Richard had originally imagined London as a gray city, even a black city, from pictures he had seen, and he was surprised to find it filled with color. It was a city of red brick and white stone, red buses and large black taxis, bright red mailboxes and green grassy parks and cemeteries. It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names—Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl’s Court, Marble Arch—and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them, in which the average speed of transportation through the city had not increased in three hundred years, following five hundred years of fitful road-widening and unskillful compromises between the needs of traffic, whether horse-drawn, or, more recently, motorized, and the needs of pedestrians; a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every color and manner and kind.

Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere



Books, Events, Myself

Neil Gaiman at the Alex Theater, 27th June 2013


You know, I had never attended a Neil Gaiman signing before. Events, yes, two of them, in fact, but I did not have a car back then and waiting in line to get stuff signed and run the risk of missing my last bus on a weeknight did not appeal to me. Last Thursday, at Alex Theater in Glendale, I attended my first Gaiman signing. It lasted till 2:40 AM, they say. I was in the first few rows on account of having gotten a premium ticket, and I headed out of the auditorium at 11:15 PM. Despite the lack of a lunch and a dinner, and various other adventures during the day, I felt great. And more than a little sorry for both Neil Gaiman and his legions of fans, who had stood in line around the block for about six hours, and sat in their seats, patiently, as the ushers invited them up on the stage row by row. It is not without reason that the man is called the most hardworking author in the business – he has earned his legions of fans not only by his writing, but also by the remarkable respect he shows to the people who come to see him at one of these events.

And what a bunch of people! To my right was a lady clutching a hardcover of Fragile Things, who held the guy next to her very close and said “my boyfriend is the best boyfriend in the world, he got us these excellent tickets and surprised me”. I could see she meant it too. On my right was a teenage boy, his teeth in braces, a nervous smile on his face. I met him when he was standing around at the reception, looking lost, an awkward smile on his face. “Go and say hi to Neil”, I said to him. “No”, he replied. “I am not interesting enough.” We were among the last of the premium ticket holders to go in, and consequently ended up sitting together. There was the comics crowd, holding their mylar-enclosed copies of Sandman #1 and Black Orchid close to their bodies; excited Whovians; the dressed-up-in-their-Sunday-best-on-Thursday crowd, white-haired couples sitting next to teenagers – holding Gaiman books and hands. Eyeliner and designer tattoos, summer hats and flower-patterned dresses, black suits and Neverwear t-shirts, I looked around the theater and it felt glorious.

“You are a very clappy crowd”, Neil began, as the opening applause died down. The conversation with Geoff Boucher began with a discussion about a writer’s need for applause, the desire to evoke reactions from his viewers. Neil spoke about the best crowd reaction he had ever gotten, at a reading of a chapter in The Graveyard Book when he stopped at a crucial point in the story. This was followed by long, insightful conversations about things such as how personal and truthful Ocean was (“it is a mosaic that looks pretty, and as you go closer, you see it is made up of blue dots and green dots and red dots, and only the red ones are true”), how hard it is to be fresh and new with his writing, on the advantages of writing in long-hand, with a fountain pen. He mentioned how his first draft of the Neverwhere short story “How the Marquis got his Coat Back” was derailed because he could not work with the paper on the notebook that he used – “And this may sound like I am being a prissy writer, but I am not. A fan gave me this notebook he had constructed out of paper that he had made himself, with crushed rose petals on every page. The only problem with that, as it turned out, was that the rose petals would clog my pen on every line and I had to clean it. I wrote half a page with a description of the Marquis’ coat, and then I gave up and forgot about it for many, many years.” The two other important things about writing in long-hand was that he used different colored inks on different days so that gave him an idea of how much he was writing every day, and it made it easier for him to discard material when he was finally typing it into a word processor, because it was “too much work”. He also talked about why he chooses not to reveal much of what he is working on until he is done. “There was this project that was killed by my agent before I even began working on it”, he said. “She asked me what I was working on, and I told her excitedly about this story I had in mind, about a boy who wants to be famous, and the simplest way for him to do so is to go to Disneyland and kill Mickey Mouse.”  After a long pitch came the punchline, delivered by Neil in the lady’s dead-pan voice: “Not exactly high-concept, is it, dear?”  It led him to throw away the idea and his retelling of it made us laugh like delighted school-children.

He then read from one of the opening parts of Ocean, after asking his audience how many had read the book. (Not too many, though a great number were done with their books by the time they had to queue up for the signing). I had, and after hearing his reading, I was tempted to order the audio-book, just to hear his rendition of the complete thing.

Then there were questions. There was one direct from Stephen King, read out loud by one of the organizers. At the risk of mangling the words, the question asked something like: “Do fantasy writers have a better conduit to their subconscious?”, to which Neil responded with a lengthy – and very funny – explanation of how his recurring nightmares became a fertile source for Sandman situations. “I would dream about a baby in the basement with an incision in its abdomen and it crept towards me slowwwly. And I would think to myself: ‘that’s a good one!’ At some point, the ones responsible for sending those nightmares my way must have given up in disgust.” Another audience question referenced a piece of advice Stephen King gave Gaiman: “You should enjoy this, all of this”. As Neil explained, this came at a time when the relentless Sandman touring and monthly scripting was taking its toll on him, and the term “Fraud Police” came up – the idea floated by Amanda Palmer that with success comes the worry that some day, They are bound to find out that it was a fluke, and They would take you to task for fooling your audience into thinking that you are clever when you are not. He used this piece of advice to make peace with the fact that he was good at what he did, and he liked it, and with it came a bunch of pluses and minuses and he was ok with all of it. “Tea helps. Bee-keeping helps, because every writer needs a hobby that could kill them. Having a dog helps. But I would not recommend cats at all.”

And then he side-tracked into a brilliant explanation of what it is like to write with a dog in the room, against writing with a cat. The dog stays in one corner, looks at you and tells you that you are the best writer in the world, and that you are doing great, and that everything will be fine. The cat, on the other hand, looks suspiciously at you, climbs up on the desk and tries to sit on the keyboard, and finally tells you: “You missed a comma there.” This is truly the highlight of attending a talk by Gaiman – he ends up crafting hilarious, personal stories out of nearly every question. Much like his writing, there is a particular spontaneity to it, the right turn of phrase, the correct pause before a witty response, an unexpected observation about the world that was always hiding under a sofa in your brain and which he, like a guest making himself comfortable in your mind, pulls it out with a flourish and makes you say “Aha!”.

Other things that happened: how the Dr Who episodes came to be. The fact that the boy you see at the back of the book cover is Neil Himself. Another reading, this time from Fortunately, The Milk, his children’s book that is out in September, and which is a response to Father’s Day gifts of The Day I Swapped My Dead For Two Goldfish; it involves aliens, time-traveling dinosaurs, and pirates and I just pre-ordered it. The surprise he felt on being #1 on the NY Times Bestsellers’ list, especially with a Dan Brown book out. (“Take that, Dan Brown”, somebody from the audience shouted. We cheered.) An antivirus warning occasionally popped up on the screen behind him, causing a moment of mirth.

It was time for the signing. There were a good number of rules for the event, everybody could get as many copies of Ocean signed as they wanted to, but only one other item, and only one of these could be personalized. People with mobility issues and with children at home were given preference, and anybody who wanted to skip the signing could just exchange their book (which came with the ticket to the event) with a signed copy outside. The first person to be up on stage was a little girl, presumably because it was a school night. The ushers queued people in order of their rows, and the lines proceeded briskly.

I had had a terrible day. I was in San Jose until the morning, thanks to a conference. A week ago, the time of the event had moved an hour earlier to 5:30 PM (the main reading event to 7) so that the signing could get over early. I re-booked my flight from San Jose from 2:45 PM to a morning flight 3 days before the event, and that flight was cancelled, I was moved to one at 3:45 PM instead (yes, an hour after my scheduled flight). Much gnashing of teeth, pleading and being zen at the airport happened, and I managed to get myself aboard the 1:50 PM flight. Upon reaching the airport parking lot, I found out that my car had a flat tire. Deep breaths when changing it. By the time I got home (I had to, I needed to pick my books up), it was already 4:30. Google Maps showed ETA for the venue as 6:15 PM. At that point, I decided to just forget about the reception and be in good spirits for the actual signing. Reached at exactly 6:15, after some cloggy moments on the freeway. Saw the lines that went around the block and gave myself a high-five for my decision to cough up extra money for the VIP ticket.

When I got to the reception, the lady at the counter warned me, with a sad look on her face, that there was only 15 minutes before it ended. I got in, however, to find out that Neil had come out to greet everyone just 5 minutes ago. He was being mobbed by hordes of fangirls. “You didn’t miss anything, except the sliders”, a guy standing next to me said. The food was being cleared even as Neil made his way through the room. I managed to catch his eye, and showed him the two pages I was carrying, my Eddie Campbell page that featured him. “Oh, I had never seen this before”, he said, and spent some time admiring it. Then I showed him the Bolton Desire splash, and he gave me some suggestions about how to frame it, because I said I wasn’t too sure. “Good luck”, he said, as he gave me the pages back. “Uh buh guh buh”, I replied. And cursed Google for not releasing Glass yet.

From Eddie Campbell’s Alec.

I met him again for a few minutes, at the signing. He took a short break to meet someone backstage just as it was my turn, and I spent time talking to the lovely Lauren Cook, who was one of Neil’s Elves, working to make the signing events go smoothly. She talked about how much they had to travel and some of the logistical challenges – as an example, they had to remove the table-cloth from the signing table because the big books (like the Absolute Sandmans that some brave souls lugged with them, or its Big Daddy, the Annotated Sandman) did not slide too well on the table and it was slowing down the process. After a while, Neil came back, and took off his jacket, revealing himself to be wearing a black t-shirt underneath. Making sure his pen was sharp and inky, he signed my books. I told him about my day, and he smiled, looked up, and said: “But you are finally here, and that is a good thing.” I told him why the only personalized copy of Ocean was not for me. I wanted to tell him about the story behind my copy of American Gods when he was signing it, but did not want to take more of his time. Just as I was taking the books back, he asked me if I wanted my Eddie Campbell page signed. “Because I kept you waiting”, he added.

Neil Gaiman did to me what he did to every single person in that auditorium. And I can say this with certainty – even though I did not stay back till the end of the signing – because I could see it in the happy, goofy smiles on the face of every one person who came down from the stage that evening. Neil Gaiman Made My Day.


Ocean, Lane

The strangest thing happens when I try talking about something I like instantaneously. It feels like I need to rein myself in, and let cold analysis get the better of frantic hyperbole.There is the feeling that one must not judge anything in the heat of the moment. That this heady thrill that comes over you when you dive into something new is something that you had been looking forward to and are therefore bound to like. It is only later, when the ripples quieten and the delicious warmth of the water fades into a gentle familiarity, it is then that you can splash around a little more, and make up your mind if the water is really fine or not.

But sometimes. Sometimes there are exceptions.

Ocean at the End of the Lane - UK version        Ocean at the End of the Lane


I don’t want to talk too much about the book and what it is about. It is short – I finished it in a 2-hour sitting.  It is a sort-of memoir and not-a-sort-of memoir – in the sense that it is told in the first person, and that Neil Gaiman admittedly based a lot of the book’s seven-year-old narrator (and his grown-up version) on himself.  It has cats, three of them, and it has characters that have appeared in other Gaiman works in different incarnations. It is fantasy and not-fantasy, and it is equally sad and not-sad. It has some excellent descriptions of food, and a 2-sentence sex scene that will freeze your brain in more ways than one. Oh, and it has lines like this:

Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they are big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.

and descriptions like this:

She took the dead fish out of the net and examined it. It was still soft, not stiff, and it flopped in her hand. I had never seen so many colors: it was silver, yes, but beneath the silver was blue and green and purple and each scale was tipped with black.

It is hard for me to read Gaiman without being nudged mentally towards familiar themes and settings from his earlier works. That is not a bad thing, because it shows how well-established the writer’s style is, but it serves me badly because sometimes the pieces just don’t fit in my mind. Like Gaiman writing Jack Kirby characters, or the last Batman story, which felt like trying to eat my mother’s chicken curry, but with sugar added. (This has not technically happened, but I am fairly sure I have dreamed of this, and have woken up sweating and trembling. Dreams, food – this book has me by the balls)

The closest Gaiman artifact that Ocean at the End of the Lane brought to my mind, however, was a short story that he wrote for a Michael Moorcock tribute book. And his blog posts, some of which talk about significant events in his life. There is a funeral in the book, and one wonders if it was that funeral, and there are oblique references and tonnes of symbolism that has me trying to take two and two and come up with two hundred forty two. Even the cover designs (of the UK and US versions) makes beautiful sense once you have read the book. It is very different from the rest of the writer’s body of work.

All I am saying is: come on in, the water’s just perfect.

Concerts, Events, Music

Concert Diaries: Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer at the Wilshire Ebell Theater

I had not bought a CD since 2008. In a few months, I get CDs of Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman’s recent tour, which I backed through Kickstarter. Also attended their LA show, which was a blast. It happened on All Hallows Eve. In addition to Amanda covering songs from Rocky Horror Picture Show and Neil reading out horror stories that made all of us in the audience sit lower in our chairs and try not to let tendrils of terror tickle our tummies (fuck yeah, alliteration!), we also had fans wearing Halloween costumes. Who were judged by the Dynamic Duo and then given access to luscious swag. The show also featured guest appearances by The Jane Austen Argument, a lovely Australian band. They’ve just released their first single, which has lyrics by The Gaiman himself, and their album is due for release in February.

Neil and Amanda totally behaved like newlyweds, or at least like teenagers out on a voyeuristic date. There was much public display of affection on stage between the two, and a completely aww-moment when Palmer scribbled down lyrics to the song “I Google You”, which was written by Gaiman once upon a time as a post-modern Sinatra-ish love song, and was supposed to be sung by him onstage, at which point he claimed to have forgotten the words. She then scampered up to him, gave him a quick peck on the cheek, and then slipped him the scrap of paper with a dramatic “let’s-do-this-secretly-so-no-one-notices” gesture. Total heart-melt. And Gaiman singing “I Google You” turned out to be completely adorable too.

But anyway, I got myself a Christmas thank-you card from them, which was technically not a Christmas card because they sent it way back in November, but became a Christmas card just because I got it around Christmas. So yeah, Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer sent me a Christmas card. How cool is that, huh?

The other thing I got today in the mail was a download code to a preview of the release. And what a preview! Two hours of music, storytelling and much hilarity. I am half-way through the 25 minute narration of ‘Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar’, a Lovecraft-meets-the-British-Countryside short story by Gaiman, and it drives away every bit of lugubriousness brought about a long and weary working day. It has the songs ‘Blake Says’ and ‘Runs in the Family’ by Amanda Palmer, and also a bunch of excerpts from question-and-answer sessions that the two had. It features great verbal interplay between the two, Palmer’s American drawl contrasting quaintly with Gaiman’s British accent, as the two speak of mixtapes, hobbies, dating and how the audience should behave in order to come off well in the recordings, for posterity’s sake. (“Scream during the singing bits, like you would in a rock concert. And be quiet and inhale sharply in the right bits when Neil reads.”)

That evening was full of fun, laughter, singing, reading, gasping, kissing, premature birthday wishes (Gaiman’s) and a whole lot of ukelele jamming. And, as AFP put it in one of her blog posts, it was a perfect post-wedding reception for two fan-families.

Another memory: On the way back from the concert, I met someone at the bus stop who happened to play the bassoon for Frank Sinatra. He had pictures of himself with Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro. I talked with him until the bus came, and then I took his card and waved goodbye.


Pop Culture Update: Books

I haven’t really been writing much about things that matter, like books and comics and things that make me want to run around my room shrieking with happiness. This post tries to fill that gaping void in your life.

There are a lot of shitty fantasy trilogies around, but Hunger Games is not one of them. The books were recommended to me by a librarian who sat next to me at a Neil Gaiman show. The movie trailer came out a little while ago, and no doubt I would have dismissed it as another of those post-Twilight teen-angst bubbles. But hey, librarian-recommendation. So I read book 1, and was blown away, and finished books 2 and 3 the same week. It’s hard to read when you’re on vacation, but these were just that good.

What’s the series about? If you’ve read/watched Battle Royale or The Running Man and The Long Walk by Stephen King, you will understand that Suzanne Collins takes familiar tropes, at least in the first book, and then takes those to their logical conclusion in the sequels. The protagonist is a girl that plays with metaphorical fire, and kicks up a political hornet’s nest of epic proportions. The cast of characters features a gruff Mentor-figure, a star-crossed relationship , a Diabolical Villain (who does not even make a proper appearance until the beginning of the second book – well-played there, Ms Collins), a Faithful Confidante, and surprisingly, the most awesome Fictional Fashion Designer you’ve ever seen. The three books work beautifully well together, and I loved the way how the storyline unraveled the world’s back-story slowly, the characters acquiring voices of their own. The books brought me on the brink of tears multiple times, and made me skip a healthy regime of sleep just so that I get my pulse-rate back to normal.

I read Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War on a recent flight. Had heard good things about the book on Joe Hill’s Twitter Geek list, even though I had known of Brooks as a parody guy. Expectations were low – how much more can this whole zombie fad be milked anyway? Turns out it can, and wonderfully at that.

Brooks looks at the zombie outbreak as an actual worldwide event and examines its sociopolitical implications. He presents it like a documentary-style set of interviews with survivors, soldiers, politicians, inventors, people from all over the world – much unlike traditional zombie media, where the focus is on a small band of individuals. The interviews lay out the timeline of the “war”, from the time the zombie outbreak caused society to break down, the slow and eventual return to some form of normalcy, and finally, the climactic showdown. In the process, it covers how every aspect of society is changed as a result – from racism to film-making, military strategy to everyday slang, how certain countries take the lead in containing the social meltdown, and how society mutates to keep up. The interviews lead into one another, jumping across continents, showing just how random events on one side of the globe affect other countries.

The book has tonnes of disturbing moments – a traumatized young girl’s account of a zombie attack, political shenanigans that lead to loss of lives, a zombie vaccine that turns out to be a marketing placebo, the build-up to nuclear war between unlikely enemies. And it has moments of stunning epicness – I refer to them as F!$* Yeah Moments. The Japan arc, for example, blindsides you completely, with two unlikely “protagonists” undergoing their own trials against the zombies. Pay close attention to the real-world nudge in the South Africa arc – where a plan concocted during the apartheid years to contain race mobs is resurrected to contain the zombie attack.

The movie is in production right now, but with stars like Brad Pitt attached to the movie, I have a feeling that the everyday aspect of the book will be abandoned in the favor of focusing on specific individuals. This book offers the refreshing view that human society as a whole can be heroic, somehow I do not see Hollywood subscribing to that utopian ideal. Oh well.