When Neil Gaiman was about eight he invented a family. This fictional clan lived near his own home in the Suffolk countryside. "I heard that one of the farms on the road where we lived was in the Domesday Book," he says. "Of course, in my head it meant that the farm itself, the big red-brick building, was 1,000 years old. And I started wondering what it would have been like if the same people had lived there for all of those years."
Gaiman never forgot this imaginary family. By the time he was a teenager they had acquired a surname, Hempstock. But it took a few more decades for them to find a real place in his writing. "I kept waiting for a chance to put them into a story," he says. They "crept into" his novels Stardust and The Graveyard Book. "I always figured that I'd get to do a proper story if ever there was a story that was set in the lane I grew up in. Which always seemed like the most unlikely thing in the world."
And then, in 2003, he had a conversation with his father about Mini cars that led to a surprising revelation. Gaiman jnr had just bought a Mini, and he asked his father what had happened to the Mini he’d owned when Neil was a child. “And my dad told me the story of a guy who stole our car and killed himself in it. And how [my father] was called by the police to go down to the end of the lane and identify the body, and how he sold the car by midafternoon.” The story haunted him. “It haunted me partly because there was something weird and strange that had happened when I was a kid and I’d never known about it. I was the kind of kid going, ‘Why aren’t things ever like they are in stories? Why don’t weird things ever happen?’ And of course they were happening all the time. I just didn’t notice them.”
And that was how Neil Gaiman finally came to write a story set in the lane he grew up in. “I thought it might be fun to take that story and see what happened if I folded me into it. And the moment I did that, I thought, Aha, I have this family of incredibly ancient people living at the end of my road anyway. This is finally my chance to write a story with them. I thought it was going to be a short story, but they were much too big to go into a short story. They squeezed themselves into a novel.”
The result is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman's first novel for adults since Anansi Boys, in 2005. It begins with an unnamed artist leaving his father's funeral and returning to his childhood home, where memories start to return of an extraordinary experience that took place when he was seven, after the family's lodger killed himself in their car. The small boy meets Lottie Hempstock, who lives with her mother and grandmother in an old farm with a duck pond that she insists is an ocean.
What follows is both a hugely satisfying scary fantasy and a moving, subtle exploration of family, of what it’s really like to be a child, and how the memories of childhood affect the adults we become. It’s a wonderful book. And although some of Gaiman’s many young fans will doubtless pick it up and enjoy it, it’s not really a children’s book. “I wasn’t writing a kid for kids to identify with,” says Gaiman. “I’m writing a kid for adults to identify with, because all adults have been seven. We all remember, more or less, even if we’ve covered it up, what it was like to be helpless, to live in a world where other people get to run things, mostly because they’re bigger than we are and they have been here longer . . . I wanted to get across the feeling of what it’s like to be a kid in a strange world run by giants, people with their own agenda.”
Gaiman has always been good at writing about families, even when those families are mythical beings like the Endless in his comic-book series Sandman. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane he brilliantly depicts a family who are not perfect but not shatteringly troubled or unloving either. When Sandman first came out, Americans would tell him he was good at depicting dysfunctional families. "And after listening to very long explanations I realised that what Americans call dysfunctional families are what English people – and, I suspect, Irish and Scottish and Welsh people – describe as families," he says. "I've never met a functional one."
Families are, as he points out, just a bunch of people thrown together “by chance and happenstance and genes. And they’re going to figure it out as they go along. And mostly they do. Even in the best-run families, you still get this aunt who isn’t talking to that aunt because of her great-grandmother’s silverware or whatever. It always happens. So I wanted to get that feeling, the weirdness of family. It’s the joy of family as much as the tragedy of families.”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is particularly good at depicting what it's like to be a certain sort of child; one who gets their ideas about the world from books. The little narrator lives quite an isolated life, but he devours old school stories in which children stumble across adventure and mystery at every turn. He climbs trees and drainpipes, because that's what boys in books do. This is another of the book's autobiographical elements.
“You were forever comparing your life to books and how they intersected,” says Gaiman of a bookish childhood. “I was a kid who used books as an escape. They gave me a place to go when things were scary, when things were problematic, when things were weird.” But although he says he has raided his own memories and life, he stresses that the autobiographical aspect goes only so far. “It’s kind of like a mosaic. All the little red squares are true but the little red squares aren’t actually the picture.”
It’s not surprising that readers want to see something of Gaiman in his work, because he has long attracted a devoted fan base. These days, as he’s a tweeter and long-time blogger, his fans can communicate with him online. In the acknowledgments of his new book he thanks Twitter “for answering several of my trivia questions that I needed to know while writing the book, and without whom I would have written this book in half the time”, he says wryly. “It’s probably completely true. Amanda and I definitely both talk a fair amount about taking a Twitter vacation, possibly even retiring from the web. I can certainly see it happening.”
Many fans will be surprised to hear this. Amanda is Gaiman’s wife, the musician Amanda Palmer. Like Gaiman, she has a devoted community of fans and a strong online presence, and the couple regularly chat and share photos on Twitter. With fans following their relationship, is it hard to draw a line between their accessible public personas and their private life?
“When you’re arguing about who forgot to get the bottle of milk, or you’re holding hands watching a film, or you’re playing with a kid or going for a walk or whatever, none of that stuff matters,” he says. It seems that most fans, or indeed haters, keep a respectful distance. “But every now and again I really find myself genuinely sympathising with actual celebrities, trying to live actual lives in public, which cannot be fun at all . . . People out there think they know you, and they don’t.”
Perhaps Gaiman has such a wide fan base because he has worked in so many genres, from comics and fiction for adults and children to film and television scripts. In recent years he wrote two well-received episodes of Doctor Who. It was a fan's dream come true, but he had to make sure he didn't approach the job purely as a fan. "The urge in fan fiction is always to try and explain," he says. "If someone said, 'Go and write Doctor Who fan fiction,' I'd be writing the fiction that would explain the relationship between Susan and her grandfather when they escaped from Gallifrey. What a great story that is. But there's a part of me that knows that one of the driving engines of Doctor Who is the things that aren't explained."
Will he be back for more? He works "really quite slowly", and as Doctor Who scripts require many rewrites and don't pay enormously well, he ends up having to do other work so he can afford to take the time to write for the Doctor. "But the horrible, awful truth is that I would probably pay for the privilege of writing Doctor Who," he says. "It's just that finding the time is harder and harder. They told me I'm invited back whenever I want to, and I'm really grateful. I don't know if I'll get one into the next series, or the one after that, or the one after that. But it's more a matter of time."
He has also written a pilot script for an HBO series of his acclaimed novel American Gods. "Nothing is definite until they have shot the pilot episode and said, 'Yes, we like this enough to do a series.' " Much of his work has supposedly been destined for the big screen, and while some, such as Stardust and Coraline, have made the leap, others, such as the long-awaited adaptation of Good Omens, written with Terry Pratchett, have not."With all these things I will believe it when I'm sitting in the front row of the premiere, eating my popcorn," he says. "I will believe it when I turn on the telly and there it is. I'll believe it when it becomes a Tumblr meme, because that's the point when things become real."
Some years ago a planned Terry Gilliam adaptation of Good Omens, starring Johnny Depp and Robin Williams, was abandoned because of a lack of funding. As Gaiman points out, today they would crowdfund, which is how his wife raised more than $1 million to produce her last album. "We'd just go out to the world and say, 'Okay, everybody, you get to watch this film, that's what we're giving you. We'll give you copies of the script, and magic things, and in return we get to make the film and Johnny Depp gets to be Crowley. Do you want to see that?' And I think enough people would do that."
Unlike many writers, Gaiman is optimistic about the digital future. “Things are changing, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “From my point of view, I’m really, really glad, as a novelist, that a lot of the systems that have been put into place over the past 300 years to allow people who make up stories to feed themselves and pay their rent still exist. But do I think those systems are going to be working in the same way 15 years from now? Absolutely not.” And yet that doesn’t mean the end of fiction. “Things are changing, and that’s fine,” he says. It’s just change. Things will grow.”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is published by Headline