Interview – Globe and Mail

Robert Wiersema; “Coraline cool”; The Globe and Mail; 20 July 2002; D8

Neil Gaiman is visibly upset. Over tea in New York the day following the east coast launch of his new novel, Coraline, the writer, unshaven and dressed in his trademark black T-shirt and leather jacket, considers the events of the previous night. The autographing was simply too successful, “which means that over 300 people were essentially turned away without something signed.”

He shakes his head. “That’s never happened to me before. As the years go by, I don’t seem to lose many readers, and I always get more,” he says quietly. “I knew we were going to face that problem in San Francisco. That’s why we went with a reading, rather than a signing.”

That event, a week before, was a 31/2-hour, cover-to-cover reading of Coraline. It drew 800 people. Eight hundred people in San Francisco; 700 people in New York.

By this point, you might be asking who is this Neil Gaiman, and why haven’t I heard of him?

Much of the confusion can be explained by the difficulty of fitting Gaiman into a single category. His writing ranges across themes, styles and media. He writes poetry, short fiction, novels, graphic novels (or comic books), screenplays, audioplays and, with Coraline, novels for children, all occupying a dark space between fantasy and horror. Gaiman is aware of the difficulty, and has “long since given up” trying to pigeonhole himself. “I’m a storyteller,” he says simply. “These days, I’m getting filed more and more in literature.”

This overnight sensation, whose latest novel recently appeared on The New York Times’ children’s bestseller list and has just been released in Canada, has been writing professionally for almost two decades.

Gaiman was born in Portchester, England, in 1960. Following a journeyman period freelancing for British men’s magazines in the early 1980s, he turned his attention to comic books. He was drawn back to his childhood obsession by writers like Alan Moore, whose re- envisioning of Swamp Thing in the early 1980s brought a certain respectability to the industry. In fact, Moore became a mentor for the younger writer.

Gaiman’s signature project changed the comics field irrevocably. Sandman expanded the boundaries of graphic storytelling. The series revolved around the brooding Morpheus, the incarnation of dreams, in whose domain we spend a third of our lives. With this central conceit, Gaiman was able to shift through time, consciousnesses, folklore and mythology to tell fundamentally human stories, interwoven in a complex tapestry of dream logic and interlocking lives.

The series was featured in Rolling Stone magazine, and met with significant crossover success. Issue 19, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is the only comic to win a World Fantasy Award for best short story. Sandman also drew a very different audience from the standard comic crowd.

“Two years into Sandman, we’d created this entirely new readership, these creatures known as females,” he laughs.

Gaiman’s readers stayed with him even as, in 1996, he did the unthinkable, ending Sandman after 75 monthly issues (plus one special edition), at the peak of its popularity. The closure revealed the series to be a single unified and carefully planned novel, epic in scale, rather than an open-ended serial. Sandman remains available in 10 paperback volumes.

His first non-graphic books — among them the novels Stardust, Neverwhere and Good Omens (a fantasy-humour collaboration with Terry Pratchett) — were of interest primarily to the faithful. While sales were respectable, Gaiman seemed comfortable in his role as cult figure.

That role changed last year with American Gods. A postmodern road novel that picked up some of the metaphysical themes from Sandman and featured a war between the old gods (the traditional pantheons) and the new (the American gods of the title, including technology and freeways), the book appeared on bestseller lists in both hardcover and paperback.

Gaiman toured extensively to promote the novel, and saw his readership increase dramatically. He also developed a significant Internet presence at www.neilgaiman.com. More than 500,000 people have visited the site, and it is still read by 90,000 distinct readers each month, many of whom follow Gaiman’s work life in his Web-log (the “blogger”), or communicate among themselves on one of several message boards.

Much of the early success of Coraline can be attributed to the fervour of Gaiman’s core audience. “Coraline went straight onto The New York Times list. That wasn’t because kids went out and bought it. Fifty thousand adult readers went out and bought it in the first week. We haven’t yet become a children’s book that is being read by children.”

Coraline is the story of a nine-year-old girl who discovers an alternative world behind a locked door in her new flat. The other world, a mirror image of Coraline’s, is controlled by the “other mother,” a button-eyed eater of souls. It hardly sounds like a children’s book, but it is that publishing Holy Grail in these post- Harry Potter times: a novel for children with significant adult appeal. Children read Coraline as an adventure story; it is adults who find it “deeply creepy and disturbing.”

The writer spent almost a dozen years working on the 162-page novel five years longer than he spent on the 2,000-page Sandman. Coraline was started as a book for his daughter Holly, then 5, and finished for her younger sister Maddy, now 6.

The first third of the book was written quickly. Gaiman, however, lost sight of Coraline in the confusion following his move from England to Minneapolis in 1992. (“I have an American wife,” he says, by way of an explanation. “With a big American family nearby.”) As his life settled, Gaiman hit upon a unique approach for writing the book despite the demands placed upon his time by Sandman.

“I bought a notebook. For a while, I kept it by the bed, and instead of reading I’d write 50 words a night, no matter what else I was working on.”

This casual pace continued until Gaiman found himself mired in another major project. “I got stuck. I was a third of the way through American Gods, I’d spent nine months working on the book and the ending seemed years away, and I thought, ‘If I don’t finish something soon I will go mad.’ So I just sat down and finished Coraline.”

While there will be further events to promote Coraline, including Canadian appearances in the fall, there will not be a tour to match the scope of the American Gods promotion. Instead, Gaiman plans to spend the next few months wrapping up shorter projects. Two new graphic novels are forthcoming, including Endless Nights, a collection of short stories featuring the Sandman’s siblings. He is finishing a few stories for upcoming anthologies (including an issue of the hipper-than-thou literary magazine McSweeney’s, tobe guest-edited by Michael Chabon), and is at work on a screenplay of Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata for Robert Zemeckis; he is treating it as a romantic comedy, “Annie Hall with time-stopping.”

Gaiman hasn’t decided which novel he will begin in October. “They’re like small animals right now, and we’ll see which one has pushed its way to the front.” He doesn’t feel any pressure. “As an author, I’m very aware of how lucky I am. I get to write the stuff that I want to write. I know a lot of writers, who sell a lot more books than me, who, when you sit down and talk to them, say, ‘I’m guaranteed to sell a million books, so long as I write the same book over and over again, and it’s killing me.’ I’m allowed to write. How cool is that?”