Interview: Neil Gaiman

He’s the self-proclaimed ‘bookish weird’ writer whose gothic thrillers for young people were selling millions around the world long before the current vampire and werewolf trend took off. And now he’s writing for ‘Dr Who’

By Anne Joseph, July 1, 2010
Neil Gaiman at home in the American mid-west. Scary children’s books are safe, he says, “because  you can put it down, you can close it”

Neil Gaiman at home in the American mid-west. Scary children’s books are safe, he says, “because you can put it down, you can close it”

Neil Gaiman has been described as a writer of extraordinary imagination. This imagination has been responsible for producing decades' worth of award-winning fantasy and science-fiction work, for readers of all ages. His novels, American Gods, Anansi Boys, Coraline and The Graveyard Book have all been New York Times best-sellers. He is well known for his graphic novel series The Sandman, for which he has a cult following, but he is also a prolific creator of poetry, short stories, journalism, song lyrics and drama. He wrote the screenplay for Beowulf and two of his books, Stardust and Coraline, have been made into films. In fact, earlier this year, Coraline was nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature film. It is a career that he describes as "big, strange, rolling, rather peculiar and very badly thought out, but which works incredibly well for me".

He was in London last week (Gaiman lives near Minneapolis in the American mid-west) to receive his most recent award for The Graveyard Book: the prestigious CILIP Carnegie Medal, given to a writer of an outstanding children's book.

He is the first author to receive both the Carnegie and the Newbery Medal - the equivalent award in the United States - for the same book. He says that "the hugeness of it hasn't sunk in and if I did start internalising, believing and accepting it then I might never pick up a pen again".

Nonetheless, the "hugeness" had sunk in enough for him to have wanted his family - three children, ex-wife and fiancé - to fly to London from the US and be at his side at the award ceremony.

The Graveyard Book is a tale about Nobody Owens - Bod for short - who, as a baby, escapes from the brutal murder of his family and is brought up in a graveyard by ghosts, vampires and a werewolf. It is very much a story about family, growing up, life and community and much less about death.

The perspective of almost all my fiction is 'outsidery', being part of a culture but also being part of the other

Sharing a comfortable roomy sofa in a smart Covent Garden hotel the likeable, black and grey tousle-haired Gaiman, clad in his customary dark T-shirt and jeans, talks with just a hint of an American accent. He had had the idea of The Graveyard Book 25 years ago as he watched his eldest son, then aged two, pedal his tricycle around a graveyard, which happened to be over the road from where they lived. He began writing the story, then thought his writing ability was not up to doing the idea justice and left it.

Now that the book is finished and published, Gaiman realises that he has unconsciously written about "the joyful tragedy of being a parent". He believes that he could not have finished the book had he not been a parent of grown-up children, now aged 26, 24 and 15, and reflects that: "The tragedy of parenting, which is also the joy, is if you do your job right, you have helped create these absolutely wonderful people that you adore and you send on their way. If you do it badly and you broke them, they may never leave."

Published as a crossover novel, The Graveyard Book, in both adult and children's editions, has been immensely successful; commercially and in award terms. But it also seems to tap into the current horror, fantasy writing wave that is so in vogue for young adult readers, although Gaiman wonders, not wishing to sound "big headed", whether this particular trend exists because "I was doing this stuff before". It may certainly be a contributory factor. Gaiman agrees that children love the anticipation and the thrill within these kinds of books. He does not believe they are in any way dangerous - readers are well aware of the difference between fantasy and reality, he believes, and, in any case, a book is "safe because you can put it down, you can close it". The reader is "a collaborator in how scary the book is".

But it is not a new phenomenon that children enjoy books that scare. He remembers that the "big books in school, the ones that were getting passed around hand to hand" when he was 11, were the Dennis Wheatley thriller and occult novels and the Pan Book of Horror Stories which had covers of such "photographic and lurid ickiness" that he thinks they are now no longer available on the bookshelves.

Gaiman was born in Hampshire and moved to East Grinstead as a young boy. The household was one in which books were always "floating through… I was the kind of kid who spent my pocket money on books".

He says he was "bookish weird", a fact that he only realised when he was bringing up his own children. He saw his youngest daughter, a book lover, choosing not to alphabetise her books. As a child, he had adored the library, a place he visited often, and thought nothing of recreating its shelving system with his own books at home.

Gaiman acknowledges there is little that is particularly Jewish about his life in the United States. "For me, the funny and the weird thing about being Jewish in the US is that in America they only have room to put you in one box or another. So, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show gets to be Jewish, I'm English and so that puts me in the English box."

But he does think that Judaism features in his writing, "because fundamentally the perspective on almost all of my fiction, particularly something big in Sandman, is 'outsidery'; being part of a culture but also being part of the 'other'.''

He is regularly asked how he knows so much about the Midrash, which is solely down to his barmitzvah teacher, Reb Lev. For two years Gaiman spent every weekend going to stay at his cousin's house in Harrow-on-the-Hill, north-west London, managing "to get Reb Lev off the subject of learning for my barmitzvah and on to learning about the Midrash, as this was the stuff that really fascinated me". The myth-loving Gaiman could not get enough of the stories.

Gaiman turns 50 this year and his imagination shows no signs of slowing down. He is working on a non-fiction book about China, as well as just completing his sixth draft of a Doctor Who episode - natural Gaiman territory - which will be aired in the UK next summer. Not bad for a "badly thought out career".

'The Graveyard Book' is published by Bloomsbury at £6.99

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014