JACKI LYDEN, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Jacki Lyden. To call Neil Gaiman an author doesn't quite cover it. He writes comic books, novels, songs, film scripts, and his readings make him a kind of book tour rock star. Neil Gaiman's latest novel is called "The Graveyard Book." Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr paid the writer a visit and has this story.
EUAN KERR: On a recent early fall afternoon, Neil Gaiman is very happy. Dressed in a heavy cotton bee suit, he's on his way with a group of friends to harvest honey. His hives sit in a clearing near his home about an hour from the Twin Cities. They pry open the hives to look for honeycombs. The first is empty. So, it's on to the second.
(Soundbite of a hive being opened)
Unidentified Woman: Whoa!
KERR: There's 40, maybe 50 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 in front of him, Gaiman sits down in the gazebo at the bottom of his garden to talk about his new book. He says he can pinpoint the inspiration for "The Graveyard Book." It was 23 years ago when he and his family were living in England. At the time, the only safe place for his two-year-old son to ride his trike was in the local churchyard.
Mr. NEIL GAIMAN (Author, "The Graveyard Book"): And he would ride, happily ride his tricycle up and down the path and between the gravestones. And I would sit there watching him, just this incredibly happy kid in a graveyard.
KERR: Gaiman says, one day he had a flash of inspiration. He recalled how Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" told the story of an orphaned child adopted by wild animals.
Mr. GAIMAN: I'd like to do a story about a kid who doesn't have a family, who was adopted by dead people and taught all the things that dead people know. And I knew I had a book.
KERR: Or at least the idea for a book. When he sat down that afternoon to write, he came to a difficult realization after a page and a half.
Mr. GAIMAN: I am not yet a good enough writer for this idea. I am not yet a good enough writer to do this justice.
KERR: 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. 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 two, escapes almost by chance. Gaiman says the inhabitants of the local graveyard take him in and protect him.
Mr. GAIMAN: He learns his alphabet obviously from gravestones, but he also learns things like fading and haunting and dream walking and the sort of things that dead people get to do.
KERR: The book is classic Gaiman, delightfully playful but punctuated with moments of terror. Greg Ketter owns DreamHaven Books in Minneapolis. He met Gaiman in the mid-1980s and was the first U.S. publisher to release a collection of Gaiman's fiction. Ketter says what makes Gaiman so good is the way he draws on so many sources to create his stories. He cites a classic storyline from Gaiman's "Sandman" comic book.
Mr. GREG KETTER (Publisher, DreamHaven Books): He can make the horrifying either funny or palatable, in any way, and sometimes, as the serial killer convention, you know, just interesting. You know, people would almost want to go to see this and hear what these people had to say.
KERR: Another longtime collaborator is Dave McKean, who illustrated "The Graveyard Book." He says when he first began working with Gaiman doing comics in Britain in the 1980s, they shared a desire to expand the scope of their storytelling.
Mr. DAVE MCKEAN (Illustrator, "The Graveyard Book"): I think we both liked work that wasn't so much about traditional genres, still like horror and science fiction and fantasy and all these things, but actually stories that are about people, really.
KERR: These stories have resonated with readers, and Gaiman has always enjoyed meeting fans on book tours. But now he faces a challenge.
Mr. GAIMAN: The problem I had on my last couple of signing tours was too many people turned up.
KERR: He gets hundreds at his appearances. And he would sometimes sign books and other items for four or five hours straight. He says by the end of the first week, he's icing his hand.
Mr. GAIMAN: Putting my hand between bags of frozen peas to try and get the swelling down because I'm signing three or four thousand articles a night.
KERR: He also 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 is set two years after the previous tale. Bod goes from a toddler to a teenager in the space of eight chapters. So each night on tour, Gaiman read a chapter. Then, video of each reading was posted on the Web.
(Soundbite of novel "The Graveyard Book")
Mr. GAIMAN: (Reading) There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. 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.
KERR: 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. When asked about the implications of posting things for free on the Web, he says the biggest problem facing authors is not piracy but obscurity. That's not really a problem for Neil Gaiman. He's now preparing for the release of the film adaptation of his horror novella "Coraline." He's just 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?
Mr. GAIMAN: 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."
KERR: And then, smiling, Neil Gaiman turns his attention to his tea and honey. For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr.
LYDEN: You can read an excerpt of "The Graveyard Book" and a review on our Web site, npr.org.
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