‘Rockstar of weird’ comes to Bama

Steven Nalley

Neil Gaiman routinely puts up with the worst winter has to offer, and he welcomes a break from it.

In a phone interview on Feb. 12 — the same day that two inches of snow fell on Tuscaloosa — Gaiman said he was looking forward to “the fact that you probably are not under 24 inches of snow right now, and it’s probably slightly warmer than the 11 degrees.”

More than that, he said he was looking forward to visiting somewhere he had never been. He said his familiarity with the state of Alabama was “absolutely zero, other than the way it crops up in literature from time to time.”

“I’ve been doing that thing where you have those lovely online maps where you can actually tick off every state you’ve been to, and I think I’m now down to Alabama and Mississippi as the two that I’ve never visited,” Gaiman said.

Gaiman is one of the world’s most prolific authors, with work ranging from the comic book and graphic novel series, “The Sandman,” to bestselling novels like “American Gods,” “Anansi Boys” and “Coraline,” the last of which was adapted into an Annie-award winning stop-motion film in 2009.

As excited as Gaiman is to see Alabama, Alabama may be even more excited to see him when he visits the Bama Theatre Thursday at 7:30 p.m. as part of the University of Alabama’s Bankhead Visiting Writers Series.

Gaiman said he was looking forward to meeting fans in the area, and was especially looking forward to reading to them, as well as talking to them about writing.

“I love having captive audiences, and I love reading stuff because adults don’t get read to enough,” Gaiman said. “It’s kind of fun doing a reading, sometimes reading a whole story or something, and you watch people looking kind of awkward for the first three or four minutes and then they start to relax a little bit.”

Gaiman said there would also be a question and answer session, which he said was “the bit that I love best of all.”

“In Q and A, you find out what people want to know and you tell them that. The last few of these, we’ve been having people write down questions on notecards, which has worked incredibly well, if only because I get to take that way three times as many questions as I would if people were standing in front of a microphone.”

As for what he’s reading tonight, Gaiman said he didn’t know yet.

“And normally, I figure it out about, well, anything up to the afternoon of the reading,” Gaiman said. “And sometimes, I actually don’t wind up deciding until pretty much the moment I get up in front of an audience.

“Had I any shame, it would actually be embarrassing,” Gaiman added, “because I would get up there in front of an audience and ask, ‘Does anybody have a copy of such-and-such?’ … and that’s what you do the reading from.”

Gaiman said such spontaneity kept events fresh so that no audience gets the same experience other audiences do.

“I guess the truth is it makes it that much more fun for me not planning things out,” Gaiman said.

The event is far from unplanned.

Hank Lazer, associate provost of academic affairs and executive director of Creative Campus, said plans to bring Gaiman to campus have been in the works for three years, beginning with a coffee break he took with then-UA creative writing professor Kate Bernheimer.

“We just found in the course of the conversation that we were both Neil Gaiman fans,” Lazer said. “I believe in the University doing its best to really produce ambitious programs, and as we talked about it, I said, ‘Why don’t we try to bring him to Alabama?’ Kate, through her editing of Fairy Tale Review and her writing of that genre, had a kind of passing acquaintance with Neil Gaiman. She felt like she had enough of a connection for us to pursue that.”

Bernheimer, who in the spring teaches graduate students at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, said in an email that, while she did not know Gaiman personally, she worked with him in an editorial capacity and sent the initial invitation.

She will introduce Gaiman at the event.

“He had been kind enough to contribute a lovely essay to my 2007 anthology ‘Brothers and Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales’ in which he discussed the fairy-tale lineage of some of his original poems,” Bernheimer said. “It will be an honor to introduce Neil Gaiman to so many friends and colleagues.”

Bernheimer said attendees could expect to leave the Bama Theatre seeing things in a “darker, stranger and more sparkling light.”

“He has an enchanting voice – a real storyteller’s gift, hewn from the oral tradition but stylized for the future,” Bernheimer said. “Neil Gaiman is not afraid to write about the darker motifs in human narrative.”

Lazer said reading Gaiman’s work wiped his own prejudices away, especially the first time he read “The Sandman” series at the suggestion of one of his students.

“His expertise really is in two areas that I’m not typically that interested in: myth and dream,” Lazer said. “And he just absolutely sweeps me along over my typical objections for that being the artwork. It’s amazing how quickly the whole eleven volumes will go by because he’s got you so hooked.”

Lazer said Gustave Hahn-Powell, who was a student at the time, recommended Gaiman to him. Hahn-Powell is currently in the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages program, or TESOL program, working toward a master’s in applied linguistics. Hahn-Powell said he liked Gaiman’s ability to weave together different myths.

“He’ll take something like H.P. Lovecraft and merge it with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” Hahn-Powell said. “He’s just been so successful at being strange, at appealing to a large range of people. He is like a superstar or rockstar of weird.”