Exclusive: Neil Gaiman on Coraline

Writing legend Neil Gaiman chats with DoG about Coraline, Twitter and Doppelgangers...

Neil Gaiman

When thinking of modern-day geek culture superstars, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone as wide-ranging, lauded and downright successful as Neil Gaiman. Whether it’s in comics, novels (for adults or all-ages), film or music, Gaiman has delighted audiences the world over – he even wrote an episode of Babylon 5, for Valen’s sake.

Currently enjoying the fallout of releasing The Graveyard Book late last year, which won the author the prestigious Newberry Medal, Gaiman was in London as part of the press circus for Henry Selick’s adaptation of his 2002 novel Coraline. I had the opportunity to talk with him about his hectic year, the experience of seeing Coraline adapted to both stage and screen, and, of course, Twitter. Neil, thanks for talking with us. Congratulations for Coraline and, well, congratulations for a lot of things really. The last year or two have been crazy for you. Have you noticed a big shift? Because now you’re appearing on the Colbert Report, and Blue Peter – I notice you’re not wearing the badge. I took it off earlier on today, because I thought: ‘I’m going on breakfast TV, I’m taking off the Blue Peter badge’.

Has this been a shift you’ve noticed?

It’s more like the adage about cooking the frog. The water’s been getting warmer and warmer and warmer so slowly. Sandman was 20 years ago – 21 years ago – so doing signings and things and having hundreds of people show up for your autograph, that’s been going on for 20 years. I did a signing the other day in New York, at the New York PEN Writers Festival, and I was there partly because they really like me, and partly because they know that if they put me on at a thing, they could fill a 900 seater hall. So I was there, and a guy is in the signing line at the end, and he said ‘I was at a New York thing you did in 1992, and these are my kids, and they’re both fans of yours’. And it was this really strange feeling of continuity.

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But also, as I say, this is a world in which you get everything a little bit at a time. And, a lot of the time, it seems like you’re doing an awful lot because that’s just the way things work. Stuff happens to happen together, with probably the best point of utter madness being the end of January, when I went to LA to do this very thing – the junket-y thing for Coraline. And I stumbled away from a two day junket to my bedroom, had one of those long bubblebaths you have after midnight because it’s all done and finally you have a day off, set the alarm for 11 o clock the next morning, went to sleep 3:30ish, going ‘I’ve got a day off this is so good, I’m so exhausted’. And, two hours later, I notice the phone’s ringing and has been ringing, and you answer it because you think maybe the hotel’s on fire, because it’s 5 o clock in the morning, and I’m being informed that I’ve won the Newberry Medal for The Graveyard Book. And long before my bedside alarm went off, I’m being interviewed by the New York Times in the car on the way to the airport to fly to do the Today Show. And you’re going ‘this is all very weird, this is all very mad’.

It’s definitely changed, and it’s definitely a world in which I now have to figure what my balance is, and I have to figure out how to write. One reason I’m hugely enjoying Twittering, is that I’ve suddenly entered a world where even blogging is getting difficult. You know, Twittering is something I can do 30 seconds here, 30 seconds there during the day, and I’ve twittered, and that’s great. Blogging is something where I actually do need 25 minutes at the end of the day, or the beginning of the day, and I just haven’t been getting those 25 minutes on this tour.

Well, I know that Twitter is a great way for writers and other people to keep up with their fans, and vice-versa. I was checking the Twitter feed this morning, and saw your tweet about being on the BBC Breakfast show, so I tuned in. Do you think that these adaptations of your work (Stardust, Coraline, the upcoming Graveyard Book film) are raising your profile, or expanding your fanbase outside of the geeky fanbase you’ve had for some time now?

I don’t know. But then again, the trouble is you say ‘the geeky fanbase’ as if that is the readers. But well, the core readership for Coraline is kids aged about 7 to 12, and then adults, and then people who got randomly handed it by somebody. 20 years ago, I could look at a signing line, and I could tell you who in that signing line was my fan, who was a fan’s girlfriend, who was a fan’s mum, who was a fan’s grandma who was there because they’d said ‘there’s this thing, you have to go over and get this signed for me, grandma’. I could have told you, and I would have called it completely correctly every time. Now, I look at a signing line, and there’s people in the signing line from 5 years old to 90, and when the 90 year old lady gets to the front of the line, she will start enthusing about Stardust. And I can’t do it any more, I don’t know who my fans are. And I kind of like that.

Have the films raised the profile? Probably, but less than you’d imagine. The best things about films, honestly, is when you are stuck in the conversation from hell, that I hate and dread, and somebody says ‘Well, what do you do?’ And I say, ‘I’m a writer.’ And they say ‘Oh, what kind of things do you write, then?’ And I say ‘well, all sorts – journalism, fiction, non-fiction.’ Then it goes on, ‘oh, what kind of fiction – anything I would have heard of?’ And you say ‘no.’ Then, you’re now in the world where you can say ‘I’ve written some movies – Beowulf, with Angelina Jolie, I did that’, and they say ‘oh good!’ And they know something that you did. And, honestly, that’s where Coraline, that’s where Stardust, that’s where Beowulf are wonderful, because if I’m ever stuck in that hell conversation, I get to say one of those films, and they go ‘Oh yeah, I saw that.’

That’s an interesting point, because whenever I tell my mum, or gran, that I’m reading the new Neil Gaiman book, or whatever, I say ‘You know, Stardust, Beowulf, that gentleman’, and they’re able to relate to that. How did the experience of adapting Coraline differ from that of Stardust? Style and format aside, of course.

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Well, it occurred seven years earlier, of course. Or six years earlier. The biggest difference, honestly, was when I finished Coraline, I looked at what I had, and went ‘you know, I want Henry Selick to do this’, and I went and found Henry and got him the manuscript – it was just a manuscript then, two years before it was published. And it was published in summer of 2002. And Henry read it and loved it, and wanted to do it, and we had a contract dated, oddly enough, 8 years to the day before the movie came out. Whereas with Stardust it had been bought by Miramax, the rights had reverted somewhere in there, Matthew Vaughn had loved it, and he wanted to produce it, and get Terry Gilliam to do it. Gilliam had just done The Brothers Grimm, and felt that Stardust was just too similar, and didn’t want to do that. Then Matthew, more or less by accident, became a director, and had just walked off X-Men 3 – he didn’t feel they were supporting it, didn’t feel they had the money to genuinely make the good film he wanted to make. And I got a phonecall from him, and he said ‘I’ve just walked off X-Men 3, and I want to do Stardust – can I direct it?’ And I said ‘yes!’ Then my part in that was then going and finding Jane Goldman, and saying ‘Ok, Matthew meet Jane, Jane meet Matthew, I think you’re going to get along, and I think she should write this.’

And it turned out quite well, you seemed quite happy with it.

It did! The problem I have with film, is explaining to people that, as far as I’m concerned, the book is the thing. With Coraline, I love what Henry did and I love what Stephin Merritt and his collaborators have just been doing on Broadway, which is completely different! And people ask me about how faithful things are – there are different kinds of faithful. In the musical, everything happens, beat for beat, with no deviation, according to the book. But — Coraline is played by a lady in her 50s, a large lady, the amazingly talented Jayne Houdyshell. The Other Mother is a man; Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, one of those actors is Francis Jue, who is this amazing Asian-American actor. You’re looking at this wonderful cast, and the music is all played on these weirdly treated pianos and children’s pianos. And I don’t know, is that more or less faithful to the book than the film? The film at least has Dakota Fanning playing Coraline, she’s not in her fifties. But what it is, as far as I’m concerned, the magic of theatre, versus the magic of film and the magic of fiction. With prose, I give you raw code – to take it down to basic geek terms – I give you raw code, and you compile it. You build the world.

It’s all up there in the computer upstairs.

Absolutely. You are the one who has built that world. I will give you sequences of 26 letters, and you will take those sequences of 26 letters and build a world out of it. With a film, everything is going to have to be literal. You can’t do in film what I can do easily in books. I can say ‘the Other Mother no longer looked as much like her mother any more’, and that’s scary! And that’s weird and that’s unpleasant, and you get to decide what she looks like. And you subtract something and you make something scarier. Henry cannot do that, because Henry’s going to have to show you. So Henry’s going to have to decide what she does look like – it’s a positive thing rather than a negative thing. With the theatre, you’re using the magic of theatre. And the magic of theatre is that you can go [signals around the room] ‘So! This is Germany’. And you’re in Germany. The magic of theatre is that you can come on, and say ‘my name is Coraline Jones,’ and you are. That is a different kind of magic. Whereas the magic of Coraline is such that you have dolls, that appear to be moving and appear to be living, because they are stealing life like little four inch vampires from the animators, who are giving them their all.

And the 3D gives depth and texture to it.

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Absolutely!

One last quick question. I suppose I have to throw in a contrived high concept question to wrap up – what would the ‘Other Neil Gaiman’ be like?

I think he’d be an awful lot like this one. The joy of being a writer, and the joy of being this particular writer (me) is most of the things that you get to write about, are things you go and find inside yourself. So, you know, things like the Other Mother and the Other Father are definitely things that, you know, you go inside and you go excavating and you come out and present the world with it. I suspect that the Other Neil Gaiman would probably be everything I’m not, but would secretly yearn to be a writer. And I, while I may yearn to be many many things – obviously an International Man of Mystery, or somebody with saner hair, like normal people have, that stays where you put it – he would have all that stuff, and button eyes of course. He’d be like me in the koumpounophobia video.

I hope you didn’t go through that routine on Blue Peter!

Oh, no.

Thank you very much for your time, Neil.

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