The PoolMan meets the Sandman [Retro Article]

The Prelude

It never fails to amaze me how life seems so doggedly determined to pass me by, some days.

A few weeks ago, on a total lark, my wife (the Astounding PoolGirl!) decided she was curious about this author I’d been on a real kick for. You see, about a year and a half ago I decided to pick up a copy of American Gods by one Neil Gaiman while running through an airport, and had since gone on to read Neverwhere and Good Omens. I was very much hooked on this Brit-turned-American author who wrote well-styled and deeply interesting fiction, and she wanted to see what the fuss (and stack of novels next to the bed) was all about. By pure chance, about three or four weeks before it was scheduled to happen, she came across an early entry in the Vancouver International Writer’s Festival.

Neil Gaiman was coming to Vancouver.

I was quickly coming to love this guy’s body of work (that’s “OF WORK”, Drew), he was coming to my town, and the only reason I found out about it at all was because I have a wife who likes snooping through my things. See what I mean? Determined to pass me by!

But no dice. She caught it, I flipped out, and we bought tickets almost straight away. I figured for $15, what’s the worst that could happen?

The Sandman Speaketh

It was a dark and stormy night. Honest. It rained very heavily that night, as it is very wont to do here in Vancouver. We drove about a half hour to what is probably the snootiest high school I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s the kind of place the archrival soccer team comes from in those made-for-kids sports movies that always feature a slow motion goal at the last minute. I had thought ahead of time that it might be a little insulting for Mr. Gaiman to speak at a public high school, but this place was nice.

The theater seated about a thousand, and fifteen minutes before the “show” was set to begin, the place was already about half full. We got nice center seats about twenty rows up from a very simple stage. There was a nice pedestal with the Writer’s Fest logo on it, a small table with some water in a jug and a glass, and not a lot else. Not even a chair.

The clock springs forward to 7:00pm, and a big bearded guy comes out front to reassure us all that no, he’s not Neil Gaiman (big laugh), and that they were holding the start while the rest of the crowd slogged through the rain. Neil was there, he was just backstage, we were all just giving the other audience members a fair shake at not missing anything. The atmosphere in the room made this seem like no big deal. The room was about 80% full now, with people excitedly reading Sandman comics, reading copies of the new book (Anansi Boys), chatting with other fans… it was all good. The crowd let it go.

Another few minutes slide by, and at last someone comes on stage to kick everything off. Some organizer-type was busily mispronouncing the titles of Gaiman’s books as she introduced him (referring to “Coraline” as “Caroline”, which got a few laughs from the crowd) and, finally, we got the Sandman.

Now, the first thing I noticed is, wow, that guy’s got a lot of hair. I don’t know if it’s just the tour or if he’s really into it, but Neil Gaiman is currently sporting about 15 pounds of black, unkempt hair on his head. He was wearing his trademark black leather jacket, black pants, black shoes, and a black CBGB’s t-shirt (which, he assured the crowd, was not a protest of their recent eviction, but just a sign that he’d come close to the bottom of the laundry basket). He hasn’t grown any weird facial hair, he looks pretty much exactly how he does on the back of all his novels. Maybe a little more weathered.

He walks out from behind the curtain to tremendous applause from the audience, which finally dies down, allowing him his grand opening: “Hello.”

“HI!” goes the crowd.

“I’m not being at all sarcastic when I say: I love your weather.”

Gaiman has a real way with crowds. He greets everyone in the manner that he’d keep up all night: cheerfully, simply, and honestly. Listening to him speak, you honestly can’t help a big goofy grin. I may be an upcoming fan, but I’ve still only read three books, and PoolGirl is still working on her first. But both of us (and most of the crowd) just sat there pleasantly listening to a man with a voice both faintly resembling and completely unlike Alan Rickman’s begin to tell us “the plan.” Which was, simply, that he would read to us from Anansi Boys, do a half hour of Q&A, and cap off the evening with a book signing. Sounded good to us.

The first bit he read was from somewhere deep in the book, a short passage that compares life to living on a movie set, in that there are only something like 500 characters in a given life, and everyone else is an extra. The quote concludes with the notion that you’ll run into the people you really don’t want to see in all kinds of places, like odd little tea shops in Vancouver.

Well.

Just like a crowd at a rock concert, this one eats it up. He mentioned Vancouver! Ah, if only he’d mention the Trans-Canada Highway, then I’d know exactly where he’d been! It really was funny, and we just totally went for it.

He then went on to read a sizeable chunk of Chapter 5 (if you’re reading Anansi Boys, it’s the morning after Fat Charlie’s night of karaoke and debauchery with Spider, and Spider’s trip to the office). If there’s an author who I really wish I could have seen (yes, even above Gaiman), it’s Doug Adams. And let me tell you, Neil Gaiman makes a fine successor in the “delicately worded British comedy fantasy fiction author type person” department. If I couldn’t meet Adams, Gaiman would apparently be a fine substitute. The excerpt was brilliantly funny, and had everyone rolling quite a few times, with hangovers, hangover cures, naked and strange women, and offshore accounts. Tough to describe, but very, very funny.

The reading passes far more quickly than I could have imagined, Gaiman sets down the book, and says simply to the crowd, “Are there any questions?” Like it’s a lecture or something.

The audience is as timid as you would expect, but the questions finally begin to flow, and we all discover he has a funny way of answering a two second question with a ten minute response. Gaiman begins to regale us with hilarious tales of accidentally destroying ancient Muppets in Jim Henson’s family home, of collaboration with a million people you’ve never heard of but sound really cool, of upcoming projects… it went by in a blur. He told us a story about wanting to write a scene for a movie set in a school, when he was talked out of it. When he inquired as to why it was so crucial he not have a school scene, he was told that having a school meant filling it with extras, mostly children, which meant they would have to hire daycare professionals, possibly teachers, and definitely administration of some kind. Plus, there were all kinds of insurance concerns. But, he was told, if he wanted a shot of the city unfolding itself like a flower, that they could do.

I remember laughing more than I had in some comedy clubs over the years. I’ll repeat myself later, but if you get a chance to see Neil Gaiman speak anywhere, in any capacity, go. The man works the crowd in a way that you wouldn’t believe. For example:

    Gaiman: I’m also working on an adaptation of Beowulf at the moment. Wonderful story, the hero dies in it, you know.
    Someone in the Crowd: NO!!!
    [audience laughs]
    Gaiman: Well, obviously someone failed English.

He has a wit as sharp as a razor, but he never belittled anybody or lost the momentum. Everything he said was fun, insightful, and calm. He offered points to those aspiring to become writers:

“I have a lot of people ask me how to become a writer. And I tell them, ‘Write a lot, finish what you write, and send it to publishers. Be patient, and be persistent’. And they reach me later at the signing and say ‘That’s all fine and good Mr. Gaiman, but come on, you can tell me. Just tell me, when they show up at your doorstep in their funny robes, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and all their friends, and take you down to the basement and do the thing with the goat’s bones… just tell me that bit’.”

Eventually, he announced he’d only take a last question, and it was far too late for me to work up my courage to that degree. He took the last one and then announced that he’d be doing the signing back in the lobby, and that he’d stay until “my hand falls off.” I took a look around. A thousand people, each allowed to have up to 3 items signed? Yeah, I’d say it just might.

Meeting Neil Gaiman

I wasn’t sure, going in, whether PoolGirl would let me stay to get my airport paperback copy of American Gods signed by the author. She not only let me, but she went and bought a copy of Wolves in the Walls and Anansi Boys in the lobby so I could get those signed too. Whatta gal. (The soon-to-be-autographed hardcover Anansi Boys turned into an early birthday gift for me, so that was extra sweet.)

So we took our new books and voyaged to the End of the Line. And it was a fair ways off. The entire speaking part of the evening had lasted an hour (he finished that part late to make up for starting late), and this line was three people wide and a couple hundred long by the time we took our place in it.

We were afforded cheap entertainment by the grad photos of years gone by. (Tip to the girl in front of us in line: if you’re going to laugh at the outrageous hairstyles of yesteryear, maybe consider taking the pink hair dye and bedhead gel out of your hair first, hm?) And there was of course some light chitchat amongst the fans. Lots of people just read what they had brought or bought while they stood there and waited for their turn. PoolGirl delighted in Wolves in the Walls (a children’s book only about fifteen pages long, but damned hilarious) about three times, enjoying it more each time.

We stood there for probably a half hour not even moving, and another hour doing the slow shuffle towards our autographs. But it totally didn’t matter. Everyone was civil, everyone was cool. There was no obnoxious line cutting, no angry “come on, come on,” nothing but a bunch of fans ranging in age from probably 15 to 65, all patiently and happily waiting their turn to say hi and get a signature.

I’ve never been to a book signing before, so this was an interesting experience. About twenty feet from the signing desk, a smiling literary agent gave us a Post-It note for each item we wanted signed to mark the place we wanted signed and to put our names down “so he can sign it automatically. It gives you a better chance to visit with him.” Visit with him? Well hell, I like the sound of that!

And as it turned out, as short a visit as it was (with hundreds of people ahead and hundreds behind), it really did feel like a brief chance to sit and chat with one of today’s coolest authors. I said “Good evening Neil, thanks for a great time tonight” and secretly thrilled that I’d called him “Neil” when probably everyone else in the line had called him “Mr. Gaiman”. He said he’d enjoyed it, and described the audience as “sweet.” Not in a Dude, Where’s My Car? way of saying “sweet,” but in a caring, nice kind of way. Not a trace of irony or fatigue in his voice. I asked him when we might see him write a nice traditional British pantomime (children’s play), and he let slip that there would be a children’s opera of Wolves in the Walls coming soon. I think he was surprised that someone on this side of the pond knows what a panto is.

I do have a couple of regrets for this point in the evening. First and foremost, I wish I’d brought a camera. Gaiman wouldn’t pose with each and every person, but said if we wanted to lean in for a quick shot and a smile he was game. Sadly, I left my camera at home, so that opportunity is lost. Also, I found myself TRULY wishing I’d brought one of my few remaining MRFH business cards to slip him. It would have tickled me endlessly to think that he might have surfed on in and spent some time reading Justin’s Neverwhere review. I bet he’d have thought we were cool.

In the end, I got my old copy of American Gods and my new copy of Anansi Boys both signed to “Sean” (I kind of wish I’d had one done out to “PoolMan”), and my wife got her copy of Wolves made out to her, complete with her name in a little voice bubble over the pig puppet’s head in the opening flap. He signed things in really creative ways… he’d brought all kinds of different pens to sign novels, comics, glossy kids’ books. I saw him draw a quick and simple wolf for one girl, and he did a cool highlight in silver pen on the cover of a Sandman comic. I got a “Believe!” in my Gods book, and he signed all the copies of Anansi Boys the same way (see the picture). We said our goodnights, and left, grinning from ear to ear.

PoolGirl is now an instant fan; she so enjoyed the evening that she’s started reading Smoke and Mirrors, and has already started eyeing American Gods as a follow-up. Me, I’m now utterly a devotee. I’ve never had a chance to meet an author before, and now I had.

I’ve met the Sandman.

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