neil gaiman, american gods
Neville Elder/Corbis Entertainment/Getty Images
Neville Elder/Corbis Entertainment/Getty Images

Neil Gaiman Is Telling Stories You've Never Heard in 'American Gods'

Note: This interview contains minor spoilers for the first season of American Gods. Proceed with caution.

The British writer Neil Gaiman originally conceived of his novel American Gods in the late '90s as America's "distort[ed] mirror." Reflecting the soul of his adopted country, Gaiman's proposal elucidated the "strange mythic depths" his story would employ to take a microscope to our cultural belief system. He didn't mean to confront politics.

But between the genre-bending 2001 book's arrival and the recent debut of Starz's hit adaptation, the author's phantasmagoria took on new meaning. Due in part to the immigration themes it tackles and the show's perfect timing, American Gods is hitting a nerve with viewers and has formed, along with The Handmaid's Tale over on Hulu, a televised resistance in present-day America.

Gaiman, himself an executive producer on the show (along with showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green), talked with Thrillist about how the adaptation came together, why the most outrageous sex scene happened in Episode 1, and what lies ahead.

shadow moon, ricky whittle, american gods
Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon | Starz

You're not usually considered a political writer until after the fact, like when the 1993 Sandman issue "Ramadan" was re-interpreted during the invasion of Iraq a decade later. American Gods is now being called a politically relevant work.
Neil Gaiman: Yeah, I'm definitely running into people who seem to think we wrote the scripts and shot this stuff last November, as a statement. Obviously, we didn't, but truthfully, a lot of the stuff in the book, which I wrote 18 years ago, was not stuff I thought of as [being] particularly contentious. I didn't think it was contentious to talk about immigrants bringing things to this country, or controversial to agree with the Statue of Liberty and the poem thereon. I didn't think you could talk about how people came here without talking about slavery. I didn't think it would be strange to have a racially and culturally diverse cast in my book or in the TV show, as to reflect the diversity of America. I take joy in Orlando Jones' portrayal of Mr. Nancy on the slave ship in Episode 2. It's a scene that I am so glad is there, and on American television and out there in the world.

But all of that seemed like a no-brainer, and not like a political statement at all. And now it's become a huge political statement, and one we stand by, because we have not changed what we believe. But I am amused when I see people announcing loudly that they plan to boycott us. I'm going, "You're not actually boycotting it. What you're doing is not watching it, which is a whole different thing, and it's probably good that you're not watching it, because you wouldn't enjoy it."

How different is Starz's American Gods compared to the aborted version that was being planned at HBO?
Gaiman: HBO bought the rights in 2011 to make it into a series. I think as a film, it would have been unfilmable. I used to get phone calls all the time from directors saying, "I've read American Gods. I picked it up in an airport. I love it. I can't get it out of my head. How do I make it into a TV show? How do I make it into a movie?" And I would go, "I have no idea. It's not movie-shaped." And they would go away. Once you take out all of the diversions, all the weirdness of it, it isn't American Gods anymore.

The problem with HBO was a very simple one: The executive who had loved it and bought it was no longer there, and the people who were there didn't quite understand it. So by the time we handed in the first script, there really wasn't very much enthusiasm. We did two drafts and a polish, and they gave us the rights back, which was great. But the script we had at HBO was very, very much like the one we used for the pilot for Starz. The same material.

emily browning, laura moon, american gods
Emily Browning as Laura Moon | Starz

What sort of course corrections did you make? Did you feel you had to update the material?
I thought we were going to have to do a lot more than we did. Most of what we had to do is what I would describe as wallpaper. We had to change the wallpaper to look a little more modern. Laura [Moon], in the book, is a small-town travel agent. Those don't exist anymore. They've gone away, along with the small-town buggy whip seller. That's just the nature of things, and the internet took that job away. So we put her in a casino, where she does know her way around.

We also updated the Technical Boy's style, but actually, his dialogue is pretty much the same. He's still the person that we are praying to when we pull out our phones and turn on our computers. He hasn't changed that much. He's still young. He's still bratty, just a different kind of bratty. Now, it's not the appalling-ness of somebody in a black trench coat who is figuring out how to get pizza delivered without talking to another human being, using only a modem. Now, it's the appalling-ness of Uber -- that kind of thing.

There are a lot of moments, especially in Episode 1, that signal that this is not a show for the faint of heart. What were the discussions with the showrunners about the levels of sex and violence like?
Gaiman: I love Bryan [Fuller]'s aesthetic on this. He loves bodies. He loves what bodies do. And he loves the stuff going on inside bodies. And as a result, the fabulous blood splatter. I have to explain to people, who are like, "Oh my God! Is the whole series like that?" No, actually -- 98% of the blood spilled in American Gods is spilled in Episode 1, at the beginning and the end, and that's pretty much it. But again, it does tell people that this is a show that will go to strange, extreme places.

bilquis, american gods
Yetide Badaki as Bilquis | Starz

Especially with sex, considering how Bilquis swallows her worshippers through her vagina. Poor Joel Murray!
I remember writing the Bilquis scene a long, long time ago. After I had written it, wondering where in the book I should put it… eventually, looking at the end of chapter one, I thought, "You know, I want to put it here, because anybody who has a problem with this scene is not going to enjoy the rest of the book. I'm letting them know that you can get out early." After I told that to Bryan and Michael [Green], they were like, "You know, we're going to put it in Episode 1! If people don't like Episode 1, if it's too much for them, they can stop watching." It's OK. You can go with something that makes you happy. But when there is sex bodies, when nudity is needed, the clothes will come off in an honest way. And whichever bodies or body parts need to be revealed, will be revealed. What I love about it is that it feels beautiful and true.

There's a lot of male frontal nudity, too.
I saw somebody describe Episode 3 as the best, most beautiful, and most expensive gay-male pornography that they had ever seen. And I thought, "Good! I guess..." I'm proud of it. There's an awful lot of sexy straight stuff on TV. Let's have some gay men getting it on, even if one of them is a genie, with eyes that flame and attract attention in New York.

mad sweeney, pablo schreiber, american gods
Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney | Starz

With these graphic elements and Starz's undivided attention, do you feel like this is the network's Game of Thrones?
No, I think this is Starz's American Gods. I think if you start talking about it or start describing it as the next Game of Thrones, you're going to confuse people, because they will be looking for a whole other thing. It's its own thing, just as Breaking Bad was its own thing, and Game of Thrones is its own thing. You know, I was asked, not as a rhetorical question but with genuine puzzlement, "I just don't understand. Is it science fiction, or is it fantasy? Is it horror? Is it satire? What is it?" And I had to say, "Look, the novel won the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel, the Locus Award for best fantasy novel, the Bram Stoker Award for best horror novel... I got nothing for you." It's its own thing, and I'm pretty proud of it. What I love is that unclassifiable weirdness of the book is now the unclassifiable weirdness with added glory, the magic that the cast and crew have brought. It's only more so, and for an hour every week, for eight weeks.

But I have to say, if given the choice between being number one on Starz and being number two on HBO, I would so much rather be number one on Starz. Everybody is incredibly happy and incredibly supportive. There were places where things went off the rails, and we needed to do some reshoots. Starz were completely supportive. They didn't just give us the money. They said, "Yeah, you guys need to do some reshoots. There isn't a way to fix this somehow. You need to do it again." And I think that was what took it from good to great.

They let you adjust the season's episode count and shift around scenes that would have been the end of this season to the beginning of next. So you're actually going to have more time to tell some of the stories.
Gaiman: The hardest part of writing the novel was the page count. I mean that very literally. The book that I handed in was probably 700 pages, 200,000 words. I was told immediately that I had to find 50,000 words to cut, and I managed to negotiate them to 20,000. But even then, it was considered a ridiculously long book. I went back in on the 10th anniversary version a few years ago and filled it with stories from the past that I didn't get to tell.

I had dinner with Bryan the other night, and we talked about what we would do if we get a Season 2, and I was all, "I would love to do this story about the kitsune," that simply didn't get written before. I had plotted it for the novel, but then realized I needed to start cutting stuff, and I didn't want to write a 40-page story that wouldn't see print. And Bryan got very excited about it. That kind of thing is just really fun. We can do all of this stuff -- we can do everything. It's a huge canvas.

I think we can get probably five seasons out of the book, just because every time we put a new piece on the board, we go and spend time with one of the pieces we normally don't see. While the giant shape of the book does not change, what happens will change. And sometimes we want to put in things that are not in the book. If you've read the book, you will have a major advantage over somebody who has not read the book. However, we do not want you to be complacent, and there are definitely places where we would like cliffhangers, where your knowledge of the book avails you nothing.

I think we can get probably five seasons out of the book.

By Episode 4, we're getting a lot about Laura Moon that was never fleshed out in the book.
It was there even before we went to Bryan [Fuller]. We were saying that Laura has to be a co-star in this. In the book, she had this huge and important role. She's probably my favorite character. But you only ever get to see her through Shadow [Moon]'s eyes in the book, because, A) I was writing the book through Shadow's eyes, and B) I only had a limited amount of pages. Here, we can slow down. We're not using all of our plot up at once. And I want to be able to go and be with her. They saw it the same way, and they came back with other things. "Do you want to expand [the goddess] Bilquis' role, to be a major part of the plot?" A lot of the women got bigger and more interesting parts than they had in the novel. Television gave us the ability to go from the inside of Shadow's head to other places. Episode 4 of American Gods, more than any of the other episodes of Season 1... I love it because it's emotionally and spiritually closer to the book, and yet nothing that happens in it happens directly in the book. Everything is implied. I love that.

Are you going to write any of episodes in Season 2?
Gaiman: I don't know. I had to write six full hours of television for Good Omens, so that kind of took up my script-writing time this season, although I did little bits of writing around the edges for American Gods. Mostly, it was weird things where they'd phone me up and say, "We want to know more about Mad Sweeney. Do you have more about Mad Sweeney than is in the book?" "Why, yes, I do!" "Would you write it all down for us?" So I would write about the 6,000 years of Mad Sweeney stories. And they'd say, "Can we use this?" "Of course!"

We have an animated bit in the beginning of Episode 5. The script, as written, didn't actually work once you put the narration together with the animation. I remember watching it and thinking, "Oh, wow, this is really good, but..." And I said to Michael, "You need much better narration to get the story to work. The animation needs it." And he was like, "Yeah, you're right. When can you get it done by?" So then I'd write the animation narration. So it was fun feeling like I was out there, and my executive producer job was a real job. But we'll see if I get to write a full episode for the next season. It depends on how far through my novel I am at the time.

ian mcshane, ricky whittle, american gods
Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday, with Whittle | Starz

A large part of the story was inspired by your road trips across America, which is why you posit that roadside attractions are places of power. 
I wrote the first chapter on a train from Chicago to San Diego, and then I drove from Minneapolis to Florida, which was a lot of long drives. Long, beautiful, meandering drives on back roads. My rule was that I could never take freeways, although I would occasionally break that very late at night when there was nothing to see anyway and it got too dark. What I wanted was the experience of driving from town to town, seeing town after town, and stopping and eating and going, "OK, what is the difference between how the waitresses greet you in the north, and how the waitresses greet you in the South?" Or, "When did they start serving cornbread hushpuppies?" Or, "When you go up to the Upper Peninsula, how far outside the UP do you have to be in Northwest Wisconsin to be able to buy a pasty?"

What's the most interesting food or drink to write about?
Local stuff! The stuff you can only get in one place, or that is made in one place. One of the reasons I've always hesitated to go and live in New Orleans is the knowledge that I would not only put on 50lb within a year, but I would probably become a food writer.

Would "food writer" have been your alternate career?
Gaiman: I don't think I have the killer instinct that a good restaurant critic needs. You have to be willing to write that killer evil review that says how bad something is, and I am too much of a softie. I would go, "Awww, but if I write this, then maybe the place will go out of business. They might lose their restaurant." So I wouldn't write those, and writing those is the biggest job responsibility a restaurant critic could ever have.

You do have a killer instinct in other areas -- politics, for instance. You're a goodwill ambassador for the UN's High Commission on Refugees, and you've slammed Donald Trump on his immigration stance...
Gaiman: I guess I do, but it's a soft-hearted killer instinct. I get to go to refugee camps in Jordan and meet refugees. We have the Syrian civil war that's been going on now for six years, and we have 7 million refugees, and God knows how many people internally displaced. We're in a point in the world in which there are more displaced people than there were at the end of World War II -- over 65 million -- and it's the kind of thing that I would expect as a member of the human race for governments to be stepping up and helping with and aiding and doing stuff about. The Obama administration did very little, and should have done more.

Comparing the handful,10,000 refugees, maybe, that were taken in, in the US, as opposed to Jordan, a country of 6 million people taking in 750,000, and 2 million people going into Lebanon. And then you get Trump just making it significantly worse when he could be helping. So I am a softie, and I'm absolutely willing to have a killer instinct when it comes to saying, "You're a member of the human race. You have obligations. You should step up and do that."

You've also taken Trump to task for his proposed wall. Does mythology give us perspective on that? After all, Odin wanted a wall, too.
Gaiman: Yes, let's build a wall around Asgard to keep the frost giants out, and make the frost giants pay for it. I've never gotten a bigger laugh than when I read that story back in February at the launch of my Norse mythology book. And then I had to explain to outraged Trump supporters who had read about this online that the story was at least 1,500 years old, and I'd written this retelling of it five years ago. It really wasn't intended to make fun of the strange little president. There are always peculiar parallels. The biggest one I think is... A NPR journalist asked me when the Norse mythology book came out, whether we had reached peak Ragnarök [the Norse version of the apocalypse] yet.

Gaiman: I had to say no. We are barely in the opening movement. But the Ragnarök territory certainly feels very familiar.

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American Gods airs Sunday nights at 9pm on Starz.

Jennifer Vineyard is a freelance journalist in New York. She appeared in a really bad Kirk Cameron film, and if you can spot her, you win a prize.