Interview by Gavin J. Grant
We ran into Neil Gaiman at BEA (the big annual book show that this year was in New York City), and managed to get a quick interview with him in between his other commitments, including a marathon signing session for his first young adult book, Coraline (which came with marbles!), and a guest spot on stage with the Rock Bottom Remainders.
Gaiman's previous adult novel, American Gods, was a Top Ten Book Sense 76 pick. He lives in a "big dark house of uncertain location where he grows exotic pumpkins and accumulates computers and cats." He is currently at work turning his first novel Neverwhere into a film for Jim Henson Films.
BookSense.com: Is Coraline your first book for children?
Neil Gaiman: I wrote a book called The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, which came out some years ago. Some of my adult books, Stardust and Neverwhere were YALSA American Library Asoociation "Picks for Young Readers," but this is the first time I've written a book for children and it is being marketed as a book for children.
Your previous children's book was an illustrated book, whereas this is a young adult novel.
Yes. This is all words, although the American version has 14 lovely illustrations by Dave McKean. Coraline is actually coming out first on audiobook. Originally the plan was for the audio version to come out four months before the book; the audiobook was going to come out in May and the book in September. But then because various bookselling entities pointed out that they had a really, really empty July and asked if would we like to fill it, it was moved to July.
Do you narrate the audiobook?
It's me reading it with the Gothic Archies providing the music. Stephen Merritt is doing the song the rats sing and lots of lovely music, plus a weird little song he's written that sounds a bit like Devo, called "You're Not My Mother and I Want to Go Home." That will all be on the CD -- which is just out -- and the book will come out at the beginning of July.
What's lovely -- and very strange in the way that these things happen -- is that Coraline is not only the shortest book I've ever written, but also the one that took the longest to write.
I think I averaged about about 2,000 words a year. I started it in 1990 or '91 for my little daughter, Holly -- who is now a great big, practically grown-up thing -- and finished it for my daughter Maddie. It's the thing I was writing in my own time, and it was very organic.
I stopped writing when I didn't know what happened next. Sometimes it would take four years, then I'd know what happened next, and I'd go away and write it.
It's a real freedom to write that way and to keep writing your other books.
Yes, but I don't think I'd ever quite want to do something like this again, because it wouldn't be published for another 12 years!
Does it make good bedside reading?
It does for me! [Laughs]
Have you had any reaction from children on Coraline?
We're getting two completely different reactions from two completely different reading audiences, and it's kind of weird.
Reading audience number one is adults. Adults completely love it and they tell me it gave them nightmares. They found it really scary and disturbing, and they're not sure it's a good book for kids, but they loved it. Reading audience number two are kids who read it as an adventure and they love it. They don't get nightmares, and they don't find it scary. I think part of that is that kids don't realize how much trouble Coraline is in -- she is in big trouble -- and adults read it and think, "I know how much trouble you're in."
I think kids and adults are reading a different story, although they both happen to be the same book. When I began it, I remember in 1990 showing the first couple of chapters to a very-respected, beloved English editor (now dead). He told me he thought it was absolutely brilliant and completely unpublishable. He said, "There is no way that you can publish something that is a dark fantasy novel for children and adults -- aimed at both markets for different reasons -- that is essentially a dark and wonderful horror novel."
Luckily, while the book itself has not changed, the landscape has changed in the last decade.
What's responsible for changing the landscape?
I think the idea that you could write a book that adults could buy without shame or fear comes supremely from J.K. Rowling. To some extent Philip Pullman and to some small extent, and from a different kind of direction, R.L. Stine -- in that you had [similar] ideas in the Goosebumps books -- but this doesn't do those things.
It's kind of hard to explain, because Coraline does different things from all those books. You can't point to it and say, "He's doing Lemony Snicket, or J.K. Rowling, or Philip Pullman" -- I don't! It's very much its own entity, a very spooky, wonderful little book.
In another interview, I was asked about Coraline and I was trying to explain that with most of my books I feel much as a craftsman feels about a sculpture or a chair they've made: "This is a good chair, I like it. It's solid." Or, "Well, the legs are a bit wonky, but you can see that my heart was in the right place." So, a lot of the time my books and stories are chairs. They're good chairs, chairs I'm proud of. However, with Coraline I feel rather like I feel about my children, in that they're wonderful, and I know I was there at their conception, and I know I've had a fairly intimate day-by-day help with their growth, but I look at them at the end of the day and I think, "You're really cool. How did you get there? Where did you come from and how did you turn out like this?"
The thing I find oddest about Coraline, is those people who, after reading it, tell me that it seemed really familiar. They don't mean familiar in the sense they've read it before, they mean familiar in that the shapes, once they've read them, just sort of assimilated into the way they saw the world. They felt they'd always known them.
As if the story is filling in a space that was already there?
Yes. It's more like one of those weird sculptures where you chip away everything that isn't right. There were points in the book where I didn't know what happened next so I stopped writing for four years. At the point I knew what happened next, I'd carry on with it. I might know what happened for four pages, or I might know what happened for 50 words, so I'd write those 50 words. There was a six-month period where I tried to write 50 words a night instead of reading before I went to sleep. That was really strange. Even once it was finished, my editor at Bloomsbury [Coraline's UK publisher] read it and asked, "What happened to this character?" And I said, "Oh, didn't I write that?" I knew it, so I went away and wrote that chapter.
You'd think for something written so peculiarly -- a 30,000-word novel written over a ten-year period -- that it ought to be choppy and bumpy and should be able to say, "Gosh, you can see this was written by a 31-year-old living in England, and this was written by a 41-year-old living in America." But there isn't any of that, it has its own voice -- and because it has its own voice, that's what it is.
Neil Gaiman on the Book Sense 76:
American Gods -- a September/October 2001 Top Ten Pick:
"Gaiman's new book is spectacular. He updates ancient myths into perfectly reasonable modern incarnations. His take on the question of what happens to gods when their followers no longer believe in them is fascinating, and the ending is so, so right. Gaiman has finally come into his own in what may well be one of the best books this year, fantasy or otherwise."
-- Peggy Hailey, Book People Bookstore, Austin, TX
Stardust -- a May/June 2000 Pick
"Unlike much of current fantasy writing, Gaiman's prose is that of a true fabulist, rather than a mere borrower of motifs. His version of the land of Fairie contains terrors and delights both strange and hauntingly familiar, and the story has the ring of authenticity that modern fairy tales often lack."
-- Craig Jones, The Reader's Loft, DePere, WI