Feature – The Daily Telegraph

From the December 12th Daily Telegraph:

Tori Amos writes about Gaiman in her songs, and when this cool children’s author comes to London, Lenny Henry interviews him on stage. Angelina Jolie is, right now, learning lines in Old English for the Gaiman-scripted film of Beowulf. Not bad for a freelance journalist whose first published book was a Duran Duran biography.

Well, OK, Gaiman didn’t amass that fan-base by writing children’s books but, as it happens, this cult author of the Sandman graphic novels, now working on his fifth children’s book, is proving a modern master at spinning fairy tales. Not since the Brothers Grimm has anybody produced work this deeply chilling – stories filled with walls that spew forth wolves, and replacement mothers who look like the original ones but have buttons instead of eyes. The parents in his books are not cruel – just mentally, physically and emotionally elsewhere.

His “other” parents profess love, but offer anything but safe havens – the stuff of story-book step-parenting. And, in this era awash with breast cancer, his version of the motif of the absent mother is the mother who’s ill for a year or two.

The emotions underlying his fantasies are brilliantly recognisable: sibling aggravations, the urge to leave home, and parents who just don’t get it (whatever “it” is). Yet while there is plenty of realism for children, nothing else being written now conveys the otherworldly fear that Gaiman’s work does. So, for once, that cliché of children’s authors’ interviews has special interest: just exactly what kind of stuff did Gaiman’s parents read to him at bedtime?

As he tells it, there were stories – from grandparents as well as parents. But more revealing is his mention of a toy he played with in his earliest infancy. “My favourite toy when I was two was a set of wooden letters, and I remember my mum painting them with me, so all the consonants were blue and all the vowels were red.”

This is interesting because Gaiman’s writing for children – commandingly good as it is – is lifted into another dimension by Dave McKean’s illustrations. There have been three picture-book collaborations so far, The Wolves in the Walls, The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, and the newest, Mirrormask; and some editions of Coraline, a novel for older children, also have McKean illustrations.

McKean’s drawings have a woodblock quality to them, like graven images hurled on to very vivid backgrounds. The image of the two-year-old future author, playing with carved wooden blocks, rendered bright with colour, could have been a foretaste of his collaboration with McKean.

English by birth, but a resident of Minneapolis since 1992, Gaiman is in Europe to publicise his adult book, Anansi Boys (Headline, £17.99). The day we meet he has had to wake up early – for him – to fly to London from Dublin for a day of interviews and meetings with movie folk. Bleary, but politely attentive, he looks white beneath his mop of curly hair, and is cloaked in his trademark navy sweater, black jeans and leather jacket.

“I usually get up around tennish,” he says. Wow, I say. With three kids, how does that work? Gaiman is in his late forties now, and his oldest two are at university, but Maddy is 11 and still at home. “Maddy goes to school ridiculously early, because it’s the States,” he says, “but Mary gets up with her. I’m usually still writing at 4.30 in the morning, so I get up late. I’ve never been very good at mornings.”

This is the sort of thing other authors might just throw out in an interview, never to think about again. But Gaiman’s author profile is inextricably intertwined with his very Alpha internet presence – he is a serious blogger, which is one of the reasons his website gets all those hits – so somebody somewhere will shortly ask him, via the web, about his sleeping patterns. It’s another aspect of his writing identity: you’re either a Gaiman fan, in which case you know absolutely everything about him, or you’ve never heard of him. But maybe because he’s tired, or maybe just because nobody’s ever asked him, he talks today about something he’s never covered online or in interviews before.

It was when Gaiman was 12 that he first came across a seam of mythology unlike anything his childhood collections of Greek and Roman tales had yet exposed him to. That was the year he got to be “really Jewish”, as he puts it. For this pre-bar mitzvah year, he was sent each weekend to stay with observant cousins in Wembley. “I had this wonderful bar mitzvah teacher. He was a cantor, Reb Meyer Lev. He was very, very into all of the stories of Jewish mythology. I was the kind of kid who, given the opportunity, would derail the stuff I was meant to be learning and get him on to mythological subjects. And he, bless him, would always go there.

“Which meant that in my mid-twenties, when I was writing myths and writing comics, I suddenly discovered that I knew all this incredibly obscure stuff, I mean way beyond imagining, and it was marvellous. And I’d write stuff, and people’d come up to me, and say, OK, the thing about Adam having three wives – marvellous stuff.” He smiles.

There is a mythic quality to all Gaiman’s work, and it works especially well in his children’s books, counterpointed as it is by his very accurate sense of how children think. The eldest of three – he has two younger sisters – he has exactly reproduced the pattern in his own offspring. And that is exactly: not only does he have a son and two daughters himself, but his son is exactly one year, 11 months and five days older than his daughter – the identical gap between Neil and his sister. It smacks of myth; and the memory of experiencing that gap is brilliantly reproduced in The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish: the older brother’s attempt to stifle the younger sister; her glee at watching him get into trouble. “I watched Mike and Holly,” he chuckles, “and I just remembered it all so well myself.”

As with all tales of children in peril, the parents in Gaiman’s books are deeply detached. “I suspect the parents in Coraline, and all the books, are much more me, parodying me – my nose in a book, my head somewhere else. It’s more me taking all the worst bits of me, than it is my parents,” he says.

His books are suffused with his own childhood – not least the house he grew up in, which is the background of Coraline. “What my mum wanted was a modern two-up, two-down house, but they couldn’t afford that so they wound up getting the servants’ half of an old manor house, with 10 acres of grounds, because in 1965 that was significantly cheaper than a two-up, two-down.

“We got one good room, the drawing room. We weren’t often allowed in there, but through the door leading out of one end was a bricked wall, because that’s where the other family lived. My mother gets a kick out of the fact that I borrowed the bricked wall behind the door for Coraline.”

But his parents were typically kind and enabling, rather than the nightmarish adults he portrays. When he was 13, he asked for a shed for his birthday – and they bought him one. The secure parental base that made wishes come true has proved a safe launching pad from which to write the scariest stories of them all.
–Dina Rabinovitch


Anansi Boys Review – St. John’s Newfoundland Telegram

From the November 27th Telegram:

I’ve always loved stories that tell of the worlds that (might) lurk beneath the surface.

The ones where, scratch beneath the thin veneer of our normal, mundane lives and you find worlds of
magic
, witches and gods going about their business right alongside us.

It’s not new. Books, television and film have long delved into these stories, from Harry Potter’s world of magic existing hidden but side-by-side with our muggle mundanity, to Buffy’s vampires and demons hanging out in the seamier side of the city while we punch the clock in the offices uptown.

I love these tales because they fit.

Think about it. Where do all the tales of magic, of ghosts and witchcraft come from? Can they all be false, figments of overactive imaginations, or are they constructed, pearl-like, from a grain of quasi-truth that gets covered over with myth to make it more palatable for our anti-magic mentality?

Take gods, as another example. What happened to them all?

With the rise of the main religions of the world, what happened to the Greek pantheon, to the Odins and Thors or Mithras or Isis, or the old thunder gods, gods of the streams and lakes?

To my mind, if you have it within yourself to believe in God (small or upper case G, as you wish) can you not also save a small portion of your mind to believe – however slightly – that once upon a time other supernatural beings also existed?

Bear that (only slightly blasphemous) idea in mind as we journey into the imagination of Neil Gaiman and his novel Anansi Boys.

I first came across Gaiman as the co-author, with Terry Pratchett, of the cult hit Good Omens. Suffice to say it’s a classic that merits reading, and reading over and over again. Trust me, read it, and the Book of Revelations and writings of the antichrist will never be the same again.

Uncertain beginning

Based on that, I picked up Anansi Boys with a slightly bemused expression, not exactly sure what to expect.

I was pleasantly reassured by the subtitle on the inside cover: God is dead, Meet the kids.

The god in this case is Anansi, the spider-god trickster of the African continent.

Fat Charlie Anansi never knew his father that well, other than the fact he knew his father always embarrassed him. You can forgive him for never knowing his father was, in fact, a god.

So, when news reaches him of his father’s untimely demise – in mid chorus at a karaoke bar surrounded by lovely young ladies – Charlie dutifully returns home to Florida from England to take care of the funeral arrangements.

He never realized his world was about to turn upside down with the discovery that: a) his father was a god, and b) he has a brother he never knew about.

His brother, Spider, did know about their father’s godhood. He knew because Spider had inherited most of Anansi’s powers, not to mention the same penchant for singing, stylish clothing, single women and (above all) mischief.

Add in Charlie’s scheming boss, Charlie’s prudish fiancee, her dragon of a mother, a one-night stand with a policewoman and a vendetta with a former foe of his father’s (who is also a god) and you start to get a feel for Gaiman’s wonderful book.

Anansi Boys is a wonder to read. It is lyrical, unpredictable, unconventional and undeniably funny.

We follow Charlie and Spider as they embark on quests: Charlie’s quest to get his life back from Spider, who has decided to move in and take it over with a view to having more fun at it than Charlie does.

That morphs into a quest to stop the bloodthirsty bird woman and Tiger (Anansi’s old foes), a quest to defeat Charlie’s unscrupulous boss and a quest – naturally – for true love.

Anansi Boys is a complex, tightly woven, no-holds-barred romp of a read.

In these darkish days, as fall gives way to winter, I confess the cold wind and dreary rain were a tad easier to cope with ensconced in the warmth with this lovely book.
–Mark Vaughan Jackson


Anansi Boys Review – SF Site

From SF Site:

“All stories are Anansi’s”.
So says Neil Gaiman in his latest novel, Anansi Boys. But if this be so, then Neil Gaiman himself is possibly one of the “Anansi boys”, part of the bloodline, because he is an extraordinary storyteller. What more needs to be said but that this was the book with the distinction (shared by very few) of having debuted on #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list as it was released.

By this stage in his career, Gaiman is in the enviable position of being a Household Name and legions of fans out there not only buy his books as soon as they hit the shelves but pre-order them in droves in the months prior to that. Contraband pre-publication copies even manage to turn up on Ebay. Gaiman is certainly one of those writers whose work I will buy without so much as having set eyes on it, simply because I know he’ll tell a rollicking good tale.

He does so in Anansi Boys, certainly — this is a book that obviously enjoyed being written. There’s a sense of fun about it that’s infectious. However, it is also more nebulous than any other Gaiman book I’ve read, and seems to want to be a number of different things without quite being any of them. The thread that joins these somewhat disparate parts is the inimitable Gaiman humour and wit — and the book brims with that. If ever they make a movie of this they may have to give that lime of Fat Charlie’s a line in the credits. But the novel fractures a little as a straight narrative voice and is interspersed with chatty storyteller-to-reader asides disguised as “and this too is an Anansi story” moments which look a little like padding to me, especially since much of what the asides convey is already found in the body of the novel, in more subtle and more sophisticated ways. And then there’s the strange glimpses of what the novel apparently really wanted to be, something darker and stranger and much less frothy and giggly as, for instance, the lime incident appears to point to. There are bits of a crime novel in here, a coming-of-age story, a high-jinks comedy, not to mention a contemporary retelling of an ancient set of legends complete with some fairly grisly moments involving Fat Charlie’s brother Spider which I will not divulge here for fear of sowing spoilers where they shouldn’t go.

However, having said all that, it’s still Neil Gaiman, it’s yet another enchanting bit of word-wizardry by one of the premier wordsmiths of our times, and it’s still a damned fine read. It’s just that, for this reader, it feels a little like having walked out of the ocean that was American Gods and somehow finding myself cooling my toes in a paddling pool.

I look forward to the next one, as always.

–Alma A. Hromic


American Gods Hill House Edition Review – Agony Column

From the December 19th Agony Column:
[Ed. Note: If this link is still active, you do want to follow it – the original article contains many photos of what these beautiful Hill House editions look like. – la]

So, yes, there are still things out there that can amaze me, knock me off my feet, strike me mute.

Me, mute?

Well, yep. Here’s a guy who can pop out a thousand words about leading (rhymes with bedding) and yet a simple book can shut me up for months.

Of course, as my son put it, “What, are there spells in there, dad?”

Well yes there are son. Spells and a whole lot more. (Note, he’s not a cute little tyke any more. He’s a 19-year old student in art school.)

I’m talking about the Hill House ultra-limited, lettered editions. Yes, I’ve raved about Hill House in the past, from the moment I first bought one of ’em. And I frankly thought that you couldn’t improve on their product, you couldn’t find something
bet
ter, more beautiful than a Hill House Limited edition.

Leave it to Hill House to outdo themselves. Because I am the luckiest guy in the entire universe, I got a gander at a couple of the Hill House ultra-limited (lettered) editions, and I have to say that awe just doesn’t cut it, for a couple of reasons. Now, some of these reasons are on the jaw-dropping drooling side of the equation. You’ve glanced at the piccies here, you can grok that the physical presence of these books is flat-out amazing. I’ll go into some amount of gory, obsessive detail in the fullness of time.

But there are some rather practical matters that are almost as important. Yes, they come in a box that looks like something Pandora might have mail-ordered. But the Hill House super-duper limited editions also pack in a few important bits that will improve the actual mental process of reading the damn books. Yes, those improvements are delivered like jewels in velvet. Literally. But what matters is the pleasure they will add to the reading experience of your oh-so-lucky-as-all-get-out-of-here recipient is indefinable, unrelated to the imposing physical presence. Books are, in the most basic sense, IP. What Hill House delivers knocks you upside the head both physically and intellectually, which is really what you want, right?

Yes it is, trust me.

Let’s open up the door, then, and cast a few spells.

What we’re talking about here are the apexes of desirability. Yes there are two. But let’s start with the main reason to buy, say, Hill House’s ultra-limited edition of American Gods. That would be that owning it will give you insight into his other works that you just won’t find otherwise. In particular, should you wish to get something of an inside line on the utterly sublime Anansi Boys, then you’ll need to pick up this edition of American Gods.

Inside that spectacular box, you’ll find a slim volume of invaluable information. It’s titled Only the Gods Are Real: A Guide to the Gods in Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS. Author Renata Sancken has gone through the WM Morrow edition of American Gods and pulled out every God that Gaiman mentions (and some only suggested) and described that God. This includes the titular character of Anansi Boys as well as other critters and creators that show up in that volume. She includes page references and extensive references to her sources, which include web pages as well as books. It’s the perfect sidecar for those who want to tuck into the extended edition of American Gods that comes in that honkin’ box. Turn the little book over and you get Neil Gaiman’s bibliography for American Gods, which is a wonderful article written by Gaiman about the books that he consulted when creating this novel.

Between the two there’s an exponential effect when it comes to immersing one’s self in Gaiman’s novels; not just American Gods but Anansi Boys as well. They’re the literary equivalent of a flashlight that you can shine about while reading Gaiman’s work. Not so much light as to spoil the shadows. Just enough in fact to cast the kind of shadows that will make Gaiman’s story sharper, more enjoyable.

Of course there is the incredible BOX. While it’s certainly extraneous to the reading process, a lot of us just love owning books, and the nicer the presentation, well, the nicer the book. You can’t get much nicer than the slab o’ marble and the velvet tracks that hold this edition of American Gods. Should you give this gift to someone you love (including yourself), be forewarned that it weighs in at some 30 or 40 pounds. It’s beautifully engineered and even goes so far as to include maintenance instructions for the box.
— Rick Kleffel


Feature – Newcastle Journal

From the 6th December Journal:

In his good-natured way, Neil Gaiman spills the beans about something which has always irked him a little.

About 15 years ago he collaborated with Terry Pratchett on a novel called Good Omens. It did very well and has been translated into many languages.

“But most of the world decided that what must have happened was that I wrote a very serious novel and Terry Pratchett put in all the jokes,” he says with mild indignation.

“I thought that wasn’t the way I remembered it happening. But I did think that maybe it would be fun to do a funny novel that would also have scary bits in it.”

Neil Gaiman is on the promotional circuit again, meeting his disparate groups of fans. They range from the devotees of the cultish Sandman graphic novels, for which he was once best known, to those of a more literary bent who enjoyed his last adult work of fiction, American Gods.

Then there are those keen on his work for the screen, particularly the TV serialisation of his novel Neverwhere, another collaboration, this time with Lenny Henry who became a good friend.

In Newcastle, prior to a signing session at Forbidden Planet, he says a question by Lenny ( “Why aren’t there any black people in horror movies?) also set him on track to his latest novel, Anansi Boys.

“I started thinking: what would be a horror story that I could populate with black people and that would draw on African culture? I sort of got interested but I came to realise that what I had wasn’t a movie or even really horror.”

For much of Neil Gaiman’s work you have to invent new genres and Anansi Boys is one of them. It’s adventure, fantasy and comedy in one, but with a dash of horror, particularly if you hate spiders.

Fat Charlie Nancy’s roguish dad has died and at the funeral he first becomes aware of a shadowy figure who does, indeed, become something of a shadow. Some time later the doorbell rings and there stands a man claiming to be his brother. “You can call me Spider,” he says. “You going to call me in?”

A humdrum life, largely spent working in an accounts department, begins to spin out of control, as it might do if you’ve just discovered your dad was a spider god.

To get rid of the ultra-intrusive Spider, Fat Charlie engages the services of four old ladies with a neat line in voodoo. Typical Gaiman, it will make you laugh and squirm.

Once a journalist, this versatile writer turned his pen to other things when he had interviewed everyone he wanted to meet. He now lives mostly in America with his wife, Mary, and their three children, although he hasn’t picked up the accent.

Recently he has ventured into children’s fiction, with Coraline and The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, but a big film project has also been occupying much of his time. He was approached by the Jim Henson Company, famous for the Muppets, and asked to write a fantasy along the lines of Labyrinth which graphic illustrator Dave Mckean would direct.

“Most movies begin with a story but this one began with a budget, even if it was only $4m which doesn’t compare too well with the $40m it cost to make Labyrinth in 1986,” notes Gaiman. But he wasn’t complaining. That’s not really his thing.

Mirrormask was premiered at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival and is due for general release early next year. Neil Gaiman (charismatic, charming, always in black) does sometimes seem like the man with the Midas touch.
–David Whetstone