Neil Gaiman tries a new strategy

Neil Gaiman extracts a honeycomb from a hive. He says while he's fascinated with bees, his next book will not be about them.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Neil Gaiman has a new passion: bee-keeping. He's carefully carved out time with a group of friends to harvest honey from his hives.

Everyone looks like earthbound astronauts in their white beekeeper suits with huge gauze facemasks. The first hive contains little honey, but then Gaiman and beekeeper Sharon Stiteler pries open the second one.

Neil Gaiman answers questions about his interest in beekeeping.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"Whoa!" she shouts as she sees the hive interior.

There's a lot of honey inside, 40, maybe 50 pounds.

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This relaxed bucolic scene, may be a little misleading. It had to be carefully scheduled to make sure that Neil Gaiman could actually take part. He's a busy man, and he missed the honey harvest last year. On this day, he's just returned from a research trip to China.

"And then tomorrow I am off on the tour and going back to being a famous author," he sighs.

He sounds a little resigned but Gaiman is excited about his new novel "The Graveyard Book."

"I could do a story about a kid who doesn't have a family who's adopted by dead people and taught all the things dead people know. And I knew I had a book."

He actually got the idea 23 years ago in England. His then 2-year old son, Mike, got a tricycle. There were so many stairs in their house Mike couldn't ride safely indoors. So, they would cross the street every day to a little country churchyard.

"And he would ride, happily ride his tricycle up and down the paths and between the grave stones," Gaiman says. "And I would sit there watching him, just this incredibly happy kid in a graveyard."

Gaiman says one day as he watched he had a flash of inspiration. He remembered how Rudyard Kipling wrote the "Jungle Book," where wild animals adopt an orphaned child.

"And I could do a story about a kid who doesn't have a family, who's adopted by dead people and taught all the things dead people know," Gaiman says. "And I knew I had a book."

Well, at least the idea for a book. Gaiman sat down at his desk that afternoon.

"And after a page and a half I said 'You know this is a better idea than I am a writer,'" he says.

So he set it aside until he felt he could do it justice. He did come up with a structure for the novel.

"To try to write a book in which every chapter is a short story, but is also the chapter of a novel, and which the whole is a novel," he says. "And in which every chapter takes two years after the one before."

After 20 years he says he realized he wasn't going to get any better and he should just write the thing, which he did. Now, "The Graveyard Book," is in the bookstores and he's going on tour.

But there lies a challenge. Hundreds of people turn up at his appearances. People wait in line for literally four or five hours to get a book signed. It was miserable for him too endlessly sign books, shirts and a host of other things.

Bees clean up spilled honey after the harvest
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"And it all gets rather horrible, and by the end of the first week, you are actually icing your hand," Gaiman says.

So this is where he is trying something new. Gaiman is using the structure of his new book organize a reading tour.

Only presigned books will be available.

He'll talk, show clips from the upcoming movie based on his book "Coraline," and he will read a chapter a night from "The Graveyard Book" in nine cities. And each night, it's being videotaped and posted on the web.

By the time Gaiman gets to St. Paul on Wednesday, the entire book will be online, all except the final chapter, which he will read live. When asked if he sees a problem in having his entire novel on the web he says no.

"The danger to authors these days is not piracy, it's obscurity," he says.

Gaiman hopes everyone will have a good time, and then get home early. If it doesn't work he says, he'll try something else.