A Beginner’s Guide to: Neil Gaiman

The author is an idol to many—and to the rest of us, a bit of a mystery

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Geraint Lewis / Writer Pictures / AP

Neil Gaiman at The Edinburgh International Book Festival on Aug. 17, 2011

For fans of the author Neil Gaiman, the idea of needing a beginner’s guide may sound ridiculous: he’s been a cult hero for decades. His novels, short stories, and comic books have won all kinds of awards and prizes. But, in the manner of other genre icons who amassed a specific group of fans prior to mainstream success, his omnipresence might seem sudden to many others.

“Omnipresent” is pretty accurate: He has several books coming out over the next few weeks —  Unnatural Creatures: Stories Selected by Neil Gaiman (which came out earlier this week, on April 23), Make Good Art (May 14), How to Talk to Girls at Parties (May 18) and The Ocean at the End of the Lane (June 18). A BBC radio-play adaptation of his novel Neverwhere premiered in March. And there’s more coming.

So, to clear up any confusion, let’s start with the basics:

So, who is this Neil Gaiman? And what does he do?

He’s a British-born writer who now lives in the U.S., in a town outside of Minneapolis. He started out as a journalist and wrote his first book, about the band Duran Duran, in 1984, but he’s best known for his genre work.

His break-out text was the comic book The Sandman, a 75-issue series that ran from 1989 through 1996. The epic — which takes place in the world of dreams — was among a handful of titles (along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) that elevated comic books into the realm of real literature.

His other major works, for children and adults, include 2008’s The Graveyard Book, 2003’s Coraline, and 2002’s American Gods — all of which have won multiple awards and prizes.

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Why is Neil Gaiman mainstream-famous now?  And when did this happen?

It  happened sometime before he made a guest-appearance on The Simpsons in late 2011, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment. Perhaps it was in 2009, when his book Coraline became a successful movie. Coraline wasn’t his first book-to-movie deal, but it was hugely successful (more so than Stardust or his take on Beowulf) — and was nominated for an Oscar. Even before that, The Graveyard Book spent about 15 months on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Or, perhaps it was in 2001, when Gaiman, already well into his career, was one of the first authors to use the Internet as a way to connect with readers. He still writes a blog, now part of his website, and has a strong presence on social media, with 1.8 million followers on Twitter. Also Internet-famous is his wife, Amanda Palmer, the first musician to raise more than $1 million through Kickstarter.

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Do I have to pay attention to him if I don’t like comic books or fantasy stuff?

You don’t have to do anything—but…yes.

Those half dozen books he’s got coming out in the near future aren’t all fantasy tomes. Sure, the eBook How to Talk to Girls at Parties and the novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane have fantastical elements. And, yes, Unnatural Creatures, which he edited, is a collection of stories about unnatural creatures—but that also has a charitable component, with proceeds benefiting the writing-with-kids nonprofit 826DC. Make Good Art is the text of a speech Gaiman gave at the 2012 University of the Arts commencement.

And he’s got lots of projects in the pipeline. He said in July of 2010 that he’s planning to return to Sandman for a prequel. He wrote an award-winning 2011 episode of Doctor Who for the BBC; his next episode for the series will air on May 11. A movie version of The Graveyard Book is in the works, to be directed by Ron Howard, and American Gods is becoming an HBO series.

Even if you’ve managed to avoid him up to now, you won’t be able to for long.

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