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Guest Post | An Evening With Neil Gaiman


On Sunday 18th August Neil Gaiman was in his home town of Portsmouth as part of his UK book tour. During the day a naming ceremony was held in Gaiman’s honour for a new street sign was unveiled, named after the book he was on tour to promote – The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and in the evening an audience at Portsmouth Guildhall were treated to ‘An Evening with Neil Gaiman’. In an intimate setting guests listened to a conversation between Neil Gaiman and Dom Kippin, who is apparently something to do with the Arts in Portsmouth, Neil read extracts from The Ocean at the End of the Lane and his upcoming children’s book Fortunately the Milk, and answered questions from the audience. You can catch a round-up of the evening on my blog here, but I thought that I would treat Blogger’s Bookshelf readers to some answers from Neil from some of the most important and interesting questions he was asked that night.

Neil on his Portsmouth memories

DK: You once wrote us a quote for Southsea Library about your connection to Southsea, and when you went visiting there with your grandparents and how important is was to you.

NG: It really was. You know, Portsmouth and particularly Southsea was sort of… it was personal mythology in a peculiar kind of way for me. Part of it is just because it was such an incredibly formative period of my life. It was a strange place where as far as I was concerned anything that included grandparents got weird and got weird in really interesting ways.

DK: It crops up in your books too doesn’t it?

NG: It does. While most of my books are whole cloth exercises in imagination there is this weird little thread leading to The Ocean at the End of the Lane which are more personal fabrications. Violent Cases which was my first graphic novel was one of them. That’s set here and tells a story of my encounter with a guy who claims to be Al Capone’s osteopath. It was at the Queens Hotel! We all had our birthdays at the Queens Hotel. And ate jellies. And watched a magician that I was terrified of do pretty unconvincing magic. It wasn’t the magic I was terrified of… it was the man. So all of that stuff… along with Al Capone himself found its way into Violent Cases.

Neil on Ocean at the End of the Lane 

DK: It was just a short story for your wife?

NG: It was. My wife, last year, went off to Melbourne, Australia to write and record an album. And I went to Florida to write a number of things including Nightmare in Silver my Doctor Who episode with the Cybermen in it.

Up until that time, Amanda and I had been very good at being in a relationship which is quite often long distance – if you marry someone who is a touring rock star you expect it. But we always stay in touch, whether its email, photographs whatever. What I didn’t realise was at the point at which she started making her album, finishing writing the songs, rehearsing them and taking them into the studio and recording her album, she was a single minded… as single minded as I’ve ever seen anybody become. Astonishingly she was doing her bit in the marriage by sending me a text every couple of days saying ‘I love you, albums going great’. And I started missing her and I thought I want to send her something, I’ll write her a short story. To remind her that I exist. I thought I’ll put things in it that she’ll like. She doesn’t really like fantasy very much…. Even though she married me. So I thought okay there won’t be a lot of fantasy I’ll make it very much based in real life, lots of me in – she likes me, I’ll put in honesty she likes stuff that feels honest, and I thought… even though I am male, and I am English, I’ll put in those ‘feelings’ that she likes, I can do that, how hard can it be?

And that was my idea, and it was going to be a short story and I thought it would probably take me a week to write. And I spent it writing it. Then I looked up after ten days and thought, well ok, it’s going to be a novelette. And I looked up after another ten days and thought ok it’s a novella. I sent off an email to my Editor and said I seem to be writing a novella, I’m not sure what we’ll do it with it but… I’m just warning you. And I kept writing it, and didn’t actually get to finish it to send to Amanda in Melbourne because by the time I finished it she had finished making her album, come back and was mixing it in Dallas, Texas. I flew into Dallas and I started typing it. At the end of the stay in Dallas, I got to type the end and I did a word count and sent a really surprised email off to my editor saying, look, I’m really sorry about this but I’ve just written a novel none of us were expecting and I hope that’s ok. They were much nicer about it than I expected.

DK: It’s definitely a book for adults rather than a book for children even though the main protagonist is a child?

NG: I think so, yeah. I did think a lot while I was writing it about who it was for, and whether it was an adult book or a kid’s book, and the conclusion that I came to was that it’s basically a book for adults. I’m writing it for people who get to remember childhood rather than be there experiencing it. People go 'oh that’s because it has sex in and nudity and weirdness' and I say no it’s actually not, I think kids are probably fine with that stuff, it’s because it has a certain amount of hopelessness.

Coraline, which is definitely a book for kids, even though it’s very very scary, is all about hope – it’s all about the idea that you can deal with things that scare you, you can be smart you can be dangerous, you can be tricky and you can keep on going and you can deal with things. Ocean at the End of the Lane is much darker and it says you turn up in this world and… you’re here without instructions, and get through as best as you can and sometimes there are sacrifices that have to be made.

Neil answering questions from the audience

Audience Member: When you were reading to your children when they were younger, what books did you like to read to them?

NG: Diana Wynne Jones is a glorious writer to read aloud, she is wonderful. What fascinated me when I was reading to my children was which books which I loved reading to myself as a kid worked well reading aloud and which didn’t. C.S. Lewis reads delightfully aloud. The Mary Poppins books read fantastically aloud. E. Nesbit? Waste of time. I have huge, fond memories of E. Nesbit, I still really like E. Nesbit… but I won’t read her aloud to a child at gunpoint.

Audience Member: You mentioned earlier that Ocean at the End of the Lane is particularly personal because it was like a love note to Amanda. Was that scary for you to put so much of yourself into your work and expose potentially vulnerable feelings and emotions to the world, because you shared them with everybody not just Amanda?

NG: Yeah. It was less so because I genuinely don’t know if I could have sat down and wrote a novel that was the thing that it became. The only way I sat down to write this novel was by telling myself it wasn’t. And it felt a lot safer, being vulnerable in a short story it felt a lot safer… you know the family is not my family and the things that happened in the story did not happen to me but the viewpoint character is basically very much a seven year old Neil. Having that definitely felt a lot like walking down the street naked. On the other hand, it’s also true that anytime I’ve ever done anything that really not only worked but pushed me as a writer, and where I had wound up with looking round at what I’d done thinking what just happened… progress that I made as an author tends to be progress that I’ve made from those times when I get brave and walk down the street naked.

Audience Member: What have you sacrificed the most to be a writer today?

NG: I don’t honestly know. I don’t know there’s a specific thing I can say this was a sacrifice to be a writer, because honestly I’m not sure I could have been anything else. The thing I definitely feel myself sacrificing sometimes was feeling part of it all. There’s a weird little level when you’re a writer when terrible things can be happening and three quarters of you is there going oh my gosh a terrible thing is happening, but part of you is going ‘oh ok that’s what blood looks like on the glass on the road and that’s what the hand looks like when the persons dead and ok that’s something I need to know’. Here I am getting my heart broken and I’m thinking ‘how does this work, how does this feel I’m going to need to write about this later’. There’s definitely a feeling involved of guilt, a feeling that one didn’t actually play ones part and be wholeheartedly a part of the human race… doing it almost, but there’s definitely a part of me sitting on the side taking notes going ‘ah this is brilliant I can use this!’

This post was written by guest blogger Kath.
Images c/o Kath.

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