Neil Gaiman on His Simpsons Appearance, Teen Lit and Trolls
On Sunday a special guest star will lend his voice to his yellow-skinned Springfield doppelganger on The Simpsons: bestselling author and comics writer Neil Gaiman.
Speaking with Spinoff Online and other members of the press about his role, Gaiman began by admitting that although the episode, “The Book Job,” centers on Homer’s attempt to write a young-adult novel akin to Twilight, the author has never read Stephenie Meyer’s wildly popular books.
“I am a terrible person because I still have not read the Twilight books, and I’m the only one in my house,” he laughed.
Explaining that his daughters loved the series, Gaiman said the last time someone asked his opinion on the popularity of teen literature was shortly after he won the Carnegie Medal for his children’s fantasy novel The Graveyard Book.
“I said I thought there were too many vampires around, it was probably time for something else — and the universe obviously agreed with me because zombies turned up by the busload at that point,” he said. “Now I’m just waiting for the next thing with absolute fascination to see what it is.”
With a laugh he added, “In The Simpsons episode we did I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say Homer decided it was trolls!”
“The thing that took me by surprise was they had been asking me for a while to do a cameo on the show and I said yes, when the right script came along,” he said. “But truthfully, what I expected was the normal kind of Simpsons celebrity cameo. You know, Homer says, ‘Not even Neil Gaiman could come up with something as weird as this!’ and then it would cut to me stroking my chin going, ‘You’re right, I couldn’t!’ and the scene would continue.”
However, when Gaiman received the script, “I started to read it and discovered that I was in it all the way through and I was actually having to act and that stuff happens! It was enormously fun and kind of weird and kind of wonderful.”
The author contrasted his Simpsons role with his other television cameos. “In the past year or so I’ve got to play myself several times, and they’re always very different me’s I was doing,” he said. “The me I did in Arthur, the PBS cartoon, was very different from this version of me. It’s kind of weird!”
“I think if they ever hand out Oscars for Best Person Playing Neil Gaiman, I have a shot!” he added.
In addition to Gaiman’s Simpsons debut, this year also marks the 15th anniversary of Neverwhere, his short-lived BBC fantasy series that he adapted as a companion novel. Looking back to his start in the 1990s, Gaiman said he thought the biggest difference in the literary and genre-fiction world was that the doors had opened up to admit teen readers.
“Quite honestly the biggest change in teen horror is there wasn’t any. The biggest change in teen lit is that it exists,” Gaiman said, adding, “If you go back even 15 years there was definitely a tendency at that point to go from kids’ books to adult books. The idea that people would be writing books aimed primarily at a teen audience is really cool and really new, and the idea of YA books being genre books is, again, cool and new.
Returning to Neverwhere, the author continued, “Fifteen years ago, when things like Neverwhere were coming out, everything I did was published as adult fiction, which it still is. [Now] winning the Young Adult Library Association Award for adult books that kids and teens would like, I’m really glad that teens have their own books.”
However, Gaiman also emphasized he feels teens should be free to read “adult” books as well. “On the other hand, I’m still a huge believer in books, and I hate the idea of anybody being cut off from books that they’d like because they think they aren’t ready for them yet,” he said.
Going back to his episode, Gaiman playfully compared the Neil Gaiman on The Simpsons to the “Neil Gaiman in real life.”
“Truthfully, the real-life me almost never hangs around in Barnes & Noble-like bookstores waiting to find a group of local townsfolk who have decided to write a pseudonymous young-adult fantasy series, offering my services — and even if I did, I probably wouldn’t be doing the catering!” he joked.
He said the biggest difference, and challenge, for acting in the episode was adopting an American accent — not because he had to do a good American accent, but because he had to do a spectacularly bad one.
“I think that was the hardest thing in the studio, because they asked me to do one line in a really bad American accent,” Gaiman said, “and I did what I thought was a bad American accent, and I was told no, it has to be to Americans the equivalent of what Dick Van Dyke’s accent in Mary Poppins is to the English.”
“I was pushed to achieve those sort of heights — or depths!” the author added with laugh.
Gaiman also promised that “The Book Job” contains many in-jokes and references to his works, although he said the biggest surprise is just how much acting he was required to do.
“The weird thing, honestly, in this was I actually had to act, which I wasn’t expecting!” he said. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, Matt Selman was the executive producer of the episode, which was written by Dan Vebber from Futurama, and written brilliantly, and I think it was Matt’s idea that I do it because Matt loves my audio books and assumed I could actually properly act because I do it in my audio books!”
Turning away from The Simpsons for a moment, Gaiman touched on his recent West Coast book and music tour with with his wife and ex-Dresden Dolls musician/songwriter Amanda Palmer.
“We had 10 days with nothing planned, and we had to get from Los Angeles to Vancouver, so we decided instead of doing this sort of ambling, vacation drive up the coast we’d take to the cities and do ‘An Evening With Neil Gaiman And Amanda Palmer’ in each one,” Gaiman said. The author added that the tour quickly sold out as fans on the West Coast got to see Gaiman, “read stories and Amanda sang, and strange and glorious things happened every night.”
However, because Palmer is recording and Gaiman is beginning work on a new novel while being involved in the HBO adaptation of American Gods, he said they wouldn’t do another tour. However, he and Palmer might hold individual events in the future. “For us it’s kind of like a meeting of the clans as the fans get together,” he said.
Gaiman, who also wrote a well-received episode of Doctor Who, laughed when asked if, after HBO and The Simpsons, there were any pop culture spheres left for him to conquer.
“You know, there was actually a point where you look around and you go, ‘OK, I’ve written a Doctor Who episode, been on The Simpsons, that’s pretty much it!’ I would really like to be a head in a jar in Futurama,” he said. “I love these weird little playing Neil Gaiman things that occasionally come up.”
However, as much as he loves doing cameos, the author confessed he now has to say no to “very peculiar things.”
“You know, like ‘Come onto the Food Network and be a judge on a show!’ No, why would they think I’d want to do that? ‘Well, they saw you on Craig Ferguson!’ I definitely don’t want to be a personality,” he said. “I’m a writer. I love doing goofy stuff, too, but it’s time to go back to being a writer now.”
This led the author back to the recent explosion in teen lit as he expounded upon what he saw as the problem that plagues fiction when a genre becomes hugely successful.
“Whether it’s wizards or vampires, whether it’s zombies or werewolves, and for that matter right now you got fairy tale characters and a whole lot more — when the stuff happens and it’s created by people who believe in them and other people look around and go, ‘Ah, this is a way to make money,’ things mean less and less,” Gaiman said. “It’s like old-style photocopies. When you photocopy a photocopy and then photocopy a photocopy, pretty soon you wind up with a gray sheet of paper with faint lines on it. I worry that you do end up fairly rapidly with the gray sheets of paper.”
However, the author said the most important thing is not the quality of the material but the ability to spark an interest in reading.
“On the other hand, I also know having grown up as a devoted reader that, as a kid, your first exposure to anything, whether it’s a good book or a bad book, whether it’s written with care and love or just tossed off by somebody who really doesn’t care, the truth is that when kids encounter books they bring themselves to them, and the place you find the magic can be anywhere,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be in a great book, it can be in a terrible book.”
Gaiman admitted he’s happy with the way his career has progressed, and that if he could go back in time to give his younger self advice, he wouldn’t do it.
“I would hate to go back and try and change anything,” he said. “It might be like the Ray Bradbury story where a guy steps on some bark and crushes a butterfly and the entire course of human history is changed. I really like it where I am and would be incredibly loathe to change anything.”
Pausing, the author then admitted the only advice he would give to his younger self was something Stephen King said to him in the early ‘90s, just as Sandman was beginning to take off.
“I think probably my only piece of advice to myself would probably be a piece of advice that Stephen King tried to give me, and given that I more or less ignored it from Stephen King I would probably ignore it from me, which is, he told me to enjoy it more. He said, ‘You’re on this great ride, just enjoy it,’” Gaiman said. “I enjoy it a lot more now.”
“The Book Job” episode of The Simpsons airs Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.