“I wanted to write something that was about power. About the powerlessness of childhood. It’s the fact that, as a child, you are living in somebody else’s country. You are a guerrilla force: there’s an army of occupation, they’re all giants and they’ve got some kind of baffling agenda.” Neil Gaiman’s account of the gulf between adult life and childhood – the one that would be perfectly bridged in adolescence if life, hormones and “icky things like kissing” didn’t get in the way first – is droll and sad in equal measures, particularly in the context of recent events in Soham.
The bitter irony – that Gaiman’s new novel Coraline, his first venture into children’s fiction, is about child abduction, parents stripped of their protective role and the fear of the familiar – is not lost on the author. Sipping the first of many cups of tea in the lobby of the Clarence, he’s just been on the Gerry Ryan Show to talk about the book, following a 90-minute segment on the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. When he was doing interviews in America, there was always a point where some nervous journalist would ask “but don’t you think this book is too dark for children?” But the focus has shifted: now, he says, “it’s like there’s a sudden collective understanding of what fairytales are for. There are some really important lessons in something like Hansel And Gretel, including the fact that you may one day have to make it on your own; that if you were ever put in a really dangerous situation that you should never give up hope, and that you should be prepared to do something quite horrible if you have to. Child psychologists have been saying for years that we shouldn’t tell children these things, that we should tell them the world is pink and everybody should hug like Barney at the end. But you know what? There are fucking monsters out there, and they kill people. And it’s not a bad thing for kids to understand that.”
Gaiman leads by example: there are plenty of monsters in Coraline, the tale of the eponymous heroine’s journey into a frightening inverse Narnia through a bricked up doorframe, replete with sinister doppelgänger parents with shiny black buttons for eyes. Coraline’s name came about quite by accident – a brief stumble on the keyboard (“I have a terrible feeling I was writing to someone called Caroline”) and Gaiman’s heroine was born. “Serendipity takes care of you, especially as a writer. The only thing you can almost guarantee is that when you desperately need a piece of information, and you’ve reached the point where you’ve given up looking, the book that falls off the stack onto your head will fall open at the page that contains exactly what you need. Although it’s never what you thought you needed – it’s always something slightly at right-angles.”
Now in his mid-forties and the author of numerous novels (most recently American Gods), graphic novels, screen and stage plays, Gaiman will be forever known for the dark, literate and mythically sophisticated opus that was Sandman. The Vertigo comic book series had the traditional lit-crits eating crow and arriving at the late conclusion that some comics could indeed be elevated to high art. After writing with adults in mind for so long, I ask him if had to approach Coraline from a whole new direction. “I tried not to waste any words. Somebody once said to me that the best way to write a short story was to write as if you were paying them by the word, and that’s very much the approach I took with this book. If there’s a word there, it does something; if there’s a sentence there, it does something. Especially when something is going to be read out loud, you don’t need that extra fatty adjectival froth on the top.”
Gaiman’s deliberate economy with words doesn’t mean his lost his enthusiasm for well-turned descriptive prose, mind you: the quiet menace of Coraline’s button-eyed “other mother” is hinted at early on with eerie imagery like “the hair on her head drifted like plants under the sea,” and these encounters grow ever more frightening and unsettling as the book progresses.
Coraline has been frequently likened to both Alice In Wonderland and to Roald Dahl’s writing – certainly there are superficial likenesses to Carroll’s dark fantasy (the little girl in trouble, the hidden world just beyond our vision) and Coraline’s determination to prevail in the face of horror (and grown-up folly) recalls some of Dahl’s singleminded child heroes – but that’s where the similarities end. “It’s journalistic shorthand; it’s laziness. I don’t see much resemblance, except that they were all written in the classic English storytelling voice. The other thing is, it was always important to me that Coraline would win whatever battles she fought in a way that any smart eight year old could win those battles.”
The best children’s fiction, of course, never condescends to its natural audience, never assumes that kids are imbeciles, and it’s to Gaiman’s credit that he refused to forget the lessons of his own childhood. “I have very very vivid memories of being a kid, and reading books, and I remember feeling deep loathing and irritation whenever I encountered a children’s book which patronised. The Just William books, for example, were spiritually correct in every way – they may not have been exactly mapped onto my world, but I knew who these people were, and I knew why they did what they did. The fact that William put a frog in his pocket because he didn’t have anywhere else to put it – that just felt right, it made sense to me. Whereas you’d read these other books… usually European for some reason, about these ‘dear children’ who will now be detectives and, oh how nice for them. And you’re just thinking: this is wank.”
⁋ Neil Gaiman photo by Sam Javanrouh.