Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Me, Neil Gaiman, Jamie Byng (Canongate)

Me, Neil Gaiman, and Jamie Byng (of Canongate and World Book Night) looking suitably dark and moody. Photo credit (c) Toby Madden 

Sometime in the late hours of the night/early hours of this morning, I finished Neil Gaiman’s latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is out in June this year. (A good time for books, obviously. I’m just saying.)

After I had ‘turned’ the final electronic page (I cannot wait to have this in a physical – oh god, I almost said proper! – edition), I had this strange moment where the floodgates I’d been trying so hard to keep tightly shut, opened ever so slightly. I let in a wave of emotion I’d been struggling to contain (or at least, to put a lid on – not permanently, but just while there has been so much stuff going on that I know I just can’t deal with right now…), and I sat on the sofa in my darkened living room trying to orient myself back in the real world. Oh yes, here is my mug of tea – gone stone cold. Oh look, there is my laptop – abandoned. Oh wow, is that the time?

I’d been held in the book’s grip for most of the night, shut away in the story and in that place where nothing and no one can reach me to break the spell. (Only ‘The End’ has that power). It felt strange, and cathartic, and affecting… and for a while I remembered what truly great books can do to a person. Or, more specifically, what a great book can do to me.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane arrived with me at the right time. That is to say, a time when I’ve been thinking a lot about oceans. There’s my workload and to-do list, which feel ocean-wide and ocean-deep. There’s the ocean of books out there that soon the tiny drop of water that is my book will be diving in to, and the fear that it will make barely a ripple – let alone something resembling a wave. There’s the literal ocean, that big one to the west of me, the one that separates me from my family and makes me feel so far away from some of the people and places that I love. The imminent reality of having several oceans separating me from my sister, who is planning that big jump to the land down under. And then there’s the ever-present desire to pack it all in and sail away on an ocean for a while, journal and pen in hand…

Even though I know all these oceans can be navigated, they still feel like they dominate my world.

The ocean in Neil’s book doesn’t seem like much more than a pond at first glance. But of course, it is far more than that. The ocean belongs to the land of the mysterious Hempstocks – three generations of women, all living together on a farm. There is a strong sense of nostalgia to the England portrayed in the book that reminds me of my dad’s stories of growing up in Nutfield, Surrey, on acres of land where you had to walk to school through muddy fields, before large farms made way for housing developments and villages gave way to towns. The food served at the Hempstock farm is the kind of warm, cosy cooking I am served from my aunt’s Aga – shepherd’s pie with fluffy mash and rich mince, spotted dick with lashings of homemade custard, thick slices of bread toasted between wire mesh and covered in butter and jam. Ever-present is Neil’s wonderful interplay with language, and sentences you want to cherish forever.

Ocean is an intensely personal book – even more than just in terms of how much Neil drew on his own experiences to shape it. It’s the type of book that has the power to affect each reader differently. For me, at least, it opened up a vast well of memories of being a child and discovering things that adults never could – some of them terrifying, most of them wondrous. While I never came across a pond that was actually an ocean, I remember believing that the hollows in old, gnarled oak trees in Richmond Park were the doorways to Another World, and that if I climbed high enough the branches would allow me to reach the place beyond the clouds. It also reminded me of the monsters of my childhood imagination – and how the monsters that don’t look like monsters, but look more like people, are actually the scariest of all.

But returning to the late hours of last night, the resounding sense of finishing Ocean was of wanting to dive straight back in and start reading it all over again. Because as terrifying and overwhelming and vast an ocean can be, they can also be restorative, and healing. They can remind you of the awe that exists in the world and that it’s okay to be swept away in it for a while, even as it’s equally okay to come back. And sometimes – if you try hard enough – you can fit that ocean into a bucket and carry it with you, so that maybe the weight of all that water won’t seem so heavy after all.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman (impersonators)

Last night, I was lucky enough to secure tickets to see Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman in conversation at the Cambridge Theatre in Soho, London (normally the home of Matilda – the musical – a fitting place for two children’s authors to be talking if ever there was one!).

Unfortunately though, earlier on that day Philip was taken to hospital, and you could sense the whole theatre sending good vibes and well wishes his way. Luckily Neil had managed to round up some “Pullman impersonators” in the form of Meg Rosoff and Audrey Niffenegger! If we couldn’t have Pullman, then we couldn’t get much better as far as replacements go. Audrey kicked the evening off by reading one of the fairy tales from Pullman’s Grimm Tales, “The Three Snake-Leaves”, which gave the audience a perfect taster of fairy tale-style justice.

Neil Gaiman, Rosie Boycott, Meg Rosoff and Audrey Niffenegger on stage at the Cambridge Theatre

For any aspiring writers out there, there were some great tips from Neil and Meg. Meg’s major advice was to “not be in such a rush”. I think this is a pretty important point, and later on they brought up the old adage that you have to write a million words before you write a good one. Neil’s advice was simple, and effective: if you want to be a writer, just write. Wise words!

The Lucky 13s might find it interesting to know that they talked about superstitions too! Neil Gaiman’s superstition had to do with having to use a different colour ink for each writing day, while Meg turned out to be inclined towards all sorts of superstitions – especially new ones she hadn’t heard of yet! (One new one for the night: don’t bring lilac into the house… I wonder why, lilac is really pretty!)

Neil then ended the show with a reading of his new scary short story ‘Click-Clack the Rattlebag’. It’s not easy to terrify a huge audience in a theatre decorated with scrabble tiles, but somehow he managed it! And if you’re curious, just in time for Hallowe’en, you can download your very own copy of Neil’s recording of ‘Click-Clack the Rattlebag’ for FREE from Audible.co.uk for only 36 hours more, so go go go now (or Audible.com for anyone outside UK). Even better, for every free download, Audible will donate 50p to Booktrust, which is just amazing.

Afterwards I was extraordinarily privileged to hang out with some amazing writers, late into the night. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me… I’d just delivered my line edits to my editor and was feeling, quite frankly, like crap. The line edits themselves were not at all the problem – they were spot on, and a piece of cake after the structural edit! – but as I was reading through the manuscript for the umpteenth time, I couldn’t shake this creeping, pervasive feeling that the book was just plain bad – I couldn’t stand the sight of those words, I couldn’t tell if they made any sense any more, whether the book had any sort of structure or pace or characterization… Thankfully, as I said, I was among those who knew exactly how I felt. In fact, as I shared my anxieties with the other writers, and as I could see them recognize exactly what I was going through, it made me feel a lot better. I was well assured that these feelings were normal, even necessary, and maybe even a good sign. And thank god for that, because I thought I was going crazy.

It just goes to prove what I think is the most valuable writing advice: don’t do it alone. Find other writers, whether its in person or online, and share this crazy journey together. And meet your heroes. Because luckily in this business, they tend to be really friggin awesome.

 

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