Best-selling fantasy author Neil Gaiman is often described as "the most loved living writer," and the excited cheers that welcome him to a crowded Baillie Gifford Theatre on Tuesday evening reflect the fervent admiration of his fan base. Gaiman is appearing at several events during the Edinburgh Book Festival, with each event focusing on a different facet of his vast body of work.
In conversation with Charles Fernyhough, Gaiman discusses The Ocean at the End of the Lane, his first adult novel since Anansi Boys in 2005. It tells the story of a 40-year-old man who returns to his childhood home following his father’s death and recalls events from when he was seven. The novel deals heavily with childhood experiences and the nature of memory and Fernyhough, a novelist and psychologist who has written extensively about memory, leads Gaiman in a pertinent and nuanced discussion of the subject.
Gaiman reveals that he had not set out to write a novel when he began working on The Ocean at the End of the Lane. His intention was to write a short story for his wife, musician Amanda Palmer, who at the time was in Australia recording an album. Missing her, Gaiman wanted to write a story and "put all the things she really likes in it," and because he was certain that she likes him, he said, he set out to write a piece that evoked the landscape of his childhood in Sussex. Soon, however, the story grew into a full-length book. "It went fractal on me," he says. "The further it went, the deeper it went, the more there was to write."
Due to the personal inspiration of the work, Gaiman found himself remembering things that hadn’t crossed his consciousness for forty years. "Memory is like seeing things through the mist," he says and goes on to explain how at a casual glance, we tend to remember things that we classify as ‘big’ but that only when we draw closer to those memories do we realise that the significance is in the details.
Gaiman discusses the "peculiarly specific" nature of our recollections, citing his own relationship to memory: despite being often forgetful of entire conversations and experiences, given five minutes and a pencil, he could "probably list every book on my bookshelf, age seven". Like Gaiman, the adult protagonist in The Ocean of the End of the Lane, admits to gaps in his memory, and how this leads to unreliable retelling of past events.
Fernyhough turns the conversation to the emotional component of memory and how it is applied in Gaiman’s novel. The protagonist, having experienced a traumatic event, is asked if he would like a bad memory taken away. His reply is that he would not, that it is a part of him. Like his character, Gaiman says he too would choose trauma over forgetfulness. "As I get older, I’m not quite sure what are the important memories," he says. He insists that only with time do we understand the importance of tragedy and disappointment in shaping who we are. "Mistakes are important so long as you can learn from them. If you don’t learn from them, then they’re just bad things that happened."