Neil on Growing up Gaiman
NEW YORK, NY — On a sunny Saturday in May, Neil Gaiman shared center stage with World Voices director Caro Llewellyn for a conversation at the Cooper Union in the East Village. On the penultimate day of the the Fifth Annual Pen World Voices Festival, Llewellyn and Gaiman engaged in a wide-ranging dialogue about Neil’s Newberry Award winning Graveyard Book, his bookish youth, and embracing the unconventional. The superstar writer was, as always, witty and charming in a dialogue that touched upon some familiar topics but also revealed some new insights into the mind of one of the finest fantasy and comics writers of a generation… all to the delight of the appreciative audience that packed the Great Hall.
Caro Llewellyn opened with some questions about Gaiman’s new book, The Graveyard Book… mentioning during her introduction that this tome had caused her not only to miss a subway stop, but also to cry in public as well. The winner of the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Quill Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Squiddy, as well his cherished Ignatz Award (a brick), and now the Newberry Award spoke at some length about the special challenges of writing for kids and producing books that kids actually enjoyed versus books that were good for them (the ones that Gaiman characterized as those you couldn’t get them to read at gunpoint).
Gaiman shared his boyhood frustration of books by authors (even his beloved Ray Bradbury!) who just didn’t seem to be speaking with authenticity when they were writing in the voice of a child. It was as if many adults forgot how to be a kid… or that they were ever a kid to begin with for that matter. Neil thought it was important to channel that inner sense of wonder, that childlike sense of awe, when writing for children with Coraline or The Graveyard Book.
The Graveyard Book is a book that had a long gestation process… actually, some 23 years. Neil shared the moment of inspiration that led to the premise of the novel, being in fact structurally similar to The Jungle Book… but with dead people. Gaiman recalled his son, Mike trundling around their home on his tricycle to Neil’s persistent dread of the boy taking flight down the stairs. As the Gaimans didn’t have a proper yard for the boy’s three-wheel treks, Neil would take the lad across the street to the cemetery where his son happily frolicked amongst the headstones and gravesites of some of their less-than-living neighbors.
The scene sparked his imagination and he straightaway began to get the idea down on paper. After writing about a page, Gaiman reluctantly accepted that it was a much better idea than he was a writer. But the idea stayed with him and continued to grow in his fertile mind from the seed planted that day in the graveyard. Every three or four years, Neil would sit down and have another go at it. It wasn’t until 2002 or 2003, after American Gods, that he finally realized that he wasn’t likely to get any better, so he just ultimately set to it.
As Gaiman was thinking about the genesis of The Graveyard Book and writing for children, he reminisced about his own bookish youth (and of course how he was a complete embarrassment to his sisters… who have only just now figured out that he was “cool”). He remembered that he would spend a great deal of time as a boy at the library on school holiday. He spoke of the ritual, how his father would send him off with a sack of sandwiches, and how he would insatiably set about reading his way through the Children’s Section. The precocious young Gaiman became such a fixture at the library that he was actively discouraged from sharing his experiences with others as it was feared that if he presented himself as a feral child raised by librarians, then even more people would use them for free day care.
Caro asked of Gaiman’s boyhood ambitions and aspirations, where he went on to talk about those moments of fantasizing about following the writer’s path while engaged in organized sports with intermittent interruptions occurring in the form of a wet leather ball usually knocking him about the noggin. Other boys may have dreamed of being footballers (which meant they probably weren’t likely buffeted about the head with as many wet leather balls), but his dreams would have a more literary bent. He spoke of exercising those ambitions in the form of bad short stories and poetry while also nurturing an elaborate (and frankly disturbing… the look on Caro Llewellyn’s face as she listened was priceless) fantasy of living in a parallel reality where he would be the boy that wrote The Lord of the Rings.
Stepping forward in his youth, Neil told the tale of how he and a careers advisor shared several moments of awkward silence in the wake of the boy’s stated desire to write American comics as his vocation of choice. The career counseler had absolutely no idea of how to respond to this… other than to ask if the teenager had considered accountancy. This nonreaction reaction gave Gaiman an early view of a path outside the mainstream as well as the road to something slightly subversive… and for someone who has spent much of his career exploring and charting the cartography of our collective unconscious, this appeared to him to be the right way to go.
Although Gaiman’s ardor for comics faded during the rites of passage involved in any adolescent journey of a young man and the subsequent discovery of new wonders: girls, cars, and punk… his appreciation for the medium would return to him during his days as a young journalist. He happened upon a copy of DC Comics’ Swamp Thing by Alan Moore at London’s Victoria Station and quickly ascertained that the unique possibilities of this medium and the genuine craft of superlative storytelling were on display here.
Neil went on to tell of his experience in 1986, when he pitched the idea of an expansive article on the “new comics.” As the newspaper he had been writing for had just recently run a story on comics (as it was Desperate Dan’s 50th Anniversary), Gaiman then turned to The Sunday Times to pitch the story. He directed his excitement for the “new comics” as represented by the brilliant work of The Dark Knight, Maus, and the Watchmen among others into this story and went on to interview Frank Miller (The Dark Knight, Daeredevil, Sin City), Dave Sim (Cerebus), and Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Miracelman). Unfortunately, the story was killed after the editor and Neil agreed that the story lacked balance… it seemed that Gaiman believed — as the editor observed — that “these comics were a good thing.”
Neil did ultimately make the foray into the world of comics with the 1987 publication of Violent Cases from Titan Books (written by Gaiman with art by long-time collaborator, Dave McKean). Gaiman relished the fact that the trajectory of his career originated from the unlikely launch pad of comics. He felt that in comics, there was a lot of cool, unrealized potential… that there were a lot less rules and that he could do things no one had ever done before. He thoroughly enjoyed the subversive nature of creating bold and experimental work in a medium that few respected at the time. As Gaiman put it, “you could go off in the gutter and create wonderful things… and no one was watching.”
He also made it a point to note that if everything went right, none of what the past twenty-two years have wrought sinceViolent Cases would have ever had happened. Caro asked Gaiman about his first book, 1984’s Duran Duran: The Book(which for about ten years, was Gaiman’s dark secret). Neil was contacted by a publisher doing a book series about rock bands and had inquired if Neil were available for an assignment. Gaiman immediately responded “Yes,” and that his first book would be about the Velvet Underground, and then the next one would be about David Bowie, and then one about Punk… Neil’s wishlist had to be stopped short as there was a list of upcoming books in the upcoming schedule and could choose from one of three: Barry Manilow, Def Leppard, or Duran Duran. Gaiman’s immediate calculation was that being that Duran Duran had a much smaller catalog than Barry Manilow, then that was the book for him.
Neil Gaiman’s Duran Duran: The Book immediately sold out… Then the publisher went bust and Neil never saw a dime in royalties.
Gaiman thought that this had proved to be a valuable lesson as this was a book that he had absolutely just done for the money. In retrospect, the life and career path of Neil Gaiman could have been much different if he were to have stumbled down a lucrative path that was more work-for-hire, than for-the-love-of-it. He would have ended up writing books for the money and not books that he would want to read. It wasn’t a total loss… he was able to pay his rent and was able to upgrade from a manual to an electric typewriter.
Neil truly enjoyed the underground nature of being able to create in relative obscurity in comics… without the prevailing forces of convention dictating the accepted formulas of storytelling in this realm. He was positively giddy about the utter irrespectability of his craft, that in 1994 an English Department banned its students from attending a lecture that he was giving at a university. There is certainly a streak of antiestablishmentarianism (doubtlessly one of the reasons for his early attraction to Punk) that Gaiman is gleeful about and that drives him to follow his very own drummer.
The conversation turned toward politics, whereupon Gaiman had recollected as being regarded as ostentatiously non-political during the late eighties where a number of his contemporaries seemed to have some variation of a blood-sucking Margaret Thatcher on the covers of their books. He remarked that it wasn’t until recently that his work was seen as political when a particularly prescient panel from Sandman #50 that seemed to convey some relevant commentary on the war in Iraq came in to wide circulation.
However, the iconoclast in Gaiman took great delight from an official notice from the American Family Association that it was staging a boycott in conjunction with the Concerned Mothers of America of Sandman due to the positive depiction of homosexuality in its pages… unless or until Gaiman and his cohorts repented. He felt that if he had tweaked these people, that he must be doing something right. Neil soon began his involvement with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund shortly after this attempt at bullying his free speech in an effort to champion creator and free speech rights on a more expansive basis.
Llewellyn asked the British-born Gaiman if being an outsider helped bring a different perspective — and hence a different view of America — and was helpful in painting the picture of the great American tableau as depicted in the 2002 Hugo, Nebula, SFX Magazine Award, and Bram Stoker award-winning American Gods. Neil explained that there was a real disconnect between the America on television and the America that Gaiman lived in. He knew what America was supposed to be like, but that wasn’t the America of his everyday experience.
As a resident of Minnesota for about seven years at the time of the writing of American Gods, Neil explained his fascination with the America of the Midwest: the big-shouldered boundless America that seemed to sprawl within the spaces in-between. Exploring this America was quite a journey of discovery for Gaiman as he ventured from the homespun-downhome-smalltown Midwest to the glittering neon lights of the unreality of Las Vegas. This America was idiosyncratic in all its own small-town eccentricities and big-city disinteredness and was just as weird as wonderful.
Caro Llewellyn closed out their conversation with a question and answer session where Neil fielded a number of queries among which regarded the evolution of his characters and what it took to invent a villian that wasn’t just disagreeable, but dire… and most importantly: dimensional. Gaiman also discussed his process of working with various comic artists as well as playing to their strengths and how stories might spring forth built on that understanding of his collaborator. Neil then sat down to do an abbreviated signing (for which he would apologize antecedently and profusely)… the circumstances and time constraints dictated by an imminent France bound flight he was to catch.
Gaiman’s own long strange trip can be summed up in precisely the words in which so clearly conveyed his American journey: weird and wonderful. On this voyage, Neil Gaiman can’t be called a comics writer or a journalist. Gaiman also isn’t just a novelist or even a screenwriter. He’s not exactly a children’s book writer either. He’s all of those things and more… Neil Gaiman is a storyteller and a traveler in genres effortlessly traversing the distance between the quiet little places and the bold and endless vistas.
He goes his own way. He understands that rules can be broken, and that lines and labels can be blurred, and that whatever happens outside of them can be just as wonderful as weird.
And we’re all just along for the ride… lucky sods.
Recent awards and recognitions for Ogline’s illustration work include a 2008 Graphis Gold Award as well as recent inclusions in Society of Illustrators Los Angeles Illustration West 47, Creative Quarterly 15, and Creative Quarterly 13 award shows. Tim’s illustration work has been published by a number of different periodicals including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, the Utne Reader, Outdoor Life, This Old House Magazine, Institutional Investor, Philadelphia Style, Loyola Lawyer, How Magazine, and The Florida Review among others.
Ogline is also a former Adjunct Assistant Professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art.
Tim Ogline in this Edition
Electrical Activity of the Heart – Money Talks
Electrical Activity of the Heart – Opening Books and Closing Doors
Electrical Activity of the Heart – Rise and Shine
Electrical Activity of the Heart – The Vision Thing