“I’m a giant wandering assemblage of memories.”
So says Neil Gaiman, discussing the nature of memory with Charles Fernyhough at this sellout event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
The conversation is prompted by Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean At The End of the Lane, which sees the author explore a world flitting with the half-remembered experiences of its seven year-old narrator. He explains it was originally intended as a short story; a present for his wife, containing things and themes which he knew she would like.
Before long, however, the “landscape of childhood” he created “went fractal”, resulting in the evocative and multi-layered novel which, as Fernyhough points out, stands up to repeat readings and multiple interpretations.
“Lots of different reviewers go different places with it,” says Gaiman. “Some have said it’s about trauma, about memories to cover up memories; that’s not how I saw it, but it’s legitimate.”
More discussion about the nature and status of memory follows. Whilst Gaiman claims to be able to, given five minutes and a pencil and paper, “list every book on my bookshelf aged seven”, other memories — from clever things he’s supposed to have said to short stories he wrote years ago — are completely gone.
But it’s important to hold on to the bad as well as the good. “I’d hate to lose any of my memories,” he says. “They define me. If you can’t learn from past mistakes, then they’re just bad things that happened.”
After giving some wry explanation of what constitutes a question (“a short interrogative statement ending in a question mark”), the floor is opened up to the audience.
Answering a question on whether we’ve forgotten the need for fairytale, Gaiman doesn’t think we have, saying we have a constant “craving for the shapes of myth and fairytale”. That shape is what he aims for most — if a reader comes up to him and says they’ve read one of his books and felt like they’ve always known it, then, as he puts it, “I’ve done something good.”
Then, asked if he had an intended audience in mind for his latest novel, he states that The Ocean At The End of the Lane is primarily meant for adults, given that it’s not necessarily “hugely optimistic”.
“It’s intended to show that actually, sometimes dragons are huge,” he says, “and they win.”
Neil Gaiman was in conversation with Charles Fernyhough at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Aug 22nd.