Friday, June 21, 2013

Neil, Himself: A Night in NYC

Hello, my name is Meghan B and I am, without question, one of the biggest Neil Gaiman fangirls in this or any other universe. I've been reading him since I was about fifteen and wallowing in the abject misery of being a weird, bookish girl who wore too much black. After spending years feeling alone and misunderstood, I discovered Neverwhere and fell head over heels for the author who understood me all too well. He is perhaps one of the best writers living today and I, Meghan B, got to actually meet him.

He said I was lovely.

I've been anxiously awaiting the release of The Ocean at the End of the Lane for months now. It is Neil Gaiman's first novel for adults in eight years. To say that it's highly anticipated would be the understatement of the century. Any Neil Gaiman release is cause for celebration, but this book is more personal and special. It's more magical realism than outright fantasy and it's full of hauntingly beautiful moments and that flash of sharp wit that is a hallmark of Gaiman's writing.

This is also Neil's official last signing tour. This is the last hurrah. The Last Waltz for Neil Gaiman. Book tours are stressful, exhausting endeavors and I don't blame him for wanting to be finished with them so he can work on new and exciting things. The man deserves a break. At each stop he signs for hours, for over a thousand excited fans. Since the moment I heard this would be his last tour, I knew I had to go. I didn't care what shred of my soul I'd have to sell or what favors I'd have to call in. I was going, dammit!  

 On April 2nd, Neil posted the tour schedule and announced it on Twitter. Since I am an avid Twitter addict, I saw it right away and SPRUNG into action. A quick perusal of the locations showed that he wasn't coming near me in Philadelphia. Damn and blast! He was coming to New York City though, and my sister had just moved to Manhattan. Without making a single plan, I hurriedly bought a ticket. It was in the second row, right in the center of the theater. I startled a nearby coworker with the embarrassingly shrill noise of triumph and excitement I made. I had a ticket. This was happening. I was going to see Neil Gaiman.

I was having a pretty rad day already. I had somehow gotten amazing tickets to see Neil Gaiman. Little did I know everything would get twenty times more amazing. I was riding the train home that night when I realized April 2nd was an oddly significant date. Three months before, I had gotten a fortune cookie that said  "Remember three months from this date. Good things are in store for you.". That was February 2nd. Three months to the day. I excitedly told everyone on Twitter about how shockingly correct the seemingly magical fortune had been.

Neil Gaiman retweeted it.

I'm sure you can imagine my unbridled glee.

I didn't forget the retweet. I have a weirdly good memory and every time I thought about it I smiled. So when I was cleaning my desk a few weeks ago and actually found the fortune, I begin to formulate an idea. A crazy, silly, insane, weird, nerdy idea.

I would give the fortune to Neil Gaiman.

Using some of my favorite stationary (from the sublime Evil Supply Co), I attached the fortune on the front and, after much debate, used my best handwriting and scrawled a note on the back for Neil, thanking him for being an inspiration in my life. I was unsure if I'd follow through with it. I brought it with me to NYC anyway. It burned a hole in my tote bag as I stood in line outside the Symphony Space hall on 95th and Broadway.

It was a beautiful night with astonishingly beautiful weather. There was a light breeze and no humidity. Standing outside for an hour was comfortable, especially when you were standing with hundreds of your new best friends. You see, Neil Gaiman fans are the nicest people on the planet. As soon as they realize you're part of the fold, as it were, you are figuratively embraced with open and loving arms by total strangers. In the hour I stood out there I had people compliment my shoes (which were adorable green flats made to look like zombies), my black lace dress, my necklace, my hair, my tote bag, even my new eyeglasses. I had never felt so good about myself before. It was like running into a bunch of old friends you hadn't spoken to for awhile. It was an incredible feeling.

Waiting for Neil
The mood inside the venue was equally as thrilling. The air was thick with excitement and people were polite and helpful. There was an orderly line for drinks as well as a shockingly orderly line to purchase some of Neil's other books, as well as Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. Erin was going to be hosting the Q&A with Neil and then doing a short signing after. I had never read The Night Circus (why had it flown under my radar? It looks right up my alley! Bad Meghan!) and swiftly purchased a copy based on the enthusiastic recommendations of the people I was sitting next to. These were book people. My people.

Finally, the lights came down and Neil Gaiman walked out across the stage. The applause and cheers were deafening and Neil looks charmingly bewildered at the response to his mere presence. He was dressed in all black, with pointy black shoes and the wild hair he has become known for. Erin walked in behind him wearing a sharp blue dress and the most elegant of Fluevog boots.

It took a few moments for the crowd to calm themselves, after which Neil glanced out at the sea of adoring fans and cheerfully said "Hello!". Thus began the best few hours of my life.

Neil was the soul of wit and charm. He was endlessly funny, his face full of outrageous expressions. He spoke with his hands and his body as much as his voice. He'd reposition the mass of graying curls on his head, to the adoring sighs of people around me. He shifted around in his chair like an excitable child and put down his mic once or twice to use both hands to act out an idea or scene. You could not help but be bewitched watching him. He drew you in with his words. The audience paid him rapt attention.

Erin was a charming presence on stage as well, just as funny as Neil was, self deprecating and curious and seemingly just excited to be listening to him as we were. Neil spoke about the new book ("I started realizing that it was still going, and it wasn’t a short story. And I thought maybe I’m writing a novellette here. And then I kept writing it, and then it was definitely a novella.… I finished it and I did a word count, and I was like, Technically, you are a novel! I just wrote a novel by accident!"). He spoke warmly and elegantly about the importance of food in his childhood, with two Jewish grandmothers who had competing chicken soup recipes. He mentioned how much food like that was such a strong, tangible symbol of love. He also spoke about the horrific food at his school ("Don’t think happy salads. You have to imagine this salad consisted of a lettuce leaf, half a tomato, some grated carrot, a large lump of something called salad cream...which is like the evil twin of mayonnaise...and then, two large slices of pickled beetroot. When you are seven, pickled beet is up there with kryptonite.").

Neil also spoke at length about memory. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is based, just slightly, on some experiences he had as a small child. He lived on a small lane and there was a farm nearby that had been there for one thousand years. He didn't realize that it probably didn't look the same during those years, but the idea had cemented in his brain. The Hempstocks, the family in the novel, had been percolating in his brain since he was nine.  

There was an audience Q&A, read off note cards people had written on before the show started. Neil feigned seriousness, like a participant on Jeopardy, when the cards were brought out just to burst into surprised laughter when the first answer was asked, rapid-fire. What is your favorite cheese? "Wensleydale!" he shouted, then scrunched up his nose and peered into the audience. "Did someone just go "eeeww?!" 

He spoke about the differences between writing books and writing for TV. "If you’re writing a book, and you write a scene, and its good, and you really like it…it stays in the book." he said, to whoops and hollers from the audience, who knew he was alluding to his time writing for Doctor Who. Erin looked down sheepishly and confessioned she had never seen Doctor Who before.

The audience, myself included, gasped. Neil's head shot straight up and he grinned. "Ohhhh!" he said delightedly, "that was THE BEST noise! No disapproval, just a sense of "we can fix that for you. It’s called “Blink.” You just sit there. There is almost definitely someone out there with "Blink" on their phone." The crowd cheered and people in the back row yelled that they did indeed have "Blink" on their phone and Erin could watch it after if she wanted. Neil looked thrilled with the audience. It was true, the gasp wasn't judgmental. It was a little shocked, but also a little excited, as if to say "oh, you lucky person you! All the marvelous adventures you have ahead of you!"

Neil broke up the wonderful Q&A with two short readings from his latest book. His narrating voice is pure magic. He did all the voices and various accents, like the best storyteller you never had as a child. The room was so silent you could hear a pin drop. Afterwards, Neil took Erin's hand and they did a bow worthy of Broadway and disappeared into the backstage area. It was time for the signing. The woman responsible for the signing got on stage to read us all the rules and explain how the event would work. She also mentioned that Amanda Palmer, Neil's musician wife, was heartbroken she couldn't make the event and was giving us all a gift; a free CD we could pick up on our way out.

We were divided up into lines based on our seats and we watched as the stage was changed to accommodate a table for the signing. Volunteers wrote our names down on post-it notes so Neil would have the correct spelling. People told each other how nervous they were, how much this meant to them, what book they had brought to be signed and why. It was fascinating to watch everyone clutching their beloved Neil Gaiman books and comics, expressions a mixture of joy and terror. Some went over what they were going to say when they met him, others joked around and compared what they had brought. The girl behind me lamented that all her Neil Gaiman books were on her Nook and she was going to see if he'd sign it for her (he did).

I was consumed with nerves and still unsure about the fortune I held in my copy of Neverwhere. It seemed fitting that the first Neil Gaiman book I ever read was the one I brought with me to be signed at the last signing tour. I struck up a conversation with the girl in front of me and we soon agreed to trade iPhones and take pictures for each other when The Moment arrived.

The line moved forward and we watched as people met and spoke with Neil as he signed and doodled in their books. Then it was my new friends turn and I took pictures as she shyly thanked him. Then, suddenly, I was in front of Neil.

My brain exploded as he said hello to me. I was mere inches away from my idol, my favorite author, a man whose books I had been reading for the last thirteen years of my life. I watched him scribble my name (MY NAME!) into my copy of his latest with an ink pen, and then words came out of me that I barely remember thinking into being.
Neil, going "OHH!" as I hand him the fortune!

"I'm not sure if you remember but you retweeted something I said on Twitter about how a fortune cookie said something good would happen to me today and it did and, well, um, I brought you the fortune cookie." I held out the stationary and Neil looked up. He suddenly looked thrilled.

"OHHH!!" he said, "Yes, I remember!" he took the stationary from me and GRINNED. "This is amazing! This is wonderful!"

Neil grinning as he reads the fortune!
This is about when I mentally died and went to heaven. My mouth pressed on for me (it's never needed the help of my brain before, after all). "I wrote a note on the back, but it's nothing, really. You don't have to read it. I just, you know-" and he stopped me and placed his hand over mine and looked me right in the eyes and said "I'll read it, I promise you I will. You're lovely."

Then he handed me my books and smiled at the stationary and put it safely next to him. I walked off the stage in shock, retrieving my phone from the girl I had befriended and taking a moment to stand in the catacombs backstage to collect myself. I could have walked outside and been hit by a taxi and die without a single regret in my life.

I managed to stagger over to visit Erin Morganstein and tell her what a great job she had done talking with Neil and if she had been nervous. I mentioned I was excited to read her book and I truly hope she wasn't upset that I hadn't read it. I promise I will now.

I clutched the books to my chest and stood back and watched people meet Neil Gaiman for the first time. He was gracious and interacted with every single person there. The event was sold out, 850 seats in all. On Twitter he mentioned that he signed until one am.

I walked outside, back into the breezy evening and caught a cab back to my sister's five story walk up.

It was the best night of my life.

A hearty thanks to the Symphony Space for hosting the event. It was exceptionally well coordinated and they kept control of the crowd very well. I didn't hear a single complaint the whole time I was there (even the bottled water was sensibly priced!). Another massive thank you to Erin Morganstein, who did a fabulous job and whose book I am incredibly looking forward to reading.

And a very special thank you to Neil Gaiman. Thank you for everything. You're lovely.

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  1. Heeeheeeheee! Oh, Meg. I love what you've done to maintain your anonymity.

    1. Hah! Thanks. Although with the wildness of my hair, I look like Cousin It in a black dress.

    2. Nope, you're lovely. Neil said so and I agree. :)

      Fantastic experience!

  2. I found this post because Neil referenced it today (see he still thinks you're lovely, and quotable.)

    You were so lucky, all around. I too found Neil's readings and interviews purely magical. I think Neil should always read his books for audiobooks, and would well serve many other authors by reading theirs. His voice is velvet and soothing and sexy and I could listen forever.

    But after that mine was a very different experience. I was in the upper balcony right side, set to be the last section of signing. It was more removed, and with fewer occupants, it did not offer the great conversations you had. And as the hours wore on, it was hard to remain enthusiastic. Especially as I approached the point where I might have to decide whether stay and get the autograph or leave to get the last train to NJ!

    I was never so grateful to have broken my ankle because at 11pm they allowed mobility-challenged people to go on-stage. I was so weary I made some inane comment about hoping I liked this ocean better than the Atlantic Ocean in which I had broken my ankle. Neil asked if I were okay, to which I could say I appreciated them whisking up there. Neil took the ocean comment to heart and drew me a Cthulhu!!

    I rushed out, in a daze, on a high and managed to catch the last train with a few minutes to spare. It was a long night, and I knew it was even longer for others, including Neil. I hadn't known how long it went. I got to central NJ around the time Neil finished. No wonder he's been so exhausted on this tour.

    A magical evening which you have described well.

  3. Just like Jeanette, I found this through Neil. You're really lucky to have met him. It was a wonderful experience I'm sure. Congratulations! And thank you very much for writing it beautifully. I felt like I was there.

  4. Somehow I didn't know about this event so I wasn't there (boo hop). However, I DID see Neil Gaiman interview Susannah Clalrk at Symphony Space a number of years ago, and that was how I discovered him.

    I hope you have read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Actually, I listened to it on Audible. Highly recommended.

  5. This is a lovely account. I found it through Neil also. I'm happy for you you had this experience, it sounds amazing. X

  6. What a lovely account of the evening! I felt like I was right there with you! I hope you have read The Night Circus. It has that otherworldly feeling like Neverwhere.

  7. "These were book people. My people."
    Isn't it wonderful the way loving the same thing brings us together? Good on you, Mr. Gaiman, for being the cause of so much together-ness.

    And good on you Meghan for being part of that, and sharing your lovely experience with the rest of us (you do realize hundreds of readers are living vicariously though your story?) so eloquently!

    And I agree with Victoria, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a must-read. :)