The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (2016)
SOME THINGS I BELIEVE
How Dare You: On America, and Writing About It
Nobody’s asked the question I’ve been dreading, so far, the question I have been hoping that no one would ask. So I’m going to ask it myself, and try to answer it myself.
And the question is this: How dare you?
Or, in its expanded form,
How dare you, an Englishman, try to write a book about America, about American myths and the American soul? How dare you try to write about what makes America special, as a country, as a nation, as an idea?
And, being English, my immediate impulse is to shrug my shoulders and promise it won’t happen again.
But then, I did dare, in my novel American Gods, and it took an odd sort of hubris to write it.
As a young man, I began to write a comic book about dreams and stories called Sandman. I got a similar question all the time, back then: “You live in England. How can you set so much of this story in America?”
And I would point out that, in media terms, the UK was practically the fifty-first state. We get American films, watch American TV. “I might not write a Seattle that would satisfy an inhabitant,” I used to say, “but I’ll write one as good as a New Yorker who’s never been to Seattle.”
I was, of course, wrong. I didn’t do that at all. What I did instead was, in retrospect, much more interesting: I created an America that was entirely imaginary, in which Sandman could take place. A delirious, unlikely place out beyond the edge of the real.
And that satisfied me until I came to live in America about eight years ago.
Slowly I realized both that the America I’d been writing was wholly fictional, and that the real America, the one underneath the what-you-see-is-what-you-get surface, was much stranger than the fictions.
The immigrant experience is, I suspect, a universal one (even if you’re the kind of immigrant, like me, who holds on tightly, almost superstitiously, to his UK citizenship). On the one hand, there’s you, and on the other hand, there’s America. It’s bigger than you are. So you try to make sense of it. You try to figure it out—something which it resists. It’s big enough, and contains enough contradictions, that it is perfectly happy not to be figured out. As a writer, all I could do was to describe a small part of the whole.
And it was too big to see.
I didn’t really know what kind of book I wanted to write until, in the summer of 1998, I found myself in Reykjavik, in Iceland. And it was then that fragments of plot, an unwieldy assortment of characters, and something faintly resembling a structure, came together in my head. Either way, the book came into focus. It would be a thriller, and a murder mystery, and a romance, and a road trip. It would be about the immigrant experience, about what people believed in when they came to America. And about what happened to the things that they believed.
I wanted to write about America as a mythic place.
And I decided that, although there were many things in the novel I knew already, there were more I could find by going on the road and seeing what I found. So I drove, until I found a place to write, and then, in one place after another, sometimes at home, sometimes not, for nearly two years, I put one word after another, until I had a book. The story of a man called Shadow and the job he is offered when he gets out of prison. It tells the story of a small Midwestern town and the disappearances that occur there every winter. I discovered, as I wrote it, why roadside attractions are the most sacred places in America. I discovered many other strange byways and moments, scary and delightful and just plain weird.
When it was almost done, when all that remained was to pull together all the diverse strands, I left the country again, holed up in a huge, cold, old house in Ireland, and typed all that was left to type, shivering, beside a peat fire.
And then the book was done, and I stopped. Looking back on it, it wasn’t really that I’d dared, rather that I had had no choice.
This piece was originally published in June 2001 on the Borders.com website, when American Gods was released.