Feature – Associated Press

From the September 23rd Associated Press Newswire:

Cooler-than-cool author Neil Gaiman is proof that you’re never cool to your own kids.

Gaiman, 45, dresses in rock-star black, from his boots and pants to his T-shirt and leather jacket. But the best-selling fantasy and graphic-novel writer says his 11-year-old daughter makes him turn off whatever music is playing in his car when he drops her off at school, so he won’t embarrass her.

” `Oh my God, Dad, my friends are coming over, you’re not allowed to speak to them,’ ” Gaiman recounts his daughter saying.

“Nobody’s cool, if you’ve got kids,” adds Gaiman, who also has a 22-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter.

Gaiman explores the embarrassment parents cause their children in his new book, Anansi Boys. The protagonist, Charles Nancy, dubbed “Fat Charlie” by his joke-loving father, suffers one indignity after another, including his father dying while singing in a karaoke bar.

But that’s just the start of Fat Charlie’s woes. It turns out his father was Anansi, the trickster spider-god of West African folklore, and soon a magical brother Fat Charlie never knew he had turns up to insinuate his way into his drab life.

Anansi Boys hits bookstores just as MirrorMask, a movie written by Gaiman and directed by artist Dave McKean, a longtime Gaiman collaborator, is about to open in limited release Sept. 30.

Taking a break while autographing stacks of his new book in the backroom of DreamHaven Books and Comics in south Minneapolis, Gaiman (pronounced GAYM’n) recalls being embarrassed by his own father as a teenager growing up in England.

Gaiman says his father had gotten bright-yellow European shoes that were “not shaped like any shoes any human being has worn before or since” and looked like “two giant bananas.”

“And I would try and walk far enough away that people would not assume I was with him,” Gaiman says.

Gaiman, who gained fame in the 1990s with the epic Sandman comic-book series, says he wanted to return to the humor of Good Omens, his 1990 novel with Terry Pratchett about a misplaced baby Antichrist.

Since Good Omens appeared 15 years ago, he said, “People by now had begun to conclude that obviously that book must have been written by me writing a very serious book and Terry dancing behind me, scattering jokes like little flowers through the text.”

Anansi Boys packs plenty of absurdist humor, with Fat Charlie turning up late for his father’s funeral and delivering a heartfelt speech to the wrong casket. But there’s also magic, as Fat Charlie is transported to the ends of the world to ask the African gods to rid him of his charismatic brother, Spider, and a gruesome murder.

Gaiman – a tall man with a prominent nose, brown eyes and hints of gray in his shaggy hair – is warm and approachable in person.

Sipping tea, he talks of everything from his homesickness for England (he lives near Minneapolis after moving to America about 12 years ago so his family could be near his wife’s relatives) to writers’ relationships with their fans (he blogs on his Web site, http://www.neilgaiman.com) to his support for the First Amendment Project and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

It was Gaiman’s idea to have authors auction off character’s names in books to raise money for the First Amendment Project. On eBay, Gaiman is auctioning off a name on a tombstone in his next children’s novel. The highest bid as of Wednesday was $2,700.

“I think the First Amendment is probably the most important thing that you have in this country. And I’m always horrified at the cavalier way that you (Americans) treat it,” Gaiman says.

Gaiman resists pigeonholing of his work, pointing out that his 2001 novel American Gods won awards for best science fiction, horror and fantasy.

“It’s just a matter of shelving. It doesn’t mean anything. Genre tags are just telling people in a Barnes and Noble where to go and put books,” he says.

Born in Porchester, on the south coast of England, Gaiman says he spent his life wanting to be a writer. “You get to make up worlds,” he says. “It’s the nearest thing you actually get to playing God and being paid for it.”

Gaiman grew up loving the works of British writers C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton before moving on to science fiction authors Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison and R.A. Lafferty.

“I was the kind of kid whose parents would drop him off at the local town library on their way to work, and I’d go and work my way through the children’s area,” Gaiman recalls.

Although Jewish, Gaiman says he was accepted at a “very high and very strict” Church of England school because of his exam results and interview. He says his schooling “gave me this wonderfully alien point of view on religion.”

“I was top of my class in religious studies. I just didn’t happen to believe it. I just thought these were really, really interesting stories,” he says.

As a freelance book reviewer in his 20s, Gaiman says he “wound up reading all this stuff I never would have read,” which taught him the techniques of mainstream fiction.

“Somebody would say, `Can you do us an article about big, bodice-ripping, blockbusting romance novels?’ And I’d say, `Yes, of course,’ because I was a hungry young journalist,” Gaiman says.

In 1985, Gaiman met Dave McKean, a young art student. They collaborated on a comic called Black Orchid, then did Sandman, with McKean doing the covers and Gaiman the writing. Sandman, with a gloomy central character called Morpheus or Dream, ran 75 issues.

“The best thing I think about me and Dave as a creative team is, we don’t have to work together. We both have individual careers,” says Gaiman, who also has written children’s books such as Coraline illustrated by McKean.

“So whenever we come together to work together it’s because it’s fun and because we want to.”

McKean says he and Gaiman trust each other.

“We’ve grown up together, so there’s no b——- in our relationship. We test each other, and provoke each other into trying new things,” McKean said in an e-mail.

Their latest collaboration is MirrorMask, a live-action and animated film about a 15-year-old girl who runs away from a circus and enters a dream world. Gaiman says Sony Pictures had approached the Jim Henson Co. about producing another film like The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth, which were considered flops in the 1980s but had discovered new life on video.

The budget was only $4 million. Gaiman says he offered to write the screenplay at a fraction of his usual quote.

“The deal was very, very simple. From Henson, it was, `We will give you not enough money to make a film with, and in return, we will leave you alone. You get creative control. Give us (a) family fantasy film,'” Gaiman says.

Although MirrorMask has been screened at Sundance and other film festivals, Gaiman realizes it probably will become a cult movie – and he’s “perfectly happy” with that.

“I would feel `MirrorMask’ had done what Dave and I set out to do if in, you know, 20, 30 years time, when I’m a cranky old man, some bright young thing comes up to me and goes, `Oh my God, you made `MirrorMask.’ That was the film that I watched, that was the thing that got me through my 15-year-old angst,’ ” Gaiman says.
–Jeff Baenen