Writing the end

British author Neil Gaiman's new book Norse Mythology is a retelling of Scandinavian folklore where its dismal setting is in tune with a world wracked by Brexit and the refugee crisis

The things that British cult author Neil Gaiman is involved in these days all seem to point in one direction: apocalypse now.

Take his latest book, Norse Mythology, in which he retells myths from Scandinavian folklore for a modern audience.

The myths of the Norsemen end on a day called Ragnarok, the battle to end all battles. Gods, frost giants and armies of the dead duke it out on a burning, bloody plain, while a giant wolf eats the sun. Spoiler alert: everyone dies.

This doomsday element, says Gaiman, is what makes a centuries-old set of myths linger in the mind today, in a world wracked by the turmoils of the refugee crisis, Brexit and the election of Mr Donald Trump as President of the United States.

"It definitely feels like the early days of Ragnarok," he says. "Things are getting nasty, brother against brother. Empathy breaks down and we no longer make efforts to understand each other's point of view."

The 56-year-old, who has a 17-month-old son with his wife, musician Amanda Palmer, and three children from his first marriage, is speaking over the phone from London, where he is in the midst of a publicity tour for the book.

It is a chaotic, "incredibly jet-lagged" time for Gaiman, who is also working on The Seven Sisters, the long-awaited sequel to his 1996 urban fantasy novel Neverwhere. He aims to finish it by the end of the year for publication next summer.

He is also juggling two upcoming television series based on his books - the Starz adaptation of American Gods, set to premiere in April, and Good Omens, which will be released next year by Amazon Prime and the BBC.

The apocalypse looms large in both adaptations - Good Omens is a comedy he wrote with the late Sir Terry Pratchett about the end of the world, while American Gods builds towards a modern-day Ragnarok.

Gaiman notes, however, that Armageddon has been lurking around the corner throughout history. "Somehow, human beings have managed to sidestep the prophets of doom and continue. I'm very much hoping we can put off the end of Ragnarok for quite a while."

His fascination with Norse mythology dates back to when he was seven and a fan of Jack Kirby's Marvel comics The Mighty Thor, which will be familiar to moviegoers today as the Thor films, starring Chris Hemsworth as the eponymous god of thunder.

But it was through Roger Lancelyn Green's Myths Of The Norsemen that he truly fell in love with the dark, complex and, at times, utterly absurd tales of the Viking gods.

When his editor suggested he do a retelling of Norse myths eight years ago, Gaiman did not return to Green. Instead, he went further back in history to mediaeval Icelandic works, such as the 13th-century Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson.

"What I love about Snorri is that he took stories we would have lost if they hadn't been written down, and preserved them for poets," he says.

These include linguistic traditions such as the kenning, a poetic compound expression used in place of a noun. Gaiman's favourite kenning is "whale-road", which means sea. "I know it's prosaic, but I love saying 'Let us travel the whale-road.'"

If he were to be a character in the Norse myths, who would he be? "There's a squirrel named Ratatosk who runs up and down the world-tree Yggdrasil, taking messages from the dragon at the base to the eagle at the top, adding his own spin to the stories on the way. I think it would be fun to be that squirrel."

Norse Mythology could well serve as a primer for the upcoming American Gods TV show, in which the Norse god Odin hires ex-convict Shadow to help him rally the old gods brought to America by immigrants to go to war against the gods of the new age, such as Media and the Technical Boy.

Gaiman, who serves as executive producer alongside showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, says he is most looking forward to the scenes with Australian actress Emily Browning, who plays Shadow's undead wife Laura.

"In the book, you only see Laura from Shadow's point of view when their stories cross. But Episode Four is just Laura's story - you get to watch her meeting Shadow and falling in love and you get to watch what happens after that. And Emily is amazing in it."

In a strange way, he says, both American Gods and Good Omens have become even more relevant than they were when he first wrote them in 2001 and 1990 respectively.

American Gods features "an amazingly diverse cast in a story that is essentially about refugees fleeing and immigration".

As for Good Omens, it is a comic take on the coming of the Antichrist, corresponding to his belief that "we should respond to the End Times with humour and kindness".

He has written six one-hour episodes for the TV adaptation, on which he will also serve as showrunner. "It's the biggest thing the BBC and Amazon will have ever made.

"I'm hoping for a fantastic director who can get the humour, cope with the special effects, take an all-star cast from around the world, and bring this enormous spaceship that we're building into dock."

There have been other failed attempts to adapt Good Omens, including a 2002 film by director Terry Gilliam. Gaiman's co-author Pratchett, who died in 2015 from early-onset Alzheimer's disease, was sceptical that a show would ever be made.

Gaiman says: "Even now when we're this close, I imagine Terry would say, 'I'll believe it when I'm sitting there eating popcorn and watching the first episode, and possibly not even then.'"

It was a posthumous request from Pratchett that led Gaiman to make a fresh assay on the adaptation, although doing it without his friend has been "incredibly hard".

"Whenever I got stuck, I would want to call Terry and get his advice. He'd have said something like 'The problem is in the way you phrased the question' and I'd say, 'Don't be a d***, just tell me'.

"And whenever I did something really clever, I'd want to show him. And he wasn't there."

Gaiman has no plans to go on the road again until his next novel is finished, but says that his two priorities for his next tour will be visiting India for the first time and returning to Singapore.

His enduring memory of Singapore, which he visited in 2009 for the Singapore Writers Festival and ended up signing books for five hours, was how everyone he met tried to feed him.

"Everywhere I went, I was fed gloriously and delightfully to the point where it started feeling sinister, like they were fattening me up for something, and I started wondering if stuffed author was a delicacy in Singapore."

He adds, more seriously: "I'm not just being polite about Singapore. I've loved meeting all the readers - they are so smart and funny and there are so many of them. It's a special place for me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2017, with the headline 'Writing the end'. Print Edition | Subscribe