Neil Gaiman knows that the best stories must be both bitter and sweet — he is, after all, the author of “The Graveyard Book,” the tender children’s novel that opens with a nasty knife murder. Still, the 49-year-old Brit sounds dazed when he reflects on the past year of his life.
“I had a really strange year,” the author said in a faraway voice. “I was leading up to the writing of an ‘Anansi Boys’ screenplay [based on my 2005 novel], which begins with an incredibly funny sequence where the protagonist’s father keels over from a surprise heart attack. And as I was doing that my father keeled over and died of a surprise heart attack. It’s not terribly funny though, is it?”
The death of David Gaiman during a business meeting in March left his son searching for words. As the weeks passed, though, the writer was met with blank screens, blank pages and a blank stare in the mirror. The author of “Coraline,” “American Gods,” “Stardust” and the comic-book epic “The Sandman” was suddenly unable to conjure up those apparitions of imagination that had made him a signature figure in fantasy circles.
“It left me just completely stilled for about nine months,” Gaiman said. “It was very weird…. I’ve never really had much time or patience with writer’s block. I think sometimes you need a period of just healing and distance before you can say, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to do that now.’ ”
Gaiman will speak Feb. 4 at UCLA’s Royce Hall and, after winning the Newbery Medal last year for “The Graveyard Book,” there will probably be strong turnout for an author — he was already a rock star with the Comic-Con crowd thanks to his landmark, seven-year run on “Sandman.” Gaiman has a reputation for wit and sprightly storytelling, but the Royce audience might hear a speech tinted with sadness on the edges.
Gaiman is also mourning the loss of a highly anticipated film project: “The Graveyard Book” adaptation that was to be written and directed by Neil Jordan (“The Brave One,” “The Crying Game” and “Interview with the Vampire”) has fallen apart on the financing front. It’s a demoralizing setback for Gaiman, who had announced Jordan’s participation last January on “The Today Show.” It may all still happen, of course, but it added to a year of tumult for the author.
“It was all put together over at Miramax Films. The people there had a long, great relationship with Neil Jordan and it was all set up and ready to go, and then Miramax was more or less erased from existence,” Gaiman said. “It became a filing cabinet in somebody’s desk, more or less…. But it looks like almost all the pieces are on the table again. They have a studio, they have a distributor and they are putting stuff together and I’m not allowed to say anything else.”
Gaiman has a spotty history with Hollywood, but he’s clearly fascinated by its career upsides. He was publicly bitter that the film adaption of his “Stardust,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert DeNiro, wasn’t marketed by Paramount Pictures as a clever-but-winking fairy tale in the vein of “The Princess Bride.” But last year Gaiman was over the moon with Henry Selick’s acclaimed stop-action interpretation of “Coraline,” a movie that grossed $122 million worldwide and earned strong reviews. Gaiman also co-wrote the screenplay for “Beowulf,” the 2007 film from director Robert Zemeckis. Overall the Hollywood experience has been eye-opening.
“These days we’re in this strange and fascinating world where it seems that even movie studios don’t have the money to make movies anymore,” Gaiman said. “That’s been the story of most of the films I’ve been involved in. The long, strange journey is the financing part; the journey of the filmmaking is always incredibly easy and straightforward.”
Gaiman, born in Portchester, England, lives in rambling old manse in Minnesota, but he and his fiancee, Amanda Palmer of the punk-cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls, attended the Golden Globe Awards this weekend. Selick’s “Coraline” was nominated for best animated film, and the author of the source material was dazzled and amused by his red carpet experience. He found himself sharing a banquet room with George Lucas, Paul McCartney and Mike Tyson — an experience, he said, that was just like real life but entirely different.
“They definitely were all there, you were not hallucinating,” Gaiman said with a chuckle. “There was also Mickey Rourke in a cowboy hat, Meryl Streep threatening to rename herself ‘T-Bone.’ It was also the same room where my fiancee was threatened with removal and the confiscation of her camera for taking a photo of the teleprompter with her iPhone. Someone with security did not want the illusion to be shattered that these stars had not actually memorized the jokes they were making.”
Gaiman has high hopes that a long list of his creations of the page will live and breathe on the screen. “As a writer,” he said at one point in the interview, “what we’re fighting is obscurity.” His “Sandman” (which is a metaphysical and operatic chronicle of the modern-day doings of Morpheus, the immortal god of dreams) would seem like natural fantasy property for comic-book-obsessed Hollywood studios. The author is also optimistic that the “Graveyard Book” project has not truly given up the ghost. “It’s a natural, that’s why Jordan wanted to do it in the first place; he knew that someone was going to do it.”
At the UCLA Live event, though, the storyteller plans to linger on matters of magical creation, not multimedia commerce.
“I think what I want to talk about is what the imagination is and what the imagination does,” Gaiman said. He also wanted to emphasize that, despite some trying times, he will not arrive at Royce Hall as glum as, say, Silas, the dour vampire who becomes an orphan’s protector in “The Graveyard Book.”
“Having said that it was a down year, and my dad dying, it was also one of the biggest up years I’ve ever had — and the strangest. Any year that begins with you winning the Newbery medal and any year that begins with someone like Henry Selick making a movie like ‘Coraline’ out of one of your books, that’s an up year. And now I’m engaged….”
So what’s next for the writer? The big goal is completing that “Anansi Boys” script and getting past the emotional connection it has to his father’s death. “It would be a nice way to put that story to rest,” he said, “and put what happened to rest.”
— Geoff Boucher
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PHOTOS: Top, Neil Gaiman strolls among the headstones. Credit: Philippe Matas / HarperCollins. Middle, Neil Jordan at work on set of “The Good Thief” in 2002. Credit: David Appleby / Fox Searchlight Pictures. Bottom, Neil Gaiman in New York, summer 2007. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times.