Number one Sunday Times and New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman tells Vicky Edwards about the National Theatre’s acclaimed stage adaptation based on his novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is the main entertainment at The Lowry, Salford, this Christmas (December 12-January 8).
A scene from The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Pic: Lowry
The old adage cautions against meeting your heroes lest they fail to live up to expectation.
Nothing is said about meeting your children’s heroes, but nonetheless my teenage daughter issued a firm instruction: I was to say NOTHING about meeting Neil Gaiman "unless he is as brilliant and fab as I want him to be."
I ask the author - with some anxiety, naturally - to tell me about the forthcoming tour of the National Theatre’s adaptation of his award-winning book The Ocean at the End of the Lane – a story that has its roots in his own childhood.
“It began with me wanting to try to explain to my wife where I grew up and what that world was like. I couldn’t take her to where that was [in East Grinstead] because the place had long since been demolished and is now covered by lots of lovely, neat little housing estates.
"So it was kind of an effort to try to evoke a past and a sense of place,” he said, confessing that the novel (Book of the Year in 2013 and with more than 1.2 million copies sold to date), had been rattling around his head for a while.
“I literally took the oldest idea I had ever had. I think it’s strange that at 61 I still haven’t used up all the ideas that I had for stories before I was 40,” he muses.
And he’s certainly no slouch at writing stories, from chart-topping graphic novels like Stardust, The Sandman and Coraline to Good Omens (with the late Sir Terry Pratchett).
In fact Gaiman has more than 45 books and short stories to his name, as well as Many screen writing projects.
Many of his books have been adapted for film and television, with The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the first major stage adaptation, transferred to the West End in 2021.
The stage version is fully realised on stage. Director Katy Rudd and script adaptor Joel Horwood are joined by a team whose collective effort won critical and audience acclaim at the National Theatre.
But how does Gaiman feel about adaptations of his stories?
“We struck gold with Katy. She is emerging as one of our great directors and I feel very fortunate at having begun work with her on Ocean at the early stages of her career. But I am Darwinian about adaptations. "The adaptation of my first graphic novel was so faithful; every word was up there on stage – and it didn’t work. That was because moments important in the graphic novel were throwaway on stage, while moments of minor allusion became huge and overpowering. I realised then you have to translate; that translation process is now the thing I get excited about – what can you do on stage you can’t do in a book?”
He admits he didn’t know, initially, if this show could work: “I liked Katy and Joel and their collaborators but I didn’t really know if it would work. Then I went to the first complete run-through – and about 10 minutes before the end I realised I had tears running down my face. I went home and told my wife how amazing it was.”
Audiences across the UK can now immerse themselves in the book’s magical world – and there are some tour stops with special relevance to the author.
“Salford, for instance, I always remember fondly,” he tells me. “As a 23-year-old journalist I came to Salford to interview John Cooper Clarke; he was the first person I ever interviewed,” he says – the knowledge that he had blagged the interview after fibbing about his journalistic experience, making him chuckle.
I asked Neil about the story’s focus on family – especially the relationship between parent and child.
“I created a semi-fictional family for myself, but the boy was definitely me. Joel and Katy, just by the genius of having the same actor play the father and the adult boy, give you that sense of continuity. Like it or not, there will come a point when you will look into the mirror and see one of your parents. Then later, you encounter one of your grandparents.”
Though he has seen it several times, the play still takes him by surprise: “There are moments of utter theatrical magic," he says, "but the things that demolish me emotionally are the moments of forgiveness, or a hug between two characters. Really, it's the emotion that I hope people will take away. I’d love it if they took away what it was like to be a kid and to have less power.
"And of course there's astonishing puppetry and magic. I had always dreamed of stage magic being used for seamless illusion. This is always in service of the story, but you’re going to see miracles,” he smiles.
I let on that my daughter is a huge fan, and his pleasure is genuine: “There's no job satisfaction in someone telling you that you sold a million books. But when someone tells you they read Coraline at the age of nine and that it was their best book; that it scared them but that they still kept it wherever they went; then my job is done.”
I reassured my child that Neil Gaiman was every bit "as brilliant and fab" as she could have hoped.
More info and tickets here