Neil Gaiman has had a varied writing career that has seen him move from award-winning comic writer to bestselling novelist. He is the author of 'Coraline' 'The Wolves in the Walls', The Graveyard Book and 'Fortunately the Milk' all published by Bloomsbury. In the early 90s, Gaiman was the creator / writer of monthly cult DC Comics horror series Sandman which until its last issue #75 was awarded numerous acco- lades and topped the comic bestsellers list. Sandman was also the first comic to ever receive a literary award. The collection has sold several million copies in hardback and paperback. Gaiman's short stories, in prose and poetry have won a variety of Fantasy Horror awards including the International Horror Critics' Award for Best Collection which went to Troll Bridge in 1994.Gaiman has worked with a variety of people on a variety of projects including sharing authorship on adult titles with Terry Pratchett and being included on the singer Tori Amos's debut album. His body of work has appeared in translation in countries as diverse as Israel and Poland and he has won recognition overseas for both his comic writing and his novels.
In this interview, Neil Gaiman talks to Nikki Gamble about 'Coraline;, 'The Wolves in the Walls' fear, bravery and the point of horror for children.
Writers frequently talk about the importance of finding the right voice for their work. Your books have a distinctive storyteller’s voice, which I’m guessing comes from having stories read to you when you were younger. Is finding the right voice effortless or does it take a lot of work?
Either it comes naturally, or you have to work hard to figure out what your personal voice is. I’ll give you two different answers:With The Wolves in the Walls I had the story almost immediately. I wrote it - and it was rubbish. It wasn’t even fixable. About eight months later, I wrote it again and it still wasn’t very good. Then I put it away but I kept churning it over in the back of my head.
About six months later a thought popped into my head: ‘If the wolves come out of the wall it’s all over’. And suddenly I had the voice! That sentence gave me the tone. It sparked the peculiar delight in words which allowed me to write: ‘They were hustling noises and bustling noises. They were crinkling noises and crackling noises. They were sneak- ing, creeping, crumpling noises.' I knew that I was writing some thing that needed to be read aloud, where I could make jokes but with a straight face. Once I had the voice it only took me two days because I knew how it sounded.
With 'Coraline' the process was the reversed because I always knew what it sounded like. However, because life
was getting in the way and because I was trying to write it in my spare time (and I never have much spare time) 'Coraline' took ten years to write. It took nine years to write chapters 1 – 12 ……. without chapter 10. A year later, I was chatting to my editor at Bloomsbury and she asked, ‘What ever happened to the other father?’ And I said, ‘Oh he’s in the cellar.’ And she said, ‘Well, why didn’t you write that?’ And I said, ‘Well I thought it might be a bit scary.’ And she said, ‘Go on write it!’ So I wrote the last chapter.
The book doesn’t read like it was written by an author who aged from 30 to 40 and changed continents along the way. One reason is because I had a very, very specific voice that I think of as being a classic English storytelling voice. Characteristically it’s about trying to let words mean more than they mean literally. Its about packing as much into each sentence as simply as possible so that you can read the book once and get the story and then start at the beginning and find it turns into a slightly different story because the reader knows more.
You read 'Coraline' for the American audio book version. I was surprised when I first noticed that the British recording is read by Dawn French, but after listening to it, I think it’s an inspired choice. Were you involved in choosing Dawn? And are you pleased with her rendition?
I loved her reading more than I liked mine. Dawn’s version of 'Coraline' is the most subversive because she has this warm friendly, lovely sweet, yummy, clotted cream voice. It’s ‘listen with Mother in front of the radio’. It’s warm and it’s embracing, so you trust her. For instance, there’s a point in the story when you are trapped in the dark with three dead children behind a mirror and suddenly it’s quite terrifying. You’ve gone further into the dark with her than you would have done if it was me reading.
I was delighted by the wildness of the wolves 'The Wolves in the Walls'; It’s refreshing to read a contemporary story in which the wolves are not tamed, cultivated, good mannered of shy.
I like the idea of party wolves. I like the idea of wolves standing for every human you were scared of but couldn’t see - and then undercutting it. There’s a point in the story when the wolves have taken over the house, in much the same way that the stoats, weasels and ferrets take over Toad Hall. That scene from The Wind in the Willows was very much in the back of head when I wrote The Wolves in the Walls. The animals from the Wild Wood are a menacing presence throughout the book but when they take over Toad Hall, they’re just yobs really. I thought well, my wolves will be even yobbier.
Are your books too frightening for adults?
But they’re fine for kids. I never thought the wolves in the wall were scary at all until the book came out. I’d trialled it with kids - who think it’s funny and want to have it read to them again and again. By the second time they’re chanting, ‘In the middle of the night there was a howling and a yowling, a bumping and a thumping and....the wolves came out of the walls.' So I didn’t think it was frightening at all.
Then I started bumping into adults who said how frightening it was and that it must be terrifying for kids. But it’s not scary for kids: a) because the live there and b) because they assume that when the story is in a book it’s safe. Adults are not that convinced about the safety. I think, contrary to popular belief, kids have a much better understanding of the differences between fiction and reality than adults. I heard a story about a woman reading Coraline to her nine year old son. She started getting freaked out and her son put his arm around her and said, ‘Don’t worry mummy, it’s only a story'.
You can’t write about bravery without having something that’s worth being scared of. Otherwise you have sad little paper dragon stories: “Joey was scared of going to school. ‘Don’t be scared Joey,’said his mother. ‘Your teacher is lovely.’ ‘But she will be nasty to me.’ he said. ‘No she won’t,’said his mother. ‘She is a very nice teacher.’He went to school. She was a very nice teacher. ‘I was such a silly.’he said.” If you are going to write about facing up to fear and conquering it, you have to have something to be scared of.
I think the modality of story is a key factor in deter- mining whether children will find something frightening: 'The Wolves in the Walls' is unequivocally a fantasy fiction, whereas watching a medical drama or the news might be more frightening because it appears to represent reality.
Yes, or watching a married couple shouting at each other on the verge of divorce. The place where kids get their nightmares from, as most par- ents discover, has very little to do with anything rational. Mostly it’s about things like that funny animated vacuum cleaner on the advert that’s coming up the stair to get them. When I was three I was convinced when letting the water out of the bath, that the bit right at the end, when it makes a load roaring gurgle noise, was tigers. I figured out for myself that the reason that plugholes have that little cross thing over the middle was to stop the tigers getting out and into the house. It made perfect sense to me that each bath should have a tiger underneath the floorboards, where you couldn’t see it, which would roar as the water ran out.
We obviously don’t want to terrorise children, but a frisson of fear is harmless... enjoyable even.
Yes, it’s like the ghost train. It’s safe to get on the ghost train and slam into the dark, because you know that in a minute and a half’s time you’ll be slamming back out into the light again. Books are a lovely way to control the fear because you can close the book. With television it’s more difficult.
But it’s quite important to read to the end as well isn’t it? Without that you miss the Strawberry Jam and that’s quite comforting.
Kids tell me off for the ending because you can’t have elephants in the walls. You can have wolves in the walls and people in the walls but you can’t have elephants because it’s silly!
What pleasures do you think young readers find in horror stories?
I’m not exactly sure. One of my favourite passages in the whole of the Narnia books, 'Prince Caspian'. It’s not a particularly good book because it has huge construction problems and there isn’t much room for the plot. However, there’s a little passage when the children reach Aslan’s Howe and are lis- tening to Prince Caspian. An evil dwarf brings his allies, a wolf and a hag, before Caspian so they can make representation to him. The wolf starts describ- ing himself. When I was a child it sent the most amazing cold shivers down my spine, not knowing what a werewolf was, not knowing what a hag was. I think it’s the most amazing little section in the Narnia books. Each of the books has a little sequence in it whether it’s the Island of Nightmares in 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', or realising that the friendly giants are cannibals in 'The Silver Chair'. These brief frightening sequences are great even when other parts of the books might be flawed.
As an author, I tend to think of fear and terror for as a condiment. I’m hugely flattered that the Horror Writers’Association has given me the Bram Stoker Award three times because I really don’t think of myself as a horror writer. But I am someone who likes horror and uses it like a cook uses salt, a little of it here and a little of it there gives the writing flavour. If you don’t have it, then your food can be tasteless but if you have too much, it is disgusting. So that, I suppose, is how I think of horror, whether for children or adults.
Houses are a recurring motif and very important for creating atmosphere in your stories.
Oh yes, houses always do that. I dream mostly of houses and corridors. The house in 'Coraline' is 50 % the house I was living in when I began it and 50 % the house I lived in when I was the age between 5 – 12….. which actually had a door that opened on to a wall. I remembered that I once dreamed that I went down there and opened it and went through.The house had been cut in half. We had the servants’quarters and the other family got the big beautiful rooms with the bay windows. Except we got what have been the long front downstairs room because the servants would have been coming in one door and the family would have been coming in through the other. It was an old manor house. It was pan- elled and it had a fireplace and these gorgeous oak doors. They didn’t remove the doors because they couldn’t replace the oak panelling. So that’s the reason that when you opened the door it was just a brick wall.
You have collaborated on many projects with writers and artists including Terry Pratchett, Jim Henson and Dave McKean. You’ve also written novels on your own.
Do you prefer collaborative enterprise or solitary working? I like to do both. I have an astonishing amount of freedom; more than any almost other author I know. Occasionally I think, ‘if only I’d just done one th
You've written graphic novels, television drama, novels and picture book texts; what new forms of writing would you like to try?
I’ve never written a stage play. I’ve seen things I’ve written that other people have adapted with varying degrees of success into stage plays. I’d like to write an original stage play. Why would you have a bunch of live actors in front of a liveaudience? What can you do with the joy of things happening in real time up on a stage that you can’t do in a film and you can’t do in a book? That fascinates me.
How would you feel about handing your work over to a director?
You learn to do that that. When I did the 'Neverwhere' TV series for BBC 2 I wrote a script which had a giant rampaging 20 foot blind albino bear which had weapons sticking out of it. In production it became a large cow called Albert – you can’t really be scared of a cow! It wasn’t the terrifying thing I thought it would be.
What are the joys if being a writer?
I was taught not to make things up. You know what you will happen if you make things up. Nobody ever answered that. And the answer I can tell your readers is that it does seem to involve a great deal of international travel.
What advice do you offer aspiring young writers?
You can put an apostrophe at the end of the word to denote either position or abbreviation. And with the word ‘its’you only need the apostrophe for it is. I think that’s about the most useful advice I can give at this moment.
Thank you Neil Gaiman for talking to Just Imagine
Copyright Just Imagine Story centre Ltd.
All Rights Reserved.
You can print this interview for education purposes but you may not reproduce it in any other form without permission from the author.