Job Envy: Author Neil Gaiman
'At the intersection of a dozen Venn diagrams'
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- He's way ahead of you.
"The next big project after 'American Gods' is already written. This is more or less a first in my lifetime, being a book ahead. It's a children's book. It's called 'Coraline' (CORAL-line), and it's a novel for strange little girls of all ages and genders. Me and Lewis Carroll. Kids think it's an adventure story and really cool. Adults get nightmares -- my agent and my editor -- said, 'This is much too spooky for kids.'"
Neil Gaiman all but sags against the phone as he talks, exhausted from a weeks-long book-signing tour of some 45 to 50 stops in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. He's home, back at what he steadfastly refers to as "my big Addams Family house" near Minneapolis, Minnesota, ready to reacquaint himself with his wife and children ages "18, 16 and almost 7."
But first, he goes once more into the breech of the Internet to update his online journal at NeilGaiman.com -- "There's a review of 'American Gods' in the New York Times Book review," he announces to his fans, "the first time I've been reviewed in the Times since 1990" for "Good Omens."
And so there is. "Neil Gaiman's new book is a noirish sci-fi road trip novel," writes Kera Bolonik in the Times, "in which the melting pot of the United States extends not merely to mortals but to a motley assortment of disgruntled gods and deities."
Gaiman, online, picks out a second-edition dust-cover blurb with the unerring aim of a 40-year-old writer who knows his industry: "I am now officially," he chortles in his journal to his fans, "'a fine, droll storyteller (The New York Times).'"
But he is also -- don't let his rollicking Net-headedness fool you -- an incisive creation of his own making, rakish wearer of downtown-black and tribal shaman to "a handful of beautiful goths and a handful of boys in dresses and a handful of sci-fi fans and a handful of nervous young girls with multicolored hair and the people who look normal and the people who look like somebody's mom. I exist at the intersection of a dozen Venn diagrams."
Or maybe it's that intersection in New Oxford Street, London, where Gaiman was signing copies earlier this month at the Forbidden Planet bookstore and the Daily Telegraph turned out to enjoy the sheer scope of Gaiman's cult -- or cults. "Once you've spent weeks on the Sunday Times' list, I'm not sure you can count as a cult writer."
Gaiman clearly is enjoying riding the crest of a rising tide of attention for the often-derided literary genre called fantasy. "While Grisham may still be better known than Gaiman," writes the Telegraph's S.F. Said, "in today's world, gods and myths far outsell courtroom drama, or indeed almost anything else. Where not so long ago, the fantastic, the supernatural, the mystical existed on the cultural fringes, they seem to be everywhere today. They are central to so many of television's top programmes -- 'Buffy (the Vampire Slayer,' 'The X-Files,' 'Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,' 'Roswell.'"
And did somebody short, some Potter kid, just walk through the room?
"I'm taking enormous pleasure at watching all this happen," Gaiman says, "and look at the weird little side fallouts: Michael Dirda in the Washington Post felt moved enough by the responses in-house to his lengthy and positive review of 'American Gods' to write this amazing little article on fantasy. And on why missing it is short-sighted, foolish and betrays a lack of understanding of the basics of English literature."
"Many readers," Dirda wrote in the Post on July 1, "simply can't stomach fantasy. They immediately picture elves with broadswords or mighty-thewed barbarians with battle axes, seeking the bejeweled Coronet of Obeisance ... (But) the best fantasies pull aside the velvet curtain of mere appearance. ... In most instances, fantasy ultimately returns us to our own now re-enchanted world, reminding us that it is neither prosaic nor meaningless, and that how we live and what we do truly matters."
'My worst fantasy'
"When you're 11, walking home from school through this strange little English landscape, running these weird, wonderful things through your head ... well, now this is one of those 'I've never told anybody this before' things," Gaiman says conspiratorially, "but here we go:
"My worst fantasy was a really cool one. I got to kidnap all of the authors whose work I liked, living and dead -- I got to go 'round and round up G.K. Chesterton and Geoffrey Chaucer and all of these guys. Then I got to lock them in an enormous castle and make them collaborate on these huge-plot books. And I would tell them what the plots were.
"I was about 10 years old. And I plotted this 12-volume giant epic about these people going off to collect these rocks from all over the universe.
"As daydreams go, it says an awful lot about me as a young man: I wasn't confident enough about my ability to come up with stories. I was coming up with this huge, intricate story in order to justify in my daydreams of creating stories."
About that "strange little English landscape" the daydreaming young Gaiman walked through: He was born in Porchester in Hampshire, in the south of England, and grew up in Sussex. Gaiman is the son of a vitamin-company owner and a pharmacist. He has two younger sisters, neither in the business.
"I was always the weird one," he says without a trace of self-criticism, just amused analysis. "It never occurred to me that I was weird. The lovely thing about being the first child is that nobody has anything to measure against, so nobody knows they're weird.
When I was 7, I was obsessively alphabetizing my books, so I could find them immediately -- and worrying about whether Roger Lancelyn Green's 'Tales of Ancient Egypt' should be filed under 'L' or 'G.' Now, what kind of 7-year-old worries about that?"
Well, the kind who would grow up to install some of that mythology into "Sandman," Gaiman's early-1990s 2,000-page comic-book from DC Comics -- Norman Mailer called it "a comic strip for intellectuals."
In 1992, Gaiman and wife Mary moved the family to the States, although he retains his British citizenship -- "I remain in my own little way an English person, the queen would be very hurt ..." -- and he has done a fairly fantastic wizard's job of casting his spells in many directions.
A three-part series, "Death: The High Cost of Living," has been green-lighted for a second screenplay treatment -- "just as I started this signing tour, of course" -- by Warner Bros., a sister AOL Time Warner company to CNN.com. And Hollywood is the setting for many of Gaiman's projects to come, he says.
Meanwhile, "Stardust" and "Smoke and Mirrors" were just re-released in June by Perennial, having been originally published in 1999 and 1998, respectively.
Gaiman surveys quickly the work of some of his favorite fellows in fantasy. There's Jonathan Carroll ("The Land of Laughs," February, St. Martin's Press), whom Gaiman calls "an international publishing phenomenon waiting to happen." And there's the better-known Michael Chabon ("The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," 2000, Random House).
"I, on the other hand," Gaiman says, "am all over the place. But I still rejoice in the status of 'Who?' I'm not and never will be a John Grisham. But we're now at the point where several million 'Sandman' collections have been sold, let alone several million comics. 'Neverwhere' came out (in July 1997) in the United States and I'm told it's pushing half-a-million copies.
"My stuff comes out and it gets read. Forbes magazine once described me as 'the best-selling author you've never heard of.' I like the fact that there are only two responses now to my name. One is, 'Oh, my God, I read him, I love him' and the other is, 'What does he do?'
"I enjoy not being famous. I drive my publicist mad by declining to do things like the David Letterman show or People magazine (another AOL Time Warner company), because I don't particularly like being a personality, I like being about the story I'm telling, I like being about the books."
That said, Gaiman admits he also likes reading his writings "on the stage -- I know I can do it because I have faith in the material. That's something I can do. Tell me you want to cast me in Chekhov, that becomes more problematical. The other day, I was in a huge bookstore in Vancouver and the effect of the sound system upstairs where we were was such that we alarmed all the people downstairs. I just abandoned the whole thing and I read loudly -- it was not a performance with any subtlety at all."
And now that he's off that reading-and-signing-and-shouting tour, it's a matter, he says, of catching up on six weeks lost to the work-stopping realities of hotels and planes and bookstores.
"I wound up trying to explain to my mother, who at one point actually asked, 'But don't you have people who can do that for you?'" And which part would those "people" do, the writing of the books or the signing of them in bookstores?
No fantasy intervenes to spare the author these duties: "Mom, it's all me."
CNN.com chat: Neil Gaiman on writing and 'American Gods'
July 30, 2001
The selling of Neil Gaiman's 'American Gods'
June 26, 2001
Review: 'Sandman -- The Dream Hunters'
December 23, 1999
Neil Gaiman: Adults deserve good fairy tales, too
February 25, 1999
'Neverwhere' never fails to please
February 25, 1999
HarperCollins - William Morrow
Neil Gaiman's poem "Nightfall," at Scifi.com's reflections on September 11, 2001
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