Neil Gaiman: ‘15 minutes before the end I realise I have tears running down my face’

Even the multiple media mastering author was astonished by the stage adaptation of his novel, An Ocean at the End of the Lane

Neil Gaiman, the comic book creator, author and screenwriter behind The Sandman, Coraline, and American Gods, has, to date, witnessed multiple adaptations of his work across multiple platforms, including radio plays, animation, and movies.

The Sandman, his hugely influential early-90s comic book crafted around a personification of Dream, that is often called Morpheus, was the basis for last year’s $15-million-per-episode Netflix series, Warner Bros’ four-season TV hit Lucifer, and the DC Showcase animated short, Death.

His children’s book, Wolves in the Walls, premiered as a VR experience at Sundance in 2018.

In 2020, he won a Hugo Award for his TV adaptation of Good Omens, the novel he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett two decades earlier. Coraline, the gorgeous 2009 Laika animation, became one of the biggest-selling DVDs of all time.


It isn’t always so pleasing to watch the translation of one’s own work, admits Gaiman.

Going to stay with different grandmothers for two weeks in the summer – in South Sea and in Portsmouth – was the best time of my life

—  Neil Gaiman

“There are some that didn’t work for whatever reason,” says the author, who wrote screenplays for Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II, plus episodes of Doctor Who and Babylon 5. “There was a lovely film called How to Talk to Girls at Parties directed by John Cameron Mitchell based on a short story I wrote that I was hugely fond of. But critics in their 60s did not like it one bit. Whereas there are things like American Gods, that started off really well.”

Debuting in 2017, the TV adaptation of Gaiman’s Hugo and Nebula-winning 2001 novel pitched old gods against new gods in a starry package from showrunners Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (screenwriter for Logan and Bladerunner 2049).

Both were fired ahead of the second season. Cast members Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth promptly left the show. Disputes in the writers’ room meant that some actors had to write their own lines. The Writers Guild intervened to ensure credits and compensation for that work. Production shut down for six weeks. By the end of season two, Jessie Alexander, the replacement showrunner, was replaced.

“There were people problems in the background and arguments behind the scenes,” says Gaiman. “I was making Good Omens at the time which was my adaptation of my thing. I was watching American Gods from across the Atlantic. This thing that could have been beautiful just crashed and burned. I thought it pulled out of its death dive just toward the end, but it was too late at that point. People had already gone away. But I’m really proud of The Sandman. That’s a really good adaptation. I’ve been getting to watch Dead Boy Detective, which nobody else has got to see yet. It’s heartwarming and sweet and fun. Like Randall and Hopkirk, if they were schoolkids solving crimes. That’ll hopefully be coming out next year. Where good adaptations are concerned, a lot of my job is encouraging people to relax and to focus on whatever it is that they loved about whatever work of mine that they’re adapting. Find that and put it on screen.”

When Gaiman was five, his family moved to the West Sussex town of East Grinstead, where his parents studied Dianetics at the local Scientology centre.

An avid reader, by seven he had alphabetised all of the books on his bookshelf. During the summer break, his parents would drop him off at the local library with a packed lunch so that he could spend all day in the children’s section. By nine, swayed by his surroundings and the enduring influence of CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, he conceived of the Hempstocks, a fictional family who have variously graced his fiction.

Daisy Hempstock turned up in 1999′s Stardust as the stepmother of the hero (later played by Charlie Cox in the 2007 film adaptation). Liza Hempstock is a friendly witch in The Graveyard Book.

In Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman’s 2013 novel – and later, a much-admired West End theatre production – the warm-hearted Lettie Hempstock befriends the narrator and casts spells to protect him when a dark magical force is unleashed in his village.

“Earlier than anything else, it started with me making up the Hempstock family,” says Gaiman. “I was nine years old and there was an old farm down our road. I was told that it had been in the Doomsday Book. It wasn’t really in the Doomsday Book. But in my mind, that meant that it was about 1,000 years old. I just remember thinking: wouldn’t it be wonderful if the people who lived there had been there for the last thousand years?”

The ancient Hempstocks may be bound up with the mythology of English ley lines and Celtic lore, but they are equally the product of not one, but two Jewish grandmothers with “competing chicken soup recipes”. (Gaiman’s great-grandfather emigrated to the UK from Antwerp in the early 20th century, changing the family name of Chaiman to Gaiman upon arrival.)

“I think it’s fair to say that as a small kid, home did not feel very much like home,” says Gaiman. “My parents weren’t around a lot. My sisters and I were running wild, living in the servant quarters of a big old house that they bought cheap. But my grandmothers were home. Going to stay with different grandmothers for two weeks in the summer – in South Sea and in Portsmouth – was the best time of my life... both of whom expressed love through food... one of whom could be just as snippy as old Mrs Hempstock in The Ocean at the End of the Lane if you gave her the opportunity. The other one was just all love. It was fabulous.”

At some point, I emailed my publisher to say: really sorry, I think I’m writing a novella. Because novellas are impossible to publish

—  Neil Gaiman

Family is a frequent starting point for Gaiman’s writing. His daughter Maddie inspired Crazy Hair; his son Mike provided the idea for The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish, when, having been told to go to bed, he wished that he had a goldfish instead of a father.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane started out as a domestic matter. The project’s complicated evolution began as a love letter to his wife, the musician and artist Amanda Palmer.

“I took my wife to Sussex to show her where I grew up and I felt I failed,” says the author. “My old school was a slightly terrifying minor public school straight out of Lindsey Anderson’s If. It had been replaced by this very lovely, warm nurturing place. I took her to where the house I lived in used to be. And we were staring at a housing estate that seems to go on forever. All the lanes and fields were gone. Then my wife went off for a few months to make an album. I missed her. And I thought I’d write a short, short story about what it was like to be me as a seven-year-old. More than anything else, I just wanted to conjure the landscape. When I was writing, I seemed to know at the end of every day what I would be writing the next day. At some point, I emailed my publisher to say: really sorry, I think I’m writing a novella. Because novellas are impossible to publish. I had handwritten it. And when I finished I typed it up and was astonished that I had written a novel. And then it came out and I was more astonished when it was voted Book of the Year in the British National Book Awards. And then a few years later, Katy Rudd and the National Theatre came to me and said: we’d like to do this.”

Premiering in Dublin next month, The Ocean at the End of the Lane follows an unnamed Gaiman surrogate as he returns to the Sussex farmhouse where he grew up. He recalls the stress that his family – including his widowed dad and squabbling sister – experienced after their lodger committed suicide. That death reunites the man with his former childhood chum, Lettie Hempstock, and reawakens memories of a forgotten adventure, one which is spectacularly reenacted on stage with sweeping music, puppetry, choreography, lighting, and terrifying shape-shifting monsters. Even the wildly imaginative Gaiman couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

It’s never crying because you’re looking at something sad. It’s crying because there are emotions that are too big for the body and they’re coming out through the eyes

—  Neil Gaiman

“I had talked to Katy and the writer Joel Horwood about their vision for it,” recalls Gaiman. “They talked about the puppets. They talked about the illusion. And after that, every nine or 10 months, whenever I was in London, I would go to a readthrough and give them notes. And the very first time they did the run-through all the way through with me there, they were not really in costumes. There’s no theatrical magic. It wasn’t on a stage. It was in a back room in the National Theatre. And 15 minutes before the end I realise I have tears running down my face. I have to do something about that because I’m five feet away from the actors. I’m thinking: Oh my God, they made magic. Every time I’ve seen it since, I’ve cried. It’s never crying because you’re looking at something sad. It’s crying because there are emotions that are too big for the body and they’re coming out through the eyes. I remember at the very first show, I look to my right and my wife was crying. But she does that. And then I look to my left and realise that the Daily Telegraph journalist is also crying.”

Gaiman’s unexpected journey to theatre began as a freelance arts journalist. His first book was a Duran Duran biography; his second was a quotes compilation co-authored by Kim Newman. He turned down a job offer from Penthouse before saying yes to Karen Berger, the former editor of DC Comics, the imprint of Batman and Superman. Alongside Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, Gaiman found himself at the vanguard of the 1990s British invasion of the comic book world at a moment when the current Marvelverse seemed impossible.

“For me, things started to change in 2002 when the American Library Association reached out to a bunch of comics people to say: librarians are being asked all the time about comics we don’t know; please come and talk to us. I think that was the moment. Definitely about the point where I noticed that you’d get questions about Sandman every couple of years on Mastermind. The best thing about comics is the incredible choices. What I love is that I have a son who loves graphic novels but is not really interested in superheroes. And he can go down to a bookshop or library and pick up armfuls of graphic novels.”

He laughs: “I think that means we have arrived.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from March 28th to April 1st