A Night With Neil

By Eric Bryan

California State University Long Beach’s Carpenter Center is a classy establishment. Generally reserved for the more refined areas of the entertainment world, the large, well-kept theater is usually used to house a crowd for an opera, or dance piece. But this past Saturday, it was sold out to a very different crowd: readers.

Neil Gaiman, master of all things fantastic in the literature and comics world (not to mention one of the key players that blurs the lines between the two), had come to Southern California, and he’d brought his readers with him.

The luxurious theater had been nearly overtaken by decidedly atypical folks from a variety of communities. A man with a denim jacket, painted with a menagerie of Gaiman’s different characters stood in front of a goth couple, excitedly trading Gaiman stories. A pink-haired woman thumbed through An Ocean at the End of the Lane while her date adjusted his duster. And a heavy metal fan, underdressed in a Black Sabbath hoodie, stood by the bathroom, sipping a beer, watching the milling crowd mill.

That man there was me.

I’ve been a Neil Gaiman fan as much as anyone else. I’m not big on fantasy in general, but his brand of weirdo-ized fiction always interested me, and his likable voice (one that would resonate that night) never felt as pretentious as a good portion of his cohort. I liked the guy, but was never completely sold enough to paint my denim jacket with the seven D’s of the “Endless.” That opinion would be changed.

After a brief introduction, the man himself ambled onto stage, handling the podium in a mixture of ease and unrest. He looked like his picture and spoke softly. His curly black hair sat like a dark cloud above him, in spite of a face happy enough to qualify, even from many rows back.

There was a second dark cloud over the night though. We were in the first forty eight hours of dealing with the Paris and Beirut attacks, and Gaiman did not ignore it.

The reading portion was marked by a mixture of crowd questions, portions of Trigger Warnings, and other assorted stories. It began with a piece he wrote in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year. I can quote it for you, and I can describe it, but you’d do better to read it here.

Upon addressing the semi-palpable vein of darkness in the audience, the show itself began. A steady flow of humor breezed through even the most profound moments of the night, with questions about Gaiman’s work as well as his craft representing the majority of his crowd interactions. Interspersed with his various wisdoms were insights on his own growth, one of which in particular stuck out:

“If I knew I’d come to Thomas Hardy in my own time, I would have loved him.”

This was referring explicitly to having to read Hardy in school and not having the chance to come to his work and enjoy it on merit as opposed to it being forced upon him. I heard this, and was briefly taken out of the event.

I’ve been attempting writing for some time. I’m attempting now. I’ve got a stack of novella-ish bits here and there. Half-finished short stories clog up my hard drive, poems collect a stanza short, and song lyrics…well, they get finished. They’re easier.

But part of my budding pseudo writer-ship, once taking it seriously enough, was reading the masters. Generally speaking, no matter how wonderful and enjoyable it may be, it will also be at least partially a chore. Gaiman was that for me. I could always find the worth in his work, and the craft. I could always understand why he was loved, and imitated. But I couldn’t find the room in my heart to love it. Even Sandman. Even Death. Even all of it.

And it came to me: that whether it was my own force, or the sheer weight of his body of work being revered all but universally, I had taken Gaiman as homework. I took away something from it, always, but even the most enlightening assignment still isn’t free will.

I geared back into the show as the crowd laughed over a story I was momentarily too taken by my own perspective to hear. So I listened. I finished being a part of my experience and leaned into the reading.

The centerpiece of the event, a reading of Trigger Warnings’ “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury,” was a stirring thing. Sent as a birthday present to Bradbury, who had since gone blind, Gaiman wrote the story as a tribute to a hero, and a worry for his ailing friend Terry Pratchett. It follows an older man forgetting his world, his history, and misremembering what he holds onto. It was, as Gaiman admitted at the time, a dark affair. But even then, the affection for the man, and moreover, the craft, was apparent.

As the show wore on, Gaiman leaned more on the massive stack of fan questions, eventually forming a stack that all featured the same question: “How do you become a good writer?”

Upon reading it, he asked, “how old is the person who wrote this?” There was a general silence, until a voice in the back rows cracked out a “twelve!” There was mild applause before Gaiman weighed in.

There’s not a great way to approach that question, particularly without pretense. All the advice in the world sounds like reiterations of the same stuff. What came from stage was no different really. Gaiman rattled off a number of positive sentiments, ending with a simple, “You can’t leave your work overnight, waiting for elves to do it. It won’t work, I’ve tried it.”

This advice, from a master to a child, was met with mass approval. Applause and laughter. In one seat, somewhere in the middle balcony, a sort of embarrassed chuckle.

I heard the words and let them settle in.

The show finished to a writer reading, a crowd cheering, and books, signed earlier that day, flying off the bar they were set on. That crowd, varied but for a night united, milled out into the crisp Long Beach air. I sleepwalked out to a degree, letting the basic words of advice resonate.

Neil Gaiman put on a great show, both enjoyable and profound. From just the sheer number of cards left unanswered on the table, along with the number he spoke to, there were a good number of people looking for some wisdom from Neil Gaiman.

I didn’t fill out a card, but left with answered questions all the same. I went home and started a review. Boss asked me, but I was happy to do it. It turned out decent enough I think, but whatever it is, it’s mine and it’s done. Just finished, in fact.

Gaiman fans, don’t forget you can find all DC/Vertigo graphic novels for 40% OFF cover price at Pulp Fiction!