This post originally appeared on my children’s book blog back in August 2011, but I thought I’d share it here, too.
Last night I met a hero of mine. It was in a crypt below a church with the thunder of drums hanging heavy and ominous in the air. And a right cracking night it was, too.
You might not have heard of Neil Gaiman. At least, you might not have heard of him if you’re deaf and blind, and have spent the last 20 years living in a ditch. On the moon. Just in case this describes you, here’s a quick summary of his career. Much more detailed information can be found on Wikipedia. You can also read Neil’s blog.
Neil Gaiman is very busy man. He has written adult novels, children’s novels, graphic novels, short stories and picture books. He has also written movie screenplays and scripts for TV programmes, most notably BABYLON 5 and DOCTOR WHO, as well as his own original series, NEVERWHERE, for the BBC.
He has won several awards for his work, including the prestigious Carnegie Medal. In fact, his children’s novel, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, was the first book ever to win both the Carnegie and the Newberry medal. And well deserved they were, too.
I’ve been a huge fan of Neil’s work since reading the collected editions of his SANDMAN comics back in the early 90s. Since then, I’ve read pretty much everything he has put out, and I’ve always admired the way he can jump between genres without any apparent difficulty. With a Neil Gaiman book, you never quite know what you’re going to get, but you can be pretty much assured that it’s going to be great.
And last night I listened to him talking in that crypt I mentioned in Edinburgh. And then I met him. But I’ll get back to that in a minute.
First, let me set the scene. I’d driven for over 3 hours to get to Edinburgh for the event, which was being organised by the ever-excellent Edinburgh Bookshop. I had packed my hefty hardback copy of THE ABSOLUTE SANDMAN for him to sign, and secured it safely in the boot of the car before setting out.
The event started at 7:30pm, so at around 6:45pm I walked the length of Princes Street and arrived at the crypt. At which point, I realised I had left the book in the car, which was parked at the opposite end of Princes Street, behind Waverley Station. I was scared I would miss the start of the event if I ran back to get the book, but Cat, a friend of mine who works at the bookshop, had faith that I would make it back.
So, abandoning my bag with her, I began to race back through the packed streets, shouldering pensioners out of my way as I hurtled back towards Waverley Station. Half way there, I realised my car keys were in my bag, so I about-turned, ran back to the crypt, then tried again.
My plan was to run to the car, get the book, jump in a taxi and arrive with ten minutes to spare. Unfortunately, there were no taxis waiting at Waverley Station, and I had no choice but to run back along the street, lugging the enormous tome with me. It had started to rain by this point, and when I finally arrived back at the crypt, my hair was matted down over my face, my white shirt was semi-transparent, and I was breathing heavily.
At this point, Neil Gaiman walked in. His eyes briefly met mine, and for a moment I think he suspected I might be a dangerously obsessive fan, there to bludgeon him to death with his own book. Of course, I wouldn’t dream of doing something like that. That book cost a bloody fortune.
The event started soon after. Neil kicked off with a reading of CHIVALRY, a short story from his book, SMOKE AND MIRRORS, which had the audience laughing out loud. He then sat down for a Q&A with Vanessa from the bookshop and spoke about his career so far, from his early days as a journalist through BATMAN and DOCTOR WHO, and right up to what he is working on at the moment.
If I could pick a career to use as a blueprint for my own, it would be Gaiman’s. He has deliberately avoided being pigeon-holed into any specific category. No-one really knows if he’s a horror writer or a fantasy writer or a science-fiction writer. He’s all of the above, and at the same time he’s none of them. In many way his work defies categorisation. He is a genre all to himself.
After the Q&A, I got the opportunity to meet him and have my books signed. At this point, things become difficult to recall in any great detail. I’ve met dozens of authors over the last few years and haven’t batted an eyelid, but here I was about to speak to Neil Gaiman and, I’ll be honest, I panicked. The conversation went a bit like this:
‘Hello,’ says Neil Gaiman.
‘Mumble-mumble-mumble,’ I reply.
Neil spots my Sandman book and nods approvingly.
‘I think I’ll use the silver pen on this,’ he says.
‘Pen. Yes,’ I say, a little too loudly.
‘What’s your name?’ asks Neil.
I hesitate. Christ. What is my name? I knew it a minute ago. Neil looks at me expectantly. I flash him an awkward smile. A bead of sweat trickles along the length of my nose. Name. Name! What the hell’s my-?
‘Just put…’ I begin. Name, name, come on man, think!
Neil has the pen poised over the page. I can hear people murmuring behind me, growing impatient. I decide just to tell him any name. I can always change mine by deed poll later to match what he writes.
‘Just put Barry,’ I blurt, then I laugh sharply when I realise I’ve given him the right one. He gets that look again like I might be about to kill him, but signs the book and draws a little picture to go with it. He then signs another book for my son, Kyle.
I had thought about mentioning my own books to him, but by this point I just want to get the hell out of there before he really starts becoming concerned for his personal safety. I’m about to flee when Cat turns up with a camera to take a photo of Neil and me, two authors together. Me and Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman and me.
Awkwardly, I sit down beside him. I somehow manage to fashion the strap of my bag into a garotte with which I almost strangle myself to death. Neil says something to me. I reply ‘YES,’ too loudly again, then grin like a maniac. The camera flashes, we shake hands, and then I finally let the poor people queuing behind me get their turn.
Cat leads me off to a corner of the room to recover. I stop short of hyperventilating into a brown paper bag, but only just. Cat asks if I gave him a copy of THE 13th HORSEMAN. I tell her I didn’t, and she immediately swings into action. She gets me to sign a copy of the book, which she then brings over to him and which – get this – he later takes home with him!
Neil Gaiman has a copy of my book. Neil Gaiman. My Book. Gaiman. Book. Gaiman-book. Gaimook. Gk.
Sorry, not quite sure why I wrote that. Let us never speak of it again.
It was only during the three hour drive home that I realised I’d made a mess of the little message I’d written to him inside the book. I thanked him for inspiring me to become an author myself. At least, that’s what I meant to write, but I’m pretty sure in my semi-coherent state I actually thanked him for ‘encouraging’ me to become an author, as if he himself had popped round my house back in the late 80s/early 90s and personally egged me on. After reading that, I’ll be surprised if he bothers going any further.
And that, I think, is why they say you should never meet your heroes. You’ll only end up making a dick of yourself if you do.