I once read about a man (John Lloyd) who cured his depression by getting interested in things. He started collecting facts about frogs and the mating rituals of puffer fish; he discovered Pythagoras. I think there is something to be said for this kind of curiosity. Life is pretty fun and interesting when you’re a kid, and then you grow up into a teenager and everything becomes boring. And really, it’s no wonder; growing up is a series of pretty disappointing discoveries. There’s no toy making shop at the North Pole, no faeries, no ghosts, no time travel.
For me, the turning point in all this teenage boringness was discovering Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. These were not your every day goth comics, these were history lessons. There was plenty of black eyeliner, and sex and violence (a lot of violence), but the main characters were immortal, essentially personifications of Jungian archetypes.
Darling, let me introduce you to my uncles and aunts, says the groom in "The Song of Orpheus." They are Teleute, Aponia, Mania, Epithumia, Olethros, and Potmos; their names mean End, Inaction, Madness, Desire, Destruction, and Destiny.
They are known as the Endless and they traveled through time. As a reader, you might find yourself in Paris during the Reign of Terror following Robespierre, or in Medieval Baghdad with the caliph Haroun al Raschid (who appears in many of the Arabian Nights), or in Ancient Greece at the temple of Apollo. And anyone could show up — Caesar Augustus, Marco Polo, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton. The stories referenced myths and gnostic mysticism and made you go to libraries to look things up. (This was before the days of internet.) I specifically remember in Fables and Reflections, discovering the Talmundic story about the two Eve prototypes that came before the real Eve was created — the first was Lilith and the second had no skin at first — and I was like, “My God! Why does nobody else know about this?!”
Neil Gaiman got me interested in things. And I soon discovered the world is actually not that boring. Maybe everyone has a writer like this, or an artist, or musician, or a person, or experience — something that hits you at that crucial moment and sets you on a path forever. (I remember what Jonathan Lethem said of Philip K. Dick, that reading his work was "as formative an influence as marijuana or punk rock — as equally responsible for beautifully fucking up my life, for bending it irreversibly along a course I still travel.")
As for Neil Gaiman, I think one thing that characterizes his work is all his collecting. He mines through history, folklore, and out-of-print books for the forgotten ore. Frank Cottrell Boyce in his review of Gaiman’s latest book, Trigger Warning, writes, “Reading this collection feels like looking over the shoulder of someone whose browser has a thousand and one tabs open. . . . But all these clicks and hits are linked to one place – a good story.” I can't remember whose advice it was to young writers to "steal everything", but that is exactly what Gaiman is doing. (His novel The Graveyard Book is a straight-up retelling of The Jungle Book.) But the stories never feel stolen; in fact, most of the time they're so original and inventive they're almost weird. I mean this in the best way possible. Like the Lord of Dreams says himself, "Any view of things that is not strange is false." Gaiman is a myth maker, and myths are always weird.
He has published 37 books since concluding the Sandman series, the first being American Gods, a novel which Joe Hill writes, "was a kind of uncorking and a flood of fever dreams poured forth afterward." And thank goodness for that, because a) he is one of the few American writers pulling fantasy out of the margins, and b) his writing is like a drug and I never want to run out.