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Neil Gaiman

‘Dan Brown is trampled in the dust of my feet!’:  On Life as a Best-Seller

Neil Gaiman The world is strewn with self-pitying accounts of the dreadful slogs of rock bands on tour, but when Neil Gaiman gave up performing music at an early age, he didn’t envision that the life of a travelling author could be even less enviable. Signing books till 1 a.m., leaving the hotel at 6 for the next city, giving media interviews in the morning, and reading and signing sometimes twice per day, with nary a day off …

Nonetheless, at 10:30 a.m. on the phone from his San Francisco hotel, Gaiman announces that he feels “wonderful.” It seems he has one overriding consolation: his new novel, Anansi Boys, has just debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

“It is astonishing,” he offers. “I’m looking at this [list] going, ‘Oh my gosh! Dan Brown is trampled in the dust of my feet! E.L. Doctorow is weeping bitter tears right now. Salman Rushdie and Candace Bushnell are huddled together in the lower reaches of the list.’ It’s silly. It’s strange. It’s wonderful. It’s weird. It’s very cool, though.”

The 44-year-old author, who was born in Portchester, England but lives in Minneapolis, became a cult success in the late’80s with the publication of the first Sandman comics, which he scripted; now, his career has reached a tipping point. Not only is Anansi Boys conjuring magic in bookstores across the world, but the Henson Pictures movie Mirrormask, which he wrote in collaboration with Sandman artist Dave McKean, has just opened in U.S. theatres, and three more movies based on his works are slouching their way towards Hollywood to be born.

“I think I am a cult author,” Gaiman maintains, “but it’s an enormous cult. I still exist in this weird world where it’s very, very binary. It’s either ‘Neil Gaiman? Who’s he?’ or ‘Neil Gaiman? Oh my God, I can’t believe you know him; he’s my favourite author.’”

For those unfamiliar with the exponentially growing Gaiman oeuvre, Anansi Boys provides a welcome introduction. All of his familiar themes and situations are in place: ordinary people who become embroiled in extraordinary circumstances, mystic connections between people and places, bizarre dreamscapes where psychic battles are waged, and a preoccupation with the importance of stories – whether delivered as folktales, myths, legends, or songs. It’s set in the same milieu as Gaiman’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning 2001 novel American Gods, in which America plays host to the undercover incarnations of gods in which its various immigrants once believed.

However, where American Gods was a bizarre and often disturbing read, Anansi Boys is a twisted comedy in which the spider-god Anansi dies while singing karaoke in Florida, leaving his two sons, Fat Nancy and Spider, to come to terms with their legacy.

“I wanted to do that thing I get from a P.G. Wodehouse novel or a Shakespeare comedy,” says Gaiman. “Just the feeling of wonderful endings, and everybody getting what they deserve.”

Along the way, Gaiman makes a number of droll asides to the reader, such as that “each person who ever was or is or will be has a song.” Fat Nancy has a great singing voice but fears karaoke because of his shameless and embarrassing father. Gaiman admits to a similar misgiving; when he was playing in a punk band at age 15, he recalls, “We were playing at a party, and somebody threw a beer can and opened my chin, and I got taken up to a hospital in an ambulance. That really was the last time I sang in front of an audience.”

These days, Gaiman confines his public appearances to readings. His current signing tour, he admits, might be his last: “There’s a level at which I don’t really know how we get this to work as a signing tour, because there are just too many people. Which I feel kind of weird about ‘cause I built it all on the basis of having incredibly nice fans.”

He refuses, however, to consider using the “Unotchit,” the “remote mechanical book-signing apparatus” being developed by Margaret Atwood. “I can imagine that would actually be worse,” he says, “talking to 700 people through a video link while writing, ‘For Dorothy, in memory of that night of passion in Paris, 1932’ in their books, and it being reproduced on the other side — and [the signing] is still going on for six or seven hours.”

It seems inevitable that Gaiman will have to change his tours to readings only; after all, his cult seems about to explode into a full-blown religion. Expect Robert Zemeckis’s $100 million adaptation of the script Gaiman and director Roger Avary wrote for Beowulf to hit screens sometime in the next year or two, complete with “the dragon fight to end all dragon fights.” Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) is directing an adaptation of Gaiman’s children’s novel, Coraline, while Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited movie of Good Omens, the wildly funny apocalyptic novel which Gaiman published with Terry Pratchett in 1990, is back on track after funding woes stalled it in 2002.

“I thought it was dead,” admits Gaiman, “but apparently it was simply lying in a glass coffin surrounded by dwarves, and it may well come out.”

The world of film, apparently, will exert a reciprocal influence on his next writing project, a “scary” novel for children, to be called The Graveyard Book. “It’s about a kid who gets brought up by dead people,” says Gaiman. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do The Jungle Book and set it in a graveyard?’”

— Originally published in The National Post, Oct. 5, 2005

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