Neil Gaiman thought he wrote comic books. But a newspaper editor, of course, set him straight.
Back when he was riding the diabolical headwinds of his popular series of graphic novels, The Sandman, the author attended a party where he introduced himself as a comic-book writer to a newspaper's literary editor. But when the editor quickly realized who this actually was -- and the glaze melted from his eyes -- he offered Gaiman a correction tinged with astonishment: "My God, man, you don't write comics, you write graphic novels." Relating the story to theLos Angeles Times in 1995, Gaiman said, "I suddenly felt like someone who had been informed that she wasn't a hooker, that in fact she was a lady of the evening."
Gaiman's done much more, of course, than simply write graphic novels, having coauthored, with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, a comic novel about the Apocalypse; adapted into hardcover the BBC miniseries Neverwhere about the dark underworld beneath the streets of London; and, inspired by his young daughter, put a horrifying spin on C.S. Lewis' wardrobe doors for Coraline, a children's book about a passageway into a magical, yet malevolent, land.
But it is The Sandman that is Gaiman's magnum opus.
Though he had told a career counselor in high school that he wanted to pen comic books, he had a career as a freelance journalist before his first graphic novel, Violent Cases, was published in England in 1987. DC Comics discovered him and The Sandman was born. Or reborn, actually. The comic debuted back in 1939 with a regular-Joe crime fighter in the lead. But in Gaiman's hands the tale had a more otherworldly spin, slowing introducing readers to the seven siblings Endless: Dream, Death, Desire, Destiny, Destruction, Despair and Delirium (once Delight). They all have their roles in shaping the fates of man. In fact, when Death was imprisoned for decades, the results were devastating. Richard Nixon reached The White House and Michael Jackson the Billboard charts.
Direction from newspaper editors notwithstanding, to Gaiman, these stories are still comic books. The man who shuttled back and forth between comics and classics in his formative years and can pepper his writing with references to Norse mythology as well as the vaudevillian rock group Queen, never cottoned to such highbrow/lowbrow distinctions. Comparing notes on a yachting excursion with members of the Irish rock band U2, the writer who looks like a rock star and Delirium and the rock stars who gave themselves comic-worthy names such as Bono and The Edge came to a realization: Whether the medium is pop music or comic books, not being taken seriously can be a plus. "It's safer to be in the gutter," he told The Washington Post in 1995.
In 1995, Gaiman brought The Sandman to a close and began spending more time on his nongraphic fiction, including a couple of short-story collections. A few years later he released Stardust, an adult fairy tale that has young Tristan Thorn searching for a fallen star to woo the lovely but cold Victoria Forester. In 2001, he placed an ex-con named Shadow in the middle of a war between the ancient and modern dieties in American Gods. Coming in October 2002 is another departure: an audio recording of Two Plays for Voices, which stars Bebe Neuwirth as a wise queen doing battle with a bloodthirsty child and Brian Dennehy as the Angel of Vengeance investigating the first crime in history in heaven's City of Angels.
Gaiman need not worry about defining his artistic relevance, since so many other seem to do it for him. Stephen King, Roger Zelazny and Harlan Ellison are among those who have contributed introductions to his works. William Gibson, the man who coined the term "cyberspace," called him a "a writer of rare perception and endless imagination" as well as "an American treasure." (Even though he's, technically, a British treasure transplanted to the American Midwest.) Even Norman Mailer has weighed in: "Along with all else, Sandman is a comic strip for intellectuals, and I say it's about time."
The gushiest praise, however, may come from Frank McConnell, who barely contained himself in the pages of the political and artistic journal Commonweal. Saying Gaiman "may just be the most gifted and important storyteller in English," McConnell crowned Sandman as the most important act of fiction of the day. "And that, not just because of the brilliance and intricacy of its storytelling -- and I know few stories, outside the best of Joyce, Faulkner, and Pynchon, that are more intricate," he wrote in October 1995, " but also because it tells its wonderful and humanizing tale in a medium, comic books, still largely considered demimonde by the tenured zombies of the academic establishment."
"If Sandman is a 'comic,'" he concluded, "then The Magic Flute is a 'musical' and A Midsummer Night's Dream is a skit. Read the damn thing: it's important."
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Some fascinating factoids from our interview with Gaiman:
"One of the most enjoyable bits of writing Sandman was getting authors whose work I love to write the introductions for the collected graphic novels -- people like Steve Erickson, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Mikal Gilmore, and Samuel R. Delany."
"I have a big old Addams Family house, with -- in the summertime -- a vegetable garden, and I love growing exotic pumpkins. As a boy in England I used to dream about Ray Bradbury Hallowe'ens, and am thrilled that I get them these days. Unless I'm on the road signing people's books, of course."
"According to my daughters, my most irritating habit is asking for cups of tea."
"I love radio -- and love the availability of things like the Jack Benny radio shows in MP3 format. I'm addicted to BBC radio 7, and keep buying boxed CD sets of old UK radio programs, things like Round the Horne and Hancock's Half Hour. Every now and again I'll write a radio play."
"I love thunderstorms, old houses, and dreams."
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In the fall of 2005, Neil Gaiman took some time out to tell us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Probably Harlan Ellison's Shatterday (1980). It's a collection of Ellison's short stories, as powerful as any good Ellison collection, and I read it on a plane trip on very bad day in 1982, and Harlan's commentary in one of his introductions to stories -- on doing things, on being a writer and not just thinking you were a writer, on using the time you have -- did more to turn the almost-22-year-old me into the writer I would one day become than anything else. I got off the plane determined to be a writer.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Biography of Manuel by James Branch Cabell -- Eighteen volumes of beautiful, worldly, wise writing by a forgotten American master.
The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe -- The best science fiction novel of the last century.
Lud in the Mist by Hope Mirrlees -- My favourite fairy tale/detective novel/history/fantasy.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potock -- A labyrinth inside a maze; also a wonderful film.
Viriconium by M John Harrison -- I could pick any Harrison book, though. It could as easily be Light, his recent sci-fi novel, or Climbers, his astounding mainstream novel. He's a master of prose and ideas.
Codex Seraphinianus by Luigo Serafini -- A guide to an alien world, in an alien language. The strangest book I own.
A Humument by Tom Phillips -- In which an artist works into a Victorian novel to create something perfectly new.
Archer's Goon by Diana Wynne Jones -- The best writer of magical children's fiction of our generation. I don't know if this is the best of her novels, but it's my favourite.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers by R.A. Lafferty -- The funniest, oddest short stories in this or any other world.
The Complete Newgate Calenda -- One of those books, like Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, that's almost a window into the past. In this case, an immersive and astonishing look at criminals and their often short and tragic lives. My set is four volumes, bound in red leather, and it smells like a bygone age.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?All That Jazz -- It's the portrait of someone making art in the face of death, I think. And the fact it has songs.
It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire – Because I love screwball comedies when they work -- films about people who love each other and can't stand each other, and these are three of the best.
Monty Python's Life of Brian -- Now, more than ever, necessary. Demonstrates that you can be very serious while being funny. Remember, the opposite of funny is "not funny" -- not "serious." Watch any bad sitcom and you'll see what I mean.
Company of Wolves -- It's the imagery, and the Angela Carter layering. She was such a fine, fine writer, and this portrait of emerging sexuality and Red-Riding-Hood-ness-as-werewolf-film is a forgotten treasure.
The Saragossa Manuscript -- A masterpiece of storytelling, finally available on DVD. Horror and humour and romance and revelation, just as in life.
Brazil -- Gilliam's early masterpiece of bureaucracy and terrorism.
Way Out West -- Because any film in which Laurel and Hardy sing "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" has to be good.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like things with good lyrics -- Stephin Merritt, Thea Gilmore, Elvis Costello, Lou Reed -- and I like things with no lyrics at all, like Michael Nyman. Anything that keeps me sitting and working makes me happy. I have a full 60-gig iPod and I like to put it onto "random" mode and see what it thinks I need. Right now it's playing "Four Left Feet" by the Ditty Bops.
And Stephen Sondheim is still one of my heroes.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I'd love to drag out a bunch of unfashionable and forgotten authors and see what people made of them. Thorne Smith, for example, who wrote delirious jazz age comedies and was one of the authors who made me want to write Anansi Boys, is almost entirely forgotten these days -- the only books of his that are in print are the two Topper books.
Robert Aickman, who wrote the darkest, strangest, most unsettling stories of the twentieth century, is nearly unknown. I'd make people read them, and James Branch Cabell, and Hope Mirrlees.... There are too many wonderful authors who have been swallowed up by time.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
When I'm writing a novel, I write in fountain pen, in a notebook. I like to begin a writing day by filling a pen. If I'm working hard and well, I often have two different pens and two colours of ink on the go, to see at a glance how much I wrote in a day.
If I'm feeling particularly blank, I'll do a blog entry for the day over at www.neilgaiman.com, just to get my fingers working.
My best writing ritual I stole from Daniel PInkwater, in, I think, one of his Fishwhistle essays. When I'm meant to be writing, I can write, or I can not do anything at all. The joys of staring out of the window soon pall, and I start writing again.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Not really. I've been writing now professionally for about 23 years. I'm enormously lucky in that I've been able to support a family by making stuff up and writing it down -- as a journalist for the first few years, then writing fiction, in comics and prose, ever since. I'm always very aware that very few writers can do it full time, that most are forced to take jobs in academia or elsewhere to pay for the privilege of writing.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Well, eighteen months ago, when I was writing Anansi Boys, it was my friend Susanna Clarke. I'd been waiting for a decade for her to finish Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and was so excited when my advance proof copy arrived.
However, the world has discovered Susanna.
I wish that the world would rediscover the late R. A. Lafferty -- teller of tall tales, and a unique prose stylist. He wrote in a rambling, wonderful style that looks amazingly easy until you try it.
Of new writers, I'm really impressed with an Australian writer named Margo Lanagan, who wrote a short story collection called Black Juice.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Write. Finish things. Write more. Send the things you write to places that might publish them. When they come back, send them to other places. Repeat. And read everything.
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