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Neil Gaiman offers glimpse of himself — sort of — in latest novel

| Saturday, June 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In Neil Gaiman's passport case, on a scrap of paper beside his green card, are two verses of an unfinished work called “Pirate Stew.”

“I assume it's for kids,” Gaiman said. “But it's only two verses ... and it just sits there, and every time I pull out my passport, I feel guilty that I haven't done anything. One day, I will pull out my passport, get on a plane and go, ‘Ya know, I don't have anything to do now for the next seven hours. I'll write ‘Pirate Stew.' ”

It's hard to imagine the British-born Gaiman with time to kill — as a writer, he's almost absurdly prolific. His new novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” arrived last week. A dark fairy tale about a bookish 7-year-old boy growing up in England with distracted parents and a neighbor who remembers the big bang, it's the author's first book for adults since his best-selling 2005 fantasy “Anansi Boys.”

But that's only because Gaiman, 52, has been working in umpteen other forms — in March, the BBC broadcast a radio play based on his 1996 TV series “Neverwhere”; in May, a “Doctor Who” episode he wrote aired in the U.K.; in September, his children's book “Fortunately, the Milk” is due; over the spring, he wrote 12 short stories inspired by fan suggestions on Twitter as part of a project funded by BlackBerry. Gaiman is also writing the upcoming HBO series “American Gods,” an adaptation of his mythological 2001 novel; and Ron Howard is adapting his 2008 award-winning children's title “The Graveyard Book.”

Only the heavily pierced hostess at busy Magnolia Cafe in Austin — where Gaiman was recording the audio book of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” and participating in a panel at the South by Southwest festival in March — showed any sign of noticing the author. She snapped from dour to perky when he arrived.

For those who know him, including his more than 1.8 million Twitter followers, the author of the “Sandman” comic-book series and the “Beowulf” movie is instantly recognizable — his wild, dark mane has inspired a Tumblr account, “lovingly dedicated to the terrifying wonder that is Neil Gaiman's hair,” and his trans-Atlantic accent is so distinguishable that fans joke his publisher has insured it.

Gaiman is remarkably accessible to his audience, quickly replying to their tweets and chronicling his thoughts in an online diary. But his new book allows readers to know Gaiman better than any that have come before it, he said.

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” takes place in the Sussex countryside, where Gaiman grew up, and is told through a wistful middle-age narrator looking back on his boyhood belief that “books are safer than other people.”

The inspiration for the story was Gaiman buying a Mini automobile about a decade ago and learning from his father what had happened to his family's Mini when he was growing up — a boarder had stolen it and committed suicide in it. In the book, the suicide sets off a supernatural chain of events involving a family of three ancient-yet-ageless women who live in an old farm at the end of the lane.

“It's not autobiographical, but the lead character is very much me, age 7, in the geographical landscape that I grew up in,” Gaiman said. “It's about memory and about family and magic, and it gets very scary and weird.”

Gaiman began the novel as a short story to explain himself to his new wife, musician Amanda Palmer, who was away recording an album. But as he wrote, the story took on a life of its own.

“I'd get up every day and go, ‘Well, it's got to be finished by the end of the week, hasn't it?' And then the end of the week would happen and I was going, ‘Well, it's not a short story, it's obviously a novelette,' and then I thought, ‘Well, it's not a novelette, it must be a novella,' and I did a word count and I went, ‘Bloody hell, this thing's 56,000 words, that's a novel. Not a long novel, but it's a novel.' ”

(Gaiman's writing day, he confessed, “tends to be a very specific kind of balancing act between things that move me and things that people are screaming for.”)

Before early galleys went out to reviewers or, as is often the case, Hollywood agents and producers, Gaiman shared the book with a friend, “Atonement” director Joe Wright, who is set to direct it for Focus Features.

“It was very important to me that it be very English,” Gaiman said of the film adaptation. “I wanted an English director and an English production and also that it was made by people I like and trust. I knew the moment this thing went huge studio and huge director, then this little baby of mine that I loved was very likely to become something else, and I didn't want that to happen. It would break my heart. It's too close, too personal.”

Advance trade and online reviews for the book have been among the best in Gaiman's career. (The cultural criticism site PopMatters said it “features a level of craftsmanship, focus, and control that we normally associate more with literary fiction than genre.”) Gaiman said he's prouder of it than anything else he's written.

Rebecca Keegan is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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