Neil Gaiman attends ‘The Sandman’ World Premiere on August 03, 2022 in London Credit – Jeff Spicer/Getty Images
Years ago, on one of his first opportunities to speak at a university, author Neil Gaiman was informed that the English department had chosen to boycott the event. Their concern? He wrote comics – and you couldn’t write comics and be a real writer.
The decades that followed suggest otherwise. Today, Neil Gaiman, the creative force behind an extraordinary range of imaginative books, including american gods, good omens and Coraline– is one of the most famous (and prolific) storytellers in the world. Writing not only comics, but also novels, children’s books, poetry and more, he topped bestseller lists, won Hugo, Nebula and Eisner awards and had his work adapted. for stage, radio, film and television. And over the course of Gaiman’s long and consequential career – a career that has led Stephen King to describe him as a “treasure of history” –The sand mana cult hit that converted millions, may well be his most beloved work.
First published by DC Comics in the late 1980s and debuting August 5 on Netflix as a television series, The sand man tells the story of Morpheus, the master of dreams, as he navigates the waking world and seeks to protect it from his escaped creations. Although set against a backdrop of gods and their cosmic conflicts, it is (like all good myths) a story deeply concerned with what it means to be human – our frailties, our failures and the possibilities we face. when we close our eyes.
Gaiman spoke to TIME about the challenges of adaptation, the power of speculative fiction, and what he learned from his nightmares.
Read more: Netflix’s Bewitching Sand seller Adaptation is well worth decades of waiting
TIME: It’s been over 30 years since you first wrote The sand man. What was it like seeing one of your most famous stories all these years later?
Gaiman: It felt like we were doing something that was literally impossible. I had spent 30 years waiting for someone to make a bad Sand seller film. And just hoping that if I was really lucky, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. So get to a place where we’re given the money and the resources to do Sand seller of the comic is unexpected and an absolute delight.
Was there anything that, after re-reading, you were excited to update?
Most of the time, browsing through old comics reminded us of how Sand seller was a bit ahead of its time. Back when no one commented on the fact that it was filled with gay characters, trans characters, and black characters, etc. And now we’re doing a comic book TV series. It’s like we do all the work in a weird way. In fact, we had gone to do something that seemed about its time.
Superhero stories are now among the most popular stories in the world. How did this change the world of comics?
I don’t think it particularly changed the world of comics. I think it made people very aware of comics as a source of intellectual property. And I think it also made people very aware that Marvel movies have been incredibly successful in doing what Marvel comics have been doing for years: interconnecting stories. The feeling that you have to see each of the movies, otherwise you might miss something important for the movie you want to see.
In one of the final episodes of the season, Morpheus recounts a recently revived nightmare that the purpose of a nightmare is to reveal a dreamer’s fears so they can face them. What did you learn from your dreams or nightmares?
I learned to trust my dreams and my nightmares. When I was a child, I had terrible nightmares. And when I was writing Sand seller, they continued. But every time I had a nightmare, I would wake up elated and immediately write it down and say, “Whoa, I can use it.” Pretty soon, the nightmares were gone. My eventual theory was that whoever was giving them to me was so disappointed in my reaction that they couldn’t be bothered anymore.
Horrors abound in The sand man, but Death’s character provides some of the show’s warmest moments. What informed your creation of her?
When I came to creating Death, I thought to myself, well, on the one hand, I could make a standard that people expect, but where would be the fun in that? I loved the idea of a warm Death, a sympathetic Death, a Death that one would like to meet. I thought, it’s death that I would like. When it’s my turn to go, there’s just someone cute who says, “Oh, I’m so sorry, you should have looked both ways before crossing that street.” It was Death I wanted.
Despite the many television adaptations of your work in which you have been involved in recent years, including good omens on Amazon and american gods on Hulu, you have a reputation for trying to take Hollywood away from your work, not direct it. Why?
From 24 to 27, I was a film critic, and I saw a lot of bad films. And I didn’t see the point of making bad films. I didn’t want to do things that were less than they could have been, which didn’t mean I didn’t want to take risks. And sometimes the chances you take pay off and sometimes they don’t.
I’d love to hear your thoughts particularly on the role of fantasy right now, which is, of course, defined by so many real-world crises. What does a genre like fantasy offer in a time like this?
[Fantasy] returns us to our lives with a different point of view. I think politics makes a lot more sense if you read George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones books. Eventually you realize that politicians are actually people and they act on their own motives. And sometimes these motivations are beneficial and very often your village will end up being burnt down.
It’s at the macro level. On a micro level, I’ve spent 34 years now with people coming up to me and saying, your character Death in Sand seller, she helped me get through the death of my child. She helped me get through the death of my parents, my loved one, my brother, my friend. I took Kirby Howell-Baptiste [who plays Death in the series] aside the other day at Comic-Con, and I said, “You guys played Death as well as I could hope for. For the rest of your life, people are going to pull you aside and tell you about someone who mattered to them, and how the way they dealt with their death was to imagine you there, greeting them. And you, there, take that person into an afterlife. It’s a huge responsibility. I think Kirby is up to it. But the mere fact that a work of fantasy can actually help people shoulder that burden is huge.
Speculative fiction has sometimes been isolated from other genres. What do you say to people who watch an epic like The sand man and do not see the literature?
I kinda like that comics can still be looked down upon and that we’re still gutter media, because there’s still life in the gutter. I don’t care if people think Sand seller it is literature or not. What matters to me is that people read Sand seller, that it affects their life, that it affects their way of thinking, that it matters to them. Ultimately, the people who will decide what was the literature of a period that really matters, what speaks to them, what is important, they are hundreds of years away. From a contemporary point of view, Moby-Dick was a failed book on whaling. I’d just be happy, honestly, if in 100 years, in 150 years, someone picks up Sand seller and find something to enjoy there. I would take that.
If you could speak to your 28-year-old self, the version of you who published the first issues of The sand manwhat would you say to him?
Oh, I wouldn’t tell him. I think what drove him to do the impossible was a combination of terror and knowing that if he didn’t do this thing, it wouldn’t happen. I’m terribly afraid that if I go back in time and say, “Hey, it’s gonna be okay, you’re gonna do whatever you want in Sand seller. Everyone at the end of the day will love it. Thirty years from now it will be in print and we are going to make it the most amazing television series. He would just say, “Oh, that’s good,” and he’d relax and stop working. To get to where we are, I need him to be hungry and terrified.