I was extremely excited to hear that Neil (we're totally on a first name basis) was going to accept an award during the George Mason Fall for the Book festival, and would be speaking at an award presentation on the evening of Friday, September 28. Tickets were free (!!!), all you had to do was email and make a reservation. As if that wasn't exciting enough, Goldstar had a deal where for $30 you could get access to a pre-award reception where Neil would make an appearance.
Um, hello, OF COURSE I WENT.
So along with my friend Jays (who is as big a Neil Gaiman fan as me) we rolled up to the Mason Inn on the George Mason campus ready for a night of awesomeness. We mingled with some of the other folks at the reception before Neil arrived, and talked about how we were clearly the coolest people in the room. That's kind of the double-edged sword with these kind of events; everyone at them is a huge nerd which usually means I rate among the coolest--which should give you an idea of the level of nerdom we are talking about here. Of course, that also means I have to spend the evening talking to the most socially awkward people on the planet; I thought the kid in front me in the buffet line was going to cry from anxiety when he knocked over some napkins.
And then things got amazing--at a fashionably late 6:15, Neil Gaiman walked into the room and was immediately swamped by people asking him to sign things. I thought I would just want to hang back and be content with watching...I always feel bad being one of "those people" who goes up to celebrities and asks them for stuff. But, hey, that's why Neil was at this thing, right? In the end, the temptation proved too great and since I had my favorite book, Neverwhere, along....Jays and I joined the throng.
It turns out we only needed to wait a couple minutes before Neil's attention turned to us. By this point, my supposed coolness had totally evaporated and I was sweaty nervous mess. Our entire interaction with Neil lasted about 30 seconds, which was time enough for me to squeak out, "it's so nice to meet you!" and "this is Neverwhere, it's my favorite!" and the brilliant, "thank you so much!" The people standing behind us were nice enough to take a picture with me, Jays, and Neil...
...and I resisted the temptation to photo bomb some of the other people having their picture taken. I thought I showed remarkable restraint.
Here's my signed copy of Neverwhere! It says "Maggie--Mind the Gap--Neil Gaiman"
After we got our books signed and extracated ourselves from the mob, Jays and I decided to head over to the Center for the Arts where the actual awards presentation and speech would take place. We met up with our friends Zach and Lauren and settled into seats for what was sure to be pure magic.
After a mercifully brief intro from the director of the Fall for the Books festival and the Mayor of Fairfax, Neil took the stage! He explained that there was a plan for the evening (you guys know how much I love a plan) that would entail him reading an exerpt from his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, that was due out next year. He would then answer some questions that had earlier been written on cards by some of the members of the audience. And then he would wrap up the evening by reading a new short story, since he felt bad only reading a portion of a book that we would have to wait a long time to find out the ending.
If you haven't had the pleasure of hearing Neil read one of his books, then I suggest you get yourself to the nearest public library or computer and get a copy of one of his audiobooks. Because he reads most of them himself and reads them better than most professional actors.
The exerpt he read from the new novel was the very beginning. The protagonist is a seven year old boy and as things begin, he is slightly grumpy since he has just lost his bedroom. His family is struggling financially and have let out his bedroom in an attempt to earn a bit more money. After a shocking surprise one morning at the end of the lane, the boy finds himself in the company of the three women who live at the Hempstock Farm. Lettie, the youngest of the three at eleven years old, is convinced that the duck pond on the edge of the farm is actually an ocean. All three ladies have...unusual gifts, and I don't think I am giving too much away when I tell you that they are witches. After finishing the reading, Neil stated that he had just emailed the finished draft of the novel to his editor at 3:30 that morning and it contained some of the scariest stuff he had ever written. It is decidedly NOT a children's story.
Neil then moved on to answering some of the questions that were posed to him by audience members. He had divided the cards into three piles, "ones I probably will answer, ones I probably won't answer because they're silly....and questions about Doctor Who."
I didn't manage to write down the first question (derp), but the answer spun into an entertaining story about Coraline. Neil mentioned that Coraline becoming a children's book was really an accident--and was all because a child lied. After he finished the book (which took 10 years), he provided a copy to his agent and wasn't sure if it was too scary to be sold as children's literature. She told him she would read it to her kids and based on their response they would send it to the adult editor or the children's editor. The next day she called Neil and told him that her children, especially her daughter, absolutely loved it. The book was then sent to the children's editor and the rest as they say is history. Years later, while attending the opening of the Coraline off-Broadway musical, Neil found himself chatting with the agent's daughter who was now a grown-up 16 years old. She mentioned her mother's initial reading of Coraline to her...and how she was absolutely terrified but didn't say anything because she had to know how it ended.
"Have you ever been a villain in someone else's story? If you were going to be, what kind of villain would you want to be? PS: I'm the one writing the story"
--Neil responded that he was surprised to see that he was the bad guy in The Simpsons episode featuring his guest spot, The Book Job. He seemed delighted by this development, and I got the feeling that Neil secretly always wants to be the villain.
"When you write, are you like a nine year old putting together a motorbike in his room?"
--YES. "I know these parts go together somehow."
"Why are you not signing books tonight?"
--"Take a look around you and make a hasty head count. I have been told there are 1800 people here tonight [applause] and last time I did a signing for that number of people we didn't finish until 3 in the morning. And I didn't feel like doing that tonight." He then promised to come back which prompted more wild applause.
"Which of your books did you most enjoy writing?"
--This question had an interesting answer. Neil noted that the ones that he enjoyed writing the most were also the ones that he enjoyed the least. "There were amazing highs and terrible lows." These are the books that prompted calls to his agent at midnight with complaints of "why are you making me do this? I could have been a gardener!" To which the agent replied, "no you couldn't." He also mentioned that he really enjoyed writing his new novel since he got to try so much new stuff in the narrative. And of course, he loved American Gods. The writing process was described as "fun and horrible."
"What is the best advice you have for getting started writing?"
--"Sit down. If you plan to write with a pencil, make sure it is sharpened and you have paper. If you plan to write with a pen make sure you have refills and paper. If you write with a computer, turn it on and start up your word processing program. And make sure you have an automatic save program set up." Basically, type the first word and keep going. According to Neil, the people who become successful writers are the ones who keep writing and don't stop. There's no time when you get a postcard in the mail that says, "Congratulations! You are now a real writer!" and he won't show up on your doorstep to welcome you into the club. You just have to keep going.
"What were your favorite books as a child?
--At age 7: The Chronicles of Narnia
At age 8: The Hobbit
At age 9: Stormbringer
At age 10-11: the first two books of the Lord of the Rings, since those were the only ones of the trilogy his school library had.
At age 12, Neil won his school's English writing prize and his reward was any book he wanted. He asked for Return of the King.
"Which Doctor (one through eleven) would you want to travel around in the TARDIS with?"
--Doctor #2, Patrick Troughton. He was my Doctor."
"Do you ever feel the basic elements of your books are too formulaic?"
--"No, I don't really feel like that. I think you can reduce anything to a one line description but it's not the same thing as the actual story. 'A normal person finds something weird and discovers life is bigger on the inside'--but the devil is in the details."
And in response to a question, we learned Gaiman's Law: no matter how beautiful your story, when the new book arrives and you crack it open to a random page and look down the page...you will find a typo.
And then Doctor Who questions were answered! We learned that Neil is definitely writing another Doctor Who episode (!!!) hopefully to air in the current series, but it could get pushed back if history repeats itself. It will NOT feature the TARDIS as a human, and Neil wrote a line into his last episode to make sure that couldn't happen again. When she says, "this is where we talked."
Neil then moved on to the final portion of the night, a reading of a new short story. The story was called Click Clack Rattlebags and was EXTREMELY spooky and scary. Prior to reading the tale, Neil mentioned that this is his favorite time of year...when the trees become more and more skeletal and shop windows become full of things that he loves, like giant spiders (yick).
All in all, it was pretty much a perfect evening full of amazing stories, both read and told. There is no doubt that Neil is a fantastic story-teller, in written prose or just when talking to a crowd. We were all spell-bound and the phrase "you could hear a pin drop" seems particularly appropriate during the readings. He couldn't have been nicer, more gracious, or more happy to be there doing what he loves most: telling stories. I feel extremely fortunate that I got the chance to meet him (even if only for 30 seconds) and thank him for sharing his stories with all of us.