Neil Gaiman is looking forward to seeing Seattle again. "It's always been one of my favorite places," said the author by phone, retreating into a back garden so he wouldn't disturb his wife, musician Amanda Palmer. "Pike Place Market is one of those places that, whenever I come back to Seattle, I come back to nervously to see if they've torn it down or if they've simply changed the character of the place beyond recognition. And so far, neither of those things has happened."
Character is a quality to which Gaiman is particularly attuned. He's the author of some of the most important science fiction and fantasy of our lifetime—Coraline, The Sandman, Stardust, Neverwhere, and The Graveyard Book to name just a few. His novel American Gods is about to debut as a series on Starz, and his latest book, Norse Mythology, came out in early February. He'll be reading from his works on April 2 at Benaroya Hall.
In anticipation of the trip, he explained that his affection for the city grew from the treasures it yielded on his first visit as a young author in the late 1980s.
Back then, he wandered into a bookshop and found "in a topmost abandoned dusty corner, some incredibly limited edition signed books by James Branch Cabell. The books were $10 each, because nobody in the store knew what they were or that they were signed." Cabell, a fantasy writer born in the late 1800s, is among Gaiman's favorite authors. He tried to explain to the clerk that the books were worth more but was told to pay the price as marked.
"I walked out of this bookstore going, 'I love Seattle,'" he said, his voice taking on the same beardy flanneled warmth with which we all said those words during our first few days in this town.
"I think Seattle is one of the peculiarly special places," he added. "In a lot of America, if you were dropped somewhere, you'd go, 'I have no idea. I'm in a large American city.' But Seattle feels like itself."
Gaiman has probably done more prodding of America's feelings than many of its inhabitants have. His 2001 novel American Gods is a sprawling tale of ancient gods integrated into Americana and a looming conflict with new mythological figures rising from the young country's culture.
"When I wrote American Gods, I wrote it because I wanted to write a big, sprawling book," he said. "I spent a few years at that point just writing screenplays, and I was very tired of writing 120-page stories that had middles and ends and everything ended neatly. I wanted a big, sprawling, all-over-the-place book with a huge cast of characters that reflected everything I was thinking and seeing about America at that time."
The book was a hit, winning a Locus Award and attracting calls from "directors so famous that even I had heard of them." But nobody could figure out how to adapt it for the screen—until, in recent years, the fundamental nature of television shifted and "everything that had been considered a liability in 'How would you turn this enormous book into a film?' becomes an asset in 'How would you use this enormous book as the starting point for a television series?'"
America itself is a character in the story as much as anyone else. "The landscape should always be a character," Gaiman said. "America, for me, is a huge character... What I love about America, what I've always loved about America, is America is a land of immigrants. America is a land that people came to. And a lot of them, they left their gods behind, they left their worlds behind, and they started a life in the new land." His voice lowered: "It's why watching what's happening right now is strangely painful. 'Strangely' may be the wrong word. It's very painful. This is a land that, at its best, functions on ideals. It functions as a place that people come to. People have been coming here for twenty thousand years."
The welfare of travelers and migrants is an issue close to Gaiman's heart, having worked for years with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "I feel like how you treat refugees is a measure of who you are," he said. "How you treat strangers, how you treat the beggars at your gates is a measure of who you are."
Even in the early days of the Trump administration, it does feel like the country is coming unglued. But is America reaching its end of days? Not yet, Gaiman says, and he comes to the subject with some authority given that he's made Ragnarok, the mythic Norse apocalypse, the subject of study for the last few years. His book Norse Mythology assembles various ancient stories into "a kind of mandala, a pattern... There is this feeling that you get in Norse mythology that everything from creation onward is leading you up to the potentiality of Ragnarok, the end of the world, doomsday, Armageddon, and the destruction of that world. Everything is going to be bleaker and brother-against-brother... I tried to build a structure in which everything spirals around Ragnarok... and you're never quite sure if it's happened yet or it's still to happen."
That sounds bleak, I noted, and asked if he found contemplation of the end times emotionally exhausting. No, he answered—in fact, "no matter how bad things are right now, in the current administration's notion of America... we're still not at Ragnarok. So I think that's incredibly encouraging."
He's also glad to see that Seattle will welcome him with affection. Tickets are nearly all sold out for the 2,000-seat venue where he'll do his reading. "Right now, I'm writing a novel, which means life is fairly lonely. It's me and a blank sheet of paper most of the time. I see my wife and I see my 16-month-old son, and that's about it. So I love the idea of getting my head slightly out of my book and getting out there and reading things. Especially reading things I've never read before."
But older works are on his mind as well. Thinking back to his early trips to Seattle, Gaiman recalled a time that he and author Terry Pratchett shared a hotel room at the 1989 World Fantasy Convention. They had just collaborated on the groundbreaking novel Good Omens, a dark comedy about the end times.
"I got back late from the bar—Terry had gone off to sleep—and I crept in so I wouldn't wake him up," Gaiman recalled. "And a voice from the corner said, 'What time of the night do you call this, then? Your mother and I have been worried sick about you.' Terry was wide-awake, and so we laid in the dark on our respective sides of the room and we plotted Good Omens 2."
The plot of Good Omens involves the world careening toward the brink of destruction. A sequel has long been discussed, though Gaiman wrote definitively in 2004, "No, we won't write a sequel," and Terry Pratchett passed away in 2015.
"But in that night in a hotel room in Seattle, Good Omens 2 was fully plotted," Gaiman said. "And I think about it more and more with Terry gone."