[27 May 2009]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
You are inside Neil Gaiman’s mind. (Hands and feet must stay within the car at all times. Management not responsible, etc.) Please note — now coming into view on your left — a highly unusual conglomeration. The phrase “a jumbled, jammed-together mess” might be an apt way to describe it, as would the adjective “higgledy-piggledy.”
There are fantastic creatures of every size and shape and color; a flaming arch leading into 37 alternative dimensions; a button; a crumbling staircase; a battered-looking witch’s hat; a row of brooding Doric columns; a headless doll; a few hounds of hell, snapping and straining at their leashes; a peanut butter sandwich; a talking cat; a disembodied bloodshot eye; and the occasional troll.
Currently visible on your right, my friends, is an ancient scroll upon which is written the minute particulars of your destiny — yet sadly, another line of it disappears each time you lean close and try to make out the words. (Sit down, please — you have been warned!) You are inside the mind of Neil Gaiman, winner of the 2009 Chicago Tribune Young Adult Book Prize, and it is a delicious and confusing and dangerous place to be — because anything can happen, and probably will.
The admission price for this journey is not cheap. Not because Gaiman’s books are unreasonably expensive or difficult to obtain at the library.
Rather, the steep cost is due entirely to his insistence that all riders must surrender their doubts, their cynicism, their pessimism, their bad moods and their slingshots. (All right, you can keep the slingshots — but we’re watching you.) Author of works such as “Coraline” (2003), a novel about a plucky little girl in search of perfect parents, which was made into the recent film; “The Graveyard Book” (2008), the story of a boy raised by ghosts, which won this year’s Newbery Medal and is also slated to be a film; and the novel “Stardust” (1999), the basis for the 2007 film starring Robert DeNiro, Gaiman is a creative dynamo, a man whose imagination never powers down.
Before he began writing novels and screenplays, he was best known as the mastermind behind “The Sandman” (Vertigo), a graphic novel series that began in 1988. He has embraced the Internet and its pinwheeling array of platforms — he blogs and he Tweets, and his Web site (mousecircus.com) is video-enriched — with gusto.
He’s like that friend you have who is always up for anything, no matter how risky or foolish. And even if things go spectacularly wrong and you end up grounded, broke, fired or jailed, or all four at once, this friend will still say, “Wasn’t that a blast?”
“If the choice is between doing something I’ve already done or doing something I’ve never done before that seems fun — and that I might make a mess of — I’ll pick the thing I don’t know how to do,” declares Gaiman. “It keeps me fresh. And it also means I’ll get egg on my face. But I don’t mind getting egg on my face. It means I never get bitter.
“My publishers know that they’re always going to get something they haven’t seen before.”
Gaiman was speaking from his home near Minneapolis, where he lives with his daughter Madeline, 15, in a rambling Victorian pile that he describes as “an Addams family house,” a reference to the cheerfully macabre clan created by cartoonist Charles Addams.
Gaiman, 48, was born in Great Britain but moved to the United States two decades ago for what he thought would be a temporary stay with his three children. Everyone loved it, though, and Gaiman decided to call it home. His older children, Michael and Holly, have moved on to their careers — the former is a computer programmer; the latter studies film in London. “My children astonish me,” Gaiman says. “I just try to stay out of their way.”
This is a man who knows a bit about astonishment, having induced gobs of it in his fans, especially younger ones. Gaiman’s novels for adults, such as “American Gods” (2001) and “Anansi Boys” (2005) are hits with readers and critics alike, but it is his work for young adults that marks him out as truly extraordinary. And while many of his plots involve the familiar fantasy elements of YA novels — monsters, ghosts, various and sundry sinister creatures — he is not really a horror writer, as Ray Olson notes.
“Neil’s stuff is never too scary,” says Olson, an associate editor at Chicago-based Booklist magazine, who has reviewed several of Gaiman’s novels. “It’s creepy and shadowy and threatening, but not end-of-the-world horrifying and never fatalistic. He loves life and the world too much. He wants everything to keep rolling along, even if a lot of it is frightening.
“Another essential to his success,” Olson adds, “is that he believes that people are capable. He doesn’t close a story with a mushroom cloud. Certainly, people like doom-laden endings, or several of Stephen King’s best books would’ve flopped. But they also like knowing that the little girl’s found her way out of the house of horrors on her own.”
Eric Kirsammer, owner of Chicago Comics, 3244 N. Clark St., since 1991, and of Quimby’s, 1854 W. North Ave., since 1997, says Gaiman’s work has been wildly popular with his customers ever since “Sandman.”
“That was the breakout thing. It was just a phenomenon,” Kirsammer recalls of the lushly drawn and thematically ambitious series, which combines elements of mythology and literature, weaving a complex tale about the ruler of the dreamworld and his motley associates. The series has been reprinted many times and still sells briskly, Kirsammer reports. “It keeps getting stronger and stronger.”
He now carries a wide variety of Gaiman’s work, including books for younger readers such as “The Wolves in the Wall” (2003) and “M Is for Magic” (2007), a collection of scintillating short stories. “Anything he does,” Kirsammer says, “we get.”
Another unusual aspect of Gaiman’s work, in addition to its breadth and variety, is his enjoyment of collaboration. He teamed up with fellow British author Terry Pratchett, creator of the Discworld series, for the novel “Good Omens” (1990), a hilarious tale about the end of the world, featuring quaintly appealing characters such as Death and Pestilence. He co-wrote the YA novel “Interworld” (2007), a story about a kid stranded between dimensions, with Michael Reaves. He has worked with many of the top illustrators in the comics world, He co-wrote the screenplay for the 2007 film “Beowulf.” And in true Gaiman fashion, he supplemented the novel and film of “Coraline” with a graphic novel version published last year.
“People ask me if I’m a children’s book author,” Gaiman says. “I say, ‘No, I’m a writer.’ This is my dream, and I don’t want to spoil it.”
The only way to spoil it, he believes, would be to let himself get typecast, to settle down and do just one thing. “I can think of no nightmare more horrible,” Gaiman declares. Instead, he goes where his fancy takes him, roving restlessly wherever his imagination leads: films, comic books, non-fiction, novels, performances. He is a droll and entertaining reader of his own work, a task he often undertakes at public appearances, where Gaiman’s dark, scruffy good looks and black leather jacket say “writer” loud and clear.
His audiences run the age gamut, but he has a special affinity for the ones still young enough and smart enough to believe in ghosts.
“I love meeting kids,” Gaiman says. “The kids make me incredibly happy. I love their questions. Kids are absolutely fresh and completely unspoiled.”
His workplace is wherever he happens to be at the moment. “A couple of months ago my dad died, and I went home to England. I began writing on the way home,” Gaiman recalls. “The plane was starting to land, and my daughter tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Dad, you have to put that away now.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to stop writing — I have to find out what happens!’”