One Book, One Chicago Spring 2011
Letter from Neil Gaiman
Illustration by Jay Ryan
It all started in Chicago.
Which may sound odd for a book about London, which is one of the things that Neverwhere is about, but it really did. I’d lived in England then for most of my life.
It was a quarter of a century ago, about 1986. I had recently read a book set in Chicago called Free, Live Free by Gene Wolfe (he’s local to you; the Washington Post has said Gene Wolfe may be the best living writer America has) and I had started thinking too much about cities.
What I had started to think about was that some cities were also characters. Chicago was, in Free, Live Free. It was drawn in such a way that it had become almost magical, and was as much of a character in the book as any of the more human people who walked around in it.
Not all cities could be the kind of characters to carry a book, not by a long shot. But there are places that are more than just a collection of people living together. They are places with their own history, their own lore and legend, places where stories happen.
I thought there ought to be a whole genre of stories out there—Magic City stories—in which people travel through a city that’s as much a character as the people in it. Late one Easter night, in a railway hotel in Glasgow, I started telling my idea about cities as characters to an editor of popular fiction: I told him he should get an author to write such a book about London.
“Why don’t you?” he asked sensibly.
I was a working journalist and I’d only written short stories, and I explained to him why I wouldn’t write such a book, why I couldn’t write such a book. Then I went off and wrote my first graphic novel, a book in which 1920s Chicago and 1960s England collide at a child’s birthday party.
I kept thinking about London, though.
In 1991 I encountered my friend Lenny Henry, who was in the process of setting up his own film company. He asked if I’d like to write a TV series for the BBC. I said I’d love to, and took the London idea and began to embroider it into something huge and real. The idea of London Above—the world we’re familiar with—and London Below—where the things and the people that fall through the cracks go—was a strong and useful metaphor. It let me talk about the city, the people who made it what it was, and the ones the city failed. It let me talk about the nature of time in cities: how they do not use it up evenly, but leave bits of the past in there as they move into the future.
We made the TV miniseries: three hours of television. I found myself allowed to wander places I had only dreamed about, from rooftop to sewer, and seeing the real places then fed back into the fiction. It was magical.
I was dissatisfied with the TV series, so I wrote a book taking everything I had learned, adapting my scripts, expanding them, making something that I was happy with. It was the story of Richard Mayhew, who comes to London from Scotland, and gets a sensible job in securities and a sensible fiancée and a sensible life, but who, one evening, stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on the sidewalk, and who soon learns that no good deed goes unpunished.
I had a secondary goal: I wanted to make London more magical for people visiting it. It makes me happy when people tell me about seeing London after reading Neverwhere, of their excitement at seeing Earl’s Court or Knightsbridge. Like The Lord of the Rings, there is a map at the beginning of Neverwhere, but it is a map of the London underground rail system showing the closed and abandoned tube stations.
There were more books written in whatever genre Neverwhere was, and after a while people started calling it Urban Fantasy, which is, I suppose, fair enough, for although I wanted to write about real things—about cities and about dreams and about madness and hope—it is a fantastic story with monsters and beasts, knights and assassins, and even an angel in it. There is a man who keeps his life in a duck egg in a silver box, and a man who lives on rooftops, a house in which every room is in a different part of the city, and an order of black friars; and it is most definitely urban. But for me, Neverwhere will always be my Magic City story.
Just as Chicago inspired Neverwhere, it has always embraced Neverwhere, and I am grateful. It was in Chicago that Neverwhere first became a theatrical performance (a show that has now begun to travel the world), and now it is Chicago that is the first city to make Neverwhere its One Book.
I like the idea of One Book. Books are unique experiences, reader to reader, after all. Each of us builds a different world out of the words we have been given by the author. But with all those differences, it is still the same book, still a perfect place to begin a conversation with a stranger, still a shared experience.
This is my fantasy: that everyone in Chicago reads Neverwhere. Everyone. All the people in Chicago Above, and even (because we know they are there) the shadowy figures of Chicago Below, who have stepped out of legend long enough to read about Richard Mayhew, and to learn, as Richard does, that it all starts with doors.