A shy child with his nose permanently stuck in a book, Neil Gaiman grew up to become a publishing phenomenon writing scripts, graphic novels and fiction. He talks about Dr Who, his personal new novel and living on Skye
Neil Gaiman is a man of many faces. Some know him as the author of gloriously mapcap children’s books, others as the writer who got the world to take graphic novels seriously. Still more recognise him as the novelist behind the blockbuster movies Stardust and Coraline. He’s a bestselling author, screenwriter and blogger and he has 1.8 million Twitter followers. And for some people on the Isle of Skye he is that vaguely famous bloke who lives down the road.
Gaiman, 52, who grew up in Sussex and has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, now calls Scotland his second home. He fell in love with the country when he came here to work on the National Theatre of Scotland’s stage adaptation of his children’s book The Wolves in the Walls in 2006, and bought a house on Skye. “When I think about where I live, I live in America and I live in Scotland. Even though there are some years where I’ll only get a very small amount of time in Scotland, it has become my place in the UK. Edinburgh is sort of home, and Skye is definitely home.” His adopted country returns the warm sentiments and he has been invited to be one of the “guest curators” at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.
The afterword for his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, was written in his house in the Trotternish area of Skye, as was his latest episode of Doctor Who, aired last month. His wife, singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, formerly of punk alternative outfit the Dresden Dolls, can trace her ancestors to the island. “My wife’s entire family came from Skye, they’re all Mackinnons and MacInneses, and they have a very, very complicated family tree. She still has Mackinnons and McInneses up in that part of the world who are related to her.”
When Gaiman and Palmer wed in 2011, the celebration extended to Skye. They announced their engagement jokily on Twitter and their first “wedding” was a flash-mob affair in New Orleans to mark Gaiman’s 50th birthday. They were then formally married at the home of fellow writer Michael Chabon “with just a dozen or so people, most of them thought they were just coming over for dinner, and Lemony Snicket playing the accordion. We thought, we have to do a party for family, so that it’s real for them, so we held the party on Skye. It was lovely. Amanda’s American relatives came over, and all of her be-kilted relatives, with young Hugh Mackinnon, aged 18, playing the bagpipes. And all my North London Jewish relatives. It’s quite possibly the only wedding where a Jewish chair dance was held to the accompaniment of bagpipe music.”
I meet Gaiman in London at the end of a marathon four-day promotional trip for The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Fortunately The Milk, his new children’s novel due out in September from Bloomsbury. Every time he talks about this book he smiles. “It’s the part of my head that writes Doctor Who. The hero is a kid’s dad and there is a time-travelling stegosaurus in a hot-air balloon with a time machine that doesn’t quite work. It’s just wonderful and silly. It was going to be a children’s picture book but it grew.”
There is something of the writerly rock star about Gaiman – the wardrobe of black clothes, the mop of black hair, the famous mates (Tori Amos, Stephen King), the rock-star wife 16 years his junior. But he’s also unfailingly nice. This is the last day of the trip, I’m the seventh interview of the day and he is exhausted, slumped in a chair in the Gothic Room of the Gore Hotel asking for “just enough tea to keep me going”, but nonetheless manages to be not only courteous but friendly and obliging.
We talk about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is a strange little book, too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story. It’s not a children’s book, although it is about childhood. It’s dark and weirdly compelling, as if propelled along by a wistfulness which it never quite shakes off. He says it is the most personal book he has ever written. Publishers say it could be the best thing he’s ever done.
He had no intention of writing it at all, he says. He went to Florida with a plan to write Doctor Who and to work on a sequel to his novel, American Gods. Palmer had gone to Australia for four months to make an album. He then started to write a short story for her because he missed her. “After I’d been writing it for a while, it became a novelette, then a novella. As far as I was concerned I’d written this very small, very personal book as a gift for Amanda.”
In it, a middle-aged man looks back on a series of events that happened when he was seven years old. It does what Gaiman does so well, capturing a very ordinary world and then moving through an invisible portal into a much stranger, more interesting one, where the London Underground is inhabited by the people who fell through the cracks, or the man sitting next to you on a plane turns out to be a Norse god. Seven-year-old George encounters a very convincing nanny-from-hell, fiendish winged creatures from the beyond, and a family who have lived in the farm at the end of the lane for ever (literally).
He says he “plundered the landscape of my childhood”, when the Gaimans lived in a rambling old house on a Sussex lane. “When I was about seven or eight, somebody mentioned to me that one of the farms down our lane was in the Domesday Book, and I remember thinking that would mean it had been there for 1000 years, and wouldn’t it be cool if the people who lived there had also lived there for 1000 years. That was the weird half-idea that lived in the back of my head, and after a while they became called the Hempstock family, but I never got a story to put them in.”
Then there was the South African opal miner who briefly lodged with the family and, after gambling away his money in a Brighton casino, committed suicide in the family mini. And, no, we’re not in the realm of fiction yet. “My dad was woken up at 6am by the police who had heard about it from a milk lorry, and he had to go down and identify the car. By 4pm that afternoon it was sold because he knew that my mum would never go in it again.”
So, the bookish, lonely, highly imaginative seven-year-old of the book – is he the young Neil Gaiman? “There’s a bit of myself in him, but with things turned up for dramatic effect. The family isn’t my family. But I think there’s an emotional truth to it because I was writing it for Amanda, so this probably is the view from planet Neil, aged about seven, if I had been in that situation. Somebody recently said to my Aunt Janet, ‘You must be very proud of him, was he always a genius as a kid?’. And she said, ‘No, he was a weird kid, at any family event you’d find him sitting under a table reading a book.’ That’s absolutely true. Before any family event, my family would frisk me to check if I had any books on me, and lock them in the car so I couldn’t get them.”
The book is also a reminder of how childhood can occasionally be terrifying. The epigraph comes from the late Maurice Sendak, author of the iconic children’s book Where The Wild Things Are: “I remember my own childhood vividly... I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Gaiman smiles. “I really remember that feeling, I remember thinking, ‘I know terrible things, and it would break adults if they knew the things I knew’. That’s definitely how I felt.”
Young George has a view on stories, and particularly myths: “They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.” I wonder if this is what Gaiman has written? “That’s what I was going for. I wanted to write something that just was. It is an oddly profound book, occasionally smarter than I am. I feel lucky to have written it, and also lucky that I didn’t know what I was writing when I was writing it.
“If somebody had said, you’re probably writing your best book, and you’re going to say big important things, I probably would have frozen up. As it was, I was trying to write a short story for my wife whom I missed, and trying to recreate emotions, trying to remember what it felt like to be helpless as a kid.”
He says the process of writing The Ocean at the End of the Lane was “like walking around a dark house when the power’s out, and you’ve been given a candle, or a very low intensity torch. And you think it’s a very small house and you’ll be through it very soon, and then you discover another staircase. And then you look around and you realise you’re in a cellar and you keep walking.” This is very much the experience of reading the best of his novels. Just when you think you’ve reached the limits of the imaginative world, you discover another whole landscape.
One feels that if one could talk to that seven-year-old under the table, one might find the seeds of that Gaiman imagination, that ability to take a story and run with it, and keep running. Like George, at seven, Gaiman was devouring the Narnia books – “if there had been an infinite number of them, I’d have read nothing but Narnia books” – and tales from ancient Egypt. “Books are important, but I think everything, every input you have as a kid is important. Doctor Who, the idea that you can be pleasantly scared, all that was hugely important.” He watched Doctor Who at his grandparents’ house because his parents (who were Scientologists) “didn’t hold with television”.
What was it like, then, to write for the series? (Gaiman’s first Doctor Who episode, “The Doctor’s Wife”, has been hailed as one of the best ever.) “An awful lot like becoming God. I mean, I have just written ‘interior TARDIS control room’ and I have made the Doctor say something. How much more powerful can you get?”
His writing career started as a journalist, when he wrote occasional short stories, a book on Duran Duran and Don’t Panic, a companion to Douglas Adams. In the 1980s, he started writing for comic books, most famously originating The Sandman, which ran for seven years and remains one of very few graphic novels to make it to the New York Times bestseller lists. Norman Mailer described it as “a comic strip for intellectuals”.
His first novel, Good Omens, was a collaboration with Terry Pratchett, and a willingness to collaborate has been a hallmark of his career. He is a writer who will turn his hand to anything – a comic book, a TV drama, a big serious novel, the screenplay for Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf – and is remarkably unprecious about his status, saying that he finds the company of “real novelists” intimidating. He says he’d like to write a musical and design a haunted house.
He was playing hopscotch with genres long before it became fashionable – mixing children’s and adult fiction, science-fiction, fantasy and horror with mainstream stories. The Graveyard Book won both the Carnegie and Newbery Medals (for children’s fiction), despite beginning with a grisly murder. American Gods won Nebula and Hugo prizes (science fiction), the Bram Stoker (horror) and the Locus (fantasy) demonstrating, “even if it was popular, no one was quite sure which box it belonged in”.
He has always been willing to embrace new media. In 2001 he was one of the first writers to start blogging, and in 2008, one of the first on Twitter. In a keynote address in April to the Digital Minds Conference at London Book Fair, he said he was “perfectly willing to acknowledge the possibility that the novelist may have been a blip” in cultural history, and encouraged publishers to be experimental and creative with new opportunities.
This year alone, his portfolio is bulging with diverse projects. In addition to the two new books, there was a new dramatisation of Neverwhere, his book about London, for Radio Four with a “dream cast” including Benedict Cumberbatch and James McAvoy. A second children’s book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, was brought to the stage by the National Theatre of Scotland NTS with director Lu Kemp. And American Gods is being made for television by HBO, the American network behind The Wire and Game of Thrones.
A staggering number of film projects are in various stages of the movie pipeline, with Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon, The Da Vinci Code) scheduled to direct The Graveyard Book, and British director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) to make The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But Gaiman is typically unassuming: “I never take any of it seriously until I’m actually sitting in a screening room, eating popcorn, watching it and going ‘This is actually happening’. It’s easier that way.”
• The Ocean at the End of the Lane is out on Tuesday, published by Headline, £16.99. The Edinburgh International Book Festival Programme is launched Thursday 20 June.