Fairy Tale Has an Ending That Surprised Even Its Author

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Wednesday, January 20, 1999

Neil Gaiman has an unruly shock of black hair and piercing eyes that want to make contact with yours while he tells you a story. Dressed in black, including a black leather jacket, he somewhat resembles the pale young Goths who show up in huge numbers at his book signings. They obviously still identify with him, even though he's nearing 40 and has a teen-age son almost as old as some of them.

His packed signing Friday at The Library Ltd. drew its share of these strange-looking folk, but there were also people in their 50s and 60s among the 250 people there. Gaiman's work is all over the place, as he himself describes it, and appeals to a broad range of tastes. He's been praised by writers as diverse as Stephen King and Norman Mailer. His latest novel, "Stardust," while ostensibly a fantasy novel, was reviewed on a Romance Website (it got a B+ because it's not steamy enough, reported Gaiman), as well as Booklist, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.

"Stardust" is a fairy tale for adults, an almost classical fairy tale, if you discount the two sex scenes and the single use of a word not printable in this newspaper. Set more than 100 years ago, it concerns the adventures of Tristran Thorn, an inhabitant of the village of Wall in England. (Gaiman was born in Britain, but now lives with his family in Minnesota.)

The town gets its name from the wall next to town that has a gap in it that is guarded night and day. Once every nine years, a Fair is held, and the gap is open to commerce between our world and the land of Faerie. Tristran doesn't know it, but he was conceived during the Fair and is half of that other world. The story really gets started when Tristran promises to retrieve a fallen star for Victoria Forester, whom he considers the most beautiful woman in the world, and sets off into Faerie to accomplish his goal.

Written in a melodic, lyrical style that dazzles the eye and ear, 'Stardust" seems to be the antithesis of post-modern literature. Post-modernism seeks to deconstruct old genres and is replete with ironic commentary. And while he has perhaps never been quite so beautifully lyrical before, this book fits well into the body of Gaiman's work. This makes his placement as one of the Top 10 Post-Modern Writers in America by the compilers of the "Dictionary of Literary Biography" a bit puzzling.

"I don't think of myself as a post-modernist," Gaiman said on his recent visit. "If I think of myself as anything, it's a classicist. I love old genres. 'Stardust' isn't a post-modern commentary on fairy tales. It's a fairy tale. A fairy tale for adults."

Although the version of 'Stardust' that is seeing mass distribution in bookstores has no pictures, the story began as a collaboration between Gaiman and the artist Charles Vess.

"In 1993, Charles Vess and I did a presentation at the World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis for publishers. We said, 'We're doing this thing called "Stardust," here's some paintings from it, here's an outline of it, would you like it?' And every publisher said, 'We'd love to publish it, except - and we think this is all beautiful - except this whole thing with illustrations makes us queasy, because we're not set up to deal with illustrated books.'"

So it was published through DC, initially as a set of four "prestige format" comics (even though it really wasn't a comic), and then as a collected hardback. But the contract let Gaiman keep the text-only publishing rights. "And I sent it to my editor, Jennifer Hershey, at Avon, just because I wanted her to read it. And she phoned up and said, 'Can we publish it?'

"I'm flabbergasted that it's doing what it's doing. I didn't know that it was going to do anything more than the DC one did, in terms of impact, which was about comparable to dropping rose petals into the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear the boom. The profusion of reviews that are coming out right now, that are using bizarre phrases like 'a new classic' and things . I'm going, 'Oh, well, I obviously wrote something that people like.' I didn't know they'd like it this much, and I didn't know there'd be so many of them. And I certainly didn't know that people who didn't like fantasy would like this."

Even people like Lou Aronica, the publisher at Avon. Gaiman said that his editor said, "I have to warn you, Lou hates fantasy." So when Aronica called him and started the conversation with "I hate fantasy," he figured that was that. "But I love 'Stardust,'" Aronica continued, "and we want to publish it."

"I think the key, though," said Gaiman, "is that it is a fairy tale. I think we're in a period right now where fantasy has somehow come to mean a very unimaginative form of literature indeed. Bizarre, paradoxical, ironic and stupid, what should be easily the most imaginative form of literature has become so astonishingly hidebound, predictable and unimaginative."

When people say they don't like fantasy, Gaiman believes, it's not the notion of the fantastic and magical they reject, but this pseudo-Tolkienesque, Dungeons and Dragons, Conan the Barbarian pastiche that fills the shelves of the fantasy sections of bookstores.

What Gaiman was aiming to do with "Stardust," what he's always aiming to do, in any of his writing, was to write good literature. "Gene Wolfe, who is one of my two or three favorite living writers, was asked his definition of good literature. And his definition was, 'Good literature is something that can be read with pleasure by an educated reader and reread with increased pleasure.' And that's what I was trying to do in 'Sandman,'" Gaiman said, referring to his award-winning comic book series." "That's still what I'm trying to do, mostly in my fiction. I like writing books where if you get to the end and start again at the beginnin g, the shape of what you've read changes. If you read 'Stardust' over, it's not the same story that you read the first time."