Meeting Neil Gaiman at the last book signing, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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Neil Gaiman signs books at the last book signing ever. His book The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a true-life story except that he wasn’t really there, he said. Photo by Ellen Eldridge

A Neil Gaiman book signing hosted by Eagle Eye Bookshop

I had no need nor desire to tell Neil Gaiman about the Sandman tattoo I got at age 18. All I knew was that it would be well worth the wait to get a chance to talk to him in person; I had no idea what I wanted to say in the fraction of time I would get to speak to him.

For all the excitement for the official first day of summer and an evening blessed by an appearance of a super moon, I jumped for joy inside my overwhelmed and tired body because I was about to meet one of the single most influential people of my entire life.  Gaiman’s graphic novel The Sandman got me through my teen years and stayed the truest of friends in an increasingly fickle atmosphere throughout high school. I considered it a life vest.

Standing in fairly temperate temperatures for late June, I waited with my friend Eliza and my loving husband, who always supports every whim of mine. Ironically enough, I met Eliza in a public speaking class last summer, where we bonded after discovering similar interests, one of which was our appreciation of Gaiman.

neil-gaiman-says-hi“Hi”

When we finally got inside Presser Hall at Agnes Scott College, I was thankful to have a sprawl of seats to choose from. We sat strategically in the first available row with aisle seats, row 12. Among about 1000 people, row 12 felt incredibly respectable if not lucky.

Gaiman appeared onstage and I felt awed. I found myself a bit star-struck and emotionally stirred at the sight of him, knowing he stood living and breathing just 200 or so feet away. I understand that all the influential minds inside the bodies of musicians and artists are just people—humans like me—but this particular human had the ability to transcend time, space and reality. Gaiman’s books dragged me to deep and dark places while keeping me floating above water in the sea of adolescence.

He spoke. “Hi.” The crowd erupted, and he began to welcome us to Agnes Scott College for the release of Ocean at the End of the Lane.  “At least, that’s why I’m here,” he said. “You can be here for any reason you chose … except author murder.” This spontaneous quip made even Gaiman laugh as he continued, “I don’t know where that came from; I’ve never said anything like that before.”

The author’s explanation of how he wrote “an accidental novel”:

“I missed my wife” struck me as one of the most genuinely heartfelt truths I’d ever heard spoken. Not that I’d ever had any reason to doubt him; every movement he made conveyed such a sense of sincerity that he made me miss my husband, who was seated to my left. Love exuded from Gaiman as he described how his wife’s success coupled with his own left them apart and unable to connect as much. “I decided to write her a short story,” he said. “I knew she didn’t really like fantasy, but she liked me.”

Gaiman knew his wife enjoyed honesty and truth so he decided to tell a true-life story—except he wasn’t there when it happened.

“I’m writing her a novella,” he thought as the word count climbed past 14,000 hand-written words. He wrote it by hand before typing it up, which struck me as a simply wonderful thing.

Gaiman said he looked at the word count at the end and thought, “I wrote a novel,” so he wrote an apologetic note to his publisher saying his book was “weird and personal and you don’t have to like it at all.” Then the book went out into the world where people fell in love, and Gaiman said, “I would feel prouder if I knew how I had done it.” Then this man whose voice lulled me into a waking sort of dream read the entire second chapter from Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is exactly where I had read up to after receiving my copy an hour or so earlier.

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neil-gaiman-signing-ocean-at-the-end-of-the-laneQ&A with Neil Gaiman

Everyone in line and all who waited in the 600 floor seats, 200 balcony seats and then the “overflow room,” had a chance to write down a question on an index card. I had my chance fairly early on, but that meant nothing from looking at the immense stack of cards in Gaiman’s hand from which he could only choose a few.

The first question he answered came from an 11-year-old child, about what led Gaiman to write Crazy Hair. Gaiman described in perfect detail a trip to Florida, where upon waking the first morning he felt like “rogue hairdressers” broke in his room and started to perm his hair before getting scared off and not finishing the job. The humidity, perhaps, was the real culprit that birthed the idea.

Gaiman then confessed that his pride and hopes for wowed reactions from the scholars and professors in the audience at his conference for American Gods were a bit dashed when they one after the other commented, “That Crazy Hair poem, I’ve got grandchildren, and is that going to be published anywhere?” Gaiman smiled that sort of smile one gets when truly proud of a spontaneous eruption of brilliance.

A few—three to be exact—Dr. Who questions were answered, then Gaiman confirmed for an audience member that he and Tori Amos are still in contact, telling us that he wrote some of Ocean at the End of the Lane in her house.  Gaiman told a quick but interesting story about a conversation he had dressed as his favorite character—Badger from Wind in the Willows—then he recalled the first book he remembered reading “rather proudly” on his own: one of Aesop’s Fables, “The Lion and the Mouse.”

And then Neil Gaiman said he would answer one last question. I had already decided it would be incredibly unlikely that my favorite author would gaze down and read my handwriting, but he did. I didn’t put my name on the question embellished with the lowercase d drawn the way I had seen it in The Sandman, with my swirling-tailed question mark, but he read aloud, “What do you dream about?” I felt elated; a true ink and paper connection to the one living author who meant the most to me.

I listened intently scratching down every word of his answer.

“Houses, libraries, hallways, monsters. I dream rather good monsters where I’m being pursued, but instead of faces they have spaghetti that moves like worms,” Gaiman said. “I had terrible nightmares until I started writing Sandman.” Gaiman described in great detail that he would wake up from dreams not in the panicked state of fearful recalling he was sure the audience had all experienced, but rather he would wake from a terrifying nightmare and think, “That’s brilliant,” he said. About two years into writing Sandman, Gaiman said the nightmares went away. He thought that whatever entity was in charge of sending the nightmares was criticized for doing a shoddy job since Gaiman was no longer scared but inspired. “The nightmares stopped and they never really came back,” Gaiman said.

I felt like he had just spoken a metaphor for my coming to know myself amidst the sea of people in school and in my life, who I didn’t know and couldn’t trust as I felt too committed to getting to know myself. I transformed my monsters into wisdom as well. It had truly all come full circle.

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Waiting for my two words

IMG_1533At about 8:30 in the evening Gaiman finished his Q&A and took a short break; the audience was reminded that he has a rough schedule and needs breaks. Human, after all, though many of use might have a tendency to forget. One of the owners of Eagle Eye Books let us know that “trained professionals” would help guide us row by row to move through the signing line. I had about 11 rows in front of me; the time to decide exactly what to say to Neil was fast approaching as my eyes felt more and more heavy.

The anticipation and anxiety to capture those few seconds in a picture kept me moving, checking the camera and thinking of how to maneuver getting books signed, a picture that was not posed and those words. What would I say to him?

When I finally got the chance to go before him, asking him to sign a copy of Blueberry Girl for my daughter, sacrificing the sight of my name in his handwriting. I just said, “Thank you.” “Thank you Mr. Gaiman for being you. Thank you for existing.” I didn’t cry in the moment; I felt too anxious and Gaiman comforted me too quickly with one of the most genuine hugs I could have hoped for. I just said “Thank you,” and then snapped a few final pictures as my husband and friend moved through the line.

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