"I Thought This Was My Weird Little Side Project": Neil Gaiman on His New Book, "Norse Mythology"

Norse MythologyThe Amazon Books editors picked Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology as one of our best books of the month for February. As we said in our review of this slim but powerful book, "Gaiman darts between a Tolkienesque tone in the epic origin stories and his own bright wit in the tales centering on the adventures of Thor, Loki, and Odin."

We tracked down Gaiman in Australia and spoke to him on the phone, with birds cheeping delightfully in the background in a land where it is currently summertime...as well as nineteen hours ahead of us.

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Amazon Book Review: You're in Australia at the moment, which is at the opposite side of the earth from Norway. What are you doing there, if you don't mind my asking?

Neil Gaiman: I have a wife, [musician Amanda Palmer], who loves Australia and hates the winter. And the combination of loving Australia and hating the winter means that she tends to take off in the winter and come and tour Australia. She had a gig last week in Sydney Opera House, and she's done a bunch of concerts and such. I'm enormously enjoying just getting away from my life and writing a little bit more, partly because the magic of being in Australia means you wake up in the morning with your day's emails waiting for you. And then you get to work while everybody in the rest of the globe is still asleep.

You're technically a day ahead of where I am, so you're already ahead of the game.

I am. I'm in the future! We having flying cars here and the cure for the common cold.

How long have you been thinking about writing Norse Mythology?

The first conversations about doing Norse Mythology were in 2008. It's been a long process. I've loved Norse mythology since I was a little boy. I've loved the stories of the Norse; I've loved the stories of the gods.

Norse Mythology began with a conversation with Amy Cherry, who is a wonderful editor at Norton, just asking, basically, if I would have any interest in writing a mythology book for today. I love the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, and I thought it would be really interesting to see if I could just go in and create something almost like somebody was telling me these stories. That's where it began.

I feel like [this book] is going to be the jumping-off point for people's obsession with Norse mythology. There are some aspects that I found to be so awesomely bizarre, like the Naglfar, the ship made out of the toenails and fingernails of the dead. Are there any aspects that stick with you as being delightfully strange?

I love two things in there because they are both Ragnarok-related. One of which is the idea that toenails and fingernails add to Naglfar, so you should dispose of toenails and fingernails, because if you don't, they will become Naglfar. I also liked the little bit about how you should dispose of the bits of leather from making your shoe properly, because then the leftover leather becomes the giant shoe of a god. Those were two big things. It had that nice homespun feel of just trying [to convince people] to cut their fingernails and toenails and such.

But what I loved best is the unpredictability of the characters. There's a story about the mead of poetry in which nobody comes out of it terribly well. There's a rather wonderful god called Kvasir, and he is murdered by some rather murdery dwarves, who go on to murder other people. They make mead out of his blood, and this is the mead of poetry. What happens to that mead and how Odin gets it back is this quite gloriously bizarre story.

I got the impression that you had a lot of fun writing some of the Thor stories especially.

I did. I really did. Anything with Thor and Loki is just going to be fun. There's such a peculiar mutual respect, which is that Loki envies Thor—his strength and his might and his power—and Thor rather envies Loki's remarkable brain. And Loki will cause trouble. And Thor will have to deal with it.

I loved getting to both retell stories that I had been familiar with since I was a little boy and to try to tell them with an immediacy and an interest, as if we were around a fire. I remember the first moment I fell in love with the real Norse Thor, as opposed to the Jack Kirby Thor. That moment was reading a myth where the gods are taking refuge for the night in a peculiar house that's a [cave with] a hole in the side of it, and they realize the next morning that they have been sleeping in the mitten of a frost giant. And that moment for me, when I was a boy, was wonderful. I thought of the gods as the biggest, most dangerous things around, but oh my gosh, these frost giants are enormous.

Retelling that story was an absolute joy for me. I'm trying to give people the same amount of fun that I had as a kid reading it.

I've been working on Norse Mythology for about eight years now and writing it mostly for the last four. When I finally assembled [the stories] and I put them into sequence, reading them suddenly felt like something real and like something important. And it had a shape. It was a shape of an inexorable drumbeat that takes you from the creation of the Norse world through to Valhalla. I hope that it lets us understand the Norse and lets us understand ourselves. It's dark, it's funny, but at the end of the day, these stories are incredibly human.

I've been taken aback in a very, very good way with how incredibly strongly the book has been received. It's [been getting] starred reviews everywhere. I thought this was my little weird side project. And I'm just overwhelmed by how much people love it. So that is huge for me.

 


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