The first time I saw Neil Gaiman speak was when he was on tour for the tenth anniversary and reprinting (in hardcover) of American Gods. I got there forty minutes before he was supposed to speak and the line was around the block. He spoke in a church and I had to sit in the furthermost pews in the top of a balcony. (Yes, how very goth, but what do you expect from the author of the Sandman graphic novels, Neverwhere, and The Graveyard Book?) This time he was speaking at the A.C.T. Theatre and it was sold out, 1000 seats! I got there two hours early and procured a great seat.
The format was different from most author readings/conversations I’ve been to. Gaiman began by explaining the creation of this novel. He grew lonely while his wife, Amanda Palmer, was in Australia writing an album. So he decided to write her a story. But she doesn’t like fantasy. He waited as we all laughed and shook our heads. She doesn’t like fantasy, but she does like me, he added. But this story grew. Into a novella. And then, into a novel. This time he read a long chapter of his newest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. His inflections were spot on. His timing, impeccable.
He then answered questions from the audience. Earlier they had passed out notecards for everyone to write questions on. So he went through this long stack of cards and tried to make his answers concise as he is known for long storied answers. Someone asked which children inspired his kids books. He said it was his own kids: his son inspired The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish. He said that he told his son it was time to go to sleep. But he didn’t want to. And his son stood there looking at him and said, “I wish I didn’t have a dad. I wish I had a . . . .” And Gaiman could see his son thinking what else is there? And his son came out with “a goldfish!”. And his daughter would make him write spooky stories about little girls (with her same name) that involved hidden rooms, etc. He knew she liked scary stories so he went to his local bookshop and asked, “Do you have any scary horror books for four year olds?” They did not. So he decided to write some.
He then read another excerpt from his other book coming out in September.
After that, he signed everyone’s books. Everyone’s. Remember that the A.C.T. was sold out. Plus there was staff working. I only waited about twenty minutes. There were all these handlers there. Making sure the items were prepared before Gaiman signed them. Explaining that you can only have two items signed, and only one personalized. But to see all these people want something from him was crazy. And I was one of them! We could have had our pictures taken with him, but you’d have to go around the table and stand behind him like a bit of a creeper while he signed someone else’s books. I’m not complaining, most authors of his caliber don’t do signings, let alone personalized signings and allow photographs. But I couldn’t be like these deluded fans, so I thought. And yet . . . (wait for it . . .)
When he signed my book, my name was marked on a post it note, as is customary at book signings. My book had gotten ahead of me. He asked, “Where’s Melanie?” I quietly moved forward. “She’s here. I’m her. I’m Melanie.” Verbally stumbling over myself. Verbal vomit, if you will. And then he started to sign my book. He looked up and said, “Thank you for coming tonight.” I was silent. I couldn’t think of what to say. I smiled quietly. “You’re welcome” didn’t seem appropriate, even though that’s what society dictates. He said, “I really appreciate you coming out tonight.” I just stared. He smiled. I smiled. I swear he looked into my eyes and saw my soul. (And yes, I realize how crazy that sounds. I know it’s not true. But in all honesty, I felt like, Neil understands. He gets that I’m a shy intellectual who reads and listens to loud music and used to be goth and I have a cat. He gets it. Neil knows that I have so much to say but don’t know where to begin and he knows that we could be friends if we ever met in real life.) But I said, “Thank you,” smiled, and walked away, high on close proximity to author genius. And then I realized that I had become one of those people. The ones that identify with celebrities and think that incredibly egotistical thought that we could be friends, get a coffee, go to the movies, text each other funny stuff. Maybe it’s because he used to be goth and kinda still is. Maybe because I used to be goth and kinda still am. Don’t worry, I’m not going to stalk him or anything. It was just funny to realize I had that feeling. I’ve wanted to have that with Salman Rushdie. Never have. Anne Rice was super kind, but I was 21 when I met her, so I’m sure she just thought, “how cute, another goth girl.” Irvine Welsh, well, he seemed like he could be a friend too. Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Michael Chabon were both kind but no connection. All of those writers were polite, gracious, and humble but what I felt with Neil was different. I was drunk purely on my love for an artist’s writing. I felt like that girl who reaches her arm up to Nick Cave or Morrissey at a show and thinks, “all I want is to touch his hand. That’s it. Nothing more”.
But Neil Gaiman looked into my eyes and saw my soul, and you can’t get better than that.