Last week Shalena and I made the journey to Nashville, battling thunderstorms and my bad sense of direction to finally make it to the sold out event. Once all the 1,600 or so guests were seated, Gaiman told us about his new book, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” which he originally started writing as a short story for his wife while she was away making a record in Australia for several months.
“I started writing and I kept writing and I kept writing, and I thought, ‘Ok, it’s not a short story. Its a novella,’” he said. “And then I thought, ‘It’s a very long novella.’ And then I finished it and I typed it up and did my word count. Then I sent a somewhat baffled and embarrassed email to my editor saying, ‘I appear to have written a novel. I know you weren’t expecting it. I’m very sorry. It won’t happen again.”
Part of the inspiration from the story came from the time when he learned that the property at the end of his street of his family home in England was listed in a document by William the Conqueror in 1066.
“I thought, ‘Wow, one of the farms down the lane is 1,000 years old.’ It didn’t occur to me that 1,000 years ago it would have been a peasant hovel. I just figured this nice, brick building had been there for 1,000 years,” he said. “And I thought, ‘I wonder if the people who live there have been there for 1,000 years, too?’”
This kicked off the reading of a portion from the spooky novel, complete with natural sound effects from the thunderstorm going on outside the War Memorial Auditorium. After that, he answered questions from the audience. Some silly, like “How do you take your tea?”, to which he answered “Orally,” or the question, “A hypothetical: If you drove two hours to get here and sat down only to realize you’re not sure where you parked, how would you go about finding your car?” Gaiman’s answer? “I’m really fortunate because I came here in a giant bus. … You’re screwed.”
Other questions were more serious, like how it felt to hear that one of his books had changed someone’s life.
“For my first decade or so as a writer, I thought ‘It has nothing to do with me. … I just wrote it because I wrote it, and you cannot be responsible for people’s reactions to it out in the world.’ Then my dad died,” Gaiman said.
He was numb until several months later when he was reading over a script for a friend.
“In the middle of the script, a fictional character died. And suddenly I was sobbing,” he said. “All of the unwept tears from my dad, all of that stuff just came out. I thought, ‘You know. That’s amazing. It’s a wonderful, cleansing thing — getting to cry for somebody who didn’t exist, in a story — and I should not downplay it.’”
He also revealed a writing ritual: he writes his stories longhand, using different colored pens each day so he can see how much work he has done daily. The reason he writes longhand? To minimize distractions, he said.
“Even if people are not emailing me, I can realize that I’m not quite sure how many P’s and L’s are actually in (the word) ‘appallingly,’ so I should check. And 90 minutes later find myself on Ebay buying something I don’t want.”
He also joked about the treatment of his characters in his books.
“I still worry that all the characters that I’ve been mean to or I’ve killed in my stories will at some point turn up at my backdoor. I will open the door, and I’ll see them, and they’ll be going, ‘Why were we born to suffer and die?’ And I will say ‘For the entertainment. But also perhaps you taught people some valuable lessons.’ And they’ll go, ‘It still hurt.’ And I’ll say, ‘Sorry.’ Then they’ll go away. That’s probably how God feels. Maybe. You never know,” he said with a smile.
After more questions and another reading from one of his children’s books, “Fortunately the Milk,” with accompaniment on the banjo by Béla Fleck, it was finally time for the signing. They announced they would randomly draw row numbers out of a bowl to join the line. I hoped that maybe we’d be ridiculously lucky and get picked first. Then I joked that most likely, with my luck, we’d be drawn dead last.
I was right.
It was 1 a.m. when Shalena and I finally reached Neil Gaiman in the signing line — five hours after the signing started. The poor man had only taken one short break the entire time. When I rounded the corner and saw his smiling but clearly exhausted face, I understood why he said this was his last signing tour. As he signed my two books I’d brought, I thanked him for staying so late for us, and he thanked us for not rioting in the streets after having to wait for five hours for a signature. (I was ready to say if his wrist was in excruciating pain, he could just use some lip gloss or something and kiss the page for me instead. At this point, I would have taken pretty much anything.)
As Shalena and I left, we giggled about the famous author having “spoken words to us!” (this might have been the sleep deprivation kicking in) and shuffled off into the night for the long drive home.
We carried with us the precious signature and the hope that one day our own books would touch people enough to make them want to stick around for five hours just for a few quick words, a smile and an autograph.