Last Friday was the summer solstice, the longest night of the year, but I sat unaware in the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University, waiting for Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman is the author of the Sandman comics, the Newberry Award-winning The Graveyard Book, writer of Doctor Who episodes, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, among other things. Gaiman was kind, gracious, and personable, and his repartee with the audience sparkled with the wit and quick humor that have garnered him so many fans over his wide and varied career. He read chapter four of The Ocean at the End of the Lane to a hushed audience. The person sitting next to me told me after, “That is an experience I will never forget. His voice is magic.” After the reading, Mr. Gaiman pulled out a pile of index cards with questions written by people in the audience. And here is what we learned from Neil Gaiman himself:
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane was written with his wife, Amanda Palmer, in mind while she was in Australia recording an album and Neil missed her. The book started out as a short story and kept growing and developing until, suddenly, he realized he had written a book. The novel is very personal, as the main character is in some ways based on Mr. Gaiman and the world that surrounded him as a child. He wrote the first draft of the novel by hand, in fountain pen, and then he typed the novel up and read it all to his wife at night.
- The best mistake he ever made as a writer was writing a letter to a young girl named “Caroline” but accidentally spelling the name “Coraline”. He thought to himself, “Coraline is a name too.” And that was the beginning of the spunky titular character in Coraline.
- When someone asked how he has researched all of the mythology that appears in his work, Mr. Gaiman told us that he read as many books on mythology as he could when he was a child. So the research for books such as American Gods started decades ago and never really stopped.
- Working on Doctor Who was “enormously fun.”
- Many people have noted that there are many characters in Gaiman’s books that have the surname “Hempstock.” Gaiman noted that this was a.) planned and b.) started many years ago when his mother mentioned that a neighboring farm was mentioned in the Domesday Book, a survey of England and Wales compiled for William the Conqueror in 1086. Neil was fascinated with the idea of a family living in a place for more than a thousand years, and he came up with the Hempstock family in his teens. He decided that some family members would, of course, leave the farm, and that is why Hempstocks appear in Stardust, The Graveyard Book, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
- When asked if he would ever return to the universe of Neverwhere, Mr. Gaiman told us that there would be a short story called “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” in print in an anthology called Rogues, compiled by George R.R. Martin.
- Neil’s advice to people who write: “Sell your writing and share it.”
- When asked what he is afraid to write, he noted that there was one scene in The Ocean at the End of the Lane with a bathtub that he was dreading to write for two weeks. But when he got there, he had to buckle down and write it.
- He plans to revisit the idea of a film version of Anansi Boys.
- He generally decides whether a book will be for children or adults before writing it.
- When asked why his lead characters often find themselves in a reality that existed around them but were blind to it before, he replied that absolutely everyone starts out in that way.
After reading from his new book and answering questions, Neil began a marathon signing of over 1,500 books. I waited for several hours, but when Mr. Gaiman signed my books, he was kind and appreciative of everyone. When I finally left the auditorium, the sun had set long ago on the longest day of the year, but the smile on my face remained.