Getting Into 'The Graveyard Book' With Neil Gaiman

Gaiman on The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book

One of comics’ most popular and acclaimed creators, Neil Gaiman has earned a new wave of acclaim for his lasted children’s novel, The Graveyard Book, published by HarperCollins. It’s the story of Nobody “Bod” Owens,” a young child who survives the murder of his family, only to find a new family of protectors among the ghosts of a nearby graveyard. Filled with terrifying creatures, action, humor and heart, Gaiman has called The Graveyard Book one of his favorite works.

We were granted a few minutes out of his crowded schedule to talk about The Graveyard Book, his creative process, and his upcoming projects. And yes, we tried to get a hint about his upcoming Batman story for DC…

Newsarama: Neil, you’ve said that you’re more satisfied with The Graveyard Book than anything else you’ve written in a long time…

Neil Gaiman: I really am! Normally, you write something and…you’re just reminded of how far it pulls from the thing you had in your head.

NRAMA: There’s that line in The Horse’s Mouth, “It’s not the vision I had.”

NG: Exactly! And this time, it was better. It was not only the thing I wanted to write, but it wound up being better than the thing I wanted to write. I don’t ever recall being quite so happy with something.

NRAMA: What do you consider the x-factor that made the book feel so fully realized for you?

NG: I think part of it, honestly, was the fact that it had been bubbling around in the back of my head for 23 years. That’s either going to give you something really good, or something that’s absolutely terrible (laughs).

And I wasn’t sure which way it was going to go, and it really could have gone the other way. There are definitely ideas I have had in my life that have been in my head so long that when I have tried to put them down on paper, they have gone cold. There is nothing there anymore.

But this one wasn’t! This was powerful, and cool, and it actually got better, because every now and then over the years, I would go “oh, that’s going to go in The Graveyard Book. And I knew the shape of it, and I knew the characters – I knew Bod, and I knew Silas, and I had this idea of a structure that was almost completely barking mad, where I was going to build a novel out of something that was going to be short stories, and each two years apart, and it was still all going to be a novel.

And that got me excited, because I get excited sometimes when I think of doing something that I haven’t done before, and as far as I know, nobody has done it before. And I’m off into unknown territory, trying to see if I can make this thing work.

NRAMA: You cite The Jungle Book as an inspiration for The Graveyard Book, but I was also curious about a book by Peter S. Beagle, A Fine and Private Place.

NG: I don’t know if it’s a source of inspiration, but as far as I know, it’s the only other major novel set in a graveyard. (laughs) And it’s a book that I happen to love, and obviously influenced me when I read it, when I was 14 or 15.

I loved that book – I still think it’s astonishing that he wrote it when he was 19. The thing that I really stole – as I said when I finally met Peter Beagle – from A Fine and Private Place was a talking raven, which went straight into Sandman. And I hadn’t been writing Sandman very long when I realized, “You know, I got this from Peter Beagle!”

NRAMA: A lot of your work that has come out in the last few years has been very focused on the young adult and teen market. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence of scheduling, but what’s the appeal to you of writing toward a younger audience?

NG: That my kids actually believe I have a real job. (laughs) It’s really cool. You get respect from 12-year-olds. That’s so cool. You can’t buy that.

So that’s definitely part of it. The other part, I suspect, is coincidence. It’s the same coincidence I had in the UK last year, where I had two films in the top three at the same time, and people were going, “Wow, Neil Gaiman, major force in the land!” and I was going, “No, it’s just coincidence I had Stardust and Beowulf out at the same time!”

The truth is, I have a limited amount of time. In the last eight years, I’ve written…(thinks)…two adult novels, two children’s novels, two short stories collections (one for adults, one for children)…and I’ve had three big graphic novels out, Endless Nights, 1602 and Eternals. So, from where I stand, I’m probably doing more comics work than anything else. It just doesn’t look that way from where anyone else is standing. (laughs)

Currently, the next project I’m working on, which I started working on this summer and won’t finish doing research on until next summer, is a great big nonfiction book about China and religion and myth and travel and culture.

NRAMA: So, you’re doing a nonfiction book next…you haven’t done one of those since…

NG: …1987. It was Don’t Panic, the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy companion. That was me doing nonfiction, and that was 21 years ago! So it’s probably time for me to go and do a nonfiction book again. And then, it’ll come out, and people will go, “Oh, he was a successful children’s author. Why did he move into nonfiction?”

And by then I’ll be writing another adult novel again. Or maybe I’ll be writing another children’s novel, or another comic.

NRAMA: What do you feel you’ve learned from moving back and forth across these different mediums?

NG: To be honest, I kind of find the question incomprehensible. I don’t understand why everybody doesn’t do it! It would be like a dancer being asked, “Why do you do jazz and ballet?” And the answer is, “I like to move! I like to dance in different ways!”

NRAMA: The reason college professors always throw you for not working in different mediums is, “Well, you’ll never be great at any one thing”…

NG: Maybe I won’t! But I’m going to have a lot more fun. Honestly, I’m at the point where I’m really good at one thing; I’m more interested in going off and working on something I’m not good at doing.

Given the choice between two projects in any medium, one of which I know how to do, have done already, have done successfully, have probably won awards for doing it, has been commercially successful and has a large audience waiting for it…and on the other hands, something I have no idea how to do, will probably fall flat on my face doing, and has nobody waiting for, I will pick the that one nobody’s waiting for every time. That’s the one that excites me and interests me. That’s the one that makes me go, “You know, that could be really cool! Yeah, I’ll do that!”

NRAMA: You’ve also talked about what you get from combining mediums. Pertaining to The Graveyard Book specifically, you use Dave’s illustrations extensively, as you have in many of your other works for younger readers. What do you feel illustrated prose brings to your work, as opposed to just letting the text stand by itself?

NG: One of the joys of coming out of comics is that I’ve never particularly felt that illustrations were in any way a step down. I enjoyed having books that weren’t illustrated, because I was able to do things in people’s heads that I couldn’t have done if they weren’t illustrated. I loved the fact that I had an all-black cast in Anansi Boys, and yet many of the people who read the book failed to notice this, because I never said, you know, “Fat Charlie, who was black.”

I got a great letter when Anansi Boys first came out from a lady telling me off, because I had these old ladies in Florida serving specific kinds of food at a funeral, and she wrote, “You are obviously English because you have no idea what kinds of food people would eat at a funeral here in Florida. The kind of food you’ve got them eating is the kind of food they’d be eating in Jamaica.” And I went, “Well, they’re all American-Caribbean. There’s a huge American-Caribbean population in that part of Florida, and that’s what they eat.”

I couldn’t have made that work if I’d had illustrations. And when I do the film version, I suppose that’s the first thing that will probably obviously go by the wayside, because you will happily know that all these characters are black, because you can see them.

NRAMA: We’re running low on time, and Newsarama is a comic site, so I must ask you – can you tell us anything about your upcoming Batman story?

NG: It’s being drawn by Andy Kubert.

NRAMA: (pause) Um…anything…else?

NG: You know the cover that was leaked online?

NRAMA: Mmm-hmm.

NG: That’s not the cover.

NRAMA: Well, see, that’s one more piece of information than we had before! My work here is done!

NG: (laughs) The truth is, I’m not a huge fan of the Spoiler Society. The main reason I’m not a huge fan of the Spoiler Society is that when you have enough spoilers about something out there, it spoils the fun! With 1602, we decided right at the beginning not to say anything to say anything. And the reason we decided not to say anything about anything is because we said to ourselves, “We don’t want anyone being tired of this thing before it comes out.”

With the thing that I’m doing with Andy, though, it’s so utterly barking mad and so very, very strange, and very, very personal, that I’m actually not sure that I could adequately describe it in any way that would leave anyone going, “Yes, he is sane.” So people are just going to have to wait until it comes out, and then decide whether it was worth it.

The Graveyard Book is in stores now.

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