Remember when Neil Gaiman wasn’t cool? Me neither.
When I was ten I got a subscription to Wizard magazine, which was not a publication for kids who were on their way to a school of witchcraft and wizardry. It was a magazine for kids who were busy reading comic books on the bus on their way to the usual kind of school. I thought it was the greatest magazine of all time, because the sense of humor of the writers was around the same stage of development as mine (that is probably not a compliment for either them or me). But I did glean a lot of knowledge from those pages about comics, their history and their culture. Every month included a list of their Top Ten Writers, and for almost the entirety of my subscription—which was a goodly while—the top position was held by a dude with a tangled mess of black hair, a leather jacket, and a pair of dark glasses. He was busy wrapping up his run on The Sandman with DC, which the staff of Wizard and pretty much everybody else fell all over every time a new issue came out. He was mysterious and kind of wry looking. He was Neil Gaiman.
I picked up an issue of Sandman once, on a whim, because I trusted Wizard to know what was awesome (usually a costly mistake), but it was smart and rich with allusion and it was complex and I was like “this is not Wolverine slicing through things. What am I supposed to do with this?” I couldn’t follow it, though it was nobody’s fault but mine—I was an idiot.
I wouldn’t read another word written by Neil Gaiman until I was 19. I was still an idiot, but I knew bigger words at least, and I appreciated myth and metaphor and I found so much of that in American Gods, a novel recommended to me by a fellow writing student. I was in a poetry class at the time, and on a kick where I wrote crappy lines about gods from classical mythology leading lonesome lives in America. I thought I was a genius, I’m sure, and for a while as I read about a way better version of my idea written by a way better writer I might have been envious and mad. But it was too good to tick me off for very long—the student was ready, the master appeared. It was one of those delicious clichés that creep into my world kind of often.
You know how some people mark the miles of their lives with, like, a song or an address? I was living here at this point in my life, so when I think of the harsh white kitchen of that apartment, all the other things going on in my life at that time come flooding back to me. That sort of thing.
Books work like that for me. I remember reading The Giver in 6th grade, my legs draped over the arm of the best chair in our living room. I read in whatever light spilled in from the dining room, possibly ruining my eyes but making the experience feel a little sacred. I was maybe at the height of my uncoolness, but an interest in music was budding in me. I was just getting the idea in my head that I loved performing and making people laugh. I hated going to hockey practice. I loved a girl named Nikki who did not love me back because…well for a thousand reasons, including but not limited to the fact that we were only in 6th grade. My best friend then was Mike, whose nerdiness bordered on really fun lunacy. I still watched cartoons in secret, even though I thought I was too old. When I re-read The Giver years later, it came with the footnotes of my life at age 12, and it was kind of marvelously fitting for a book about passing on memories.
The last time I read a collection of Neil Gaiman’s short stories, my life looked very different. I was living in a lopsided house in Nymore, a pseudo-neighborhood on the southern edge of Bemidji. I was getting near the top of my acting game and my writing game was getting stronger. My romantic life had just cracked in two and I was fumbling my way through the worst growing pangs of my young adulthood. I still watched cartoons in secret, even though I thought I was too old. The book was called Fragile Things, and I could have borrowed the title to reflect so many things I was living through at that moment. It made me laugh a little and wonder and examine unexamined themes in my life, and I have not been able to re-read one particular story in that collection because I’m afraid of how much it will sting.
Books are my time machine, and maybe they are yours or maybe you have your own time machines–a perfume perhaps, or the make and model of a car. It’s one of the coolest surprises in life, to find that the details have been absorbed by something you didn’t expect.
I know not everyone loves books, and not everyone loves the ones written by Neil Gaiman, but I believe there is a book of his out there for everyone. And I will make an embarrassing confession right here right now that I have never read Good Omens, perhaps his most famous work written with the most famous Terry Pratchett, so I can’t recommend that one to anyone in good conscience. Forgive me, if you will.
But I know the others. I know that people who love romance or fairy tales or adventure might like Stardust. I know that people who love road trips and danger and the fear of growing old and being forgotten might like American Gods. I know that people who love sons who find their father embarrassing might love Anansi Boys. I know that people who love learning how to be brave and how to have a family and a home and how to let them all go sometimes might love The Graveyard Book. There are others, for people who love other things, and you might be one of them and I think you might like what you find.
Some people have complained that Neil’s stories, which often involve magic, don’t ever explain the rules of magic—what it can and cannot do, when it can or cannot do them, or why and for whom. His simple answer: we all live in a world with rules that are never clearly outlined. Who ever sits us down and shows us how to break a heart or to have our own broken? Who gives us the ins and the outs of loving our children even when they disappoint us? Who is there to draw a map that will lead us to happiness or success? There are self-help books, and advice from others, but those are shifting sands, of course. I like the people in his stories who end up trying to make sense of an absurd world. I like them a whole lot.
It’s probably obvious that I admire Neil, because I’m just so obvious. It can be devastating to meet a person you admire, just in case they turn out to be a raging douche tool. Neil Gaiman is famously nice. His fan base mostly started with comic book geeks, goths, and literary nerds. But he embraced them and took time to talk to them, and I think that goes really far in this world. He’s pretty mainstream now, but he still says very kind things about his first fans.
I can vouch for his niceness because one spring, me and my then girlfriend piled into my car and scooted five hours across the state to see him read at a library event in Stillwater. He was every bit as warm, charming, present and generous as I had hoped. He even listened to my question about comic books and he answered it as best as he could before posing with us for a picture. Though he was smaller in real life; he is a small dude. Still, I will see new, great places by standing on his shoulders—another one of those clichés I was talking about.
He’s the kind of writer I’d like to be when I grow up.
Have his words changed my life? Yes. If I hadn’t read Sandman, I might have started prying myself away from the pool of narcissism much later in life. If I hadn’t read The Graveyard Book, mourning the loss of my childhood home would have been a little harder. If I hadn’t re-read Stardust just before leaving for a theatrical tour, I would not have had all the sweeping adventure in my heart required to tell someone you think they are really special and that you want to see if you can love each other. Both Stardust and that episode of my life have happy endings, in case you were curious.
Neil Gaiman just published a new collection of fiction called Trigger Warning. His titles are stories unto themselves, aren’t they? I mean, a trigger warning is something posted to alert folks just so they know they might get set off by what they are about to experience–a flashback, a relapse or something like that. Books, like I mentioned, trigger so many things for me, and of course Neil would understand that. Of course.
I picked myself up a copy (signed by the author!) and for a handful of hours, I got to hang out with a hero of mine. His short story written to honor Ray Bradbury might be the highlight (this book is like a nesting doll of all my favorite things!), or the very short story about a genie and the most normal kind of romance there is, or the story about Sherlock Holmes and bees, or the long awaited story that continues what he started with American Gods.
Neil blogged before the world was filled with blogs, and I used to check it devotedly to hear his thoughts on his day, on the changing of seasons, of his daughters growing up, of his favorite writers and songs. You can read, almost in real time, as he met and fell in love with his now wife, Amanda Palmer. They seem really happy, and they make loving and creating look fun and easy, which is the mark of any master.
It’s a good time to like Neil Gaiman. I mean, he’s still alive, he’s still writing, he’s still visiting libraries to read out loud and take questions, and he’s creating new issues of The Sandman. That’s a thing that hasn’t happened since 1996.
It’s also a good time to listen to this short book, because he has maybe the best reading voice ever. This little children’s poem is small and might be simple, but I think you see new and great places by standing on its shoulders. Cliché, I know. I know. But listen.
I won’t know for a long time what ended up the time capsule while I read this week, but I look forward to finding out. Someday.