For a fledgling author like myself, still learning to stretch my fictional wings and take published flight, the opportunity to listen and learn from a master, like a chick awaiting a morsel from a full-grown adult, was something I couldn’t pass up. Hundreds of fans flocked to Temple Judea in Coral Gables yesterday, as Mitchell Kaplan and Books & Books presented an author event for one of the great story-weavers of our time, Neil Gaiman, celebrating the release of Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow/192 pp./$25.99).
Gaiman was introduced by New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer, who spoke poignantly about the value of story and how Gaiman’s works are among the pillars of his own personal library. Meltzer, host of Decoded on the History Channel, mentioned some of Gaiman’s career highlights (starring as himself in an episode of The Simpsons, writing episodes of Dr. Who) but he always got back to the importance of Gaiman’s story-telling, and how the ultimate compliment he could give him was using his works to build what he called his most important possession, his personal library. Meltzer said the Sandman series, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book are all part of that library, but now, The Ocean at The End of The Lane will join the collection.
“It was accidental,” Neil Gaiman said of his newest novel in his opening remarks. The Ocean at The End of the Lane is Gaiman’s first work of adult fiction since The Anansi Boys in 2005.
As he continued, Gaiman revealed the story of this story. “I had gone to Florida, which is a place I tend to come when I want to hide and write. I borrowed Tori’s [Amos] house, and I was meant to be writing ‘Nightmare in Silver’ the Dr. Who episode, a pilot thing for American Gods, some more American Gods stuff, and I missed my wife.”
This is where the story of Ocean becomes rather romantic, something of a departure for the fantasy maven. His wife, musician Amanda Palmer “was in…Australia, making an album, and I discovered… when I get really into writing a book it can sometimes take over my entire life. I missed her, so I thought I’ll write a short story for her.”
Gaiman admitted his wife “honestly doesn’t like fantasy, which is a disadvantage if you’re somebody who writes Fantasy.” He would cater the story then, to what she does prefer. “Me,” he said, “and sort of personal, honest kind of stuff.”
After taking his wife on something of a failed visit to the area in which he grew up, Gaiman elected to set the story on the lane he lived on when he was seven, and sprinkled it with “lots of true ‘me’ stuff in it.” He intended it to be “like a little love letter thing”, but it grew to be more than that.
“There came a point when I thought, you what, I don’t think it’s a short story. It’s obviously a novelette,” Gaiman said. “And I kept writing. I kept going. And thought, okay, it’s a novella. At some point in there I wrote an email to my publisher.”
Gaiman didn’t finish it while Amanda was in Australia. Eventually, she went to Dallas to mix her album, and he went to Dallas to finish the book. While she mixed, he typed. He said, “at night we would go to bed and I’d read her what I’d typed up that day.” When he finished typing it, he sent another email off to his publishers saying: “I’ve written a novel. Sorry.”
After sharing the origins of the work with the sizable crowd, Gaiman read an excerpt from the novel. Ocean has been said to resonate Gaiman’s signature Voice throughout, strumming a familiar folkloric grace fans know all too well. His ability to breathe life into the surreal and make magic so matter of fact, remains stirring even after so many examples in his previous works. Much of that was in play during his reading, and having the author read his work might have been the most moving experience of the afternoon.
The rest of the afternoon consisted of a Q&A session emceed by Brad Meltzer, and a seemingly eternal line to have Gaiman autograph books for his fans. During the session, I marveled at Gaiman’s ability to share himself and his experience, and found so much of what he had to say insightful and, as a writer, indispensable. Here are four of the more interesting responses Gaiman provided.
On his daily writing process:
“I tend to write in longhand,” Gaiman said. “Any writer starts creating little rituals for themselves, and one of mine is I always like to see how much work I did that day. So I will obsessively always start the day in a different color of ink than I did the day before.” Gaiman noted earlier how he spent much his time with his wife in Dallas typing his manuscript while she was mixing her new album. He mentioned he liked writing in large “moleskin” books, and the color was as like to be green or purple as blue or black.
On the book or author that helped shaped who he became:
“The first time I was actually aware of an author, that somebody was writing this, the entire concept of authordom, was at six when I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books,” Gaiman said.
Another major influence on him was “Harlan Ellison. An essay by Harlan about the way people waste time. He did this amazing rant about actually doing stuff, about wasting time, about… people who want to be authors, and then I want to be a writer, this is what I want to do, and then they don’t write.”
That moment spoke the loudest to me. I want to be a writer, and too often I find myself wasting time. He went on to say: “And I read that [essay] and it reconfigured my entire head. I suddenly understood I had these dreams, I had this thing I wanted to do and elves would not come in the night and do it for me. I was going to have to do it. I was going to have to find the time. I was going to have to make the time.”
On fiction being escapism or an expansion of reality:
“I get very nervous when people talk about escapism as if it’s something bad,” Gaiman said. “There have definitely been times in my life when I couldn’t physically leave a terrible, or bad, or painful situation, but I could pick up a book and I could go somewhere that offered love and hospitality inside. People would talk about escapism as if it’s this bad thing, and that troubled me, until I read an essay that pointed out the only people that actually seem to be really troubled by the possibility of escape are jailers.”
“I don’t think there’s anything contradictory about something being both escapist and expanding your reality,” he continued. “Showing you new things. Teaching you things. In fact, I think escape is a wonderful thing. Because once you’ve escaped, the world you’re coming back to at the end of a great book or the end of a wonderful story, is not quite the world when you left and you may come back to it armed, with weapons or with skills or with knowledge that you didn’t possess before, and you may come back to it better able to cope with your own life. I don’t think escapism is anything to be ashamed of, and I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.”
On when he realized writing was what he was meant to do:
“I was happiest when I was writing,” Gaiman said. “The moments that I’ve actually known that this is what I was meant to do, they come sporadically, while I’m writing. And there’s a peculiar magic, because most writing is work…sitting there putting one word after another. Then, every now and again you’ll turn the page and suddenly it’s like you’re the first reader and you’re scribbling as fast as you can to keep up, and stuff is happening you didn’t even know it wasn’t in your head thirty seconds ago and now it’s there it’s all fallen into place and it’s like you’ve been lifted up on wings or something magical and carried through the story. Whenever that happens, and it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I feel like, this is what I’m meant to do.”
Neil Gaiman has lifted up so many readers with his magical story-telling style, and carried us through so many wonderful stories, that The Ocean at The End of The Lane will be no different. If you’re in the neighborhood, you can pick up a copy of the novel at Books & Books, at 265 Aragon Avenue Coral Gables, Florida 33134, or one of their other locations.
- Feeling like a child. Review of Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. (thebleedinginkwell.com)
- The year I saw Neil Gaiman (three times) (nicoledegennaro.wordpress.com)
- The Ocean At The End of The Lane by Neil Gaiman (waterstonesuxbridge.wordpress.com)