For Neil Gaiman’s
new book Anansi Boys, his publisher took out a full-page colour ad in
the New York Times. “The wait is over,” the copy crowed. “The master
storyteller and New York Times best-selling author of American Gods
is back.” Tucked below the columnar type was a black and white photo of Gaiman,
his hair dishevelled, gazing forlornly behind a half-smile.
It’s the way Gaiman feels these days, overwhelmed by stardom. “I think this will be the last book tour like this,” he says wearily from his hotel room in Denver, stop seven on a reading tour that will span 16 cities in 21 days. “I’m sort of realizing it doesn’t quite work any more. It works if you have 75-300 people a night, not when you have 600-800 a night. It’s hard to make everyone happy.”
Gaiman, it seems, is a victim of his ambition. At 44, the macabre Englishman defies all boundaries. Besides comics and novels, he has written nightmarish children’s books and darkly surreal screenplays. In the same week that Anansi Boys is scampering up best-seller lists, his film MirrorMask, directed by his long-time collaborator Dave McKean, is opening in theatres, while filming begins on his adaptation of Beowulf, a new movie with Crispin Glover and Anthony Hopkins. Yet somehow Gaiman is still compelled to prove himself.
“When I wrote American Gods,” he says of his previous novel, “I was trying intentionally not to structure it like a movie. The structure of it was all over the place — that was part of the fun. But then people thought I couldn’t write any other way.” He wrote Anansi Boys in part to silence his critics.
In truth, there have been few dissenting voices since Gaiman came to prominence in the 1990s with Sandman, the elegiac serial he wrote for DC comics. Sandman was a lyrical tangle of myth and magic, where Death took the form of a spunky teenage girl and Desire and Despair were scheming siblings. It sent shivers through the industry with its epic imagination, and picked up readers and accolades by the busload: one issue, No. 19, was the first comic book to win the World Fantasy Award for best short story, preceding Maus‘ march into literary circles by two years. (In 2003, the Sandman collection Endless Nights became the first graphic novel to make the New York Times’ best-seller list.)
Gaiman ended Sandman in 1996. Though the comic was still selling furiously, Gaiman had become bored with it. “By the time I was done with Sandman, I definitely didn’t feel as challenged as when I’d started,” he admits. “I didn’t get to be Frank Miller or Alan Moore, but I got to be a reasonably good Neil Gaiman.”
It was the last thing he wanted to be, and he sought a new vessel for his mythic nocturnes: the prose novel. “Writing a book is lonelier and slower than writing comics,” Gaiman says. “The joy of comics is that you have somebody to talk to. What you’re writing isn’t what anybody reads, it’s a letter to an artist. There’s immediate gratification as you start getting feedback on it.” He had to wait for his debut novel, 1997’s Neverwhere, to start climbing the best-seller lists before he could enjoy the payoff.
Anansi Boys too is rooted in frustration, despite its breezy charm. It was fed by a grudge Gaiman held since co-authoring the screwball Good Omens with Terry Pratchett in 1990. Readers, accustomed to Gaiman’s gothic tenor, assumed the jokes were all Pratchett’s. “That irritated me enormously,” Gaiman says, “and it made me think, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to write a funny book.'”
It took him 15 years to redress the slight. Set in the same Empyreal milieu as American Gods, Anansi Boys tempers its black magic with subtle British wit. “As I began writing the book, I realized, rather to my surprise, I had [the humour] all along, rather like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz.”
And like Dorothy, Gaiman knows there’s no place like home. He returned to comics in 2003 with the miniseries Marvel 1602, which transposed the Marvel universe to the Elizabethan era and proved he wasn’t yet finished with the format. “What I’m really drawn to,” he says, “is the mix.” Underwritten by a massive, unyielding fan base, Gaiman is free to hop between genres, between markets, between media. Success has its perks.