Neil Gaiman exclusive! Part 1

To mark the publication of Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, the magical, macabre and moving The Graveyard Book, SFX is proud to present an exclusive interview with the Dream King. Jayne Nelson asks the questions in an entertaining ramble that takes in the beauty of cemeteries, undying schoolboy resentments, the lingering terror of Kia-Ora adverts and, tantalisingly, the possibility of a Neil Gaiman penned episode of Doctor Who….

So, I read the Graveyard Book and I absolutely loved it.

I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done; I am just so happy with it. Normally when I do things you have a platonic ideal in your head and you measure success by how much you fell short of that platonic ideal. Right now it’s my Batman comic and I have this wonderful, marvellous, glittering, glistening, golden idea and I’m just wrestling with the thing and it lies there on the page and I say, “No, you’re meant to be marvellous!” And it’s all about how close to marvellous you can actually get. And with The Graveyard Book I achieved everything that I set out to write. The themes are big themes. I did them justice, and I loved all of the characters, I’d love to go back and do more stories with them. I think it’s really special.

I agree. It’s quite sinister in places though, for a kids’ book, although a lot of young adult fiction seems to be like that these days.

There were things that I decided, going into it, that were important. I didn’t want to write a book in which ghosts were dangerous. I knew my shape of my story, but it had to be a world in which the dangers are all from living people because that’s a really cool thing to tell kids. When I think of how much time I expended being afraid of things like graveyards as a kid… there’s nothing to be afraid of in graveywards, they’re beautiful places!

Do you spend a lot of time in graveyards?

I love graveyards! What I tended to do was assimilate graveyards and feel every bit of every graveyard that I loved. I tried to explain it to someone. I said, “You have to take Stoke Newington Cemetery, then you have to topographically rearrange it onto Glasgow Necropolis, and then having done that you have to take a part of Highgate West and stick that at the back.” So it’s all of these wonderful cemeteries and marvellous graveyards. You know, the UK has all of these glorious places, ever so a little bit seedy. Highgate is all cleaned up and nice but Highgate West is the trees and the ivy and it’s all rack and ruin and it’s just magic.

Most graveyards I know have cider cans on the graves from the people getting pissed there the night before!

Not quite my graveyard! Although it’s implicit in the fact that the council shut the doors to my graveyard at night, to keep out the cider drinkers. The other thing about that graveyard is that it’s slightly out of the way. You had an old town which has now become part of the big city, and the old town is tucked away, just a corner, so there are much more modern graveywards that don’t involve trekking up an enormous hill.

But they’re probably the horrible soulless crematoriums…

That’s part of why I thought, “They probably stopped burying people here in about 1970.”

A lot of the characters in the book come from different ages so they talk differently. Did you have to research their speech?

No, because that’s just one of those things that you research for years. That’s the kind of thing I researched when I was doing Sandman. I had enormous fun writing 17th century people talking to 19th century people – there are bits in there that make me smile! Which is a terible thing when you’re the author and you smile at your own jokes, especially ones that aren’t too funny… There’s one person in the graveyard who saw the Queen and just describes her as “A fat lady in a fur hat.” And we’re never quite sure which Queen it was!

I assumed it was Victoria!

I think it was probably one of Henry VIII’s. I think it was Anne of Cleves. But I love the fact that we don’t really know, and all you know is that Bod is really good at some things when he goes to school and really bad at other things. He has real problems with history because he was hearing from people who were really there!

I loved how he’d sit in class and say, “But it didn’t happen like that!” but then he couldn’t explain how he knew. Teachers hate that kind of thing, don’t they?

Well, they hate it when you do know anything. I got shit from a very nice English teacher, probably the best English teacher I ever had, a guy called Mr Hayes, and he was an excellent teacher. Every now and then I’d put up my hand and say something and he’d say, “Well, that’s not true.” And they’d be odd things – we’d be talking about contractions or whatever and I’d say, “George Bernard Shaw said that you shouldn’t put the apostrophes in won’t and wasn’t and shan’t.” And he’d say, “Well that’s obviously not true because that would mean that George Bernard Shaw was not a literate fellow.” And I remember once saying, “Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine addict,” and he said, “No he wasn’t.”

I can see this has haunted you over the years!

It’s not the kind of thing you forget!

I have exactly the same kind of story – I told my geography teacher that chimps ate other monkeys and she didn’t believe me. “They’re herbivores!” she insisted. “No, they’re omnivores!” I said. And she marked me down from an A to a D because I argued with her. So I understand your frustration. You bear resentments!

You do! My favourite of all of those was for the mock O-level English paper where I was marked down because my essay, which was a short story, was ‘too good’… which meant I had to have stolen it. And I thought… you can’t do that, that’s wrong! [Laughs]

We should start a support group!

So anyway, a little of that crept in with Bod.

He was very likeable – a good hero.

He does things wrong, with the best will in the world and occasionally not! And there’s a point in there where I wanted to make it clear that some of this stuff was changing him – you can see ways that he could have gone but didn’t go.

For the second part of SFX’s exclusive Neil Gaiman interview, head here.