T.O. surprises don't stop for Gaiman

-- For JAM! Books

, Last Updated: 9:28 PM ET

Toronto is a city of firsts for fantasy author Neil Gaiman.

Early on during a lunchtime conversation before his appearance at the recent Luminato event – 'An Evening with Neil Gaiman'– he name-checked Toronto as one of the first cities in which he was recognized walking down the street.

"I have this strange and wonderful relationship with Toronto," he said before digging into a caesar salad at Avenue Bar & Lounge. "1987, 22 years ago, my first graphic novel 'Violent Cases' came out and Mark Askwith, who at that time was the manager of the [comic bookstore] Silver Snail, discovered they’d sold more copies of that book through Silver Snail than they had on the rest of the North American continent."

Toronto was also the city, he continues proudly, in which his popular “Sandman” comic series became a word-of-mouth sensation.

"I don’t know if it is that the Canadian educational system is better or that people here get hipper a little faster, but whatever it was, it happened first in Toronto," the 48-year-old said.

Toronto, Gaiman adds, is also one of the first places where one of his book signings went on for hours longer than it should have.

And on an afternoon in which the author of more than 20 titles, including the recent Newbery Medal-winning"The Graveyard Book", "American Gods", ""Fragile Things"," the "Sandman" graphic novels, and the last-ever Batman story, "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" was asked to ponder his varied appeal among the young and old, another Toronto first happened.

Partway through answering what he wants his epitaph to read, avid fan Michael Luck banged on the restaurant window and proclaimed his love for all things Neil. Moments later he stormed up to Mr. Gaiman, a well-worn copy of "American Gods" safely stashed in a zip-lock bag.

"That’s another Toronto first," Gaiman said. "Nobody’s ever seen me in a window, just bicycling past, banged on the window, indicated that they would be back in five minutes with a book if I was willing to sign it and then returned in five minutes with a book."

But lots has changed over the last couple of months. His bestselling "The Graveyard Book," which is about an 18-month-old who escapes from an assassin into a decrepit, ghost-strewn graveyard, netted him appearances on "The Today Show" and "The Colbert Report".

"After that," he said, with a trace of a smile, "people started noticing me more."

What follows is an edited transcript of an interview between JAM! reporter Mark Daniell and Neil Gaiman.

You’ve dabbled in so many different things over the years – novels, comics, fantasy, children’s books – is there a milieu you feel most comfortable in and is there one that challenges you the most?

I’m always interested in what I can’t do. So right now I’m really interested in doing a stage play. That’s definitely what’s challenging and interesting to me right now. There are a couple of ideas I have that I’m working on with Stephen Merritt [from the Magnetic Fields].

It’s also time for me to do a non-fiction book. I haven’t done one in 20 years. It will be about China.

Sometime this decade comics went from this niche thing that appealed to a small segment of the population to having wide appeal. Why is that?

In 2003 at the ALA (American Library Association) convention in Atlanta, they invited me and Art Spiegelman ['Maus'] and Scott McCloud ['Understanding Comics'] and Jeff Smith ['Bone'] to talk about graphic novels. We were there because they wanted us. They knew that there was a demand for graphic novels and they came to us and said, 'Tell us what we need to know. People want these and we don’t know what they are.'

At that point, I remember standing out in the rain in Atlanta. Art Spiegelman took out a cigarette and I said, 'Everything's changed. This is not the world we were in last week.' And it really was suddenly the world in which we'd won. The battle to get comics taken seriously and to become part of the world had just been won in that moment.

Your most recent novel 'The Graveyard Book' is an elegiac rumination on mortality. How have the reactions differed between adults and children?

I get 10-year-olds writing to me and saying, 'I want to be Bod. I want to live in a graveyard; I want to have those powers.' And I have adults writing and saying, 'This is one of the most positive books about parenthood and letting go.' So what we've got here, are adults and children relating to the story in very different ways.

You started 'The Graveyard Book' in a Sussex graveyard 23 years ago, but didn't finish it until last year. Do you have other stories lurking around somewhere that you hope someday to tell?

I have an idea for which 'Stardust' [his 1998 fantasy, which was turned into a feature film in 2007] is the prequel. It's called 'Wall' and it's about a successful novelist in her 40s who’s going through a mid-life crisis in America, so she returns to England where she came from. (Somehow) she winds up in the village of Wall where 'Stardust' happens and lots of weird and interesting things happen to her. But the problem with that is when I came to write it, I found that here I was, a successful British novelist, in his 40s, living in America. There's no way that if I write this book that people will not assume it's some roman à clef; that this character is me, which it so wasn’t. It was a love story too between one of the characters in the 'Stardust' novel and this lady novelist.

But I suspect now, 22 years later, and being a successful novelist and being in love, I would be much more likely now just to embrace the fact you can absolutely read that story as being autobiographical – even though it's not.

You wrote the screenplay to 'Beowulf' and your children's book 'Coraline' was turned into a popular 3-D film earlier this year. Do you have any plans to direct a feature film?

I think it would have happened a decade ago if I had actually owned the rights to (his 'Sandman' graphic novel) 'Death.' The script was written a decade ago, but the problem with 'Death' is I don't own the rights to that character. So I do short little films [Gaiman directed 'A Short Little Film About John Bolton']. I was asked a couple of days ago if I would direct a silent short in England.

After the incredible success of comic book movies at the box-office, who can you see directing a film version of 'Sandman'?

I think it's probably some kid, who right now is around 26-years-old. He may or may not have directed his first movie, but he loves 'Sandman' and he has the same amount of dedication to the material that (director) Peter Jackson had to 'Lord of the Rings' and Sam Rami had to 'Spider-Man.' It's somebody who knows that there's this thing they love and they have a responsibility to the world get it right and not f--- it up. But they're also not scared of changing the things about it that are not cinematic into things that are cinema. Otherwise you end up with something like the 'Sin City' movie, where you'd rather read the comic. I remember watching that and thinking, 'I think I prefer these characters better when Frank (Miller) draws them.'

What's your unlikeliest source of inspiration?

Boredom. Boredom is such a great source of inspiration; especially situations in which you're trapped. Middle school drama, there's a point, unless it's really good, where you're sitting there and it's going to last another 90 minutes and you just sort of start of daydreaming. Being stuck in an airplane, it's great for a writer because you start entertaining yourself and by the time you land you say, 'That's a story.'

Would you ever return to the 'Sandman' universe?

Maybe. I wanted to do a 20th anniversary story and it broke mostly because DC Comics would have loved me to do a 20th anniversary story at the same terms that were agreed upon in 1987 when I was a 26-year-old unknown. And my thought was, 'You know what guys, it really doesn't work like that.' I wasn't going to do a deal at the same terms we had in 1987 and they were not willing to do any better than that.

Are there any comic book characters that you'd like to take a stab at?

Iron Man, Ant Man, Giant Man and the Wasp were the only ones that I hadn't written, but I got them into (his 2006 limited series) 'The Eternals.' But I don't think there's anybody out there that I'd still like to do. I could be wrong. Joe Quesada or Dan DiDio could call me up and say, 'Neil how would you like to do the 'Ultimate Silver Surfer,' 'Doctor Strange,' 'Phantom Stranger,' Jack Kirby's 'The Demon,' 'Superman,' and I would go, 'I'd love to.' But it's not terribly likely. I think Batman for me was the last character for me that I loved that I hadn't ever written properly.

Speaking of Batman, what was the attraction to penning the last-ever adventure for the Caped Crusader?

The attraction was simply Dan DiDio calling up and saying, 'How would you like to do the last ever Batman story?' I sat there thinking, 'Well, if I don't do it someone else will and they'll fuck it up, but if I do it at least it will be me f---ing it up.' That was really the attraction.

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