Neil Gaiman is hands down my favorite author. If you aren't familiar with his work, then clearly something is wrong with you. Just kidding, but seriously, he is a genius and a true storyteller. I've scoured the internet to try to find a description of his style and genre that can express what reading his books feels like...and the closest I have found is a snippet from a review of the new novel from The Times in London. "His prose is simple but poetic, his world strange but utterly believable - if he was South American we would call this magic realism rather than fantasy."
Magic realism--I like that. It's typically used to describe South American authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but wikipedia defines the term as "magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment." This is Neil Gaiman to a tee. He is a master at setting atmosphere, of the creepy, of the extraordinary, of the funny, and making you feel. With a few monsters thrown in for good measure.
I was lucky enough to see him last year in September, and when I heard he would be returning to DC on his current tour, I snapped up a bunch of tickets for me and my friends as soon as I could. We gathered in the Lisner Auditorium on the GW campus along with 1,000 other fans to hear Neil read from the new book and answer audience questions. He was his typical rumpled, brilliant, quietly hilarious self. He began by telling us that he would sign books after his talk for as long as it took to get to everyone....but asked us to allow those who are disabled or pregnant to come to the front of the line so they wouldn't have to stand for hours. How can someone be that talented AND so nice? Not fair, man.
Apparently, his adding pregnant women to the list of those who could jump the line stems from an appearance he made in 2003 in the Philippines. Over 3,000 people came to hear him speak and have their books signed. After autographing books for 6 hours, there were still over 1,000 people waiting in line. He spotted two pregnant ladies waiting, and asked the event organizers to bring them to the head of the line. When another woman who had been waiting her time finally reached the signing table, he asked her why she hadn't come up with the other pregnant women. "No, I'm just fat" she told him. He told us "I never wanted to die as much as I did at that moment."
Before beginning to read from The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil told us a bit about the process of writing the novel. It was more or less accidentally written--it began when he missed his wife, musician Amanda Palmer, when she was living in Australia and working on recording a new album. He started to write a short story that he thought she would like--since she doesn't really like fantasy. He then quipped, "I don't know why she married me." Amanda likes stories with honesty and feelings, and he doesn't normally do honesty and feelings, mostly because he is male and English.
He decided to write about a character who was the seven year old version of himself who lives in the world Neil remembered growing up in. But then there was a small problem. He just didn't stop writing. The short story became a novelette, which became a novella, which became a very long novella, and the end result was the new book. Neil sent a surprised email to his editor and exclaimed, "I appear to have written a novel."
Don't you hate it when that happens?
Neil then read from the fourth chapter of the new book (which was a nice surprise since I had heard him read the first chapter when I saw him speak last September). To provide some background of the story, Neil told us that in the beginning of the book, a lodger living with our narrator and his family drives to the end of the lane and kills himself. The narrator is a seven year old boy who meets the strange and witchy Hempstock family (all ladies). Just prior to chapter 4, the narrator has received a mysterious silver shilling in a most uncomfortable manner (it appeared suddenly in the back of his throat), and he and the youngest Hempstock strike out in the woods behind the Hempstock farm to seek some answers.
If you have not heard Neil Gaiman read in person, you are still in luck as he reads many of his own audiobooks. He has a flare for it, and he reads the audiobook for The Ocean at the End of the Lane (link goes to audible.com). I would also recommend the audiobook for his novel, Neverwhere, which is my favorite.
And now! Answers to audience questions!
--"As a writer, what is one mistake you are glad you made?"
"Writing a letter to a friend, Caroline, and transposing the "a" and the "o." (this is a reference to his very successful children's story, Coraline, which is also a super creepy animated movie.)
--"How did you develop and foster your love of mythology?"
When Neil was six years old, he borrowed a copy of the book Tales of the Norsemen, and loved it. He then saved his pocket money and bought Tales of Ancient Egypt...which promptly ruined his life since he couldn't figure which of the author's three names was the appropriate one to use on his alphabetized bookshelf. He fostered his love of mythology by feeding it.
--"What was it like to work on Doctor Who?" (Neil has written two Doctor Who episodes)
"It was enormously fun."
--"Why are there so many Hempstocks in your books?"
When Neil was 8 years old, there was a farm down the lane that his mother told him was mentioned in the Doomsday Book (written around the time of William the Conqueror). In his head, he imagined that the same people had lived there for 1,000 years and in his teens he began referring to them as the Hempstocks. Women with the name Hempstock are also mentioned in his novels, Stardust and The Graveyard Book.
--"Why o angels keep showing up in your books?"
"I don't know, they're like cockroaches. As soon as I think I am done with them, another one comes scurrying in."
--"Will there be any more stories set in the Neverwhere universe or with those characters?"
Neil mentioned that he had just written a short story called How the Marquis Got His Coat Back, which features characters from Neverwhere and will appear in a new anthology called Rogues edited by George RR Martin.
--"What inspired the character of the TARDIS in the Doctor Who episode, The Doctor's Wife?"
The character was actually an accident; he did not sit down to write an episode about the TARDIS in human form. Instead, he had thought it would be cool if there was something weird and dangerous inside the TARDIS, and in order to get it in there, maybe something had pulled out the TARDIS' soul...and then the soul had to go somewhere. The Doctor always referred to the TARDIS as a girl, so he decided to stick the soul in a nice lady.
--"What's your advice to someone who wants to make a living as an author?"
"Sell some of your writing."
--"Where is your favorite place to write?"
"Somewhere without wireless internet." Neil told us that he prefers to write by hand with a fountain pen....but has written pretty much anywhere. The only really impossible place to write is in the bath.
--"What have you been afraid to write?"
There was one scene in The Oceans at the End of the Lane he knew would be difficult and knew it was coming 1-2 weeks ahead of time. "It was hovering on the horizon like a distant storm cloud" but didn't want to face it. Still, it got done!
--"What happened to the movie based on Anasi Boys?"
There were problems with the studio's interpretation. They straight up told Neil that you couldn't have black actors in a fantasy movie since black people don't go see fantasy movies and white people didn't go see fantasy movies with black characters. The audience at the Lisner scoffed very loudly at this claim, and Neil agreed--and mentioned that was why the movie didn't happen. Though there had been some promising progress on this front lately...
--Do you purposefully choose your audience for a particular story (i.e. adult novel vs. children's book)?
Yes, usually before he begins writing.
After answering the questions, Neil then read another small portion of the new book, this time a very funny snippet set in the Hempstock's kitchen. He told us he would sign books for us "until my hand drops off." Luckily for us, that wasn't a problem. Each ticket was numbered and would determine the order of the book signing--and my group had numbers 41-47. We were in the first signing group and only had to wait about 10 minutes. It was pure luck of the draw on our part, but also a huge relief. I have no doubt people were waiting around for hours to get their books signed.
So that's it! I encourage you all to check out the new novel, it's beautiful, funny, scary, and will grab you from the very beginning. Just another typical journey into Neil Gaiman's world....
Can you imagine having to sign 1,000 books? I think my hand really would fall off.