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Neil Gaiman Knows What Happens When You Dream



In recent years, the word “storytelling” has been thoroughly absorbed by the language of commerce, reshaped into self-aggrandizing doublespeak for “selling.” Which only increases the countervailing need for storytellers in the more artful, ancient and magical mold of Neil Gaiman, who conjures fictions that stir up our primal fears and darkest desires, our subconscious yearnings and unspoken fantasies. Whether he’s turning death and dream into flesh-and-blood characters, as in his classic comic series, “The Sandman”; populating the modern world with figures from ancient myth in fiction best sellers like “American Gods” and “Anansi Boys”; or conjuring eerie new children’s fairy tales and ghost yarns (“Stardust,” “Coraline”), the British-born author’s genre-jumping writing is a constant reminder that the stories that linger longest, that move us most profoundly, are often the ones that can’t be turned into means but function as ends in themselves. “Myths and stories are how we have made sense of the world for as long as we’ve been wandering the planet,” says Gaiman, 61, who helped oversee Netflix’s long-awaited “The Sandman” series, which premieres on Aug. 5. “And right now, making sense of the world is somewhere between difficult and impossible.”

For the last five or six years, we’ve been living through what feels like almost unfathomable turmoil, and I think a lot of people see this period as an unprecedented chapter in the human story. But when it comes to stories, I basically believe in Ecclesiastes’ “There is nothing new under the sun.” So my question to you is whether you think we are living in a new story — or is it just new to us? This reminds me of something that happened after the Sept. 11 attacks. When we could fly again, I flew to Trieste, Italy, for a conference. I remember going into a display of Robert Capa photographs taken in that area during World War II. Until that moment, I had regarded World War II as being unimaginably distant in time. It was this thing that had happened in history, that had happened to my family — basically all of them were killed; a couple of outliers made it to England — but that was history. That happened then. But there was something very strange about looking at those Robert Capa photos post-9/11, because they made me go, Those people are us. I feel the same way today. History is now. But I’m also getting more obsessive about human beings over huge swaths of time. Part of that came out of being on the Isle of Skye during the serious U.K. lockdown. On Skye, if there’s a rock somewhere, it’s probably because somebody put it there. I realized that the rock that I was using to keep the lid on my dustbin was a stone that had been dragged around. People have been in this place for thousands and thousands of years, and in this bay I’m living in, they’ve left behind rocks! Realizing that about the rocks makes you take the long view. Which is that the human race is mostly people just trying to live their lives, and that bad [expletive] is going to happen. That then moves you into other territory.

Which is what? The territory of Rudyard Kipling, a very unfashionable writer. An incredibly good writer, not always somebody I agree with, but thank God I’m allowed to read him. He wrote a poem called “Natural Theology,” which begins, “I ate my fill of a whale that died/And stranded after a month at sea/There is a pain in my inside/Why have the Gods afflicted me?” Then a verse goes, “My privy and well drain into each other/After the custom of Christendie …/Fevers and fluxes are wasting my mother/Why has the Lord afflicted me?” And after several more verses, it goes, “We had a kettle, we let it leak/Our not repairing it made it worse/We haven’t had any tea for a week …/The bottom is out of the universe!” That poem is Kipling going, We blame the gods — the stories — for the [expletive] that we do, and we don’t always understand it. I would love to think that we are living in a world in which the story of progress, as in the original “Star Trek” series, is always upwards and onwards, and even if there will be mad times, eventually we get to the bridge of the Enterprise where all the problems of Earth have been sorted out. But I don’t know that we ever will. We are humans, and we do collective insanity really well.

You just thanked God for being able to still read Rudyard Kipling, in spite of what he’s now widely seen to represent. That makes me think of how, in the past, you’ve referred to yourself as a free-speech absolutist. During this same time period that I mentioned in my first question, we’ve seen so much evidence of the harm that people can cause when they’re allowed to spew whatever they want in public forums. Has seeing that affected your absolutist beliefs about free speech? Let’s drill down into this. Do I believe that The New York Times should print the opinions of people who — whether because I’m a Jew or because I don’t believe in everybody’s God-given right to shoot AR-15s — want me dead? No, I don’t. Does that mean I’m not a free-speech absolutist? No, it doesn’t. What it means is that you get to decide where and how opinions are stated, and that you have certain recourse, including arguing, including mocking, including saying, “No, we’re not printing that,” including saying, “You’re not on Twitter anymore.”

So then what does it mean to be a free-speech absolutist? I think what I’ve said is I’m a First Amendment absolutist, which is a slight difference. Coming from the U.K., where you have an Obscene Publications Act and an Official Secrets Act, to America, where you have a First Amendment, it’s like: This thing is good. This thing is right. You will always wind up in places where you are morally uncomfortable with what you are defending. But you better defend that stuff, because if you don’t, then nobody who is morally uncomfortable with the stuff that you’re making is going to come out for you. I once wrote a thing called “Why Defend Freedom of Icky Speech?” about a guy who was going to be sent to prison for having Japanese comics depicting big-eyed kids doing sexual stuff. You’re not even sure if they are kids, because they’re big-eyed Japanese drawings. But I will defend his right not to go to prison for owning this stuff, because this is not child pornography. Child pornography is a bad thing; this is drawings. If you’re saying that what happens on paper is real, then if I kill somebody on paper, I should be punished for it, and that’s obviously not true. Now, here’s the biggest free-expression “It’s complicated” that I’ve seen as a result of the online world: One Nazi in a town probably doesn’t make much noise about being a proud Nazi, because they know that they live in a town full of other people who, if they found out this person was a Nazi, will disapprove. That is a good thing. On the other hand, because of the online long tail, that one Nazi can hook up with the one Nazi in the next town, who does the same, who does the same, who does the same. Suddenly they see there’s a [expletive] lot of them. Do I think there is an easy way to stop that? No, I don’t.

Another thing the digital world unleashed is a new dynamic in the relationship between artists and fans. It used to be that the two had pretty minimal interaction. Now because of social media, fans almost expect access to the people who make the pop culture they love. Which the artists, especially in the superhero/sci-fi/fantasy worlds, seem happy to oblige — or scared not to. What are the ripple effects of that shift? It always seemed to me that you do yourself no favors as an artist by putting yourself on a pedestal. All that means is you’re shouting down at people. You’re not standing there on the street talking to them. The good things about “Sandman” came from talking to people, came from my friends, came from looking at things and going: I didn’t know that was a thing! I’m going to put that in my comic! But I was always lucky in that what I was making was weird and out-there. “Sandman” has been huge, but it was never huge when it was coming out. Since then it has gone on to become this ridiculous steady seller because new people are always finding it when they’re 16, 18, 22 years old. They find it, and it’s their comic. It’s their story. I didn’t get to that by going, “I will please my audience.” But audiences do want more of the last thing that they liked. That’s how audiences work. They say: “Hey, I love this strawberry ice cream. Can I have more?” In response to that, I can do one of two things. I can give them more strawberry ice cream. If I do that, I am doomed to give them strawberry ice cream for as long as I do this thing, and I will hate myself. Or I can go: Nobody is clamoring for chocolate ice cream. Nobody even knows they like chocolate ice cream. However, I want to do chocolate ice cream next. So why don’t I do chocolate ice cream and keep my own interest up? It’s how the entirety of my writing career has gone. I’ll use another analogy: Years ago, my friend Teresa Nielsen Hayden said: Some authors are dolphins, and some are otters. You can train a dolphin. Give a dolphin a fish if it does a trick, and it will do that trick again. Otters are untrainable. They’ll do something, and you give them a fish, and then they’ll do something else. Because why would they do the thing they already did? I tend to be an otter.

Tom Sturridge as the title character in ‘‘The Sandman.’’

“The Sandman” may keep finding new readers, but do you think those readers keep finding new things in it? Because the themes of the comic are all to do with foundational, timeless human stuff: dreams and dreaming, death, destiny. Do those themes resonate differently to people watching a “Sandman” Netflix show in 2022 than they did to people reading the comic in 1989? I am absolutely fascinated by the number of things that I did in the ’80s and ’90s with “Sandman” that are now getting yelled at for being quote-unquote woke. Which, I have to say, in the context of “Sandman” is a fascinating word for people to use. When our casting came out, we were accused of, “You woke people are doing gender-quotient stuff because you cast Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer!” I created Lucifer in 1987. I found photographs of young David Bowie as a folk singer in the ’60s and sent them to Mike and Sam, the artists, and said, “Lucifer needs to look like this.” I made it very clear, later on, that Lucifer was sexless. We see naked Lucifer. There is nothing between Lucifer’s legs! When we went to cast it, we were just looking for who would be fabulous. I loved Gwendoline’s Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She was incredibly powerful as Brienne of Tarth. I thought the combination of beauty, brilliance and the fact that she will tower above Morpheus — OK! Getting people shouting at us because we’re gender-swapping by casting Gwendoline as Lucifer left me utterly baffled.

What do you think explains the impulse of some fans to not only disagree with a character’s race or gender being changed but to also voice that disappointment so venomously? It’s become so common for fandom to curdle into toxicity. The people yelling — I’m not saying none of them read “Sandman,” but a lot of them appear to be grumpy Brazilian followers of that country’s current president who don’t appear to have much vested in the story. A lot of them also appear to be people from the Comicsgate cult, which, if you ever want to spend an unfortunate 15 minutes researching something bizarre, research Comicsgate. These are people with agendas. There’s a difference between the people going, “You are a communist-inspired tool, doing the money-led dictates of your Netflix-inspired masters” and, to pick another example, the people going, after we’d cast a Black actress as Death: “Oh, I’m not sure. I really liked the pale cute little gothy Death from the comics.” Those are two different things.

So the problem is that sincere fans are being conflated on social media with this other toxic cohort? Exactly. The truth is, they break down into two categories: Fans are the ones where I’ll go, “Hey, guys, this isn’t the comics,” and they go, “OK, we’ll see what happens.” And then there are the ones who are like: “You are ideologically tainted by your satanic masters, and why are you, a Jew, even writing about Lucifer? My personal Lucifer from the Bible does not look like this.” I don’t think of these guys as fans. Fans, on the whole, are significantly less entitled than you might imagine.

The 2009 film ‘‘Coraline,’’ based on Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novella.
Focus Features/Photofest

Then I hope you’ll indulge my version of an entitled fanboy’s question: My favorite of your books is “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” which you’ve been explicit in saying was inspired by your childhood. But you were raised in Scientology, and you only ever give glib answers when people ask you about it. You’ve always been willing to talk about the influence of other things — midrash or various authors — but not Scientology. It seems impossible that Scientology wouldn’t have shaped your imagination somehow, and to me anyway, the subject seemed to hover around the edges of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” Sorry, I realize none of that is a question. The question is, in what ways was Scientology a formative influence? Because it must have been. The easiest way for me to answer your question is that I don’t have a control version of me who did not have Scientology growing up. It’s much easier for me to talk about the influence of Judaism.

But why? I don’t understand. Because Judaism was something where I can go, OK, here’s me growing up until I’m 11, and then here’s me being sent up to London, initially every weekend and then for all of my school holidays, to stay with my frum relatives in Harrow, and Reb Lev teaches me what, at the time, I assumed was the standard Jewish education for every kid getting bar mitzvahed. I did not discover, until my mid-20s, when I started having conversations with other Jewish adults who were bar mitzvahed, that not everybody was taught about Adam’s three wives. That when the Messiah returns, we will be in this giant tent made of the skin of Leviathan and eating the flesh of Behemoth and Leviathan; in the back room, there will be the women having Jewish babies and then coming back out with their maidenheads magically restored to stop the feasting and take the men off to have sex again. Then they’ll go back and have more Jewish babies. That’s the weird [expletive] I was taught! I was fascinated by this stuff that I was handed between the ages of 11 and 13 as one giant wodge of myth and belief and story. I can look at that and talk about it in the same way that it was much easier for me to be English and write “American Gods.” Because I came to America and went, “Has anyone noticed this [expletive] is weird?” And people go: “What’s weird about driving a car onto the ice every winter and then waiting for the ice to melt and the car to fall through? I’m like, “No, this is weird!” But growing up with two parents who were Scientologists, I have no control, no version of me that didn’t. What I do know is that I definitely grew up in a world in which being a science-fiction writer was a good thing. As far as my parents were concerned, that was an incredibly esteemed profession.

So you’re saying that Scientology is to your bar mitzvah instruction as, to pick a weird English thing, morris dancing and maypoles are to the rituals of small-town America? The first part of each analogy isn’t strange because they were your birthright, and the second part is strange because you came to it late? Absolutely. Morris dancing and maypoles are completely normal to me.

Bible stories: totally strange. Going Clear: makes total sense. Yeah. Going Clear was the world in which I was raised. Leaving that world was interesting, but it was also — what am I saying here? Sometimes I only realize how weird things were in conversation with my wife. It’s just stuff you take for granted. For me, “Ocean” was a way of inspecting what I thought about my childhood, but it was also me trying to recreate the landscape of my childhood, because the landscape is not there anymore. I think it was Guillermo del Toro who told me the story of his storage unit: The credit card it had been on expired, nobody told him and his treasured stuff had been sold. I thought, That will never happen to me. “Ocean at the End of the Lane” was a way of being able to say none of this world is there — the buildings don’t exist, the pond doesn’t exist — but this was my childhood. This is where I was. This is who I was in that world.

Sienna Miller and Charlie Cox in the 2007 film ‘‘Stardust,’’ based on Gaiman’s 1999 novel.
Paramount Pictures/Photofest

Do you think our strangest, most powerful experiences can even be explained in any sort of straightforward way? Like, you write a lot about the powerful hold that dreams have on us. What if tomorrow you saw a newspaper headline that said “Scientists Determine the Exact Nature of Dreams.” Would that change things for you? Approximately 40 years ago, I remember being incredibly upset by seeing somebody holding a newspaper, an English tabloid, and the front-page headline was “Werewolf Captured in Southend.” My heart sank. I thought, I really hope a werewolf has not been captured in Southend. Because if a werewolf has been captured in Southend, then the werewolf would have moved from the realm of dream and myths to the realm of reality. I would never again be able to imagine a werewolf to be whatever it is that I need a werewolf to be. That would be the worst thing in the world. Fortunately the werewolf was just some guy who was off his meds.

But werewolves are myths, and dreams aren’t. It doesn’t seem crazy to me to think that scientists could someday solve dreams. If they did, would “The Sandman” and the character Dream mean something different? I cheerfully read the science on dreams. But I remember, when I started “Sandman,” reading authoritative books on dreams that would explain that people only dream in black and white. Or that you cannot hear anything in a dream. Or there was an absolutely definitive statement in one of these books from a very authoritative scientist that no dreams have plots or stories. They are random images but as we wake we impose a story upon them. Well, I have dreamed in color. I’ve woken up with tunes in my head brought back from dreams. I’ve followed stories in dreams. The current theory is that while we are dreaming, the brain is doing something faintly analogous to a defrag. But would seeing proof of that change the way that I think about dreams and stories? No. Because “Sandman” is me going, Let’s look at all of the different meanings and implications of the word “dream” and what dreams are. None of that changes if dreams are a defrag process or not. Because it’s still true that every night, we close our eyes, fall asleep and go mad. We meet people who are dead and encounter people who never existed and wind up in places where we have never been and never will be. That is the subjective truth, and that truth is real because it’s true for us.

Gods, like dreams, figure in your work all the time. Do you believe in their subjective truth too? That goes straight back to werewolves discovered in Southend. I would be just as disappointed if God or gods showed up as I would be if I ran into a werewolf, and for the same reason: I’m a creator of fictions. If I need ghosts, I put ghosts in. If I need gods, I put gods in. And I’m under no obligation to put the same kind of ghosts or gods or demons into my fiction twice. I believe in whatever I need to make the story work.

Including the story of your own life? Oh, absolutely. There’s a story I wrote a long time ago called “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock,” which was the nearest I’d ever done to a story of my school days. It was talking about growing up surrounded by things that people believed, and seeing how all of this stuff seemed like complicated ways of believing things that probably weren’t true but were ways to view the world. For example: A small wafer, literally or only metaphorically, becomes the body of somebody who, if they existed, died 2,000 years ago, and this act of ritual cannibalism is not actually an act of ritual cannibalism. So in response, I’m going, OK, you can believe in that, and I’ll believe in DC Comics and Roger Zelazny and maybe a dash of Moorcock. You guys are allowed to believe in that [expletive]; I can believe in this.

Let me go all the way back to the start of the conversation, when you were talking about rocks. You said you were moved by the epiphany that the rock you’d put on the lid of your garbage can had been left behind by another human soul thousands of years before. What’s your version of that rock? What are you leaving behind? It’s the “Sunday in the Park With George” question. The entire process for some of us is the Sondheim question: What are you leaving behind? For me, the solution is children and art. I’ve got four kids. So far as I can tell, I’ve raised them well, and I’ve not broken any of them, and they get to go off into the world. Then there are the other children you leave behind because you affected them. You made something that touched or changed them. I’m one of the children of C.S. Lewis. I may be a grumpy and rebellious child of C.S. Lewis, but I am a child of C.S. Lewis. I’m a child of Tolkien. I’m a child of Zelazny. I’m a child of E. Nesbit. P.L. Travers. These are the people who got me at a young age. I love it when I get readers at a young age. So it’s all children and art. That’s what it is.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. Recently he interviewed Neal Stephenson about portraying a utopian future, Laurie Santos about happiness and Christopher Walken about acting.


Can You Connect These Memorable Characters With Their Novels?



Welcome to Lit Trivia, the Book Review’s multiple-choice quiz designed to test your knowledge of books and their authors. This week’s installment asks you to identify memorable characters from mid-20th-century novels. After the last question, you’ll find a list of books highlighted in the quiz.

The Book Review Quiz Bowl appears on the Books page every week with a new topic. Click here for the archive of past quizzes.

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In Her Fiction, Ayana Mathis Refuses to Ignore Black History



THE UNSETTLED, by Ayana Mathis

As a novelist and a student of history, I’m interested in the question of whether Black novelists must acknowledge history in our work, or if it is possible, in the name of artistic freedom, to truly set it aside. I, for one, submit that Black history will always hover over American literature, whether or not the author intends it to. As Toni Morrison wrote in 1992, the Black American population “preceded every American writer of renown and was, I have come to believe, one of the most furtively radical impinging forces on the country’s literature.”

Ayana Mathis’s explicitly historical second novel, “The Unsettled” — appearing nearly 11 years after her acclaimed debut, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” — makes a strong case for the fact that the past can never truly be shaken off. Mathis follows three central characters across time and geography: the emotionally delicate Ava, a young mother trying to create a sense of home for herself and her son in 1980s Philadelphia; her wonderfully profane mother, Dutchess, who still lives in Ava’s tiny, all-Black hometown in Alabama; and Ava’s precocious son, Toussaint, who is arguably the book’s protagonist. He begins the novel with a short prologue in which he’s 13, has run away from foster care and is heading down to Bonaparte, Ala., to find Dutchess. Ava is now in prison.

The novel introduces these mysteries — Why is Ava in prison? Where is Toussaint’s father? Why is the boy running toward instead of away from Alabama, as so many Black folks have done since the Great Migration? — before jumping back a few years, to 1985, when Ava drags 10-year-old Toussaint into a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. The mother and son have been thrown out of the home they shared with Abemi, Ava’s abusive husband and Toussaint’s stepfather, in New Jersey. What brought them to this point?

Mathis renders Ava and Toussaint’s time in the shelter in poignant, heartbreaking detail. The staff members are at best cold and insensitive, at worst sexually exploitative. Though Ava tries her best, she increasingly loses connection with reality, reminiscing about her past with Toussaint’s father, Cass, in a series of disorienting, fragmented memories. These episodes, along with the residual trauma from Abemi’s abuse, prevent her from nurturing Toussaint, who is left to his own devices, essentially adultified. Her maternal neglect tests the reader’s sympathy as she leaves her child to ready himself for school, forgets to take him to the shelter cafeteria for their meals, doesn’t search for him when he disappears for hours at a time.

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In Defense of Men? Caitlin Moran’s Answer Will Surprise You.



WHAT ABOUT MEN? A Feminist Answers the Question, by Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran was giving a speech, and she was annoyed. For years, she’d been on this circuit — talking about her books, her columns, feminism and the state of womanhood. Everywhere she went, she seemed to get the same question: What was her advice for men?

Men, of course, are not her area of expertise. She isn’t one, for starters, though she is married to a man. She hasn’t birthed any, though she has daughters. Her successful writing career hasn’t been about men; she’s best known for her books “How to Be a Woman” and “How to Build a Girl.” Anyway, shouldn’t somebody be asking a man these questions?

Moran dismissed these inquiries with a joke: “My advice to men? I guess, a) please, if you can possibly avoid it, don’t rape us, and b) put the bowls in the dishwasher — rather than next to the dishwasher?”

The questions kept coming — eventually, from Moran’s own teenage girls. But it took a conversation with four boys from one daughter’s school — during a Zoom for International Women’s Day, no less — to really shake her.

“Men are just seen as bad, or toxic,” one boys tells her. “We’re blamed for everything. People just automatically presume we’re all rapists.”

When the call was over, the girls pleaded with her to recommend the boys some reading, a TV show, anything that would help close the gap between the sexes. She couldn’t think of anything. At least not anything that was useful and entertaining.

Moran changed course.

The result is “What About Men?,” an irreverent, albeit anecdotal, dig into the claim made in incel chat rooms, on Reddit and in the so-called manosphere that it’s easier to be a woman than it is to be a straight white man today. And, guess what? She believes it.

No, really.

In part because straight white men are still seen as the “default,” Moran writes, “it’s almost as if the actual details of their lives have become see-through. Invisible.”

That, and they can’t blame the patriarchy for their problems. For women, she writes, “change begins with the delicious moment” when you realize the problem is not your own. “But how can men blame ‘the patriarchy’ when, as a straight white man, you look like the patriarchy? Then you’re just in a ‘Fight Club’ situation, where you’re hitting yourself in the face.”

“What About Men?” is written in Moran’s usual confessional style — except that she’s defending the very people we’ve grown accustomed to her poking fun at.

Moran begins by interviewing men ages 40 to 55 (a hilariously narrow slice of the population), about the messages they received about how to be a man. For instance, many boys learn they “have to hit someone,” and there are apparently rules about this playground violence: Slapping is insulting. Kicking in the groin could be mistaken for “a bit gay.” For those with no physical skills, there’s always humor — “a currency and a power,” Moran learns.

Moran talks to a friend in an eye-opening chapter about being addicted to porn. (This person is not an expert, per se; just someone she happened to chat with. The majority of Moran’s subjects have this vibe.) She takes on unattainable beauty standards for men, who don’t have a “body positivity” movement to flood their Instagram with “rolls, stretch marks, lavish thighs and triumphant wibbly-wobbly bums.” She interviews a friend named Hugo about pickup artists, explores why men don’t go to the doctor (fear of judgment; fear of death; fear of looking weak) and takes on aging.

Moran also dispatches some womanly advice.

About sex: Women don’t really care about size, though “in the weeks, and sometimes months, after a breakup, women will almost always accuse their ex of having a tiny penis.”

About libido: “Women are as horny as men.”

About why women often don’t act on that libido: “The toughest thing about being a heterosexual woman is that the thing that, very often, we love the most — that you are bigger than us; your beautiful strong hands; the solidity of your arms; the weight of your body on top of us … — is also the thing we are most scared of.”

Those hoping for a sociological dig into men and masculinity will be disappointed. Her strength is in writing what she knows, and it is impossible even for the most clever and comprehensive author to sum up an entire sex.

And anyway, “What About Men?” isn’t meant to be comprehensive. It’s meant to be funny. But that at times, without research of any kind to support her clever observations — and no, a stoned conversation with her husband’s balls does not count — she runs the risk of perpetuating the very stereotypes she’s trying to unravel.

Ultimately, Moran seems to approach the world with irreverence. In the case of this book, readers should do the same.

Jessica Bennett is a contributing editor in the Opinion section of The Times.

WHAT ABOUT MEN? A Feminist Answers the Question, by Caitlin Moran | 320 pp. | Harper | $29.99

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