Midwestern 'Weirdness' Inspires Neil Gaiman's 'American Gods'

Neal Justin
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods tackles earth-rumbling concepts -- faith, mortality, media obsession -- but his acclaimed novel is rooted in the relative quiet of the Midwest.

Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” tackles earth-rumbling concepts — faith, mortality, media obsession — but his acclaimed novel is rooted in the relative quiet of the Midwest.

“I couldn’t have written it without living in Wisconsin, and Minneapolis and St. Paul being the nearest big cities,” said Gaiman, chatting last week from a Los Angeles hotel where he was preparing for the world premiere of Starz’s TV adaptation of the book. “It just wouldn’t have worked.”

Gaiman, so thoughtful in responding to questions that you sometimes worry the phone line has gone dead, wasn’t referring so much to specific landmarks, such as the House on the Rock or the wintry landscape, both of which play pivotal roles in his 2001 book. He’s talking about the region’s general weirdness.

“There’s that tiny off-kilter nature in the Midwest that’s in the details,” said Gaiman, 56, who moved from England to Menomonie, Wis., in 1992. “I would enjoy stopping at a little restaurant somewhere and half the place would be selling peculiar stuff like … warrior princess dolls. That’s weird.”

That’s nothing compared with the mind-warping road trip taken by ex-convict Shadow in the Starz series, which premieres Sunday. During his journey, he engages in a bar fight with a leprechaun, risks getting his brain bashed in by a butcher’s mallet over a game of checkers and engages in conversation with Lucy Ricardo. All chapters in a culture clash between the ancient Gods and a new wave of lords, hellbent on taking advantage of an increasingly amoral society.

Marek Oziewicz, a literature professor at the University of Minnesota, said it’s the kind of story that could come only from Gaiman’s fertile mind.

“Asking me to describe him in two sentences is like asking me to describe J.R.R. Tolkien in two sentences,” Oziewicz said. “His ideas are absolutely unique when it comes to speculative fiction.”

Oziewicz, who moved to the States four years ago, doesn’t agree with Gaiman’s description of the Midwest as “weird.” But odd? You betcha.

He could relate to Gaiman’s fascination with roadside attractions, a novelty that doesn’t really exist in Europe. In Gaiman’s children’s book “Coraline,” which came out the year after “Gods,” the young heroine escapes into the “other world” of a creepy old home, a setting that evokes the abandoned buildings commonly found on main streets in small-town America.

“I don’t know if it’s weird, but it’s definitely a feature of the Midwest that can stimulate the imagination of someone as weird as Neil Gaiman,” he said.

Writing in a lakeside cabin

Gaiman’s most celebrated work, which includes “Stardust,” “The Sandman” and “The Graveyard Book,” were largely written in his backyard gazebo outside Menomonie. But for “Gods,” the author retreated to a lakeside cabin about a 20-minute drive from his home.

“For some reason, ‘Gods’ required a little more distance,” he said. “I needed to reduce the possibility that anyone would disturb me. At the gazebo, it was too easy to go into the house to get a cup of tea or go to the bathroom and end up talking to someone.”

At one point, Gaiman could be found working out of coffee shops in the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin. But his fame soon made that nearly impossible. He recalls returning to a favorite haunt a couple of years ago and being recognized by female fans who left notes on his car windshield.

Greg Ketter, who owns DreamHaven Books and Comics in south Minneapolis, chuckled when hearing his longtime friend’s anecdote.

“He likes to complain about the attention, but I think he likes it,” Ketter said. “I always kid him about the fact that he always has to wear a leather jacket and dark glasses. If he didn’t want to be recognized, he could just take them off.”

The fact that Gaiman would have to make an effort to go unrecognized is a testimony to just what a big shot he has become. He appeared on “The Simpsons” as himself. He has won just about every award in the worlds of children’s literature, fantasy and comic books. His stories have inspired several movies and TV shows, including “Lucifer,” which returns to Fox for its third season Monday. The growing demand for his time means Gaiman has been back to Menomonie only once since New Year’s.

After his 2007 divorce from Wisconsin-raised Mary McGrath and his subsequent marriage to singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, rumors abounded that the author had actually given up the home where he raised three children. He hasn’t.

“Figuring out where I live has become a full-time occupation,” he said. “But Wisconsin is still where most of my books are and my cat.”

Despite his clout, Gaiman said he’s most pleased when adapters have the courage to make the project their own. He is particularly pleased with the fourth episode of “Gods,” in which a character returns from the dead. He gives a lot of credit to showrunner Bryan Fuller, who previously developed “Pushing Daisies” and “Hannibal.”

“There are maybe three lines in that episode from the novel,” he said. “They took what was implied in the writing and brought it to the screen. I take joy in that.”

Game changer for Starz?

On this late morning, Gaiman was preparing for the premiere party where he would be reunited with Fuller, as well as cast members Ian McShane, Cloris Leachman, Kristin Chenoweth, Dane Cook and Orlando Jones.

It’s the kind of star power one would usually associate with HBO or Showtime, not a cable network best known for shows than use more fake blood (“Spartacus,” “Black Sails”) than brain matter. Starz’s president, Chris Albrecht, is well aware that shows such as “Gods” could be a game changer.

“You have a built-in fan base so you have to be careful that you deliver on their expectations and that you honor the material,” Albrecht told TV critics in January. “But you also start with almost a sort of adjunct marketing team that has more credibility than any ad you’re going to put up, or any quote you’re going to put in an ad. It is a phenomenon that’s here to stay — and obviously growing — and I think it’s a very powerful one for media.”

Gaiman isn’t against supporting his new partners. But that doesn’t mean he was excited about the evening hoopla.

“Everyone should walk one red carpet in their life, but I’ve walked enough now,” he said as a hotel receptionist rung to tell him his car service had arrived. “I would much rather be back in my gazebo.”

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