Neil Gaiman tells L.A. fan: ‘Trust your dreams, your heart and your story’
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Alicia Lozano makes her return to the Hero Complex with coverage of a packed-house event at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
Neil Gaiman had a rough year. His father died while the 49-year-old author was working on a screenplay of his 2005 novel “Anansi Boys” and financing crumpled for a film adaptation of “The Graveyard Book.” But standing before a rapt audience (and a wildly diverse one, considering the children carrying copies of “Coraline,” the parents toting “American Gods” and goth kids wielding “Sandman” issues) at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Thursday night, Gaiman was nothing but sprightly storytelling and good omens.
“I always wanted to be the kind of writer who can tell whatever stories he wanted,” said Gaiman, dressed in his ubiquitous uniform of black on black with appropriately shaggy hair and alabaster skin. “It never occurred to me not to be.”
And this is exactly the kind of storytelling that has made Gaiman “the most famous writer you’ve never heard of,” according to the Times of London. At Thursday’s event, hosted by UCLA Live, the journalist-turned-comic-book-writer-and-eventual-novelist breezed through almost 30 years of literary works, ranging from whimsical poems to devilish short stories and culminating with full-blown adult novels.
He kicked off the evening with a reading of “My Last Landlady,” a poem inspired by the “horrors” of off-season English seaside resorts that once vacated in the winter become dark and twisted traps for unsuspecting tourists.
After the reading, Gaiman launched into a brief retrospective of his work as a “crossover artist,” one who can deftly navigate the sometimes conflicting worlds of horror versus fantasy, children’s versus adult, comic versus fiction writing.
His first book, 1991’s “Coraline,” which became a 2009 silver-screen hit, took more than two decades to write, Gaiman confessed. He started it as a 22-year-old journalist, who soon after turned to comic books, “a medium that people mistake as a genre,” he explained. But his publisher argued that the children’s book he sought to create was too scary for kids and too juvenile for adults. It was tucked away until Gaiman found considerable success through his “Sandman” comic series and he was finally allowed to experiment with prose suitable for anyone with enough imagination to accept the “other.”
Sticking with the crossover theme, Gaiman continued with a reading from “The Graveyard Book,” originally conceived as a ghost version of the “The Jungle Book,” inspired by his then-2-year-old son, Michael, now 26, who enjoyed riding his bicycle through a cemetery, which coincidentally was one of Gaiman’s favorite places to visit when he himself was a child. This book also took almost 20 years to write. He kept putting it away until he became a better writer, Gaiman said. Eventually, he realized that he wasn’t getting any better and decided to finally give it a go. The result won the Brit a 2009 Newberry Medal.
His last reading came from a 100-page novella called “Odd and the Frost Giants,” about a young Norwegian boy living among Vikings who runs away from home with a broken leg, only to be followed by a bear, fox and eagle. In the novella — originally written for World Book Day, during which English schoolchildren can buy books with 1-pound vouchers — Odd comes face to face with some of Gaiman’s favorite, and most often invoked, gods: Loki, Odin and Thor.
When asked about writing for children versus adults during question-and-answer time, Gaiman noted that young readers “don’t come to stories with preconceptions,” making them a perfect vehicle for introducing the fantastical and horrific.
He ended the night by reading from “Instructions,” a poem about what to do when you find yourself living in a fairy tale. “Trust your dreams, your heart and your story,” he advised. The poem will eventually be published in a collection of the same name illustrated by Charles Vess. Gaiman is also working on a nonfiction story about Buddhist myths in China called “A Monkey in Me.”
— Alicia Lozano
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Photos: Top, author Neil Gaiman in Manhattan in 2007. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times. Bottom, Gaiman on a cemetery stroll. Credit: Philippe Matas / HarperCollins