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Life of fantasy

    Neil Gaiman, sitting at an old barn near the writing gazebo at his home in western Wisconsin, has just released a new novel, "The Ocean at the End of the Lane."

In Neil Gaiman’s passport case, on a scrap of paper beside his green card, are two verses of an unfinished work called "Pirate Stew."

"I assume it’s for kids," Gaiman said. "But it’s only two verses … and it just sits there, and every time I pull out my passport, I feel guilty that I haven’t done anything. One day I will pull out my passport, get on a plane and go, ‘Ya know, I don’t have anything to do now for the next seven hours. I’ll write ‘Pirate Stew.’"

It’s hard to imagine the British-born Gaiman with time to kill — he’s almost absurdly prolific. Last week his new novel, "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" (William Morrow, $25.99), arrived. A dark fairy tale about a bookish 7-year-old boy growing up in England with distracted parents and a neighbor who remembers the big bang, it’s the author’s first book for adults since his best-selling 2005 fantasy "Anansi Boys."

But that’s only because Gaiman, 52, has been working in umpteen other forms — in March the BBC broadcast a radio play based on his 1996 TV series "Neverwhere"; in May a "Doctor Who" episode he wrote aired in the U.K.; in September his children’s book "Fortunately, the Milk" is due; over the spring he wrote 12 short stories inspired by fan suggestions on Twitter as part of a project funded by BlackBerry. Gaiman is also writing the upcoming HBO series "American Gods," an adaptation of his mythological 2001 novel; and Ron Howard is adapting his 2008 award-winning children’s title "The Graveyard Book."

For those who know him, including his more than 1.8 million Twitter followers, the author of the "Sandman" comic book series and the "Beowulf" movie is instantly recognizable — his wild mane has inspired a Tumblr account, "lovingly dedicated to the terrifying wonder that is Neil Gaiman’s hair," and his accent is so distinguishable that fans joke his publisher has insured it.

Gaiman is remarkably accessible, quickly replying to tweets and keeping an online diary. But his new book allows readers to know Gaiman better than any that have come before it, he said.

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" takes place in the Sussex countryside, where Gaiman grew up, and is told through a middle-age narrator looking back on his boyhood belief that "books are safer than other people."

The inspiration for the story came when Gaiman was buying a Mini automobile about a decade ago and learning from his father what had happened to his family’s Mini when he was growing up: A boarder had stolen it and committed suicide in it. In the book, the suicide sets off a supernatural chain of events involving a family of three ancient yet ageless women who live in a farm at the end of the lane.

"It’s not autobiographical, but the lead character is very much me age 7, in the geographical landscape that I grew up in," Gaiman said. "It’s about memory and about family and magic, and it gets very scary and weird."

Gaiman began the novel as a short story to explain himself to his new wife, musician Amanda Palmer. But as he wrote, the story took on a life of its own.

"I’d get up every day and go, ‘Well, it’s got to be finished by the end of the week, hasn’t it?’ And then the end of the week would happen, and I was going, ‘Well, it’s not a short story, it’s obviously a novelette,’ and then I thought, ‘Well, it’s not a novelette, it must be a novella,’ and I did a word count and I went, ‘Bloody hell, this thing’s 56,000 words; that’s a novel. Not a long novel, but it’s a novel.’"

(Gaiman’s writing day, he confessed, "tends to be a very specific kind of balancing act between things that move me and things that people are screaming for.")

Gaiman shared the early galleys with a friend, "Atonement" director Joe Wright, who is set to direct a film version for Focus Features.

"I wanted an English director and an English production and also that it was made by people I like and trust," Gaiman said of the film adaptation. "I knew the moment this thing went huge studio and huge director, then this little baby of mine that I loved was very likely to become something else, and I didn’t want that to happen. It would break my heart. It’s too close, too personal."

Reviews have been among the best in Gaiman’s career. (The cultural criticism site PopMatters said it "features a level of craftsmanship, focus, and control that we normally associate more with literary fiction than genre.") Gaiman said he’s prouder of it than anything else he’s written.

–Rebecca Keegan / Los Angeles Times

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