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Neil Gaiman: The prince of stories


Sara Veal

He’s transformed Death into a likable young woman and conjured a happy childhood for an orphan raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Unsurprisingly, Neil Gaiman is unafraid of dying.

“If my plane goes down tomorrow, I’m in great shape, I’m not going to go down going, god, wouldn’t it have been good if I’d just had cool kids, or written a good children’s book, or made a movie or something like that, because I’ve done all that stuff… I’ve had this amazing life.”

The 49-year-old British author was at the last Singapore Writers’ Festival, along with American rock star girlfriend Amanda Palmer, of Dresden Dolls’ fame, where he treated more than 1,000 fans to three Q&As and two mammoth signing sessions, and spoke with The Jakarta Post about his creative collaborations, including the project with Palmer that resulted in their romance.

With his dishevelled hair and all-black clothing, Gaiman resembles the Sandman, the graphic novel character that brought him to public consciousness, setting the stage for a career writing about myths and magic across several media: comics, novels, short stories, poems, film, music and theatre.

He also sounds like his stories, which include Coraline, The Graveyard Book and Stardust. Not horrific and creepy, as they can be, but like the tone in which he conveys such horrors and creeps – his voice is melodic and friendly.

These soft, trans-Atlantic tones – a blend of his southern England upbringing and decades of living in America – can transform convincingly into those who feature in his anecdotes, from the nasal American accent of David Lynch (Blue Velvet) to Alan Moore’s (Watchmen) gruff Midlands brogue.

As befitting a man who has made his fortune “making things up and writing them down”, he pulls stories from thin air, like one about his Singaporean hosts’ possibly insidious motives for feeding him so well.

“There is a Singapore snack called Stuffed Author… it is produced by taking a visiting author and feeding them good things until they can eat no more, and then cutting them up into delicious slices and serving them to the people of Singapore.”

Since his first book, a 1984 Duran Duran biography, Gaiman has been prolific, winning countless literary awards.

Several of these award-winning projects have involved collaboration, his knack for creative teamwork honed during his Sandman days, with artists like Dave McKean.

“The great thing about collaborations is that they are always accidental and they’re always organic if they’re going to work,” he says, singling out Terry Pratchett (with whom he wrote Good Omens, his first fiction novel) and Palmer as his favorites.

Who Killed Amanda Palmer
consists of images of Palmer in a range of death poses, taken by photographer Kyle Cassidy, accompanied by “very short stories, at the end of which there’s always a dead Amanda Palmer”, written by Gaiman.

“Nobody had ever written to me before and said, I have lots of photos of myself dead, and in some cases naked, and would like you to write some stories to accompany them,” he says, explaining why he agreed to work with a person he had only so far met by email, through a mutual friend, musician Jason Webley.

“I thought, this is one of those projects that you do that’s definitely never going to have an impact on the rest of your life… a tiny little goofy thing that I’ll do for a few days and will be funny and fun… so I said yes,” he says smiling at the woman he describes as the “world’s coolest girlfriend”.

The couple reteamed for Gaiman’s directorial debut, Statuesque, a short, silent film about human statues – Palmer was a former human statue – that stars Bill Nighy and screened on British television in December.

Not all of his collaborations have turned out well, he notes, recounting his attempt to work with hero Lynch on a film, who wished to end their mystery film on the moon.

“And that was the moment. I said, this is not going to work… I can’t start a detective story and then end it with *we are on the moon, end of story’.”

Adaptation is also integral to Gaiman’s work. Coraline and Stardust were made into films, and he wrote the English version of Princess Mononoke and Beowulf screenplay.

The key to adaptation, he says, is to “*translate’ and not *transliterate'”. For his own work, he either selects a director he admires, as he did with Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), who will film The Graveyard Book, or allow a filmmaker to “get on with it”, as he did with Henry Selick, who made Coraline.

Despite his stratospheric success, Gaiman remains accessible for his millions of fans via the Internet, which he considers “the best communication tool that humanity has ever come up with”.

On www.neilgaiman.com, he offers insight into his daily activities and answers readers’ questions, and regularly Twitters (@neilhimself). He also used the web to promote The Graveyard Book, which he read in nine parts in as many American cities.

He recommends aspiring fantasy writers put their work on the web, as “you’re an email away from any agent in the world” and will “learn, when you see it printed… how people react to it”.

Fantasy is just one genre Gaiman has been associated with; he has also been tarred with “sci-fi” or “horror” brushes, reflecting his indefinability. He discounts the stigma others might see in genre fiction, pointing out that graphic novels with which he started have only lately become “hip and cool”.

His genre-crossing writing, noted for its unpredictability, reflects how he sees the world.

For example, short story “Snow Glass Apples” came about when he read a version of Snow White, and was struck by the peculiarity of a prince falling in love with a dead girl in a coffin, especially one with “skin as white as snow, and lips as red as blood, and hair as black as coal”.

“So suddenly I have this version of Snow White in my head in which she’s a vampire and he’s a necrophile and I think right, I’ll just tell it from the point of view of the wicked queen, and I’ll demonstrate that the big problem with history and folk tales is that they’re written by the winners, and the problem with the wicked queen was not that she was wicked, it was that she didn’t go far enough. Obviously, trying to cut out Snow White’s heart was a very sensible thing to do.”

His current project is based on Monkey: Journey to West, and will be his first nonfiction book since 1988’s Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion.

Monkey has fascinated Gaiman since childhood. His father bought a “beautiful, hardback, illustrated edition” before he was born, but could not locate it when he was ready to present it to the seven-year-old Gaiman, leading it to seem like “this glorious magical book with everything in it”.

He pitched the project to his publisher following a trip to China in 2007, after being surprised by many facets of Chinese culture, and because Monkey came up in every conversation he would have with people about China and literature.

“It’s historical, its mythic, it’s about stories, it’s got demons in it, and it also has me, doing a wonderfully inept journey to the West, and running into interesting problems, and having strange things happen to me.”

Such things include exploring a disused Monkey amusement park, which contained a Buddhist hell of people being “ripped apart and crushed”, chatting to the last of several generations of Monkey actors, and a man trying to sell him a human elbow outside a ruined temple.

Writing the book, he expects, will take up most of 2010, and it “will probably be published extremely shortly after it is finished”.

While he’s satisfied with his achievements to date, he preferred writing when he was younger, because it was as if he got to “invent the wheel every time”.

“Even when I start something that I think I’ve never done before, I can perceive echoes of previous ways that I’ve done things… it’s harder for me to go this is the first time.”

Still, he’s unlikely to quit writing anytime soon.

“There are so many stories I have to tell, set all over the place, it’s just a matter of how many I can fit in, before I forget to look both ways crossing the street, or get turned into snacks by Singaporeans.”


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