Trent Pitts writes;
For nearly 25 years Neil Gaiman has sat at the head of lines of mythic length. Signing the mementos his followers put before him. After that quarter of a decade, he announced his final signing tour of America. The line would be capped in the summer of 2013 and his heroic labor complete. On July 10 Nashville TN had a final night to ask questions of the legend.
In the 1990's Neil Gaiman was often called a "rock star" in the world of comic books. His monumental work on Sandman for Vertigo was a high point for, not only the medium of comic books, but also fantasy literature.
The notion of the comic rock star persona came from the popularity of his work coupled with the familiar image of the author wearing a black leather jacket, tussled black hair and eyes hidden behind black sunglasses.
As the 90's waned and Sandman came to its conclusion, the rock god of comics began to move to parallel mediums, never fully leaving comic but his presence never as fully corporeal as it once was.
Gaiman went on to write multiple novels, children's books, and screen plays. To coincide with the release of his newest novel, "The Ocean at the End of the Lane", Gaiman has taken part in, what he has billed as, his "Last American Signing Tour". In true rock star fashion Gaiman gave fans a farewell tour of book signing. Multiple cities would have the chance to conjure up the spirit of one of comic and fantasy's true mythic figures.
One of the last stops on the tour was in Nashville. The Nashville event was presented by Parnassus Books (whose name is derived from Mt. Parnassus, sacred to Apollo and home of the muses in Greek mythology) and held at the War Memorial Auditorium. An appearance Gaiman's own blog named "Of Course You Know This Means War Memorial".
Sitting high atop the capitol hill of Tennessee, The War Memorial is a venue that drips of nostalgia. The room looks like the sort of place you would have crowded in to catch Hank Williams, Johnny Cash or Elvis before the days of arena rock. The hardwood floor of the main level looks like the floor of a high school gymnasium and it's packed with chairs. Each chair inhabited by a loyal follower. The upstairs balcony with its art deco style theater seating looks like it was made for the opening night of "Gone with the Wind" or to support screaming teeny boppers waiting to hear "Jailhouse Rock". The ceiling is a grid of gold plaster forming recessed squares of sky blue, each containing either a golden star burst or golden flower.
In another place and time surely this room could have been a temple to the gods of pop culture. In this time and place it seems the perfect gathering place to sit at the altar of a great one last time and give thanks for the myths, the realities, and the stories.
Outside it's storming. The thunder rolls deep and low as the rock god of comics takes the pulpit.
The hard black lenses no longer hide Gaiman's eyes, the black mussed up hair has been somewhat dusted and the leather jacket is now replaced by a stately sports coat. The grandeur and adoration is still very much present as the applause overwhelms the storm outside.
He immediately glances over the stack of audience questions. The first one has a request to help with a marriage proposal. Evidently not comfortable using his sway in matters of other's hearts, Gaiman instead begins the night with a story of actually taking part in a proposal once upon a time and perhaps shedding light on why he isn't comfortable with such requests. Agreeing to help a young man ask his lady's hand in marriage, Gaiman autographed an Absolut Sandman with an inscription of a proposal as the young couple met him. The woman sought for marriage was so ecstatic over meeting Gaiman and getting a signature that she paid no mind to what was actually written. Gaiman urged the young lady to read the inscription, and she replied with a yes and a thank you. After several more exchanges like this and the awkwardness building, the woman realized she had a marriage proposal written by a titan of fantasy literature.
He tells the crowd tonight will be special. He had promised himself he would do this if there was a "proper" thunderstorm and it appears tonight is the night. Instead of reading a chapter from the beginning of his newest novel, "The Ocean at the End of the Lane", he will instead read from the middle of the book. He will read a chapter that has a thunderstorm in it. He hasn't had a chance before now and as the tour is winding down there may not be another opportunity like this.
Gaiman proceeds call forth the character from his work. Gaiman speaks and the protagonist of his newest novel is suddenly running for his life. He is running barefoot down a flint lane. It's the middle of the night and storming. The seven year old in is bed clothes is running from his evil nanny. Thunder booms in the story. Thunder booms in Nashville. As the child runs through thistles cutting his feet, the rain beats down on him as it beats down outside the auditorium. The child is running for solace at the farm at the end of his lane, but he might as well be running for the front doors of the auditorium. The telltale thunder of story and reality clashing rattles the building.
The effect is nothing short of magical.
Once the reading is finished, Gaiman immediately starts working on the stack of notecards. The first question was, "Is it surreal for you that people wait hours in line just to hear you speak? Does it ever become mundane?"
Humbly Gaiman replies, "It's really nice. It kind of feels like it's someone else."
The author goes on to say it never becomes mundane and it sometimes surreal to think that these long lines have been going on for 25 years come September. He says he also takes pride in seeing the gender parity that's come to his line in that time frame. What was once almost totally male dominated has been replaced by equality.
Gaiman answers a question about his writing ritual by saying, "I always like to change pens. To change ink each day, so I can look back and see how much progress I've made."
One note card asks, "Who is your favorite Doctor?"
Gaiman replies with, "It's true. Who is my favorite Doctor. "
He goes on to say, "The trick to writing the Doctor is to remember that you're writing a character who's infinitely smarter than you."
Questioned about whether he still planned to write a book about the Seven Sisters or "How the Marquis Got His Coat Back",
The maker of myth answers, "I do plan to write sequels. I do. It's not that I don't do them because I have high moral stand and feel sequels are wrong. It's just I'm rubbish."
He says he always has ideas for more stories set in the worlds he's created. He always intends to write them, but then has new ideas. The new worlds inheritly seem more interesting and challenging. It's new discoveries, problems and how to deal with them that keep the sequels forever in a state of waiting.
Gaiman detours briefly. He says that often at signing fans bring him gifts. Recently one fan brought in two full scale Cybermen heads. He had Gaiman sign one and presented the other as an offering to the writer.
Another such gift to Gaiman was a handmade notebook. All the paper inside had been made by hand and contained crushed rose petals. Gaiman felt such a special notebook deserved an important story so he began the story of "How the Marquis Got His Coat Back". He found the rose petals to be distracting to his flow though, and put the notebook down.
He goes on to say that after hearing the "Neverwhere" radio play featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, he was again inspired to write the story and did. He then gave the story to George R. R. Martin to add to an anthology, which will be published in 2014.
One fan wanted to know what it was like to be revisiting "Sandman."
"Nerve wracking." he said simply.
When posed with question of why he used the Cybermen in his second episode of "Doctor Who", the writer explains that Steven Moffet emailed him and said, "Make the Cybermen scary."
Concerning his creation "Angela", recently sold to Marvel, someone wrote to ask if the rumors of Karen Gillan playing the warrior angel in the upcoming "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie was true. The author never delivered a "yes", "no" or "maybe" answer. Instead, he offered up mutterings, coughs, and stammers and a body language that said, "I couldn't answer if I knew."
The final question of the night concerned Nashville and what musician Gaiman would choose to have dinner with if he could.
Gaiman gave no hesitation and immediately answered with "If I could have diner in Nashville with any musician, I would choose Bela Fleck. But seeing as I'm in Nashville but not here long enough to have diner, I thought what I'd do would be to ask Bela to come and join me on stage."
Grammy award winning musician Bela Fleck then emerged from behind the curtains and joined Gaiman on stage. Fleck is a world-renowned banjo player and became acquainted with Gaiman during the recording of the audio book of "The Graveyard Book".
On stage together, the two collaborated on Gaiman's second reading of the night. As Gaiman read from his latest all ages book "Fortunately the Milk", Fleck provided ethereal banjo accompaniment for truly unique ending to a magnificent night.
The maker of myth left the stage in Nashville for the final time and the applause of his followers rang loud enough that the thunder whimpered as the rain ceased.