In praise of Neil Gamian

If you haven’t read any works by fantasy writer Neil Gamian, you should. The British-born writer is best known for works such as the comic series The Sandman and books including American Gods. I’ve reviewed American Gods and for anyone into fantasy or mythology, American Gods is a must read. It is sprawling and thrilling, and I can proudly say it has influenced my writing.


Aside from novels and comics, he’s also had a long friendship with Tori Amos, popping up as a character of sorts in several of her songs. He’s written a glorious Doctor Who episode titled “The Doctor’s Wife,” and he also gave one of the best commencement speeches you’ll ever hear.

Now Neil Gaiman is taking on another role, one that would seem obvious for a writer: free speech supporter. PEN America, an organization of writers dedicated to supporting freedom of expression, is slated to give an award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which lost several members following a terrorist attack. Some PEN members pulled out of the awards gala citing concerns that the magazine was racist. And now, several writers, including Gaiman, Alison Bechdel and Art Spiegelman, have stepped in.

In an interview with Salon, Gaiman was blunt in his reasons for joining: “…for f**k’s sake, they drew somebody, and they [al-Qaida] shot them, and you don’t get to do that.”

Freedom of expression is a bedrock principle of mine. I know what it’s like to be afraid to speak your mind, to express yourself, for fear of backlash in ways small and large. I know what it’s like to feel intimidated. I know what it’s like to feel that I have no voice. Writing has helped me find that voice. It’s given me the freedom to speak my mind and reveal who I am. And I am thankful that when it comes to my fiction, the only barriers in place are the ones that I choose to erect.

I understand the controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo. But my support of the right to free expression is nearly absolute. And there’s no way I could NOT stand up against violence or government coercion against freedom of speech.

I’m heartened that Gaiman is claiming a spot at the PEN America awards gala. And I can’t wait for his next Doctor Who episode.

Fictional faces brought to “life”

One artist is translating writers’ descriptions of their fictional characters. The results are jarring.

For me, half the fun in reading a book is imagining it in my mind’s eye. Sometimes I get a clear image of the characters; other times the image is hazy as the action takes control. Either way, I’m engaged in creating this world in my own imagination with the blueprint that the writer provided.

Brian Joseph Davis has taken some of the best known — beloved and infamous — literary characters and created sketches of them using law-enforcement composite sketch software. He’s compiled the sketches, and the original descriptions, on his website The Composites.

Take Mr. Wednesday, one of the major characters in Neil Gaiman’s classic novel American Gods.

As described by Gaiman:

Shadow looked at the man in the seat next to him…He grinned a huge grin with no warmth in it at all…His hair was a reddish gray; his beard, little more than stubble, was grayish red. A craggy, square face with pale gray eyes…The man’s craggy smile did not change…There was something strange about his eyes, Shadow thought. One of them was a darker gray than the other…humorless grin…Wednesday’s glass eye… He was almost Shadow’s height, and Shadow was a big man.”

And as visualized by Davis?


That’s not how I pictured Mr. Wednesday in my head. To me he was older, craggier, beefier.

There’s more on Davis’ website. Here’s Marla Singer, from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, as Palahniuk describes her:

My power animal is Marla…Black hair and pillowy French lips. Faker. Italian dark leather sofa lips…Marla stares up at me. Her eyes are brown. Her earlobes pucker around earring holes, no earrings…She actually felt alive. Her skin was clearing up…Marla never has any fat of her own, and her mom figures that familial collagen would be better than Marla ever having to use the cheap cow kind…Short matte black hair, big eyes the way they are in Japanese animation, skim milk thin, buttermilk sallow in her dress with a wallpaper pattern of dark roses…Her black hair whipping my face…The color of Marla’s brown eyes is like an animal that’s been heated in a furnace and dropped into cold water. They call that vulcanized or galvanized or tempered.

And here’s Davis’ image.


My favorite of Davis’ images is the one that captures a different view of a classic character. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes the monster as:

Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing… but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

And here he is:


With all the Hollywood depictions of the Monster as monstrous, it’s easy to forget that he was not created to be hideous.

As a reader and a writer, I’m not a fan of over-description. In my book The Last Conquistador, I tried to be sparse but concise in my descriptions of the characters. For instance, the protagonist Randy describes his wayward girlfriend Lise as “solid and shapely, like the kid sister of a truck stop waitress.” I wanted to seed a broad image in the reader’s mind.

In Always Mine, Danny, the young hero, meets the stepfather of Tina, the mysterious girl next door that he has a crush on. How do I describe Bob? Using just a few key images:

“He shook Danny’s hand rough and hard. He was meaty with a walrus mustache, and he glared as if Danny harbored bad intentions for his daughter.”

While I prefer the less is more approach, after browsing through Davis’ website and comparing the writers’ words with the sketches produced, I have a greater appreciation for those writers who are meticulous in crafting their characters. It’s fascinating to see how writers shape the worlds we create in our minds.

Read this book: American Gods

ImageAmerica, an immigrant country… America, thick with immigrant gods.
What is America? And who are the gods who roam this country? Those are the questions raised by Neil Gaiman (himself an immigrant) in his iconic novel American Gods.
This is Gaiman’s America: a sprawling landscape, larger than any one set of peoples or beliefs, where the land and nature are more powerful than any of the gods, old or new.
This is not a novel about the world’s America, or Hollywood America. It’s not about glamorous/gritty New York City, or the quirky/tragic south, or golden California. Gaiman takes us to the smaller places – the airports and fast food joints, the motels in midwestern towns, the off-road tourist traps, and the second-city walk-ups.
The premise: a war is brewing between the old gods and the new. A man named Shadow, an ex-con of mysterious origins with a faithless wife, is conscripted to join the battle by a huckster named Mr. Wednesday. Together they travel through the overlooked places of the country rounding up gods for a final battle to come.
So, how did these minor deities (and not just deities, but leprechauns and elves) come to live their decreasingly powerful lives in the new world? As Gaiman deftly describes in chapter-length interludes, immigrants who come to America carry with them their beliefs in their old-world gods. These gods take physical form and live on. Only their power diminishes when people no longer believe in them. They linger, but largely without purpose, living quiet lives performing parlor tricks, a “shadow” of their former selves. 
The human Shadow of the book is clueless regarding all of this, almost to a fault. As a battle between the old gods and the new ones (gods of computers, media, etc) is joined, Shadow ambles along, more of a spectator than a vital player. For part of the book, he’s hidden away by Mr. Wednesday in an isolated midwestern town. At this point I was confused by this side trip. In the end we return to the town and we get to the heart of this subplot, but it kept me waiting and wondering why we’d even gone there in the first place. My problem with Shadow, as written, is that he’s often reacting, rather than acting. It’s a problem I  struggle with in my own writing: if you have an ordinary man thrust in extraordinary situations, how do you have that character drive the action? In this way, Shadow is similar to Richard Mayhew, Gaiman’s hero in his novel Neverwhere. Gaiman’s huge talent, though, is his ability to create a sprawling, fantastic universe that captivates the reader regardless.
There’s a world full of minor gods packed into these pages. Who are they? How do their personalities translate into their human forms? Would have enjoyed it more or less if I’d known something about these minor deities. There’s no glossary, and I’m unsure whether it would be revealing too much if there was. 
Nevertheless, Gaiman presents a thrilling take on America. The land itself is nearly a character in its own right. And as for the people and their fading gods, I wanted to keep reading, even when it ended.