An Evening With Neil Gaiman,
A Night in Chelsea

by an Anonymous Pawn

On September 28th, I joined about 700 others at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) to see Neil Gaiman. Originally, I'd asked my boss to join me since she had copyedited two of Neil's books. I was looking forward to lining up with the hundreds of other nameless, faceless fans but being able to claim less than six degrees of separation and say, “Hi, Neil, great to meet you—by the way, this is your copyeditor!”

Unfortunately, she declined. She told me authors never appreciate those foul copyeditors who mangle their precious prose in order to make it perfectly punctuated and grammatically correct. “Besides,” she added, “I deal with other authors all the time, and they're all annoying.”

Undeterred, at about six-thirty I walked, trotted and jaywalked from midtown, where I was working at a book publisher who shall go nameless, to 27th and 7th, managing to arrive a little before the reading was to begin at seven o'clock. I met my friend Richard in front of FIT and we scurried inside to the Great Hall, where we were tagged, for some reason then unbeknownst to me, with pink bracelets.

There was a dais set up for Neil and his interviewer, writer John Hodgman, and hard plastic chairs lined up in rows where the earlier arrivals were sitting. At a table off to the side, Barnes & Noble employees were selling Neil's latest book, Fragile Things. Behind this table were some student-lounge-type upholstered, cushy chairs and sectionals. And here's the good part about coming late, at first Richard and I and the other fashionably late arrivals had to stand off to the side of the room, but then the FIT folks started hauling out those comfy chairs for us (I half expected them to start poking us with soft cushions and shouting “Confess! Confess!”).

The down side about comfy chairs is that if you're tired, it's difficult not to fall asleep. And that's exactly what sleep-deprived Richard did almost immediately. Quel embarrassing! Yes, Richard was the one other person at the event who had never heard of Neil before (not the one who did raise his or her hand when John asked the audience if there was anyone there who had never heard of Neil before). I decided to let sleeping friends lie and not bother Richard unless he started to snore, loll about or fall over, none of which he did, thank goodness.

Some of Neil's comments: There will be movie versions of Stardust, Coraline and possibly Death: The High Cost of Living. That he had started his blog as a way to tell about all the non-writing aspects of how a book becomes a book, such as copyediting, proofreading, cover design, blurbs, and getting permission to use lyrics; for example, in Anansi Boys he decided to paraphrase “Under the Boardwalk” after being told it would cost $7,000 to quote directly. And my favorite comment: writing is not hard, you'll be okay as long as you remember to leave a saucer of milk outside your door for the elves.

Writer/comic/PC guy John Hodgman

Neil read a few selections from his book, and then we were told we would be called to line up according to our designated bracelet colors, and Neil would sign two things for each of us. And hence the down side about coming late: the employee we spoke with told us the first hundred people had received black-and-white bracelets, the next hundred green, the next blue, and so on, with pink being the last color and thus the last to be called. She did tell us that, yes, we could leave and come back and recommended a sushi restaurant, Coco Sushi. You should try it the next time you're in the neighbhorhood.

As we downed tea and sushi, I asked Richard what he thought of Neil. He said it was obvious that Neil was a kind, goodhearted person. I was surprised Richard was able to pick that up after what little he'd actually heard, being off in the land of Dream and all. I'd been introduced to Neil's Sandman graphic novels back in the 1980s and at first thought of Neil as being the typical black-shirt, leather jacket-clad, comics/horror author who was incredibly talented but probably full of himself, and it wasn't until reading his later work that I picked up on that compassion in his writing. In fact, while I admire Neil's amazing ideas and his gift for language, I can't help but think that maybe his greatest achievement is creating heroes with depth. Anyone can invent a cool, memorable villain, but to make the good characters who could so easily be dull, such as Richard Mayhew, Fat Charlie Nancy and Tristran Thorn, real and believable is a skill that so many authors lack.

Coco Sushi

Back at FIT, Richard decided to bugger off rather than stand in the line that still circled around the Great Hall. Over the next hour, I listened to other people's conversations, then tried to tune out conversations in order to read Fragile Things. I read "The Problem with Susan"—then while reading another story, I was hit by that wave of I know where this story is going. What a brilliant idea, why didn't I ever think of this? Then the story ended differently than I'd thought, which means that the idea is mine to do something with and that's somewhat depressing because I probably never will. I also found a "bad break" in another story, but happily there were no widows, orphans or word ladders to be found (just a little insider joke).

As the clock ticked toward eleven-thirty, I thought about how this was probably the last time I'd ever stand in line in a crowd to get an autograph because I can't think of anyone else, except maybe John Crowley, who I'd be willing to do this for and that I must be the oldest person here and obviously too old for this sort of thing.

Neil Gaiman autographing Fragile Things and various other items at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan

I puzzled over what else to have signed. My notebook? Too inkstained from a wayward pen. My iPod? No, it's batteries were wearing out and I'd be exchanging it soon under its extended warranty. Cell phone? Ditto regarding the battery. My final decision was to have Neil sign as an organ donor witness on the back of my driver's license.

I noticed that Neil wasn't just signing his name over and over, he was going out of his way to personalize every item, not only writing dedications but also illustrating: a copy of Fragile Things might be adorned with a drawing of a butterfly; for Stardust, I saw him drawing a star and a crescent moon with a face. I'd never heard of an author/celebrity/what-have-you going that extra few miles to make hundreds of fans happy.

When my turn arrived, I decided to just mumble a thanks or make some other inane comment and let him move quickly to the next person so he could get the hell out of there. Besides, I couldn't help thinking how awful it would be if I said something stupid that would ruin the moment and somehow kill some of my enjoyment in reading Neil's work forevermore. He wrote the dedication in my Fragile Things, then pointed out that he'd misspelled "and" as "nad", but I said that made it more unique (and so it does). He also wrote to "dream oddly..." (I always do) and then he signed my book, then my license, and I walked off.... I realized I was shaking a little as if I'd just met one of the Beatles, which in a sense, I had.

Then I headed off to Richard's building a few blocks away. He lives in a men's SRO and has an extra room for guests. It was really quite nice except for the bathroom down the hall, which needed some work. I felt perfectly safe since we were the only ones on the floor aside from some guy who rarely leaves his room, and Richard says the other tenants dare not come up because they haven't realized that his fits of rage are only against his computer, Microsoft and various electronic gadgets and never directed at another human being.

My room faced a grassy lot and I could see the little garden behind the building next door. I love that about New York, how you can find all these little hidden enclaves if you know where to look. I felt a bit like Sara Crewe in A Little Princess looking out over the rooftops of London from her little attic room. There was no Melchisedec to tame but I did notice a cockroach scurrying by. Luckily for him he managed to dart behind the painting canvases that lined the room and disappeared before I could swat him.

A room with a view in Chelsea, viewed through the fire escape

Here you can see the garden outside the neighboring building

The next day I went back to work and showed my boss Fragile Things. She examined the book and pointed out that the jacket and colored endpapers were expensive to produce and therefore used infrequently. I said that's what you can get when you're a"#1 New York Times Bestselling Author."

Later I went to Neil's blog to read his thoughts on the event. He mentioned being tired and that he'd signed lots of books and other sundry items but he made no mention of an organ donor card; alas, I lost out to the breasts and the bottle cap.

Fragile Things, with its rather fragile book jacket

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