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The genesis of The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman explains why The Ocean at the End of the Lane - one of our Book Club choices this week - is a book he didn't set out to write.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is my first adult novel since 2005 and Anansi Boys. I got a bit side-tracked by writing things like The Graveyard Book along the way and Ocean really has been a glorious surprise to me. I’ve been hugely touched and gratified by the fact that readers of Ocean have told me that it has moved them and that they think it is the most personal thing that I have written. And I suppose it is. Although the narrator isn’t really me, and his family isn’t really my family, it’s true that the world that he inhabits is very much my world.
The funny thing is, I didn’t start out to write a novel. About two years ago I started writing a short story. I was about five thousand words into the short story before I realised that it really wasn’t a short story after all – but I wasn’t quite sure exactly what it was going to be.
I was about five thousand words into the short story before I realised that it really wasn’t a short story after all
What I did know was that it was about a narrator who was kind of a lot like me when I was seven, and that there were these old women who lived at the end of his lane. I say "old women", but one of them was apparently an eleven-year-old girl called Lettie Hempstock. And then there was her mother, and also her grandmother, Old Mrs Hempstock. Lettie has an ocean in her garden (it’s actually a duckpond but she says it’s the ocean) and she says they came across the ocean to live in the farm a long time ago, from the old country. Her mother says that’s nonsense because the really old country sank beneath the waves. And her grandmother, Old Mrs Hempstock, is convinced that’s absolute nonsense because, as she tells them, she can remember the really, really old country before the Big Bang.
I knew our narrator was going to get himself into a great deal of trouble and that even the three very, very old ladies at the end of the lane were going to have their work cut out trying to get him through this story alive. And I knew it would be very scary... and very weird.
So I’d started the story, but stopped it when I realised it wasn’t a short story. I went off to write a novel instead, a completely different story but it was a novel that everybody was waiting for. I was in Florida, staying at a friend’s house. On my first or second day, I went for a run and while I was out on my run I realised what happened next in my short-story- that-wasn’t-a-short-story. So, instead of writing the novel that I was meant to be writing,
I wrote that. I did the same the next day, and the next day, and then I thought, "Well, it’s obviously a very big short story." I kept writing, then I thought, "Oh, it’s a novelette." Then it got too long to be a novelette. And so I thought, "Well, it’s a novella then." Somewhere in between I sent my editors a little note saying, "I think I’m writing a very long novella." But it just kept going. And when finally I sent them the finished book, it was a novel – a novel called The Ocean at the End of the Lane that I hadn’t planned to write at all.