Happy Anniversary Coraline

Forward: Coraline

We moved into our flat in Littlemead, in the tiny Sussex town of Nutley, in the South of England, in 1987. Once on a time it had been a manor house, built for—the old man who had once owned the house, before he sold it to a pair of local builders, told me—the physician to the king of England himself. It had been a manor house then, but it was now converted into flats.

Flat number Four, where we lived, was a good place, if a little odd. Above us, a Greek family. Beneath us, a little old lady, half blind, who would telephone me whenever my little children moved, and tell me that she was not cer- tain what was happening upstairs, but she thought that it must be elephants. I was never entirely certain how many flats there were in the house, nor how many of them were occupied.

We had a hallway running the length of the flat, as big as any room. At the end of the hall hung a wardrobe door, as a mirror.

When I started to write a book for Holly, my five-year-old daughter, I set it in the house. It seemed easy. That way I wouldn’t have to explain to her where anything was. I changed a couple of things, of course, swapped the position of Holly’s bedroom and the lounge. Then I took a closed oak-paneled door that opened onto a brick wall, and a sense of place, from the drawing room in the house I grew up in.

That house was big and old, and it had been split into two just before we moved there. We had the servants’ quarters, except for one room, the oak-paneled drawing room, “only for best,” with a door at the end that had once been the family’s entrance, and that now led nowhere. It opened onto a brick wall.

I took that room and that door, along with the front room of my grandmother’s house (only for best, not for the family, still-life oil paintings of fruit on the walls), and I put them into the book I had started writing.

The book was called Coraline. I had typed the name Caroline, and it came out wrong. I looked at the word Coraline, and knew it was someone’s name. I wanted to know what happened to her.

Holly liked scary stories, with witches and brave little girls in them. Those were the kinds of stories she told me. So Holly’s story was going to be scary.

I wrote an opening that I later deleted. It went,

This is the story of Coraline, who was small for her age, and found herself in darkest danger.

Before it was all over Coraline had seen what lay behind mir- rors, and had a close call with a bad hand, and had come face-to- face with her other mother; she had rescued her true parents from a fate worse than death and triumphed against overwhelming odds.

This is the story of Coraline, who lost her parents, and found them again, and (more or less) escaped (more or less) unscathed.

I stopped writing Holly’s book when we moved to America. (I had been writing it in my own time. It didn’t seem like I had any “own time” any longer.)

Six years later I picked it up and continued from the middle of the sentence I’d stopped at in August 1992.

It was “Hullo,” said Coraline. “How did you get in?” The cat didn’t say anything. Coraline got out of bed

I started it again because I realized that if I didn’t, my youngest daughter, Maddy, would be too old for it by the time I was done. I started it for Holly. I finished it for Maddy.

Now we were living in a gothic old house in the middle of America, with a turret and a wraparound porch, with steps up to it. It’s a house built over a hundred years ago by a German immigrant, a cartographer (that’s someone who makes maps) and an artist. His son, Henry, was said to have been the first man to put an engine on a boat or on a bicycle and was described as “the greatest creative figure in the history of the racing car.”

Now I was writing Coraline again, I still had no time, so I would write fifty words a night in bed, before I fell asleep. I went on a cruise to raise money for the First Amendment (that’s the one about freedom of speech) in comics. I fin- ished it in a little cabin on a lake in the woods.

Dave McKean, artist and friend, took photographs of Littlemead, which he then played with to make the house on the back cover of Coraline.

When Henry Selick made his stop-motion animated film of Coraline, he invited me to the studio. There were a lot of sets there, each behind a black curtain. Henry proudly showed me the house that Coraline lived in in the film. She’d moved from somewhere in England to Oregon, now, and the house she was in was called the Pink Palace.

“That’s my house,” I told Henry.

And it was. Henry Selick’s Pink Palace was the house I live in now, turret and porch and all. None of us are quite sure how that happened. But it seemed strangely appro- priate for a book that was started for one daughter in one house and finished for another in another house.

The book was published in 2002, and people liked it. It won awards. More importantly than that, it worked, at least for some people.

I’d wanted to write a story for my daughters that told them something I wished I’d known when I was a boy: that being brave didn’t mean you weren’t scared. Being brave meant you were scared, really scared, badly scared, and you did the right thing anyway.

So now, ten years later, I’ve started running into women who tell me that Coraline got them through hard times in their lives. That when they were scared they thought of Coraline, and they did the right thing anyway.

And that, more than anything, makes it all worthwhile.

 

Neil Gaiman

December 5, 2011

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