In the presence of the Author
A few hours with the Neil Gaiman Experience
Thu, Nov 13, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Derrick Taylor
Like at all the classy places in town, there was the wide, marble hallway—lined with fresh flowers and gourmet restaurants—leading to a cluster of velvet ropes and angular-suited men. The ropes and the men were guarding an elevator. In another dimension, they would be bridge trolls or damsel-hoarding dragons or “resistance is futile” robot creatures. But this is reality, and we’re all consenting adults who live in a world with “no mysteries, no monsters and no miracles,” at least not on this side of the velvet rope. And like always, the guards/trolls/dragons/robots demanded a tribute (my ID) before letting me pass into Vegas Above (the 64th-floor lounge at Mandalay Bay, Mix). Granted admission, I watched Vegas Below shrink beneath me until the elevator doors parted to reveal a realm of sleek technological magic.
Just past a sign that read, “Do Not Enter. Private Party,” there he was, the Mystery-Monster-Miracle Maker himself, Neil Gaiman. As others have said before me, Gaiman is the type of writer who is very famous among people who’ve heard of him. As for everybody else, consider this your introduction. Like the title character of his graphic novel Sandman, Gaiman is a master of creating new realities for all audiences: graphic novels, regular novels, children’s books, poems and more. He has won buckets of awards, wears awesome leather jackets and has a kind, gentle demeanor, like a spooky Mr. Rogers.
Even better, Gaiman is the type of writer who uses adverbs, even though Steven King declared them passé years ago. Perhaps it’s just a British thing, but I prefer to think it’s because Gaiman refuses to let silly writing edicts cock-block the telling of a good story.
But before the “gathering of souls” nightclub event was the book reading at the Clark County Library, part of the Vegas Valley Book Festival. The place was crowded and chaotic. A few fans looked like characters from Sandman. But most looked like they wished they looked like characters from Gaiman’s novels. Everybody in the auditorium was reading just-purchased copies of Gaiman’s books. One couple shared The Day I Swapped My Father for a Goldfish, resting the colorful pages on their laps.
The event began with a pirates’ waltz. But then football-crowd enthusiasm drowned out all noise when Gaiman took the stage. He read a chapter from The Graveyard Book as well as two of his yet-to-be-published kids’ books. Later, Gaiman answered audience questions: “How do you get ideas? Notice them.” He told two stories about being in Vegas. They involved hanging out with Penn Jillette backstage and requesting a Bible from housekeeping while he was writing American Gods at a Vegas hotel so cheap that even its Bibles were misprinted and unusable.
But before the nightclub and the book reading was the afternoon book signing. The people in charge told me to wait and see about an interview. I waited, happy to be in the same room with the Author.
Gaiman took time with each person, drawing pictures and answering questions. His hands were covered in stray ink marks from his collection of black and silver pens. He also used the word “antepenultimate” twice in casual conversation, just like a character in his book Interworld. (By the second “antepenultimate,” I had become friends with Derrick Taylor, the Comic Oasis keeper.)
“Did you get a chocolate?” he asked a fan. “They have books on them. How cool is that?”
It was so cool that I snuck a handful of chocolates, which I’m now afraid to eat (it’d be like cannibalism). So I stored the chocolate books in my purse, the same place I’d hidden two of Gaiman’s paperback books (his newest, The Graveyard Book, and the classic British miniseries-turned-novel Neverwhere). I wanted to have Gaiman sign them, but I didn’t want to compromise my professionalism. I made sure nobody was looking and asked Taylor to get them signed for me. Then, when Gaiman was signing my secret copy of Neverwhere, Taylor pointed to me and said, “They’re really for her. But she’s afraid to talk to you.”
Gaiman looked up from my book and said, “Hi.” In response, I punched Taylor in the shoulder. My cover was blown. Now I was just a fan. But then I wondered, is it not worse to pretend to be unbiased then to flat out admit it? So I’ll admit it: I love Gaiman’s writing. That’s why I chose this article.
The people in charge said I could sneak an interview while Gaiman was signing books for the evening’s reading. Feeling conspicuous in my leather jacket, I started with the questions. Gaiman’s answers included: “Five Elvis impersonators in jumpsuits watching football” and “borrowed Penn Jillette’s labial-pink Mini Cooper.” He also stressed that writing was a collaboration between the reader and the writer, and in the spirit of his belief, I’ll let you guess the questions to those answers.
A small crowd of lingering fans and festival staff had gathered, listening to my interview. Gaiman made everybody so comfortable that the group occasionally chimed in with follow-up questions. Referring to his latest book, I asked Gaiman what he would put on his own grave. “I keep coming up with cute things, but honestly, I’d be perfectly happy if it just said ‘writer,’” he said. The crowd was silenced with that answer.
Back at Mix and no longer afraid, I got in line to get another book signed: Fragile Things, a collection of delicate stories with sharp teeth. Beyond the bounds of the “private party,” the regular crowd of slinky mini-dresses and well-dressed men sipped cocktails obliviously. Around 11 p.m., Gaiman left, and so did everybody else. I found myself standing alone. All that was left was a red spiral of light on the ground and an empty black table hovering above a glowing futurescape. It was surreal, like the bridge of a flying saucer or one of Gaiman’s creations.