Feature – Georgia Straight

From the October 6th Georgia Straight:

Who is Neil Gaiman?

He’s a writer, but you’re forgiven if you didn’t know. “If people know who I am and what I do, odds are they’ve read something by me and they liked it,” he suggests. “Occasionally, they’ve read something by me and they hate it.” Gaiman has been writing for some time and has tackled pretty much every mode you can think of. He started off as a journalist, segued into comics, and after gaining a bit of a reputation, ended up working in radio plays, television, film, and, of course, books.

Not many writers can make a decent living at their profession. Gaiman can, but it wasn’t always thus.

“When you first start out, you have no money, you have no work, but you have infinite time.” Gaiman is explaining his triangle philosophy of life, which articulates how difficult it is to balance the trio of work, money, and time. “Now I’m in a position where I have as much money as any human being could sanely want,” he continues. “The work is anything I want to do as bounded by time.”

I can hear Gaiman italicize the words as he speaks. He’s on the phone at home in Minneapolis, where he moved his family years ago. Like other British writers, he is distinguished by his accent, his vocabulary, and the cadence and precision of his speech. Although unable to see Gaiman as we talk, I am confident he is dressed in black. Dave McKean, friend and frequent Gaiman collaborator, claimed in an e-mail to the Georgia Straight that on their first meeting Gaiman was already wearing black exclusively. He has a bit of a goth streak. “What I really want is rubbery time.” Gaiman is trying to find a way to have enough money, work, and time to satisfy. “So you could lean on it a bit and get 12-day weeks, 48-hour days, and maybe the occasional 700-day year.”

At one time, Gaiman’s claim to fame was as the author of the Sandman comic series. With friends like Alan Moore and Clive Barker, Gaiman had strong influences and mentors starting out, and his comics became part of the canon of the postmodern era of that art form. Gaiman’s fame these days has a broader base.

“There is no distinguishing mark or feature by which I can identify my fans,” Gaiman says. ‘A few of them stand out because they are gorgeous and dressed in flowing black things and have wonderful hair and makeup and strange tattoos, but…’ Now Gaiman’s fans are as likely to be schoolteachers and grandmothers as the goths who discovered him through Sandman.

“In the beginning, comics readers drove the engine,” Gaiman says. Now the Sandman comics are driven into reprints by the success of other projects like his children’s books and his novels American Gods and the newly released Anansi Boys.

Anansi Boys is a witty weave of humour, fan­tasy, and family plots. “Its sole purpose is to amuse,” Gaiman confesses. “I wanted to write a book that would have its fair share of darkness but would use that darkness as a condiment.”

American Gods was grey in terms of mood and atmosphere, in terms of concreteness and intention. Anansi Boys is contrasty, more black-and-white. In American Gods, the concepts of good and evil blurred in the characters. Not so in Anansi Boys, where the good guys wear black and the bad guys wear white and when you put them together in a room, complications ensue.

If American Gods was Gaiman’s Bleak House, then what does that make Anansi Boys? “Probably the Pickwick Papers, if one’s doing Dickens,” Gaiman muses. The lightness in Anansi Boys is refreshing, as much of Gaiman’s earlier work was full of melancholy and despair. He hasn’t been afraid to get morbid and transgressive, either. He’s a latent goth, after all, and was one of the first mainstream comic writers allowed to deal with seriously adult themes. Where does that melancholy come from? “Mostly, I think, it comes from being a human being,” he says. “I’ve never met anybody who is just one thing. I would hate to create a world in which there is nothing but despair and melancholy and bleakness.”

Here’s the thing about Gaiman: he’s a nice guy. He’s easygoing well-meaning. He genuinely cares about people. (“He cares about his audience and about his creations,” McKean writes.) You get the sense that he’d give you the shirt off his back, as long as you don’t mind wearing black. In a recent New York visit, Gaiman read at a benefit event to save the infamous CBGB nightclub, which has been evicted by its landlord. Gaiman readily becomes a champion for anti-censorship and free-speech projects. After participating in a fundraiser for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Gaiman conceived of a similar campaign for the First Amendment Pro­ject, a nonprofit organization in the U.S. pledged to “protect and promote freedom of information, expression, and petition”.

Nineteen authors-ranging from Rick Moody and Dorothy Allison to John Grisham and Stephen King-auctioned off an opportunity for a fan to name a character in an upcoming book. It’s not only a great fundraising idea; it gives those of us who like to keep score the chance to see how writers compare with each other. The winning bid for the King book went for US$25,100, Amy Tan went for $3,338.88, and Gaiman went for $3,383, which suggests that although Gaiman isn’t as famous as King, he’s a little more famous than Tan.

In July, Gaiman zoomed through Southeast Asia on a tour sponsored by the British Council. More than 3,000 people showed up to see him in Manila on the first day. King might win a higher price, but there is something about Gaiman’s work, be it in comics or books, that crosses cultures.

But when asked to talk about what that something is, rather than mouthing eloquent words about the nature of myth and Joseph Campbell and the collective unconscious, Gaiman hesitates, and then starts talking about how he was one of the first bloggers and how surprised he was to find that 10,000 people from Singapore were visiting his Web site.

“But Neil,” I ask, “why are there 10,000 Singaporeans coming to your site?” “I’m not sure why there shouldn’t be,’ he responds.

It’s not that he’s reluctant; I’m not sure he knows that there is a something. But there must be. Because Amy Tan wouldn’t draw 3,000 people to a reading in Manila.

Part of what makes Gaiman unique is indeed his Web site, http://www.neilgaiman.com/, where he has been keeping a daily journal since 2001, before the publication of American Gods. “I thought it would be interesting to document the processes behind the scenes of getting a book published,” he says. “And then by the time I was done, it was September and I didn’t feel like stopping. I was enjoying it.”

Another aspect of Gaiman’s repertoire that explains his popularity is that he works in so many media.

“The thing that keeps me awake and interested,” Gaiman says, “is I keep going off and doing things I can’t do very well so that I can find out how they work.”

“It’s so much more interesting,” he says. “I love not having anything to prove. I love not having to compete with myself.”

After he got good at comics, he decided to try writing novels, which he obviously has the hang of: Anansi Boys reads with ease, and you get the sense that it was with equal ease that Gaiman wrote it. (Readers agree. It debuted on the most recent New York Times bestseller list at No. 1.) He started from scratch again as a children’s author. And now, film.

In September, the Hollywood Reporter claimed that Gaiman is perhaps “the most-optioned author in Hollywood who has yet to have any of his work translated to the big screen”. Virtually everything Gaiman has written has been optioned, but thus far nothing has actually been produced.

He’s h
ad more success writing directly for the screen. He was the only writer other than creator J. Michael Straczynski to script an episode of Babylon 5 in its final seasons, and he penned the English-language script for Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. The Beowulf project he and Roger Avary have written for director Robert Zemeckis is in production now. And this fall sees the release of MirrorMask. Designed and directed by Dave McKean, the film was written by Gaiman from a story the two crafted in collaboration.

They have a long history together, and it seems that they matured into the artists they are today by each other’s side. They met in London in 1986 during the planning of a new comic anthology (a project that never materialized). Gaiman was a journalist; McKean was completing art college. They both aspired to work in comics, ended up working together on Violent Cases, and haven’t stopped since.

McKean has designed and produced the covers for every Sandman comic book, and the two have collaborated on a number of projects, including the graphic novel Signal to Noise and the children’s books The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. They complement each other in the same way as Bernie and Elton, George and Gracie, Fred and Ginger, Batman and Robin. In coming up with the story for MirrorMask, McKean and Gaiman holed up inside the London flat Jim Henson used to reside in. Although being surrounded by Henson memorabilia was inspiring, the project required a change in how the two were used to working together.

In the past, Gaiman would write something and send it to McKean. Not this time.

“We worked out the story and the script together,” McKean said in his e-mail, “and this caused a good deal of friction for the first time in our working relationship.” At one point, the difference in creative opinion seemed as though it couldn’t be solved.

“We tossed a coin,” McKean admitted. “We have a couple of working rules,” he continued. “Whoever cares the most, wins. And, if it’s the pictures, I have final cut; if it’s the words, Neil does.”

Gaiman will have no one but himself (and a legion of fans) to answer to with the film version of Death: The High Cost of Living, his three-issue comic miniseries. The project languished at Warner Bros. for a time but has found a new home at New Line. Gaiman expects to head into preproduction on the film he has written, and will also direct, in March.

Who is Neil Gaiman? He’s a writer. And a human being who is equal parts goth, samaritan, and postmodernist. His writing, whether in the form of comic, novel, or script is as much about the nature of stories and storytellers as about the stories themselves.

The theme Gaiman discovered in the years he was composing the Sandman stories-which he refined with projects like Neverwhere and American Gods, and which resonates clearly in Anansi Boys­-is that the stuff of myth, of story, surrounds us, if we choose to see it.
–Blaine Kyllo