Neil Gaiman masters Norse mythology

Fans of Neil Gaiman (above) can expect to see his scriptwriting work on the series Good Omens next year.
Fans of Neil Gaiman (above) can expect to see his scriptwriting work on the series Good Omens next year.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Neil Gaiman was reading to a packed crowd from his new book of stories, Norse Mythology, last Thursday night at Town Hall and he had 15 tales to choose from. He picked one called The Master Builder.

The action begins as the Norse gods, worried that their home in Asgard is vulnerable to alien incursions, debate how to make its borders more secure.

"What do you propose?" one asks Odin, the most powerful of them all.

"A wall," Odin responds.

Gaiman's comic timing was just right, but the truth is that he could have read virtually anything - unpublished juvenilia, the scribbled notes in his margins, excerpts from his correspondence with his accountants - and the crowd would have responded with the same raise-the-roof appreciation.

With his 2.5 million Twitter followers, his work across genres and social media and his unusually close relationship with his fans, he exists in the centre of a rare Venn diagram where best-selling author meets famous personality meets cult figure.

Norse Mythology is a playful retelling of ancient northern stories about the creation of the world and other pressing matters featuring Odin; Thor, the not-so-bright god with the hammer; and Loki, the god who makes all the trouble.

It is what Gaiman likes to do: find something he thinks is interesting and see where it leads him. His work reflects his restless spirit, encom- passing science fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, children's books, adult books, comic books, screenplays, short stories, essays and poetry.

His best-known books include Neverwhere, an urban fantasy about a place beneath London for those who fall through the cracks of the regular city; and the deliciously creepy Coraline, a children's book about a girl who stumbles upon what seems to be, but is not, an ideal alternative family.

Why these particular myths and not, say, Greek ones? Gaiman, who was introduced to Norse tales through Marvel's Mighty Thor comic books as a child in England in the 1960s, was attracted, partly, by their flawed protagonists and satisfyingly dark worldview.

"Greek myths are full of sex and peacocks," he told the audience. "There's lots of sitting outside and falling in love with your own reflection. No one's doing that in Norse mythology. You sit outside in the winter, you're dead."

His new book starts with the beginning of the world and ends with its destruction by ice and fire and darkness before hope is restored, gingerly and tentatively, with the beginnings of a new earth from the ruins of the old one. Its message seems relevant just now.

"If there's anything that a study of history tells us, it's that things can get worse and also that when people thought they were in end times, they weren't," Gaiman said in a recent interview.

Dressed in black, the only colour he wears, he had stopped in his publisher's office in New York in the middle of some dizzying, multicontinental logistical arrangements ending with, "and then we're going to Australia for a few months".

Gaiman, 56, said he approached the myths as a musician might do if recording cover versions of 1950s folk songs or as the comedians do with the central joke in the movie The Aristocrats (2005). The basic story is there, but how you manage the details is up to you.

So he included emotions, motivations, snappy dialogue, sly Gaimanian flourishes. He spruced up the roles of the goddesses, who are traditionally poorly treated by the sexist gods, but who stand up for themselves in his telling. ("What kind of person do you think I am?" the goddess Freya asks, when she hears about a dubious deal to marry her off to an ogre.)

"I'm trying to write a book that a Norse scholar is not going to go, 'He's got it so completely wrong,'" Gaiman said. "But I'm not telling it for a Norse scholar. What I want to do is tell you the story and make it work as a story."

Gaiman has a young son with his wife, American singer Amanda Palmer, who matches him for antic subversion. He recently finished writing the scripts for Good Omens, a six-part series based on the novel he wrote with Terry Pratchett; the series is to appear on Amazon Prime and the BBC next year.

There is also the eagerly awaited series based on his best-selling book American Gods, for which he serves as executive producer and which will be broadcast on Starz this year.

His novel-in-progress is a sequel to Neverwhere. Just as that book was a "way of talking about homelessness and mental illness and the dispossessed without really talking about them", he said, the new work will partly be about the plight of refugees in a city struggling to adjust at a bewildering moment.

"London post-Brexit and the world are in a horrible, messy state," he said, referring to Britain's vote to exit the European Union. "I can take all the anger that I feel and put it into a book."

At the Town Hall appearance, he treated fans to the official trailer from American Gods, as well as to the trailer for a forthcoming movie based on an old short story he wrote called How To Talk To Girls At Parties. ("It's the finest Romeo and Juliet story with punks and aliens set in 1977 in Croydon that has ever been made," he declared.)

The crowd, hundreds of people clutching old books for the author to sign afterwards, loved those things and they loved Gaiman's Q&A with questions submitted by the audience.

And then someone asked him what he wanted for his epitaph.

He thought about that for a moment. "We don't know if he's actually under here," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2017, with the headline 'Neil Gaiman masters Norse mythology'. Print Edition | Subscribe