It’s been 16 long years since Neil Gaiman wrote American Gods, a tale of the clash between the beliefs of the old world and the obsessions new. Near the end of a very long press day for Starz’s TV adaptation of the book, Gaiman said that, as much as the cast and crew couldn’t wait for everyone to see the show, at least they were no longer waiting for anyone to see it.
The response by people who have had the chance to see a few episodes of American Gods, developed for television by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, has been close to rapturous. The show deserves the response it’s gotten; it is lush and soulful in a way that it makes seem effortless. Which is itself shocking, given how difficult it has often been for Hollywood to adapt Gaiman’s work in the past.
The changes for the show have often been cosmetic updates, which is surprising given how many things about media and technology have changed. “You know it was really interesting because I had no idea when we started what would be updated,” said Gaiman about the changes. “I remember going, hang on, this was written in a world where there were cell phones but there were no cellphones. Oddly enough, most of the things we had to change were window dressing and wallpaper.”
In the show, Laura Moon, who is kind of a nonentity in the books as the main character’s wife who died and left him untethered enough to be picked up by Mr. Wednesday, has gotten a lot of changes. One is what she was doing for a living. “Laura’s job cannot be small town travel agent anymore because there are no more small town travel agents, they have gone the way of the small town buggy whip dealers. They just aren’t there anymore,” explained Gaiman.
Fuller and Green have given Laura a lot more than a job change—she’s got a lot more backstory to her than in the original novel. She’s more ambitious, for one thing. Her relationship with Shadow is seeded with unhappiness from the beginning, which makes Shadow less of a sap and more of someone active in making things go wrong.
Another big change is to the Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), a new god birthed of the American obsession with technology. Back in 2001, he was sort of a Matrix-obsessed wanna-be that embodied the usual basement-dwelling nerd stereotype. But Gaiman feels the character’s actual core is even more relevant than before. “Technical Boy, everything he says is still absolutely spot on. Only even more so, but he’s no longer a fat kid with spots and big black trench coat smoking hand-rolled synthetic toad skin,” Gaiman said.
As the god of the internet, Technical Boy threatened to “delete” people with a click, but now that power is eerily possible. Back in 2001, in the aftermath of the dot-com bust, Silicon Valley wasn’t the power center it is now. So what was the boast of a child back then is a thing the people the new Technical Boy is based on can actually do.
“Now, he’s vaping and it’s that kind of thing where these days the Technical Boys are that unpleasant gentleman from Uber filmed getting out of his Uber with his two women explaining to the guy who went bankrupt trying to Uber that it was his own fault for not being a hard enough worker,” explained Gaiman. “Or you know Mark Zuckerberg going straight over into explaining why it’s not his fault that they put up fake news or that Facebook live thing of the guy getting murdered. It’s ‘hey gee whiz, isn’t augmented reality going to be fantastic?’ These are our technical boys now. And they’re still saying the same stuff they just look a bit prettier on the outside and they have a bigger limo.”
We don’t make fun of nerds like that anymore, I pointed out during our conversation. “We can, we don’t,” clarified Gaiman, clearly meaning that we should be much more critical of these men who have accumulated wealth with very little oversight. They’re power players now, I added and Gaiman agreed. “Absolutely. Whereas when the book was written, we’d just had the dot com boom had happened followed immediately by the dot-com bust because everybody had gone ‘This is amazing! How do we make money out of it, we don’t know.’”
The power of technology is such that one of the show’s actors got his job through social media. Orlando Jones, who steals the show as old god Mr. Nancy in American Gods but who was a viable candidate to play a new god named Fandom, campaigned for his job. He loves Gaiman’s work and he demanded to know if Gaiman was going to write a sequel to American Gods anytime soon.
Gaiman sidestepped Jones’ question with a laugh and answered, “I love him so much. You know, he agitated for the part. He actually got through Twitter. Social media giveth and social media taketh away. And on this one, it gaveth. He realized through Twitter that we hadn’t cast Mr. Nancy yet. And all of a sudden there’s a photo of him dressed up as Mr. Nancy on Twitter for me and Bryan and Michael and it’s like so cool. Could have been horribly embarrassing if we hadn’t wanted him. But actually we did.”
There’s plenty of material for more stories set in the world of American Gods. Both the book and the show contain a main, present-day story, but are also peppered with “Coming to America” shorts that explore how gods from other countries immigrated to the United States along with people. At the panel for the show at San Diego Comic-Con last year, Gaiman mentioned that he’d originally intended to do a vignette about Japanese internment during World War II in American Gods.
“It wasn’t even that it got cut,” explained Gaiman about the story. “It just never got written because I was already at 200,000 words and I was being told by my publisher that the novel couldn’t be more than 150,000 words. So now I was already cutting and the internment story was one I was looking forward to.”
The show might act as an impetus for Gaiman writing not only that story, but other ones he has in his mind. “Oddly enough, I was having dinner two nights ago with Bryan and he was talking about the ‘Coming to America’ stories and we did one long one as an experiment. Originally we’d just done them like five, eight minutes long. And then Essie Tregowan’s story in episode seven and it intercuts with what’s going on now and it’s half the episode. And it’s great.”
The show’s tackling of that story—which expanded it to fill much of an episode,—has inspired Gaiman to write more stories in the American Gods universe and give them to the show to reinterpret for the small screen. “So Bryan is now going we could do more of these big ones,” continued Gaiman. “And I went, well I wanted to do the internment camp one and that would have been a big story. That would have been a 20-30 page short story. And possibly a little longer, it would have been a novelette in my head. And it would have been a kitsune story and I’m happy to write that story now and I’m happy for Bryan to adapt it.”
There a bunch of stories about America’s hypocritical relationship with immigrants and diversity that Gaiman wants to tell. He pulled examples out of the air with ease. “There are these moments where America betrays America. And the betrayal of American ideals of what America says that it is, and thinks that it is, and believes itself to be. The banning of the Chinese in the Chinese Exclusion Act is one of those things where you go ‘You are a complete betrayal of everything America stands for.’ Slavery. Complete betrayal of everything America stands for. Japanese internment camps. Complete betrayal of everything America stands for,” he said. “And strange in that nobody decided to round up all German-Americans and people of German ancestry and put them in camps. The Japanese-Americans were American. It was monstrous. For me, a lot of American Gods was wanting to look with clear eyes at American history.”
The story the show has retold and made Gaiman want to tell more is that of Essie Tregowan. In the book, she is a character who represents the practice of sentencing criminals to “transportation” to North America. She also owes her existence to a specific incident of American educational blindness Gaiman’s life:
“Essie Tregowan’s story exists for one reason only. Which is somewhere in the nineties my son came back from school aged about twelve and says, ‘My teacher says you’re a liar.’ And I said ‘What?’ ‘My teacher says you’re a liar. I told them in school and I said that thing you told us about how people were transported to America instead of being hanged or put in prison and they went out to Virginia and they were sold to farmers and things. And she said, ‘That’s not true.’ And that people and Pilgrims only came to America in search for a better life and religious freedom,’” he said.
“And I was like, ‘Well, she’s wrong. She can say that I’m a liar if she likes, but I think I will tell that story now because people genuinely do not know it.’ And it was like there was a desire to educate and to take the little bits of American history that Americans choose to forget and say, okay, let’s remember this. And I would love to do an American Gods and do my Japanese internment camp story. I would very much like to do the Chinese exclusion story.”
America has a very contradictory relationship with immigration. The stories we like to tell are about people coming here with nothing but ambition and becoming important or rich. But America is also obsessed with talking about whether or not immigrants have assimilated, and saying that some groups can’t, so they shouldn’t be allowed in. It’s a specific American truth that Gaiman captured in the book and that the show has run with.
“You have come from an old country, now stop being that thing,” is how Gaiman summed it up. “I love the fact that Canada has the concept of the mosaic. You have come to Canada from your country, we are a mosaic made up of lots of different countries, obviously you should go to Tim Hortons for your coffee, but if you’re Lebanon, be from Lebanon. The American idea seems much more...melting pot. Become one. We are all one, we are like this. No, we’re not! No one is.”
It’s not being American that Gaiman thinks let him write the book. “American Gods began with me going, ‘Isn’t this weird?’ I was a like a goldfish put in a different goldfish bowl and now going, ‘Hey, does this water taste weird?’ And everyone going, ‘Nope, this is what water’s like,’”
Gaiman’s outsider perspective mirrors how genre fiction has always managed to present volatile ideas in palatable ways. “That’s what it’s for,” said Gaiman. “It’s the distorting mirror, it’s showing you something at 45 degrees, it’s showing you something that you are familiar with from an angle you have never seen it from, to make you see it for the first time.”
Even with the distance of talking about gods and supernatural occurrences, people connect with the stories in American Gods in very personal ways. It resonates even more now, somehow. Gaiman knows why.
“Because we’re human and we tell stories and telling our stories and telling stories we were told in our childhood is one of the most important and beautiful things we can do. We have stories, now, that are older than any city. Some of them are older than the countries they are now told in. We can trace the age of stories sometimes by landmarks, by volcanoes, by things mentioned in them. And stories last. And stories matter. And sometimes, at my maddest, I like to think that stories are merely the vehicle that stories use to propagate themselves to make sure they continue.”