Finding Neverwhere

“Neil Gaiman. When we say ‘Neil Gaiman,’ what do most people think of? ‘Top-notch fantasy author,’ maybe, or ‘renowned graphic novelist,’ or ‘Newbery Award winner.’ But I say it is betrayal!”  James Kennedy shouted, his eyes glaring a challenge to the spot where, propped against the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel pulpit, Neil Gaiman lounged.

This was not the first time that Kennedy, an up-and-coming author based in Chicago, was confronting the beloved figure. At the American Library Association conference in Chicago last July, a costumed Kennedy challenged a look-alike of Gaiman in a duel for the Newbery Award. With Gaiman in Chicago again, this time Kennedy’s showdown was the real thing.

Yet Gaiman was not there to clear his name, nor was he there for a fight. Taking the stage, he acknowledged Kennedy’s act as “the best” introduction he had been given to date. He then pulled out his best-selling novel “Neverwhere,” and proceeded to read. It was a journey down to the urban underground of London, (“London below”), an urban fantasy that takes the typical witches, wizards, and warriors, and transposes them into the grimy reality of the homeless.

Despite its setting, the novel was very much home in Chicago, where its first theatrical rendtion was performed by Lifeline Theater, a group that specializes in literary adaptations, and is now touring worldwide. Now, “Neverwhere” has returned to the city as the chosen work for the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” program, which selects a new book biannually for the whole city to read together.

After the reading, Gaiman decided to take the audience through a bit of a trip into his own Chicago.  He proceeded to describe the “House of Clocks,” located in “The Shambles,” a made-up district  that survived the Great Fire. The work, “A Walking Tour of the Shambles,” was part of a collaboration he did for the 2002 World Horror Convention with another Chicagoan, renowned author Gene Wolfe. Gaiman admitted it was Wolfe’s characterization of Chicago in the book “Free, Live Free,” which inspired the London landscape in “Neverwhere.” Gaiman bridged the final gap between fantasy and reality, answering questions from his fans. One reader asked the question on all of our minds–“How do you get to ‘Chicago Below?’”

“I think that’s up for you to find out,” replied Gaiman.