On a recent early fall afternoon, Neil Gaiman is dressed in a heavy cotton bee suit, on his way with a group of friends to harvest honey.
Gaiman's beehives are in a clearing near his home, which is about an hour from the Twin Cities. The first hive they pry open is empty, but the second has about 40 pounds of honey inside. Everyone sets to work moving it out and preparing the hives for winter.
About an hour later, with a cup of tea and a dish of fresh honey on the table, Gaiman sits down in the gazebo at the bottom of his garden to talk about his new novel, The Graveyard Book.
Gaiman says the idea for the novel came to him 23 years ago, when he and his family were living in England. At the time, the only safe place for his 2-year-old son to ride his tricycle was in the local churchyard.
"He would ride ... his tricycle, up and down the paths and between the gravestones," remembers Gaiman. "And I would sit there watching ... this incredibly happy kid in a graveyard."
One day the author had a flash of inspiration: Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book told the story of an orphaned child adopted by wild animals; why not write a story about a child who is adopted by dead people?
Fading, Haunting, Dreamwalking — And ABCs
"I knew I had a book," says Gaiman. But when he sat down that afternoon to write he came to a difficult realization after a page and a half: "I am not yet a good enough writer for this idea," Gaiman recalls thinking.
He returned to the idea every few years and came to the same conclusion each time. Then about four years ago, he decided he wasn't going to get any better as a writer and he should just get on with it. So he came up with the story of Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod.
A mysterious stranger murders his entire family, but Bod, who is only 2, escapes almost by chance and is taken in by the inhabitants of the local graveyard, who protect him and teach him the secrets of the dead.
"He learns his alphabet obviously from gravestones, but he also learns things like fading and haunting and dreamwalking," says Gaiman.
The Pitfalls (And Frozen Peas) Of Popularity
The book is classic Gaiman: delightfully playful, but punctuated with moments of terror.
"He can make the horrifying either funny or palatable, says Greg Ketter, owner of Dreamhaven Books in Minneapolis.
Ketter met Gaiman in the mid-1980s and was the first U.S. publisher to release a collection of Gaiman's fiction. He says what makes Gaiman so good is the way he draws on so many sources to create his stories — like when he created a serial killer convention in his Sandman comic book.
Those stories have resonated with readers, and though Gaiman has always enjoyed meeting people on book tours, he now faces a challenge — too many fans.
In the past, the author has sometimes signed books and other items for four or five hours straight. By the end of the first week, he says, "[I'm] putting my hand between bags of frozen peas to try to get the swelling down, because I am signing three or four thousand articles a night."
An Unusual Type Of Reading
Gaiman says it's no fun for people to stand in line for hours just to have a few seconds chatting with him. So he tried something new with The Graveyard Book tour: He didn't do any signing at his appearances, but he did read, taking advantage of the book's structure.
While it is a novel, it's also a series of eight individual short stories, each set two years after the previous tale, which take Bod from a toddler to a teenager. Each night on tour Gaiman read a chapter; afterward, a video of each reading was posted on the Web. Now the entire book is online, as read by the author.
This is not the first time Gaiman has posted whole novels; he posted text versions of Neverwhere and American Gods earlier this year. While posting his work for free viewing raises questions about potential copyright infringement, the author says the biggest problem facing authors is not piracy, but obscurity.
That's not really a problem for Gaiman. He's preparing for the release of the film adaptation of his horror novella Coraline, and he recently returned from a research trip to China, for what he says will be a travel book combining fiction and nonfiction.
And there is a rumor he is writing an episode of the long-running British science-fiction show Doctor Who — or is he?
"Confirming, denying or saying anything would lessen the enormous amount of fun that I'm having discovering that it is rumored that I am writing an episode of Doctor Who," says Gaiman with a smile.