The year was 2004, three years after American Gods was originally published. Thanks to letters of encouragement from Terry Pratchett and Steve Jackson and lot of perseverance from my tireless mother, the walls of rejection were tumbling down. I’d been signed by Ed Victor Ltd, had an incredible agent (Sophie Hicks had recently been appointed MD of the company) and a sizeable three-book contract with Hodder Headline for The Illmoor Chronicles.
Then it happened: the game changer.
Having signed me for a six-figure book deal at the Bologna Book Fair, the Disney corporation and my agent were both (quite rightly) a little put-out by my sudden refusal to make a scheduled appearance at the Chicago Book Expo the following month. Agreeing to go would have meant getting on a plane, and I’d always promised myself that this was something I would never do.
I wasn’t simply scared: I was terrified, and even Paul McKenna’s insistence that I was more likely to be kicked to death by a donkey than die in a raging sky inferno were falling on deaf ears. Besides, if I was being kicked to death by a donkey, there was a very good chance that I could sack up and take the little bastard with me.
I was also in a very difficult position: my girlfriend, who I had asked out mere days after the events of 9/11 had always accepted my flat-out refusal to visit her extended family in Brindisi, Italy…and if I suddenly accepted a trip based largely on money, fame and success, I would quickly reveal myself as the ultra shallow little backslider that I occasionally see in the mirror when I’m shaving.
I was genuinely determined never to get on a plane, but I did it. Too many people had helped me to forge a career in order for me to piss all over their efforts with my cowardice. Besides, I was also scheduled to meet Creative Artist agents Shari Smiley and Rich Green, and there was talk of a movie.
So….flash forward a year or so and my girlfriend approaches the subject of visiting her family, doing so secure in the knowledge that I quite literally cannot say no.
I went to Brindisi, met my new wife’s incredibly welcoming family and had the best holiday of my life. I did it again the following year, then flew to Sofia in Bulgaria to be a literature ambassador for the British Council. I was getting confident.
Then it happened. I was at an airport, getting ready to fly out to Italy, when a friend called me and said: ‘What do you think of Neil Gaiman?’
I always thought of Neil Gaiman as a writer of short stories at the time, but he – along with Michael Marshall Smith – was the reason I scrambled for the pages of Stephen Jones’s regular horror anthologies. I loved Neil’s work, and said as much to my mate. It was only when I was clicking off the phone that I saw, on the shelves of the WHSmith express store I was in, a copy of American Gods.
I had always avoided reading American Gods because it was one of my specials, a set of books I’d deliberately put aside in my mind for reading at the right time.
I picked up the copy on the shelf, and starting reading about Shadow’s journey on the flight…which, if you know the book, is an incredible place in which to begin it.
I was really looking forward to this particular holiday, as we had booked an enormous suite in a beautiful hotel near Brindisi Harbour. I felt great as I disembarked from the plane, and the book was so immediately engaging that I’d barely even noticed the flight. I went for a lovely meal at the apartment of my wife’s aunt, before heading back – exhausted and happy – to the hotel.
The following morning, I felt a bit unwell: nothing terrible, but a little sick and a bit dizzy and just generally below par. Coincidentally, Shadow’s journey in American Gods was becoming noticeably darker. I was, by now, literally lost in the book: it had become a compulsion and I was picking it up every few seconds.
By lunchtime, I was really quite ill: sickness, diarrhoea, disorientation, blurred vision. I was still reading the book, when I could, but there was one point where every half page was interrupted by a violent attack of one sort or another.
Time passed, and I got sicker…and sicker….and sicker.
By the time I discovered I had a severe strain of E. coli poisoning, I just didn’t care what happened to me. I had never felt so ill in my life, and I discovered at that point that you sort of lose your identity when you’re overwhelmed by sickness: things blur, and although you still love the people you love and are essentially the same person, when you’re in the middle of the maelstrom nothing matters. I was still following Shadow. At one point, my wife had gone out of the hotel to fetch emergency medication when a maid came into the room. She had been alerted to the fact that the door to our suite was wide open and that there was ‘a naked man visible from the hallway’.
It was true: I was lying on the bed, face down, naked, weak, unable to make it to the toilet before even the most basic functions just happened automatically. I was a skeletal wreckage when the maid, an incredibly attractive young woman, carefully approached the bed with one hand over her mouth, presumably afraid that she was about to discover her first corpse.
She asked me twice if I was okay, but I didn’t care. This lovely young lady had ventured into an uncomfortable situation to check that I was okay and, despite the embarrassment I should have been feeling at the state she found me in, I simply had no regard for her or anything she was trying to do in my best interests.
She asked if I wanted the door closed, if I wanted a doctor, if I needed her to contact anyone, all in fragmented but detectable English.
Then she picked up my copy of American Gods and tried to put it out of my reach on a cabinet.
I (quite literally) reared up out of the bed and snatched it from her hand.
‘I haven’t finished this,’ I said. Then I emptied the contents of my stomach onto the floor: to this day, I’m not sure what orifice they emerged from.
I thoroughly enjoyed American Gods, a book I will never read again because the events that made it so crucial for me can never be repeated.
Being violently ill in a foreign country lends a new terror to the experience of such sickness. After this trip, I inexplicably promised myself that I would never again get on a plane or take a foreign holiday. To date, I’ve remained faithful to that promise.
If you haven’t read American Gods, you might like to. It’s a strange story, beguiling and captivating in a way that’s difficult to describe almost as soon as you’ve read it. Look out for those short stories, too: The Wedding Present, The Guest and Click-clack the Rattlebag are all worth hunting down.