Neil Gaiman Live at the Crystal Ballroom
Neil Gaiman’s voice sounds like his writing. I suppose that’s not terribly surprising. Of course the man who puts words together with uncompromising directness, and yet imbues so many phrases with little conspiratorial smirks, would also speak plainly and with a dry sense of humor. But there is also something about the quality of his voice – the tired, deliberate, slightly baffled gentleness of it – that seems simultaneously appropriate and uncanny for the man who wrote Neverwhere, and Anansi Boys, and The Sandman.
I made the pilgrimage to my heart’s home in Portland, Oregon last Saturday to see the man himself. After an intro number by local musician Jason Webley, which pleased the largely alternative crowd (lots of tattoo ink and funky hair colors in the Crystal that night), Neil took the stage to the most thunderous applause that the 900-strong crowd could muster. Neil immediately assured us that he appreciated the relatively small setting and early start time. At a signing in California the day before, he was signing autographs so late into the night that he literally fell asleep with a pen in his hand.
He also, in an easy tone that could have just as easily been rehearsed as it could have been whatever had happened to pop into his head, assured any murderers in the crowd that they were not liked.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the book that we were handed at the door, and the one Neil was there to talk about. He informed us that it had just knocked Inferno down to number two on the New York Times Best Seller list, adding, “Take that, Dan Brown, and your intricately-crafted renaissance fantasies!”
Neil informed us that Ocean was written accidentally (his only accidental book besides Coraline), and spent some time explaining what he meant by that. You see, Ocean originally began as a short story that Neil wrote for his wife, who was working overseas at the time. Neil would have to go somewhat outside his usual zone to impress her, since she prefers feelings to fantasy. “How hard can it be to do feelings?” said Neil.
Neil drew on two things from his childhood for the story. First, the experience of a down-on-his-luck man stealing the Gaiman family car, driving it to the end of the lane, and committing suicide within it. Neil wasn’t aware of what had become of the car until many years later, and when he was finally told he realized what huge things can happen in a child’s life without their knowledge. Second, the Hempstocks. They came from Neil’s childlike musing on whether a neighbor family had always been at that particular farm, for all of history. They were some of the first characters he ever created, and some of their relatives have made appearances in his other books, but this is the first time he’s gotten to really tell their story.
And so a short story became a novelette. And then Neil had to call his publicist and inform him that he was writing a novella. Then he finished writing, did a word count, and called his publicist again. “I appear to have written a novel,” he said. “I’m very sorry.”
He read to us from the novel in question. This is not a review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or I would go deeper into the content of what he read. Suffice to say, as I have already done, that Neil Gaiman’s voice sounds like his writing.
After the last line of chapter 3, Neil took questions from the audience. Here are some things we learned:
1) Neil thinks everyone should have a hobby that could kill them. (His is beekeeping.)
2) The last time he checked his Wikipedia page was in 2003. Back then, he called Wikipedia to inform them of some errors on his page. They refused to change them due to lack of sources. When Neil wrote about it on his blog, Wikipedia fixed the mistakes, citing his blog post as a source.
3) Neil became a writer because he didn’t want to, on his deathbed, say, “I could have been a writer,” and not know whether or not he was lying to himself.
4) Between Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker, Neil’s fans are by far the nicest. The weirdest thing one of Neil’s fans has ever given him is a My Little Pony doll made up as Death. The weirdest thing one of Clive Barker’s fans has ever given him is a staff topped with a severed cat head.
5) Neil’s process as a writer, in three words: “glare, drink tea.”
6) None of the things Neil has written about have seemed to manifest in the real world. Someone did pull off the ATM night vault scam from American Gods, but it seems they got the idea from the book, so it doesn’t count.
7) One fan included with their question a “picture of a cat, for your enjoyment.” It’s worth noting that the questions were collected before Neil told the story about Clive Barker’s cat head.
8) The last question was a heartfelt little note about how much Neil means to the question-asker. It ended with a request for a kiss. Neil invited the question-asker onto the stage and granted her request. I will not share the person’s name, but I salute her moxie.
It was absolutely sweltering in the ballroom. The weekend was surprisingly hot for a city known for its rain, and Neil made several references to the fact that we were all slowly cooking in that room. So he gave us the option of getting on with the signing instead of listening to him read one more thing. By a show of hands, we all politely declined.
So he read to us from a new story that will be out in September, called Fortunately the Milk. It’s the tale of a father who gets pulled into all sorts of cross-genre shenanigans on his way home from the store to bring his children milk for their cereal. According to Neil, it’s his apology to fathers everywhere who have been given The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish for their birthdays. In only a short reading there was an alien abduction, a pirate execution, and a stegosaurus in a hot air balloon. You don’t want to miss this when it comes out.
On a personal note, Neil went out of his way to be kind to me when signing my books. Perhaps the niceness of Neil’s fan base has something to do with the man they choose to fan over. Just a thought.