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“Without the imaginary, we can’t function” – In conversation with Neil Gaiman

Edd McCracken

Staff Writer

Edd McCracken lives in Scotland, dislikes book spine breakers and loves when small words harmonise to make big ideas. Follow him on Twitter:  @EddMcCracken

maxresdefaultNeil Gaiman has a cold. Not a full blown, honking phlegmy kind of cold, just the mild, almost genial sort that deepens the voice and transforms the larynx into a smoked seduction machine from the 1970s. It is no surprise then, when the waitresses put down their artfully mismatched crockery and sidle over to ask for autographs.

Mere minutes before we meet in this Edinburgh pub, the author debuts his new weapon on Britain’s airwaves, chatting on BBC radio about his latest novel, The Ocean At The End of The Lane, and his love of Kate Bush. All delivered in fresh bronchial baritone.

It is only hop, skip and a cough from the broadcasting studio in Edinburgh to where he now sits, sipping herbal tea and talking to Book Riot. Both perfect antidotes to the common cold. Only the silver of his Cyberman lapel pin breaks his uniformly black cladding.

Even by Gaiman’s prolific standards 2013 is a busy year. He has added Ocean… to his impressive list of novels such as Stardust and American Gods; had a road officially renamed “The Ocean At The End Of The Lane” in his native Portsmouth; written two kids’ books, Chu’s Day and Fortunately, The Milk…, which is published today in the US and the UK; made the Cybermen scary again in his latest Dr Who episode, Nightmare in Silver; and signed enough books to give a legion of scribes RSI. On top of all that, he is in Edinburgh as a guest curator at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Phew.

Gaiman is an object in perpetual motion. And his presence has a similar kinetic effect on those around him. After our interview the waitresses make their move. A taxi lurks outside, waiting to whisk him to yet another media engagement. A representative from his publishing house circles like a benevolent satellite trapped in his orbit. Later he will be on stage chatting to Margaret Atwood before appearing on a late night BBC TV show.

But before all that, before the headlong rush kicks in again, before the demands of the book festival displaces him, before the restocking of throat lozenges, he shares some thoughts about The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, kids in horror movies, and the glory of gazebos with Book Riot.

STR2505PIC2_365151kOne of the most melancholic and bittersweet aspects of The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is that the unnamed narrator forgets his adventure. Remembering its terror and excitement would be too much for him. The transition between being a kid and being an adult is a major theme of the book. Do you think forgetting childhood an important part of growing up?

No it isn’t, but it is something that happens. When I was a kid it irritated me but I knew that it had to happen. I would read books by adults who obviously had no idea what it was like to be a kid. What they described were these alien beings, small adults, not kids. They didn’t seem to be my race.

But then I would read some stories that were filled with real childhood and it was with those that I really identified. But the ones that didn’t, I just wondered how can adults forget? Is there some kind of horrible operation they perform on kids? They can’t perform this on all children, as some grow up to write these books I loved.

Are you someone who escaped the operation and can remember what childhood is like?

I hope I have. Some people have read Ocean At The End Of The Lane and are completely baffled by it, but there are enough people who come to me and say they remember their childhood while reading it, that they think about stuff they hadn’t thought about for years, that it all came flooding back. So it makes me feel I have done something right.

The book is full of incidental nuggets from childhood: scrambling down drainpipes, being a perpetually terrified seven-year-old. For me what brought buried childhood memories flooding back was when the narrator reads at the end of the bed in the half-light through the crack of the door. Was this something you did?

I did all those things. I was informed by my parents, particularly my grandparents, that I would ruin my eyes. Every time I put on reading glasses I go, oh, I ruined my eyes because I was reading by the light in the hallway when I was four. And then I go, hang on, there are definitely people in my life also wearing reading glasses who didn’t read by the crack of the door. Possibly my grandparents were wrong. I want to go back in time and ask my grandparents about this whole reading by the half-light thing. Do we have a control group on this? Has anyone tested this empirically?

There’s definitely certain adult rules that you think, you lot are just making this up as you go along. There’s also the terrifying moment as a kid when you realise that sometimes you are cleverer than adults. And you wonder, how can that be? These poor people, do they know this? I know how this stuff works, they’re obviously missing it.

ocean-at-the-end-of-the-lane-gaimanYou suggest that grown-ups are just kids in denial. Lettie, who befriends the narrator, explains: “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and always know what they’re doing. Inside they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups.” Elsewhere you say: “When adults fight children, adults always win.” Do you think there’s a constant tension between kids and adults?

I love how those two observations are contradictory. One of the things I loved in the book was making both observations true. Because it is Lettie who says there aren’t any grown-ups, she gets to point out that her granny is an adult, and adds “whatever that means”.

For you, what does it mean to be an adult?

It has to do with people not telling me what to do. It has to do with power. And I get fascinated by some of these themes in the book. Money is power. For kids, money almost seems incomprehensible. Grown-ups make this stuff up, these rules about little bits of metal and pieces of paper. Why do you have to swap these things? Why doesn’t everyone stop using this? It seems a weird kind of adult thing that you just made up.

Waking up whenever you want is power. Going to bed when you want is power. All of this is not to say that adults don’t have their own strange constrictions. It is to say there is an awful randomness of being at the mercy of the whim of a race of, if you are lucky, vaguely beneficent giants who are occupying your country.

Women know more about men than men know about women, because there is a power imbalance there. Invaded people know more about the occupying forces than the occupying forces know about the invaded people, because there is a power imbalance there. And children know more about adults than adults know about children, for exactly the same reason.

Is this why spooky children are a horror film staple because to some adults kids, with their imaginary friends and worlds, are ultimately unknowable and therefore unsettling?

Yeah. I remember when I was nine my parents asking me what I wanted as a birthday present. I said what I really wanted, more than anything else, was somewhere that was just mine, where I could go and read. And I got a shed. They put it at the bottom of the garden. And it was my shed. I could go there and just read and nobody would bother me. And I’m quite sure I was one of these strange kids. I could have been that horror movie kid. It would have been brilliant.

You have a gazebo in your garden at your home in Wisconsin. Is that an upgraded version of your garden shed?

It’s not somewhere I go to read. It’s somewhere I go to write. The idea of the gazebo was originally because for me the biggest problem of being a writing person is that I tend to default to being vaguely social. This [he gestures around the bar] would be a great writing place for me. I would find a corner, settle down. I would love knowing there were people around. I’d love knowing life was going on. And I could sit and pull out a notebook and I could write.

And I could write until the moment – like with the elves and the shoemaker – if a waitress came over and said, ‘You’re Neil Gaiman’.

There was a coffee place I used to write in in my town. I wrote Anansi Boys there. One day the manageress came over, and said, ‘I hear you’re writing a book here. One of our waitresses said you were a famous writer’. And I stopped going.

Five years later I thought, I should go back, it was a nice place to write. So I’m sitting in the corner and a man comes over. ‘Are you Neil Gaiman?’ Yes. ‘I’ve been coming here for a while and there are girls who had heard you would write here. They thought I was you and would leave notes under my windscreen. Just so you know there are people who come to this coffee house in the hope of seeing you.’ I thought that is the last time I will ever set foot in this place. And I never have again.

Is that because where you write is sacred space?

It’s more that the last thing I want to think about is being anything other than someone sitting in the corner, scribbling with a cup of tea.

But that’s the problem if you’re vaguely sociable and like writing in public.

Yes, and that’s why the gazebo works brilliantly.

Neil GaimanYou’re curating a strand in the Edinburgh International Book Festival called Reshaping Modern Fantasy. What does that actually mean?

Honestly, the glory of a statement such as that is that it means exactly what you want it to mean. And mostly what I want it to mean is I want to invite people I would like to talk to. It allows conversations to begin. For me the biggest one is that I get to be in conversation with Margaret Atwood. Me and Mags will unpick reshaping modern fantasy. But for me it’s just an excuse.

I love some of the things that people say about Ocean. One review said just that, ‘a fable that reshapes modern fantasy’. I don’t think it does. I think it lives very comfortably in the bounds and shape of modern fantasy.

But things have surely shifted since the time of Tolkein? Have computer games and comic books not changed fantasy writing and storytelling?

I think that every now and again you get something that becomes a bowling ball on a rubber sheet – everything twists and falls towards it – and Tolkein is one of those things. But in truth nothing has changed since the first person on the African veldt wandered away from his or her own people, went to the village nearby, and when they couldn’t figure out why they should give this person food, the person said, let me tell you a story. And that, honestly, is where everything begins.

Neal Stephenson – spells his name wrong, but is still a lovely man – says that storytellers and writers these days fall into two different categories: the Beowulfs and the Dantes. The Dantes are people who need patrons. A lot of time these days a patron is a University that pays you to teach and looks after you. Whereas some writers are Beowulfs. We go from town to town telling our story. They give us coins and food. They give us sex, they give us love. They give us somewhere to sleep. And that’s why we do it.

Both ways get you fed. Both ways get you laid. Both ways give you shelter. And there’s nothing wrong with either system. You are allowed to turn to an artist, and say I am rich, you are not, make art for me. Dance monkey dance. And that’s fine. What’s interesting now with things like Kickstarter, is that you are allowing a lot of people to become your patrons, which I think is fantastic.

But, for my sins I’m definitely Beowulf.

A recurring theme in all your work is that the magical and fantastical lies mere millimeters below the surface of everyday life. After creating these worlds where gods walk among us and fairy lands are a mere crack in the wall away, do you ever get bored with everyday life? For example, do you ever wish Odin was propping up that bar?

What I find fascinating about the real world is that fantasy is one of the few things that allows you to talk about the imaginary. From what I can see, the imaginary is the thing that occupies most people’s lives and allows them to function.

Money is imaginary. It is a concept, an idea. Here’s some pieces of paper and metal. We are claiming they’re scarce when they are not. They represent something.

Scotland is right now arguing if it should be part of the UK or not. National borders are imaginary things. You get up high and look down you cannot see the border. There is none. It’s an imaginary thing that is agreed upon.

Let’s go even further into it. The World Trade Centre getting blown up. If you stand a little bit further back, Islamic-Christian antipathy, Islamic-Jewish antipathy, Catholic-Protestant antipathy, has all the reality of Odin sitting at that counter over there. You take just one step back and it is a bunch of people willing to pervert and destroy, kill and change the world just to say my imaginary friend likes me better than your imaginary friend.

That’s all weird imaginary stuff. So the glory of fantasy is that it allows you to inspect that. It allows you to take one step away from a quotidian reality in which we accept imaginary things as real. Do you realise the amount of blood that has been spilled and is still spilled to this day about people arguing about whether or not a cracker, literally or metaphorically, becomes the body and blood of someone who may or may not have lived, and if he did, died 2000 years ago? And bombs go off. And people lose hands and lives. So, I figure that anyone who wants to tell me that fantasy isn’t dealing with the material of daily life is kinda missing everything that goes on in daily life.


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