I Saw Neil Gaiman!

I will never be as devoted a fan of Neil Gaiman's as the ones I encountered on Saturday, July 6th, but I am really happy that we share a Venn diagram. I realized this at the reading and book signing for Gaiman's new book The Ocean at the End of the Lane in Santa Rosa. The evening was arranged remarkably well by Copperfield Books at a local high school.

The queue curled around the low auditorium building, stretched through corridors, looped around stairs and passages, and emerged at the entrance. My friend Rebecca drove me there, a two-hour car-ride from Palo Alto. When we finally stood in line, one copy of the book in Rebecca's hands (I bought the audiobook, performed by Neil Gaiman himself), we actually didn't talk to each other for a good 15-20 minutes. I concentrated really hard on my hands and fingernails while Rebecca pretended to read the book. It wasn't because we didn't have anything interesting to say to each other. It was because Gaiman's fans were monumentally more interesting than us! We were shamelessly and happily eavesdropping. 

Some gems from the conversations around us (forgive me, I am paraphrasing):
I would gladly stand in line all night just to be in the company of a god [Neil Gaiman] for a moment.

Who the hell names their child North West? That kid is in for a lifetime of therapy.

[On legislation regarding women's bodies and choices:] NO! Did you, a man, just say that about my body? Are you for real?

There were more - so many more that I have forgotten. I was impressed that Neil Gaiman's work appeals to such a diverse audience. Isn't that the mark of a really good writer? I know that some people were planning to stay until 2AM just to stand next to him and get their books signed. I am certainly not his biggest fan, even though I love his work, but I understand that motivation. If I didn't have a baby waiting for me at home, I would probably have stayed, too.

When the doors to the auditorium opened, the noise suddenly swelled. I could sense excitement mounting in the crowd. Neil emerged from the curtains at 5:30 on the dot - and then there was craziness. I am sure people driving on the road outside the school could feel the sheer vitality that ran through the audience like a dangerous rumor. People stood up and cheered and clapped. A woman sitting in front of me couldn't contain herself. She started to giggle and jump and pump her fists in the air like a little girl who had just discovered a pile of candy. The adoration that Gaiman's fans have for him is, quite frankly, astounding and fascinating. I am a fan, too, a pretty loyal one at that, but I am no match for the majority. And yet, the thrill of seeing Neil Gaiman gripped all of us - it was apparent in my fierce clapping, too.

Let me just say this. Neil Gaiman is AMAZING! When he talks, you want to listen. It's not just because he has an English accent - that may be one reason, of course, but it's mainly because he is funny and charming and has a really great voice and seems to genuinely care about his fans. This last reason is really moving. For me, at least, Neil's reciprocation of the love he receives from his fans, is simply fantastic.  Neil was committed to signing all night if he had to, just so every last person who wanted to meet him would get that chance. He was also committed to signing not just as many copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane as you happened to have, but also one other book. Of course I knew peripherally that Neil Gaiman reaches out and acknowledges his fans - I follow him on Facebook and Twitter, but to see him doing so in person, and to witness the response of the crowd - the way they bent forward in their seats, hanging on to every last word he spoke, laughing (sometimes hysterically) at all his jokes (and what a great sense of humor, by the way, quick, dry, ready, self-deprecating), was an experience I will never forget. There was this almost tangible chemistry between Neil Gaiman and the audience. He commanded the room, but he did so in an inclusive manner - the audience was in on the jokes; it was not a performance, it was a dialogue between Neil and his fans, despite the fact that he did all the talking.

Since I had already finished the audiobook, I appreciated the excerpt he chose to read aloud. It was one of my favorite parts, one in which our young hero is sitting in the kitchen of the Hempstocks, the one in which there are daffodils and pancakes and jam and honey. The one in which there is respite from fear. During the reading, someone's phone rang. Neil, without missing a beat, said: "You have to turn that off. That's the deal. I read, you turn off your phone. Otherwise, it gets really embarrassing for you." The crowd LOVED it.

He went on to answer some questions the audience had submitted. Some paraphrased gems:

Question: What advice would you have for a new writer?
Neil: I would tell you to go and write!
Question: What would you say to a writer who thinks they are not good enough?
Neil: Do not feel unique in your tragedy. (This after relating a long incident in which he doubted his writing during Anansi Boys, called up his agent, and was told that he does this every time he is in the middle of a book, and in fact, all of her other clients do it, too. "So I am not even unique in my tragedy!")
Question: Something about bee-keeping as a hobby.
Neil: Everyone should have a hobby that can kill them.
Neil also read from his unpublished book for all ages Fortunately, The Milk. I won't say much about it, except that it will be released on September 17. You should pre-order it. Read it. Enjoy it. If it's available as an audiobook, I will buy both the hardcover and the audio version. It was supremely entertaining, especially the way Neil Gaiman performed it. 

At the end of the reading, we swapped the unsigned book with a signed copy (Neil signed 400 copies for Copperfield Books earlier that day), but for many of his fans, it was going to be a long night. I am sure they did not resent it, because to them, waiting in line all night was a fair price to pay for spending a moment in the company of this god.

It was a really good day.

Photos by Rebecca McCue