Neil Gaiman treasures ‘strange moments of the inexplicable’
An interview with Neil Gaiman, the fantastically fertile author of novels, screenplays, TV episodes, children’s books, graphic novels and more. His new book is “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”
Seattle Times book editor
The author of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” will appear at 7 p.m. July 2, at Town Hall Seattle, Eighth Avenue and Seneca Street, Seattle; the event is sold out. Sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
Neil Gaiman tells stories for readers from 8 to 80 — comic books, graphic novels, books for children, books for adults, screenplays and TV episodes have all flowed from his fantastically fertile brain. He’s won the Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction, the Bram Stoker award for horror and the 2009 Newbery Award given to the best children’s book of the year for his graphic novel “The Graveyard Book,” llustrated by Dave McKean.
Gaiman comes through Seattle in July to read from his latest book for grown-ups, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” (Morrow, 192 pp., $25.99, in stores June 18), and to teach at the Clarion West science-fiction workshop. A July 2 appearance here at Town Hall has sold out. Gaiman, 52, says this is his final book-signing tour.
Regardless of its intended age group, any Neil Gaiman story is an odd and compelling mashup of myth and magic, horror and wonder, humanity and humor. Raised in England and a U.S. resident for many years, Gaiman, currently living in Caimbridge, Mass., took 20 minutes to talk about his work, his plans and the price of popularity.
Q: Your website say this summer’s tour is your “last signing tour.” What does that mean?
A: “Last signing tour” means that I’m getting too popular for signing tours, for me or for the people who show up. The event at Town Hall sold out after a few days, and the truth is, we could have held the event somewhere else, and 3,000 or 5,000 people would have shown up.
So my attitude is that if it’s not really fun for me any more , I’ll stop signing and figure out what else I’m going to be doing. Maybe I’ll go from town to town and read a chapter each. I don’t want to stop interacting with fans. But when (an appearance) starts at 6 in the evening and ends at 2 in the morning, and you’re putting your hand into a bag of frozen peas…..
Q: Did you expect to win the Newbery for “The Graveyard Book”?
A: (Laughs). I was so not expecting to win. They don’t even announce long-lists. (When they called), all I remember thinking, is, don’t swear. Someone is recording this. The New York Times (reporter) said, “Well, now you know what’s going to be in your obituary.”
Q: You tell stories in different forms for different age groups — for kids, for adults, through comic books, prose books, graphic novels, television. Does your storytelling change according to the age group you’re writing for, or the medium you’re working in?
A: You don’t set out to, but there’s definitely a yes answer to that. I wouldn’t try to put a piece of movement or choreography into a comic. I wouldn’t put a silent panel in a novel. I wouldn’t put a beautiful piece of descriptive prose in a film script.
The funniest bad reviews I’ve gotten were about a children’s book, “Chu’s Day.” It’s about a baby panda who sneezes. One review said, “I’m a huge fan of Gaiman’s novels, but I thought this book to be very thin.” This is a book about a baby panda who sneezes ... (young readers) want to turn the page and find out if the baby panda sneezes or not! They want to find out what happens next.
Q: Based on your books and screenwriting, I know that you can come up with images and ideas that can be enormously creepy — that worm in the boy’s foot! (in “Ocean at the End of the Lane”). But you don’t generally go over the line into the “gross” or “aghhh” arena. Are you talking to yourself about that as you write?
A: One of the reasons I wrote the worm-in-the-foot scene the way I did ... I remembered how much less squeamish I was as a kid. I remember cutting out a wart with a penknife when I was seven or eight. I think kids would read the worm scene with more equanimity (than an adult).
Q: But “Ocean” isn’t a kids book.
A: “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is more of an adult book because it deals with the matter of childhood, the matter of memory. You don’t need to talk to kids about that.
I personally consider the first few pages of “The Graveyard Book” (a kids’ book) one of the scariest I’ve ever written. But I wasn’t going to use the word blood, or the word kill. I still remember doing a press conference in Denmark in 2003 about “Coraline.” A journalist asked, “How can you possibly offer this novel to children? ... You give this book to kids, it will scare them, it will traumatize them.”
I said kids will read it as something like an adventure. They know who’s going to win.
Q: I would say that “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” shows a longing for a rural and particularly English way of life. Was that part of your upbringing?
A: Yes. “Ocean” began life as a short story for my wife. She was in Australia making a record. I thought ... I would do this short story for Amanda; I thought I would tell her what the Sussex of my childhood was like. When I take her back to see it now, those people, those buildings, they aren’t there anymore.
I started it, and it took on a life of its own. Suddenly it was 50,000 words.
Q: I recently talked to Joyce Carol Oates. Her new book features the Devil, so I asked her if she believed in the Devil.
You write about what could loosely be called supernatural experiences. Have you ever had a supernatural or fantastic experience that couldn’t be explained by conventional notions of reality?
A: What a great question. I don’t think you get supernatural experiences in the way you do in books.
What you get are weirdly irrational experiences — you say, that was really strange.
I remember coming out of my house (as a child), and it was down this lane. They had put up this streetlight for no particular reason, though years later it made sense because there was a street there.
Walking down the lane, there was a woman dressed up as gypsies do in stage plays, which is not something you saw in 1972 in rural Sussex. I said hello, and she simply stared at me. I ran away and I was terrified.
You were half a mile from the farms down the lane. Why was this lady wearing this beautiful Romany costume? Why was she out in the middle of nowhere? It was a strange moment of the irrational, the inexplicable. I would treasure that more than something with a lot of special effects.
Q: Which episode of “Doctor Who” did you write?
A: “The Doctor’s Wife.” (Executive producer) Steven Moffat kept saying, “don’t put all these gags in!” I would go off and waffle in the middle of the script. How much fun that was to write.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.