Neil Gaiman: an appreciation

The new Weird Tales #352 features an exclusive interview with bestselling fantasy author Neil Gaiman. This fall saw the release of Gaiman’s new novel The Graveyard Book, and January 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of his comic-book masterpiece The Sandman — so will spend the next two weeks (starting Monday) revisiting The Sandman in “Recurring Dream,” a daily retrospective column by correspondent Eric San Juan.

But first, we asked Seattle-area WT contributor Lisa Mantchev to tell us what it was like when Neil visited her neck of the woods — specifically, the University of Washington — on The Graveyard Book tour this past October.

* * *

He’s signing. Books in stacks of eight await his signature, rendered in red-brown ink that flows from a fountain pen. Everyone here in the backstage green room keeps a close eye on Neil Gaiman and a closer eye on his right hand, which sports a splint on the middle finger: a souvenir from a recent trip to China. (The first rule of author signings is that you don’t ask the author how he ― or his hand ― is holding up. The second rule? See rule one.)

In passing, Gaiman wonders aloud why there is a clip-art leaf on the title page, when a bat or a tombstone would have been more thematically appropriate to a tome entitled The Graveyard Book. Everyone within hearing offers their suggestions (“Perhaps it’s meant to be the ivy near the Egyptian Walk?”) but there’s no denying that other things might look more like actual ivy, and Gaiman only shakes his head and moves on to the next title page in the next book.

A lot has changed since his first signing at the University of Washington Book Store years ago, where twenty people were in attendance. Tonight’s venue holds nine hundred, and by the time the reading starts at seven, the only seating available is in the balcony. Attendance didn’t jump fiftyfold overnight, though; there’s never been a lightning bolt or thunderclap in Gaiman’s career. Instead, a gradual storm has built one raindrop at a time: a cult following for Sandman whose membership jumped with the publication of American Gods and again with the release of the Stardust movie. No doubt the same will happen again when the Coraline movie opens in 2009. Hand-selling by supportive booksellers has been as vital as word-of-mouth by readers who each came to the Road of Gaiman by a different gateway work, as evidenced by the shifting piles of personal items now moving across the table: old review copies of Good Omens, co-written with the estimable Terry Pratchett; a Mirrormask DVD; a pamphlet of Snow, Glass, Apples; a hardcover copy of the Fragile Things collection.

In the chapel where the reading will take place, the audience is just as diverse: a beauty in full goth attire complete with crinoline and top hat; a young married couple with a toddler; people of various ages and means who arrive singly and in small groups. It’s Seattle, so they waited in the rain, in some cases for more than an hour, until the doors opened. It’s their chance to see the man many consider the rock star of the speculative fiction genre, the uncrowned king. Yes, he’s an award-winning, bestselling, internationally-acclaimed author, but he’s still “Neil for short”: amicable, approachable, and still very much one of us.

Before long, the moment has come: The sconces and chandeliers dim, the applause begins, and a single spot pours white light over Gaiman as he enters Stage Left. A ripple of laughter passes through the room when Gaiman informs the audience they will be seeing special advance footage of Coraline after the intermission, and he would appreciate it if no one would videotape it and put it on YouTube, because he knows he can trust them. Upturned faces smile and nod. With a smile that says, Good. I’m glad we understand one another, Gaiman launches into Chapter Four of The Graveyard Book: The Witch’s Headstone.

It’s a long chapter ― the longest in the book, in fact, and the original source material for the novel. Originally published, almost simultaneously, in the anthology Wizards and Gaiman’s collection M is for Magic, it is the seed that bore the darkly charming flower of The Graveyard Book. Gaiman swiftly renders Nobody Owens (Bod, for short) and his companions:

Abanazer Bolger had thick spectacles and a permanent expression of mild distaste, as if he had just realized that the milk in his tea had been on the turn, and he could not get the sour taste out of his mouth.

This is exactly the sort of thing Gaiman’s audience has come to expect and to love: words that sketch a vivid mental image, colored with his charming inflections. He’s a brilliant reader of his own work, pausing for dramatic effect in exactly the right place, pacing sentences just so, and always properly anticipating the laughter of those gathered in the pews.

“I wanted to hear his voice,” fan Elizabeth Coleman says afterward. “It’s such an expressive, melodious thing, and brings magic to everything he says, profound or mundane. In the Q&A, he turned even the most simple question . . . into a tale, but he was never long-winded.”

It’s all a perfectly balanced tightrope act: an author whose stories for children resonate with adults, whose comic book stories win World Fantasy awards, whose novels become movies filled with both CGI special effects and puppetry. And perhaps that tightrope act is simply one turn at the Mouse Circus, where everything is odd and enchanting and darkly mystical. ―Or, if not a tightrope, then the blade of a very special knife, the sort carried by Jack in opening scene of The Graveyard Book:

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

Gaiman walks the edge of that dark knife, weaving tales that cut his readers, that linger and transform their hearts and minds long after the author has departed a rain-drenched city.

Lisa Mantchev is the author of the fantasy novel Eyes Like Stars (forthcoming in summer 2009 from Feiwel & Friends). Her story “Six Scents” appears in Weird Tales: The 21st Century, Vol. 1.

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