Interview – Toronto Star

From the October 1st Toronto Star:

“Oddly enough.” He seems to say this quite a lot.

During our interview, it’s something that pops up like a “however” or even an “um” while he chats.

He says it as though the swirling mass of stuff coming out of Neil Gaiman’s head is not of his own making. But the catchphrase seems apt for a man whose work is, oddly enough, odd. And work for him is moving along just fine.

This is because we’re living in a world where the odd has become more acceptable. Gaiman himself came to this realization just a week into his current book tour.

“(It was) the coolest thing so far or, well, it was also one of those strange moments where I had, for want of a better word, one of those strange moments of legitimacy,” says Gaiman, 44. “Most of the time I think of myself as a genre writer. I think of myself in some way or other, existing on the margins, which is good and comfortable.

“Then I’m on at the National Book Festival in the Fantasy and Fiction tent, and we only have a half hour each, and they’ve cut down the number of authors, and I find myself reading between John Irving and Tom Wolfe,” he says of last week’s fifth annual Washington, D.C., event sponsored by U.S. Library of Congress.

“You suddenly realize you’re mainstream. Or maybe the mainstream has come to me. When I’m the stuffing in a sandwich of Irving and Wolfe, it’s a very strange world, indeed.”

It’s Gaiman’s view of strange worlds that has brought him to this point in his career. The best-selling author is now touring for his latest tome, Anansi Boys, which finds him at Toronto’s Learning Annex next week for a sold-out reading. The 800 or so fans who will be very happy to be in his presence know exactly what the man is all about.

He is a rock star among authors, a leather-jacket-wearing dude who seems slightly Goth and who traded Britain for Minnesota, of all places.

Gaiman wrote comic books and made them a form of literature, with his seminal Sandman series, a story about an anthropomorphic being called Dream, who … well … it’s too complex – just read it and you’ll be glad you did. He writes children’s stories (Coraline, The Wolves in the Wall) filled with horribly scary things that the kids literally eat up.

While some of his work has already been made into movies in Britain by the BBC, Hollywood has come calling and now many of his stories are in some form of development. MirrorMask, a movie from the Jim Henson Company that Gaiman scripted, opened yesterday in several U.S. cities but has no set release date here. And just last week, Beowulf, the epic poem for which he helped write the screenplay, started filming.

Nalo Hopkinson, a Toronto-based fantasy author, gets one of the first acknowledgements in Anansi Boys because she was sent an early draft to help check the dialogue of the Caribbean characters.

“He’s got a pretty good ear, so there wasn’t much that needed to be pointed out,” she says. Hopkinson first met Gaiman in 2000, and was by then already aware of what she calls “the phenomenon of Neil Gaiman.”

“Neil’s work became very, very popular with, of course, the Sandman books. But since then he has been able to, let’s not say leap genres, but leap formats from prose to novels to films. And he’s brought the fans along. He works hard to keep them, using the web to build that connection,” she says of www.neilgaiman.com, on which the author regularly blogs.

Gaiman’s work, simply put, is about myths and stories, pantheons and power. As with fairy tales, one of the first rules is that you’ve got to believe. He mixes the fantastic with the real world, making otherwise unbelievable things somehow believable.

He tells stories about deities of all kinds. His last novel was American Gods, which was a mystery and a road trip that touched upon modern deities. His new book, Anansi Boys, is something of a spin-off – Mr. Nancy appeared in American Gods, but according to him, it started off all rather backwards.

“I came up with the story and characters for Anansi Boys before I wrote American Gods. Only I wasn’t quite sure what they were – if it was an idea for a movie or a novel or short story,” he says. “It was only when I started talking to my editor at HarperCollins about what I was going to do next that she said, ‘That’s a novel.'”

Anansi Boys is about the son of Anansi, an African trickster god. The offspring of Anansi, a.k.a. Mr. Nancy, are Fat Charlie and Spider. The former is a nebbish while the latter is the cool, devil- may-care son who has inherited some of Dad’s mojo. The story is about what happens after the elder Nancy dies, and the brothers have a reckoning.

It’s a remarkably funny book, and it plays on many of Gaiman’s running themes, such as the power of stories.

This leads to the question that he’s most often asked, which he hilariously answers in an essay on his website Where do you get your ideas from? His answer “I make them up in my head.”

Does that really need to be said? “It really does, because people want to know what the secret is. And that’s the question. Where do you get your ideas? How do get your ideas? The creative process is magical and mysterious and all they want is the answer, maybe an answer that they can use.

“Well, I have a red piece of coral in my pocket, and when I don’t have an idea I rub it against my T-shirt, I stare into it and unbidden ideas bubble up from the recesses. And (people) say, ‘Oh good, where do I get one of those?'” he says.

“If you ever ask a writer where they get their ideas, you will get these snappy answers, because they don’t know, and they can’t tell you.

“And, anyway, it’s a long weird process and they’re not entirely sure.”

Let’s just hope Gaiman keeps his ideas coming, wherever they may come from.
–Raju Mudhar