But what about Neil? You ask. Did you get a chance to talk to him? Did he sign your book? What’s he like? Did you get to ask him that question that’s been buggin you all this time?
Hey, cut me some slack. This is the most I posted to the Cafe ever. I’m not used to this.
So. Meeting Neil. After seeing Harlan at the end of September, I didn’t really know what to expect other that there would be lots of other people who would also be eager to see Neil. At most, I figured the most I could hope for was saying I liked his work while he signed my book. But other than that, he’d pretty much be like Harlan Ellison was at Madcon, visible enough, but not that visible.
When I got there on Friday afternoon, I arrived with just enough time to tour the HotR for an hour. So I did, which was nice—I had been to the HotR before with my hubby, back when the thought of living in Madison would’ve had us howling in laughter (yeah, God showed us good with that). Went to the Infinity Room, admired the Japanese Garden. It was just like I remembered.
As I came out of the gift shop, looking for a way back to the parking lot, I was a little surprised to see it suddenly crowded with people. As I wondered what was going on, Neil Gaiman walked right by me in a black trenchcoat.
How do you know it was Neil if you never saw him in person before? You ask. No. Trust me. It was him. It was, beyond a Shadow, him.
To say I was startled doesn’t really describe it well. I’ve been to several cons now where I met well-known authors, passed them in the halls, talked with them after panels, had drinks with them at the bars (that’s my favorite part). I wasn’t really expecting Neil to, you know, be the same way. I thought he would be sort of, I don’t know, standoffish? Or Invisible? Or hiding in his room until the reading. Really, I wasn’t really expecting an hour after being at the HotR to look up and go Oh look, there’s Neil. Like it was the most normal thing in the world. It was disconcerting.
Now, granted, he did also mostly always had a entourage of people trailing him. Like Friday afternoon. I was pretty much heading in the same direction as everyone else. What could I do? I joined the entourage heading back up to the welcome center, as if I had every right to. Then I ducked out to the main entrance mainly to sit by the fountain in a daze while I thought: I just saw Neil Gaiman! Holy Crap!
And at that moment, Neil walked by and stood about five feet away, talking with some people, and I thought, Oh look. There’s Neil. And then I made a beeline for the parking lot, because that just got too much.
I drove to Spring Green, went to Culver’s, got a cheeseburger and fries for dinner. Remember that. It’s important.
The tent reading was awesome. I won’t go much into details because I can’t do it justice in these few words. He read. He answered questions. He said stuff that had me laughing and staring in awe and nodding in agreement, especially during the parts he talked about writing. Then it was done and those of us who had been scheduled to get their books signed surged to the welcome center. I slipped out one of the back exits, and in the dark, I looked around and oh look, there’s Neil right in front of me. No bodyguards or anything, merging right into the crowd going to view himself.
At some point, I stopped being surprised. Maybe it was after I got my book signed. I stood in line for two hours to have him sign a copy of Smoke and Mirrors, which was the first book of his I read and which inspired me to stop writing fanfic and to try my hand at original fiction. When I told him that, he looked up from signing and said, “It always makes me happy to hear somebody say that.” Or something to that effect.
Once I spoke to him, it got easier, because Oh look, there’s Neil became the mantra of the whole weekend. Really. It felt like I could pick up a rock, throw it in any direction, and nine times out of ten I’d hit him. It got ridiculous at some point. Because every time I turned around, oh look. there’s Neil.
Saturday morning, coming into the HotR resort with my friend Gretchen for the panels, oh look, there’s Neil heading to breakfast. “How’s it going?” I called out. “Tired,” he said. He snuck in to listen the American Mythology panel. Sat two rows in front of me. Oh look, there’s Neil, I thought, and went back to listening to the panel. He then left because he had to do the second round of book signings.
By the way, my panel went pretty well, I think. I was smart enough this time to go to the bathroom before the panel started, and I also made sure I had something to eat so I didn’t pass out. (Drove into Spring Green and got a cheeseburger and fries because I was pressed for time. Yes, this is also important.) One of the things I didn’t know, even though they said it right at the beginning of the panel, was that they broadcasted the panels live on the web. (I wasn’t really paying attention because at the time, I had replaced my oh look, there’s Neil mantra with looksmartlooksmartlooksmartlooksmart). They recorded all the panels, too, so that section where Webgoblin starts talking about the chatter online, and I’m startled, that’s genuine. All the panels are online, so you can see them. The start of mine is lumped in with Contemporary Mythology, which Patrick Rothfuss did. At some point this week, I’ll probably rewatch all of them, because if there’s anything I got out of this whole thing, it’s that I really like to learn more about mythology.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you say, get on with it. Back to Neil.
All right. Let’s say you get an invitation from the coolest guy at school to come to his costume party. And let’s say that it’s not just you who got the invitation, but the entire school, except there’s no jocks or cheerleaders—the whole school is made up of nerdy, geeky, one-step-to-the-side-of-normal such as yourself. So it’s like this guy rounded up all the people you’ve ever wanted to meet, where, in normal life, they’re ordinary, maybe even overlooked, but on this one night they and you, by proxy, are the coolest people on earth. And then, let’s say that instead of his house, this guy gets the most bizarre, wackiest, the most inexplicable house filled with twist and turns and stuffed with what could be considered as junk, but on that night it takes on new levels of strangeness and wildness and just plain weird. And it all takes place on a crystal clear, dark, breezy Halloween Eve.
You already read about the carousel ride. What you don’t know is what happened after that.
After the ride, Neil wanders into the crowd. Yeah. It’s his party. I talked with Pat for a bit, then talked with a few other people as we wandered into the Organ Room. What is the Organ Room? It’s a big, big room with a big, big organ. With a whole bunch of windy passageways in it. And that’s all I’m going to say, because those words just don’t do it justice.
I go all the way to the bottom, and I get into a conversation with the woman who dressed as African Death, who was one of costume contest winners (really, she deserved it too. her costume was Absolutely Amazing).
We’re going through the food station line that features Christmas dinner, which is in the book and I’m not particularly hungry for…when I see that they have opened the grill they serve at the bottom of the house, and guess what they’re serving?
That’s right. Cheeseburgers and fries.
For some inexplicable reason, this makes me very, very happy. Deliriously happy. So delirious that I forget that for most of the weekend, it was all I ate. So I grab the (free) burger and fries, then proceeded to tell everyone I meet that they had free burgers and fries. Including Neil himself.
(Yes, it occurred to me the reason why I was deliriously happy could also be attributed to the one sole mixed drink I imbibed during the contest. Granted, I don’t exactly what was in it (I had asked the bartender, oh, something fruity, and she proceeded to mix up something with pineapple juice and light rum, but I’m usually good with that), but geez, it was just one. I prefer to think I was just partaking the whole night in a numinously (which I just learned the definition of from my previous comments and plan to use it to describe the night from now on) breath-taking level of existence. And that’s the explanation I’m gonna stick with. So there.)
So I’m heading back into the Organ room, and it occurs to me to turn around and OH LOOK, IT’S NEIL, who’s smiling as a little girl is telling him what a wonderful time he’s having. He agrees then heads my way, telling his assistant that this had gone beyond his expectations, he’s having a blast, and I sense an opening:
Me: Yeah! They even have free cheeseburgers and fries!
Neil: So they do. Are you enjoying yourself?
Me: Yeah, this is absolutely awesome! Thanks for doing all this!
Neil: You’re welcome. How was your panel, by the way?
Me: It went pretty well. It’s amazing how much one can sound like an expert without really being one.
Neil: Oh, I understand. That’s gotten me through many a panel myself.
Now, you have to understand. While we’re talking, we’re going through the organ room, which has a walkway that winds up and up. I’m still carrying the uneaten cheeseburger and fries, and there is an entourage of people following us.
Neil: I was sad I missed your panel. I’d really liked to have seen it, but I was signing during that time.
Me: Webgoblin taped it, so I know it’s up on the web. You could watch it there. I got a very interesting question from someone who was watching online, about the use of song in Anansi Boys.
Neil: Oh? How so?
We then launched into a discussion about Anansi Boys and the use of song and how Fat Charlie not only used it to claim his lineage, but also his identity, which I never thought of before. I can’t remember exact details, but at some point, Neil asks his assistant where are we, and she don’t really know, but we keep walking, and at some point I had to pause because of the absolute surrealness of it all, because we’ve entered the Doll Room, and if you’ve ever been to the Doll Room at the House on the Rock, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
(First aside: it just hit me that this whole conversation about Anansi Boys was exactly what I wanted to talk to Neil about should I by chance ever run into him. It’s weird to read that post not knowing that I actually would personal talk to him about it.)
(Second aside: this is also the 2nd time that I got a chance to talk with a well-known writer, and walk around in an unusual setting while doing so.I’m hoping the next famous writer I meet would be Stephen King in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but that’s too much to hope for.)
We reached the top of the room, and Neil looks up and says, “Ah, here’s a good place to stop.” So we stop. People start taking pictures, so I figured now would be a good time to get a picture too. I put down my cheeseburger and while we’re getting our picture taken, Neil asks me if I heard the audio version of Anansi Boys, and I said I haven’t, and he says I should give it a listen and let him know what I think about it.
And that’s how I stood under the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with Neil Gaiman discussing Anansi Boys while someone took our picture right in the middle of me speaking, but that’s okay because I was just so happy.
Afterwards, I sat down and watched as people came up and spoke to Neil. He was charming and gracious, talking with his fans, posing with them. At one point, another kid, this time an older boy, came up and told him about some place they found on the scavenger hunt (which took place during the panels). Neil was interested, and as he listened, I found myself thinking, when I grow up, I want to be a writer just like him.
Then I looked down and realized that I was holding a cheeseburger I wasn’t really hungry for.
I could tell how I cursed myself for not turning my camera on when Neil put on a long, long, long scarf and hat and went off as the 4th Doctor a.k.a Tom Baker. Or how I met the only other African-American woman there, Amber and how we hung out for the rest of the night. Or how we wound up eating apple pie and listening to a band in the 50s room (Neil pointed it out to us and said, “look! Pie!” and indeed it was.) But that’s all I’m gonna write about. It’s all too much, and if I keep writing the little nuggets I remember, I’ll be here all month, and I got stories to write.
But one thing I will say. That weekend was the best Halloween ever.