‘I Thought I Understood America’: Talking With Neil Gaiman About ‘American Gods’

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As Starz launches its adaptation of the sprawling Gaiman novel, the show’s creators address its new and unexpected meanings in the Trump era.

By David M. Perry

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(Photo: Starz)

Odin — known also as Wotan, Allfather, Spearman, Hanged One, Wand Bearer, Father of Victory, Far-Speaking One, Shaker, Burner, Destroyer, and Mr. Wednesday — is a two-bit grifter. He cruises through rural dive bars, Lithuanian tenements, and dead-end Hoosier small towns, working cons both long and short. He seems increasingly comfortable, but he hasn’t quite managed to settle into this strange land. He’s always a stranger, always an immigrant.

Thanks to the rise of President Donald Trump and Trumpism—including intensifying anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric—the “red state” immigration narratives of the new Starz show American Gods are newly relevant. Based on a book by Neil Gaiman, the show wraps fundamental American themes around a weird and wild story about the old gods staving off threats from the upstart deities of technology. Much of the show takes place in the heartland, where we are consistently told “real Americans” live in opposition to those in coastal bubbles, but even in the heartland of American Gods, we find deeply ensconced immigrant narratives. Look back far enough, and every American story starts with immigration.

“I thought I understood America,” Gaiman says. “The Midwest, and by inference America, was weirder than I could have imagined.”

According to Gaiman and the show’s co-creators,none of the people involved in American Gods expected to make a politically relevant show. It’s about an ex-con named Shadow (Ricky Whittle), who falls under the sway of Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). Wednesday has a plan to fix himself and other transplanted gods more firmly in American soil, though the details are likely to remain mysterious (for non-book readers) well into the second season. The show oscillates between the fantastical and the quotidian, lingering especially in the fictional, dead-end town of Eagle Point, Indiana, and in run-down Lithuanian tenements in Chicago. In Eagle Point, Shadow tries to get his life back together after his release from prison, seemingly out of place as the one brown-skinned man in an all-white town. Meanwhile, in Chicago, a hammer-wielding man laments the arrival of the bolt gun as a means of killing cattle, a tool that requires no skill. Technology, in general, is a threat, incarnated in the bodies of new gods. Our totemic devotion to our phones, screens, and media gives them power. The old gods aren’t going to go quietly, though, so battle beckons.

American Gods shows that the middle of America can have as much power over our imaginations as coastal cities do. We do see New York and San Francisco in the show, briefly, but the camera always returns to the broad vistas of prairie, cornfield, casino, and big-box store. Later, as readers of the book already know, we’ll head to roadside attractions in Kansas and Wisconsin. The book gives the weirdness and wonder of Wisconsin — a battleground state that Trump won by a mere 22,177 votes — its proper due.

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(Photo: Starz)

I spoke over the phone with Neil Gaiman about Wisconsin. In 1992, when he moved to the western edge of the state, not far from the Twin Cities, Gaiman says: “I thought I understood America. The Midwest, and by inference America, was weirder than I could have imagined.” It’s not just the roadside attractions like the House on the Rock or a preserved version of America’s biggest block of cheese from the 1960s, he says. “The world was weird. The world was dangerous. Winters could kill you. You’d turn on the radio and hear about a woman who had gone out to fill her bird feeder in her carpet slippers and they’d frozen to the sidewalk.” As he was coming to know this strange new place, Gaiman was also reading books on folklore and American history. “I was driving around America,” he told me, “and finally it all congealed into this book called American Gods.”

Gaiman knew that Americans have always argued over identity, but as he was writing American Gods in the 1990s, he felt he could tell a story about “something very self-evident: Everyone came from somewhere else. Even the people here before the white people came and fucked them over, they came over either via the land-bridge or little boats 20,000 years ago.” Of course, Gaiman is not suggesting any equivalence between forced transportation of enslaved peoples and voluntary pre-historic immigration from Eastern Europe. In fact, in American Gods, Gaiman emphasizes both the current and historical inequalities that result from the specific narratives of migration and diaspora. Still, at the time, Gaiman says, he believed that to set his story “in a country where the message on the Statue of Liberty was something you could take seriously was as uncontroversial as making sure people of all races and skin colors were represented in a book about America.” Gaiman called the decision to make Shadow a “a mixed-race hero feels so apolitical as to be obvious.”

I’m not quite sure I believe that Gaiman ever thought that a mixed-race hero in a book about immigration, divine or otherwise, could be entirely apolitical in this country, but his point is clear: Because it’s appearing in the early months of the Trump administration, the dynastic themes of American Gods have now shifted to, as Gaiman puts it, joining “The Handmaid’s Tale at the forefront of the resistance.”

Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, the show’s co-creators, also recognize that the political valency of the show has changed. As Fuller says: “We did not set out knowing that it was going to be a political show. We finished producing the first season at the very top of November, before the election, and by that point all the writing had been done.” The themes were “always relevant, [but] we weren’t prophets, and we would trade the outcome for a less politically noisy show.”

Green is blunter: “We were done writing and essentially done filming when our country shat the bed, so we didn’t have a chance to react to what is happening. But because of the nature of telling compassionate immigration stories, we couldn’t help but feel like the platform of this show had been amplified.”

American Gods is not an issues show. It’s a faithful (and stunning) adaptation of an inventive work of fantasy that could only be realized in this golden age of long-form cable television storytelling. Still, I keep thinking about Eagle Point, the fulcrum of the show’s early episodes. It’s fictional, but I knew a lot of towns like it as a kid growing up in Indiana. It’s the kind of place where people are making a living in retail or service, but no one is thriving. It’s the kind of place national newspapers are sending reporters to learn more about Trump voters, to profile without ever talking about race or history. It’s got economic anxiety aplenty.

Indiana, of course, witnessed the rebirth of the Klan as an anti-immigrant (Catholic) movement in the early 20th century and was home to “Sundown Towns,” where blacks risked their lives if they stayed after dark. In 1930, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in Marion, Indiana — hanged from a tree, and later memorialized in the song “Strange Fruit.” In the Hávamál, a medieval norse poem about wisdom, Odin, or someone in service of Odin (the poem isn’t clear), hangs from a tree for nine days in order to learn the secret wisdom of the Earth. There’s a scene toward the end of the first episode of American Gods when white-clad figures beat Shadow, place a rope around his neck, and hoist him up to hang up from a dark tree. The Hávamál meets “Strange Fruit,” perhaps for the first time, as Shadow begins to thrash in the Indiana rain.

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