“One of things that I wanted to do when I was writing the book was create a world in which dead people are never dangerous, dead things are never bad,” says acclaimed fantasy writer Neil Gaiman of his latest work, The Graveyard Book.
And so the author of such bestsellers as American Gods and Coraline took inspiration from the graveyard where his now-grown son once rode his tricycle, based the setting physically on four other cemeteries and re-imagined Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book to tell the story of Nobody “Bod” Owens, who wanders into a graveyard following the murder of his family and is raised by a community of ghosts that teaches him the way of the dead. Alternately frightening and heartwarming, The Graveyard Book is classic Gaiman.
Since he unleashed The Sandman comic book series in 1989, Gaiman has become a cultural phenomenon and nowhere was that more evident than at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica on Monday night, where hundreds had lined up to catch the writer in person. When he appeared on stage, camera flashes flickered by the millisecond, forming a comet-like shock of light across the auditorium. As he spoke, there was rapt silence peppered by roars of laughter and grand rounds of applause. And when it was all over, everyone from middle school students to grandparents clamored to purchase copies of The Graveyard Book along with corresponding t-shirts, mouse pads and other merchandise.
The engagement, which also featured a sneak peek at the forthcoming animated Coraline film, was part of a nine-city U.S. tour with each stop featuring a different segment of the book. Each reading has been videotaped and can be viewed on the author’s website.
L.A. Weekly: Why videotape the readings?
Neil Gaiman: It was a solution to a problem. I don’t know if it was the only solution to a problem, but it was the perfect solution for this book. The problem is that if I do a signing, we get somewhere between 700 and 1000 people coming out. You can’t do a signing for 700 to 1000 people. What happens is that you wind up finishing at two in the morning and nice people are actually cleaning around you and then you get back to your hotel room by a quarter to three, which is great because at six o’clock in the morning, your car will be taking you to an airport because you are going to be on a plane to the next city to do it all again. It was killing me. I had to come up with a way of changing the signing paradigm. I thought, well, why don’t I do something different? Why don’t I pre-sign books?
Instead of a world where I do a fifteen minute reading, fifteen minute Q & A and sign books for a few hours, I can do a really nice two hour event, by the end of which, everyone will have had a much more pleasant time and gotten an awful lot more of me.
I had written a book that is built of short stories. Every short story is part of the novel, but the chapter is still a short story. So, I thought that this would absolutely work. Everybody would get something complete. Then, if you’re going to do it, why not film it? If you’re filming it, why not put it up on the Web?
L.A. Weekly: The idea goes along with the e-books that you were giving away this year [Harper Collins recently offered American Gods and Neverwhere as temporary free-to-read files].
Neil Gaiman: A lot of it goes back to where you find your authors. I look at those authors I love, those I buy in hardback. I don’t know that I started out with very many of them by buying one of their books; their books were things that I was given… [or] that I borrowed from a library. Their books were things I found on windowsills or beside chairs at friends’ houses. Things that somebody said, “Hey, you will like this.” Readers of books always have a passalong rate. The idea is that if you like something, you pass it out. I think that’s a true thing and I think that’s a good thing.
L.A. Weekly: The Sandman was passed around a lot.
Neil Gaiman: Sandman was also sexual… like sexually transmitted. You would get guys who desperately wished that their girlfriends would read comics finally getting a copy of Sandman and saying, “Read this, you’ll like it.” And the girl would read it and would like it, then when they parted, she would take Sandman and infect the next person along, saying “Read this, you’ll like it.” And it spread. That’s how reading works.
L.A. Weekly: Was there a specific graveyard that inspired The Graveyard Book?
Neil Gaiman: Yes. Although the graveyard in the book isn’t the graveyard that inspired it. It was inspired by a little graveyard over the lane from where I lived in Sussex when I was a young man with a nearly two-year-old son who loved riding on his tricycle. I would take him down to the graveyard because we didn’t have a garden, but we did have a graveyard. He looked so at home. I thought, I could write something kind of like Kipling’s The Jungle Book, only instead of a kid whose family is killed and escapes into the jungle and is raised by wild animals and taught the things that animals know, he could escape to a graveyard and is brought up by dead people and taught the things that dead people know.
L.A. Weekly: Did you re-read The Jungle Book when you were writing?
Neil Gaiman: Less when I was working on [The Graveyard Book] than every few years. I bought an audio book of The Jungle Book and listened to that on a long car journey, put The Jungle Book on my iPod… always admiring the craft and Kipling’s refusal to sugarcoat, because you’re in a world where things die to feed other things. You’re in the jungle. It’s about the cycle of life. There’s a wonderful casualness to that.
To be honest, I couldn’t get that today… I’m already getting e-mails telling me that given the problems in England with knife crime, the idea of starting a book, “There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife,” is wrong and I should have completely rethought my beginning. Nope, that’s the beginning. If you don’t get through three pages and actually understand that there is a man out there and he has a knife and he wants to kill the baby, then the idea that this child is going to spend sixteen years in a graveyard instead of going out into the world, it doesn’t make any sense. He has to be staying there because it’s safe.
Check out video footage of the event.
Words and Photographs by Liz Ohanesian