Five things I learned at Neil Gaiman’s Symphony Space reading

The writer discussed The Ocean at the End of the Lane, childhood memories and the horrors of beetroot.

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman Photograph: Kimberly Butler

If you’re of a certain persuasion, Neil Gaiman’s last-ever book-signing tour is up there with the Beatles’ final concert at Candlestick Park—a crowning “we were there” moment for the fantasy–sci-fi set. So it’s no surprise that the line to get into Symphony Space on Wednesday night curled around the block, and then some. The cult author was there to do a reading, Q&A and autograph session for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, his first book for adults in eight years. Part memory novel, part supernatural tale, the story follows a seven-year-old boy in 1960s Sussex, England, who comes up against threats both mundane and otherworldly.

Gaiman fielded questions from the audience and moderator Erin Morgenstern (who penned The Night Circus), ranging from “What’s your favorite cheese?” (Wensleydale) to “What’s the difference between writing for books and TV?” (“If you’re writing a book, and you write a scene and it's good and you really like it…it stays in the book.”)

1. He wrote The Ocean at the End of the Lane by accident.
The book began life as a short story he was writing for his wife, musician Amanda Palmer, and then it mushroomed. “I started realizing that it was still going, and it wasn’t a short story. And I thought maybe I’m writing a novel here. And then I kept writing it, and then it was definitely a novella.… I finished it and I did a word count, and I was like, Technically, you are a novel! I just wrote a novel by accident!” he said.

2. The characters have been living in his head since he was nine.
Gaiman first dreamed up the Hempstocks, the seemingly ageless family in Ocean, when he himself was a little boy in Sussex. There was an old farmhouse nearby that had been the site of a farm for at least a thousand years (England, right?), and the future author imagined a set of equally ancient inhabitants. “I kept waiting to write them, because I wanted to find out who they were and how they behaved,” he explained. “But I had to actually write a story set in that place. And that’s where they live: on that farm at the end of my lane, in my head.”

4. Wednesdays are awful, but food is great.
When asked about the evocative descriptions of food in Ocean, Gaiman recalled the nefarious “Salad Wednesdays” in his elementary-school cafeteria: “Don’t think happy salads. You have to imagine this salad consisted of a lettuce leaf, half a tomato, some grated carrot, a large lump of something called salad cream—which is like the evil twin of mayonnaise—and then, two large slices of pickled beetroot. When you are seven, pickled beet is up there with kryptonite.”

He went on to recall fonder gastronomic memories, of the kitchens of his two Jewish grandmothers: “When you’re in their kitchen and in their domain—and things were kind of hot and greasy, and there was the sound of frying, and there was food happening and things being dunked in things—it was wonderful. It was the best place in the world. And you’d get to taste things that have just been made for you, and you knew you were loved.”

3. There is a company that makes Neil Gaiman–themed perfumes.
Always wanted to smell like a character in Coraline or American Gods? Turns out that gothic-themed perfumery the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab sells a whole line of intricate oil blends inspired by Gaiman’s works. Fairy Wine from Stardust sounds kind of nice (“An ethereal vintage, steeped with dandelion, honey and red currants”), but we’re pretty grossed out by Eau de Ghoul from The Graveyard Book (“Dessicated skin coated in blackened ginger, cinnamon and mold-flecked dirt, with cumin, bitter clove, leather and dried blood”). They’re $26 a pop, and proceeds go toward the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

5. Erin Morgenstern has never seen Doctor Who, and that was not okay.
When Gaiman was discussing the writing he’d done for the beloved BBC sci-fi series, Morgenstern sheepishly admitted that she’d never watched an episode. A collective horrified gasp came from the audience, and Gaiman was delighted: “That was the best noise! Because there was no disapproval in it! It wasn’t an ‘ooh…’, it was more of a ‘we can fix that for you.’”

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)