Neil Gaiman will draw a crowd when he speaks in Chicago — and here’s why – Chicago Tribune

Neil Gaiman is coming to speak in Chicago Friday, and if that means nothing to you, you might be surprised then to hear that this rather lanky, droll, pale, middle-aged Brit who sometimes lives in Scotland and sometimes lives in Wisconsin, can fill the 3,900-seat Auditorium Theater with merely his presence and a short stack of writing. Gaiman is, for the most part, a writer. Though that’s like saying Stephen King is a writer. After all these years, he’s much closer to a cultural ecosystem, binding together TV, film, comics, children’s books, adult novels, cosplay costumes, social-media chatter, Netflix, Amazon, DC Comics, God, the devil, angels, trolls , ghosts, fairies, alternative realities and Norwegians.

“I was a cult author once,” he told me, “and I am a cult author now, but I have a cult so large it resembles something like a smaller religion, and I think I kind of like it that way.”

Yes, he is just a fantasy writer.

But then: If you haven’t read his best-selling “American Gods,” maybe you’ve caught the TV adaptation, which lasted three seasons; if you haven’t read his children’s classic “Coraline,” maybe you’ve heard about the stop-motion film version; if you haven’t read his novel “Good Omens” (with Terry Pratchett), perhaps you’ve streamed the hit series; if you haven’t read his “Jungle Book”-esque “The Graveyard Book,” maybe you’ve spotted it on a list of beloved Newbery winners; if you haven’t cracked one issue of “The Sandman,” the DC comic he made for three decades, perhaps you’ll watch the upcoming Netflix series.

Neil Gaiman can seem to be everywhere — one of those artists whose view of the world dominates your own, or one of those artists forever fluttering in the corner of your eyes.

Either way, one reason that he consistently fills large halls is this:

He represents a creative life, well-lived and within reach.

Years ago at a comic book convention, I watched a crowd of his fans moving behind him as he walked through a room. And I remember someone shouting: “Neil, where do you get your ideas?” A tired question that every artist of any medium or serious renown will be asked occasionally, except here, a remarkable thing occurred: Gaiman paused, turned and then answered.

He gets asked this all the time, he told me on the phone from Scotland recently. That and the process question — the dreaded process question, which takes some form of:

“Neil, what is your process like?”

“The answer that you will get to this depends on whether the author being asked is tired or has a snappy prepared answer,” he said. “But when someone actually asks me, I do answer. I try to explain how writers get ideas. Because one of the things I love about the process — which is half fairly magical — is to try and demystify it to a point where people could do something creative themselves. It changes lives, but people are intimidated.”

His own work, after all, is a sterling example of a famous artist who cobbles together worlds of influences and ideas from disparate sources, cherry-picking liberally and cleverly, then applying his distinctive fingerprints to the results. Which is most artists.

A Neil Gaiman story, if there is such a thing, gathers fairy tales, folklore and classic bits of genre then replaces whatever antiquated typical language might exist with accessible storytelling, and sometimes adds a contemporary setting. “American Gods” tells the story of an America where the folk legends that immigrants brought to this country were real, then cast aside. “Coraline” is “Alice in Wonderland” retold for the age of distracted parenting. “Norse Mythology,” his 2017 best-seller, revisited the tales of Thor, Ragnarok, Loki and the like with a modern ear for overlooked weirdness and humor.

He has made, in a very real way, what Ray Bradbury, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and others built for earlier generations — a self-contained dreamscape, familiar yet fresh.

When I tell him this, you can almost hear the wince through the phone.

He starts speaking, he stops, he regroups, he goes into a long story to illustrate the downside of such comparisons: “When I was a young journalist (in the 1980s in England), interviewing lots of writers, I met people who were, in my perspective, major writers, best-selling authors, and conversation would get around to the book they didn’t publish because they were a novelist who wrote, say, horror, and couldn’t get anyone to release their French Revolution novel. I thought to myself, I never want to be so successful doing one thing as to never do other things. Which has been hard. Getting publishers to take adult novels seriously when I was winning awards for ‘Sandman’ was hard. Getting ‘Coraline’ published when I was perceived as an adult author was hard.

“I like writing but what I like more than writing is doing different things. I like being the writer who doesn’t just write one kind of book. It has not been CS Lewis or Tolkien or JK Rowling’s career. If I did — say I wrote a new ‘American Gods’ once a year — maybe I would be more Stephen King famous. But I’d be bored out of my mind and grumpy.”

I have arrived at this mindset, in part, because of… Duran Duran.

As a 20-something journalist in the early ’80s, he was offered the chance to write a quickie biography of the group. “Which came out at the height of Duran Duran mania. I was thrilled. I did it for money. Without Google, you’d go to the BBC press clipping office and ask ‘How much for everything in the Duran Duran pile?’ and they would say ‘£60!’ and you would say ‘Great!’ and the following day they would hand over a stack of photocopies. That’s how that book was written. I took my £2,000 and I paid my rent and bought an electric typewriter. I would be working out the (sales) numbers: If the first edition sold out, I would get £10,000 and I never had £10,000 in my whole life. And then it sold out that first printing. And one week later, the publisher went into involuntary bankruptcy. I had spent three months of my life writing a book I would not want to read and then I didn’t even get the money for it. So I thought, in the future, I will do only those things that make me happy. Because then if I didn’t get the money from it, at least I would have this thing itself I created. Which is the best way to write.”

Decades later, as much a brand as a writer, it’s different, of course.

Especially for a writer of sci-fi / fantasy / comics / horror / speculative dystopias.

He once said he misses the days when science fiction, fantasy and superheroes were a low form, disrespected, not taken too seriously. When he could do something as strange, dark and risky as “Sandman” — about an existential protagonist named Dream, and his siblings (Death, Destiny, Desire, among others) visiting Earth and beyond — and tell himself he was original and, yes, someday someone will notice what you made here.

“It was like working in the shadows then.”

And now, “People (ask) when ‘Sandman’ is being released by Netflix, and I think, look, when Netflix releases ‘Sandman,’ nobody on this planet will not know — don’t worry, OK? They’re not going to sneak it past you without you knowing it’s out there.”

Indeed, the better known you become, the better your chances of running into work you did when you were less known. In some cases, his work, now ideal for streaming services and a fantasy-hungry public, begs contemporary scrutiny: “Anansi Boys,” his 2005 novel that drew on African folklore, is being shot right now as an upcoming Amazon series, and so the production, Gaiman said, made sure to hire directors and writers and actors and crew with African and Caribbean backgrounds.

“There are places where I (look at my older books) and think ‘You did the right thing, Neil of the past, writing that story at that time. You had a platform and you used it for this group.’ But at this point, that group, they can speak for themselves and it’s not my place to speak for them.” Whereas “Sandman,” he said, “it’s aged well in how it relates to race, gender, sexuality and just the general feel of the world. There’s less buffing.”

As free as it sounds, the creative life does not exist in a vacuum.

Gaiman, who hasn’t been in the United States for three years, has been wondering about his audience lately, an audience that’s long felt a rich closeness with the author.

In a way, he received an answer in 2020 when he was roundly criticized online (and by Scottish police and UK politicians) for violating lockdown protocols and leaving his home in New Zealand to fly to his home on the Isle of Skye, on the northwest coast of Scotland. in to mea culpaGaiman apologized on his blog, saying he “panicked” at the thought of being stuck in Auckland with a mountain of TV production waiting in the UK.

Hence, the biggest drawback to a creative life:

The great unfinished, unwritten and unmade work, rolling in your brain.

“I wish there were more of me now,” he said. “I have reached the point in my life where if I am doing something, something else will not happen. I love making television, adapting and building and learning to do it. Yet I am painfully aware of an unfinished novel in my bag that I should be writing—instead of the other novel I’m reading. So I am also looking forward to not making television so I can go back to (writing a new novel). Stuff can be finished in the cracks. I feel proud of myself now for writing an introduction to a book. I think, ‘OK — good, I have at least written this essay then.’ But then I realized, other than the one I wrote for a Doctor Who book, I haven’t written a short story since 2020. I forgot how much I liked that. OK, I must do more of that! I will do more of that!

“Instead I wrote 12 more episodes of television.”

“An Evening with Neil Gaiman” will be 8 pm May 13 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive; tickets are $73-$96 at 312-341-2300 or www.auditoriumtheatre.org

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

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