In Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the narrator submerges himself in a pond and sees the meaning of life. Alas, when he steps out, all he's left with is the vague memory that he had once known everything.
There's a backstory to this scene. When Gaiman was 10 years old, he had a near-death experience at school — a well-meaning boy pulled his necktie so tight that Neil couldn't breathe, and briefly passed out. When he got loose, gasping for air, he felt like he had surfaced from deep waters. (Listen to him tell the whole story to Kurt Andersen in the audio above.)
"I remember feeling that I had known everything," he says, "just for a while in there." Then the feeling faded.
It's a recurring theme in Gaimain's writing: the deep understanding of the world children seem to have, yet lose when they grow up. Gaiman says he first noticed this at a young age. He could tell the adults who wrote children’s book had forgotten what it was like to be a child, and told himself, “I have to be one of the ones who remembers."
Kurt Andersen's full conversation with Neil Gaiman will air on Studio 360 in the coming weeks.