5:24am

Sat June 15, 2013
Author Interviews

Gaiman's New 'Ocean' Is No Kiddie Pool

Originally published on Sat June 15, 2013 4:40 pm

Neil Gaiman, one of the world's most beloved fantasy authors, has won the Hugo and Bram Stoker awards, and the Newberry Medal — and now he's written his first novel for adults in eight years.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with an Englishman — never named — who returns to the Sussex town where he grew up. More specifically, he returns to the house he lived in as a boy, and suddenly, he's lost in memories of the time his family's lodger (a down-on-his-luck opal miner) stole their car, ran over their cat, and accidentally woke up a dark energy that threatened to swamp the world. Luckily for both the boy and the world, a slightly older girl named Lettie Hempstock, who lived at the titular end of the lane, stepped in to save the day.

Before all that happens, though, the miner replaces poor little kitten Fluffy with an older, snarlier cat — a sort of metaphor for the overall story. "This is a book that, on the outside, could appear very cute," Gaiman tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I actually had to decide, well, there's a lot of stuff in here that kids would like, but it's obviously not a children's book, even though it has the lovely fluffy stuff, it has claws."

Interview Highlights

On deciding to make Ocean an adult book

"Really, I kept a sort of open mind until I got to the very end, and then looked at what I'd done. ... It was meant to be just about looking out at the world through the kind of eyes that I had when I was 7, from the kind of landscape that I lived in when I was 7. And then it just didn't quite stop. I kept writing it, and it wasn't until I got to the end that I realized I'd actually written a novel. ... I thought — it's really not a kids' story — and one of the biggest reasons it's not a kids' story is, I feel that good kids' stories are all about hope. In the case of Ocean at the End of the Lane, it's a book about helplessness. It's a book about family, it's a book about being 7 in a world of people who are bigger than you, and more dangerous, and stepping into territory that you don't entirely understand."

On being the little boy who lived in books

"When I was 7, my proudest possession would have been my bookshelf 'cause I had alphabetized all of the books on my bookshelf. I'd got to the point where I'd persuaded my parents to let me go to the local library in my summer holidays, and they would actually drop me off with sandwiches at the library, and I would just head into the children's department at the back and just start reading my way through it. It was the best place in the world."

On being a journalist

"I was never a very good journalist, but I loved being a journalist, and I loved it because it taught me two really, really important things about writing. It taught me compression: If I was interviewing somebody, and I talked to them, and I'd wind up with 3,000 words, 4,000 words, and I'd need to get that down, I learned how to compress what they'd said while still keeping speech patterns, which became incredibly important later when I was writing comics. And even more important than that, I learned about deadlines.

"I do remember once, getting a phone call one evening from an editor, saying, 'Your book review, it's due in tomorrow.' And I said, 'No no no no no, it's due in on Tuesday.' And they said, 'Yes, today is Monday.' And I hadn't written it, and I looked around the room and I couldn't see the book. And I said, 'What happens if I don't get it in?' And they said, 'Well, then we'd have a blank page, and we'd have to run a little photograph of you, with your address and your telephone number that anybody could call up if they wanted to find out what that book was like.' And that concentrated the mind wonderfully."

On writing in different voices

"That's part of the job, I think ... when I was growing up, some of my favorite writers, the people I respected the most, were the ones who did everything, you know. A good writer should be able to write comedic work that made you laugh, and scary stuff that made you scared, and fantasy or science fiction that imbued you with a sense of wonder, and mainstream journalism that gave you clear and concise information in a way that you wanted it. It always seemed to me that that was what a writer should do. You have all these amazing tools; it's up to you what kinds of tunes you play on them, and you want to play all the tunes. As I grew older, I was fascinated to realize that actually, society to some extent frowns on those of us who like messing about in an awful lot of different sandboxes. From my perspective, I just love being able to do everything. I think a good writer should be able to do everything. And if you can't do everything brilliantly, at least you should have a bash."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One of the world's best-selling authors has a new book out this summer. Neil Gaiman has written his first novel for adults in eight years. It's called "The Ocean at the End of the Lane." It opens with a man who returns to where he grew up in Sussex, England; in a house in which a family lodger stole their car, ran over the family pet, and let loose a whole dark and churning world surrounding a slightly older girl named Lettie Hempstock, who lives at the end of the lane and in many ways, saves the young boy's life. How do you repay that?

Neil Gaiman, who has been called a rock star author and has written the novels that include "Neverwhere," "The Graveyard Book," and the "Sandman" series of graphic novels; he's won the Hugo and the Bram Stoker awards, the Newbery Medal - lots more we could mention. Neil Gaiman joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

NEIL GAIMAN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You know, early in the story, you've got a cute, little cat named Fluffy who meets his end in the way I just described. The guy who inadvertently does the deed gives little boy a cat who is more snarling than Fluffy. And as the book went on, I wondered - is that a metaphor for a lot of what happens in your books?

GAIMAN: Well, definitely in this book. I mean, this is a book that on the outside, could appear very cute. It was very interesting when I was writing it because I actually had to decide, well, there's a lot of stuff in here that kids would like, but it's - obviously - not a children's book, even though it has the lovely Fluffy stuff. It has claws.

SIMON: When did you decide that when you were writing?

GAIMAN: Really, I kept a sort of open mind until I got to the very end, and then looked at what I'd done. I wrote the book in the strangest way I've ever written any book. Normally, when I sit down to write a novel, I have an idea of what I'm going to write. I have a title; I have a shape. In this case, I was in Florida. My wife was in Melbourne, Australia. She's a musician, and she was making a record.

SIMON: This is Amanda Palmer, for those who don't know.

GAIMAN: This is Amanda Palmer, my wonderful wife. And I thought, well, I'll write her a short story. It was meant to be just about looking out at the world through the kind of eyes that I had when I was 7, from the kind of landscape that I lived in when I was 7. And then it just didn't quite stop. I kept writing it, and it wasn't until I got to the very end that I realized I'd actually written a novel. But I also had to look at, when I got to the end of the book, just who would want to read this - because it does have magical stuff in it, and it does have some of the glorious fantasy elements that you find in kids' stories.

But I thought, it's really not a kids' story. And one of the biggest reasons it's not a kids' story is, I feel that good kids' stories are all about hope. In the case of "Ocean at the End of the Lane," it's a book about helplessness. It's a book about family. It's a book about being 7 in a world of people who are bigger than you, and more dangerous; and stepping into territory that you don't entirely understand.

SIMON: Yeah. I think it's hard to read this book and not, early on, find your heart tugged when your narrator has a seventh birthday party, and nobody comes.

GAIMAN: The past, the parcel is - the present in wrapped in all of the layers to be passed, and nothing happens. Nobody turns up.

SIMON: Yeah. So you were that little boy who lived in books?

GAIMAN: I was definitely that little boy who lived in books. You know, when I was 7, my proudest possession would have been my bookshelf - 'cause I'd alphabetized all of the books on my bookshelf. I'd got to the point where I'd persuaded my parents to let me go to the local library in my summer holidays. And they would actually drop me off with sandwiches, at the library; and I would just head into the children's department at the back and just start reading my way through it. It was the best place in the world.

SIMON: You were a journalist once.

GAIMAN: I was. I was never a very good journalist, but I loved being a journalist. And I loved it because it taught me two really, really important things about writing. It taught me compression. If I was interviewing somebody, and I talked to them, and I'd wind up with 3,000 words, 4,000 words, and I'd need to get that down, I learned how to compress what they'd said while still keeping speech patterns - which became incredibly important later, when I was writing comics. And even more important than that, I learned about deadlines. When an editor would say, well - you know - in order to make the deadline, I'm going to need the copy on my desk at 3 o'clock, you had it on his desk at 3 o'clock.

I do remember once, getting a phone call one evening from an edito, saying, your book review - it's due in tomorrow. And I said no, no, no, no, no; it's due in on Tuesday. And they said yes, today's Monday. I hadn't written it. And I looked around the room, and I couldn't see the book. And I said, what happens if I don't get it in? And they said, well, then we'd have a blank page, and we'd have to run a little photograph of you with your address and your telephone number that anybody could call up if they wanted to find out what that book was like. And that concentrated the mind wonderfully.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You found the book?

GAIMAN: I failed to find the book. I wrote an entire piece about what it's like to have to write a book review of a book you cannot find.

SIMON: Oh, my word.

GAIMAN: And they published it. It was a piece of very funny writing about what I could remember of the book, having read it a month earlier and put it off. But it was kind of fun.

SIMON: Yeah. How does being an author compare with what you thought it might be when you were a journalist and would occasionally interview others?

GAIMAN: When I was a journalist and I would interview authors, it was normally in the conversation after the interview was finished; you'd go down to the pub, and you'd start chatting. That was the point where, you know, the famous science fiction writer would tell you about the historical novel that he'd written that nobody would publish, or the famous thriller writer would tell you about the delicate memoir of childhood that she'd written that nobody was going to publish, or the French Revolution novel.

I definitely remember at that point going, OK, when I'm a writer, I won't do that. I'm never going to stay. I'm never going to do the same thing enough that I have to do that always. It was incredibly important to me to keep moving, to try new things, and never to be put in a box, never to be in a place where if I went to my publisher and said, I want to do this, they'd say, are you out of your mind? What I love now, my publisher, you know, if I went to them and said OK, so, the next book, it's going to be a pornographic cookbook, they probably wouldn't blink.

SIMON: On the contrary. I think they'd be excited.

GAIMAN: I think they probably would.

SIMON: Because of your Twitter presence, I kind of opened that portal up for questions. Sean Holloman(ph) over Twitter asks: Neil, when you change perspective in your work, you are able to write in a completely different voice. How?

GAIMAN: That's part of the job, I think - or, I always felt it was part of the job. When I was growing up, some of my favorite writers, the people I respected the most, were the ones who did everything, you know. A good writer should be able to write comedic work that made you laugh, and scary stuff that made you scared; and fantasy or science fiction that imbued you with a sense of wonder; and mainstream journalism that gave you clear and concise information, in a way that you wanted it. It always seemed to me that that was what a writer should do. You have all these amazing tools; it's up to you what kinds of tunes you play on them, and you want to play all the tunes.

As I grew older, I was fascinated to realize that actually - you know, society, to some extent, frowns on those of us who like messing about in an awful lot of different sandboxes. From my perspective, I just love being able to do everything. I think a good writer should be able to do everything. And if you can't do everything brilliantly, at least you can have a bash.

SIMON: Neil Gaiman, his new best-seller will be "The Ocean at the End of the Lane." Thanks so much for being with us.

GAIMAN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.