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I Saw Neil Gaiman!  Squee!

Yesterday at 5 PM, I was sitting in a local ice cream shop eating a sundae and checking twitter on my iphone.  I don’t check twitter regularly, and when I do, I only skim.

A tweet from Neil Gaiman caught my eye.  “In  car.  On way to airport to fly to Chicago to do @CBLDF reading at #c2e2.  Any requests for tonight?” I had no idea what CBLDF or c2e2 is, but I live just over an hour outside the city of Chicago, and very much knew that I would love to see Neil Gaiman.

I immediately brought up a web browser and did a quick search: “Neil Gaiman Chicago April.”  The first hit was a Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (c2e2) event page titled: An Evening With Neil Gaiman.

In my excitement, I hardly processed anything the page said, but I got the important stuff.  Neil Gaiman, 7pm, Arie Crown Theater, a few tickets left: $35.

And we were off.

Just before we arrived at 6:45 PM, I collected my wits enough to learn that it wasn’t just Gaiman speaking; it was a dramatic reading.  His first for CBLDF in 10 years.  It was part of a comic book convention, but the Gaiman event tickets were available separately.  The proceeds were going not to Gaiman, but to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF).

I also remembered that, though I’d not had time to prepare, I (thankfully) had a camera and a notebook in the car.  Despite the surreal nature of these proceedings, I even remembered to bring both these things inside.

And now let me present:  Neil, himself.


C2E2: Arie Crown Theater, Chicago.  April 17, 2010.

Neil Gaiman, during Q&A

“If you don’t have a plan, nothing can go wrong,” Neil Gaiman informed us, just before presenting the plan for the evening.

First, he would read a few things.  Then, during a 15-20 minute intermission, he would go backstage, go through the huge pile of question cards to decide what to answer during the Q&A. After the intermission, there would be approximately 25 minutes of Q&A followed by a final reading.

And that’s how it went.  Pretty much.

Reading the first: “In Relig Oran”

Neil began by discussing a book of myths and legends of Scotland by Otta F. Swire.  He said that it’s the kind of book someone gives you, and you find yourself (after reading it) searching ebay for more books by the author, and eventually receiving these old, long out-of-print books of stories, “several of which [he] found really strange and rather inspirational.”

After reading some of these stories, he took his dog for a walk. “Sometimes, when you walk,” he said, “your mind goes into rhythms. […] I found myself walking to along to the beat of the line ‘When St. Columba landed at the island of Iona.'”  And from this, Gaiman crafted a poem: “In Relig Oran.”

The title of the poem is the name of a graveyard in Scotland.  In Gaelic, “in relig Oran” means “The Grave of Oran.” The poem is unpublished and heretofore not publically read, though exclusive prints of the poem were avaible for purchase at C2E2.  (I got one!)

The poem tells the story of two saints, St. Columba and St. Oran, who land on the Island of Iona to build a chapel.  Unfortunately, the foundation won’t hold.  It is revealed to St. Columba in a dream that he should bury St. Oran in the foundation, for that will make for a strong chapel.  Columba proceeds to do so, and it works. But St. Oran is resurrected, and returns to tell of the true nature of heaven, of hell, and of God.

It’s a fantastic piece.  The print is beautiful; it will look lovely on the wall in my study.

Reading the second: “Chivalry”

“Chivalry” (available in Smoke and Mirrors and M is for Magic) is the story that Neil used to begin all CBLDF readings with. The premise is simple enough: “Mrs. Whittaker found the holy grail.  It was under a fur coat.”  Her thrift store find, she decides, will look lovely on the mantelpiece.  She proudly explains the history of this relic to her (Jewish) friend “wouldn’t know about such things [*sniff*].” Soon, however, Sir Gallahad shows up at her door.  He is on a quest to find the holy grail.  The story follows Mrs. Whittaker and Sir Gallahad as they haggle and become friends.

Neil shone during this piece.  He was obviously practiced and comfortable in the reading of it, and the personality he added to the dialogue raised it from a cute, quaint story to a fabulous one.  We (the Mister and I) have listened to his recorded readings before, but, as the Mister said, “I never realized he was a gesturer.”   Or.. one who gestures for effect, apparently.

Neil does this amazing thing when he has just read something particularly funny.  As he pauses for effect, the brings his head slightly forward, and his chest slightly forward, and his upper body becomes a cute, subtle triangle.  And while it is subtle, it adds a certain something to the experience.  He looks pleased with himself, and the listener can sense that he loves the story just as much as his audience.  He also, occasionally, punctuates lines (funny ones, of a female’s dialogue) by cute little shoulder rocks.  Like he just can’t quite hold the character back.

At the conclusion of the story, Gaiman smiled.  “That was fun.  Like falling off a bike.. you never forget how.”

Reading the third: “My Last Landlady”

This poem, Neil explains, came into existence after an e-mail from a friend.  This friend was editing an anthology of poems that were “spooky, scary, horrific, or unsettling” and set on the sea or seaside.  He wanted to know if Neil had written any “spooky, scary, horrific, or unsettling” poems that were set on the sea or seaside.  Neil hadn’t.  So he did.

The narrator of the poem is addressing his new landlady and telling the story of his last one.  He had stayed at a seaside bed and breakfast, and his landlady was a bit morbid.  Her mind seemed focused on the less pleasant side of human nature, and so she was forever saying unpleasant things. As more of her nature is revealed, the poem does become distinctly unsettling.

The reading was, of course, magnificent.

Reading the fourth: “Being an Experiment Upon Strictly Scientific Lines”

“Being an Experiment Upon Strictly Scientific Lines” (available in Angels & Visitations) is written, article-style, about the “precise effects alcohol has on a creative writer.”  Does it get his creative juices flowing, or cause him to become “maudlin, aggrressive, [and] rambling?”

The narrator (Gaiman?) has set himself up with a bottle of booze, many empty glasses, and a typewriter.  He writes about creative writing while keeping track of how many drinks he’s had. During the whole of the evening, Neil had a water bottle on his podium.  For this particular story, it served as a prop.  As Gaiman reached the next drink of the article, he says “Excuse me.”  Then takes a swig, sighs, and says “Drink number 3” (or whatever number he happened to be on.)

The story itself was funny, but with Gaiman’s performance, it reached hilarity.

Reading the fifth: “The Day the Saucers Came”

A poem from Fragile Things, depicting the end of world.  There are aliens; there are zombies; it is Ragnarok.  And there are even more catastrophes on “the day the saucers came.”  Light and funny.  Perfect to read just before a break.


After a brief break in which we all crowded, mosh-pit style, around two tables to buy exclusive goods, Neil took a few minutes to answer questions.

The first: What is the best way to get the attention of a publisher?

Neil Gaiman responded to this one by offering a story about Harlan Ellison.  Ellison was scheduled to introduce Gaiman at an appearance (on a ship), but couldn’t make it to the ship due to traffic.  A shiphand approached Gaiman, asking if Ellison was there.  Gaiman responded negatively, and the shiphand went on to explain that he had wanted to meet Ellison for 28 years.. ever since Ellison got him fired.

The story continues to reveal an amazing stink-up in the mailroom of Ace Books.  Ellison was arguing with the publisher, and found a.. unique way to get his point across.

How would you cast the Sandman movie?

“Very carefully.”

Have you ever balanced on a curb and pretended you were on a tightrope?

“Everybody has balanced on a curb and pretended they were on a tightrope… including me.  Most recently, yesterday.  In Indianapolis.”

When you were 9, like me, did you know you wanted to be a writer?  And what were your favorite books then?

When he was 9, his favorite book was Stormbringer (or Storm Bringer), I’m not sure which.

But by the time he was 11, his favorite books were the first two volumes of Lord of the Rings.  “Because that was all they had in the school library, so I read those two” and he figured it ended well (and he had a copy of The Tolkien Reader, in which an essay by Peter S. Beagle informed him that it did.)

And he did know that he wanted to be a writer.  In fact, he says, “I didn’t just want to be a writer.  I wanted to be the person who had written Lord of the Rings.”  He concocted an elaborate plan to accomplish this.  It involved a parallel universe, deception, and murder.  He threw it out because of that last bit.

What was it like to work with Terry Pratchett?

“It was like being a sort of journeyman craftsman working with a master craftsman.”  Pratchett would read his stuff, call him up and say, “‘If you just change these two words, it could be 73% funnier.'” And he was right.

When will we see another book like Odd and the Frost Giants?

Apparently, Gaiman has an idea for another book featuring Odd.  The working title: “Odd Goes to Jerusalem.”  I won’t even begin to explain this.

Will you ever write an episode of Dr. Who?

He already has.  It was supposed to air towards the end of season 5, but due to budget constraints, it has been pushed back to season 6.  The only information he can give about it is what’s already been said (by the director?): “It will be on television.  It is in color.”

Do you do a lot of research for your writing projects?

“Sometimes copious.  Sometimes not copious.  Sometimes just enough to know that I’m faking it for myself.”

For The Graveyard Book, he read four or five books on burial practices.  Then he visited cemeteries.  Then he started making stuff up.  Because that’s the fun part.

I named my daughter Coraline in 2007.  Have you heard of other girls being named Coraline?

He has.  He thinks it’s neat.  “I got to revive a pretty much dead name and one I thought I made up.”

Reading the sixth: “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar.”

A Cthulian short story (available in Smoke and Mirrors).  Also set by the sea. Also unsettling.

Ben Lassiter is on an uneventful walking tour of England when he comes to the town of Innsmouth.  Inside the pub, he meets two men who get him drunk and tell him about being acolytes of Cthulu.  Then it gets weird.

Another amazing performance by Gaiman.  It’s curious how one can look at one man performing and see three distinct characters come to life.

Reading the seventh (and last): “100 Words”

“100 words to talk of death? / At once too much and not enough.”

A melancholy little poem, available as a print illustrated by Jim Lee.

This poem, along with a few words about the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, marked the end of a truly lovely evening with Neil Gaiman.

Thanks for coming to Chicago, Mr. Gaiman, and for offering your continuing support of CBLDF.