Feature – Business Times

From the July 8th Business Times:

Weaving dreams

He’s all in dramatic black but ascribes the sepulchral choice of colour to ease – ‘I don’t have to wake up in the morning and worry about which black goes with which black, unlike those who pick browns and blues’ – and the signature leather jacket to comfort while being trundled between scorching heat and freezing venues in Singapore.

British-born, Minnesota-based Neil Gaiman, cult author of comics, graphic novels and books, has the aura of the brooding god Dream, but also the droll, feet-on-the-ground ease of the dream god’s sibling, Death.

Both Dream and Death, of course, are characters he created for the seminal Sandman series (1988/89 – 1996), the intellectual’s comic book that, paradoxically, has also become definitive postmodern pop culture. It has won more industry awards than any other comic series, has sold – and continues to sell – millions of copies; not least among this fiercely loyal fan base is the Singapore contingent.

Gaiman likens visiting Singapore to ‘going backstage’ of his website, to figure out why it logs a huge, almost disproportionately high number of hits from our island-state. Somewhere, some student might be unravelling the reasons in – yet another – intellectual thesis on the Gaiman phenomenon; pragmatically, the magic is as simple as this: Gaiman tells a good story.

Gaiman’s words go down well, whether it’s via his online blog that’s clocked easily over 660,000 unique visitors a month; a recent entry after an extensive book-signing session here says the ‘people in Singapore are very nice, the food is good, the author is brain-dead’. Or whether he’s entertaining a press conference with a killer impression of Alan Moore – not having met the mercurial creator of graphic novels like The Watchman, it’s hard to tell, but if Moore doesn’t sound like Gaiman’s rendition of him, well, he ought to.

Or whether it’s through graphic novels (The Sandman: Endless Nights), ‘serious’ prose (New York Times bestseller and multiple award winner American Gods) or co-authored fiction (the ever-popular Good Omens with Terry Pratchett). Which is just scratching the surface of a formidable list of works that includes fairy stories for adults (Stardust) and tales for children that leave only the adults scared (Hugo-award-winning Coraline).

‘Getting published as a children’s author, having kids like the fiction,’ is what he picks, when pushed, as the one thing he’s proud of, something he is extremely happy that happened. He adds, ‘My 10-year-old daughter lists me as a favourite author which is quite thrilling; she tells me ‘you’re in my school library’.’

And so the myths around the 44-year-old cult celebrity grow, as the word-cloths he weaves continually attract new readers. During a casual conversation earlier he had half-laughingly referred to himself as a compendium of myth. Later, while interviewing him in a room with a door that has a tendency to mysteriously open and close at will, we talk of how legends, fables and fantasy mesh in erudite if accessible form in his works.

Gaiman on death: ‘Given all possible takes, I’d pick the Peter Pan option – death must be an awfully big adventure. (Death) is a necessity, it’s the great inevitable, it’s how you know you are alive, it’s the ending that makes the difference between novel and soap opera.’

On myth: ‘It is the building block of civilisation and culture. It helps us make sense of the world. There’s a sort of downward spiral from the sacred to myth to fairy story, from Cupid and Psyche to Beauty and the Beast. Human beings like things to be story-shaped. The universe doesn’t hand over beginnings, middles, endings; stories cut and shape the world, impose patterns on it.’

On fantasy: ‘From my point of view it’s what all fiction is; fantasy is the house, other (genres) like sci-fi or literary fiction are just rooms in it. I try to keep the (fantasy) world consistent but never lay down ‘rules’. If the world we live in has a set of rules, no-one gave them to me.’

On moving from London to the US: ‘In England everything important is subtext, you assume everything goes down an unusually long way. In America, I looked for subtext and it wasn’t there, what you see is what you get, it’s not an iceberg. This influenced the way I wrote American Gods.’

The author who commands the adulation of a pop star jokes about Hollywood being ‘weird’ – a favourite Gaiman word – and about stories that claim ‘I had more things bought and not made by Hollywood than any other living author’. He’s ‘sanguine about Hollywood’, having figured out that like buses, movies never come along for the longest time but then materialise in multiples, bustling and clamouring all together.

As is the case now.

It’s the reason that Dave McKean, famous for the distinctive Sandman covers and long-time visual collaborator, hasn’t accompanied Gaiman on this trip: He’s busy putting finishing touches to their joint project Mirrormask, a computer enhanced fantasy produced by the Jim Henderson Company. Then there’s his script of the ancient English poem Beowulf being worked on by Robert Zemeckis as a motion capture film; Gaiman is most likely directing Death: The High Cost of Living next year; there’s also a film version of Coraline in the pipeline. In terms of the written word, expectation is high with Anansi Boys; pre-release talk promises a tale of adventure and humour.

Of the differences between words and words-plus-pictures he says: ‘Comics have an amazing strength of visual ideas – but everyone reading is getting the same set of images. In prose everyone builds the images themselves.’ If someone ‘invented the 19-day week’, he says he could do every form of writing all the time, now he picks and chooses and moves between genres and media. But diehard fans who have memorised all 75 Sandman comics and are suffering from the nostalgic desire to revisit old worlds anew needn’t despair entirely: Gaiman is already thinking ahead to how he would like to celebrate the dream lord’s 20th anniversary.

It’s up for debate whether Metallica was channelling the comics when they sang Enter Sandman – ‘Exit light/Enter night/Take my hand /We’re off to never never land’. Either way, it certainly channels the spirit with which Gaiman’s readers enter his worlds of forgotten gods and unforgettable dreams.
–Parvathi Nayar