Neil Gaiman and Charles Fernyhough – Edinburgh Book Festival – 8pm – 22nd August 2013.
With less than half of the audience in attendance having read Gaiman’s new book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it seems that this talk could be perceived in many different ways. As someone who has read the book, and understood the points of reference, it proved a completely insightful and interesting hour, with an added understanding given it’s a book that remains my favourite release of the year. Elsewhere, it’s fair to suggest that the in depth line of questioning from Fernyhough resulted in something great, with or without the reference points to draw from.
The evening starts with a brief dose of hilarity, as the evening is said to celebrate Gaiman’s ‘incredible body and quality of work’. “It’s not an incredible body,” quips Gaiman. “I’d give it good.”
After assessing how many have read the book, he opts for a reading early on. It begins early on in the lead character’s regression to a childhood memory, circulating his father’s inability to cook toast and the theft of their car. I remember it vividly. Gaiman’s style of writing is captivating and resonates deeply, but hearing him read his own work is something spectacular. He lulls at points you wouldn’t have naturally expected, he really reads as the character, a true story teller. But this is only the beginning of the evening.
Fernyhough focuses on themes of childhood and the importance of memories, delving deeply into how Gaiman views specific ideas. But first, he recounts how Ocean at the End of the Lane began as a short story for his wife, Amanda, but progressed into something much more. He was the main influence for the lead character, and drew on his own memories for much of the ground plot. “Memory is like seeing things through the mist,” he notes. “It’s like fractals. The further in you go, the more detail there is.”
Considering the book’s response, it’s a welcome fact that the short story became a book. With a deep connection to childhood, Gaiman and Fernyhough explore memory from the point of both adult and child. As a child, Gaiman offers, bad things would happen, but he would never tell his parents because he assumed they didn’t know. A particular stand out comes from his school story, featuring a teacher whose style of punishment resembled a nipple cripple.
But he never thought of telling anyone – it just never occurred to him. And it’s clear to see the parallels with his fictional counterpart. People have taken many meanings from the book, one of which is that something traumatic happened in the character’s childhood and now, looking back as an adult, he has a new memory to spare him from the real pain. It begs the question, would you, given the choice, remove traumatic memories if given the option, as the character is?
“I’d hate to lose any of my memories,” Gaiman counters. “They define me. I am a giant wandering assemblage of memories.”
Before opening the floor to questions, Gaiman takes a moment to describe a question, having attended many years previous and had well thought out points thrown at him with no additional answer he could give. The thoughts go down a similar vein: certain ideas surrounding memories, the dichotomy of being a child and an adult. Interestingly, though this was an adult book, it read like it could be suited for children. It’s dark, but even those darkest moments are told through the eyes of a child. And he likes this.
“When I am writing a book, I have an audience in mind. For Coraline, my intended audience was kids but I’m happy that adults could also read it and enjoy it,” he admits.
A mere hour, that’s all we had to revel in the intricate thoughts of this literary great. It definitely encouraged those who hadn’t yet read the book to delve in eagerly, and it certainly provokes the urge to re-read. The line of questioning may have been fairly serious, but Fernyhough balances Gaiman brilliantly as they tackle the psyche of the book at hand. An absolutely charming book, and a fantastic opportunity to hear the thoughts of the voice behind it.