Anna Carey; “‘Bestselling author no one’s heard of ‘? Not for long”; Sunday Tribune; August 25, 2002; p.3
WHEN Neil Gaiman was 15, his school was visited by career advisers who gave the students a batch of tests and then interviewed them to see what careers they were suited for. The counsellor wasn’t prepared for the young Gaiman’s answer: “I said, ‘Well, really, I’d like to write American comics.’ And he looked at me as if I’d just waved a fish at him or something, then he said, ‘Oh, how do you go about doing that then?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, you’re the careers advisor, I thought you could advise me.’ And there was one of those long pauses that goes on longer than is comfortable and eventually he said, ‘Tell me, have you ever thought about accountancy?'” Luckily, he hadn’t.
A couple of decades later and Gaiman is the man credited with making comic books intellectually respectable. He made his name as the creator of Sandman , the brilliant long-running series which was famously described by none other than Norman Mailer as “a comic strip for intellectuals”. Like his old friend and early mentor Alan Moore, Gaiman showed that comic books could be, simply, great literature. He is now, in his own words, “the bestselling writer who no one has ever heard of.” He doesn’t just do comics, though. In fact, he hasn’t done any comics for a few years (although he has some comic projects in the works, including a book called Endless Nights which will be out next spring and which will feature a story about each of the Endless from Sandman). Instead he’s been writing novels – his last, the excellent American Gods was a deserved hit – and now he’s written a book for children which may be his biggest success yet.
Coraline is one of the best new children’s books to appear in a long time. It puts Gaiman up there with Susan Cooper, Margaret Mahy and Diana Wynne Jones as writers of brilliantly disturbing children’s literature.
It’s deliciously creepy in all the right places, but it’s not too scary, even for the most over-sensitive child. Like the best children’s fantasy novels, it is about a realistic little girl from our own world who embarks on an adventure in a house that’s almost the same as her own.
Gaiman started writing Coraline 10 years ago but was told by his editor that it was “unpublishable. He said, ‘First, it’s a scary book, and you can’t do that for kids. And second it’s a book that’s obviously aimed at children and at adults and you can’t publish a book like that.’ So I put it away for a few years and then in 1998 I realised that if I didn’t finish it soon, my youngest daughter would be too old for it, so I got it out again.” He seems amused by the recent elevation of children’s literature to “proper fiction”.
“I’m one of those people who’s been reading kids’ books all along. When people have asked me what I think of JK Rowling, I say that she’s a fine, solid children’s book writer, but when they’re shocked and say, ‘But she’s changing the rules!’ – I have to say that’s she’s not. She writes good, solid children’s books, but just read Diana Wynne Jones!
She’s a national treasure, she’s original.” Gaiman didn’t make a conscious decision to take a break from the medium in which he made his name. “By the time I finsihed Sandman , I’d been writing comcs for eight or nine years.
I’d won every award you could win for writing comics, and a few you couldn’t win for writing comics but which I’d won anyway. And I was exhausted.
I’d spent the last few years saying ‘no’ to anything that wasn’t Sandman , and I wanted to do new things. But I couldn’t write a novel then. For one, I knew that I wasn’t as good at writing prose as I was at writing comics;
I had a lot to learn.” Gaiman did Neverwhere , a fantasy series for the BBC, and then wrote the accompanying novel before embarking on Stardust (both a graphic novel and prose novel) and, finally, American Gods .
“People liked it so much that I thought, ‘Well, I must know what I’m doing in prose now’, so it seemed like a nice time to go and do some comics again.” The results, the aforementioned Endless Nights, will be published next February.
That careers advisor left Gaiman with the impression that there was no way he could be a comics writer, and he eventually became a journalist, writing for mainstream British papers and magazines. “I still loved comics and wrote about them at every opportunity, which was almost impossible.
I’d tell my editors about the huge advances being made in comics, about what Frank Miller and Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman were doing, and they’d say, ‘Well, Neil, we just did a piece on Desperate Dan’s 50th birthday last year. I don’t think the public is ready for another comics piece!’ And I’d be there going, ‘It’s not the fucking same . . .'” Eventually he decided to do it himself and eventually asked the great Alan Moore, to show him how to write a comic script. “It was the single most important thing anyone could have done.” The rest is multi award-winning, hugely influential, history.
These days, Gaiman’s audience is expanding. “The first few events I did with Coraline, the audience were all adults. But so far there have been a few more kids at every signing. I think what’s happened is that all the adults went out and bought the book and they’d buy a couple of copies and then give a few to kids they knew and liked. Then the kids would start showing them to their friends and it goes on from there.” That night he gives a reading in Dublin, doing a couple of chapters from Coraline and answering questions from an audience too big for the confines of Hanna’s bookshop. The audience is mostly over 20, but there are quite a few under-12s who hang on his every word, and the book is already Bloomsbury’s biggest-selling hardback of the year. He may not be “the bestselling author that no one has ever heard of” for much longer.”