The dark night returns for Neil Gaiman

On the eve of Sandman: Overture, the writer talks about his life and his work

But there's one story Gaiman hasn't quite tapped into from his days in Minnesota.

"McCosh's house of books," Gaiman says with delight. He describes the local bookselling legend, the late Melvin McCosh, as "Santa Claus's anorexic brother," who would send out notes every now and again to friends and acquaintances. "He'd say, 'You need these books more than I do,' and book people would descend upon his place. The books would be filling all these old drawers and filling the showers. I've always wanted to put McCosh's house of books in something," Gaiman tells City Pages. "He's long dead, and I'm sure the place is long gone, but it's still sitting there in my head."

Gaiman still has ties to the bookselling community in the Twin Cities. His longtime friend and owner of Dreamhaven Books, Greg Ketter, reigns over a bibliophile's paradise, a store teeming with books — they're on the walls, tables, the floor, and on top of other books. A poster of The Sandman looms over the sidewalk from one of the windows, flanked by DC and Marvel superheroes.

"It was always a zoo," Ketter says, remembering the many times Gaiman came to sign at Dreamhaven (nearly 800 people showed up to see Gaiman at the store's biggest signing). "The longest one we ever had was over eight hours. When there are people there to meet him, he's very gracious to everybody and talks to everyone and makes sure they have an experience ... which is really almost unusual with writers of Neil's caliber."

Ketter knew Gaiman long before he was a cult phenomenon — several years before The Sandman.

"He was writing short stories before he wrote the comics," Ketter says. "People didn't really know that too much, and then he really hit it with the comics, of course."

The two met on a train during a convention in the United Kingdom, and soon began collaborating on work together, with Gaiman editing and Ketter publishing the anthologies.

After knowing Gaiman for more than 20 years, Ketter notes that he has yet to really see the Neil he knows pop up as a character in his work.

"The joke was always that Sandman was dressing like Neil or looking like Neil more and more it seemed," Ketter says.

The one exception Ketter could think of was the girl-shy narrator of the short story "How to Talk to Girls at Parties."

"There's a cult of personality throughout the comics field and also more and more in the book field that people want a piece of the writer," Ketter explains. "They want to meet them, know them."

He recalls comic writers who were previously ignored at conventions now get mobbed by fans.

"Neil was one of the early people that was happening to," he says, recounting a day at Comic-Con when he had to act as a human blocker for Gaiman.

"There will be thousands and thousands of people waiting to see him," Ketter says. "That's just such an unusual and amazing situation. There's that many people who are interested in a writer. Who would've thought writing would be so popular?"

Gaiman's popularity has grown exponentially over the years, and now it's affecting his ability to do all the writing he wants to do as well as the way he interacts with his fans. The author takes time to draw little pictures, inscribe messages on his fans' memorabilia, and take photos, but zooming through thousands of people in an evening can be a monumental task.

"Hour five of a signing is no fun for anybody," he says, minutes before heading onstage for his Minneapolis signing. "I am punch-drunk. I have to try and remember how to spell common names like 'Bob,' and it's horrible. It's lovely hugging people and they want to tell you they have presents for you, and it's all magic. But I can't do this anymore."

His agent agrees with the sentiment. "He used to have little holes of time he could fill in with fun, interesting things, and I think it's been kind of hard for him to not be able to do that."

While this summer marks the end of Gaiman's signing tours, he notes that this isn't the last that we'll see of him.

"I might well do another reading tour. I might well do an interpretive dance tour or a studies-in-beekeeping tour. All of that stuff is possible."

Gaiman's friends maintain that he's still the same person they've always known.

"Neil doesn't really have a performance persona," says Palmer. "Neil, in a very British way, has an obsession with his own awkwardness, and it's a prize part of his personality. It's funny, we were just talking about this. He fancies himself an incredibly shy person, but he's the sort of shy person that loves telling people he's shy."

"He's certainly a rock star now," Ketter says of his friend. "He's always kind of dressed the same, he looks the same. Looks like he just rolled out of bed with his hair."

During an impromptu photo shoot backstage, Gaiman shifts positions ever so slightly with each click of the shutter. Throwing his shoulders back one moment, peering deep into the lens at another like a seasoned pro, he explains, "My wife says never give them the same shot twice."

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