Friday, June 21, 2013

The Oasis at the End of the Desert: Neil Gaiman at Saratoga Springs

My family and I left on a road trip to Saratoga Springs right after the girls' last day of school let out yesterday morning to meet up with my two students in a Neil Gaiman/Neal Stephenson Major Authors independent study and attend the Neil Gaiman interview/book signing sponsored by Northshire Bookstore.  It was a 5-hour drive and we only made one unscheduled stop and one wrong turn, so with our head start (Hamburg is about 40 minutes closer than Fredonia via the Thruway to the other side of the state) we managed to beat Alyssa and Elizabeth to the site of the event.  I'm writing this far too early the morning after--while my little ladies, 7 and now 9 and a half (as of yesterday), gifted with far great recuperative powers than me, go for an early morning swim in the hotel pool--so it's going to be rushed, but I thought I'd share some first impressions while they were still relatively fresh.

Gaiman's sense of humor was literally our first impression of him when he finally came onto the stage, after three (yes, three!) sets of introductions and one standing ovation (for the actual guy).  The extended metaphor he offered supplied the title for this post; for those listening on the radio in the vicinity of July 7th, they'll know he was making an in-joke, and they should be able to figure out what it was about from the context, but it was a nice way to acknowledge the 1500+ people in the auditorium and it was certainly much appreciated.

Actually, Gaiman's sense of humor was probably the major tone throughout the interview and indeed the entire event.  At some point early in the radio interview he referred to an off-color joke a 10- or 11-year-old told him when he was 8 that got him in trouble when he repeated it at school--and then, once the taping was over, told the actual joke (accent and all) after some urging from the interviewer and audience (he was worried at first about kids being in the audience, but I can attest that just as the joke went over his head at the time, it was miles over 9-year-old onechan's head, as well; she turned to me after it with an expression between quizzical and baffled and gave me a chance to refuse to explain it to her!).  But his humor was always to a serious end.  Just as the point of that joke was to illustrate how kids experience the world differently from adults (and set up nicely the three or four pages he read from The Ocean at the End of the Lane), he was able to make another point about how writing for comics was viewed in the '90s quickly and efficiently with a sally about calling a hooker a lady of the evening.  And there was more, much more.  But I'm going to take a page from Gaiman and his interviewer, who resolutely avoided spoilers of any kind, and not spoil your own experience of listening to the interview when it goes online at the Northshire Bookstore web site.  Suffice to say it was a real pleasure and definitely worth the drive--even after I found out this morning he's going to be in Toronto in early August!  (Maybe there I'll be able to pass along the invitation to do a reading at SUNY Fredonia that I was supposed to deliver for Writers Ring last night!)

But I can give you more general and personal impressions.  One thing that came to mind the second Gaiman started talking was how much more fun it must be to interview writers than golfers.  When I interview an LPGA golfer, it's usually after they've finished a round and can't wait to practice, or shower, go out to eat, or do whatever they need to do to unwind and get ready for the next round.  Pretty much any question you can think of they've heard a million times before, and many of the original ones you manage to come up with just throw them for a loop, because they don't have a preprogrammed answer to give you.  Not only that, but a good number of athletes aren't all that self-aware or great at putting into words the physical, mental, and emotional challenges they're dealt with--and those that are are often the cagiest about giving too much away to their competitors or the most cautious about letting the media into their heads!  So I end up always feeling like I'm imposing on the golfers I manage to track down and usually botch my questions as a result.  Don't get me wrong--over the years, I've managed to hold it together with Tiffany Joh, Morgan Pressel, Hannah Yun, Mika Miyazato, Paula Creamer, and Ai Miyazato, among others, and put some decent interviews and stories up at Mostly Harmless--but Neil Gaiman not only gave the impression he loved being interviewed but backed it up with a vivid reflection on what he loves about readings and interviews.

Speaking of readings, when Gaiman told us about telling stories to his kids and gave us a sneak preview of his next children's book Fortunately, the Milk, it made me wish I could afford to hire the guy as a designated dad at bedtime.  True, my younger daughter imoto was zonked out from a late night the night before (pro tip:  Japanese women living in America and married to American guys are capable of incredible feats of endurance and conversation among themselves when the wine is flowing) and pretty much was put to sleep by Gaiman's voice.  But, hey, isn't that the point of bedtime stories?  (And imoto did love the CD of The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish that we listened to twice as we approached Saratoga Springs that she forced me to buy the paperback on sale at the event to replace the hardback edition we had somehow lost).  Onechan, on the other hand, who was treating the event as a special 9-and-a-half-year present just for her, was enthralled by the excerpt from The Ocean at the End of the Lane and seemed to enjoy the UFO/pirate/dinosaur whimsy of Fortunately, the Milk (just not as much as me).  It's clear Gaiman loves writing for kids (of all ages), but even more gratifying to me--and this is another thing that has already made the trip worth it in my book (even before we go to NYC, see my brother and his family in Connecticut, and swing back to my parents' place in Clinton on the way back home this weekend)--has been the way onechan has (finally, after many failed attempts on my part) embraced his writing!  I left The Graveyard Book in her room early during third grade, but this voracious reader (who's graduated from the likes of the Rainbow Magic and Magic Tree House series to The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and A Series of Unfortunate Events) kept passing it over.  Once she found out we were going to the reading, though, she devoured M Is for Magic ("October in the Chair" is her favorite) and finally seemed open to reading The Graveyard Book and maybe even Stardust.  Bottom line:  Gaiman made a new fan this week.

Speaking of fans, I was a little disappointed at how few of the 1500+ got decked out for the event.  No cosplay to speak of and even very few T-shirts.  Most people were dressed as boring as I was, which made the hours-long wait in the signing line a little less entertaining than I would have hoped.  After hearing Gaiman's explanation for why this is his last U.S. signing tour and experiencing it myself (with onechan and my two students, after the Full Metal Archivist wisely took imoto back to the hotel room right after the interview was done), I can say for sure that he's making the right decision.  Apparently the organizers had said kids can go first, but I missed the memo and wasn't told again until we were literally 5 minutes from Gaiman himself; more important, though, I wanted the SUNY Fredonia gang to stick together, as it was the most f2f time we were going to have during the entire independent study.  When we dispersed at 10:30ish, the line was still going out the door, so Gaiman was going to be there into today.  I just can't see why he should subject himself to that any more, when there's not even a chance to chat with his fans.  Frankly, I was so exhausted by the time we got to him that I forgot to invite him to the SUNY Fredonia campus for Writers Ring, the student group one of my favorite students in Secretary of.  (Ah, there's always Toronto!)  As tough as it was for us, we could try to entertain each other, but all Gaiman could do was sign and sign and sign and maybe exchange a word here or there.  Not just no fun, but a terrible use of his time.  Don't get me wrong:  everyone on that line obviously thought it was worth it and deeply appreciated the chance to meet him, however briefly and impersonally.  But I'd bet most of us would have voted to give it up if the interview period could have been extended an extra hour instead.

OK, the Full Metal Archivist has made it down to the pool, so it's time for me to get ready to move around this morning.  I'm 20 pages in on The Ocean at the End of the Lane and sucked in already....  We'll see how far I can get into it tonight at the hotel in Fort Lee.  More later!

1 comment:

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