"By no means do I mean to make this sound like an insult, but . . . you have dolls!" Serena Altschul said to bestselling author Neil Gaiman.
"Absolutely," he said, "but the dolls are Coraline dolls."
Meet Neil Gaiman, author & doll-lover, and his inspiring creation, Coraline.
"I love the fact that after the movie came out, there have been lots and lots and lots and lots of little baby Coralines turning up in the world," he said.
"Coraline" - first in Gaiman's 2002 book and then in last year's Oscar-nominated animated film - is a bored young girl who opens a mysterious door, only to find a magical wonderland on the other side.
Everyone on the other-side has buttons for eyes. Cute! Until Coraline realizes her eyes are next . . .
"What do you think your attraction to the dark side of things is?" Altschul asked.
"I think the thing that crystallized it for me, the moment that I actually understood it for myself, was a quote from Ogden Nash, the great American poet and humorist, where he said, 'Where there's a monster, there's a miracle.'
"And I realized that that, for me, is the joy of the monstrous. It's the joy of ghosts, fiction, joy of vampires. It's the miraculous."
The monstrous and the miraculous have been kind to Neil Gaiman. He's sold millions of novels, comics and kids' books, from "Sandman" to Batman to Coraline. None other than horror master Stephen King has called him a "treasure trove of story."
Gaiman's Midwestern home is almost as spooky as Coraline's.
Consider, for example, his monstrous toy collection.
It includes Mr. Punch, "who is very scary who kills people. He's like this happy serial killer," said Gaiman.
An even more curious collection can be found in his basement dungeon . . . I mean, library.
"People say, 'Why did you move to America?'" Gaiman said.
"I needed somewhere to put the books."
(Left: A scene from the stop-motion animated film "Coraline," based on Neil Gaiman's fantasy/horror story.)
He keeps almost every book he's ever read or written down here.
The very first book he ever wrote, back in 1984, was a biography of the rock band Duran Duran!
"These days people who know what it is stick this on eBay and it goes for 200 or 300 bucks," Gaiman said. "Ridiculous."
He said he was the kind of kid who wanted to be a writer.
"While you talk to other kids about what they daydreamed about, and they wanted to be astronauts, or they wanted to be sports stars, I wanted to have written 'Lord of the Rings,' " he said.
The Newbery Medal is the highest honor a children's book author can receive, and the American Library Association gave the 2009 award to Gaiman for his latest novel, "The Graveyard Book." It's the story of a young boy raised tenderly by ghosts in a cemetery.
"Where did you come up with the idea that it takes a village of ghosts to raise an orphan boy?" Altschul asked.
"I had a two-year-old son," Gaiman said, "and he would ride his tricycle between the gravestones, happily peddling away. And at some point in there, I remember looking at this little boy, riding his tricycle backwards and forwards around the gravestones, and thinking, 'He looks so at home here.'
"Suddenly I realized that I had a place that I could tell a story."
"The Graveyard Book" has become much more than a critical favorite. It's was on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year.
"We're all so thrilled you won," one librarian said to Gaiman at a reception. "I enjoy your books a lot. Your books are lovely."
But his work doesn't just appeal to well-behaved librarians.
At the Montreal WorldCon, for hard-core science fiction fans, Neil Gaiman truly is out of this world!
They line up for hours for a chance to collect his treasured signature.
"I think he has a lot more subtlety than J.K. Rowling," said one female fan, "and when it comes to Edgar Allan Poe, I think he has that same creepy vibe but it's a much easier read for someone of this generation."
At one reading, fans of all generations sit spellbound by his voice:
"'I want to go back to the beginning,' he said when it started. 'I want to stand there in the light of the universe, waking for itself, the dawn of everything.' "
Some come for the "human" touch. "I just wanted to shake his hand!" one man said.
Of course, there's always one fan who goes too far, like the man who had Gaiman autograph his arm.
"Two or three hours later, I looked up, and it's the same guy," Gaiman recalled, "and he showed me my signature, which he just had tattooed, with a few little beads of blood still dripping.
"I've just seen my signature tattooed on somebody's arm, and my weirdness meter has just broken."
So Neil Gaiman, author of "Coraline" and other dark tales, can get weirded out from time to time. Who'd have thought it?