los angeles, december 1994, originally broadcast on KUCI, 88.9FM, on the program "the holographic universe," with neil and dave mckean.
interview and transcript by david roel, including howard hollis from "ben is dead" magazine. interview conducted at golden apple comics on melrose ave. Found originally at: http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/1337/10-12-94.htm.


DR: My first question is: What're your favorite Beatles songs?

NG: I think my favorite Beatles song is probably "Across the Universe" when done by Liebach...

DR: Did you ever hear Roger Waters' version of that?

NG: Ugh, no.

DR: (Laughter.) What does that mean?

NG: That means, I have problems with Pink Floyd... That's the Hollywood way of saying things... They look at a script and they say, "Well, we love it, but we have problems with it..." It kind of implies that it's your fault... I actually went to a Pink Floyd concert, about three or four months ago, because I discovered to my surprise that one of my oldest friends has just gotten married to David Gilmour, my friend Polly Sampson. I wound up getting dragged along to the big arena tour. It was really odd, I got to go backstage at a Pink Floyd concert. It was a lot like... If you're too young to remember the Nuremberg rallies. (Laughter.)

HH: I'm going to start out with my first question: What's the strangest dream you've ever had?

NG: I don't know the strangest dream... The most memorable one is probably still one that haunts me... I actually wrote about it, I turned it into a Sandman. When I was about four or five, I had this dream, in which I was just trapped in this enormous house filled with witches who wanted to kill me (and eat me, I assume.) One witch was vaguely my friend. It was full with just running through this house, trying to escape, and eventually making it up onto the roof, and thinking I was safe, and then the roof starting to tilt and give, and being catapulted down--heading toward the ground, knowing that if I hit the ground I was going to die, and knowing that I would die in real life. Somehow I managed to wrench myself out of the dream, but not into a state of waking; it was like the screen went blank. And I was just lying there, trapped inside my head, perfectly certain that if I didn't manage to wake myself up, I'd go back to the dream and I'd die. And I was convinced I was trying to scream, maybe I was just moaning a little in my sleep. Eventually I woke up with the pillow soaked. That was really strange and really scary.

DR: Why is it that dreams can evoke emotions you never knew you had? Like different aspects of fear... Strange emotions that you hardly ever feel in real life, a dream can dredge that up...

NG: I think dreams dredge up an awful lot of things, but they plug into things very directly. What was that dream that you had, you were telling me about, the second day of the tour, after we'd signed about a thousand people...

DMcK: Oh, it was a dream like most... We were signing (and signing, and signing) and the police were here and they needed to talk to me. And I knew that I'd murdered somebody. But I knew that they were going to get me in the end. I kept making excuses. That's a common one. I always have these things when we're signing... (Laughter.) Everytime we've got a book coming out, I always dream--every time!--I always dream that I go into the publisher's and they show me the proofs, and I start looking through--the last one was Mr. Punch--and there are all these other pages in there that I'm sure I didn't do. And I'd call Neil and he'd tell me that he'd included in there some old Flash comics that he wrote once and he'd hoped that I wouldn't mind... (Laughter.) And this book was like seven thousand pages long. And it wasn't the cover that I'd did, somebody in the art department had drawn something in crayon, and they'd printed that instead, and hoped I wouldn't mind, and it was all going terribly wrong... I always get these dreams.

HH: How does love interplay in the world of The Endless?

DR: ...Desire...

NG: Well, love isn't quite desire... Love is probably a little bit in The Sandman's domain. Love is partly a dream, it's partly to do with desire, and sometimes it's partly to do with death, as well. It's also very often something to do with delirium...

HH: Could you see love as being personified, in the same way that dream and death...

NG: No, because love is something odder and cleaner. And like I said, it moves from domain to domain. The lines between The Endless aren't perfectly clear-cut anyway.

DR: The one thing I've noticed about your work is that all the things you've done are all about stories; what a story is, how we use stories, what a story might consist of... Do you see yourself primarily as a storyteller, rather than a writer?

NG: Sure. I mean, writing allows you to get it right in your own time. It also allows you to reach a very large audience. But I love storytelling...

DR: In "World's End"...

NG: That was all about stories...

DR: ...It was all about stories, the function of stories, how we use stories, to explain ourselves, to hold ourselves together...

NG: And it was also an experiment with nesting stories--I like the way that "World's End" is a story within a story within a story within a story--And at one point, it strongly implied that the framing sequence may actually be a story within one of the World's End stories...

DR: What is the function of a story in our world today?

NG: I don't know, I don't necessarily think stories have functions any more than diamonds have functions, or the sky has a function... Stories exist. They keep us sane, I think. We tell each other stories, we believe stories. I love watching the slow rise of the urban legend. They're the stories that we use to explain ourselves to ourselves.

DMcK: I think stories, like art, feed our conscience.

DR: So is that the function of what art is, then, a self-enriching...

DMcK: I think it's pretty obvious that humans, unlike any other thing on the planet, need art, I think it's actually a need, need art and stories. I think it's because we have a conscience.

DR: So art is the thing that makes us human.

NG: (Laughter.) Stories are the things that allow us to persuade each other that we're human. (Laughter.)

DR: I know you read Cerebus; what's your reaction to "All Stories Are True?"

NG: I think it is a statement of limited efficiency. I mean, in its own way, it is true: Yes, if one story is true, all stories are true... But, how you get the truth from a story, and what truth is in what story, is a potential minefield. Yes, all stories carry within them some truth, but that is not quite the same as saying all stories are true. You know, "The Streets of Los Angeles Are Paved With Gold." (Laughter.)

HH: You said in Gnosis Magazine that when Thessaly brought down the moon that that was an incredibly bad idea. Do you know how to do this?

NG: No, what I was trying to do there, was look at the concept of drawing down the moon, from the viewpoint of contemporary Greek and Roman writers. Because there's a lot of stuff in Lucan, in Vergil and Apuleius about the witches of Thessaly, and they were terrified of them! And one of the things they kept accusing them of doing, was drawing down the moon, and drawing down the stars for their own ends, and taking the stars and the moon out of the sky, and ordering the moon about. And I liked the way that plugged into the contemporary Calling-Down-the-Moon-For-Empowerment ceremonies. I wanted to see what the reaction of today's contemporary pagans and Wiccans would be when confronted with a Thessalian witch from 400 B.C. The reaction from most of them was, "Ugh!" (Laughter.)

HH: How extensive is your knowledge of the occult? Do you get involved in that at all?

NG: Only by default... I tend to attract occulty-people, occulty-things and occulty-books. I had a very odd conversation in a bar in Denver with a lady who came over and informed me that she provided herbal extracts for Wiccan and pagan communities all over the world. I said, "I make up people like you." She said, "You mean you make fun of us." I said, "No, I don't make fun of you--I wouldn't dare! But I do make you up..." I think my perspective on magic is very much the perspective I expressed in Gnosis Magazine (and to some extent, probably in Books of Magic)--I like the entirety of magic, I love reading magical stuff, but I have no desire to go the route that Alan Moore is going, where Alan has gone, "Right! If I'm going to get interested in this, I'm going to be a..."

DR: "...contemporary shaman..."

NG: Yes! A contemporary shaman, an elegant warlock... And he's huge and hairy and he looks the part and he's off conducting magickal ceremonies probably even as we speak, and having a wonderful time doing it... Personally, I like being a writer, which allows me to simultaneously believe and not believe in anything I want to...

DR: So you wouldn't care if somebody proved it. If someone said, "Here it is: I'm holding the proof in my hand..."

NG: I would find that very upsetting in some ways. One of the worst headlines I ever saw in my life--my heart sank--was a headline in The Sun newspaper which I saw in Hayward's Heath Station, and the headline read, "Werewolf Captured in Southend." That was the front page story, and I was really upset. I thought, "I don't want anybody to capture werewolves!" If you capture a werewolf, then you're only allowed one truth at that point...

DR: Instead of a plurality of options.

NG: Yes, I want a complete plurality. I don't want anybody to capture a unicorn. I don't want any werewolves to be captured. Actually, I think it was some man who'd gone mad on pills and attacked a police station, if I remember correctly. I want a plurality of possible truths, and the freedom to imagine.

DR: There's a quote by Robert Coover, "The best social orders run down with time, so occasionally you have to tear it all apart and start over. Primitive societies set aside a time each year to do this on a ritual basis. Get drunk, break all the rules, commune with the primordial chaos and the dreamtime of the civilizers, recapture the sense of community and order. ...It's the role of the author, the fiction maker, the mythologizer, to be the creative spark in this process of renewal: he's the one who tears apart the old story, speaks the unspeakable, makes the ground shake, then shuffles the bits back together into a new story." Do you think there is a function for the storyteller in this modern society, that primitive societies might have known more efficiently...?

NG: I think stories are important, stories are vital. Storytellers are in some sense very vital. On another level... I'm somebody who makes things up for a living. When I was a kid, people said, "Neil, don't make things up--You're making that up." And these days, what I do is make stuff up. Somewhere in the back of my head, a small, still voice occasionally whispers that this is probably not an occupation for a grown man, and maybe I ought to go and get a real job. But it's what I'm good at, it's what I do. As far as I'm concerned, the world is composed of stories. For architects, the world is composed of buildings, for actors the world is composed of theatres, or whatever... For me, the world is simply composed of stories, when I look, that's what I see.

DR: What is it that drives you?

NG: Part of it for me is the desire to try and get it right.

DR: What's that like when you do get it right?

NG: Haven't known it yet. A little bit on Mr. Punch. Mr. Punch was the first time I've ever really felt that the thing that I wanted to do in my head when I started is there in the book, at the end. I don't feel any urge to apologize, which I normally do, when I finish something. You know, "I could have got it right if I had a few more pages, I could have got it right if..."

DR: "...a little more time..."

NG: "...a little more time, a little more..."

DR: "...a little more dedication, a little more discipline..."

NG: ...something. Whatever. Yes, something... You could have got it closer to the vision, you could have got it closer to the strange Platonic ideal that was in the back of your head when you started. Mr. Punch was, that really did it. It's the desire to get it right, the desire to... Very often it's also the force of the story, that drives me... I will start off with a couple of characters, I'll start off with a scene, I'll start off with a notion. And then I'll want to know what happens next. Which is the ultimate storytelling urge anyway. What happened next? "Then what did they do?" It's the motive force behind the Arabian Nights.

DR: Is there some point when the act of creation is happening, and you feel it right, like flowing through you. There's a Zen attitude of stepping out of the work's way, and letting it go through you.

NG: But if you are a working writer, which I am--for the last eleven, twelve years, I've been a working writer, and there are two things I've discovered. One of which is those moments of Zen creation are all very nice, but if you're going to wait for them to happen, or hope for them to happen, then you will have a very small output. The other is stranger and sadder, and I don't like, but is my own personal observation on this--is I can have moments of Zen creation, and have a wonderful time writing-- and I can be in a really bad mood, and have a vague headache, and really not want to write, and go, "Well, screw it, I have to get this done." And I will write something... And six months later, I'll go back and re-read the story, and I can't tell which bits of it were written at the moment of Zen creation with the godhead pouring through me, and which bits of it were wrenched out of me like a dentist pulling at a recalcitrant wisdom tooth. You can't tell. It's all the whole.

DR: Anything from Dave about the act of creation... Or what it feels like when you're in there, working on a painting... Are you getting it right... are you trying to achieve an unattainable goal?

DMcK: I suppose so, it's just a dialogue really. It's like a good conversation, it carries on when it's interesting, a give and take. I suppose in the big picture, we're back to belief. Believing things, what you need to get you through. I've never had any time for the occult or anything like that. But I'm really interested in why people believe in these things, why people need these things. And I think we all find our own gods.

DR: Cages, it seems to me, is a search for meaning. Maybe it's more asking questions, than providing answers?

DMcK: I'm much more interested in the questions, and then talking about the answers.

DR: Is there any answer specifically inside Cages?

DMcK: God, no! But there's lots of interesting stuff to chew over. I'm much more interested in keeping the dialogue going, than providing full stops.

DR: It seems that you're bringing together different people's art; you have the writer, you have the artist, and the musician... Are all these ultimately the same thing? Is it ultimately the act of creation that is the art, and not the form...

DMcK: It's just the things that we believe in. The things that we hold onto to take us through the day. And on a small scale, I suppose it's the distraction, as well. I enjoy the problems of making a painting, or making a book, or worrying over a bit of dialogue, or whatever. Partly because it's wonderful to do. Partly just because it's a great distraction; I'm happily distracted from bigger, uglier things that I'd rather not think about at that time.

DR: Cages impresses me with the experimentalization of the form. Is that very important to you, the experimenting...

DMcK: Well, yes, because it's just virgin territory. There's very little experimentation being done. Obviously, big notable exceptions... But, generally, it's been stuck in one gear for sixty years... It just has so many places to go. If you just bring it down to its absolute basics--A narrative of some kind, non-specific; an imagery of some kind, again, not specific. It doesn't need, necessarily, word balloons, or to be drawn in a specific way, or any of the stuff that's accreted around it over the last fifty years. It really is a very raw and basic and wonderfully powerful medium.

DR: Definitely. I think it's probably the best way to tell a narrative story.

DMcK: Well, it's very intimate. Movies can deal with some things in a wonderfully visceral way: You're sitting in a big theatre with a bunch of people, and everybody roars with laughter, or everybody jumps, or whatever, and that's a great experience, and it lends itself to certain types of things very well. But comics are very intimate, they have the intimacy that a novel has, also a visual intimacy that a drawn image has. I've been surprised that they've almost exclusively been used for things that movies can actually do better. I prefer these introverted ideas.

HH: Have you done a lot of psychedelics?

NG: I never have. In that respect I'm fairly unique amongst British comics writers... Grant, Alan, Jamie and Pete are all heavily into psychedelics; I'm not partly because half a spoon of monosodium glutamate will take me out...

DR: Mr. Punch is the second book of (sort of) a comics biography of your childhood. Is that supposed to be of four?

NG: There may be another one... They're part of a sequence. We know what the next one will be.

DR: Violent Cases and Mr. Punch both seem to be about violence, at the heart of them.

NG: Essentially, they're about childhood. About our perception of childhood. About the relationship between us and memory. Yes, violence is a theme that runs through both of them. Parties is a theme that runs through both of them.

DMcK: I've just realized: this is going to be like Auster's City of Glass. The first two are going to be your stories, and by the last one, you're going to say, "No, that was my Authorial Voice; this is what actually happened..." (Laughter.)

NG: They are not in any way an autobiography, except that there are true things in them. Unfortunately, the true things sit, uncomfortably or comfortably, often jostling around in the same sentence, with untrue things. And then I give them to Dave, who wasn't there, and he imposes his vision of events on it.

DR: Is there a chemistry between the two of you? Do you instinctively know what the other one will do?

NG: It's not instinct, and it's not prediction. What it is is trust. I have no idea what Dave will do, normally. I will Brain-Dump; "Here is everything in my head." With Sandman covers, he'll phone up, and say, "Well, what's happening in the next issue?" I'll say this kind of image, that kind of image, I'll give it to Dave, and he'll come back with something that will completely astound me: it's not what I expect.

DR: You wouldn't have that same amount of trust with another artist you don't know as well?

NG: No! (Laughter.) It's just the fact that I trust Dave implicitly to get it right...

DR: ...to hit what you're trying to get at...

NG: Yes, and to bring his own sensibilities to everything. One of the things that we've been saying ever since we first started working together in about 1986, is we sort of work together in the intersection of a Venn diagram, in that place where they cross. Dave has his area of interests and expertise and I have mine. Sometimes it crosses, a lot of the time we will introduce each other to things that the other one might like, but would have missed. But there is also a point of intersection, and that point of intersection is utter trust.

HH: Who do you see playing some of the characters in the Sandman movie?

NG: Tori would make a great Delirium. I like Sean Connery as Destiny. (Laughter and bad Sean Connery impressions.) Bear in mind you're dealing with Hollywood, you're dealing with this huge, strange entity that really doesn't quite know what it's doing... There are two screenwriters who seem to have the right idea, there's an executive producer who doesn't particularly... I, for my part, have elected to stay out of it. If you get involved, you can get hurt. Quite seriously, this is my baby; it's something I've been living with for seven years. Nobody should be asked to barbecue their own baby, nobody should be asked to cut off its little fingers and marinate them. And nobody should be asked to be at the other end of the phone when some guy from Hollywood rings up and says, (really bad Californian accent) "Hey Neil, y'sitting down, 'cuz hey, I got news for you guy, okay, y'ready, we got Arnie. We got Arnie. Arnie is Dream! It's casting against type, but Michael Keaton did Batman!" And I don't want to be there for that call.