The reception he received from the audience upon his entrance to the Forum was one more akin to that for rock stars or actors rather than a writer. But Neil Gaiman is a rock star to his fan base, and rightly so. This stop in Bath being the first on a summer tour around Europe and North America, he got a bit emotional when first addressing the crowd. His signature floppy hair and black on black outfit softening him, a bit, for us all.
He read from his new book, An Ocean at the end of the Lane, which will be released to the general public this coming Tuesday, and this is when I realized I had never heard him speak before. How could this be? Mr. Gaiman has been a favourite author of mine since my teenage years, since I first read American Gods and was thrown by this amazing world he had created. A world I wanted to inhabit. But somehow I had never heard his voice.
Before the fan questions began Neil had some wise words about what a question is: something that ends in a question mark not a full stop, something that asks rather than tells, and something that can be answered from the stage. I appreciated these tidbits coming from him. Having gone to a few literary events before, I have cringed inwardly at the so-called fans who recite their monologues to the unsuspecting authors. They are not there to ask a meaningful question but instead to show off their own intellect. Or maybe they think the author will be really impressed by their extremely close reading of some minor line. Whatever the case may be, this part of the show usually gives me secondhand embarrassment to the extreme.
Last night, though, I found the crowd to be subdued. They all asked very straightforward questions to which Mr. Gaiman gave straightforward answers. The earlier excitement a subdued shadow. It felt wrong. There was a crackling energy in the room but somehow it didn’t translate to any really profound insight. No one asked the questions that everyone wanted to know the answers to. No one asked about his journey as a writer, or advice for aspiring ones. Perhaps because these questions have been well documented on his blog and website. But it was something else. It felt like he belonged to each of us. Like we all had this personal relationship to him that we could betray by asking him anything important in public. We all secretly had questions buried deep in our hearts that we wanted answers to, but this public setting was not the right place. He belonged to us all yet we were loathe to share him. We all had our secret relationships to him, if only in our heads.
While waiting in what turned out to be a three hour queue I thought about my own relationship with Mr. Gaiman. I had received American Gods by happenstance. My mother, working in a hotel, often brought books home that guests had left behind. This is how I discovered most of my favourite authors and how I built up my own library. I remember reading American Gods when I was in my mid-teens and knowing that I could never go back. Reading work that was unlike anything I had read before woke me up. It shook something in me that allowed me to infuse my own writing with a more creative spirit. I remember reading the book and at parts not understanding what was happening but rushing forward to figure it out.
Mr. Gaiman came to the Vancouver Public Library in 2005 (thank you Google!). I read about it in the Georgia Straight and I was so excited. I planned to go but then did not. At 19 years old I think I was embarrassed at not fully having understood his book. I thought that somehow Mr. Gaiman would know I was a fraud so I decided to stay home. That decision has haunted me ever since. I never got another chance to see him in person until last night. In the queue I thought of how I could explain all of that to him. How sorry I was that I missed that night, how this night was so important to me. But I knew that even if I found the right words, it still wouldn’t fully explain it.
I also considered telling him an anecdote about how at the festival I worked at we had a patron called Neil Naiman and every time this Neil would call I would smile. But I didn’t know how to describe that either. I didn’t know how to tell this man that he was such a big part of who I was as a writer. How even though I’d never met him before, his words were what went through my mind each day when I sat down to write: keeping writing, write every day, start something and then finish it, make good art. I didn’t know how to explain to him the impact that he has had on my life, as well as countless other people with similar stories.
So after waiting for almost three hours I finally got to meet him. And I couldn’t say anything. This was more due to exhaustion than nerves. But really what was my excuse? I had been in line doing nothing for three hours. Mr. Gaiman had been signing, chatting, smiling, for three hours. Surely if he could smile after that I could have said something. He signed my book and I said “Thank You”. He looked up at me, smiled, and said “You’re very welcome”. And it was enough.