it was January 2001, and I
was sitting in an ancient and empty house in Ireland with
a peat fire making no impression at all on the stark cold
of the room. I saved the document on the computer, and I
realised Iíd finished writing a book.
I wondered what Iíd learned, and found myself remembering
something Gene Wolfe had told me, six months earlier. "You
never learn how to write a novel," he said. "You
just learn how to write the novel that youíre writing."
Neil Gaiman wrote the award-winning graphic novel
series The Sandman, and with Terry Pratchett, the
award-winning novel Good Omens. His first book for
children, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish,
illustrated by Dave McKean, hasn't yet won any awards, but
was one of Newsweek's Best Children's Books of 1997.
His newest novel is American Gods.