The dark night returns for Neil Gaiman

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

On a sweltering July day at Jefferson High School in Bloomington, a lanky twentysomething walks out of the packed school auditorium with her friend. She hugs a book close to her chest and clutches a small blue trinket with the words "Police Box" inscribed on it. Her voice quivers, "Oh my gaaahhhd. We met him."

She isn't squealing about a musician, a movie star, or the stuff of heartthrob posters. He's an author.

Backstage in a dressing room, Neil Gaiman prepares for a long evening, signing hundreds of books before they're carted out to the main lobby to be sold. He finally emerges and excuses himself, "Just a moment, then we can start." He strides over to a majestic White German Shepherd gazing at him and holds her tight for a full minute. She wags her tail.

Clad in a suit jacket, collarless shirt, slacks, and well-worn Chelsea boots — all the shade of starless night — Gaiman is notorious for his all-black wardrobe. He ruffles his nearly jet-black mop often, which almost matches his outfit, but for a few wisps of silver at his temples.

Gaiman's team has carved a sliver of time into his schedule for only one interview in Minneapolis. He speaks candidly and sips a cup of tea that's steaming into his bleary eyes. Time runs over on the chat not once, but twice, and Gaiman politely waves away his assistant with a perfect curve of a smile. "No," he says. "We have time."

Gaiman turns 53 this year and will see more projects come to fruition than many writers see in an entire career.

He started 2013 with the release of his children's book Chu's Day before collaborating with BlackBerry on "A Calendar of Tales," a work of fiction based on Twitter-sourced ideas for short stories and illustrations, one for every month of the year. Gaiman followed up with a joint literary and musical performance with his wife, Amanda Palmer, in the spring. His second Doctor Who episode premiered to rave reviews soon after. His book, Neverwhere, became a radio play starring Benedict Cumberbatch and James McAvoy on the BBC.

In June, he released his first novel for adults in eight years, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and embarked on his final U.S. signing tour. This fall, Gaiman's new children's book, Fortunately, the Milk, hits bookstores, and he also just announced that he's working on a video game.

Rumors of an HBO series based on his 2001 novel American Gods are circling, but Gaiman and his camp refuse to disclose any details. "It hasn't been greenlit, but it's still very much in the planning stages," says his literary agent of more than 20 years, Merrilee Heifetz.

The piece de resistance for longtime Gaiman fans will be the highly anticipated prequel to his graphic novel masterpiece, The Sandman. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the seminal comic-book series that catapulted him to cult stardom, Gaiman will revisit the titular character and reveal what led to his capture in the first book.

Slated for release at the end of October, "one issue is all written and finished and being drawn," Gaiman says. "A second issue exists in handwriting in two notebooks, and is waiting for me to stop moving so I can type it all out."

While Gaiman has had a quarter-century to think about this story, it also means the pressure's on.

"I think I like writing things best when nobody's waiting for them, nobody expects them, and nobody knows what they're going to get," he says. "There's definitely a kind of weird feeling, like 10 to 15 million people are looking over my shoulder going, 'This has got to be good.'"

Even though he has remained tight-lipped about the prequel, Gaiman notes that hints were dropped in the original issues (numbers 8 and 42 for the diehards).

As a teenager, Neil Gaiman wrote down a list of dreams he wanted to chase.

Decades later, in his "Make Good Art" commencement address at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Gaiman recalls the checklist and his progress. Gaiman never graduated from college, nor did he attempt to start, but he fed his desire for the written word by becoming a journalist.

After several years of freelancing for various publications, he managed to score a book deal for a biography on, of all things, Duran Duran, and another about Douglas Adams, the writer of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

While his publishers were auctioning off the Adams book, Gaiman met literary agent Merrilee Heifetz and asked her to represent his comic books.

"Back then, comic books were not a big business at all," Heifetz recalls, saying that it was somewhat of a literary ghetto in the late 1980s.

But when Gaiman told her he also planned on writing novels, she was sold.

Decades later, Heifetz describes the feeling she gets every time she reads Gaiman's new work.

"There's a wonderful thing that happens when you're an agent," she says. "You get that book, and you read it and you just think... 'Oh my god, I'm one of the first people to read this, and this is going to make history.'"

Gaiman has won awards and been nominated for numerous honors, including the Carnegie Medal, the Newbery, the Hugo, and the World Fantasy Awards. Among his most recent accolades was a clever nod from his hometown of Portsmouth, England, where a street has been named after his latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

"I don't think he ever sets out to be a groundbreaker," Heifetz says of Gaiman's critical success. "I think he sets out to write the most interesting thing he possibly can in whatever area he is writing in. He's just not interested in retreading anyone else's ground ... or his own."

Gaiman owes a lot to his fans. Once shrugged off as merely goth kids who liked comics, they're now as diverse as the characters in his stories.

Gaiman spends a lot of time on Twitter forging relationships, albeit fleeting ones, with his nearly 1.9 million fans. He also regularly posts on his blog, answers questions on his Tumblr, and updates Facebook.

"I just tweeted at him," longtime fan Tania Richter says, showing off a photo from CONvergence of Gaiman's poster with googly eyes pasted on. "I'm hoping this'll get a retweet."

The line for the Twin Cities reading began queuing more than three hours before the event was supposed to start. The fans waited, patient but excited, in the July sun outside the school.

In the distant past, guys in this crowd were stereotypical comic-book dorks, and girls dressed like Death from The Sandman — all black, Eye of Horus curlicue drawn beneath one eye, and an ankh around the neck. That image has changed drastically.

On this particular day, the audience members vary from shades of Delirium with neon hair and a punk aesthetic to people escaping work while still in business casual. There's even a baby in attendance, not more than a few months old, being thrown in the air by its mother throughout the reading.

Like many of Gaiman's fans, Chris Proczko got hooked on the author during high school.

"Some friends gave me some Sandman comics, and I started reading them," he says while waiting in line. "Another one of my friends gave me Good Omens, and then Neverwhere, and it just kind of spiraled from that."

While some devotees revere Gaiman for his prose, others discovered him through his onscreen work.

"I have never read his books," Emily Sackett confesses after the reading. "He did a cameo on The Simpsons, which is like my favorite thing that ever happened. I love that episode, and I knew that before I knew anything about him."

Sackett's friend Emily Hoar began following Gaiman when she read Stardust. "He's just so interesting because he does everything," she says after talking with Sackett about his book and television work. "But he always tells good stories."

Karen Hanson hasn't acquainted her young children with Gaiman's work yet, but she hopes to do so soon.

"They're just getting old enough that I want to introduce them to his stuff."

Gaiman has now penned several popular chilren's books, but his eerie hit Coraline was originally slated to be a book for adults. Gaiman's eldest daughter, Holly, delighted in the macabre as a young child, and after a visit to the local bookstore — where he was greeted with blank stares — he decided to do something about it.

"I've only ever written two things for specific people going, 'I'm writing this story for someone that isn't me,'" Gaiman says. "In each case, they sort of grew and transformed and got out of hand."

"One of them was Coraline," Gaiman explains. "I started it for Holly; I finished it for Maddy."

The other story he wrote for someone became this summer's novel. Ocean began as a short story for his wife, a token of his love from across the Pacific while she recorded her infamous Kickstarter-funded album, Theater Is Evil.

"I was just going to send it over to Amanda from Florida where I was to Melbourne where she was, and I liked that. That will be short, and you know, she misses me," Gaiman pauses and smiles wryly. "She was making an album, so there wasn't a lot of missing going on. She was really busy." Another pause. "I missed her."

Palmer recounts the road to Ocean a little differently. The pressure to create art and the demands on both Gaiman's and Palmer's time has been rough, but the pair has found ways to make it work.

"It's funny because Neil and I have a lot of lines of communication, you know, Twitter and texting and email ... our blogs," Palmer says.

On Ocean's publication day, Palmer posted a revealing account on her blog of the way she saw the book come to life as well as some of the inner workings behind her marriage.

"I loved it, but I didn't get it at all," Palmer recalls of the time she heard Gaiman read the first draft of Ocean to her. "It wasn't until I was reading it through for the second time and mentioned something to Neil that indicated to him that I totally didn't get it. He had to spell it out to me, and then I got it."

Palmer later wrote about that exact moment, "For a second, a split second, I was a Neil Gaiman fan. And I was a fan because he'd tricked me, and he'd tricked me without knowing, and I'd heard rumors that he does that, but I thought I was immune."

She takes pains to make clear she has never approached Gaiman from the perspective of a fan.

"I think the most important thing about falling in love with him or being able to fall in love with him is that I wasn't even remotely a Neil Gaiman fan," she says on the phone. "I didn't have any preconceived, worshipful notion of what he was like."

A mutual friend introduced Palmer and Gaiman, which led to her asking the writer to pen captions for her Who Killed Amanda Palmer book of photographs. Both were with other people at the time, but the chemistry between them was undeniable.

"He fell in love with me first," Palmer says. "And then he planted himself firmly in a chair, firmly in my periphery, telling me that he was perfectly happy to wait years and years and years to date me."

Eventually, she found herself intrigued by the man she readily describes as "sort of reclusive, but also super social, very smart, funny, sensitive, but also emotionally withdrawn."

Having lived alone most of her adult life, Palmer notes at age 37 that she and Gaiman have worked hard to make their lives in Cambridge, Massachussetts, comfortable.

"The cohabitating has not been easy," she says, attributing some of the difficulties to their respective needs to make art and run their businesses from inside the home. "Neil has gotten used to a totally different kind of family style, where he lives in a household with kids running around."

The two have dealt with grueling tour schedules that keep them apart for months at a stretch throughout their time as a couple; however, during their downtime, "the best way for us to connect with each other is just to have a lot of sex," Palmer admits with a laugh.

"Colliding our two lifestyles is hilarious and so fantastic because we just take such totally different approaches to how one enters and exits a room," says Palmer before adding that they're now on the hunt for a new home in New York.

Gaiman is at the tail end of his tour, and it's taking its toll.

In the days just before the Minnesota tour stop, Heifetz says, "We were just hoping nothing would go wrong,"

But a series of unfortunate events began with the tragic Asiana Airlines crash, a long-delayed flight to Detroit, lost bags, and 1,700 people to sign for until the wee hours of the morning at a late event in Ann Arbor before flying into Minneapolis.

"I don't know what he was going on," Heifetz marvels. "Fumes, I guess. I was exhausted. It was really kind of shattering."

Onstage, there's the distinct sense that Gaiman is performing a routine that he's done day after day, but it comes with the territory. You can see he's rehearsed his stories. He has an arsenal of tales ready to tell at the drop of a hat. He knows what his audiences will laugh at, and he has the timing down.

The crowd shrugs off the signs of Gaiman's travel-weariness and hangs on his every word. He speaks for more than an hour before taking a short break to regroup, then commences signing for a group of hundreds and subsequently boards a tour bus into the night. He says he will wave hello to his house in Wisconsin on the way to the next stop in Chicago.

Since the early 1990s, Gaiman has made his home in a self-described Addams Family-style house about an hour outside of Minneapolis. In recent years, the property has garnered attention for his honeybees, his writing shed, and the giant snow creatures his friends build in the yard. While Gaiman now spends a fair amount of time on the road and in Cambridge with Palmer, he still considers the place a home base of sorts.

For good reason, too, since the Midwest has crept into Gaiman's stories little by little over the years.

"I know that it affected the stories. I would see things, and I would meet people, and I would talk to people, and I would try to make sense of it," he says of his time in and around Minnesota.

The vibrant Renaissance fair in The Wake, the final chapters of The Sandman, is based on the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. Much of American Gods takes place throughout the Midwest, from roadside attractions like the House on the Rock to small Wisconsin towns. Harsh Midwestern winters taught Gaiman lessons in what real cold could be, which was so vividly described in American Gods with one character's ill-fated trip out on a frigid winter day in Wisconsin.

"I lived in England, I figured that water got white and fluffy and fell from the sky," Gaiman says. "All the clever things we learn to do in this part of the world ... you walk outside, you breathe in, the hairs on your nose freeze, you go, 'Oh, it's below zero.' You walk outside, you cough with pain a couple times, you go, 'Oh, it must be about minus 25.'"

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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7 comments
John Abraham-Watne
John Abraham-Watne

I agree, Ms. Karolczak. You conveyed the author's art style very well; I thought for sure the great Dave McKean had created this cover at first!

Erin Sayer
Erin Sayer

Awesome cover Caitlin Karolczak!

g402677
g402677

Could have done without the bits about Amanda Palmer. Though it's fascinating that she thinks a marriage can be sustained by communicating over Twitter. 

Very impressive career. Sounds unexpected, in the best way.

 
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