Saturday, October 07, 2006

Burn This Blog

After going for over a year without any book-signings (at least that I can remember), it's a little funny that I attended two within the space of a week. This Tuesday night I had the chance to hear Neil Gaiman speak, which continues in the geeky vein of going to hear Steve Wozniak, while exploring a disparate channel of nerdiness.

Back in the day, such author events were, for better or worse, the highlight of my social calendar. If you ever read my old web page, you probably remember that about the only thing I bothered to write about was which authors I went to hear and what they were like. I was hugely indebted to Rainy Day Books, a great independent bookseller in the Kansas suburbs, which put on these events and brought great authors out to Middle America. I was delighted to hear Al Franken soon after moving out to KC, and over time he was followed by Ron Chernow, Azar Nafisi, Thomas Frank, and more. (If the list seems politically slanted, that's no accident. Missouri was a contested state in the 2004 election, and plenty of people wanted to make sure any liberals they could find would turn out for the election.) Anyways, I felt like that was my burst of culture out there in the heartland.

Since moving out here, though... I'm sure there are more author events than before, but the drive to attend has gone way down. Partly this is because there's always plenty to do. Not only in the sense of being busy with work, more that there are other interesting things to do besides go see authors: explore the city, climb mountains, attend cultural festivals, visit museums, etc., etc. I used to keep my eyes peeled for upcoming literary events; since moving here, I only hear about something if I happen to stumble across it. And even then, I'm more picky. I used to accept driving an hour to hear someone because it was that or stay at home; now, even if someone cool is coming to speak in, say, Oakland or Santa Cruz, I need to weight the coolness of hearing them against the other options I have.

This all sounds a lot like an excuse, and I guess it is. My intent, though, is more to say that, while I haven't gone to hear authors nearly as much as I did two years ago, it isn't because I enjoy it any less or find it less exciting. When it's someone I like, and is relatively convenient to do, I'll gladly make the trip to do it.

Pretty much my entire experience with Neil Gaiman, from start to present, has been documented on this blog. I started reading his comics after a casual comment from a co-worker, quickly became obsessed, and have devoured a huge chunk of his output, including nearly all Sandman comics and American Gods. Additionally, I'd read anecdotes about how entertaining he could be at book signings, and knew that his blog was supposed to be very good, though I don't regularly read it myself.

Tangent: Of all the authors I would like to see, Gaiman probably falls into the top quarter, on the basis of his speaking ability as much as his excellence. If I had to pick my top five... well, as of this minute they would be Neal Stephenson, Ron Chernow (again), Jon Stewart (as an author), Jim Wallis, and Barack Obama.

Anyhoo... this being the Bay Area, there are several major independent booksellers around, in addition to literally hundreds of smaller shops in San Francisco and elsewhere. The giants include Cody's, which until recently was headquartered on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, and Kepler's, in Menlo Park near Stanford. There was a scare last year where Kepler's went out of business when it was unable to afford the high rent, compounded by years of hammering from national chains, online booksellers and the tech bubble bursting. A huge outcry followed, the community rallied, and several months later a reinvigorated Kepler's, under the original management, re-opened its doors. I was impressed by what I heard during the media hullabaloo, so I signed up for their mailing list and occasionally scan it to see if there are any interesting authors coming. Still, it's up the peninsula, and I hadn't actually been there before. Once I read that Neil was coming, though, I resolved to make the trip.

So it was that, for the second time in a week, I was driving up to a Menlo Park bookstore to hear an author speak. There was a bit much importance attached to this visit, though. I spent a little time trying to decide which books to bring for him to sign. I'd read a lot of his stuff from the library, and bought things they didn't carry or that I was too impatient to wait for, so it's a bit of a hodge-podge. I ended up deciding to bring Preludes and Nocturnes (my least favorite collection of his, but the first one in the series) and Fables and Reflections (which contains my favorite single issue, the one with Emperor Norton). I'd mentioned the event to a few other enthusiasts at work and gotten a few nibbles, but ultimately left work by myself to make the trip up.

I'd technically been in Menlo Park before, but Kepler's is in a much more interesting area. Stanford's influence is definitely felt there, and just from the people and the bicycles and the sorts of stores, one gets the message that this is a college town. Which is cool - I like college towns. Parking tends to be a problem, though. I eventually found some spots on a back street and headed over to the store itself.

According to the event description, the actual talk would begin at 7:30, but from 6:15-7:15 there would be an open reception in the courtyard, where people could meet with other local authors and pick up tickets for the event. I got to the store a bit before 6 and found quite a crowd already there. I went into the store just a few minutes before they closed it, and hurriedly purchased Fragile Things (the book he was promoting) and Good Omens (which I've wanted to read for years). I'd chickened out and left my comic books in the car, just because as I was driving there I started worrying about whether, when the description said Gaiman would sign "One copy of Brief Lives purchased at Kepler's, as well as two additional items", if those could be any two other items or if they had to be two items purchased from Kepler's. Also, I've been careful to keep the books in good shape, and felt suddenly paranoid that they would accuse me of stealing their books and passing them off as my own. It turns out I needn't have worried - other people brought their own books and had them signed with absolutely no hassle at all - but I think I made a good choice anyways, for reasons which would become clear later on.

I was one of the last customers to exit the store into the courtyard, where I picked up my ticket for the event - number 353, meaning about 150 people had already come by. I also had the opportunity to feel foolish - after rushing to buy my book before they closed the store, I saw that they had an entire table set up outside with stacks and stacks of Gaiman books for sale. Ah, well.

I wandered around a little bit. Kepler's is in a really nice area, both its neighborhood and its immediate neighbors. There's a really nice open cafe directly next door, and a park very close by. After getting my fill of the scenery, I planted myself on a ledge and started reading the first pages of Good Omens.

As often happens with me, I quickly became immersed in the book. I was just a chapter or so in and already regularly smiling at the little witicisms and large blasphemies that peppered the book. I only vaguely because aware that there was someone standing over me. I looked up (after finishing my sentence) and saw Eric and Aaron, grinning. Eric is possibly the smartest of the many smart people I work with; Aaron left the company several months after I joined and used to sit in the desk I currently occupy. It turned out that none of us knew any of the others were coming, which is a little odd, but at the same time makes perfect sense. An event like this exerts an inexorable gravity in the geek universe, drawing nerds to its core, so it should not be surprising that three software engineers from the same company would arrive seemingly independent of one another.

We passed a good hour chatting and catching up, sharing war stories of other events (They Might Be Giants, Weird Al Yankovich, Ray Bradbury, Terry Pratchett, and more), talking about our current work, and otherwise shooting the breeze. As always, it was a relief to be living in a place where I don't feel like I need to apologize for my obsessions.

Our little party fragmented when they started letting people in - everyone had a number, and they were seating in blocks of 50. I managed to grab a seat that was a little ways back from the podium, but was on an aisle and had a great, unobstructed straight-on view. The audience was mainly people in their late 20s or 30s, but there were plenty of younger and older folks there as well. I sort of got the impression that some people were there more because it was a Kepler's event than because it was a Gaiman event, and I think that's a good thing. First, it's good because it shows the devotion people have to this bookstore and the trust they have that such readings will be worth attending; secondly, it's good because it keeps these events from becoming too insular. As much fun as preaching to the converted can be, it's much more exciting to expose people to something new, and I'm always pleased to see people willing to put themselves in that position. I should try doing it myself more often.

Someone who's probably an owner of Kepler's (I think it's a family operation) opened with a humorous instruction for the evening's protocol. I don't remember his exact words, but at one point he said something like, "Those who get into a line before their number is called will be fed to the Corinthian," which I thought was cute. Then there was a bit of silence, and then Neil came up, to rapturous applause.

He looks remarkably similar to the picture on his books: black hair, leather jacket, slightly elongated face (though nowhere near as long as Morpheus's). He also has retained his wonderful British accent despite years of living in the States.

Before he spoke, Neil was presented with an award from the Mythopoeic Society, which is "A non-profit, international, literary and educational organization for the study, discussion, and enjoyment of fantasy and mythic literature." The presenter spoke a little nervously, but the content of his speech was wonderful as he lauded Gaiman's words and worlds. This was actually the second award Gaiman has received from them; having previously been honored for Coraline, he received this year's award for Anansi Boys (which I still need to read). The award itself was a stone lion, modeled after the ones in front of New York's library, but also intended as an homage to the character Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia. The presenter explained that his organization wanted to keep alive the spirit of the Inklings - J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams - by encouraging modern fantasy. (It takes about 0.001 seconds to decide that, between the three, Gaiman is most similar to Williams.)

With that out of the way, Gaiman launched into his talk. He was very relaxed, casual, and funny. He mentioned how Kepler's was very close to his heart because, on his last book tour (for Anansi Boys), every single day of the tour was booked. When Kepler's closed, his event scheduled for there needed to be canceled, and newspapers ran photos of young ladies protesting against the closed doors with signs saying "WE WANT NEIL GAIMAN!!!" So that made him feel good. Then, a few weeks later, when it was the day he had been scheduled to do Kepler's, his agent asked him if he wanted to do another event instead. He said, "No, that's all right," and enjoyed the one day of the entire tour when he didn't need to sign anything. So once again, he had fond feelings for Kepler's.

His casual disposition extended to being completely unprepared, which was very charming. When the time came to read, he had to borrow a copy of Fragile Things from the audience, then he rambled a little while as he was flipping through the book, looking for something appropriately short to read. He settled on an excellent, disturbing story which vaguely reminded me of The Third Policeman. ** INTRA-PARAGRAPH SPOILER ALERT ** As with several Gaiman stories, this one was quite dark, and was about a demon in hell who tortures a new arrival. He starts with the physical torture, then moves on to showing the victim all the evil he has done in his life. This is repeated, over and over, and each time it grows more painful as the human becomes more aware of his own failings. At the end of the story, the human is left alone in the room, and he sees another new arrival come in. Although Gaiman doesn't explicitly say so, it's pretty clear that the cycle is about to begin all over again, with the torturee now becoming the torturer; furthermore, although I'm not certain about this, I think that the person he's torturing actually is himself. All in all, a great creepy, tight, and thought-provoking story. ** END OF INTRA-PARAGRAPH SPOILER **

After the story, he started flipping again, but quickly settled on the poem he wanted to read. "At events like this," he said, "People often ask me what I believe. This poem is probably the closest I'll ever come to an answer." ** INTRA-PARAGRAPH SPOILER ALERT ** The poem was interesting, really more of a story, though certainly with a pleasing cadence to it. The poem describes him telling 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' to his daughter, complete with all her interjections and his musings on the story. The story itself is completely familiar to everyone, but the poem shows how the act of telling or hearing the story is different for everyone, and how the same text can create different meanings. ** END OF INTRA-PARAGRAPH SPOILER ** After hearing the poem, I'm still really not sure what he believes... if I had to guess, I'd say that he believes in the power of fiction to communicate and bring people together, and the power of fiction in shaping our minds and relationships, but that's just a guess.

As the ritual demands, once Gaiman finished reading the story, it was time for him to answer questions. They were generally pretty good, as Neil commented at one point. "Cody's generally has good questions. I'm sorry, I mean Kepler's. Cody's questions are usually, 'What's happening with your next movie.' Was anyone here during the year of 'How Did You Meet?' It was the oddest thing. The very first question was, 'How did you meet Dave McKean?' And the next question was, "How did you meet Malcolm Jones?' And it went on and on, every single question being how I met another individual. And I finally said, 'We need to stop this, because this is really frightening me."

One of the first questioners asked how his Jewish heritage affected his writing and/or moral outlook on life. I had not been aware that he was Jewish, so that was cool. He gave a delightful and expansive answer that included multiple anecdotes, a long joke about a rabbi and his driver who switch places for a day, and impressions of his bar mitzvah instructor. His ultimate point was that he isn't very strongly rooted in his faith, but it gave him the opportunity to learn all sorts of weird, obscure stories that eventually found their way into his writing, such as the bit about Adam's second wife between Lilith and Eve.

Several times people merely offered him prompts rather than questions, including one woman who had seen him previously at Cody's and wanted to know what happened to the weird pants he'd been wearing. (Needing clean pants, he'd gone to an Armani store off Union Square, because "They sell pants, or at least they used to." He was looking for jeans, but everything they had was really weird with flashy colors or writing, and when he finally asked, "Do you have any black jeans?" they pointed out a pair with all sorts of rivets and things, at which point he gave up and just bought it. "But now I'm back in my regular jeans and feeling much more comfortable, thank you very much.'")

Another person reminded him to talk about the Coraline musical. He said that there are actually three adaptations of Coraline in the works: a stop-motion photography film; a puppet show (I believe he said in Scotland or Ireland) with life-size and extremely creepy puppets; and now a stage musical, created by Stephin Merritt, is in production. He seems quite proud of each project.

On the topic of adaptations, one person asked him why his experiences with Hollywood have been so much better than Alan Moore's. Once again we were treated to a great impression of Alan Moore: "That's quite all right, you do whatever you want, and send me the check when you're done." For the most part, Neil attributes the different outcomes to their different approaches: Moore is completely hands-off, and unsurprisingly unhappy with the outcome, while Gaiman involves himself more in the projects, both at the outset (shooting down scripts, working to get talent that he wants, etc.) and while it is in process, where he can warn them away from certain mistakes that might seem like good ideas to film people. He added, though, that a lot of it does come down to luck, and Gaiman just being fortunate in who he has worked with. He also shared some information about the upcoming film version of Stardust, and a funny story about how he learned from the costume department that casting was thinking of switching the roles of Primus and Septimus.

While most of the questions were good, one was interminable. It was one of those unbearable, long, self-important "questions" someone asks to make themselves look important. Really, it was a two-minute discourse on the significance of Gaiman's prose, and eventually Gaiman interjected with, "I'm going to need have you ask your question, because the people standing next to you are about to hurt you. You can't see it because you aren't looking at them, but they aim to do violence." The audience applauded. The very next words out of his mouth were, "So anyways, I'm reminded of a quote by Eugene Ionesco," at which point everyone groaned, and he defensively said, "It's my question, I'll ask it my way!" He eventually questionified his statement by asking Neil how much he felt his work was original, and how much was reinterpreting earlier works.

Neil's answer was great: "It is exactly 20% original and 80% reinterpretation." After a laugh, he said, "I don't know," and talked for a while about this thoughts on creativity and originality. He described his frustration at writing something that feels completely original and different, and then after it comes out, reading reviews where critics write about how it is exactly like the things he has written previously, and how there is a common theme running through everything he has written before. However, he doesn't think originality is necessarily the best thing, especially as he grows older, and he comes to appreciate the ability to tell a story well over telling a new story.

The final person mentioned that he was a teacher, and he knew of someone else at his school who had an assignment for their students to... I don't remember exactly what, but it involved some very specific artistic project that included characters from Neverwhere. He then asked Neil what was the most delightfully strange use of his work that he was aware of. Neil said, "That was it." People regularly send him links to odd adaptations and such of his stories, but right off the top of his head he couldn't think of anything stranger than whatever that project was. He did mention someone once showing him an enormous Discworld cake that included turtles.

With the questions finished, it was time for Neil to "sign until my arm drops off." Once again they called people up by numbers, so I had a while to wait before I would get my chance. There was no need to worry, though: as always, I can easily spend hours in a bookstore, especially a new one. Kepler's has a really good selection... it isn't as big as, say, the Cody's by Union Square, but it has a lot of charm in addition to a good range of books. Because of the way the line was set up I wasn't able to fully explore, but the bits I saw looked very solid. I mostly wandered, but spent a particularly long time in the California history section, just reading the back covers of the books and learning more about my adopted state.

After a while I sat back down on one of the folding chairs and resumed reading Good Omens. When my turn came, I dutifully stood in line. Even though he had already been through 150 people, Neil was still chipper and kind, chatting with people who felt like chatting and putting tongue-tied people like me at ease. He signed Good Omens with the command "Burn this book!" and Fragile Things with the command "Believe!" Feeling very good about him and life in general, I collected my bounty and headed out into the night.

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