Saturday, October 4, 2008

Neil Gaiman in Seattle

Part 1

Like all things in the city of mist and caffeine, I hear about it in a cafe, half an hour before the event: Gaiman is in town.  Speaking.  Signing.  Promoting The Graveyard Book.  And what better location?  The Methodist Church, full of wooden arches and candelabras and neon signs loudly proclaiming "EXIT" in green gothic script.

Still dripping from the brisk, rainy bike ride, I arrive at the church to join 850 of his best fans, and we are ushered in to pick up pre-signed copies of his latest novel (for which I am glad -- as much as I'd like to head to the meet-and-greet after, I'm sure the wee hours of the morning would arrive before my turn at the front of the line rolled around).  As we shuffle into our pews, rock music flows into the aisles, but is soon replaced by a rendition of Dance Macabre on...banjo?

After a short introduction, the man of the hour ascends to the pulpit.  His first order of business: reminding himself not to swear in church.

Gaiman's rhetorical style could almost be described as "cautious" -- except that he is clearly at ease with the crowd, cracking a joke or two, relating experiences from his last visit to Seattle.  He is in no way timid; he is simply well-controlled, taking the time to consider each statement carefully and adjust his delivery for maximum effect.  This capacity becomes even more apparent as he begins to read from his latest work, The Graveyard Book.  He will be reading chapter four from the book, which is incidentally the longest chapter.  Neil shakes off his exhaustion and proceeds to delight the audience: from this one author emerges a whole cast of characters, each with a specific intonation, pacing, accent, and facial expressions.  Even playing the 500-year-old ghost of a witch, he is completely believable.   Observing such a performance, one cannot help but realize that Gaiman doesn't merely write his characters; he feels them, in much the style of a method actor or a devoted parent reading bedtime stories to his children.

If you happen to pick up a copy of The Graveyard Book, don't let the first chapter throw you; the initial few pages might feel a little slow as he brings us into the world.  Be assured that, once you have arrived inside the universe of a boy who has "spent his whole life talking to dead people", you will not wish to leave quickly.  Gaiman presents us with a fresh take on gallows humor: his characters are strange but practical, and the graveyard operates like a small village, in which each resident has their own role to play and history to bring into the mix.  As with most good fiction, the plot derives from conflict and coincidences between the players, the clash and concordance of their objectives...but Neil takes things a step further: his creations behave in unexpected ways; when we expect them to dodge right, they suddenly appear behind us; where we anticipate a cliche, we find a wedge of gruyere with a dab of strawberry jelly on the side.

Gaiman assembles his Graveyard stories with cinematographic knack, zooming in on one pair of characters as they exchange a few important words (or blows), panning back for a paragraph or two, then taking us back to a tight shot from the protagonist's point-of-view.  Listening to Gaiman speak, one cannot help but visualize the storyboard -- and speculate as to whether he already has one drawn up to pitch at Paramount.

Finally, to our dismay, he reaches the end of the chapter.  Enthusiastic applause follows, but in the instant between his last word and the first clap of hands, a warm glow of satisfaction spreads across Neil's face.  He is pleased, not as much by the fact that we have received him so well, but more by the act of reading itself.  In this brief moment, it is clear why Mr. Gaiman is so prolific: he simply loves to create, to bring his creatures out into the world where they can feel the sun upon their faces and be seen by all.

Part 2

After a brief intermission, during which approximately half of the audience goes back to reading their signed copies of Graveyard, we are treated to a sneak peek of Coraline.  If you've ever read a Gaiman novel and visualized it in the ghostly style of The Nightmare Before Christmas, then Coraline is the movie you've been waiting for.  Henry Selick has been working on this feature for the last couple years, and hopes to complete the remaining 2.5 minutes of shooting before the release date of February 2009.  Stop-motion filming takes time, y'know.

Coraline will be released in full-color 3D (and is the first major stop-motion film to do so), but no funny glasses for us: a technician hooks a DVD player up to a standard home projector, downs the lights, and...we wait patiently as things are unplugged, replugged, and rebooted.  I resist the urge to fire up BitTorrent and see if someone in Chicago ignored Gaiman's plea to please-not-bootleg-the-preview (and no, I won't be providing a link to any postage-stamp cell-phone videos, thank you very much). 

Selick's style is always characteristic, but if all you've seen is Nightmare Before Christmas, don't be deceived: he has range.  Coraline retains the classic stitched-doll feel of his 1993 work, but doesn't utilize the dim lighting effects (X-Files, anyone?).  It looks much peppier than you might expect.  In fact, the bright lights make his characters seem all the more ghoulish: in 2D, they practically jump out of the screen -- the full stereoscopic version is going to inject nightmares directly into the minds of smaller children.

Part 3

Neil has had a chance to parse through our comment cards during the intermission and movie, and now returns to the stage for Q&A.  He makes it a point to start out with an off-the-wall query regarding his favorite  dinosaur or somesuch, and in answering, reveals his amazing ability to weave fantasy tales on the fly (this is not, incidentally, the most unusual question he has been asked while speaking: "Have you ever belched so hard it hurt?" beats it by a leg).  But even when the questions are predictable ("which story is your favorite?"), his answers take an unusual turn ("that's like asking which child you love most...even the crippled ones...we love you anyway").  Here is a quick list of some choice tidbits:

  • The banjo rendition of Dance Macabre was volunteered by Bela Fleck after the performer read on Gaiman's blog about the desire for such a piece, and is featured on the unabridged audiobook.
  • Neil handwrites, then types; this forces him to generate at least two drafts, and to decide which parts to cut instead of simply cutting-and-pasting the useless passages into another segment of the storyline.
  • His advice on how to become a good writer: "you should read as much as you can; you should write as much as you can."
  • He once nearly got a foreign publisher jailed by contributing a story to Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament; apparently it was so full of gore and mayhem that the publisher was only able to escape prosecution by showing that the plot was derived directly from the Bible, Book of Judges.
  • Aside from being an author, Gaiman is a beekeeper; he once turned down an interview because it would have fallen on the day he had planned on "harvesting my honey...which is not, as it seems, a romantic thing."
  • His favorite banned books include Huckleberry Finn and Where's Waldo (author's note: it's Banned Books Week, so go read something naughty!)
  • Asked how many books he has written, Gaiman quips "I don't know; I really should count...people keep asking."
  • He is a big fan of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which does lovely useful things like remind uptight small-town cops that the First Amendment is a constitutional guarantee.
  • He is currently working on a script for an upcoming Anansi Boys movie!!!
  • On occasion, Gaiman really does drink Laphroaig, which to him "smells like a mummy in a peat bog" (having repeatedly tasted the stuff myself, I feel it necessary to add that said mummy has been skillfully smoked over every wildfire to burn through California and delicately bathed in the volcanic ash surrounding Mount St. Helens before being towed, waist-deep in seawater, back to his country of origin behind a diesel-powered cruise ship.  It's OK, but Caol Ila is better.)
  • Responding to a (okay, my) question on the differences between writing succinct dialogue for graphic novels and elaborate passages for novels, he notes that "a comic is rather like an iceberg: most of it is beneath the surface.  So you're still writing long elaborate descriptions, they're just not going to be for the reader.  They're for the artist."
  • He is not disturbed by the differences between Stardust the book and Stardust the movie, nor will he be bothered by alterations as Coraline is produced.  In much the same way that he collaborates with artists on his graphic novels, Neil prefers to write the text, then give the filmmaker the artistic freedom required to adapt the work into their own vision.
  • Neil will be Guest of Honor at WorldCon, August 2009, in Montreal
  • His next published work will be an illustrated version of Blueberry Girl, a poem which Tori Amos asked him to write for her then-unborn daughter, Tash.

Watch this space for photos and, if I can obtain permission, a brief snippet of Gaiman reading from Blueberry Girl.  Until then...

- Jon Peck


Anonymous said...

I'd like to add that, although "he once turned down an interview" because it would have conflicted with honey-harvesting, the intrepid reporter actually came out to interview him anyway, during the harvesting process. Gaiman reported being impressed that the reporter continued in good humour, despite getting a bee sting. Through a bee suit.

JJPR said...

Aaaigh! You not only linked to someone who spelled the name of the finest whisky in the world incorrectly, you perpetuated said misspelling!

Jon Peck said...

Fixed! And dram my eyes for not catching it myself!