Stardust and Coraline writer Neil Gaiman’s latest literary project is inspired by an epic Chinese classic
Most people know Neil Gaiman through film adaptations of his books such as Stardust and Coraline; hardcore fans know him for the Sandman comic series, which ran from 1989 to 1996. The British-born, Minnesota-based writer is now tackling a non-fiction project inspired by Journey to the West (known in the Western world as Monkey). The 16th-century manuscript was supposedly penned by a scholar named Wu Cheng’en and tells the tale of monk Tang Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India, accompanied by disciples Sun Wukong (the eponymous ‘Monkey’), Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing (aka Sandy).
Gaiman is excited to talk about China. ‘Everything I had expected was wrong,’ he enthuses. ‘The Chinese government isn’t even capitalist – it’s imperial. It’s just another f***ing dynasty. The shape of things has been consistent for 5,000 years, and rather than Maoism being a break with the future, it’s just the same pattern.’ And like this fascinating, ever-evolving empire, Gaiman isn’t breaking with his roots. ‘I don’t know how to write without fictional elements creeping in,’ he admits. So, when can we expect this marvel? Gaiman hopes to have it done this year. In the past, you’ve said that your creations have crossed into reality. Does that still happen? Right now, working on this non-fiction book, several things happened that were pretty magical. [Like] getting a text message from somebody saying that if we phone some guy and mention their name we’d get a chance to talk to the fourth most holy Buddhist priest in China, who never talks to anybody. So we made the phone call, and three hours later we’re interviewing him. And afterwards, I discover how impossible that was.
Do you think this is the universe’s way of telling you you’re on the right track? I would love to think the universe is going, ‘Neil, you need help with your book and I’m gonna give you this thing.’ But I think if you throw your head back and set off – like Monkey – for an impossible destination, magical things will happen on the way. What attracted you to this Monkey project? Every conversation I’d have about China and literature always hit Journey to the West. And I have this peculiar personal relationship with Monkey. My father bought me [a copy] before I was born. He told me about this beautiful hardback illustrated edition that he bought. And when he went looking for it years later, he couldn’t find it. So the first time I actually read it, I was fascinated by the story. I set off last year on my own journey, going to Wu Cheng’en’s birthplace, following the route of the real-life Xuanzang, what he did in the 7th century, defying imperial edicts. Last year I found myself outside a closed-down Monkey amusement park in a warehouse. So I bribed the nightwatchman and he showed me through the place and it wound up in Buddhist hell. And I actually understood exactly why this place closed down, why no child ever turned to their parents saying, ‘I can’t wait to get back to Monkey amusement park!’ Because the last part of the park was people being ripped apart and crushed and [immersed in] boiling oil.
Wouldn’t it be easier to make your own interpretation of the legend? I think I would wind up producing something less than Monkey. I want to tell people about Xuanzang, who did this amazing 7,000-mile round trip that should have been impossible. We have his letters and journals from the 7th century… these beautiful essays. There is a reason why this is one of the classics of literature. This glorious thing edges and jerks from mysticism to Chinese culture, from Taoism to Confucianism, and always journeys on with this wonderful, magical folk-Buddhism.
There are some fantasy and sci-fi writers who seem embarrassed by the genres they’re associated with. How do you feel about yourself and fantasy? If I could be bothered I would explain to you now that I am not a fantasy writer. I’m a magical realist, and you need to come to terms with this. But the truth is, I love genres. I didn’t start out in the gutter. I started out in comics, before they were hip and cool and called ‘graphic novels’. It was like the drain way below the gutter. We could see the guttering up there and go, ‘Oh, it must be so nice to live in the gutter and be taken seriously.’ But I love it when I get described as a sci-fi writer, or a horror writer, or a children’s writer. I also love the fact that people are now starting to give up [describing me]. There was something recently online about [girlfriend Amanda Palmer] and it said: ‘Amanda Palmer, who is going out with writing Renaissance man Neil Gaiman’, and I thought: I like that. They’ve just given up. Neil Gaiman’s latest work is due for release later this year