Neil Gaiman: ‘If I were writing a pandemic, I would have assumed a competency in government’

The superstar author compares Boris Johson’s efforts to New Zealand’s, as he talks to Ed Cumming about upsetting people by breaching lockdown rules, the Christmas radio adaptation of his sleeping sickness story, and why isolation has been bad for his writing

Wednesday 23 December 2020 06:34 GMT
‘I really was so upset I had upset everybody;’ Neil Gaiman on finding himself the subject of tabloid scrutiny earlier this year
‘I really was so upset I had upset everybody;’ Neil Gaiman on finding himself the subject of tabloid scrutiny earlier this year (Rex Features)

It’s been an astonishingly tough year, but on the other hand it’s also been very weird,” says the writer Neil Gaiman, via the video link from his home on Skye, western Scotland, that has been his main conduit to the outside world since May. There’s a note of admiration in his voice. The 50 million-selling author of The Sandman, Good Omens, American Gods and Coraline has never been shy of the uncanny.

We speak a day before he is due to fly back to New Zealand, where he’ll spend Christmas in a quarantine hotel before rejoining his wife, the musician Amanda Palmer, and their son, Ash, after months of wrangling with the Kiwi authorities.

“It’s not been fun,” says Gaiman, who turned 60 in November. He has a slow, deliberate way of speaking, with a slight Transatlantic twang, that makes you hang on every word. You can see why he narrates many of his own projects. “When I left New Zealand, I thought my wife and son would be following on, and they didn’t. At the time I was very upset, but in retrospect I’ve come to see it was the smartest thing she could have possibly done.”

Even a writer of his gifts would have struggled to come up with the circumstances of his arrival in Scotland, when for a few surprising days in late spring, the fantasy novelist briefly became a story himself. At the start of May, Gaiman left New Zealand after he and Palmer “found [themselves] in a rough place” and needed some space. He flew 11,000 miles, “masked and gloved” to London, then drove up to Skye, in breach of Scotland’s lockdown rules. He was visited by the police and given a dressing down by the local MP, Ian Blackford, before apologising on his blog. To go with the tumult in his personal life – early reports suggested he and Palmer might be getting divorced – he found himself in the tabloid headlights.

“It feels very healed now,” Gaiman says. “In the cold light of day, people have said they do understand that I live here. What surprised me at the time was not that I’d suddenly become a tabloid figure but because nothing else was happening, it just kept going as a news story.” The timing was unfortunate. Although he had been there for a month already, by the time the story broke, a care home on Skye had suffered an outbreak of coronavirus that killed 10 people.

“It was bruising, because I really was so upset I had upset everybody. I love this place, and there was nowhere else I could legally have gone. More than a million people came home to the UK during the pandemic: that was the government advice. But I completely understand why everybody was so upset. It’s also definitely not how I expected to become a tabloid figure. If you’re going to become one, you want to be in the nightclub with the Girl Scout troop, not as ‘man goes home’.”

The months on Skye have had their consolations. Purple and gold sunsets, geese and seals and sheep, undiscovered Viking longhouses. “I had become much too peripatetic,” he says. “I’m glad I got to walk that path, of having the same day over and over again, seeing the seasons change. You have to take it as an enormous gift that you get that sense of time. My relationship with the stones has changed. Partly because the sheep don’t talk a lot.”

But the long days and walks along the beach have not been conducive to writing. “I’ve been trying to write a new novel set in contemporary London and it has been in suspended animation,” he says. “I realised I need to be around people to write it. I need to feel like life is going on. There was a brief point at the beginning of November when I came to London and saw more people in five minutes than in the previous eight months. I could feel that fiction come back to life.”

Neil Gaiman and his wife, Amanda Palmer
Neil Gaiman and his wife, Amanda Palmer (Getty Images)

Original work aside, he has no shortage of other projects to keep him busy. Filming is underway on a Netflix version of The Sandman, the DC graphic novel series with which Gaiman made his name, starring Samantha Morton, James McAvoy and Andy Serkis. There is talk of a second series of Good Omens, the Amazon Prime/BBC version of the 1990 novel Gaiman wrote with Sir Terry Pratchett. And on Boxing Day, the BBC will broadcast a radio version of his story The Sleeper and the Spindle, a 2013 reworking of the Snow White and Sleeping Beauty fairy tales. Adaptations of his work have become a festive tradition. Last year Glenda Jackson appeared in a version of Chivalry, about a woman who finds the Holy Grail in a charity shop. A different story had been planned for 2020 but The Sleeper and the Spindle’s tale of a fantasy kingdom plagued by a sleeping sickness was too timely to ignore.  

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“An interviewer said it must be ‘gratifying’ for an author to have written something so appropriate,” he says. “I said that honestly if it was a choice between not having the plague of 2020 and having written an appropriate story, I would take ‘not having the plague’. But the times find their own uses for things, which is one of the most powerful things about art. Sometimes stories become timely, and things gain more meaning than was intended. That’s a feature of art, not a bug.”

He feels the threat to the arts keenly. As well as his work with refugees as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, much of his spare time is spent supporting other literary or creative causes, of varying sizes. In January, he tweeted to his 2.8 million followers the plight of a bookshop in Petersfield, near where he grew up in Hampshire, which hadn’t had a single sale that day. The shop was immediately inundated with orders. “Twitter giveth and Twitter taketh away,” he says. “You think, ‘OK this thing is awful and it’s destroying democracy, but on the other hand the Petersfield Bookshop is still open.’” A planned West End stage show of his novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane has been pushed back. When his projects don’t happen, that means hundreds of other people aren’t working, either.

David Tennant and Michael Sheen in Neil Gaiman’s ‘Good Omens’
David Tennant and Michael Sheen in Neil Gaiman’s ‘Good Omens’ (Amazon Prime Studios)

As one of Britain's true literary superstars, Gaiman finds himself at the head of a large and increasingly vital industry. “I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and there’s about $150m coming into Scotland over the next year or so from stuff that I’m doing, and there’s a huge responsibility in that,” he says. “I can’t mess this up, or let it stop, because there are people for whom this is how they will pay their rent. I hope there’s not a great depression the other side of this, but I worry enormously.” He’s far too polite and savvy to suggest anything explicitly, but beneath his words I sense a faint reminder of what he brings to his adopted homeland, perhaps aimed at those who gave him a hard time over his flight in May.

He is not inspired by the British government’s efforts. “If I were writing a pandemic, as an author, I would have assumed a competency in government that has not been demonstrated. If they’d acted fast and sensibly, like New Zealand did, instead of having Boris waffling about keeping the UK open for business, they could have managed it better. Shutting the borders would have been a start, although I wouldn’t have been able to get back,” he adds as a wry afterthought before our time is up. He has a plane to catch.

Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper And The Spindle airs at 3pm on Boxing Day on BBC Radio 4

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