A Night with Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane Book Signing

What better way to kick-start this blog after a foolishly-long hiatus (possibly known as blog death), than with my report on meeting (sort of) Neil Gaiman?

Well there’s no better way, now is there?

At this point I’d like to stress I met but didn’t interview him directly – that was taken care of on stage by a man from a newspaper (I forget which one). Gaiman at one point mentioned how these days less and less fans approach him to say they themselves are writers (aspiring or otherwise), and that when they used to, he would read their stuff on planes and write postcards back to them with his thoughts and praise, (in some instances he’d have to try to find something good to say). He has (understandably) less time to do that now. Less writers though? Nah. We’re all writers. Judging by the fact that the nerd* and the girl we were chatting to in the book-signing queue were both aspiring writers, I can only conclude that there must have been more in the auditorium. A lot more.

* As a geek I do not say this lightly.

I don’t want to talk too much about the craft of writing. There are shed loads of good blogs and great magazines out there. Maybe I’ll try in the future, but I’ll not preach. I’ll blog about themes, stuff in my genre (fantasy, real life weirdness), but I doubt I’ll lay it on too heavy like I thought I needed to before. I enjoy talking stories and structure, but I can’t keep that kind of thing up, or think what to write. In my defence I would state that – “I’m just a simple man trying to make my way in the Universe.” See? Even my quotes are ripped from less than stellar Star Wars films, though in truth I enjoyed Attack of the Clones, at least the first time I watched it on my Birthday in the cinema. Why? Well I’d be lying if I didn’t state that part of the reason was because it’s Star Wars and at the time (circa 2002), it was novel to have a Star Wars film to watch in the cinema on your Birthday (I dare say it’ll be more common in the next few years).

Anyway, last Friday I had the opportunity to see Neil Gaiman for an interview and signing of his new book, The Ocean at The End of the Lane. Me and half of Bath (and beyond!), I was soon to realise. Organised by the Topping and Company bookshop in Bath and originally scheduled to take place in a church (I can only assume they realised it wasn’t big enough), a colleague bought me a ticket to see him at The Forum (a conference and concert theatre venue). I later acquired another ticket and took my girlfriend along too. My colleagues had gone to interview him before the main event (we work for an Audiobook company, and may or may not be promoting something of his soon – I’ll post a link if, er, anything comes up). I got the rather shorter straw of carrying the real ale we’d bought for him the day before as a “thank you” for turning down other opportunities to see us, in between signing three to four hundred books (by the time the night was done, he’d be sitting proud on over a thousand and I would imagine, a hefty wrist cramp to boot). I would hasten to add that – at least from our side – there was no mention of the Duran Duran biography he once wrote.

The Forum’s a pretty big place, but then Gaiman’s a pretty big deal. Any self-respecting comic book guy/fantasy geek can tell you that. There were people with hats queueing around the corner, and I mention the hats because you could tell there was something fantasic going on. The scene reminded me of what an old (Wannabe) hip sixth-form teacher had explained the Star Wars queue was like when he was a lad. And that is bloody long.

Inside we grabbed cups of tea and sat at the front of the circle, sans new book which was already being circulated as I’d decided to wait for the queue to go down first of all. I realised not-quite immediately that it would take me bloody ages to get my copy signed.

Me and Neil Gaiman
Before I leaned in for a kiss.

The man himself entered the theatre after a brief introduction by a member of Topping to the sort of riotous applause you’d expect from a drunk crowd of festival-goers welcoming their favourite rock star on stage, but Neil Gaiman is a writer and the crowd were not allowed booze (boo, hiss!) in the theatre proper. No, these people loved him for being him, a writer. They got off on his charm, quick wit and charisma alone. He is tall, with a tangle of black hair. He sits very casually, like he’s having a beer with you in a pub, not sat in front of over a thousand people. And he’s married to Amanda Palmer. If they ever have kids they’ll be damn cool kids.

Excerpts from the book formed the bookends of the evening and the way he spoke casually as he leafed through the crisp pages to reach his starting point took me back to childhood and the joy of being read to, as if he was about to read a passage and then turn the book for me to see, and there’d be a big picture of what an Ocean at the end of a lane might look like. He didn’t, but I suppose given the subject matter of the book, that would have been fitting. My girlfriend made the very valid point of how he conveys a vast range of emotions with simple description and dialogue.

So what is The Ocean at the End of the Lane actually about? It is a book about childhood and being scared. With a beautiful cover (UK) depicting the silhouette of a boy swimming down from the surface into the stars (Google it), it’s hard not to judge simply by its awesome cover. We followed an unnamed seven year old boy narrator who may or may not be reliable (I’m halfway through, and things are certainly fantastical), and spends his days buried in books around his unnamed family. Then he meets the Hempstocks and Lettie, the little Hempstock girl who has been eleven for a very long time, with her duck-pond ocean, mother and ancient grandmother (who remembers when the moon first turned up). Then, following an incident with a lodger, all hell breaks loose and his family home becomes hellish, his only refuge becomes the Hempstock’s farm house, when he can escape there. So that’s sort of it, which is sort of vague, but hey, it is difficult not to give too much away.

‘I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.’
– Maurice Sendak, in conversation with Art Spiegelman, The New Yorker, 27 September 1993

This quote, featured at the beginning of The Ocean at the End of the Lane really encapsulates the story. That, burnt toast and childhood exploration (e.g. not simply walking down the garden path, but the million ways around it).

During the interview and audience question and answer session we learned how he came up with the story – a family car his dad flogged when he was a kid as his lodger died in it, which he turned into a protracted love letter to his wife Amanda Palmer (or something like that, now I write it, I think I got the wrong end of the stick perhaps). The letter turned into a novella, the novella turned into a novel and an exercise in writing like and remembering what it is to be a child and the associated magic, confounding situations and danger. Gaiman gave long, immediate and detailed answers to both the interviewer and the line of fans asking questions. We also learnt that Ursula Monkton’s name (a character in the book) is always used in full, like Mary Poppins and (perhaps more interestingly), that the HBO script of American Gods has one, maybe two floors to climb before it gets green lit. Neil cited Alan Moore as one of his biggest influences, saying Moore had showed him that the freedom he wanted when writing was, in fact, available and the people who told him no, you can’t do that, were wrong. This particularly interests me as I’m not keen on writing one genre, I like to mix things up and even if I never make a success of things and it makes life extremely difficult, I’d rather be free and less marketable than stifled and restricted in creative endeavours. Or perhaps I really am confused.

The answers were great and so were the questions. Why was he so good at writing women? Because 50% of the population were them, silly! Doctor Who – had he been asked? No. And on a female Doctor he had no opinion, only that it would probably be great as long as she was cool, which he mentioned was the only criteria for Doctor of the Who persuasion. He discussed his love for Norse mythology – it all goes wrong for them, which he likes.

We landed up queueing (near the back, thanks to my seating arrangement), for around two hours to get the book signed. Tired fans lounged in theatre seats, heads all in the same book, waiting their turn (or maybe they had nowhere else to go). We stood alongside a Canadian girl and a guy (the nerd**) with a bunch of big fantasy name signatures scrawled on the back of his Kindle in indelible marker where I just have stickers. At one point, when we’d all been stood queuing for about an hour and a half, Mr Gaiman stepped out of his seat and away from signing, to the front of the stage to the microphone. He motioned for all to sit, and accompanied it with the words – “sit the fuck down!”, explaining that everyone would feel a whole lot better about having been stood up for so long when they did. I’d been a little worried he’d say he had to go before we reached him, but no. He would sign everything for everyone, within reason. I got a little bit weirded out – what to say? What not to say? To say anything? And a little bit puzzled – are we supposed to meet our idols? Who was this guy – so confident with himself? Such a hero to so many? Why would he care if he’d inspired me? By the time I walked up he was half-blinded from flash photography and looked pretty exhausted. I didn’t tell him I was a writer, I didn’t tell him I enjoyed his books. I figured he could put two-and-two together given I’d queued all night. I didn’t get freaked out speaking to him. I just said thanks for a great night and he said sorry about the wait. We exchanged a few more lines and I was on my way, my shiny new book had some names in it, a little ghost he’d drawn and the signature of some man I met very briefly and shared one of thousands of mini-conversations he’d endured that night. I held the book close in the Topping bag I’d been given, it was raining outside, went home and went to sleep. It had been exhausting, and in the morning I had an ocean to explore.

** again, I say this not lightly, as a geek. He knew and he was damn proud of it.