Neil Gaiman, shown in his Wisconsin home, was “delighted and astonished” when told Neverwhere was picked for One Book, One Chicago. “The book is so very London. But really what it’s about is cities and people,” he says. (Craig Lassig ~AP)
† ‘Neverwhere’ on Stage: Lifeline Theatre, 6 p.m. April 11 in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State.
† Neil Gaiman and Audrey Niffenegger, 6 p.m. April 12 in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State.
† Neil Gaiman reading and lecture, 7 p.m. April 13 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn.
Neil Gaiman has long had a fascination with cities. What got him started was an encounter with Free Live Free, Gene Wolfe’s complex novel set in Chicago.
It got Gaiman thinking how cities, too, can be characters in a story.
“Gene made Chicago somewhere magical,” Gaiman said. “That was the point I began thinking I could do one of these for London.”
What he wrote was Neverwhere, a riveting urban fantasy novel set in London, which is the spring pick for One Book, One Chicago.
“We wanted a book that would appeal to an audience not accustomed to reading fantasy fiction,” said Annie Tully, the program’s coordinator. “Neil has such a distinct voice, and he’s a wonderful storyteller in the classic sense.”
Gaiman was “delighted and astonished” when told his novel was chosen.
“The book is so very London,” Gaiman said. “But really what it’s about is cities and people.”
Dreams and nightmares unravel in the story of Richard Mayhew, a sensible Londoner who one day stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on the sidewalk. His act of kindness thrusts him into an underground world of intrigue and darkness that will forever change your mind about what lurks in any big city’s subway tunnels.
“This is an interesting book and a unique choice,” said Jamie Prahl, who reads and blogs on the website suchabooknerd.com. “A city that goes out of its way to promote literacy and reading is a good place to be.”
Neverwhere first saw the light of day as a 1996 mini-series Gaiman wrote for the BBC. Gaiman wasn’t happy with the result, what he calls “old school Dr. Who.”
“That was the initial motivation for writing the book,” Gaiman said in a conversation from his home in western Wisconsin. “If I had loved the television series, I wouldn’t have written the book. This is what I wanted it to be; this is my story.”
Gaiman began with an agenda to write about the city (familiar London sights and sounds are everywhere) and also “to write about the people who fell through the cracks.” At the time, he was doing work with the charity Comic Relief, which aids the homeless in London. But he believed that if he simply wrote a novel about the homeless, it wouldn’t be widely read.
“I thought if I wrote a fantasy novel, then maybe it would have a wider effect,” Gaiman, 50, said. “It was important to me that maybe the next time someone walked by a doorway where a person was sleeping, they wouldn’t simply walk past.”
Chicago author Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife), who will interview Gaiman this week during a One Book, One Chicago event, says Neverwhere is one her favorite books by Gaiman.
“It’s marvelously inventive and combines darkness, silliness, loneliness, clever quips and danger in very satisfying proportions,” she said. “Neil keeps his characters and the reader a little off balance at all times. When one has read a great deal, it is harder and harder to find a book that can surprise, and Neil is good at interesting surprises.”
Over the course of his career, Gaiman has become a master at creating these “surprises.” A prolific writer of novels, comics, children’s picture books, young adult novels, short stories, poems and screenplays, all written in his distinct voice, he is adored by his legion of fans — more than 1.5 million follow him on Twitter.
Robert Kauzlaric, who adapted Lifeline Theatre’s 2010 staging of Neverwhere, says Gaiman is “breaking some of the societal stigma tied to fantasy and science-fiction. He exposes more people to the genre, and that’s a fantastic thing.”
But because of this massive popularity, Gaiman doesn’t do traditional book signings much anymore. The last one he did over a year ago began at 7 p.m. and ended at 2 a.m. as 2,400 books were signed (he’s pre-signing books for his Chicago appearances). But it seems his blog and Twitter messages allow fans an even closer relationship.
Recently, on a long train ride after visiting a sick friend, he felt “kind of sad, kind of lonely,” so he went on Twitter and did an impromptu 90-minute interview, answering questions from surprised fans. He loves the accessibility, but it can be disconcerting.
“You’re walking down the street and someone will run over and say, ‘How’s your dog doing?’” Gaiman said, laughing. “That’s always a surprise.”
Gaiman, who grew up in Portshester, England, doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be a writer.
“I was a kid who lived in a world of stories,” he said. “I loved books, short stories and comic books. It was encoded in my DNA.”
Gaiman remains thrilled that he’s been able to create a writing career of his own liking. He wonders how he actually got away with it.
“There isn’t one book of mine that is particularly like any other book and nobody’s minded,” he said. “And then I get to have weird, glorious side excursions.”
One such excursion was supplying the voice for his character in an episode of “The Simpsons,” which airs in the fall.
“It was great fun, and I look at that and think ‘I got this through writing.’ How cool is that?
“So kids, keep writing.”