Gaiman tells children the truth

 

The film of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Coraline’, which follows a lonely child as she ventures into an eerily distorted version of her own universe, tells kids terrible truths about death, decay and human impotence. They love it, the newly respectable author tells DONALD CLARKE

RESPECTABILITY doesn’t appear to have changed Neil Gaiman. For the past quarter of a century the English writer has been among the most lauded figures in the world of fantasy fiction. With lavish, baroque comics such as Sandmanand agreeably crazy novels such as American Godsand Stardust, he established a strong cult following with a specialist audience. And he looks the part. Wearing shaggy black hair and a battered leather jacket, Gaiman is never likely to be confused with EM Forster or Henry James.

“I’m good at certain things and not good at others,” he says in his impressively forceful manner. “I am good at making stuff up, but I am not good at talking to bank managers.” Over the last few years, he has, however, gradually nudged his way into the mainstream. I imagine his bank manager is quite happy with how things have gone. Published in 2001, American Godsbecame a massive seller and, just last year, he provided the script for Robert Zemeckis’s fruity film of Beowulf. Then there is Coraline. A properly unsettling disinterment of themes from Alice in Wonderland, Gaiman’s book received storming reviews when it emerged in 2002 and went on to win the genuinely prestigious Newbery Medal for children’s literature.

Now it has become an equally impressive stop-motion animated film by Henry Selick. Following a lonely child as she ventures through a tunnel into an eerily distorted version of her own universe, the film tells kids some terrible truths about death, decay and human impotence.

“What I am loving right now is reading the American responses online,” he says. “Some guy on the internet movie database was sounding off. He said it freaked out his 21-year-old girlfriend, so it obviously wasn’t fit for kids. Then all these kids posted to say that they loved it. I really liked that.” Sure enough, Coraline,which involves many of the same personnel that worked on A Nightmare Before Christmas, has become a bona fide hit in the US. Despite its unsettling themes and its fantastic story, the picture, presented in impressive 3D, appears to be saying things folk want to hear.

“I cannot tell you how relieved I am about that,” he says. “I say that for a number of reasons. If it had somehow failed it would have brought down the studio and would that have been my fault. It cost $60 million , which would not be a lot for Pixar. But this is a little studio in Portland, Oregon, and they would have gone bust.”

Was there pressure from corporate partners to make the film a little less unsettling? “Absolutely. But it’s absolutely uncompromising. It’s going to be fascinating to see what happens with the advertising. There was definitely an attempt on the part of distributors here to go soft on advertising. The American poster was quite frightening. But one of the UK and Ireland posters is Coralinestanding smiling. It could be the The Magic Roundabout. Yet I remember some guy at a press thing saying to me: ‘It’s The Shiningfor kids. Isn’t it?’ Well, maybe.”

Coraline is not quite as violent as that comment suggests, but Selick and Gaiman do allow a great deal of cruelty into the film. Ignored by her parents, the heroine makes alliances with an initially indulgent “Other Mother” in the parallel universe. Three spectral children in the alternate world fear her and call her “the Bedlam”.

Somehow or other this weird tale has caught the world’s imagination.

This month, a musical, scored by Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, opens off Broadway, and the book continues to sell.

“As an easy way in, journalists often ask if, when writing the book, I had any notion it was going to become a hit film, musical and puppet show,” he says. “Hey, if I knew it was going to sell millions it wouldn’t have taken me 10 years to finish. I went on this cruise and I packed the wrong notebook. I had meant to pack the American Godsnotebook, but packed the Coralineone. That’s the only reason it got finished when it did. You just never know.”

AS THAT STORY suggests, Neil Gaiman is addicted to writing. His posts on Twitter explain that, in between talking to the press today, he will retire to his room to knock together a few more ideas. It’s hard to imagine that he could have ended up in any other profession. Yet it could have happened.

Now a sprightly 48, Gaiman was raised in Hampshire by his mother, a pharmacist, and a father who – read into this what you may – was one of the top men in the British wing of Scientology. In the early 1980s, he toyed with journalism and managed to get a few stories published in fantasy magazines. His dad, unconvinced that the boy was going to make a living, made a few half-hearted attempts to secure him a proper job.

“Oh, he was convinced I would starve,” he says. “So he persuaded me to get a job interview. It was something like showing people round a show home. So I went across London for the interview and sat in the lobby only to be told Mr So-and-So had already gone. I thought: ‘f*** it.’ And that was that really.”

Has he ever pondered what might have become of him if he hadn’t made it? “I reckon that, whatever happened, if I wasn’t doing exactly this then I would be doing something very like it.”

Making friends with Alan Moore, writer of beloved graphic novels such as Watchmenand V for Vendetta,convinced Gaiman, a long-time fantasy enthusiast, that the comic book might be the best medium for his growing body of outlandish tales. But his first big break came from a more unlikely direction. In 1984, he somehow secured a commission to write a book on Duran Duran.

“I like to remember that my advance allowed me to go out and trade in my manual typewriter for an electric typewriter. That was quite a thing then,” he says. “Many years later I was invited onto this yacht by a film producer and, oddly, Simon Le Bon was part of the crew. We ended up getting on quite well, but I felt I had this secret. So I sidled up to him and eventually told him I’d written this book on Duran Duran. ‘The one with the grey cover?’ he said. ‘We liked that one’.” Sadly, the publisher of the Duran Duran opus went bust just after the first print run sold out. Ever since, he has made a point of only taking work that he truly believes in. “Then even if you don’t get the money you have done something cool and interesting.”

THE FIRST OF Gaiman’s works to become a genuine hit was the meandering epic The Sandman.Following a shape-shifting personification of Dream across continents and through the ages, the comic helped encourage a renaissance in the medium during the 1980s. And it made Gaiman a star.

When we met a few years ago, he told me how one fan had asked him to sign his arm and had then returned an hour later with a bleeding tattoo scored into the biro marks.

For a decade or two, Gaiman, who now lives with his family in Minneapolis, has been viewed as a master by a sizable following of fantasy aficionados. He has always been respectful of that audience. He uses Twitter to keep them informed of his every move and he does not tolerate caricatures of comic-book fans as goatee-bearded nerds.

Yet it looks as if he is now manoeuvring his way out of the genre corral. The Newbery Medal, an American award that actually matters, has got Coralineinto hundreds of thousands of school libraries.

Beowulfhas made him a Hollywood player (of sorts).

“Well, it’s funny,” he says. “I always loved genre. But it seems I have backed out of that world, rather than bursting out of it. It happened by accident. I have never had a career plan. Things just happened.” He snorts with laughter and shakes his mane. “Then I won this award and now, it seems, I am respectable.”

There are worse things, I suppose.

Coralineis on general release from May 8