Feature – Time Out New York

From the September 8th issue of Time Out New York:

Scared silly

Despite his penchant for dark themes, Neil Gaiman has never shied away from levity. His last novel, 2001’s phantasmagoric American Gods, was filled with subtle jokes. But in Anansi Boys, due out September 20th, even the funeral scene is studded with one-liners. “I decided that I wanted to write a book that would exist mostly to make people feel better when they finished it than when they began,” a black -clad Gaiman notes while perched on an old stenographer’s chair in the stockroom of Dreamhaven, an indie bookstore in Minneapolis. So with Anansi Boys, he opted to broaden his range, leavening the book’s apocalyptic vision with whimsical material, resulting in something that’s akin to a cross between P.G.Wodehouse and Stephen King.

Still, Gaiman, 44, hasn’t abandoned the subjects that have made him a cult figure: monstrous entities, murder, magic. Anansi Boys even hinges on a character from his aforementioned masterwork-Mr. Nancy, the dapper human manifestation of the West African trickster god Anansi. By the time the book opens, Nancy has found a wife, fathered a son and alienated them both. On page 18, he keels over in a Florida karaoke bar while singing to a blond tourist from Michigan. The extent of Nancy’s lechery is such that he pulls down her tube top on his way to the floor.

”I came up with the idea for Anansi Boys in 1996, before I started American Gods,” Gaiman says, his English accent still crisp despite more than a decade of living in the Midwest. “The idea that one’s parents are embarrassing is what drives the story. And Mr. Nancy, by definition, is more embarrassing than most.” Shortly after Mr. Nancy’s funeral, his London-based son, Charles, meets Spider, who claims to be a long-lost brother. A night of drunken revelry leads the duo into a tangle of mistaken identities that rivals The Importance of Being Earnest, sending the high-speed, knotty plot into overdrive. While the author provides occasional breaks from the narrative maelstrom with Anansi tales lifted from African mythology, the lunging pace never relents; and neither do the laughs.

” It’s probably the most organic thing I’ve ever written,” Gaiman says, although he admits that it was a challenge getting the horror and the high jinks to mesh. “There was a point halfway through where I really felt that the book had derailed itself. I wasn’t sure whether I was writing humor or horror, a comic novel with scary bits or a scary novel with comic bits.” But after some tough love from his agent, Gaiman successfully steered the dynamic romp to a balanced conclusion. And perhaps his confusion paid off, insofar as it helped Gaiman keep the book unpredictable. Even the author was fazed by some of his creations. “In the end, there wasn’t a character who didn’t surprise me,” he says.

Finishing the novel was hard work, but the multitasking Gaiman is excited about keeping busy this fall. The wafer-thin writer is currently seeing a personal trainer in preparation for his cross-country Anansi Boys reading tour at the end of the month. On September 30, longtime collaborator Dave McKean’s fantasy film MirrorMask, for which Gaiman wrote the script, will be released in theaters. “Given the fact that it was made with such a small budget, it’s turning out to be quite the little movie that could,” Gaiman says.

In mid-September, he will also auction off a name on a gravestone in his forthcoming illustrated children’s novel The Graveyard Book, as part of a massive eBay-based fund-raiser for the First Amendment Project, a nonprofit advocacy group that provides pro bono legal support for free-speech-related issues. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and enormous sums of money,” he says. The author is no stranger to charity bidding wars. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund received a much-needed $3,500 after Gaiman peddled the name of a Caribbean cruise ship that plays a crucial, if fleeting, role in Anansi Boys.

Such fundraising is fitting, as Gaiman has long been a comics enthusiast and writer (he penned the influential Sandman series), and Anansi Boys has the fantastical feel of a comic book. But as the author notes, his latest novel is also grounded in extensive research–expeditions to funerals in Florida, trips to the Caribbean and even close observation of some eccentric family members.

“One of the book’s characters is inspired by a certain great-aunt of mine, who keeps only bottles of water and newspapers in her fridge,” he says. “But I could never use the bit with the newspapers-it’s too weird for fiction.”
— Rod Smith

A) Yes, this is Fall Preview issue of Time Out New York, and if you live locally, you already need to pick it up for reference and planning.
B) Yes, Anansi Boys is the only book that gets the feature treatment. Which is remarkably cool.
C) And if reasons A) and B) weren’t enough to get you to go visit your newsstand (or order the back issue), do keep in mind that Jayson Wold’s photo of said author is lovely.