Neil Gaiman’s latest book, THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, launched onto the market in a flurry of early glowing reviews on June 18th, and it was a long and “surreal” day for Gaiman, fresh from a plane in from London to usher the work into the hands of UK and US fans. The first US event of his “last book tour” packed the Howard Gilman Opera House at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), promising both a reading from his new work and a personal signing session engineered to handle the increasing numbers at fan events in a humane way while still giving attendees an experience of the author’s work in his own voice and on his own terms. Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn sponsored this “offsite” event and were also heavily involved in keeping things running smoothly, bringing in other Gaiman works for sale for the signing and testifying to the author’s best-selling oevre.
No matter how urbane the event-goers may have seemed, there was a rock-concert excitement to the gathering and the unmistakeable building enthusiasm of kids waiting for Christmas before the reading, not surprising at a Gaiman event, but heightened by the book launch and the sense of pride for locals that Brooklyn was kicking off the US tour. The underlying fact that OCEAN has been described as a strongly autobiographical work also played a role in marking the evening as particularly special, a time to hear from the man himself about the experiences that shaped the book.
Peter Aguero, a member of the Unchained Tour with Gaiman that made its way through the South last autumn, and representative of the “improv storytelling rock band” BTK, hosted the evening by introducing some tales from the tour wherein Aguero felt he came to understand Gaiman better to the point of introducing him as a friend. Aguero, as a storyteller himself, put a humorous spin on discouraging the use of cell phones and cameras during the event by not only threatening to “eat” any cell phones he heard ringing once Gaiman began his reading, but also by declaring, “Instagram will survive two hours without you, Brooklyn”, to thunderous applause.
Gaiman promised “1 and ½” surprises for the audience during the evening, and explained that he had started his day in England, where it had also been “publication day” for OCEAN, “and now it continues to be publication day”, he said, to laughter from the audience. He began writing OCEAN, he said, because he missed his wife last autumn when she began a four-month recording stint in Melbourne to finish her Kickstarter album. He began what he thought would be a short story, in long hand, and as its size increased, he mentally rebranded it a “novella”, still not aware, even upon completion, exactly how much momentum the work had gathered. Only upon transcribing OCEAN did he realize he had a novel on his hands, which occasioned some apologetic e-mails to agents to explain that the work had taken on new dimensions. “I have accidentally written a novel”, he told them, as alarmed as they were by the news. As for genre, Gaiman clarified that OCEAN is “not quite autobiography”, “but I definitely ransacked a lot of my memories to write it”, he said, before reading substantially from the book’s second chapter for the audience.
The material that he read was both direct in tone and laden with the simple crowding of detail based on recollection, but accented with humor based on childhood perception. Gaiman’s narrative blurred the lines between basic observation and the more definitive impact of major life-changing events for a child facing the fact that his parents have fallen on hard times before being increasingly drawn into adult and other mysterious realities. A stolen car and a pond imagined as an “ocean” at the end of the lane in the Sussex countryside set the scene and the themes of the book for the audience.
At a mid-way point in the evening’s readings, Gaiman paused to introduce a guest who no one could possibly imagine or predict appearing, and as his assurances mounted into humorous hints, the audience started guessing and clapping well before Amanda Palmer joined Gaiman on stage. Gaiman had requested that she perform a “new song” written only a week before, she explained, and one that was “kinda depressing”. “Then again, your book is kinda depressing”, she commented to Gaiman, reassured by this common feature, and had a few things to say about OCEAN’s inception and its content.
She had written, she said, about OCEAN on her blog that day and given a “personal endorsement” of the work. Since Gaiman had written the book while she was working on her Kickstarter album, it had created a strange kind of duality in the two creations, a “his and her set”. She described Gaiman’s methods of creating a story as “weaving” inside of a work, whereas her own methods differ. If the process of creating is like using a blender, she said, then she tends to pile the ingredients in and put the blender on its lowest setting, “pulse” where you can still somewhat identify the pieces moving around inside as they mix. Gaiman, on the other hand, tends to set his blender “to 11” generally, producing something almost unrecognizable based on its ingredients but remarkable for that reason. This time, though, she feels that Gaiman “dialled down the blender” and allowed readers to see more fully into the personal elements that go into his stories, and that was “hard for him to do”, but rewarding. Palmer’s solo musical performance, poised with characteristic energy and highly-charged first-person poetic verses, accompanied by her red ukelele, seemed to contain some of the same themes as their discussion about OCEAN, the difficulty of seeing past the surface in family relationships and perceiving the depths inside individuals, including a promised Doctor Who reference to being “bigger on the inside”.
The duo gathered what must have amounted to “7 hours” worth of question cards to shuffle through for Q&A, but also dove into personal anecdote and commentary as they approached questions. To start off, one of the most pressing questions for fans was “Was OCEAN inspired by your own childhood?” for Gaiman. “Yes!”, he assured, but clarified again that it’s not autobiography in a strict sense. “It’s filled with lies”, he said, “and things didn’t happen”, which provoked more laughter. The landscape of the story is “true”, he assured. Following up on this point, Palmer asked Gaiman on behalf of fans whether he would ever consider writing autobiography. He said he had “toyed” with it “on occasion”. His youthful plan to visit a Patagonian town called “Gaiman” and write about the journey, as well as his family, had faded, but his real visit to the town in 1998 had revealed a town “just like Wales” where everyone was very impressed by the name Gaiman in his passport. There, a prized possession in among their numerous tea-houses was a teacup once used by Princess Diana on a visit.
One audience member had submitted the rather immediate question, “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you this week, and what’s the worst?”. The “best”, Gaiman said, was the “amazingly scary, wonderful, joyful ride of watching reviews come out”, from TIME Magazine to a host of others and finding the response “amazing”, some of the “best reviews of my life”, he said. “You usually have to have photos of reviewers in compromising positions with farm animals”, Gaiman informed, to get such reviews. Amid applause at this quip, he admitted, “It’s a hit”, regarding OCEAN, to even more wild applause from the audience. The “worst”, he continued, was the previous day, half way through his scheduled appearances, thinking he had a full day of rest coming up, only to find that he had time only for an hour nap before appearing on the UK’s NEWSNIGHT, followed by an interview with the Guardian, advising the United Nations High Commission for Refugees on social media, guest editing the Guardian for the day, and then a signing in the city of Bath, realizing that this was all just the “overture”, rather than something to get through before resting. The overture, he meant, to the full-fledged book tour he’d be kicking off in Brooklyn. “Somehow I’d imagined a week off”, he said, somewhat bewildered. “Do you need a hug?”, Palmer asked. “Always”, he replied.
Some creative fan had thrown a question in based on a Mark Twain quote that semi-colons were only used to show college-level erudition, wondering how Gaiman felt about semi-colons, but this actually prompted some direct commentary from the author about “writing tools”. He “loves” semi-colons, he said, as a “tool”. As a kid, looking at all the “implements in a garden shed”, he’d been “puzzled” before, with time, he learned what they were all for. “All of these peculiar things have a function”, he realized, a concept he’s applied to writing, even extending old Elizabethan usage to punctuation, because “I’m in charge, I have the power to do that”, he declared. “I would never throw away any of the weird writerly tools in the potting shed of my head”, he said fondly.
Palmer asked Gaiman why writing OCEAN made him particularly “nervous”, as he’s said publicly before. Because it’s “personal”, he said. He had previously thought that “writers have it easier than actors” because writers can be disliked for the things they do versus actors who often feel, in response to critics, “They don’t like me”, but for Gaiman, writing OCEAN was like “walking naked down the street, which makes me nervous”. Palmer wouldn’t be nervous in that situation, he joked. “You’d be beaming”, he said to her, and dedicated this brave move in OCEAN to Palmer. “All because you like feelings”, he said, “ because you like that stuff”, he included them in OCEAN. Palmer asked Gaiman if now, given the positive reviews for OCEAN, he’s feels the book is any better or different than his other works. Gaiman claimed to be suffering from “industrial jetlag”, making the whole launch feel even more “surreal”, but added that “everything feels completely unlikely” about the book’s reception, but to him it’s “still my weird little personal book”. When he worked on THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, Gaiman explained, he felt rather “cocky” and was even self-congratulatory when it won the Newberry Award because of the work that went into it. OCEAN, however, follows a different trajectory as part of the “direct line” from his “first ever real book”, VIOLENT CASES which was received by critics and readers with “deafening silence”. Because OCEAN stems from the same time of semi-autobiography, it makes OCEAN’s acclaim that much more unlikely to Gaiman. MR. PUNCH, too, he said, was full of “strange, weird, personal stories” and “memories of being a kid in Portsmouth, which he felt proud of the same way in which he feels proud of OCEAN, nevertheless, PUNCH didn’t get a lot of readership so he didn’t expect a big reaction for OCEAN.
Gaiman plowed on with questions despite the jetlag and addressed whether or not he had a “vivid imagination” as a child and whether his parents “encouraged storytelling”. “I don’t remember storytelling as a kid”, out loud at least, he said, but remembers that before he could write, he would try to compose poetry and dictate it to his mother to write down for him. His imagination, he clarified, was “crippling” and at times he wished that he “didn’t have an imagination”, citing the example of watching a dressing gown casting shadows on a wall in his bedroom, rationally knowing it was a dressing gown, and still somehow reacting to the idea that it was “like a man trying to kill me”. He became aware that he needed to “dial this thing down”, but couldn’t. Another example he provided, to hilarious reactions from the audience, would be asking other children at school if they ever thought, sitting in “dull geography lessons”, that a “race of aliens” from another planet might be looking out of their eyes like TV and wonder what the aliens did to amuse themselves during their dull geography lessons. He assumed other kids would agree with this concept, but gradually realized other kids were not thinking the same things at all.
A peculiar question, second to last, from a fan was how he manages to “keep faith in people or places that so often let you down”. “I’m genuinely optimistic by nature”, Gaiman said, but as for places, he assured, “I’ve never gone, ‘London, how could you? New York, you fickle bitch!”. “Places haven’t let me down”, he said, “They just go away”, which was one of the reasons for writing OCEAN. Lastly, Gaiman fielded a question about the carefully chosen materials for the print book of OCEAN and how he feels about digital format. He recently gave a speech at the London Book Fair Digital Minds Conference, he explained, and is aware that books now can essentially be “beamed” to people, as many fans were aware, receiving OCEAN immediately in e-format. But he “loved the physicality” of the OCEAN print format and “making beautiful objects”. Palmer took the opportunity, rounding off the Q&A session, to congratulate Gaiman publicly on his book since they won’t be seeing much of each other in the next 6 months as Gaiman’s book tour will finish just as her next music tour begins. Gaiman explained to the audience that this book tour will be his last formal tour after painfully little sleep on his previous tour, and that’s dictating his decision not to go along on tour with Palmer after it concludes. He has, however, taken to the musician’s method of using a tour bus this time around, in the hopes of getting more sleep, something he picked up from observing Palmer.
Gaiman concluded the event by reading from the third chapter of OCEAN where it became clear that the gradual build-up of detail from daily life in chapter 2 had given way to startling events and a general sense of unrest in the countryside inhabited by the narrator, often breaking into mythical resonance. The theme of financial struggle continued to play a role, but in wider and more haunting terms. Readings from OCEAN clearly illustrated Palmer’s observation that this is in many ways a more “stripped down” style for Gaiman, with memory hovering near the surface of his descriptions, however, rather than de-clawing his prose, it actually renders his darker storytelling components more directly effective on the imagination of the reader, making them feel even more involved in the wonder and danger of his protagonist’s investigations.
When the readings were complete and the signing portion of the evening was ready to get underway, several announcements directed the denizens of the crowded Opera house in how to receive their included signed copy of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, a strategic plan of action all its own. Staff at the event directed comic-con sized lines of fans with a fair amount of decorum and efficiency around the block and into the signing room, while the audience was also given the option of picking up pre-signed copies of OCEAN. The majority took to the lines to make the most of Gaiman’s last book tour and the opportunity for a moment to meet the author face to face. The OCEAN launch was momentous for many reasons, and everyone involved considered that self-evident and gave it due emphasis as a chance for Gaiman to elucidate why this book is important to his life and to his work and a chance for fans to acknowledge the impact Gaiman has had on their lives as readers. Staging events like these is a marathon for Gaiman, clearly, but he’s putting his all into bringing a live experience of OCEAN to fans and it’s a level of commitment that his readers recognize and find even more engaging as this final tour commences.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.