Features – Sydney Telegraph; Melbourne Age

From the 23rd July Daily Telegraph:

Living the fantasy

Listen to the softly spoken Neil Gaiman and you would think he had all the time in the world. No rash statements or jumbled thoughts here … he deliberates over questions before giving an eloquent answer, delivered in a soothing tone. By rights, he should speak like Donald Duck on full throttle; Gaiman lives at a frenetic pace.

The British-born author is now in Australia as part of a four-week tour, which has already taken in parts of Asia.

“It really has been amazing,” he says. “In the Philippines 3000 people turned up at one venue and I signed books for 700 of them.” It turned into a 10-hour book-signing marathon.

Gaiman is bemused at being the centre of such adulation but at the same time considers himself blessed to have such fans.

“I’ve heard stories from authors like Stephen King and Clive Barker and their awful experiences from deranged readers,” he says.

“The main trouble for me is I often receive gifts from fans and it’s hard to get everything safely back home.”

“I have a stock answer to the question of what I like best about being an author. I usually say `I get to sleep in’. When I’m doing these tours, however, my answer becomes: `I get to visit these really cool places’.”

The fervour reflects the readership he has developed during two decades.

In Australia, he is best known for the groundbreaking series, The Sandman. The 75 issues, which were released monthly from 1988 to 1996, have been credited with elevating comic books (or graphic novels, if you seek a swankier name) into the field of literature. Collected into 10 volumes, the series remains a big seller.

Sandman reviews were often filled with such descriptions as darkly humorous, ambitious, hallucinogenic, elegant, hip and edgy. Such words could equally apply to most of Gaiman’s fantasy canon, which spans novels, children’s books, short stories, poetry, radio plays, TV, films and adults novels. His latest novel for adults, Anansi Boys, is due to be released in October.

Gaiman believes different stories require different forms to take their ideal shape. Regarding the diverse media he works in, Gaiman says: “When I try a new field I go in with the arrogance of the ignorant. I just think: `Yeah, I can do that’. Then by the time I realise I can’t do it I’m too far in. And by then I’m just having too much fun, anyway.”

When he’s not writing or on the international promotion trail, Gaiman, who lives in the US state of Minnesota, enjoys spending time with his wife and three children.

“I like to potter around the garden. I’m a crap gardener but just being there clears my mind.”

“Basically I write; I’m not that good at anything else.”

“When I was about 20 I had one of those dark nights of the soul. I was lying there and I thought, ‘I want to be a writer. If I don’t do anything about it, one day I’ll be 80 … I will be on my deathbed and I’ll be thinking, I could have been a writer’.

“I decided to try to live the dream. I just feel so lucky.”
–Glen Coleman


From the 24 July Sunday Age (Melbourne):

What’s fame got to do with it?

Eclectic writer Neil Gaiman is as devoted to his fans as they are to him; it’s probably why he gets 3000 people at a book signing — and why he looks so tired.

Neil Gaiman looks exhausted. For the past month he’s been making his way to Melbourne via Glasgow, Manila and Singapore, promoting his latest book, Anansi Boys, a comic novel about brotherly love, hate and mythology with stylistic echoes both of P.G. Wodehouse and Shakespeare.

Wearing his signature black leather jacket, Gaiman says that in the Philippines people were “enthusiastic on a level that makes the Brazilians look reserved and polite”.

Even he was surprised when 3000 people turned up to an event intended for 700. It started at 4pm and he was still signing books at 1am. It’s not immodest then for Gaiman to post tips on his website about how to make his book signings run smoothly.

“Eat first. I’m not kidding. If it’s a night-time signing of the kind that can go on for a long time, bring sandwiches or something to nibble (some signings with numbers handed out may make it possible for you to go out and eat and come back. Or you may be first in line. But plan for a worst-case scenario of several hours of standing and shuffling your way slowly around a store). If it’s a daytime signing somewhere that a line may snake out of a store into the hot sun, bring something to drink. I always feel guilty when people pass out.”

Although this trip is taking its toll, he still manages to be unfailing good-humoured, admitting that the problems of his extraordinary success are still far more interesting than the problems of failure. Gaiman also says that he has trouble saying no, which is probably why he looks exhausted a good deal of the time.

Your average author has readers — Gaiman has fans that have followed his eclectic body of work that spans his sophisticated Sandman comic series to the frightening children’s picture book, The Wolves In The Walls.

It was the comic books that established his cult status, beginning with the first book in the Sandman series, Prelude and Nocturnes in which Gaiman introduced the Master of Dreams, who is captured and imprisoned for 70 years. When he finally escapes, he embarks on a quest to claim three powerful objects.

At a reading a few years ago, another Gaiman fan, Stephen King, turned up. The pair was supposed to catch up for dinner but late into the evening, Gaiman was still signing books. “We ended up in Steve’s hotel room, sitting on the floor eating hamburgers.” King told him that he usually only signs for an hour and after that, he leaves the bookshop and hundreds of disappointed fans. Gaiman shrugs his shoulders and says, “I just can’t do it.”

Between events he religiously updates his blog (neilgaiman.com), posting information about where he’ll be and how the trip is going. It reads like a captain’s log but the weeks away from home, combined with a crazy schedule, might be taking its toll as words such as “shell shocked, pooped, marathon and brain-dead” appear more frequently. Not all authors reach out to their readers the way Gaiman does. He answers questions, chats about his books, discusses art, influences and whatever happens to be on his mind.

Mention Gaiman’s name and you get one of two responses: Who is he? Or, he’s my favourite author. “I exist in a peculiar binary space. I’m the most famous author that nobody’s heard of.” The downside? Bookshop managers who think they’ve invited a lovely low-key author to chat about books often find themselves overwhelmed by the army of fans who turn up to a Gaiman event.

Gaiman was born in Portchester, England, in 1960 and says he was “a much weirder kid than I ever thought I was”. At seven he begged his parents for his own bookcase and carefully covered each book in clear plastic and put them in alphabetical order. He throws his hands up and says “Now that’s f—ing weird! No seven-year-old does that.” At school he was “the single most crappest kid at sports anyone had ever seen”. During cricket matches, as teammates desperately called out his name, Gaiman would only appear to be fielding when, in fact, he was making up stories. Inevitably, the ball would hit him on the head.

After a stint in journalism and a biography of ’80s band Duran Duran, Gaiman achieved notoriety for his graphic novels, the Sandman series, a set of comic books for adults. Norman Mailer called them “a comic strip for intellectuals”.

In 2001, his first novel, American Gods, was published to rave reviews. De
scribed as a hallucinogenic road-trip story wrapped around a deep examination of the American spirit, it was a fixture on The New York Times bestseller list for weeks. The following year, Coraline, his first book for children, about a little girl who discovers she has another set of very sinister parents living behind a door in her large, spooky house, also made the list.

Collaboration has always featured in Gaiman’s work and his two picture books for children, The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish were illustrated by his friend Dave McKean. Both books are pitched at younger readers but Gaiman’s witty prose also appeals to adults.

Gaiman likes to mix it up. “I’m a storyteller. Children’s novel, comic novel, graphic novel, picture book. I love doing different things and surprising my readers.” In his new book Anansi Boys, Gaiman wanted to deliver a comic novel with “lots of tragedy”.

Set in the US, England and the Caribbean, the book is about Fat Charlie Nancy and the sudden arrival of his brother, a narcissistic control freak who wants to take over Fat Charlie’s life, including his job and fiancee. Like most of Gaiman’s work, it features characters who begin in the real world but end up in a completely different place, one not on any ordinary map.

But the writing process hasn’t always been easy for Gaiman. Half way through Anansi Boys, he got stuck and stopped writing for four months. Just talking about it makes him look troubled; it was, he says, an “incredibly gloomy” period. In the end, he telephoned his agent and told her that his past success had all been a fluke and that he’d rather just return his advance and call it a day. Gaiman recalls there was long pause before she calmly responded: “Oh, you’re at that point of the book are you?”

Gaiman pretended to be outraged but knew she was right and says, “I went back to writing the book but felt rather less unique”.

In 1991, Gaiman moved to the US because his American-born wife was keen to have their three children get to know her family and Gaiman says they were able to buy an Addams Family-style house in Minnesota on four hectares for the price of a one-bedroom flat in London.

“It’s an obscenely cold place. You assume that when it snows, it’s cold, but here, there are 15 other layers of cold beneath that. When you take a breath, you can feel every single hair in your nose.” But he’s happy to be an Englishman and has no plans to become an American citizen. On his blog, he writes enthusiastically about the perfect cup of tea, something he managed to have when he was in Australia a few years ago.

When he’s writing, everything except playing with his youngest daughter, Maddy, is an irritation. And when it comes to his relationship with his wife, Gaiman says: “I’m really good at some things — ask me to write a book, short story or script and I’m in my element but ask me to do my tax or go to the bank and I’m really, really crap.”

On the subject of his fans, Gaiman says he’s very lucky.

“Clive Barker had some mad guy living on his front lawn, Stephen King had a strange woman in an attic who pestered him but my readers are genuinely lovely people who tend not to be crazy.”

They give him presents, too, and Gaiman is delighted about the hand-knitted scarf a fan gave him at last weekend’s Continuum 3 sci-fi convention in Melbourne.

Asked if he might ever consider slowing down his frenetic pace, Gaiman says that no matter what he’s doing, he tries to stop while he’s still in love with it. “That’s why I ended Sandman. I don’t want to wake up one morning and think oh f—ing hell, I have to write something.” There’s a chance he might end his online journal because he never wants to fake it. “It’s almost getting to the point where I may not be able to tour as much,” but, he adds rather unconvincingly, “I’ll see how I’ll feel in November”.

But in all honesty, Gaiman can’t slow down — he’s too busy with a series of projects that include an operatic version of The Wolves in the Walls, a script for a film version of Beowulf directed by Robert Zemeckis, and MirrorMask, an illustrated film script by Gaiman and Dave McKean that’s being produced by Tim Burton.

Tired but still smiling, Gaiman shrugs his shoulders and says, “What can I say? I have the best job, it’s so much fun but if for some reason I stopped writing fiction … I might try my hand at a travel book.”
–Frances Atkinson