Neil Gaiman is the author of many bestselling works, including the novel Anansi Boys, the Sandmangraphic novel series, and tales for children, including Coraline and now The Graveyard Book (HarperCollins).In it, Gaiman tells the story of a boy, Nobody Owens, who grows up in the tender care of ghosts and other ghoulish creatures in a graveyard. Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the graveyard and its inhabitants are to Nobody (Bod, for short) what the jungle and its animals were to Mowgli. Gaiman spoke to Bookshelf about Kipling’s influence and other subjects related to his new novel, just before heading out on a national tour.
How did you decide to set Bod’s story in, of all places, a graveyard?
Twenty-three and a half years ago I was living in Sussex in a very, very narrow house. It was tall, thin and practically every room was on a different floor. I had an 18-month-old son and he had a little tricycle. You can’t really let an 18-month-old with a tricycle ride around in a house with all these stairs because he would just go tumbling down. We didn’t have a garden, either. But just across the lane we had a country graveyard. I would take my son and his tricycle down all the stairs and across the lane where he would go tricycling around the graveyard very happily. And I would sit on the steps outside watching him in the graveyard. One day I thought, I could do something just like The Jungle Book!
Why The Jungle Book?
In The Jungle Book, Mowgli is abandoned in the jungle and adopted by animals and taught the things that animals know. I thought, “I could have a boy abandoned in a graveyard who is taught the things that whoever lives in the graveyard knows!”
That’s quite a long while to have been thinking about writing a book, isn’t it?
Well, I started it right away and thought, “This is such a good idea, but I need to be a better writer.” Every now and again I’d pick it up. In 2003, Coraline had been published and also The Wolves in the Walls. I’d had this idea for The Graveyard Book and I thought, “I’m not going to be any better a writer so I may as well go ahead and write it.”
About two years ago I was on holiday. We’d fled the Minneapolis cold and I’d gone off to Antigua. I don’t do holidays very well. I’m great for the first two days doing things like sleeping and swimming and being in deck chairs. But by day three I was sitting in a deck chair and I started writing chapter four, “The Witch’s Headstone.” My daughter had been off swimming and she got back and she said, “What are you writing.” Then she asked, “Would you read it to me,” and so I did. And when I finished she asked, “What happens next?” That’s when I knew I had to keep going.
Once I had chapter four in place, everything else was easy and I knew what I was doing. I knew that I was going to try and build this mad structure of a novel that would look like a short story collection but was also a novel. And I really wanted to do something where you get a story every two years of the protagonist’s life. In the first story, Bod is 18 months and in the last he is 16.
Do you have a favorite story among them?
Of all the stories in The Graveyard Book my favorite is chapter five, “Danse Macabre,” partly because it’s not quite like the others. And that story is this strange little thing where the dead and the living get together in the middle of the night in this odd, wonderful dance, and then all the living are confused and sort of forget about [it] afterwards. There are two touchstones in terms of authors I’ve loved for The Graveyard Book. The obvious one is Rudyard Kipling, but the less obvious one is P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins stories. This chapter is just the sort of thing that would happen in Mary Poppins,where everyone in town would be off flying about and then not remember it afterward.
In the very first pages and before Bod enters the graveyard, you talk about both the “despair and delight” Bod’s parents experience watching their little toddler discover the world. Do those conflicting feelings come from being a parent yourself?
Oh, being a parent is absolutely both despair and delight. The glory of every parent is when they render themselves redundant. The best thing about being a parent is when you’ve done your job and you’re not needed anymore. Which is the best and also the hardest thing. I’ve had three kids now, it’s been really fun, and two of them have left home and one hasn’t. Once they leave home, you know you’ve done your job right.
And speaking of children, on your blog at one point you say of The Graveyard Book, “It’s not a children’s book, but a book that children will enjoy.” How do you feel about your audience extending now to children?
I feel like I am a very lucky boy! With something like The Graveyard Book, it’s in a very strange kind of place. Bloomsbury, my U.K. publisher, said, “We’re not sure if it’s a children’s book,” so they published it as both adult and as children’s. So in the U.K. it has two ISBNs and it has two different covers. The cover on the American one is also the adult cover in the U.K.
When I wrote Coraline and handed it in, my publisher said, “This is an adult book.” I said, “Well, try it out on kids,” and kids loved it. And at least in contemporary terms, Coraline has become one of those classic-y things with awards and all. The film of it comes next year and Stephin Merritt—of The Magnetic Fields and The Gothic Archies—is doing a play. He’s turned Coraline into a musical.
So Coraline is whatever Coraline is and The Graveyard Book is whatever The Graveyard Book is. I love the idea of children reading it, because they pay so much attention to whatever they read. And also because it’s nice that you are probably changing the way people think about things, and children’s books are incredibly important in this way. With Coraline I may have gotten kids scared of buttons, and with The Graveyard Book I hope they are no longer scared of graveyards and such.
Since much of your story is about Bod—short for Nobody—becoming somebody who is ready to leave the graveyard and go out into the world, is Bod also short for Somebody?
About the name: I love that Bod is contained in the word body. And bodies are something you’d expect to find in a graveyard. His full name may be Nobody, but he’s really Bod, and he’s definitely not nobody. With computers, you can look at every instance that the word nobody is being used, so I could go through the entire book and see how and where I used the word nobody. And so when the word nobody came up and it wasn’t referring to Bod, I changed it instead to no one. “Nobody” in the book then only and always refers to Bod.
Throughout your career, you’ve been fascinated with mythologies of all sorts. Where does The Graveyard Book fall within this interest of yours?
I think The Graveyard Book, if it is a mythology, is pretty close to Sandman in that it’s me making up a mythology. It’s not like I’m taking the mythology of graveyards and exploring it. It’s more like me asking, “What would be a great mythology of graveyard? What would I like people to believe?” What’s fun about this, I think, is that I make it so that nobody dead is the bad guy in this story. There is nothing to be scared about from anyone who is dead. In our world, walking through the graveyard is never a bad thing to do because of the dead. It’s only potentially a bad thing to do if there is somebody alive that will give you trouble when you are there.
What do you think would be written on Bod’s tombstone?
I don’t think I want to come up with what’s on Bod’s tombstone. That would mean it’s his last story and I don’t know that I’m done with Bod yet, so I don’t want to imagine that yet.
How about on yours?
I think right now I’d go with: Missing! Believed Under Here.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, illus. by Dave McKean. HarperCollins, $17.99 ISBN 978-0-06-053092-1