I spent much of yesterday in Bath where Neil Gaiman was doing his first public event for the new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It was being put on by Toppings bookstore, and they were expecting over 1000 people. Marjorie and I made sure that we got there early, because we have been to big events in The Forum before and know what a scrum they can be. I didn’t bother getting a signed copy of Michael Palin’s Brazil because I didn’t want to have to stand for hours in a queue. But I had promised signed copies of Ocean to people, and I wanted to get home that night, because rain was forecast and sleeping on a park bench in Bath did not sound like an attractive prospect.
Before that, though, some people needed tickets. Our friend Natalie had come all of the way from Rome for the event. She was by no means the only long-distance traveler. Later that evening I met a group of people who had traveled up from Spain. Yes, Neil is that popular. But we were in Toppings to collect Natalie’s ticket. Marjorie said she heard someone mentioning that all of the chaos was because they had a big name American writer doing an event. Oh dear.
I had a long train journey today and am 2/3 of the way through Ocean as a result. It is a very British book. Indeed, as Neil will doubtless be explaining time and time again on this tour, he wrote the book for Amanda as a way of explaining where he came from. It is not autobiographical, but it is set in the area where Neil grew up, is a suffused with Britishness, and the narrator is very like the young Neil. I’ll save the rest for the review, but it is a great book this far.
What I want to do here is talk a bit about what a Neil Gaiman signing looks like from the inside, because I did get to spend little bit of time with Neil, and anyway I have seen these things before.
I’m sure that there are people who expect that Neil was driven from London to Bath in a Rolls Royce, stopping off for a nice meal at one of the city’s top restaurants before the event, and getting pampered by his personal beautician before going on stage. Nothing could be further from the truth.
At lunchtime Neil was in the offices of The Guardian doing an online chat, which meant a great deal of fast thinking and typing. After that the put him to work helping edit the Guardian Books section. By the time he got away, the London traffic was so heavy they he despaired to making it to Bath, so he and his publicity crew dashed to Paddington and jumped on a train, making the one they really needed to get with a minute to spare, according to his tweet.
Meanwhile my friends and I were queuing. We arrived at around 5:30pm. The doors were not due to open for a couple of hours. We were not the first in the queue. A couple of girls from London had been there since 4:30pm, and they were not first either.
I presume that Neil grabbed something to eat on the train. By the time I caught up with him, around 7:45pm, he was just finishing off signing a huge pile of books. Several hundred of them. He got five minutes with me and few other personal friends whom I didn’t know, and then he had to do an audio interview. That, by the way, included a scoop about Neverwhere, which I won’t repeat as I don’t know when the interview will air and it would be bad manners to steal their thunder, but it is coming. The event was due to start at 8:00pm. As I left to go back to my seat, Neil was grabbing a few minutes with the guy from the Telegraph who was due to be interviewing him on stage.
Neil’s good at interviews. He’s done enough of them, after all. I tweeted a few choice sound bites. My favorite, and the one that seemed to get the most re-tweets, was his response to a question about his favorite mythology. He said he was very fond of the Norse gods – mostly because they were doomed.
There were questions about current projects as well. The script for the American Gods TV series is slowly working its way through various levels of management at HBO. It is not a certainty yet, but with every hurdle passed it gets more so. The question about a Good Omens movie was met with the firm no comment, which suggests that things are actually happening.
Then it was time for the signing. Just how do you manage an audience of over 1,000 people, almost all of whom are keen to meet their idol? Not easily, I can assure you.
Toppings had got some things right. They had told people, very firmly, that no one could have more than 3 books signed, which is fair. They also said that Neil would only sign Ocean, which seemed rather mercenary, but did mean that most people only had one book. They also had the queue fairly well organized. With a hard cover you want the book open at the page that will be signed, and that position marked with the cover flap. You give each person a post-it on which they write who they want the book dedicated to, and that has to go on the flap, not where the author is going to sign. They sound small things, but they help speed people through the line.
What Neil was mainly concerned about was people having to stand for hours. Priority should be given to people with young children, pregnant women, and people with mobility issues. The signing was on the stage, up some steep steps. There was a young man on crutches who had been ahead of me in the queue, whom I immediately went to reassure. The venue security brought a lady in wheelchair through, and I also brought forward my friend Pat, who has issues with her knees and is also an old friend of Neil’s. Neil came down off the stage to sign for all of them while the signing table was being set up. But everyone else was queuing in the aisles and it was impossible to get around and check for kids and pregnant women until later in the evening.
Marjorie says she has seen signings in the Forum where they asked people to remain seated and called people forward by row. That would have been much better, I thought. You could have made an announcement asking for kids, pregnant women and people with mobility issues to come forward first. Everyone else could sit in comfort until their time came.
I got my books signed fairly quickly as I had been right down the front — a benefit of all that queuing early to get in. I asked Sam Eades, Neil’s chief PR lady, if I could help, and she asked me to stick around and be available. I spent about an hour there, mostly helping lubricate the queue by doing things like taking care the presents people brought for Neil, and making sure that books were open to the right page and post-its placed appropriately. Around 11:20pm I had to rush off to catch the last train home. As far as I could make out from Twitter, Neil did not finish signing until gone 1:00am. He always stays to sign for everyone, no matter how long it takes.
One good thing about hanging around the signing table is that you get to hear how positive the experience is most of the time. All those people coming up and telling Neil how his writing has changed their lives, or inspired them to become writers. The amazing things that people bring. There was an oil painting of the Angel Islington, a girl with lines from Neverwhere tattooed on her torso, a primary school teacher who had brought examples of work his kids had done after reading Coraline in class, and so on. It was a very rainbow crowd too. Neil’s fans always seem to be people I would like to hang around with, and I can’t say that for everyone I’ve met at conventions and signings.
Neil has a very long signing tour ahead of him, but do catch him if you can. Unless he falls over sick, I’m sure he’ll be doing his utmost to make every fan he meets feel special, as he always does.
Finally, I’d like to note how embarrassing the Newsnight interview with Neil turned out. It wasn’t enough for them to state at the beginning that his writing transcends genre, they had to wheel on Harvey Weinstein on to reinforce the point. The guy doing the interview was positively cringeworthy, and if there was any interesting content in the interview (which is pretty much a given with Neil) then it got edited out. To reinforce the fact that this was a “fantasy” writer being interviewed, they showed the clip from Stardust where Michelle Pfeiffer takes her clothes off (“fantasy”, get it?). And there was the unseemly haste with which Neil was cut off when it seemed like he was about to be critical of the way his recent Doctor Who episode was edited. The interviewer was so panicked all he could think of doing was asking a question about sex. It really was a mess. Even John Mullan’s sneering would have been preferable. If the Newsnight team are that uncomfortable interviewing an SF&F writer, why on Earth did they have him on in the first place?