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Author Neil Gaiman stood smiling in front of a poster for The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Q&A: Neil Gaiman

National Theatre’s adaptation of the award-winning book The Ocean at the End of the Lane arrives from 30 May.

Author Neil Gaiman answers our questions about this thrilling adventure of fantasy, myth and friendship, and shares some "incredibly fond memories of Cardiff".

The book is loosely based on your childhood. What was the starting point?

The book began with me wanting to try and explain to my wife where I grew up and what that world was like. She could take me to her childhood home because it’s still the same, but I couldn’t take her to where I grew up [in East Grinstead] because the place had long since been demolished; lots of lovely neat little housing estates covered the gardens and the fields and lanes. So for me it was kind of an effort to try and evoke a past and a sense of place.

An interesting side of it for me too was that I realised that I hadn’t heard, for a very long time, the Sussex accent of my childhood. Mrs Weller came in and cleaned once a week and Mr Weller came in and did the gardens. They were probably in their 80s and they had proper Sussex accents – almost like a West Country burr. I resolved to write a novel with that in too.

How did you create the Hempstocks?

I was told by my mother – quite erroneously, I discovered, when I did my research – that the farm half-way down our lane was in the Doomsday Book. And that was the start of the Hempstocks in my head; who they were and what I wanted to do with them.

Keir Ogilvy (Boy), Finty Williams (Old Mrs Hempstock) and Millie Hikasa (Lettie Hempstock) © Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Do you find writing about family especially fascinating?

I don’t think I’ve ever been able to avoid writing about family, even when I thought I was writing about something else. Whether it’s biological family or the family we make. In the novel I created a semi-fictional family for myself, and in the play version it was one step further away from my family, which I think looking back on is incredibly healthy! But the boy is definitely me.

The play received amazing reviews when it premiered. Without any spoilers, do you have any favourite moments?

There is something astounding about the moment when they enter the ocean. That completely fascinates me. And you’re going to see miracles made out of bits of rubbish and old plastic bags and nightmarish birds beyond your imagination. It still takes me by surprise every time I watch.

Keir Ogilvy (Boy), Millie Hikasa (Lettie Hempstock), Kemi-Bo Jacobs (Ginnie Hempstock) © Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Is it true that you were so moved by the play when you saw it in rehearsals that you cried?

I saw the first full run through. About ten minutes from the end I had tears running down my face. I thought that this was terribly embarrassing and I was discreetly trying to flick them away.

You describe yourself as a storyteller. What inspired you to be a writer?

I’m not sure that all writers are frustrated performers, but for me it was the joy in getting to be all of the characters. As a writer you get to do that. Being a kid who loved books I could think of nothing cooler than giving people the pleasure that I got.

Laurie Ogden (Sis), Charlie Brooks (Ursula), Trevor Fox (Dad) © Pamela Raith

The play has been on tour since December 2022. Are there any tour destinations that hold special relevance to you?

I have incredibly fond memories of Cardiff because we got to go there to make Doctor Who. There was a week in 2010 when I went to Cardiff and one day in particular felt almost historic: I spent the daytime on the Doctor Who set watching (my episode) ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ being shot and then in the evening I met up with Terry Pratchett in a little Japanese restaurant. This is when we agreed we would do Good Omens as a TV series. Well done that day!

Neil Gaiman © Piers Allardyce

Neil Gaiman is known for his graphic novels, including The Sandman series (a major new Netflix series which in its first 10 days was watched for over 198 million hours by audiences around the world); his novels for adults and children including Stardust, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book; and multiple film and television projects including Good Omens and Anansi Boys.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the winner of the Book of the Year at the 2013 National Book Awards and has sold more than 1.2 million copies worldwide. This first major stage adaptation of his work blends magic with memory in a tour-de-force of storytelling that takes audiences on an epic journey to a childhood once forgotten and the darkness that lurks at the very edge of it.

Find tickets for The Ocean at the End of the Lane 30 May – 3 June 2023