"The Ocean at the End of the Lane," Neil Gaiman's first book of fiction not aimed at younger readers since 2006, wasn't supposed to be a novel. It started out, innocently enough, as a short story Gaiman began while his wife, singer and performing artist Amanda Palmer, was in out of the country recording her next album. But then, it grew.
"I missed Amanda very much," he says. "I wanted to write her a story — and it just kept going."
Not that he exactly had the spare time to write another novel; Gaiman already has one slated for the 8-and-over set that'll be out in September, "About the Milk." He blogs and tweets (to 1.8 million followers) frequently, he's in demand to write more "Doctor Who" episodes ("being invited to write an episode was like someone saying, 'Do you want to be God?'" he says) and can even pop up on "The Simpsons," as he did in 2011 (in an episode "which revealed that I can't read and occasionally kill people," he jokes).
But this latest book caught him by surprise. "I don't think I would have ever gone, 'I'm going to write a personal novel,'" he says, noting that unlike some of his other more structured novels like "Anansi Boys," "Ocean" just flowed from him.
"Personal" is true, but also false — "Ocean" is the tale of a bookish, insular 7-year-old boy's incredible adventure with his extraordinary neighbors, and parts are cribbed from Gaiman's own childhood in a way that his comics like "Sandman" and books like "American Gods" are not. But the family down the lane in question, the Hempstocks, have lived in his imagination since he was a child.
"Ocean" took shape in 2012 with Palmer in Australia, Gaiman in Wisconsin. (He's British by birth and a U.S. resident for 20 years — though he's not planning on getting his citizenship, joking, "I worry if I wasn't a British citizen any more it would ruin the Queen.") He and Palmer wed in 2011, and have collaborated intentionally and unintentionally for years — Gaiman says "occasionally I'd say something or do something that would wind up in an Amanda song, and that would surprise me." He has also joined her onstage for some of her performances. But Gaiman says he's very pleased Palmer's creative muse doesn't express itself in writing.
"I love being in a relationship and married to someone who does something like what I do — and also nothing like what I do," he says. "I don't think I could have married another writer. We get grumpy, and go off alone, and want someone to make us tea. She goes off in one mad burst, diving deep into the waters and swimming back up with this glimmering song."
Still, all of this to'ing and fro'ing has made Gaiman a little weary. He's equally devoted to his fanbase — he'll sign books at his readings until every last fan has a copy — but that's changing; "Ocean" is his last signing tour. "I'm incredibly lucky that people want to come out and meet me; that is a wonderful, glorious, magical thing. But signing books for 1,000 people a night is really hard — because you want to be as fresh and smiley and useful to the first 50 and the final 50," he says.
And he'll be dialing back on the Internet as well next year, going on hiatus from the blog and Twitter. "I love social media, and they love me, but it's time to take a small rest," he says
Perhaps at 52, it may be necessary to just focus on the words on the page for a little while. "There are some things I'm much better at doing now than 25 years ago," he says. "There are things I pull off in 'Ocean' I could not have done before. But 25 years ago, everything I did was new — I was doing it all for the first time. It gets harder now to do anything that's new."
Not that he'd trade it for the world, though: Experience is Gaimain's greatest asset: "After 25 years of doing everything, now it all comes as a joy to me."
"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" is now in bookstores.