Uncharted Waters: Joe Hill Explores Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Editors Note: As you'll see from the first line of his introduction through to his last fantastic question, horror author Joe Hill has tremendous respect for Neil Gaiman's work. In this exclusive discussion of Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane--one of our own top picks for June's Best Books of the Month--Hill explores both the real and the imaginary inspirations behind some of the novel's most compelling details.
by Joe Hill
You know the facts already, and if you don't, man, have you missed out:
If Neil Gaiman wrote nothing but Sandman, his award-winning comic series, he would still have the stature of a Bradbury or a Tolkien. Sandman was not just the best, most daring, and most moving comic of its time; it was and is probably the best, daringest, movingest comic of any time.
Gaiman followed with an epic, American Gods, which--along with Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Jonathan Letham's Fortress of Solitude--shattered the artificial barrier between genre and literature, inspiring the best writers of my own generation to slip the shackles of realism and take a chance on fantasy. Gods was a kind of uncorking and a flood of fever-dreams poured forth afterward. Coraline was only the scariest book for children ever written, and it led to a phantasmagoric movie that soars like a modern Wizard of Oz. The Graveyard Book reads like if Charles Addams wrote The Jungle Book, and deservedly was awarded the Newbery Medal. And Gaiman's episodes of Doctor Who stand among the most keenly felt and inventive chapters in that show's storied 50-year history.
So now here is The Ocean at the End of the Lane--an overpowering work of the imagination, a quietly devastating masterpiece, and Gaiman's most personal novel to date. I had a chance to talk to him about it. Here are some things we said:
Joe Hill: Not long after a grotesque and tragic shock, the young boy at the heart of the novel meets Lettie Hempstock, her mother, and her grandmother. We soon discover that Old Mrs. Hempstock can snip bits out of time; Lettie's mother can see things happening elsewhere; and at one point, Lettie herself can be found hauling around an ocean in a bucket. These aren't the first women to wander through your stories, deforming reality as they go. Would the story have been different if it was a house of three guys? Could that even have worked?
Neil Gaiman: It would have worked, yes, although it would have been a very different sort of book. The farm men I knew as a boy were a taciturn lot, and they weren't much for talking. I like that the Hempstock women are chatty, and welcoming.
I think I got to take all the things I loved about my grandmothers' kitchens when I was a boy, the feeling that food was always there and that always somehow meant family and meant love, and transmute that into something rather stranger. And less Jewish.
I went for the women partly because I liked the idea of grandmotherly energy, and because the original inspiration for the Hempstock family, when I was about 8 years old, was having read a story of Henry Kuttner's called “Pile of Trouble” about the Hogben family, an Appalachian family of mutants--and all the Hogbens were men. (There is a Ma Hogben, but she never says or does much.) I thought about the farm down our lane that was mentioned in the Domesday Book, and wondered what would happen if the people who lived there had been there for the last thousand years. So the Hempstocks had been composting in my head since I was a small boy, waiting for their story to be told. Sometimes other Hempstocks would show up in other books, but they weren't the real Hempstocks, the ones in the farm at the end of the lane.
JH: Have there been women in your life who seemed especially prone to warping reality?
NG: My wife, Amanda, is terribly good at warping reality. She is like a bowling ball on a rubber sheet, and you find yourself living in her universe, doing things that are completely unexpected or unimaginable for you, but you blink and you're up on a stage singing, or wearing a peculiar wig, or writing a book filled with feelings and emotion, or doing something equally as unlikely.
My daughters, Holly and Maddy, are each good at warping reality in their own unique ways. Maddy's world is prettier and simpler than mine, Holly's has more hats in it.
JH: There's another woman in this story who goes nibbling holes out of our world: Ursula Monkton, who comes to work as a nanny--a kind of anti-Mary Poppins--for our hero's parents. But really, why is Ursula Monkton so bad? She only wants to help people!
NG: I agree with you. And Ursula Monkton, wherever she is, agrees with you a lot. It's just that people are fragile, and the ways Ursula wants to help them are ways that break them, or drive them to madness, or worse. It's one thing to want money, but if you find yourself choking on a coin as you wake, the money is slightly less desirable.
Ursula Monkton (or, as I tend to think of her, the thing that calls herself Ursula Monkton) was a glorious and scary thing to write, and she took me by surprise. The Ocean at the End of the Lane was going to be a short story until Ursula Monkton decided to follow our hero home...
JH: How much of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is invention... and how much is the remembered truth of your own childhood?
NG: Imagine a mosaic picture of a house in the country: lots of red and blue and yellow and black and brown and white and a dozen different shades of green tiles which make a beautiful picture if you stand back far enough.
All the little red squares are true--true things, true places, true feelings. But the red squares aren't the picture. All the rest of it is lies and stories, often within the same sentence.
I hoped that I was able to write an emotional truth, but even though the landscape of the story is the landscape of my childhood, the family isn't really my family, and none of the things that happened to our hero happened to me. Well, none of the big things, anyway. I didn't even know why our white Mini went away until over thirty years after it happened.
JH: Our hero has only a single weapon to hold back the darkness--his books. What were your weapons as a child?
NG: Books. They were more of an armour and an escape route than they ever were a weapon, really, though. Books are defensive, not offensive (unless you're the puzzled adult trying to make the kid with the book interact). I loved all books that I could read, and I never knew if I was ready for it until I tried to read it, so I tried to read everything. My mother had lots of her childhood books on our bookshelves, so I read those and had great fun putting imaginary versions of them into Ocean.
There were other weapons. I was bright, and I could use that as a weapon: words can wound, whatever those sticks and stones sayings claim about them never hurting, and I could use them if I had to. I really wanted a catapult, because kids in books had catapults, but they were regarded as things you could put people's eyes out with, and I do not believe I ever had a catapult.
JH: It was only after I finished the novel that I realized--with quite a bit of shock--that the narrator doesn't have a name. He remains, throughout, an indefinite ‘I.' And we are told early in the story that names have power and special significance; they can be used against you. Who is this guy? Does he even know himself?
NG: I'm sure he knows his name. In the first draft, in the handwritten manuscript, Ursula Monkton calls him by his name, but I took that out in the second draft. It seemed right that he's--not nameless, but has no reason to tell us his name.
Names do have power in this book, and naming things and people was something that fascinated me. None of his family have names, after all. They just have roles.
JH: There's a lot of wonderful food writing in this book. I had to put the thing down several times to rummage desperately through my fridge. Can you give us the recipe for the Hempstocks' lemon pancakes? Please don't let that part be make-believe.
NG: There is no make-believe in cooking. There were few things I took as much fun in cooking, when I was a boy, as pancakes. (I liked making toffee, too, because it was a little like a science experiment.)
Right. The night before you are going to make them, you mix:
1 cup of ordinary white flour
a pinch of salt
2 1/2 cups of milk and water (a cup and a half of milk and a cup of water mixed)
1 tablespoon of either vegetable oil or melted butter
(You'll also need some granulated sugar, and a couple of lemons to put on the pancakes, along with other things like jams and possibly even maple syrup because you're American.)
Put the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Crack the eggs in and whisk/fork the egg into the flour. Slowly add the milk/water mixture, stirring as you go, until there are no lumps and you have a liquid the consistency of a not too thick cream.
Then put the mixture in the fridge overnight.
Grease or butter or oil a non-stick frying pan. Heat it until it's really hot (377 degrees according to one website, but basically, it has to be hot for the pancake to become a pancake. And these are crepes, French style, not thick American round pancakes).
Stir the mixture you just took from the fridge thoroughly because the flour will all be at the bottom. Get an even, consistency.
Then ladle some mixture into the pan, thinly covering the whole of the base of the pan. When the base is golden, flip it (or, if you are brave, toss it). Cook another 30 seconds on the other side.
For reasons I do not quite understand (although pan heat is probably the reason), the first one is always a bit disappointing. Often it's a burnt, sludgy, weird thing, (always, in my family, eaten by the cook) (which was me). Just keep going, and the rest will be fine.
Sprinkle sugar in the middle. And then squeeze some lemon juice in, preferably from a lemon. Then wrap it like a cigar and feed it to a child.
(You can experiment with other things in the middle, like Nutella, or jam, or even maple syrup--but remember that these pancakes are not syrup-absorbent like American style pancakes.)
This is a very peculiar interview, Joe. Let me know how the pancakes come out.