Neil Gaiman Takes Questions On 'Anansi Boys' Neil Gaiman, author of the BPP's Book Club selection, Anansi Boys, takes listener questions about his novel, the story of a sad sack living in London who makes an amazing discovery.
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Neil Gaiman Takes Questions On 'Anansi Boys'

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Neil Gaiman Takes Questions On 'Anansi Boys'

Neil Gaiman Takes Questions On 'Anansi Boys'

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Now it's time for a meeting of the BPP Book Club. We just finished reading the novel, "Anansi Boys" by Neil Guy-man (ph) - Gaiman, I'm sorry - a British author best known in the United States for his comic-book series, "Sandman," and for another book, called "American Gods," that several of our readers pointed out, is a prequel to this book. More on that connection in a minute.

MIKE PESCA, host:

"Anansi Boys" is a story of Fat Charlie Nancy, a hapless Londoner of Caribbean descent, who comes to find out that the gad he always resented was actually a god. So that explains how dad always seem to have money but never worked, always seem to know music but never practiced, and always seem to woo women even though he never stood by them. It's good to be a god. As Anansi leaves the world, Fat Charlie soon encounters another, and from it springs a twin brother he never knew he had. Spider is smooth and has the magic that always eluded Fat Charlie. He brings chaos into Charlie's life and steals woman he loves. Here's a scene from the audio book of "Anansi Boys."

(Soundbite of audio book "Anansi Boys")

Mr. LENNY HENRY: (Reading) "That," declaimed Fat Charlie wagging his finger like a prosecuting attorney going in for the kill, "that was the steak I bought for dinner tonight. For dinner tonight for me and Rosie. The dinner I was going to be cooking for her! And you're just sitting there like a, a person eating a steak, and, and eating it and -"

"It's not a problem," said Spider.

"What do you mean, not a problem?"

"Well," said Spider, "I called Rosie this morning already, and I'm taking her out to dinner tonight. So you wouldn't have needed the steak anyway."

Fat Charlie opened his mouth. He closed it again. "I want you out," he said.

PESCA: That scene from "Anansi Boys" was narrated by British comedian and actor, Lenny Henry, a friend of the author Neil Gaiman. Earlier, when I talked to Neil Gaiman about his book, he told me that Lenny Henry was the inspiration for "Anansi Boys" in the first place.

(Soundbite of reverse playback)

Mr. NEIL GAIMAN (Author, "Anansi Boys"): The whole place that "Anansi Boys" started, many, many years ago was, Lenny and I - we were teaching his then four- or five-year-old daughter to ride a bike, and walking up and down as she pedal away on training wheels. And we were working on a TV series called "Neverwhere," which I later turned into a book. And Lenny was grumbling about the fact that there were no horror movies and fantasy movies with black leads and black casts.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. GAIMAN: And I said, well, I'll write you one. And that really was the point where the whole thing started. So, in my head when I was writing "Anansi Boys," I had Lenny and Lenny's voice in - just sort of somewhere in the back and in the distance which was why I loved it when I got him to do the audio book. I tell people sometimes that the audio book of "Anansi Boys" is probably my preferred version of the text.

PESCA: Let's - I think we have on our line a couple of the readers who will be participating in the Book Club. Listener and a reader, Natasha Hecht (ph) from Fargo. Hello, Natasha.

Ms. NATASHA HECHT (BPP Book Club Member): Hello.

PESCA: And your question for Neil Gaiman is...?

Ms. HECHT: I'm in the middle of "American Gods." So I was just wondering, like, out of that whole universe how you came about writing about Anansi's son?

Mr. GAIMAN: What actually happened was before I thought of "American Gods," I thought of "Anansi Boys." I had this lovely idea for a story with these two brothers and the dead god father, and never got quite got 'round to writing it. So, when I was working on "American Gods," I thought, well, I can borrow this character from a book I haven't written yet. So, actually, I sort of went and stole Mr. Nancy, and also I knew that the very first thing Mr. Nancy does in "Anansi Boys" is die.

So I thought, well, this will give him a little time out on the stage, and people will get to meet him. And I always knew that when I wrote "Anansi Boys," it would begin with karaoke, and it would begin with him dropping dead. So, the idea of borrowing him from this thing that I hadn't done yet, and putting him into "American Gods," seemed like a very sensible thing to do, mostly because I really wanted to write him, and I loved the character.

And I've always been fascinated by "Anansi." I've been fascinated by tricksters, by, particularly, the idea that Anansi owns stories, that he is the basis for Br'er Rabbit, for all of these small characters who trick their way out of trouble and then trick their way back into trouble again. And he seemed the natural. I needed a trickster in "American Gods." I had a few in there already and - but I wanted one that we could just like, and that was him.

PESCA: Thank you, Natasha.

Ms. HECHT: You're welcome.

PESCA: And so, if Anansi does own these stories, and if he stole Tiger's stories, is that a parable that the modern age has shifted from brute strength to smarts?

Mr. GAIMAN: I hope so. That was definitely why I started going toward the end of the book. I started in - what you begin with is simply a wonderful West African folktale, and this wonderful West African story, and that the idea is that the great cat, who they called Tiger once they got to the Caribbean, because that was what they call all big cats, owned the story, and the stories were stories of violence and death.

And then, by being brilliant and smart and funny, Anansi owned the stories and took over the stories. You begin with the folktale, and then you can start saying, well, what does that mean? What does that mean for the world? And I started thinking - the thing that made me happy was just the idea that really it represents the point where people stop trying to hit their way out of trouble and start trying to think their way out of trouble.

PESCA: I know how you know that about Tiger, by the way, because I went to your website, and you put all these questions to readers and you wrote, hey, why do they call - why do Caribbeans (ph) and West Africans call cats "tigers," if there are no tigers in West Africa and the Caribbean? And readers wrote in very quickly and answered your question. That's pretty great, how you use the web for research like that, or your website - yeah.

Mr. GAIMAN: Well, I am so lucky. And I really am lucky. People come to me now and they say, how do I get an author website with, you know, one and a half million people reading it every month? And I say, you start in February of 2001 and you don't miss a day. And that's more or less what I - I've missed a few days here and there, but really, it did. It began in February 2001, it kept going and it's just become one of those places on the web that people go. But what that gives me is an enormous pool of information, and it means that I - if I have questions like that, I can simply ask people, and I will get the information back in minutes, which is absolutely fantastic.

PESCA: On our blog, a few of the readers of your book, there was a side discussion about the race of the characters. Aine Whelan wrote in, "There was no need to state that the Nancy family are black." I think you probably do, here and there, but she says, "Anansi is an African god, of course he's black. What other human race could he be? I did have some trouble figuring out Rosie, specifically because her mother's personality may be picture her as a white woman."

And another reader, Ellen Wilkin, wrote in. "Why couldn't Rosie and her mother be white? I don't think it is important to the story, but I think it is OK, ultimately, that I saw them that way. Another question for Neil is, how does he see his characters' race? Or does he?" So, I think you answered that you saw the main characters as black. Rosie and her mother, were they black?

Mr. GAIMAN: What I'm trying to do with race in the novel was, when I began it, I thought, well, actually, I am very used to picking up novels in which the default skin color is white, and if somebody does not have white skin, it is mentioned in the text. And if they do, you're just defaulting. And I thought, I'm not going to do that here. I think, you know, my default skin color in this book is black. If anybody is white, I will tell you.

And so, you have - you know, the main - most of the characters in here are Anglo-Caribbean. And - not all - and I do, I let you know when people aren't. But you have basically a bunch of Caribbean characters, and some white characters, all of whom I point to. But it really fascinated me, the way that some people would read the book and not notice that any of the characters were black. Some people would automatically read it.

I got very strange email when the book first came out. I remember getting one letter from somebody telling me off, and saying that I got all of the foods at the funeral, at the beginning of the story in Florida - they - he goes home to his father's funeral from England, and afterwards they go back and they eat. And I got a letter telling me that all of the food was completely wrong. That's not what they eat at southern funerals. The kind of food that I described is the kind of thing they'd eat in Jamaica.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Yeah, and you said, exactly.

Mr. GAIMAN: And thought it was just funny that nobody had, you know, I thought, OK, I'm putting all this stuff in and then I'm playing very, very fair with race, all the way through. You can figure out everybody's race, but I didn't want it to be - I didn't want to begin it by saying Fat Charlie was black. Why? I'd - I'd never begin the novel "Fat Charlie was white."

PESCA: I want to get to another question. Dave Wiley might be there. He's from Colorado. Hey, Dave.

Mr. DAVE WILEY (BPP Book Club Member): Hi.

PESCA: How are you?

Mr. WILEY: I'm doing good this morning. How are you, Mike?

PESCA: Great. So, what's your question for Neil Gaiman, now that you guys are on the same line together?

Mr. WILEY: Your description of subliming rivalry fit my brother and me perfectly. How did you manage to do that when your bio doesn't make mention of a brother?

Mr. GAIMAN: Well, for a start, I had sisters, and you couldn't - you can't quite extrapolate. So - but - you - you know, I had a wonderful battle with my sister that began more or less with her being born and ended in a truce somewhere in our teens. And we get on very well, but there was an all-out war for good 15 years, which prepared me. But also, I was fascinated by looking at the way that people and have - tend to have two sides to them.

And there are those people who - especially people I know who are film stars, TV stars, that kind of thing, there's always that - the version of them that stands in the spot light, and there's the version of them that walks off the chair, off the stage and trips over at chair. And I felt, oh, if I can just split those two halves of a person and set them at odds, I think it'll work. And truly it did. They - the joy of Spider and the Fat Charlie was getting them up on the page and then shutting up and getting out of the way. I could write a line of Fat Charlie dialogue and just shut up and watch as my pen would write the wonderful Spider comeback.

PESCA: Dave, you and your brother, were you Fat Charlie or smooth Spider?

Mr. WILEY: I was definitely Fat Charlie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: I think even those of us who maybe an outsider would think was the smooth one always thinks of himself as the awkward one and the one for whom, you know, life's parade is passing him by. That's just natural.

Mr. WILEY: My brother is the one that does karaoke. And he actually gets applause before he gets up on the stage.

PESCA: Oh my. Well, thanks for your question.

Mr. GAIMAN: That is so unfair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Isn't it that, though? All right. One last question for you and it's from Julia Havelick. Hello, Julia.

Ms. JULIA HAVELICK (BPP Book Club Member): Hi.

PESCA: Your question, please.

Ms. HAVELICK: I'd like to know if you have any plans on writing another novel.

Mr. GAIMAN: Hello, Julia. And, well, I've just finished a book called "The Graveyard Book," and "The Graveyard Book" started out as a children's book, and I thought I was writing a children's book. And it was only when I got to the end and read it through and then started handing it to adults that I realized that I'd probably actually written an adult novel accidentally but - or at least a novel genuinely for all ages, that it seems to work whether you're a kid or whether you're an adult.

And if you remember Kipling's "The Jungle Book," which begins with a child being orphaned and wondering into the jungle and being adapted by the animals of the jungle, and brought up, and thought the things that animals know, this is like that except, it's about a baby whose family is murdered, who takes refuge in a graveyard, and is adopted by dead people, and brought up by dead people and thought all the things that dead people know. And that's the next novel.

PESCA: Well, thank you for your question Julia.

Ms. HAVELICK: Thank you.

PESCA: And thank you, Neil Gaiman, for joining us on the BPP Book Club.

Mr. GAIMAN: Thank you so much, Mike. It was fun.

PESCA: All right, you are welcome. Neil Gaiman is author of many fine books and we were just talking about "Anansi Boys." Again, thank you, and our pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

It's fun to hear everyone's take on the book, you know, the Book Club, bringing you...

PESCA: It's like a club, almost.

MARTIN: It's like a club about books.

PESCA: For people who've read a book.

MARTIN: It's a great idea.

PESCA: And you could give away the ending and stuff.

MARTIN: You're so smart to think of that

PESCA: And know that people...

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: Yeah. You know what I think? That thing could take off.

MARTIN: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: I don't know, maybe even a huge TV personality who has a daytime show maybe could have - that's right, the Montel Williams' Book Club.

MARTIN: You heard it here first, folks. Hey, stay with us. Don't go anywhere. We're going to talk about a new phenomenon occurring on the Internet, where all phenomena occur, on the Internet...

PESCA: First they could try it out on the Internet. Then they get brought into the real world.

MARTIN: Mm-hm.

PESCA: And that's why someone threw a pie at me on Facebook and in real life, at the same time.

MARTIN: This is about young girls who want to learn how to become ballerinas. But not just any kind of ballerina, you know, ballerinas who - the good ones know how to go on their toes. I'm sounding really like I don't know what I'm talking about. I promise I do. I studied ballet. But if - not everyone could just go right up en pointe, on point. You have to know what you're talking about and you have to know what to do and what not to do. The Internet doesn't exactly teach you all those things, some people say. We are going to speak with a guest about this phenomenon. Stay with us. That'll be coming up next on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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