Neil Gaiman: Winner of the Booktrust Teenage Prize

Neil Gaiman
17 November 2009

With its publication in separate editions for children and adults and winning of the Booktrust Teenage Prize, The Graveyard Book is a true crossover book, and that's the way Neil Gaiman planned it. 'I'd always thought in my head of The Graveyard Book as being an all ages book in the same way as I think of The Jungle Book as an all ages book,' the author explains.

 

Suspenseful, funny and moving, The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens, orphaned after his family's murder and raised from babyhood to young adulthood by the wise vampire Silas and an eclectic community of ghosts. In each chapter Bod ages by two years, and each one stands as a discrete story.

Suspenseful, funny and moving, The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens.

 

The book's episodic structure is influenced by, among others, PL Travers' Mary Poppins, but if structurally it owes a debt to British children's classics, its open ending and preoccupations - growing up and finding one's place in the world - are undeniably teenaged. In one of its pivotal scenes Silas explains to Bod the importance of making the most of his life.

It's thematically the biggest thing the book is about,' says Gaiman. 'People say, "Isn't it rather creepy, isn't it rather morbid, writing a book about death, a book set in a graveyard?" I try and explain that it's not a book about death; it's a book about life. Which is one really good reason for setting it in a graveyard. It's a book about family and community. It's about potential and the idea of potential. That statement of Silas's resonates all through the book.

It was important for Gaiman, not just as an author but as a parent, to impart to young readers some of his insights about life and living.

 

'There were lots of things I thought it would be good to tell kids,' he admits. 'One: you're alive, and you can change things. And you can change the world. Once you're dead that stops. I thought it would be good to tell kids that if you're walking through a graveyard there are things that you could be scared of, but they're all standing behind a grave and breathing. They're not six feet under and they're not incorporeal.'

Gaiman began to write the book 25 years ago but couldn't get past the first scene; perhaps his need to acquire the maturity necessary to tell the story contributed to the book's extraordinarily long gestation period.

 

Certainly, he maintains, he hadn't developed sufficiently as a writer to transfer his vision successfully onto the page. 'I tried writing about a page and a half about a baby coming into a graveyard, with arguing ghosts and the arrival of a character who was obviously going to be Silas one day. And it didn't really fly.

'Mostly I knew immediately that had to do with the fact that it was a better idea than I was a writer. So I put off writing it and every eight years or so I'd go back and try another few pages and look at it and go, "Nah, it's not very good, is it?", and again I would put it off.'

'Finally, in about 2004, I thought, "I'm no longer getting any better. I'm probably as good a writer as I'm going to be so it no longer matters if I'm good enough or not. Now I have no option. I just have to write this thing.'

 

'And I wrote the first couple of pages of the book and then thought: "You know, if I just go from here into the scene in the graveyard it's going to feel like this place I've gone back to three or four times over the last 20 years." So instead I wrote chapter four.

I thought I would do something right in the middle and get the taste of this and find out what it's like with him at eight years old. So I wrote 'The Witch's Headstone' chapter. And that gave me a really nice sense of what the book was and how it felt and then I went back to the beginning and carried on from there.

The ghosts, werewolf, mummy and vampire in one scene are a deliberate nod to classic horror films, and the text also draws on mythology, although in The Graveyard Book the mythological references are less easily identifiable than in some of Gaiman's works for adults, such as American Gods. Here they seem familiar, but their origins are difficult to pinpoint. This, he says, is exactly the effect he hoped to achieve.

 

'Things like the Sleer, things like the Lady on the Grey, there's stuff that feels right, but it felt righter in some ways to create a mythology, to build a new one. The idea of death on a horse is a very old one and I do love that little conversation during the macabre dance - which again is something that feels after you've read it like, "Oh yes! This is very much something I've encountered before - of course the dead dance with the living once every century."

But I think I made that one up too. It was taking the imagery of the Dance Macabre and a line from a poet called John Leland who wrote "rich and poor dance the same way" and the discovery that our word "macabre" used to be pronounced "machabray", and it all melded together.

The intertextual references bring added depth and atmosphere to a deceptively simple story. The novel is further enriched by writing that is hauntingly beautiful - no pun intended. 'I was very aware of the fact that I had a facility with beautiful sentences, but I was also very aware as a younger writer that I would tend to use that facility when I was in trouble.'

 

'The truth is,' says Gaiman, 'it's not like the crafting of a beautiful sentence is something that you do in a different way than the way you craft a sentence that gets somebody from point A to point B. Very often it's much harder to craft the "He walked over to the wall" or "He nodded" and try to do it in a way that isn't quite the way you did it the last time he walked over to the wall or he nodded than it is to write a beautiful sentence.

 

'I used to worry, especially when I did Sandman and was a young writer. I was very aware of the fact that I had a facility with beautiful sentences, but I was also very aware as a younger writer that I would tend to use that facility when I was in trouble.

So it was an: Oops, I've backed myself into a corner. I will write a beautiful sentence and everyone will go "What a beautiful sentence." And while they're doing that with this hand I can take this out of my pocket with the other hand. I hope I do that less now.

Gaiman's facility with constructing a beautiful sentence coupled with his ability to tell a good story have undoubtedly contributed to his unusual status as a writer who manages to be both popular and respected by the literati. 'When The Graveyard Book won the American Newbery Medal, there was some relief that at last, here was a distinguished contribution to children's literature that people would actually enjoy reading.'

 

It's the emphasis on enjoyment that is most important to him as a reader. 'If I make a division in my head it's between books I love and books I don't love: books that took me somewhere wonderful and books that didn't take me anywhere at all. I have read fine, beautifully written prize winning books that took me nowhere and I have read other authors who took me to fine and wonderful places.

 

'As an author what you can do is write the best book you possibly can and hope it finds its audience.'

'I was always very pleased that I discovered Stephen King as an author before he was famous because I always worried that if I had discovered him once he was this huge, monolithic, popular author I never would have read him or I would have read him with some kind of disdain. As it was, he was an author I discovered, so I thought, this guy's brilliant, and just watched him grow into 'Stephen King'.'

'You can't make a book popular; you can't make a book be loved. By the same token you can't make a book be something that awards committees and judging panels decide needs their imprimatur. As an author what you can do is write the best book you possibly can and hope it finds its audience. And that's what I try and do.'

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre and films. His notable works include the comic book series The Sandman and novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book.

 

Gaiman's writing has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker, as well as the 2009 Newbery Medal and 2010 CILIP Carnegie Medal for The Graveyard Book. He is the first author to win both the Newbery and the Carnegie medals for the same work.

 

Read an interview with Neil

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