The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

When the BBC World Book Club polled its listeners for whom they'd most like to have at their monthly programme, Neil Gaiman was by some miles ahead of the runner-up. Today he was interviewed at BBC House in London, and I was there amidst the clamouring throng. 

The format is fairly standard. Gaiman is introduced briefly. He reads an excerpt from his novel American Gods. He takes a few questions. He reads a bit more. He takes a few more questions. He reads another excerpt. He is witty and urbane. He is kind and attentive. It is all excellent fun.

A brief intro to the book: a convict called Shadow is released from jail and finds his wife is dead. Not knowing what to do with himself, he is roped in as a flunky and bodyguard to a mysterious one-eyed gent called Wednesday, who, it turns out, is the Norse god Odin in a seriously diminished form. Odin wants to rouse the other old gods who were brought to America by their believers and then left high, dry, unworshipped and powerless as those believers died and they were forgotten. Arrayed against the old god are the new ones - all shiny, sparkling, the gods of media and technology and transport.

There are questions from the studio audience. There are questions posted on the programme's Facebook page. There are questions called in from Australia and Norway and California. There are questions from Twitter.

When was he inspired to write the book? Well, he says, it is something he can date very accurately because he was in Iceland one summer years ago, and he thought he would write till it turned dark, but the hours went by and at 3am he found it had merely dimmed outside ('yeah, you're ahead of me here') so he went for a walk and there was nobody around and everything was closed, except a tourist office which he entered to find a diorama of the explorations of Leif Ericsson, and the thought struck him - what if Leif and the Vikings took their gods with them to the new world, and over the years forgot them?

A fan-girl from London (via Mumbai) asks why he chose Kali as one of the dispossessed gods in his book. He loves Kali, replies Gaiman. She is fun. She is a goddess of destruction, but also of the wheel of life. How can you not love a goddess with a necklace of skulls? 

Did Gaiman not realise that Mamaji, as she is addressed in the novel, means 'uncle'? Yes, he says. He originally had her down as Mataji, but an Indian friend of his told him that he had read an American book in which Kali was addressed (wrongly, but so unabashedly Americanly) as Mamaji, and so Gaiman decides to use that epithet.

One of the things that interested him when he wrote the book, says Gaiman, is the exploration of gods who may be venerated in other countries but have been devalued or forgotten and replaced by other gods in America. Kali is one such, he says, and he can imagine how a manifestation of hers outside India can be reduced in power and glory.

There is a god in the book, says someone, who is forgotten by the hero as soon as he is seen. Could this be Agni? Gaiman declines to answer. It is a secret to be revealed in the next book of the sequence, he says.

Is Gaiman a believer? He is a 'possibilist', he says, quoting someone or the other. Although raised a Jew, he is not really a theist. He finds that he believes intensely in something only when he is writing about it. At this point he continues to be fascinated by the Norse gods, he says, and finds himself returning over and over again to the subject. They are the only pantheon he knows of whose destruction is written in the legends. These are tragic gods because they know they will die and yet have to continue to go about their mighty lives as though they are immortal. 

Anansi appears in American Gods, says someone. Is this the same Anansi as in the West African god of Anansi Boys? It is the same character, but the latter book is otherwise completely disjunct from the former, says Gaiman.

Speaking of gods, someone said, why were the main ones so conspicuous missing? Jehovah and Allah (and Buddha, adds Gaiman). He offers an analogy. If you are writing about the low-life and dregs of society, would you involve the President? 

HBO recently announced a forthcoming production of American Gods. Without getting into casting details, does Gaiman see any particular actor in any particular role? Gaiman is happy to reveal that the character of Odin was very much driven by the actor Rip Torn whom he met once. Rip, he says, had a wide smile that didn't quite appear genuine and an aggressively forthright manner, just the sort of frightening face a once proud and now diminished god on a crusade would have. Rip Torn was in Beastmaster, of course (not that I have seen either the man or the film), and it seems fitting that such a manifestly scary individual should inspire Gaiman.

Of course, the main character, Shadow, is the one everyone's interested in. Some people feel that he is really not a scary individual despite being depicted as a hulk with a commanding presence. Gaiman thinks Shadow is very closed and keeps a tight lid on his emotion because were he to lose control, the damage around him would be grave. Shadow is inspired by yet another pal of Gaiman's, a fellow who was tiny when young and often bullied, and then became massive in his teens, and the former bullies now could do nothing to him. He would stay quiet and observant, and people would think him stupid but as he was huge, nobody could actually say anything. Shadow, says Gaiman, is the same.

Gaiman has many friends. Tori Amos is one. He travelled with her to her farmstead where he saw an enormous tree, the biggest walnut tree ever, and he thought to himself that it would serve admirably as the equivalent of Yggdrasil. Shadow is tied up to one such tree for nine days and nights in one of the more harrowing portions of American Gods.

Speaking of Tori Amos, Gaiman was once pressured by his French publisher into attending a book signing in Alsace. When he arrived, nobody turned up to get their copies signed. The publisher shrugged Gallically and said something about Tori Amos. Everyone laughs. I should have listened more carefully.

What gods would he introduce in a sequel? He thinks he would do well to look into the gods of social networking, says Gaiman. They are gods for whom sacrifices are continuously being made. You could say the same about a god of television, he adds. After all what you sacrifice to that god is time.

Gaiman says that American Gods in many ways is a book of its era, which is 1999. There are references in it to things that no longer exist. Imagine the terror of the new gods, he says. They are powerful now and in the flower of their puissance, but their presence on the stage of worship is ephemeral. Fads that fuel them come and go. How jealous of the older dying gods would they be?  They had lasted so much longer.

I have not read the book. I might, one day. I would have liked to ask a question, though. But as I do not think of a single question while the programme records, I find I am keen to ask two when I'm on the train home.

Gaiman's book for him is more a road trip across America than an exploration of theological issues. But if he wants to explore the soul of such a deeply religious country surely the idea of gods diminishing is a contradiction?

And from my own experience of life in the US, it occurs to me that there is not one manifestation of any god. There is a free market in gods. For every interpretation of Jesus you can imagine, there's a church you can join. Did Gaiman think there was an equally interesting exploration of America to be had through the multiple avatars of the same god fighting it out for survival?

Unlike the Indian fan-girl who was rushing to yet another appearance of Neil Gaiman immediately after the BBC recording, I doubt I'll run into the author again. I daresay these questions will remain unanswered.


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