Neil Gaiman: By the Book

May 3rd, 2012

The New York Times
May 3, 2012

There are a few. My current audiobook (Yes, they count; of course they count; why wouldn’t they?) is “The Sisters Brothers,” by Patrick deWitt. It was recommended by Lemony Snicket (through his representative, Daniel Handler), and I trust Mr. Snicket implicitly. (Or anyway, as implicitly as one can trust someone you have never met, and who may simply be a pen name of the man who played accordion at your wedding.) I’m enjoying it — such a sad, funny book about family, framed in a Wild West of prospectors and casual murder.

My “make this last as long as you can” book is “Just My Type: A Book About Fonts.” It’s illuminated a subject I thought I understood, but I didn’t, and its chapter on the wrongnesses of Comic Sans came alive for me recently visiting a friend at a Florida retirement community, in which every name on every door was printed in Comic Sans. The elderly deserve more respect than that. Except for the lady I was visiting, widow of a comics artist. For her, it might have been appropriate. On the iPad there are several books on the go, but they are all by friends, and none of them is actually published yet, so I will not name them.

When and where do you like to read?

When I can. I read less fiction these days, and it worries me, although my recent discovery that wearing reading glasses makes the action of reading more pleasurable is, I think, up there with discovering how to split the atom or America. Neither of which I did. (I clarify this for readers in a hurry.)

What was the last truly great book you read?

“The Sorcerer’s House,” by Gene Wolfe, amazed me. It was such a cunning book, and it went so deep. A foxy fantasy about a house that grows, with chapters that are the Greater Trumps of a tarot deck.

The latest graphic novel I read was “Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes,” by Mary M. Talbot, drawn by Bryan Talbot. I have known the Talbots for 30 years — Bryan drew some “Sandman” comics — and admired Bryan’s work for almost 40 years. (How old is he? How old am I?) I wasn’t expecting such a beautiful, personal mingling of biography (of Lucia, James Joyce’s daughter) and autobiography (Mary’s father was a Joycean scholar) told so winningly and wisely. It’s short but is, I think, truly great.

Are you a fiction or a nonfiction person? What’s your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

My guiltiest pleasure is Harry Stephen Keeler. He may have been the greatest bad writer America has ever produced. Or perhaps the worst great writer. I do not know. There are few faults you can accuse him of that he is not guilty of. But I love him.

How can you not love a man who wrote books with names like “The Riddle of the Traveling Skull”? Or “The Case of the Transposed Legs”?

I get into arguments with Otto Penzler, of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York, when I say things like that. “No, Neil!” he splutters. “He was just a bad writer!”

Otto still takes my money when I buy Keeler books like “The Skull of the Waltzing Clown” from him. But the expression on his face takes some of the fun out of it. And then I read a paragraph like:

“For it must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney-talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmsian cap; nor of the latter’s ‘Barr-Bag,’ which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2,163 pearl buttons; nor of — in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel — or Suing Sophie!”

And then I do not give a fig for Otto’s expression, for as guilty pleasures go, Keeler is as strangely good as it gets.

What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?

I don’t know if any single book made me want to write. C. S. Lewis was the first writer to make me aware that somebody was writing the book I was reading — these wonderful parenthetical asides to the reader. I would think: “When I am a writer, I shall do parenthetical asides. And footnotes. There will be footnotes. I wonder how you do them? And italics. How do you make italics happen?”

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