Locked in the Sweetshop: Seven Questions for Neil Gaiman

Michele Filgate

Of course there’s a secret phone room in the sprawling house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that best-selling author Neil Gaiman rents with his wife, the musician Amanda Palmer. It’s easy to imagine the author communicating with the characters in his books in a room—very small, more like a closet, its walls covered in old New Yorker covers—not immediately visible to the casual visitor. But then, it’s easy to imagine anything when it comes to Neil Gaiman: He’s a writer who’s had an indelible impact on the minds of readers both young and old.

One of the world’s most beloved storytellers, Gaiman, whose new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, was published in June by William Morrow, is the author of the acclaimed novels Anansi Boys (William Morrow, 2005), American Gods (William Morrow, 2001), Neverwhere (Avon Books, 1997), and, with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (Workman Publishing, 1990). He is also well known as the creator of the Sandman series of graphic novels and the author of the story collections Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders (William Morrow, 2006) and Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions (William Morrow, 1998) as well as a number of children’s books, including Fortunately, the Milk, forthcoming in September, The Graveyard Book (2008), and Coraline (2002), all published by HarperCollins. He is the winner of numerous literary honors, including the Hugo, Bram Stoker, and World Fantasy Awards, and the Newbery Medal.

Gaiman is also a writer who is described by those who work closely with him as intensely devoted. Jennifer Brehl, his adult fiction editor at HarperCollins since 2002, says Gaiman’s readers are his top priority. His agent, Merrilee Heifetz, says he’s “extremely loyal,” and she should know: Not only has he stuck with the same publisher, HarperCollins, since 1996, when The Sandman: Book of Dreams, edited by Gaiman and Edward Kramer, was released, but she has been his agent for the past twenty-six years.

“Neil Gaiman is one of the most influential writers of our time not only because of his writing but also because of his relationship with his readers,” says Rosemary Brosnan, his children’s books editor at HarperCollins. Gaiman, who turns fifty-three in November, has built an impressive fan base over the past three decades in part through his use of social media. He’s approaching two million followers on Twitter, and he interacts with those who follow him on a regular basis.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the story of a seven-year-old boy whose world is changed after a lodger at his house in Sussex, England, kills himself. Through the eyes of the boy the world is not as it seems and, true to Gaiman’s typical brand of storytelling, magic lies at the center of the tale. The boy becomes entwined with the Hempstocks, a strange family composed of three women who have lived in the house at the end of the lane for a very, very long time. It’s a book about memory that gives the reader a powerful glimpse into the inner life of a child, even though the author says it isn’t geared toward children. Gaiman describes the main character as “me-ish.”

“It is his most mature book,” says Brehl, “and it is also, perhaps, his most melancholy, pensive book.”

Heifetz agrees. “It has the universal touchstone of reference to something ancient combined with the brilliant prose of his previous work—but with a maturity and nuance he hasn’t achieved before.”

“In everything he writes you feel the world open up into something infinite,” Heifetz adds. “Something beyond the basic story at hand.” I spoke with Gaiman at his house in Cambridge (he also owns a home in Wisconsin and on the Isle of Skye in Scotland) to see if I could uncover something beyond the basic story of this celebrated author. In person, just as in his books, Neil Gaiman does not disappoint.

What made you decide to feature a child protagonist in a book for adults?
I guess it’s fair to say that when I started [The Ocean at the End of the Lane] I didn’t know what it was or whom it was for. When I started it, I was writing a short story. At short story length you don’t really have to worry that much about the potential audience…. I remember reading it to my agent—reading what there was of it, maybe the first three chapters—and saying, “Well, look, this is what I’ve got. I’m not even sure what it is yet. I think it might be a kids’ story, but I don’t want it to be that, I want it to be about an adult.” And she said, “Well just write it, and don’t worry.”

Probably three-quarters of the way through writing it I gave a speech—the Zena Sutherland Lecture in Chicago. And my speech was called “What the @#$%&*! Is a Children’s Book, Anyway?” I started out by telling the story of how I was nearly thrown out of school. I was very close to being expelled when I was eight, for telling another kid a joke that had the word fuck in it. And the only reason that I wasn’t actually expelled is because the other kid’s parents, shocked, took him out of that school. And the school, which was fairly small, was not prepared to lose two sets of school fees.

As I was writing the speech and I was working on the book I was starting to think more about what makes something a children’s book and what doesn’t. And eventually, the conclusion I came to was that Ocean probably isn’t a children’s book, for reasons that have much more to do with how much hope I offer than anything else. You know, people grumble that Coraline is too scary for kids, but I don’t think it is. But I also know that fundamentally Coraline is a book about being brave and about coping with adversity.

How do you cope with adversity and how do you triumph and how do you keep going? The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t a book about that. It is a book about sometimes doing the wrong thing—sometimes doing the wrong thing with the best intentions, and sometimes doing the wrong thing just because you’re seven. Getting into trouble, and what the consequences of those things are. What it means to not be in control. The sort of awkward relationship between fiction and reality, and how you can impose one on the other.

We’re also talking about a book in which you have that Maurice Sendak quote at the beginning. [“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.”] I also mean that. It’s not there ironically; it’s not there as a clever commentary. It’s the idea that kids really do know things that would terrify adults. I think it’s only a certain amount of amnesia that allows adults to function. Somebody wrote me an e-mail the other day, a really sweet e-mail, asking, “Why don’t you write children’s books in which children need to be protected and coddled from reality.” And I’m going, “Well, don’t you understand how sensitive and easily broken kids are? Were you never one of them?” The cruelty that kids can inflict on other kids is astonishing and heartless and ill thought out and occasionally brilliantly thought out. The narrator in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, from my perspective, at least when I was writing it, just living in the world of kids. He doesn’t have an awful lot of power, he doesn’t actually understand the rules of the adult world, and in this case he doesn’t really even understand the rules of the fairy-tale stuff that he’s in, either. He’s just trying to cope as best as he possibly can.

Do you prefer to write for children or adults?
What I like best is having the freedom, and being allowed to move from one to the other. I feel like I’ve actually broken some kind of rule by doing it all. You really are meant, I think, in the world of writing, and in people’s heads, to pick. It never made sense to me. For me, it’s like, okay, you don’t get to be here very long, and there’s all sorts of cool stuff that I want to write, and there’s all sorts of stuff I love, and there’s stuff I’ve loved, and I’d like to do it all before the light goes out. You know, you sort of feel like somebody who got locked in a sweetshop all night, and there’s all these jars that you want to try to get your hands into, and take something from each jar before they come and open the shop in the morning. But I know you’re not really meant to do that. Roald Dahl was probably one of the last people who managed to do it, and he did it because he was Roald Dahl, the writer of really smart short stories, obviously for adults, before he became Roald Dahl, children’s writer.

I love being able to move freely. I love being a writer. I love getting to tell stories. I love being able to tell all sorts of stories. And beyond that, I don’t really care, as long as I’m not trapped. I remember years ago, I wrote American Gods, and an editor in the U.K. got in touch with my agent and said, “We want to take him away from his current publisher; we want to make him huge. And we think the potential there is for him to become one of the biggest, most important authors in the world, if he will simply listen to us. And the first thing he is going to have to do is write lots more books just like American Gods. They need to be that kind of length, that kind of tone, probably a sequel to American Gods…. He is going to have to start taking his career seriously.” Why would I do that? I don’t need the money that badly, I’m doing just fine. I want to do it my way.

From about the age of twenty-two until about twenty-seven, I was a journalist. I was a journalist because I wanted to write books and I wanted to do a lot of authory stuff. I would go and interview authors. I thought, “Hey, you may as well find out everything you can.” I’d interview other people, but I was always more interested in authors. I did lots and lots and lots of interviews. And it was great. But I noticed something that broke my heart. There would be best-selling authors—major authors, people I regarded as serious, important authors—and this wouldn’t happen during the interview, but you know, when you’ve gone out for a drink or a meal, or you’re chatting, they’d start talking about the book that people wouldn’t publish. And suddenly you’ve got a detective novelist talking about his French Revolution novel that nobody will publish, and you’ve got the science fiction writer talking about the riverboat-race novel that nobody’s going to publish. This is actually really kind of heartbreaking. The idea that they love you—they will support you and they will publish you and they will support the books—but they’ll only do it if you are somebody who writes medical thrillers. You’re fine as long as you’re going to write the medical thriller.

I think from the very, very beginning that was the one thing that I really didn’t want to have happen.

I feel like there is a resurgence in adults reading books that were initially written for children or teenagers. Do you agree with that?
I think one of the things that you cannot do with children or with teenagers is sell them books without stories. They really, really need stories. The problem I think we were running into, particularly toward the latter end of the twentieth century, was that you were getting a lot of adult literature without a story. Stories had become secondary, tertiary…. Things like good writing had become very, very important. Things like moments of epiphany had become very important. Things like accurately reproducing the experience of life had become very important. Story had become significantly less so.

So do you think adults are turning to these books because they miss story?
I think that was what was happening. Whether that’s still happening, I don’t know. But I think that one of the huge reasons for [phenomena] like Stephenie Meyer, for J. K. Rowling, [for] these mega best-sellers, for The Hunger Games, is that people weren’t necessarily getting adult books in which story held prime place. I just think that became hugely important and started driving the market. I think story is actually becoming more important again. I think it’s interesting that you have a generation now of writers like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem who are looking around going, “We love story and we love fine writing. You can do both.” And of course you can.

How is writing comics different for you from other genres?
You can’t confuse genres and mediums, and people do, all the time—including me, sometimes. Comics is not a genre, comics is a medium. It’s like prose, it’s like movies, it’s like radio plays, it’s like stage plays—it’s a medium, it’s a way of telling a story. So it has its own interesting, very formal challenges. You have no sound. You have a limited number of words to the page. You have a certain number of constraints [governing] what is simply going to work and what isn’t.

I read somewhere that you said writing comics was an opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done before. How so?
The Sandman [series of graphic novels] was a huge opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done before. There were lots and lots of things that had been done before in other places, but they certainly hadn’t been done in comics. At the time I found novels very intimidating because I thought when you’re writing a novel you’re on the same shelf as Jane Austen. You’re on the same shelf as Charles Dickens. You’re on the same shelf as The Golden Ass. People have been writing really good books for a really long time, whereas if you write comics you have a hundred years of stuff. And a lot of it is rubbish. So in order to do something new, you don’t have to go very far. You can actually feel like you’re heading off into the jungle with a machete, clearing a completely new path. You know, I definitely felt with Sandman [that] some of the stuff I was doing was stuff nobody had done before…. The idea that you could have a story that would run for seven years and still be a story and have monthly installments was a completely new one.

You’re engaged with your fans on social media in a way that not many best-selling authors are. Do you think every writer should be on Twitter?
No. Absolutely not. I do it because it’s fun. I do it because I like it and it’s fun. And the fact that I like it and it’s fun communicates itself through the feed. People who are interested are going to sign up and stick around and follow me because I’m obviously enjoying it. If you are not enjoying it, for God’s sake don’t do it. There is nothing worse—sadder, more bleak, and more pitiful—than somebody who signs on to Twitter, follows a hundred people, and then sends out basically fifty to sixty tweets to those people and to the world saying, “Please read my book.” It’s like a sad little mouse, peeping in the corner. Then nobody responds, and they go away, and say, “Well, Twitter doesn’t even work.” If you want to do it, you join Twitter. Talk to people. Talk to your friends. Talk to famous people. Talk with anybody you’d like. Twitter is completely democratic. If you are a dick, people will notice you’re a dick. If you’re nice, people will notice you’re nice. If you’re funny and smart, people will respond to the funny smartness. And if you want to get something read: Establish, be there first, and then say to people who are interested and like you, “By the way I’ve got a book coming out,” and people will go, “Oh, we’ll go and check it out then.” As opposed to coming on and going, “The book the book the book, I hate this, are we done?”

Do I feel that writers should be on Twitter? No, I think writers should write. Do I think people who enjoy using Twitter should use Twitter? Sure. Do I think people should use the web to advertise? No. Do I think they should use it as themselves? Yes. You know what I love about the web? In the old days, it was always a crapshoot if you did a signing. You could have a signing in the morning and a signing in the afternoon, and turn up to the signing in the morning and have five hundred people there, and turn up to the signing in the afternoon, and have quite literally, no one there. There wasn’t any kind of magic. The first time I went to the web and I posted a signing-tour schedule, the people who came to the signings were people who found out about it from my website. And suddenly, I was bulletproof. I had my audience.

Michele Filgate is a freelance writer, essayist, and critic who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Slice, the Paris Review Daily, and many other publications.