Born in Portsmouth, UK and now living in the United States, Neil Gaiman is one of the world’s foremost writers. Working across novels, comics, short stories, poems and screenplays, his most recognized literary creations include the Sandman series of graphic novels, Good Omens (written with British author Terry Pratchett), Coraline and Stardust – all of which have transitioned from page to screen. Most recently, his novel The Ocean At the End of the Lane, was adapted for the West End stage to widespread critical acclaim. In the latest ‘Dunhill Profile,’ we speak to the multi-award-winning author about seeing his characters come to life, the endless appeal of ‘magical reality,’ and the joy of writing first drafts by fountain pen.
What was the first thing you ever remember writing?
I remember grabbing my mum, aged two-and-a-half, and dictating a poem to her because I couldn’t write yet! However, the first thing I remember actually writing myself was when I was about seven or eight – sitting in my bedroom and penning poetry that was inspired by Tolkien, all about dragons and fantastical things.
It’s clear that science fiction and fantasy have been an influence from your earliest years of writing. What is it that continues to inspire you about those genres?
What’s interesting to me about fantasy, science, fiction, horror, everything that isn’t ‘realism’, is that I’m creating a metaphor – a distorting mirror of the world around us. It forces you to see things that you’ve seen a thousand times before in a way that means that you’ve never seen them before.
Is there a literary genre or artistic medium that you haven’t explored yet that you’d love to in the future?
Seeing The Ocean at the End of the Lane adapted and performed in a theatre has made me very conscious that I’ve yet to write an original work for the stage. That would be fun, because the magic of a play is that it never happens in the same way twice.
Speaking of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, what was your reaction to seeing characters you’d created in literature come to life on stage?
It was a real revelation to me. On the very first run through, I was sitting at the back of the National Theatre’s big rehearsal space – normal lights on, actors not entirely in costume. Ten minutes before the end of the rehearsal, there are tears streaming down my face that I’m discreetly trying to flick away as everyone in the room can see me.
Realising that this is a story that works on a visceral level, something that works emotionally in ways that I had not imagined. Now I’ve seen the play four different times in different theatres around the country and each time, it is just as powerful each time. There are moments where you’re crying and you look around and you realise that the person sitting next to you is crying as well. Everybody’s crying because they’re feeling things and it’s a shared experience in the same space.
You write all your first drafts using a fountain pen. What is it about this instrument that’s so essential to your creative process?
I bought my first fountain pen since school in about 1996 when I was writing Stardust because I wanted to feel like I was creating something in the 1920s. Then I got addicted. The pleasure in the feel of the nib gliding over the paper and the fact it slows me down, making my handwriting more legible. Also, it makes me feel like I don’t have to get quite right the first time – writing with a paper and fountain pen gives me a magical freedom to create.
Are there any experiences you’ve had living in America that make you feel very distinctly British?
The hardest time for me was when I moved to America in 1992. The web wasn’t really widespread yet and you couldn’t buy international products or listen to world radio easily. I’ve never felt more English than those five years living in middle America feeling very cut off from the UK. I used to stockpile tea, videotapes, cassettes when I visited Britain and nervously bring them back to the US because I knew I couldn’t explain why my bag was filled with Marmite or Typhoo tea bags to American customs if I was stopped.
Who is the most stylish character you’ve created in any universe?
I would pick Coraline. The fact that I can walk out on Halloween and see small children in blue wings, yellow coats and rain boots, walking around happily being somebody that I created always puts a smile on my face. I love that I created somebody who is a fashion icon for seven year olds.
Neil Gaiman was photographed at the Noel Coward Theatre in London wearing our AW23 collection.
Osei Bonsu is an author and curator whose passion lies in amplifying the works of artists from the African diaspora and the representation of African art in museums across the world, as well as mentored emerging talent through his digital platform, Creative Africa Network.
DR NICHOLAS CULLINAN
Dr Nicholas Cullinan is the Director of the National Portrait Gallery in London. His career has seen him in curatorial roles at some of the world’s most important cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and London’s Tate Modern.