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Aming’s X Appeal


The superhero tradition gets a radical makeover in a new movie, with its filmmakers squaring off against homophobia and conservatism in Indonesia today.

Sara Veal

Under a bright spotlight, a white-haired, black cat-suited superhero strikes a fierce pose, her beautifully painted face solemn and sultry. Her manicured talons are enough to make you think twice about crossing her, but it’s her spike-stiletto boots that are the real concern.

Unexpectedly, the Lady Gaga-like dominatrix struts over and flops down beside me on the couch,  where I have been watching, entranced and intimidated.

“My feet are killing me! I’ve had to wear this outfit every day for a month!” Underneath all that pomp and pleather is the lovable Aming, down-to-earth even in sky-high heels.

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Million Dollar Mom


Rebecca James never intended to be a writer. She spent her 20s experimenting, from teaching English overseas and waitressing to starting and stopping several university degrees. But she is being touted as the next big literary sensation. Sara Veal talks to her.

It’s the kind of story Hollywood would snap up the rights to and cast Cate Blanchett in. Last year Rebecca James, then 39-year-old Australian mother of four young sons, and her partner Hilary Hudson were facing dire financial straits when her second novel to be published, Beautiful Malice, spurred an international “million-dollar” bidding war.

Within a week the family’s lives were changed forever – although it actually was a lifetime in the making, with James’ two years in Jakarta and becoming a mother figuring significantly in her development as a writer.

“I’m a restless person, the path I wanted to take just wasn’t clear, and lots of things interested me, so I was easily led into other routes. Writing is just something I have stuck at and now that I will stick at – I love it,” she says by phone from her home in Armidale, a cathedral city north of Sydney.

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Mona Sylviana: Challenging ‘Chick’-Lit


Sara Veal

Think of women writers, and the phrase sastra wangi (fragrant literature or “chick-lit”) is likely to come to mind.

Authors like Mona Sylviana aim to dispel such dismissive and sweeping stereotypes, and their non-chick-lit writings will be showcased in a new short story collection that reflects what editor and publisher John H. McGlynn describes as a post-New Order willingness to confront “societal problems head on”.

“In my opinion, some examples of Indonesian women’s literature are referred to as [chick-lit] out of prejudice. And prejudice comes from discrimination,” Mona says.

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Karmela Kartodirdjo: Keeping it real


Sara Veal

“I love singing, I love it when I sing with a crowd, and I see them enjoying my music,” says Karmela Kartodirdjo over a cup of coffee in a cozy Kemang cafe.

“It gets me high when they sing the songs I have written.”

You might not have heard of Karmela, better known as Lala, but if you’re a fan of Indonesian pop music, you’re bound to fall for this little lady in a huge way.

With a laidback style, genuine demeanour and a crystal clear set of pipes, this Indonesian-Pinoy girl next door is well on her way to becoming the next big thing.

After spending two years making her name in the Philippines on the Warner Music label, the singer-songwriter returned to Jakarta last year to break into the Indonesian music industry, under the management of Sony.

“Both places are like my home, but I got to have a music career in the Philippines, and I also want to have one in here — I want the best of both worlds,” Karmela says.

In recent months, she has performed regular acoustic sets at Poste Kitchen Bar; toured around Asia with fellow Southeast Asian artists; served as a musical ambassador for Coca Cola’s “Open Happiness” project; wrapped up a musical comedy film; and is now working on her own album, with the first single due out in a few weeks.

Karmela writes songs about “personal experiences, people who are close to me, who inspire me”. Her new single, “Hasrat Cinta” (Passion), is a cover of a hit song from 10 years ago by male singer Yana Yulio.

“Because I’m a new artist here in Indonesia, we want people to know me first, so we gave them something they might be familiar with,” Karmela says, adding that while the song is “very pop” her musical roots are country, blues and alternative.

“But I’m very comfortable with pop. After that I’m working on my album, and will get to do more of my own songs… I want a lot of people to be able to sing my songs. That’s my goal.”

Indonesian artists she particularly looks up to are Rieka Roslan (“she has an amazing voice”) and Glenn Fredly (“I love him”).

At 24, Karmela has considerable entertainment experience under her belt. She began writing songs at 15, acted in sinetron when she was 17, co-starring with Bunga Citra Lestari, Raffi Ahmad, Arifin Putra and Laudya Cynthia Bella in SMP (Senandung Masa Puber).

Despite her acting forays — SKJ (Seleb Kota Jogja), her film with Cinta Laura and new Sony band SKJ, out next month — Karmela is focused on her music.

“I hope I do more albums than I do movies. I want people to know me as a musician, and then acting will be an extension of what I can do … Music is in my bones,” she says, adding that her main source of inspiration is her father, Eko Muhatma Kartodirdjo, famous in Malaysia during the 1960s as one of The Grim Preachers.

“He’s actually the reason why I play music. Since I was a young girl I would listen to him play the guitar and the music he listens to, like the Beatles, and all of that old stuff.”

Karmela is surrounded by songbirds and strummers. Her elder brother Marco is in the acoustic band Mike’s Apartment and is married to singer Imel, while she has been dating J. Mono, pop rock group Alexa’s bass player, for nine months, after meeting him at a television performance.

“We hang out with a lot of musicians. [J. Mono is] also in the industry, so we do a lot of things together. We relate to one another … He’s actually more experienced than me in the music industry, so he gives me a lot of advice.”

Getting to grips with the Indonesian music industry is a top priority for the singer.

“In the Philippines, the music industry there and the culture are different … It’s a challenge, but I’m having fun, because I’m learning a lot,” she says.

“[In Indonesia] a musician can also be seen as a celebrity, an artist … [but] in the Philippines, most of the musicians there are true musicians by heart.”

Karmela notes that “local music is really booming” and has observed a “gap” between the Indonesian audience and the output of local musicians, especially due to the archipelago’s diversity, hence she says “artists have to make more of the music audiences want to hear”.

“People are still listening to dangdut, people listen to Madonna, to Bon Jovi … it depends on what you give them … the more you give, the more they eat. People follow trends. That’s a characteristic of this country,” she says, adding the sale of RBTs (Ringback Tones) have become an important way of measuring an artist’s success.

“For my local album, we’re going to make it Indonesian, the aim is to localize myself again here as an Indonesian, because there is a difference if they see you as international or local, in terms of business too.”

In October, she and Imel, both representing Indonesia, hosted and performed at the Sing Out Asia concert in Usmar Ismail film building in Kuningan, Jakarta.

Sing Out Asia, which Karmela has been associated with since 2008, brings together top young talent from several ASEAN countries, and seeks to inspire fellow youths across the region, musically and through community work. After the Jakarta performance, the Sing Out Asia performers travelled to Japan.

“We got to perform at a bar and that night they were having female singers from Asia, so Imel and myself, and my friend Julianne, she performed with a guitar — she also performed [at the Sing Out Asia concert in Jakarta] — we did a production number, it was really fun.”

Upon her return, Karmela focused on her musical collaboration with three other Sony stars, Ello, Ipang and Beery from St. Loco, as part of Coca-Cola’s global “Open Happiness” campaign.

The only female in the quartet, Karmela represents the “pop female” of the quartet, to the others’ “pop male”, “rock male” and “hip-hop head”. The single, Buka Semangat Baru, was recently released, with an accompanying cheerful music video that regularly screens on TV.

“Every country has its own version … basically we’re trying to make people feel a new spirit again, because there’s a lot going on in this country,” she says.

“The concept was that we were at a circus, at a carnival … It was a really fun shoot, we did that in Bogor … there was a lot of green screens so we had to use our imagination.”

The Coca-Cola tour enabled Karmela to see more of Indonesia, which opened her eyes further to the range of ways people across the archipelago express their love of music.

“The characters of people are really different. In Yogyakarta, people are really calm. They’re so Javanese. In Makassar it’s different. They’re so excited and they always want to take close-up pictures. In Medan or Surabaya, people there are really into music. If we just sing a few songs, they get really hyped up.”

One month ago, on location in Yogyakarta, she completed filming SKJ, which is in the vein of Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do.

“It’s about a band called SKJ that just got signed by Sony, and their journey, because they’re originally from Yogyakarta, so their journey from Yogyakarta to Jakarta, being a band, and there’s a contest…” she trails off, smiling, realizing she didn’t want to ruin the ending.

In the film, Karmela and Cinta Laura were the band’s fans and supporters, and her character has a romance with the SKJ bass player. She enjoyed working on the film, and was full of praise for her co-star.

“[Cinta Laura] is wonderful, I had a really great time working with her, she’s a pro.”

Besides her music work, Karmela makes time for other activities, such as teaching herself the piano and fitness.

“I’m into sports. I enrolled myself in a gym and I’m joining Muay Thai. You need a lot of energy to do this, for example, Alexa have gigs almost every day, and if they don’t keep their bodies fit they can drop.”

Karmela also enjoys going to gigs and is looking forward to the upcoming concerts of Kings of Convenience, Paramore (in Singapore) and Imogen Heap. She hopes one day she can open for a foreign act, and perform at rock festivals.

In the meantime, Karmela is dedicated to making her dreams come true, one day at a time.

“I hope I get to be a part of the music industry here, and be accepted, and people get to enjoy the music I deliver to them, and get to know me through my music.”

“Hasrat Cinta”, the first single of Karmela’s upcoming album, will be released soon. Follow the singer on Twitter (http://twitter.com/LalaKarmela) for more information. SKJ will be released in cinemas in April.


2005 – Bersama – Album, vocalist for band Inersia
2007 – Stars – Debut solo album under Warner Music Philippines.
2009 –”Buka Semangat Baru” – Coca-Cola single with Ello,
Ipang, and Beery of St. Loco.

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Julian Juwadi: Chasing away boredom


Sara Veal

Julian Juwadi can’t bear boredom, which is why he founded his own company. Association of Division (AOD) allows him to constantly explore new territory.

“What is AOD? Sometimes it’s clothes, sometimes it’s exhibitions… it’s only a space, and a creative studio,” the 25-year-old says.

Julian has avoided boredom all his life. After growing up in Bogor, he changed schools several times, whenever possible.

“Like in kindergarten, three times. In elementary school, it was twice… every time my parents offered me a chance to change, I accepted… I made a lot of friends!”

In 2003, Julian moved to Sydney to study business at university, on the advice of his mother, a successful and independent businesswoman. Although he “needs to know everything”, he found the degree tedious, but completed it anyway, playing guitar in a hardcore band in his spare time.

After university, he decided to apply his business skills to selling T-shirts a friend designed, which he funded with his “lunch money”.

“I didn’t know anything about fashion. I wanted to keep learning, explore something I didn’t know.”

The “rock-and-roll”, youth-orientated T-shirts, which he branded “Notorious”, were well received.

“I made A$1,400 a day. I went to each house with a bag and offered them products,” he says.

Although Julian loved Sydney, he returned to Indonesia in 2008, as “your home country is always a better fit” and he prefers communicating in Indonesian.

Building on his budding fashion empire, he added two more youth brands, Proud Parents for women, and Bizarre, which is unisex.

Opening a traditional retail store crossed his mind, but the restless entrepreneur felt that would be “monotonous”, so he came up with AOD, which would be a “pop-up” clothes store several times a year and a creative space the rest of the time, freeing him to implement whatever ideas struck his fancy.

Since AOD’s soft launch in 2008, the space has seen five fashion collections, and hosted several art and music events to support the local community, all of which have been met with enthusiasm.

These events included last year’s “We’re All Millionaires” exhibition, curated by C&C Projects in 2009 – offering contemporary artworks for Rp 1 million each while poking fun at the term “millionaire” and the elitism of art ownership.

In November 2009, again with C&C Projects, AOD hosted a playful exhibition for legendary Indonesian artist Teguh Ostenrik.

Most recently, throughout February, the space was transformed into AOD Records, a temporary record store that gave music fans the chance to sample 40 up-and-coming artists across genres, and buy associated merchandise. Free gigs were scheduled every Saturday from popular bands like Naif, SORE and Funny Little Dream.

“People came everyday. It was very tiring. I was kind of glad when it was over. But it was worth it. People said *wow’, it was really great for the bands,” Julian says.

“The customers tried other music, out of their comfort zones. We see that as a success.”

Julian supports the local community because it puts pressure on him to deliver and builds the AOD brand.

“We made a loss of AOD records, but that’s OK, because it’s good for the brand, it brought new people to AOD.”

Currently, AOD are working on a fashion-music collaboration, in which Naif and SORE will respectively act as brand ambassadors for the new collections of Bizarre and Notorious, with a small album launch at the AOD space.

Julian admits he roped Naif in through unorthodox methods.

“We sneaked backstage *at their concert* and gave them our clothes and they liked it!”

To further promote the new fashion collections, including Proud Parents, AOD is making short videos in with visual artists Joey Christian and Heru W. Atmaja, who have produced videos for Dewi Sandra. The two-to-four-minute films will be posted on YouTube and displayed at the upcoming Brightspot Market, between March 11-14 at Pacific Place.

After this project, another “We’re All Millionaires” exhibition is the works, as is an art-fashion collaboration with an artist he met at December’s Brightspot.

With all these plans bubbling away, one wonders if Julian ever gets a chance to relax.

“To save money, I bought all the console games, and play them in my room… if I have a holiday I’d spend a lot of money going everywhere,” he says.

Still even playing games is a form of work.

“I never work in a studio. If I’m in the office, that means I’m browsing, not working. If I’m in my room playing games, I’m working. I play a football game that I don’t really need to concentrate on, my mind is on other things, and if I come up with an idea, I just run to the studio.”

Julian says his fear of boredom and “hard-to-please” attitude has helped AOD, even if it often proves time-consuming, describing how he spent three weeks searching for the right fabric for a jacket in the new collection.

“I’m not good at making something, but I’m good at making things more interesting, because I’m easily bored,” he says, explaining how he works with his designers on concepts.

“Like clothes, if I don’t wear it I’m not going to sell it. If I come to an art show, what kind of art do I want to see?”

Friends, four of whom work at AOD, have also been invaluable.

“They’re the most creative people, so they help me to improve the concepts,” he says.

Julian notes he hasn’t always gotten it right, as in the case of a jacket priced at Rp 1.9 million, which didn’t sell.

“It’s probably because of buying power. *Jakartans* cannot experiment because if they spend money on something they don’t know, they might regret it.”

The company learned from its mistakes, these days items cost between Rp 150,000 and Rp 500,000. But Julian would prefer to make mistakes than play it safe.

“We’re still young, we make mistakes. I don’t want regrets when I’m 60 that I didn’t do something.”

AOD is set for expansion, with the upcoming collection being sold in Bandung and Bali, as well as overseas on-demand.

“We are accepting orders for this collection until June, only from the overseas market,” he says, adding to help generate international interest, he sent clothes to a London-based fashion blogger.

Julian will continue exploring the unknown, maybe dabbling with technology by holding a robot competition, and venturing into food and jewelry.

“AOD is like a platform for me. I can always do something different, so I can probably do it for the rest of my life.”


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O Thiam Chin : Writing away life’s mysteries


Sara Veal

O Thiam Chin writes stories because no one else can tell the stories he wants to tell.

“As in the story in my head, how I feel about things,” the Singaporean author says, remarking he sees stories everywhere.

The 32-year-old’s latest publication, Never Been Better, is a collection of short stories that comprise a unique portrait of modern Singapore.

Through distinctive individuals – a teenage runaway, a young woman grieving her sister, a Chinese immigrant hoping to find a better life in the nation-state – Thiam Chin effectively explores themes of love, loss and longing.

Never Been Better was preceded by 2006’s Free-Falling Man, another collection of short stories, and will soon be followed by a collection of micro-fiction later this year, and a possible novel, which would be his first.

Such literary dexterity and prolific output is all the more astonishing from someone who only realized he wanted to be a writer five years ago, following careers in telecommunications, the media and marketing, and even an afternoon of acting for Singaporean series Crimewatch, (“Really really bad” and “embarrassing”, he says).

Although Thiam Chin wrote his first short story at 21 while serving a compulsory two-and-a-half-year army stint – “that was because I had nothing to do” – it was almost a decade before he returned to creative writing.

He originally studied mechatronics (mechanical engineering) for three years due to a “herd mentality”, as all his friends were doing it.

“Plus my O levels results weren’t that great, so there weren’t many courses I could choose from. At that point of my life, it seemed like the right thing to do,” he admits.

Once he started working as an engineer, he “didn’t see a future in it” and turned to marketing and PR, which was “quite fun” and helped him develop his writing skills.

But it was only while pursuing a part-time graduate course in English Literature and Language that he realized he wanted to spend his life writing his own stories.

“I took the course to become a better reader… I didn’t realize it would make me want to write,” he says, explaining the exposure to so many good writers proved inescapably inspirational.

This was in 2005. His first break was a short story about gay prostitution for Best of Singapore Erotica.

“The editor loved it… so he asked me to write a second piece… so I wrote a second piece about orgies,” he says.

Since then he’s volleyed between writing full-time and media and marketing jobs, as well as writing for magazines and websites. Currently, he’s freelancing and tutoring high school students, to free up more time to realize his seemingly nonstop flow of ideas.

So many ideas in fact, that while Never Been Better was in the proofing process, he set himself a challenge to write 50 micro-fiction (500-word) stories in as many days, providing MPH, his Malaysian publisher, with another book in almost no time at all.

But it hasn’t always been so effortless. After he finished his first collection of short stories in 2006, he wasn’t able to find a local publisher, so self-published Free Falling Man using iUniverse, an online self-publishing company, in what proved to be a relatively “painless” three-month process.

“It was a good learning experience, for me as a new writer, to know what went into the whole publishing process so that I was more aware and appreciative of all the hard work that had been put to it when it came to my second book,” he says.

Thiam Chin describes the Singaporean publishing world as closed.

“You have to either be really, really talented, or outspoken or well-connected.”

He remarks that many Singaporeans don’t read local literature unless they’re doing a literature course.

“It’s because it’s boring. Talking about the same thing again and again, first generational drift, postcolonialism… I don’t feel a lot of that,” he says.

“My parents didn’t struggle with a postcolonial identity… so I don’t see the need for it in my literature. I prefer to escape from the reality I have… a land can be a fixed place, but it can also be imaginary, illusory, like Haruku Murakami’s Japan.

“But I think new works from new writers like Cyril Wong are good. He’s a talented writer who can write whatever he wants, with daring and originality.

“I like Alfian Sa’at and Claire Tham too. They write about many aspects of life in Singapore with a piercing but sympathetic clarity that appeals to me.”

Regardless of the lackluster Singaporean interest, it seems Thiam Chin’s work is beginning to reach a wider audience. A woman based in Sweden was so taken with one of his stories that she had it translated and managed to get it published in a Swedish literary journal.

“She’s a godsend,” he says, adding he’s hoping his stories will also be translated into Japanese.

In Never Been Better, Thiam Chin presents the perspective of several female characters, from a girl who attempts to commit suicide to a woman trapped in an abusive marriage.

He says he writes about women because he finds them much harder to pin down than men, and wants to understand them better.

“By writing, I write some of mystery out, some of my questions, doubts, some of my curiosity. To me women are the foreign land… I see women as friends, as foes, as so many things at once… I understand how a man would feel, their ego, their entity, wanting to be a provider… but a woman, I can never get it down right.

“I don’t think I can actually pin down 100 percent woman, one profile that fits everybody… that’s why I find it so interesting. Every woman has her own take on relationships. That’s why women’s magazines sell. I think there are only a few kinds of men.

“I also wanted to explore the kind of relationship where you have to stay together no matter what… is it love, is it poverty?” he says, referring to the domestic abuse victim in his story “Turning a Blind Eye”.

In addition to violence and suicide, Thiam Chin also addresses the fluidity of human sexuality. This attention to controversial subjects is unintentional, he says.

“I don’t choose to write with a particular theme or subject matter in mind. I simply let my story dictate itself and go along with it. It’s only when the story is done, and I take a step back and look at it, and it becomes clearer that it had done certain things, or addressed some particular issues. But I never side-step difficult subjects.

“Writing allows me to explore the mystery of man and humanity in all its profoundness, depravity and loves.”

While his style is often realist, he’s become more interested in magical realism, recently completing a story about a girl who falls in love with a bird boy, a story of first love that apparently resonated deeply even with friends who aren’t fond of reading.

“It’s difficult… my voice said you’re going to suck at that, you’re going to make a mess… I ignored the voice and kept writing,” he says.

His next challenge will be a novel, which he hopes to complete this year. Inspired by a story by Jhumpa Lahiri, he plans to use the 2004 tsunami as a backdrop, against which he’ll explore the dynamics of two couples, one straight and one gay.

“Initially I planned to set it in Phuket, but I realized I may not be very strong on the details, the places… so I’m thinking of setting it in a nameless country, in a nameless island… it’s easier for me to work with,” he says, adding a strong sense of setting might distract from the psychological exploration.

“*The tsunami is the perfect backdrop to talk about loss, to talk about memories.”

Despite this ambitious premise and the constant challenges he’s been undertaking with considerable success, Thiam Chin remains humble, acknowledging he still has much to learn.

“As a new writer, I’m still not sure about my voice… to me, when you read my stories, it’s very different from one to another, you can never tell if its O Thiam Chin, or O Thiam Chin’s brother.”

Never Been Better is available to buy online at www.mphonline.com.

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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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