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Neil Gaiman is a gent. Quite possibly the most gallant of all the pleasant, well-mannered, surprisingly mild English literary stars out there, though the familiar image of the author wearing a black leather jacket, tussled black hair and eyes hidden behind black sunglasses, suggests something else. He’d also have to be patient, to sign copy after copy of his latest novel well into the wee hours of a Nashville morning, so muggy it bordered on tropical.

Early this July, I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to see Mr. Gaiman in person, in my hometown of Nashville, TN. Gaiman’s best known as the author of The Sandman comic series, as well as fantasy novels, children’s books, screen plays, and the character he calls his “favorite doctor” - Doctor Who!
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
He was on a long promotional tour for his latest novel , The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This tour has been referred to as his “last” book signing tour, due to the sheer number of fans he has attracted – a number so large that it has made mass book signings impractical, and probably for the author, somewhat unbearable.  "I think this Ocean at the End of the Lane  tour will be the last actual signing tour I ever do," Gaiman wrote on his blog recently. "They're exhausting, on a level that's hard to believe. I love meeting people, but the sixth hour of signing, for people who have been standing in a line for seven hours, is no fun for anybody. The last proper US signing I did, it lasted over 7 hours and I signed for over 1000 people. I'd suspect a lot of the signings on this tour will be like that, or bigger."

Nashville’s historic War Memorial Auditorium , in its aging, ornate glory – featuring memorable architectural floral designs on the ceiling, and a bookish, musky odor that works an olfactory miracle – was well suited to the man who walked onstage to read an excerpt from his novel, just as thunder announced a summer storm outside.
Neil Gaiman sitting on a tombThe Ocean at the End of the Lane, like most Gaiman books, creates a kind of magical realism, but in the case of this book,  with a heavier than usual leaning on the metaphysical. It’s about a young boy whose world is upended, when a boarder his family takes in commits suicide. The boarder’s death sets off a chain of events that involves a group of seemingly timeless women, and a mysterious and sinister visitor from a looking-glass type realm.

Gaiman explained how he drew from his own childhood experiences to write what began as a short story and evolved into a novel. It was written in part as a tool to vie for the attention of his wife, English musician Amanda Palmer,  who at the time of the book’s writing was away cutting a record. He dedicated the new novel to her, declaring, “For Amanda, who wanted to know.”
Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman
His first piece he read was an excerpt from his book,  in which the 7-year-old protagonist is chased by an inhuman nanny, and  immediately the audience of 1500 people were drawn into Gaiman’s surrealistic dream.

It’s funny who the fans are, I noticed. I looked around from my balcony seat and saw people of every type, from the average-looking, the knockoff-goth types, to the the obvious comic book guys. Slight stereotypes. Mild oddities. Fantasy people, maybe. And the author himself – a graying yet handsome sight, whose subdued but alluring manner put me in mind of a tired wolf. He seemed to me much like his works, both ordinary and extraordinary.  He is magic – and nothing. Average, but arresting. His sense of humor was crafty, and his voice, higher than I anticipated, was parodical. He was someone you might expect to see through a mirror, or staring back at you, after you shift aside a stack of books on a library shelf.
Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer
Mr. Gaiman, somewhat surprisingly to me, seemed happy to answer questions. My favorite was “why was there so much sex in his books?” His tongue-in-cheek- response, “Because. It’s a world filled with sex.”

Then, quite unexpectedly, he introduced Nashville’s famed musician beyond compare Béla Fleck, who came onstage to pick banjo as Gaiman read his short story, Fortunately the Milk, aloud.

And then came the longest wait in human history for a book signing. We sat for hours, literally, during which…I read the book. Yes, people, I read it  almost to completion right there, as hours passed. Then, we were finally called section by section, seemingly at random, to line up, snaking through the auditorium’s ground floor to the lobby outside where Gaiman sat, brandishing a pen at a small table.
Coraline bookcover
I read the book, which was to me, more than anything, a fantastical ode to childhood; the grandeur of some things, the inconsequence of others, the impossibility of being heard, the magic of the intellect, the style of the reasoning. For a story so unbelievable, the hero’s predicament is ordinary – a notion made all the more poignant the more tired I became. And my propensity to hallucinate when I find myself in a sleepy state, lent itself to the story.

I returned to reality with a start when a woman interrupted my reverie, by demanding I open my book to the front page where Gaiman was to sign. She was trying, to little avail, to keep the line moving faster. Among the last fans to be called, I finally reached the table where the author, though quiet, was still signing with impressive gusto, given the hour. My new best friend, after all the time she spent ahead of me in line,  gushed effusively, gave him a gift, and made a quick but momentary friend of him. I followed silently, thanked Gaiman for staying late, and pushed my opened book at him. He started scribbling with a deep rosy marker.
Gaiman with Josh Ritter
“And…a heart….for….Jesssss,” he said, looking up at me. He’d turned my name into a slip of silver light, with a dripping consonant. I looked at the heart, whose halves bowed like butterfly wings, and I accepted the book. The frays of where I left off were waiting, and I wanted to tie them.

After all the splendor of that single moment, we left like normal people into a dark Nashville night, watching the shadows of street lights shimmering on rain-dampened pavement. Slow-moving cars moved off to their destinations.

For me, it was all raindrops, rising heat and asphalt. Headlights flashing, then disappearing. Magic – then nothing.

 

 

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 149 - September 2018
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