Author Neil Gaiman is a man that needs no introductions. Be that as it may, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t highlight a few of his many accomplishments: he has written multiple New York Times best-selling books; is the only author to win both the Newbery and Carnegie Medals; he has won 4 Hugo, 2 Nebulas, 8 Locus Awards, 4 Bram Stoker Awards, 1 World Fantasy Award and on and on… Not to mention his wonderful work in comics and graphic novels, writing a wildly-popular Doctor Who episode, successful movie adaptations of his novels, a current film production of his wonderful young adult novel The Graveyard Book, and an upcoming HBO series based on his novel American Gods. He is an influential power-house in the geek world, and one of my very favourite writers! This weekend he was in my hometown of Seattle, WA to induct Harlan Ellison into the EMP/SF Museum Hall of Fame (long overdue), receive his 7th and 8th Locus Awards, and then do a sold-out reading in celebration of the release of the 10 year anniversary edition of American Gods, featuring the restored original text that was cut from the previous printings.
The sold-out reading took place at Town Hall Seattle. This beautiful, domed-building was formerly the Fourth Church of Christ Scientist, and now serves as a community center that hosts literary events, lectures, music, and so much more. The lines snaked around the block as many Neil Gaiman fans made their way to the pillared main entrance. Inside the doors massive stacks of American Gods that Neil had dutifully autographed the day before (about 3000 various books total) were efficiently distributed by the friendly hosts. Making my way up to the 2nd floor where the event was to take place, I was impressed by the arched-dome and big blue, purple and green stained-glass windows that filtered in the evening sunlight. I made my way to one of the unoccupied pews that still remain from the building’s time as a church and got ready to get some religion. How appropriate that this event celebrating American Gods would take place in this venue.
Soon the “opening-act,” Molly Lewis came out and regaled the audience with ukulele songs about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; and another titled “An Open-Letter to Stephen Fry” about her willingness to have the gay author/media personality’s baby. She had been asked by Mr. Gaiman to join the event only hours before via her Twitter account.
The main portion of the night’s festivities would revolve around Neil Gaiman reading from American Gods and being “interviewed” by local author of Queen of Kings, Maria Dahvana Headley. Audience questions were to be submitted by way of 3 X 5 cards during the night and then responded to in the last part of the event. Maria Headley took the stage and introduced Mr. Gaiman and his long list of accomplishments. The audience really went nuts when she mentioned the Sandman series (comic geeks in the house!) and Good Omens (the book Neil Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett).
Soon the man himself took the stage to thunderous applause, and went about doing what he does best – being Neil Gaiman. Mr. Gaiman is genial, funny and quick-witted. He is an author, so you know his stories aren’t any worse for the wear, but he doesn’t come off as rehearsed and just doing his spiel. His conversation flows and seems genuine. He started off with a little back and forth with Marie. She mentioned that a fan had contacted her on Twitter requesting some of Neil’s “beard trimmings for use in a voodoo ritual.” Mr. Gaiman shot back that we were lucky he still had his beard, as he had planned on shaving it off but ran out of time due to a crisis he created on his Twitter account (he tweeted what hotel he was staying in, and even though he deleted it 20 seconds later, the hotel was bombarded by phone calls from around the world and had to move Neil to a different room). Another joke about someone actually bothering to feed Schrodinger’s cat got big laughs (it is so refreshing to be in a room full of other people that actually got this joke).
Neil finally asked, “If [we] would like him to read a little?” Again, thunderous applause filled the domed-room. He encouraged everyone to please silence any electronic devices that might make noise during the reading. He had a whole hilarious bit about this topic and told us if a phone did happen to ring that, “I won’t shame you. I’ll pretend it didn’t happen; but people around you WON’T.” He then started methodically reading a chapter of American Gods, “Coming to America, 1400…” and built flow and momentum from there. Neil’s delightful accent and the joy of hearing an author read their own work is a thing every person should get to experience. He went on to read a long excerpt from the novel about one of the Gods, followed by a shorter reading giving background on one of the main characters in American Gods, Shadow. “This book is about a man named Shadow, who gets out of prison and immediately finds himself out of his depth… S#*t happens to him!”
After the reading portion of the evening, Mr. Gaiman went on to tell some anecdotes about American Gods. About the title of the novel, he tells us that this was originally just the working-title, “I thought I could come up with something better!” He spoke about pitching the idea to his publisher and having them send him a completed cover only days later, “It is intimidating to have the cover made before the book even gets written.” He hung the completed cover up on the wall in his writing-space and said, “Now I just have to write what you’ll be!” He also noted that while working on American Gods he felt that “The story I wanted to tell seemed bigger than the story I was telling.”
The evening then started to segue into the interview portion of the evening. Maria expressed the difficulty of conducting an interview from her list of questions. Mr. Gaiman, without missing a beat exclaimed, “Never look at your list of questions! Inteviews NEVER go where they’re supposed to!” The conversation then turned to strange things he has witnessed while in the US: a large decommissioned nuclear submarine docked by a road in Portsmouth, NH that locals barely take notice of; cheese-wheel rolling festivals; and people parking their vehicles on frozen lakes in the American heartland. He noted that, “The UK is weird, but not as weird as here!”
The art of writing and the power of fiction proved to be an interesting topic. Mr. Gaiman stated that, “The point of fiction for me… It gives you the power to make things real. Storytelling allows you to take things people are familiar with, turn them 45 degrees and show them these things in a new way.” He goes on to say that, “Imaginary things are often the most powerful things,” while citing borders on a map as basically imaginary things that have spawned many, very real wars.
Then Maria Headley surprised Neil by suggesting a new publicity tool for writers – the author sex tape and catch-phrase! She inquired what Neil’s catch-phrase would be? He artfully dodged this question and suggested that SF/Fantasy author sex tapes could be a scary sight that no one in their right mind would care to see. He used Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin as a perfect example of why this would be a terrible idea, but said the catch-phrase “winter is coming” might just work.
I will paraphrase and use exact quotes where possible to share the following audience Q and A card session:
Q: Was contributing to the Doctor Who cannon exhilarating or terrifiying?
A: “It felt like coming home. It was magic.” Neil then tells a story about right before his Doctor Who episode was scheduled to shoot last Feb. he received a phone call telling him how there currently wasn’t enough money to shoot it until next season. He feels this was actually a good thing and that it likely worked out better in the end.
Q: What methods of research do you use? Google, etc?
A: He used a research assistant on American Gods whom would often find town population information for him. He likes to use books whenever possible. In American Gods he made up a few of the Gods, than was delighted to see them added to Wikipedia, “I thought, this is how Gods come to be!”
Q: Do you listen to music while writing?
A: Yes, but less music with lyrics while writing as he gets older. A couple favourites included: Gothic Arches, movie scores, and a shout out to Damon Buxom, a musician in the audience.
Q: Advice for young fantasy authors?
A: [Neil Gaiman amends his answer for all young authors] “You should write. Finish what you write. If you want to write fantasy, stop reading fantasy. Read outside your comfort level. Become a book reviewer [like he was] for exposure to new books. Go to primary sources for inspiration. If you like Lord of the Rings, don’t try to rewrite it. Someone out there has already done it better…” and most importantly in my humble opinion, “Try to tell the stories that only you can tell! The quicker you write YOUR own story, the better.”
Q: Have you ever met a God?
A: “No. But if I had to choose two people I would say [and this answer will forever cement my love for Neil Gaiman] Douglas Adams (God of backing into things and breaking them, then taking the pieces and putting them together to show people them in a new way) and Alan Moore (God of Looming).” Neil then went on to do a spot-on impersonation of Alan Moore, “We’re gonna take it all over Neil, you and me. But when we do; I GET ALL THE GREEN M&M’s!”
On that note Mr. Gaiman thanked the audience and started wrapping up the 2 hour plus event. It was mentioned during the proceedings that he was planning a west coast tour with his wife a week after the World SF Convention and would hopefully be back in town around the 11/11/11 11ish Party. I really hope he does return again soon. He received an enthusiastic and well-deserved standing-ovation. I could have listened to him talk all night. I escaped the sauna-like building and made my way out into the cool night air, very satisfied and contented. I don’t know if Gods walk amongst us, but as long as amazing people like Neil Gaiman do, I will be a happy man.
An extra special thank you to The University Bookstore! They provided me with press passes to this sold-out event, and without them I likely would not have gotten to attend. Events like this only help to further illustrate how vital independent bookstores are; not only for the variety of books they provide, but how they help put on these important events that contribute so much to a vibrant literary community. THANK YOU SO MUCH! Please, go support your local bookstores and libraries!