You would be surprised at how fast I managed to jump and book tickets when Neil Gaiman tweeted about his upcoming American Gods tour, sometime last month. And the minute I clicked on the ‘confirm payment’ button, the site refused to load. A few moments of panic when I thought everybody in LA was booking tickets at the same time, Indian Railways tatkal style, and hastily opened another browser, ready to buy another set of tickets. But the Paypal email confirming the purchase came in, and I knew I was good.
Too good, in fact. As the date grew closer, tickets were still available – strange for an author whose rock-star status sold out venues weeks ahead of appearances. I tried to get people in office interested, but no one was really interested, and Tuesday evening is not really a good day to go attend a show, I guess. So what happened was that I landed up in front of Saban theatre at 6 PM, for an 8 PM show, expecting to breezily pick up tickets.
Apparently it was a Neil Gaiman show after all. Go LA!
So I stood in line, reading Black Lagoon and listening to the ladies behind me talk about what a good time they had at previous appearances, and occasionally looking at the sun setting through the buildings across Wilshire Boulevard. And of course the line kept getting longer and longer behind me, even as I inched closer to the entrance.
And then I was in, carrying both my tickets, after the lady at the counter made me repeat my name thrice and then proceeded to serve other people in the line because she could not find my tickets. Yes, tickets in plural, because I had thought there would be someone I could go with and had booked two $15 tickets instead of one $35 ticket that would have gotten me a signed copy of American Gods as well. But you know what? I have multiple copies of the book back in India, from the first edition hardcover that was procured for 100 Rs at Best Book Stall sometime around 2002, multiple paperback editions, one of the them the preferred-text version, different covers, the whole shebang. None of the above stopped me from regretting the lack of a $35 ticket as I walked in and saw the lovely copies on sale. Signed stuff always get me good, I tell you. I bought myself a signed hardcover of Neverwhere, which I had a tattered copy of, and which I have not read in quite a long time.
As I went in, it struck me that seats numbered AA101 and AA102 could mean one of two things – I am either somewhere at the back, or way near the front. As it turned out, it was the latter. FRONT ROW SEATS, fuck yeah!
And nobody was in yet, of course. Except for two lonely chairs and a few over-excited nerds.
Soon it was 8, and people were still trickling in. Someone came out and announced that while Neil and Patton were backstage and ready, they were still selling tickets and would wait for some more time. C’est la vie. I did not want to waste the extra ticket I had, and randomly asked a lady sitting at the back if she wanted to sit in the front row. As it turns out, she was having a bad day – long drive, husband did not join her because of work, and she had an early morning event to attend the next day. Yup, she was totally up for a seat up front. And she was a children’s librarian, so I was fairly sure Neil Gaiman would approve. We talked about Joe Hill, His Dark Materials, and Lemony Snicket, and the awesome experience of reading Graveyard Book and Jungle Book back to back. She recommended I check out Hunger Games, and I asked her to try the Bartimaeus Trilogy and Chew.
And then Neil Gaiman waved to us from the corner of the stage, which made the fangirls squeal, and Twitter’s servers to momentarily groan from the flush of tweets that emanated from every mobile device in the vicinity.
At this point of time, I should probably remember to tell you that when I left the house that morning, I was running about 4 minutes late. Which meant that in order to catch the bus that left Admiralty and Palawan at exactly 8:07 AM, I would have to walk at the rate of a DJ Yoda album, and not, as was my usual music-to-walk-to-the-bus-stand-of-choice, the Tune Yards. Which also meant that when, about 2 minutes out of the door, when I felt my pocket to check for my phone and realized that it wasn’t there, I silently cursed my stupidity, but made no move to head back to pick it up. Remember this somewhat insignificant detail for later, all right? All right.
So it was time. The hall was nearly full. There were people even on the balcony, as the somewhat surprised Saban theatre remarked, which was not a common occurrence for an author appearance. Patton Oswalt came in, and began to sing Harry Belafonte songs with a Mid-western accent.
Uh, no, not really.
Oswalt was funny. Made fun of his own geek credentials (“This is like asking the world’s biggest Gaiman stalker to play twenty questions”), made fun of everyone in the hall, and then called the Man in Black out. Yeah baby!
What followed was what, in certain circles, would be termed as ‘total paisa vasool’. Questions were asked and answered, there were observations made about what constitutes weird in America. Neil talked about making an appearance in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the venue was a 15 minute walk from the hotel, but the old lady driving his limousine managed to transform the drive into a 45-minute one, because she chose to make up her own directions, and he saw a nuclear submarine in a park. He talked of the time he listened to a critic’s complaint about how Violent Cases was an overpriced book and asked the publishers to lower the price, and no one really noticed the price-cut. He spoke about the origins of American Gods, and how he jump-started a bit of myth himself, by coming up with a Slavic goddess who has, since then, gone on to have her own Wikipedia page and numerous citations. His book apparently had its origins during a sleep-deprived tour of Iceland, where he wondered if the Norse gods travelled to America along with the Vikings. He typed out a one page summary for his publisher with a working title, which in turn became the fully-fleshed out cover image with the exact logo typeset that would become the cover of the book later on. And, on a comment from Patton Oswalt, he proceeded to do an impersonation of Bjork. Let me say that again – Neil Gaiman did an impersonation of Bjork. Heads around the Saban theatre proceeded to explode, your truly included.
Neil Gaiman, in case you did not know already, hypnotizes his audience. His comic timing is immaculate, the humor just dry enough, the punchlines enhanced by the charming British accent. When he read the first short bit from American Gods, about the origins of the Easter and a waitress who has a very vague understanding of the word ‘pagan’, his voice took on the rough tones of Wednesday, and changed to the somewhat clueless waitresses, and you did not even realize it was just one person. Yes, I have never heard any of Gaiman’s audiobooks and narrations, probably because I always knew I had to see him live. And I was completely, utterly blown away. The actual reading became a very entertaining cast version of the Bilquis sequence in Gods, a portion that involves sex, prayer and …umm….stuff that should not really happen during sex, unless you’re having sex with a goddess. I have a video. Neil, who played the narrator, was flawless. Zelda Williams, the lady who played Bilquis, cracked up multiple times and I do not blame her. Patton Oswalt takes his reading very seriously. The photograph you see is shaking because I was laughing just as hard as everyone else.
Then there were a bunch of audience questions that Patton Oswalt asked Gaiman on their behalf (questions had to be mailed in prior to the event). I had sent in a question about the nature of franchises in today’s popular culture, the need for prequels, sequels and spinoffs and about an author’s role in determining when a story should be a standalone thing and when it needs to be fleshed out even more. The reason behind my question was to find out if the TV series deal (Playtone is producing a six season TV series on American Gods ) made Gaiman want to write the planned sequel, or whether it was always meant to be. My question wasn’t asked, but a lot of good ones were, and Gaiman shared a lot of coming-soon news – like his collaboration with Stephen Merritt of Magnetic Fields, his upcoming children’s book about a panda who sneezes, called Chu’s Day (the name itself makes me smile), his attempt to interpret Journey to The West, the Chinese epic, which seems to have become a movie script, and lots, lots of other things. There is a very detailed transcript of the question and answer session right here, if you are interested.
And so, the evening came to an end, and everyone went home, except for the lucky few who got to go backstage and hang around with Neil. I wasn’t one of them. My primary concern was to catch bus # 105 to Fairfax and Apple, and from there, grab the connecting bus to Washington and Palawan, and reach home as soon as possible.
Except, it was 10:45, and when I reached the Fairfax and Apple, it was 11:15. The last bus to Washington had already left, at 11.
That was when my unfortunate decision to not pick up my phone in the morning came back to bite me where it hurt. I did not have anyone’s number, not even the regular cab company that I normally call in those unforeseen situations where I’m short of time and there’s no bus in sight. So I began walking. Thankfully, there was a gas station nearby, and when I asked the salesman there if he could call a cab, he agreed. “Ten minutes”, he said, and I bought a Coke can from him out of gratitude, and waited for my ride home.
It came. It was not a cab. It was an old lady in an SUV, who said – “you hoppa in. Where you wanna go?” and I asked her, like every money-loving Indian boy should, if she had a meter. “No problem-a. I go by the mileage. You pay 1.75 per mile, just like cab.” Well, who was I to complain? I hoppa-ed in, and the lady proceeded to drive me home, at a steady speed of 25 miles an hour. Turns out she was the salesman’s mother (I would have never guessed!) and she had just bought the car, and really liked driving it. Her husband had wanted to come drive me home, but she insisted on doing it herself.
It was, you will agree, a very appropriate end to the evening.