A Coraline Q&A with Neil Gaiman

In 2002, Neil Gaiman answered the first set of questions below about his brand-new book for young readers, Coraline. In the second section, ten years later, Neil reflects on a decade of his magical classic and answers some special new anniversary questions.

How did you think up the name “Coraline”?

I was typing “Caroline” and it was coming out wrong. Larry Niven, the science fiction author, said in an essay that writers should treasure their typing mistakes. Once I typed it, I knew it was somebody’s name, and I wanted to know what happened to her.

I recently discovered it was actually a real name, although it’s not been used much in English-speaking countries for a long time. And, at the turn of the century, it was a name for a brand of corset.

Coraline is called a fairy tale. Do you really believe in fairies?

Well, the only fairy in Coraline has been dead for hundreds of years, and some people read the book and never notice her at all. Coraline’s a fairy tale in the same way that “Hansel and Gretel” is a fairy tale.

As for believing in fairies . . . many years ago I wrote the copyright notice for a comic called The Books of Magic, in which I said words to the effect of “All the characters, human or other- wise, are imaginary, excepting only certain of the faerie folk, whom it might be unwise to offend by casting doubts on their existence. Or lack thereof.” A position I still wholeheartedly support and defend.

Did your parents insist on cooking “recipes” rather than regular food?

Actually, it was me who did that, and I stole that aspect of Coraline from my son, Mike, when he was young, and still called Mikey. If ever I made anything adventurous he’d shake his head and say, “Dad, you’ve made a recipe, haven’t you?” and he’d head off to the freezer compartment to find a box of microwavable French fries.

Whenever we’d go out to eat he’d order peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, until one day a waiter persuaded him to explore the rest of the menu, and he’s never looked back.

How did you deal with long, boring, rainy days during the school holidays?

Well, on the good ones I’d get someone to drop me off at the local library, and I’d read. On the bad ones I’d stare out of the window and wonder what to do, and eventually wind up rereading the Narnia books.

What was the door that you were most scared to go through?

Well, Coraline’s door really was in the “drawing room” of our house. The house, long since knocked down, had been divided into two, and behind the door at the far end of the room was a red-brick wall. I was never certain there would always be a brick wall there, though.

Are things really magical, or do you make them magical by believing in them?

I think most things are pretty magical, and that it’s less a matter of belief than it is one of just stopping to notice.

What is the biggest key you have on your key ring and what does it open?

When I was boy I collected keys, for no real reason I could explain, and somewhere in the attic I still have a box filled with them, keys of all sizes and shapes and designs.

There aren’t any fun ones on the everyday key ring, though: the biggest opens the cabin, overlooking the lake, where I go and write each day. The cabin doesn’t have a phone, which helps.

What chocolate do you eat first if you’re given a whole box?

In a perfect world, I would first identify the chocolates from the Identify Your Chocolate guide and eat something with a name like “Caramel Surprise.” In the real world, I tend normally to accidentally pull out the chocolate truffles. By the way, I cannot see the point of “tangerine crèmes.”

Why do the batteries in things always run out just when you really need them?

It’s one of the rules. I don’t try and explain them. I just live here.

Did you let your children read Coraline before anyone else?

Well, I read it to Maddy, who was six when I finished it; and I forgot to give it to Holly (who is sixteen), so she just read it. “I hope you weren’t too old for it,” I told her, when she was done. “I don’t think you can be too old for Coraline,” she said, which made me very happy.

What is your favorite time of day?

Really, really early in the morning, just as the sun is coming up. I don’t see it too often, but I love it when I do.

Have you ever had your future told?

Once, while waiting for a theater to open in New York, by an old woman. She told me I would die on an island. It hasn’t happened yet.

Ten years of Coraline: Special Anniversary Questions

Looking back on ten years of Coraline, what surprises you the most about how the book has been and continues to be received?

That people love it, really. I thought it was much too odd and scary to be loved by anyone but me, and possibly my kids. I love that people, male and female and of all ages, identify with Coraline.

Throughout the last decade, Coraline has become a celebrated magical, literary classic and has now also successfully transitioned into both film and theater. Why do you think Coraline has been able to accomplish such a rare feat?

Coraline was published in 2002, illustrated by Dave McKean, and she went out into the world, accompanied by Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, not to mention her Other Mother, and scared many adults and fewer children. I was proud of her, proud of them all. And then I was able to gaze on, still proud but less immediately so, as I watched her transmute into an animated character in Henry Selick’s marvelous film, into an actress on a stage in Stephin Merritt’s haunting musical, into beautiful lines on paper in P. Craig Russell’s graphic novel. I do not know why it has worked so well, nor why it has changed its shape while never changing its essence. I think it’s because, at the end of the day (which is twilit and is about the time when the bats come out), it is not a story about fear, but one about bravery. After all, if a dragon is going to be defeated, it should be worth the fight, and the thing that calls herself the Other Mother is that.

About Neil

Neil Gaiman is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of books for children and adults whose award-winning titles include Norse Mythology, American Gods, The Graveyard Book, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), Coraline, and The Sandman graphic novels. Neil Gaiman is a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR and Professor in the Arts at Bard College.

Photo courtesy of the author