When superstar fantast Neil Gaiman returned to his hometown of Portsmouth, Sarah Cheverton caught up with him for an exclusive interview.
When I meet Neil Gaiman, he is sitting on a wooden bench by Canoe Lake in Southsea, the backdrop to one of his earliest and most haunting graphic novels, Mr Punch.
He has his back to me and is dressed entirely in black. Chatting to his publicist, I almost don’t see him and when I do, my first thought is: It’s the Sandman.
Neil turns to us with a broad, but tired grin as his publicist tells me to ‘make sure he gets a cup of tea.’
It’s a warm, sunny day. Neil is on the last leg of an epic signing tour across the USA, Canada and Europe. After 25 years of touring, this is his last.
Returning to Portsmouth, where as a boy Neil lived every summer with his grandparents, has an added significance this time. It’s the summer and the city has named a road just west of Canoe Lake after his latest book, a decision he says feels ‘very unreal in an astoundingly nice way.’
Portsmouth still holds a personal fondness for Neil; he has spent the morning driving around the city, capturing memories. The city’s forgotten heritage intertwines with his own in some surprising ways.
His grandfather ran a grocer’s store on Charlotte Street, while his Uncle Monty was ‘the first bookie in England to take bets on a royal name.’
‘The lovely thing about Portsmouth is that it’s so gloriously layered, Portsmouth and Southsea. You’ve got such old, glorious things.’
Gesturing towards Canoe Lake, he says, ‘More than anywhere else you could possibly point to in the entirety of the whole, you know, Portchester to Purbrook to Southsea continuum (of Neil’s childhood homes), this has the most memories, the happiest memories.’
‘Portsmouth for me is fascinating, because Portsmouth for me is my first two personal graphic novels. Violent Cases and Mr Punch are 100% Portsmouth and Southsea, that’s what they are. In many ways, they’re a giant sort of brain dump of all of my memories of growing up, including going to peculiar children’s parties at one of these seaside hotels.’
By contrast, The Ocean, as Neil calls the novel, began as a short story for his wife, rock star Amanda Palmer, which expanded to ‘a novelette, a novella, then finally a novel’.
It was a complete departure from Neil’s usual writing process, being the first book he’s written without knowing the ending from the start – and without planning to write a novel in the first place.
Despite his misgivings, the book debuted at number one in the New York Times bestseller list in 2013, surprising its author in becoming one of his most popular books yet.
‘The odd thing is that in my head, I didn’t expect it to be either the critical or the commercial success it’s become,’ he says, expecting instead that the book would be ‘one of these things I do that are vaguely approved of but don’t really change the world.’
Fans and critics have attributed much of the book’s success to the authentic characterisation of its narrator, who Neil has admitted is, essentially, his seven year old self.
‘It was a weird kind of rollercoaster to write, but the weirdest thing about it looking back was spending three months being seven,’ he says, ‘I was 51 years old and being seven in my head. That was really odd.’
Capturing that seven year old in his head, Neil says, was a question of ‘running through places’ from his childhood ‘to the point where I could remember what it smelled like in the weird little outhouse that we stored coal in – mostly damp, and coal.
‘It’s stuff that, in many cases, you haven’t really thought about since it happened.’
The reception from fans suggests his three months in the past paid off.
‘I think one of the things I love most about what The Ocean is doing for people is the amount of people who’ve read it and said, “You wrote my childhood and my childhood was nothing like that.”’
He smiles and takes a sip of tea, ‘It’s that weird moment of “OK, I did something clever here”. I think without trying to sometimes, it’s almost as if when you can get accurately specific enough, you can somehow become universal.’
One of the biggest dilemmas in writing the novel was deciding on the intended audience. Neil reached a point where ‘I had to decide: am I writing a children’s book or not?
‘For me, the key to figuring it out was realising actually, this book is a lot about helplessness. There’s this whole big, adult world and it’s big and it’s dangerous and inexplicable and unexplained – and you don’t get a book of instructions.’
Children, Neil says, ‘have to cope as best you can and a lot of the time, you’re going to fail.’
The book doesn’t flinch from these moments of failure, which is ‘particularly, the reason I don’t think it’s a book for kids.’
‘I don’t think it’s ultimately hopeless. I don’t think it’s ultimately bleak. The final chapter is incredibly upbeat, but I’m not sure I could show that final chapter to a kid and explain why it’s upbeat.’
On the book’s back cover, Neil writes that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, he hopes, ‘at its heart…a novel about survival.’
‘Talking to people who read the book, it obviously resonates with a lot of them that way,’ he says, ‘A lot of people have been talking about issues of violence, fear and all the places that childhood gets unsafe.’
This has been a recurring theme in many of his books, from early graphic novels Violent Cases and Mr Punch, through to children’s books such as Coraline. He is particularly fascinated by the, often thin, line between entertaining children and scaring them, from the alarming violence of Punch and Judy to the ‘really crap magician who would normally be scary’ at children’s parties.
As a child, he says, ‘I was never able to figure out why would you terrify kids?’
When I ask what scares him, he immediately answers, ‘Things happening to my children, something bad happening to my wife.’
And in terms of writing, does someone as successful as Neil Gaiman still get The Fear?
‘God, yeah. My editor will tell you about the incredibly apologetic email that I sent her saying, ‘Look, I’ve accidentally written a novel. I’m really sorry. You don’t have to publish it. It’s just a thing I did. Sorry.’
There’s only one thing, Neil says, to be done with fear.
‘You carry on. When I was a little kid, even into my teens, I thought I was a coward because I got scared. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties and thinking about it and I had one peculiar experience that I should probably tell where I realised that I had thought about fear all wrong and I’d thought about bravery all wrong.
‘I thought that being brave meant not being scared. There was a sudden moment in my thirties where I trod on a wasps’ nest, an underground wasps’ nest and suddenly was surrounded by a crowd of stinging wasps. And I was with my kids, Mike and Holly, Maddie wasn’t born yet.
‘I just thought, ‘If I run, the wasps are going to sting the kids, so I shouted at them, urgently, to run and I stayed where I was and I got stung. And when the kids were far enough away, I raced after them.
‘And later on, I got into the bathtub and the kids were there and they counted the stings and there were over 30.
‘And what was interesting is I wasn’t scared. It didn’t even occur to me to be scared. I was just going, ‘OK, this is what has to happen right now.’
‘But my glasses had fallen off. And so, I realised I had to go back and get them or I would never find them again. So, an hour or so later, I went back to find my glasses and I was terrified.
‘And I went back and found my glasses and did not get stung and headed home.
‘And I thought, that was really interesting. It was not brave when I was standing there being stung. People would have said, “It was so brave, he stood there and got stung.”
‘But no, no bravery involved because it didn’t occur to me to be scared. I did what I had to do.
‘The point where I was brave was going back and getting my glasses. That was brave. So I thought, OK, I’ve misunderstood this my whole life. Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared. Being brave means you’re absolutely, shit-scared, you’re terrified but you do the right thing anyway.
‘That changed everything for me.’
We drink the last of our tea and prepare to walk back around Canoe Lake to the naming ceremony that will permanently mark the author’s impact on our hometown, and on readers across the world.
‘It’s odd, I’m not scared of dying,’ he thinks aloud, ‘I don’t know if that’s because I’ve been able to write my name on the wall, to feel like I was here.
‘I don’t know if people will still be reading me a hundred years from now, or if the things I’ve done are going to last, but I hope so.’
Photography by Steve Bomford.