Happy Birthday

neil gaiman, the sandman
Jim Mone/AP

Happy Birthday, Neil Gaiman, Writer of "Coraline" and “The Sandman”

November 10, 2009
by Jennifer Ferris
Neil Gaiman transformed a writing career penning rock and roll biographies into a multinational success story. In less than three decades writing comics, graphic novels and various works of speculative fiction, he has earned legions of loyal fans, produced Hollywood blockbusters adapted from his work and been named one of the 10 best authors living today.

Neil Gaiman's Early Days

Born in Portchester, Hampshire, England, on November 10, 1960, Neil Richard Gaiman was the oldest of three children born to Sheila and David Gaiman. As a child, Gaiman’s favorite toys were those which tickled his love of language: “My favorite toy when I was two was a set of wooden letters,” Gaiman said in an interview. “And I remember my mum painting them with me, so all the consonants were blue and all the vowels were red.”

Although his parents were Jewish, Gaiman said he didn’t feel like he knew much about the religion until he neared his bar mitzvah. Gaiman studied with a cantor who was more than willing to share with him all the great stories of Jewish mythology. Gaiman credits these early lessons as encouraging a love of obscure mythic tales.

The old library at the Church of England school Gaiman attended provided further fodder for his creative mind. He describes himself as the “kid with the book,” saying he devoured everything his school library had to offer.

Gaiman's Notable Accomplishments

After leaving school, Gaiman was determined to make it as a writer. He shopped around a few short stories, and after those failed to be published, he took work as a freelance journalist. A biography of Duran Duran and a companion to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” were among his early works. By 1986, he was writing comic books; soon, he was working with illustrator Dave McKean for DC Comics.

Although his focus was on his work with DC Comics, Gaiman had 5,000 words of a novel in progress and agreed to collaborate with Terry Pratchett to complete it. “Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Predictions of Agnes Nutter, Witch” was released in 1990 and went on to become an international bestseller.

Meanwhile, Gaiman’s comic book series “Sandman,” was revolutionizing the industry. The dark tale of Morpheus, an eternal personage who rules the land of dreams, drew in readers, especially women, who did not traditionally read comic books. Gaiman received a number of awards during the time he wrote the 75 issues of “Sandman” including the World Fantasy Award (the first comic book ever to do so) and nine Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, four of which were for best writer.

Next up was a 1996 miniseries for the BBC, “Neverwhere,” which Gaiman turned into a novel, and the fairy tale “Stardust,” a graphic novel-turned-book which was also made into a 2007 film. During the same period, the eclectic author wrote “The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish,” a children’s book that was named one of the best books of the year by Newsweek.  Never one to slow down, Gaiman also wrote screenplays for 2005’s Jim Henson Company movie “Mirrormask” and the 2007 film “Beowulf.” In a rare occurrence for Gaiman, neither of those was terribly well received.

Although his prose is nearly universally praised—he has won almost every fantasy and science fiction literary award—much of Gaiman’s acclaim comes from the devotion he inspires in his fans. He is the rock star of the literary world, with unkempt hair and a black leather jacket. What is particularly special about Gaiman is that with him the fan relationship goes in two directions. He keeps an extensively updated blog and answers questions from his readers on a daily basis. He frequently appears at readings and book signings, and he has made a great deal of work available on his Web site.

The Rest of the Story

Despite a prolific publishing schedule, Gaiman finds time for a number of outside interests. He is good friends with singer Tori Amos. He quotes her in his writing and she has included references to him in a number of her songs. She is godparent to one of his children and he to hers. He also takes great pride in his old, scary house outside of Minneapolis, where he tends a garden and raises bees.

Gaiman has also written his own songs for his assistant The Fabulous Lorraine’s now-defunct band, The Flash Girls.

He strongly supports the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which helps protect the First Amendment Rights of comic book writers. He serves on the board of the fund and is an outspoken advocate of freedom of speech.

During the last several years, Gaiman has continued to publish, releasing “American Gods,” which hit number one on The New York Times bestseller list, “Anansi Boys” and in 2008, “The Graveyard Book.” His recent work is almost always on bestseller lists and seems to be immediately optioned for movie rights. The film adaptation of his YA novel “Coraline” was directed by Henry Selick, of “Nightmare Before Christmas” fame, and grossed more than 120 million dollars worldwide.

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