Feature – Scripps Howard News Service

Although the citation notes that this initially appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 17th, this Karen MacPherson piece was picked up online by the Bremerton, Washington Sun.

British-born author Neil Gaiman has always set unusual career goals for himself. As a child, Gaiman wanted to be either a werewolf or a writer when he grew up.

By the time he was a teenager, Gaiman had refined those goals. When he was queried one day on his career aspirations by a high-school counselor, Gaiman responded that he wanted to “write American comics.”

“There was a very long pause. Nobody had ever said that to him before,” Gaiman laughingly recalled in a recent interview. “Then he said, ‘Have you ever thought about accountancy?’ “

Fortunately for the literary world, Gaiman ignored the advice. After leaving school, he worked as a journalist before launching the groundbreaking comic Sandman series in 1988. The series, published by DC Comics, ran for 10 years and attracted millions of fans, including writer Norman Mailer, who called it “a comic strip for intellectuals.”

Over the years, Gaiman, 42, also has written several adult novels, including American Gods, Neverwhere and Stardust. In 1997, he turned his talents to the children’s-book world, publishing a picture book titled The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish.

Last year, Gaiman’s children’s novella, Coraline, was published to critical and popular acclaim, and recently won a Hugo award. Now Gaiman has just published a second picture book, The Wolves In the Walls (HarperCollins, $16.99).

The book, illustrated by Gaiman’s frequent collaborator, Dave McKean, has received top reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist. But Gaiman also has encountered flak from some adults who believe the book is too scary for children. Ironically, Gaiman got the idea for the book when his then 4-year-old daughter woke up one night terrified from a nightmare about the wolves in her walls.

“It was one of those ‘sticky’ dreams that stay with you,” Gaiman said. “So I started making up stories about wolves and walls to cheer her up.”

Like much of Gaiman’s work, “Wolves” assumes there is an eerie universe of supernatural beings just beyond the visible world. In this case, it’s a pack of wolves that is living in the walls. The book’s young heroine, Lucy, can hear the wolves trying to come out into the open, but no one in her family wants to believe her.

Eventually, the wolves do come out of the walls and take over the house. The family is forced to flee and ends up inside the walls themselves until the resourceful Lucy decides that she’s had enough and convinces her parents and brother to fight back.

Despite the chilling premise, Gaiman manages to inject a huge dose of humor into the text. McKean’s illustrations, an antic mix of collage, drawing, photography and painting, offer a similar balance of humor and horror.

“Some people say, ‘How can you justify showing little kids this book?’ And I respond that little kids really think it’s a funny book,” Gaiman said. “I plead guilty to giving adults nightmares. I have not seen any evidence yet of that happening to children.”

Gaiman believes that too many adults just don’t understand children’s fears.

“People tell me that this book will have children worrying that there are things under their beds. Are you telling me that there is a kid out there who doesn’t believe there are things under their beds? It’s not like I made this stuff up,” Gaiman said, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton’s statement that fairy tales don’t tell children there are dragons and monsters out there.

“Children know they are there, and they’ve always known. What fairy tales tell you is that the dragons and monsters can be beaten,” Gaiman said.

As someone who has written for both adults and children, Gaiman said he really enjoys writing for children. It’s less remunerative, but more challenging, he added.

“Writing for adults, I’m perfectly willing to inflict a description of the weather on them. With kids, I don’t inflict any weather on them at all,” Gaiman said. “With kids, I assume that every word I write counts. I also assume that every word may be read by a tired adult to a kid who’s not going to forget what’s being read.

“On that basis, I’ve got to make sure that every word counts and – with any luck – that every word is pleasant to read.”

Gaiman, who lives in a “Gothic pile” in Minneapolis with his American-born wife and 9-year-old daughter, has written another picture book, Crazy Hair. The book, which also will be illustrated by McKean, is due out in 2005.

He’s also doing some writing for adults. Gaiman recently wrote a screenplay, and is working on a new “Sandman” collection and a new comic series titled 1602.

“I’m incredibly lucky,” Gaiman said. “I get to make stuff up for a living. It’s really fun, and it’s really interesting.”