Neil Gaiman's Ghostly Baby-Sitters Club

Neil Gaiman

hide captionNeil Gaiman refuses to comment on rumors that he's writing an episode for the British sci-fi show Doctor Who. "Confirming, denying or saying anything would lessen the enormous amount of fun that I'm having discovering [the rumor]," he says.

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Reviewer Laurel Maury calls The Graveyard Book "sweet, funny" and "anything but grave."

'The Graveyard Book' i i

hide captionNobody's child: The Graveyard Book tells the story of "Bod," a boy who is raised by ghosts.

Dave McKean
'The Graveyard Book'

Nobody's child: The Graveyard Book tells the story of "Bod," a boy who is raised by ghosts.

Dave McKean

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Neil Gaiman harvests honey. i i

hide captionNeil Gaiman harvests honey from one of his beehives.

Euan Kerr
Neil Gaiman harvests honey.

Neil Gaiman harvests honey from one of his beehives.

Euan Kerr

On a recent early fall afternoon, Neil Gaiman is dressed in a heavy cotton bee suit, on his way with a group of friends to harvest honey.

Gaiman's beehives are in a clearing near his home, which is about an hour from the Twin Cities. The first hive they pry open is empty, but the second has about 40 pounds of honey inside. Everyone sets to work moving it out and preparing the hives for winter.

About an hour later, with a cup of tea and a dish of fresh honey on the table, Gaiman sits down in the gazebo at the bottom of his garden to talk about his new novel, The Graveyard Book.

Gaiman says the idea for the novel came to him 23 years ago, when he and his family were living in England. At the time, the only safe place for his 2-year-old son to ride his tricycle was in the local churchyard.

"He would ride ... his tricycle, up and down the paths and between the gravestones," remembers Gaiman. "And I would sit there watching ... this incredibly happy kid in a graveyard."

One day the author had a flash of inspiration: Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book told the story of an orphaned child adopted by wild animals; why not write a story about a child who is adopted by dead people?

Fading, Haunting, Dreamwalking — And ABCs

"I knew I had a book," says Gaiman. But when he sat down that afternoon to write he came to a difficult realization after a page and a half: "I am not yet a good enough writer for this idea," Gaiman recalls thinking.

He returned to the idea every few years and came to the same conclusion each time. Then about four years ago, he decided he wasn't going to get any better as a writer and he should just get on with it. So he came up with the story of Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod.

A mysterious stranger murders his entire family, but Bod, who is only 2, escapes almost by chance and is taken in by the inhabitants of the local graveyard, who protect him and teach him the secrets of the dead.

"He learns his alphabet obviously from gravestones, but he also learns things like fading and haunting and dreamwalking," says Gaiman.

The Pitfalls (And Frozen Peas) Of Popularity

The book is classic Gaiman: delightfully playful, but punctuated with moments of terror.

"He can make the horrifying either funny or palatable, says Greg Ketter, owner of Dreamhaven Books in Minneapolis.

Ketter met Gaiman in the mid-1980s and was the first U.S. publisher to release a collection of Gaiman's fiction. He says what makes Gaiman so good is the way he draws on so many sources to create his stories — like when he created a serial killer convention in his Sandman comic book.

Those stories have resonated with readers, and though Gaiman has always enjoyed meeting people on book tours, he now faces a challenge — too many fans.

In the past, the author has sometimes signed books and other items for four or five hours straight. By the end of the first week, he says, "[I'm] putting my hand between bags of frozen peas to try to get the swelling down, because I am signing three or four thousand articles a night."

An Unusual Type Of Reading

Gaiman says it's no fun for people to stand in line for hours just to have a few seconds chatting with him. So he tried something new with The Graveyard Book tour: He didn't do any signing at his appearances, but he did read, taking advantage of the book's structure.

While it is a novel, it's also a series of eight individual short stories, each set two years after the previous tale, which take Bod from a toddler to a teenager. Each night on tour Gaiman read a chapter; afterward, a video of each reading was posted on the Web. Now the entire book is online, as read by the author.

This is not the first time Gaiman has posted whole novels; he posted text versions of Neverwhere and American Gods earlier this year. While posting his work for free viewing raises questions about potential copyright infringement, the author says the biggest problem facing authors is not piracy, but obscurity.

That's not really a problem for Gaiman. He's preparing for the release of the film adaptation of his horror novella Coraline, and he recently returned from a research trip to China, for what he says will be a travel book combining fiction and nonfiction.

And there is a rumor he is writing an episode of the long-running British science-fiction show Doctor Who — or is he?

"Confirming, denying or saying anything would lessen the enormous amount of fun that I'm having discovering that it is rumored that I am writing an episode of Doctor Who," says Gaiman with a smile.

Parenting Neil Gaiman Style: It Takes A 'Graveyard'

The Graveyard Book
The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman

Paperback, 336 pages | purchase

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An Interview With Gaiman

Nail Gaiman says that inspiration for The Graveyard Book struck 23 years ago, when he was watching his son ride a tricycle through a cemetery.

The night a mystical killer murders his family, a child toddles off into a graveyard, where he's adopted by a loving, even-keeled ghost couple. The premise for The Graveyard Book is macabre, but author Neil Gaiman has a strange ability to make otherworldly characters quaint — loveable, even — and the story is anything but grave. Children as young as 9 will enjoy this sweet, funny and gentle tale; adults will appreciate its deeper undertones.

Gaiman is the author of the ground-breaking (rocked-my-world) comic Sandman and the best-sellers Anansi Boys and Coraline. (The latter is being made into a stop-action animated motion picture, with Dakota Fanning voicing the lead.) In the past, he's personified Death as a punk-rock chick and the Dream King as her brooding, self-conscious brother. Among Gaiman's fans are Tori Amos, who sang the line, "...me and Neil'll be hanging out with the Dream King" on her breakout album, Little Earthquakes. The invention of immortal folk who readers feel they might like to kick back with may be this prolific, tousle-haired, ex-pat British author's contribution to world literature.

Dave McKean, an artist famous for comic-book and CD covers, provides excellent, off-kilter inkbrush illustrations. Showing us the graveyard through the boy's eyes, he makes rows of lonely tombstones seem safe and homey. Content to allow Gaiman's writing to create the characters, McKean gives us a world of comfortable, haunted ruins.

Though he lives among the dead, young Nobody Owens, nicknamed Bod, has his ghostly parents, an undead guardian called Silas and 300 ghosts to watch over him. "It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child," says Silas. "It will ... take a graveyard." Bod goes on odd adventures: A young girl adopts the boy dressed in a winding sheet as her imaginary friend, and he's abducted by some hilarious and fairly disgusting ghouls. But the real fun lies in watching Bod's extended, disincarnate family come to terms with a living child, teaching him to read from gravestones and puzzling over foodstuffs like bananas.

There's a sense of peace that comes from reading Gaiman; in his stories, the things that scare us aren't impervious to our humanity. The nonliving in The Graveyard Book, who expect to stay the same through eternity, grow as people. Bod's parents change profoundly, as does Bod's first crush, the young witch-ghost Liza. And when Bod tells Silas that he, Bod, has danced with Death herself, his powerful, lonely guardian, who can neither live nor die, suffers a moment of heartbreak. The Graveyard Book may make children want to play in cemeteries, but it will make adults crack a knowing smile.

Excerpt: 'The Graveyard Book'

Chapter 1: How Nobody Came to the Graveyard

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

The knife had done almost everything it was brought to the house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

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The knife had done almost everything it was brought to the house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.

The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done.

He flexed his fingers. The man Jack was, above all things, a professional, or so he told himself, and he would not allow himself to smile until the job was completed.

His hair was dark and his eyes were dark and he wore black leather gloves of the thinnest lambskin.

The man Jack was, above all things, a professional, or so he told himself ...

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The man Jack was, above all things, a professional, or so he told himself ...

The toddler's room was at the very top of the house. The man Jack walked up the stairs, his feet silent on the carpeting. Then he pushed open the attic door, and he walked in. His shoes were black leather, and they were polished to such a shine that they looked like dark mirrors: you could see the moon reflected in them, tiny and half full.

The real moon shone through the casement window. Its light was not bright, and it was diffused by the mist, but the man Jack would not need much light. The moonlight was enough. It would do.

He could make out the shape of the child in the crib, head and limbs and torso.

The crib had high, slatted sides to prevent the child from getting out. Jack leaned over, raised his right hand, the one holding the knife, and he aimed for the chest ...

... and then he lowered his hand. The shape in the crib was a teddy bear. There was no child.

The man Jack's eyes were accustomed to the dim moonlight, so he had no desire to turn on an electric light. And light was not that important, after all. He had other skills.

The man Jack sniffed the air. He ignored the scents that had come into the room with him, dismissed the scents that he could safely ignore, honed in on the smell of the thing he had come to find. He could smell the child: a milky smell, like chocolate chip cookies, and the sour tang of a wet, disposable, nighttime diaper. He could smell the baby shampoo in its hair, and something small and rubbery — a toy, he thought, and then, no, something to suck — that the child had been carrying.

The child had been here. It was here no longer. The man Jack followed his nose down the stairs through the middle of the tall, thin house. He inspected the bathroom, the kitchen, the airing cupboard, and, finally, the downstairs hall, in which there was nothing to be seen but the family's bicycles, a pile of empty shopping bags, a fallen diaper, and the stray tendrils of fog that had insinuated themselves into the hall from the open door to the street.

The man Jack made a small noise then, a grunt that contained in it both frustration and also satisfaction. He slipped the knife into its sheath in the inside pocket of his long coat, and he stepped out into the street. There was moonlight, and there were streetlights, but the fog stifled everything, muted light and muffled sound and made the night shadowy and treacherous. He looked down the hill towards the light of the closed shops, then up the street, where the last high houses wound up the hill on their way to the darkness of the old graveyard.

The man Jack sniffed the air. Then, without hurrying, he began to walk up the hill.

Ever since the child had learned to walk he had been his mother's and father's despair and delight, for there never was such a boy for wandering, for climbing up things, for getting into and out of things. That night, he had been woken by the sound of something on the floor beneath him falling with a crash. Awake, he soon became bored, and had begun looking for a way out of his crib. It had high sides, like the walls of his playpen downstairs, but he was convinced that he could scale it. All he needed was a step ...

From The Graveyard Book written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean. Text copyright 2008 by Neil Gaiman. Illustrations copyright 2008 by Dave McKean. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins.

Books Featured In This Story

The Graveyard Book
The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman

Hardcover, 312 pages | purchase

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  • The Graveyard Book
  • Neil Gaiman

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