Last June, Nerdist sat down with author Neil Gaiman on the set of American Gods‘ second season. It was a less tumultuous time for the show, but days earlier, the news about the terrible child-separation policy at the U.S.-Mexican border had come to light. It was hard not to think about what was happening while discussing a story about immigrants in America. It was in that context we asked Gaiman about the past, present, and future of American Gods, and what his story has to say about the world we live in now.
Nerdist: How do you think the show and the book reflect America as it is now versus when you wrote it?
Neil Gaiman: There are things that changed and a lot that hasn’t. Technical Boy of the book is fat, has acne, and is a basement dweller. He comes from a time when the proudest coolest, nerdiest thing a human being could do was get a pizza delivered without having to talk to an actual human being.
That was then. Now, everybody has a digital device on which summoning a pizza is the most minor thing you can do in terms of magic. Something that was out at the edges of things, something that was geek subculture has Zuckerberg-ed, has Nerdist-ed, has become front and center. So from that point of view, going into season one, it was, “That was the Technical Boy of 1998–we may at some point meet him–this is the Technical Boy of now.”
Could that have something to do with the idea of Gillian Anderson’s Old Media becoming Kahyun Kim’s New Media?
NG: One of the things I got right in the book was the idea that, on the one hand the new gods are much more powerful than the old gods, but they’re also scared because they know they don’t last for very long. The Train Gods came, and the Train Gods are gone. The Telegraph Gods came, and the Telegraph Gods are gone. The Telephone Gods came, and now nobody uses a land line. And when I wrote the book, television was still a thing. You would sit down in front of a television, which was a big, very heavy box that took up valuable real estate in wherever you were, and you would look to find what was on. That was the world in 1998, 1999. I remember when I was completely brain dead after days of writing, I would sit down–I was writing it in Tori Amos’ Florida house–and I would turn on her TV and watch The Food Channel, badly translated episodes of the original Japanese Iron Chef.
The much better version.
NG: Much better version. And I would just sit there watching Iron Chef, and partly because that was what was on at that time of night. And even that as a concept now is a strange one. So I love the fact that Gillian’s character manifests as old media. She manifests as The Lucy Show in black and white. And she’s Marilyn, and she’s Judy Garland, and she’s Bowie…but Bowie in 1972, 1973. There’s a very specific time.
She was old media, and her day is done. Whether or not old media really is [gone] will be something the show is going to have to find out for itself. With the Technical Boy, we actually established he was once the Telegraph Boy, and the Telephone Boy, and the Television Boy. The Technical Boy of now, there’s another Technical Boy coming, and they murder him. They replace each other, and it’s not necessarily a nice process, being replaced.
When you see what’s been going on in America the last couple years, how does it shape the way you look at your own story about immigrants?
NG: A certain amount of bafflement. I feel like somebody who wrote a very simple story about going round the world and the Earth from space. And then we decide to make a little documentary to go along with it, about going round the world and the Earth from space, and we put it on. But between us making it and us putting it on, the Flat Earthers are elected. And suddenly people are going, Whoa. That’s contentious heavy stuff. You’re putting it out there. You’re really front and center. And we’re like, well, yeah, I guess, but…we’re making a show about immigration. We’re making a show that says everybody here came from somewhere. One of the first things we’ve made very clear is we want our hero to be a mixed race. That means we have to go out and find a fantastic mixed race actor. We were lucky, we found Ricky. That Mr. Nancy is gonna be black. In season two we have Sam Black Crow (who will be played by Devery Jacobs), and whether or not we have a Native American actor in that role is not negotiable. People go, “Oh, yes, you’re virtue signaling.” No, we’re fucking not. It never occurred to us that you’d do it any other way.
A world where being called a social justice warrior is an insult apparently.
NG: I think being a warrior is a good thing. I think justice is a fine thing. So this is our show. I didn’t expect it to be contentious in season one. It’s not like we’re trying to be fucking timely. You’re making a drama about immigration in a country built economically on the backs of people who were unwelcome, fleeing starvation, fleeing pogroms, fleeing bad things. The Irish and the Jews were not terribly welcome. Meanwhile, it’s also built economically, the foundations of states’ wealth, on the fact that they could use people as everything from farm equipment to sex toys. They’re human beings they are bringing in, who do not what to be there, who were coming in against their will. So this is the country we’re in right now.
So if I’m talking about American Gods, which is all about trying to understand America and trying to make sense of the world that we’re all in–old cultures, new cultures, what people believe and what they don’t–this stuff’s gonna be in there. I didn’t think it was going to be contentious, which probably shows my naïveté, but then by the same token, I didn’t think that an orange colored shit-stain was gonna get elected, and I was naive on that as well.
If you could ensure that an America audience received a specific message in season two, what would you hope it would be?
NG: Honestly, what I want is for people to enjoy the story, for people to watch and care about these characters and what happens to them. No, it’s not a message thing. The only thing that maybe even faintly message-y is when I said, “By the way, just a rule, Salim and the Jinn, you cannot kill either of them, and you cannot make one of them permanently miserable. They are our gay characters, and I am damned if we’re killing our gays. So look the fuck after them.”
What are you most excited to see on screen from the book?
NG: The House on the Rock is great, except they spoiled that for me because I had to go there and see it being shot. When you’re walking around the House on the Rock with the cast of American Gods, you’re going, nothing they will ever put on the screen will actually match this. I mean, the floor there is un-filmable. Nothing will ever quite do it justice. Being there while that was shot, that for me was a lifetime highpoint.
There are moments I’m really looking forward to. I’m looking forward to Huginn or Muninn (Odin’s two ravens) telling Shadow to fuck off when Shadow asks them to say, “Nevermore.” I’m also looking forward to season three. I’m really looking forward to getting to Lakeside, because that fascinates me. How we do that? In season one we had to learn how to make American Gods. In season two, we’re learning how to make American Gods again. By the time we finish season two, season three is in the winter in a small American town, and we’re going to have to learn how to make American Gods. And that’s okay. The nature of the show will change each season as the book changes.
Normally adaptations are about what’s getting cut, but the show is adding to your story. Is there anything that’s been added that makes you wish you had put it in the book?
NG: If I’d known how funny and sexy Mad Sweeney was gonna be, he would’ve lived longer in the book, because Pablo (Schreiber) as Sweeney just came on and said those lines, and it’s like, “You are amazing. Oh, my God.”
And it was frustrating when writing the book that I couldn’t follow Laura around. I wanted to spend more time with her. The nature of the book was such that mostly we only see her through Shadow’s eyes. It’s only later on in the book that we get to be with her on her own. I love Emily’s performance. She is an amazing Laura Moon, and it makes me wish that I’d written American Gods and then just sat down and written Laura’s story, which would’ve been everything that happened in American Gods, but from Laura’s point of view.
Has American Gods–the show, the book, the experience of adapting it–changed your views on America?
NG: American Gods began with me going, “I’ve lived here for six years. I don’t understand this fucking place.” And it began in many ways as a series of road trips. It began with me going, “I want to understand this, and I don’t,” and doing a lot of reading, and doing a lot of driving. And the moment that I went, “Actually, I can use this metaphor of people bringing their gods with them,” I realized that I had a very, very powerful metaphor.
It’s like a table. You can put things on it, and you put all sorts of things on it, and it will support. The joy was almost figuring out that metaphor, and then using it as a way of seeing America, and it was a way of describing America. What I love is that almost 20 years after writing the book, it’s still a very, very solid table, and it still holds what you want to put on it.