Once Upon a Time

Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman follows the fairy tale into the darker realms of adulthood

Neil Gaiman thinks of himself as a lazy writer. Which makes me want to shoot myself. Because, in some 15 years of writing, Gaiman has published two novels, two short-story collections, six graphic novels, a children's picture book, two satirical nonfiction titles, and 75 ridiculously influential issues of the high-goth comic book The Sandman. Not to mention radio and movie scripts and the 1998 Babylon 5 episode "Day of the Dead." This month, Avon releases his lyrical fairy fantasy Stardust (his third novel), which is a prose version of the illustrated DC Comics collection. This is, the Brit-born, Wisconsin-based author admits, "a respectable quantity of stuff." Especially for someone who says he'd rather play with his three kids than clock 3000 words a day.

Sitting with this black-clad, shaggy-haired man over sushi at Kikugawa, I get the impression that playing with the kids may inspire Gaiman as much as it distracts. Certainly his hallucinatory fictions--mixing sundry denizens of fairy tales, classic poetry, Shakespeare, and alternative rock--reflect the child's tendency to spin "What if...?" inquiries into the radically unknown. Among the best pieces in this fall's Avon collection, Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions, is one called "Chivalry" that matches a tea-and-lace-curtains English hausfrau against the knight Galaad in a polite struggle for the Holy Grail. Another, "Troll Bridge," revives the old "fol rol de ol rol" fable with a world-weary disillusionment that would seemingly deny such magic. Even Sandman, under its veil of melancholy, addressed heavy truths with brash irreverence--embodying Death, for instance, as a sassy punk-rock babe.

Gaiman contends that books encountered in childhood serve as the richest compost for whatever an author creates as an adult. He read H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, T.H. White. (His children read Gaiman, which is a bit scary.) There is in his work, and even in his speaking voice, a kind of once-upon-a-time rhythm of enchantment; if he is not, perhaps, the most effective poet, the poetry of the fable lives in his prose.

Fantasy Island: Writer Neil Gaiman
Daniel Corrigan
Fantasy Island: Writer Neil Gaiman

He will accept the label of "fantasist" (although he's far happier--putting on a well-worn faux humility--with the designation of "someone who makes stuff up"). And as a fantasist, Gaiman is pleased that Stardust will be marketed as mainstream fiction. Partly because he finds much current fantasy "hidebound and dull" and wants to attract readers who ignore the fantasy racks. But mostly, I suspect, because he believes all fiction is fantasy and chafes at the genre hierarchy that values realist fiction over fantastic metaphor. (Or fantasy over the illustrated story: When he recalls winning a World Fantasy short-story award for Sandman #19, his punch line is the fact that the shocked governing body thereafter barred comic books from competition.)

The tale of a country yokel who, aiming to please his beloved, sets out on a quixotic quest through fairyland, Stardust is simply, almost transparently told. Its earthy ease surprises, especially after the shadowy urban machinations of Gaiman's 1996 novel Neverwhere, an appropriately twisted yarn about the London Underground. It's perhaps as much of a shock to learn that this pale, leather-jacketed, sushi-snarfing, erstwhile Damned fan has been kicking his heels in rural western Wisconsin for the past six years. Gaiman presents various reasons for abandoning England for the Midwest: exchange-rate fluctuations on U.S. paychecks, his American wife's Minneapolis-based relatives, and like-minded Minnesotan authors from Steven Brust to Will Shetterly. But I like to see both Stardust and the move here as a kind of return to the bucolic, magical fields of Gaiman's childhood in Southern England--and to the dark wild lurking just past the walls.


CITY PAGES: Novelist Steve Erickson once wrote that you live on, and write from, the horizon between consciousness and dream. And my thought was, "How could anyone get any work done there?"

NEIL GAIMAN: That is mostly where I live. It's the imagining place. So many of my stories are plotted by just getting up to the point where I know what happens. And then stopping, and going to bed. And lying in bed, turning it over and over in my head. Sooner or later you notice that you're dreaming--or you fail to notice that you're dreaming because you're dreaming. And then waking up in the morning and going, "Oh, I know what happens next."

Especially when I was doing Sandman, people would ask whether I wrote about my dreams: You'd always have to disappoint them. You don't really, because dream logic isn't story logic. It's more just following certain trains of thought that I assume, possibly wrongly, that everybody has, only sometimes you're willing to take them a little further. Most of Neverwhere came to me from traveling round London, just looking at the signs on the Underground and wondering about them. The Angel Islington. Well, who is the Angel Islington? Earl's Court. And making up an earl and giving him a court.

CP: The theme of being dissatisfied when you achieve your heart's desire comes up in both Neverwhere and Stardust.

GAIMAN: In Sandman, somebody says, at one point: "The price of getting what you want is getting what once you wanted." It's one of the things that forever fascinates me. Here am I, about to go out on a 21-city author tour, and chiefly what I'm concerned about is keeping my physical health and sanity. Whereas if you'd told me 10 years ago, "OK, you're going to have a major book-promotion 21-city tour of America," I'd be like, "Oh, I want that." I never really had a career plan; I just had a list of things I wanted to do. Luckily, it's not done yet. I'd like to do a Broadway play. I'd quite like to do a musical. I'd like to do a solid book of poems--not that anyone is expected to read it!

Next Page »