Neil Gaiman took the stage at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, California for an intimate and lively discussion of his newest novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” While the award-winning writer focused mainly on the autobiographical origins and construction of the New York Times #1 bestseller, Gaiman also covered a myriad of other topics, including his upcoming highly-anticipated “The Sandman: Overture” miniseries from Vertigo Comics, reflection on the original “Sandman,” adding new stories to his “Neverwhere” universe, his marriage and relationship with musician Amanda Palmer, odd writing rituals and many more stories from his long and successful career.
Gaiman, who reads a chapter from his book during tours, opened the event by explaining how satisfying it is for him to experience an audience’s reaction to hearing his words for the first time. “The fantastic side of doing something like this is, the entire writing process is ridiculously lousy,” he said. “You come up with a great line, write it down and the room is quiet. My wife and kids make fun of me when they catch the facial expressions I make while writing. It’s a wonderful moment, reading a line out loud that I think is funny to an audience and they make the appropriate noise.
“The best noise I ever heard from an audience was here in LA for ‘The Graveyard Book’ tour,” Gaiman continued. “I read a moment from chapter 7 of ‘Graveyard,’ where somebody you think up until that point has been a nice person reveals himself to be a dangerous person. I got to that point, and the entire audience gasped dramatically. Then I closed the book and they all went ‘Awww!’ It was the best!”
The ice broken, the author began to reveal the mosaic of life experiences leading to the creation of “Lane,” beginning by reminding the audience that he wrote “Coraline” for his daughter Holly, Gaiman said “Lane’s” dedication is to his wife, musician Amanda Palmer. “I had gone to Florida to work — which included a ‘Doctor Who’ script — and I missed my wife, dearly, who was making an album in Melbourne, Australia. This particular time wasn’t like when we’d check in on the road with long phone calls, because she was making an album. She’d send daily ‘I love you’ texts that closed with, ‘But I’m making an album.’ I missed her, so I started writing her a short story,” he explained, evoking a collective good-humored sigh of endearment from the crowd.
“My wife doesn’t really like fantasy, but she likes me. She likes honest stuff and feelings. I’ve never been into doing a lot of feelings because — well, I’m English,” the writer joked. “But I thought I’d do a short story for her with things she likes in it and send it off to her while she’s making her album. Then, somewhere in there, I realized it wasn’t a short but a novelette — then three or four months went by, and I never sent it to her because it wasn’t finished. By then she wasn’t in Melbourne anymore — she was in Dallas mixing her album. That’s where I finished writing ‘Lane,’ at a coffee shop. I sent my editor a letter — almost apologetic — saying, ‘I wrote a novel. I didn’t mean to.'”
Sending the story to his closest friends for their feedback, Gaiman said he received reactions he wasn’t expecting. “I got odd reactions, like they had cried, or that this is the best thing I’ve ever written,” Gaiman said before reading from an early chapter of “Lane” in which a “Smash” comic and blue-costumed Batman figure make a cameo appearance.
Set in the real world, the story in “Lane” bounces back and forth between a middle-aged man in the present day and his 7 year old self. Gaiman addressed how much of the novel is rooted in his own past and how much is pure fiction.
“It’s absolutely not autobiographical,” he stated. “It’s filled with lies and the stuff I made up and the family is not my family — but the kid is pretty much me-ish. There’s a scene where our protagonist escapes down a drainpipe — not the kind you have in America, but heavy, thick-piped drain pipes. He knows how to do this because he’s read in books that kids go up and down drain pipes.” Gaiman mentioned there’s a photo of him as a child standing on one such drain pipe. “There is an awful lot of me in there,” he said, referencing his father and his enthusiastic but subpar sandwich making ability growing up. This anecdote was used in “Lane” as the protagonist’s father has a scene where he burns his young son’s toast.
“The lane I did live on. As a kid, I was convinced the world I lived in was a semi-mythological place,” Gaiman continued, explaining how the book’s title is based somewhat on an aspect of his childhood. “When I heard a farm down our lane was mentioned in the ‘Domesday Book’ of 1086, it didn’t occur to me, 1000 years before it’d have been this little hovel, but I thought how interesting it would be if the people who lived there now were the same as those 1000 years ago — I don’t think anyone would notice in this part of the world. I began to believe it. In my teens, I named these residents the Hempstocks,” which is the last name of the little girl who’s the subject of “Lane’s” leading man’s most prominent memories.
“I kept expecting to write a story about the Hempstocks, but never did,” Gaiman continued. “I had decided their family had spread out a bit. There’s a Hempstock in ‘Stardust.’ A Hempstock in ‘The Graveyard Book.’ Then in 2003, I bought my first MINI Cooper and my father was visiting America at the time. I recalled my father having a MINI as well and asked why he got rid of his. He told of how he had a lodger who gambled away his money — and his friends’ money — then stole my dad’s MINI. Then, [my father] went down to the lane and found the man’s body in the vehicle later that afternoon.
“My response to my dad — hearing this for the first time — wasn’t, ‘Wow! What a tragedy!’ Instead, I had 7-year-old outrage that something that exciting happened in my hometown and nobody told me. I didn’t know! But I did know one day I’d use that story kernel — and now I have.” (In “Lane,” the 7-year-old protagonist discovers a South African opal miner dead in his father’s van.)
Gaiman admits his earlier work often contained versions of himself in the stories. “‘Violent Cases,’ my first ever graphic novel, and ‘Mr. Punch’ — it’s clear there’s a character in these stories that is pretty obviously me. I write a sequence of biography and change stuff around — play with it. I love the idea that at the end of my life people will have a completely non-autobiographical collection of my life,” Gaiman joked. To further this point, he said fans often ask which parts of his stories contain true biographical elements, to which he replies, “It doesn’t work that way,” making an analogy of a mosaic of many pieces of different colors — all the red bits are true and everything else is fiction. “The red bits are not the whole picture, but only a piece of it.”
Moving on from “Lane,” Gaiman spoke about revisiting his older works, “Sandman” and “Neverwhere” through a new lens. He pointed to the first piece of “Neverwhere” fiction he’s done in years, “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” which appears in print form in 2014 in the anthology “Rogues,” edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
“I haven’t done ‘Neverwere’ since 1996 and this new story was fun — but I had to figure out how to go back without repeating myself — or in the words of Douglas Adams, not to become my own word processor,” Gaiman said. He explained this piece came into existence because the BBC did a “fantastic” audio version of the story, which included actors James McAvoy, who played Professor Charles Xavier in “X-Men: First Class,” and Benedict Cumberbatch of “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and “Sherlock” fame. The audio recording is available for purchase in September.
“I have a ‘Neverwhere’ notebook containing only a single written page that’s only half-filled — it’s ‘Marquis,’ and I started writing it, but never finished because the notebook it’s in had the wrong type of paper,” Gaiman said. “This sounds kind of prissy, but I’ll explain. A fan one time gave me a leather-bound notebook with beautiful paper — he had made it all himself. The paper had crushed rose petals in it. What I didn’t know is if you write with a fountain pen on paper with crushed rose petals in it, the pen clogs. So I wrote the title, began describing the character’s coat — but had to put it aside after half a page of constantly unclogging my pen. I had written nothing in the way of plot.”
Continuing to expand on his own writing -isms, Gaiman said, “I do have my quirks — I write in fountain pen, which I started doing for ‘Stardust’ and I liked it so much, what it does with the prose. What I like to do in a notebook is change the ink color every day so I can actually look and see how productive I was that day. It’s a weird writing ritual.”
When asked who he shares his story ideas with before writing them, Gaiman became introspective, explaining his aversion to discussing a story with others outside his creative circle until his work is near completion. “A panel at World Fantasy Con in 1989 where Terry Pratchett and I announced the title of the sequel to ‘Good Omens’ got this mentality started for me,” he said. “The following year, someone brought out a book with that very title and it shocked me. I learned from that to not talk about my plots.
“Then I had an idea that was shot down by my editor which has never seen the light of day since. It was a story about a kid who’s not very bright — he promises his mom he’ll make a name for himself and he’ll be famous. However, he discovers he doesn’t have any real talent at anything. Then he realizes you don’t need talent to be famous, you just need to kill someone. So he goes to Disney Land and kills Mickey Mouse,” he said, the audience erupting with surprised laughter.
“Then my editor at the time said, ‘Not very high concept, is it, dear?’ and that was that. It never got done.
“The internet changed my thinking, too, a bit. I would tell fans something they wanted to know about a story, but then somewhere in the early ’90s, I suddenly discovered if I told someone something in a comic shop somewhere, I’m actually telling the world. I had to learn to keep secrets about what I was doing.”
One such instance the writer cited was the spoiling of Destruction’s role in “Sandman,” an older brother of Dream. This prompted Gaiman to shift focus to his new “Sandman” project with Vertigo and the challenges and experiences he’s going through revisiting that universe. His pen hasn’t touched the realm of Dream since 2003’s “Endless Nights” graphic novel.
“When I began writing ‘Sandman’ in 1987 — dear God, that was so long ago — everything was new,” Gaiman recalled. “I had never done anything like it before and I didn’t know how to do it. Each panel was a new experience for me. Every time I turned the page, it was something I was doing for the first time. Now I’ll go, ‘OK lets do this,’ but then I get caught up because it’s been done already. It’s a weird feeling of desperately trying to find a challenge to do something new, to make it different and interesting. Or to discover how to revisit things and make it fresh — this is ‘Sandman’ for me.
“I love Dickens,” Gaiman stated, pointing out how he can recognize Dickens’ method of writing. For instance, the manner in which Dickens introduces characters to obviously fill space but would then unexpectedly draw on them later to better serve the story. “In the new ‘Sandman,’ I just wrote a scene where I needed a character of a certain shape. Then I realized I had that character already — she was in ‘Sandman’ #3. People are going to go, ‘Boy he’s clever!’ but I have no idea if I’m clever or not.
“But I do know exactly how this ‘Sandman’ project ends — with a splash page from ‘Sandman’ #1. Great. Nobody’s going to buy it now,” Gaiman said to the amusement of the audience.
Fielding questions from the crowd, Gaiman again became more reflective, saying he spent a majority of his early career stressed and nervous. “In 1992, ‘Season of Mists’ had come out and I was in Boston doing a signing. It was a long signing. Stephen King and his family showed up — with an incredibly young Joe Hill, who gave me a note from his dad to come have dinner. At 11 at night, I arrived at the hotel and Steve tells me ‘Sandman,’ ‘Good Omens,’ etc. is fantastic — there were lines of people around the block to see me. Steve said, ‘You should enjoy this.’ But I didn’t. I worried, about deadlines and confidence, and it wasn’t until I won the Newbery Medal for ‘The Graveyard Book’ 16 or 17 years later that I finally got it. I realized I can enjoy this. I breathed a sigh of relief and really believed I didn’t have to be so worried and nervous anymore.
“My advice is to not be like me,” Gaiman continued. “I don’t know how. I suggest either winning the Newbery Medal really early, or just actually spending time enjoying stuff. Get out. Play with dogs. Have bees — there’s nothing like having a hobby that can kill you. I would recommend cats, but they’ve never done anything to cheer me up. Cats are wonderful, but when you’re a writer it’s different. When I write with a dog in the room, he looks up at me like he’s saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re writing, but it’s really good. There’s nobody in the world as clever as you are.’ Whereas cats get up on the table, walk past the screen and paw in a comma here or there.”
In response to an emailed question asking, “Do fantasy writers dream more vividly than those people who live in the real world?”, Gaiman answered, “I have no idea. I’ve only been a fantasy writer. I don’t live in the real world and I have never dreamed anyone else’s dreams or been inside anyone else’s head.” He paused. “The way I dream changed when I started writing ‘Sandman.'”
Responding to laughter from the audience, Gaiman smiled and continued, “I used to have nightmares well into my 20s. I’d wake up terrified. But then, when I was writing ‘Sandman,’ I’d still have those nightmares but I’d go — ‘AH! That’s really good!’ And scribble the nightmare down before forgetting it. Very rapidly, the great nightmares went away.”
As his time wound down, Gaiman briefly spoke about his new children’s book, featuring illustrations by Skottie Young and available in September. “I wanted to have the Dad in ‘[Fortunately, the] Milk’ do the kinds of heroic things dads do in real life,” Gaiman said. “So, his kids are out of milk for cereal and he has to go to the corner shop to get some — and that’s where we begin.”
Gaiman read an excerpt from the book from the Dad’s point of view — he’s newly arrived home with the much needed milk, proceeding to tell an elaborate story to his children of the hardships he endured in safely returning the milk to them. These hardships included being abducted by aliens and then saving the world, amongst a number of other adventures including pirates and time-traveling dinosaurs.
With everyone in high spirits, the evening concluded with Gaiman sending a clear, yet thought-provoking message to those gathered: “Leave no path untaken.”