(Photo taken by Ann Good in the signing line. Because I had left my camera in the car by mistake.)
It’s midnight as I stood in the signing line. You had been working your way through books for three hours. And I had no idea what to say to you.
I debated making a crack about Cinderella, or an off-the-cuff comment about this being the moment that makes or breaks a curse in the old folk tales. But I couldn’t say either of those things because I had lost every prepared thought that I had decided to say to you. I wanted to say something witty and memorable that would make me stand out from the crowd.
But how do you stand out in front of 1,500 people who are all there to impress you?
I already had a moment with you about a half hour earlier. You stood up from the main table to walk over to a secondary table to sign extra copies of your newest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. When you stood up you looked ahead and I was there, watching you. For two seconds we held a mutual gaze and then you went back to work.
And every courageous impulse inside of me shattered.
If I wasn’t nervous before I was nervous right then and there. More nervous than I had ever been in the history of everything ever.
For five seconds I stood near you while you signed just ahead of me. The man before had waited for hours to get a bookmark signed (and nothing else); a bookmark from the store I work in. My best friend behind me handed him one when he asked if we had something to spare for him to have signed. My heart leapt into my throat and a rush of adrenaline shot through me as you two parted ways.
I genuinely thought I was going to faint.
And then I thought, “I’m going to be the person who faints in the line for Neil Gaiman. And I’m going to crack my head on the way down and bleed all over him and the floor.”
Well, that would certainly get your attention if nothing else did.
So, what does one say in the fifteen seconds that they get to meet one of their favourite authors? How does one boil down what a person’s work means to them in-between quickened heartbeats and a deluge of adrenaline? How does one crystallize the moment so as not to look like a complete fool while still making an impression?
I marshalled myself, held out my hand (which you may or may not have taken, I don’t really recall), and introduced myself.
“Hi, I’m Krys. Your obituary of Diana Wynne Jones made me cry.”
I would like to say that I was smooth, but I wasn’t. I could hear the crack of nerves in my voice, the shaky edge of unshed tears as I said this to you, accusingly. And my hand fluttered as it reached out, empty, towards you. I waited for a horrifying moment, knowing that I wouldn’t actually get to talk to you about your work after all. That I wouldn’t get to tell you how brilliant it is and how much it has impacted me both as a reader and a bookseller.
But it doesn’t matter. I wanted to talk to you about her.
I saw a muscle in your face tighten as you said,
“I really wish that she could have read that.”
And in that moment I knew that we had bonded over something important; a shared experience of trauma…however distant that mine compared to yours since you really knew her and I really did not. I knew that I had said something that might make you remember me from the signing afterwards.
So, that out of the way, here’s what I really wanted to say to you that couldn’t be boiled down in fifteen seconds of frazzled nerves and frenetic outside chaos.
For ten years you have taken me on incredible journeys I would never have ventured on otherwise. You have opened up new worlds for me, shown me forgotten roads and walked with me through their uncertain paths. You have been the storyteller whose words reached into me and surrounded my core, bolstered me through good and bad times. You have been a best friend and a complete stranger in one. While your meeting me made precious little impact among the sea of fans, there is one thing that I thought you should know:
It meant something. To me.
And I can’t thank you enough for the brief moment of shared grief over one of our favourite writers.
I wanted to say so many things. For months I had bandied about winsome and wry commentary. I thought about telling you about things happening in my life – about the fact that my wedding looms imminent and that attending your event was my unofficial bachelorette party. That I am getting married to a man who grew up on a bee farm (how are your bees, by the way?). I thought about making a comment about how I had to settle for him because you were taken (and so, unfortunately, is your wife). I thought about telling you about my brother’s inoperable brain cancer, that his last year of predicted life was at an end, and that I worried about him every single day. I thought that I might crack from all the stress of the last few weeks and just unload on you a pure stream of cleansing release.
But I did none of these things. I just latched onto a comment you made in the Q & A period about ‘the oeuvre of Diana Wynne Jones’ and I went with it. The world lost a bit of its shine the day she died, and I still feel, on some level, that I killed her.
Allow me to explain that last one because it is absurd and absurd stories are always the best.
(You are the master of those, after all.)
A few years ago, I was traveling with my then-boyfriend/now-fiancee and soon-to-be husband on a trip to and from Washington DC for a baby shower. It’s a twelve-hour trip from where we live in Michigan. We usually read something aloud on long roadtrips. That trip’s choice – Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones. We had just finished it up on the way back and started The Lives of Christopher Chant. I spent the better part of the read ooohing and ahhing over her stories, her beautiful words, and her narrative structures. Her books make me feel like a kid again despite not discovering her until I was an adult working in a bookstore (and in the kids section, no less).
When we got home one of the first things I learned was that Diana had died the day before. I was truly crestfallen, and in that bizarre, heartbreaking, nonsensical moment of grief I had one, irrational thought that I still believe to this day…
“Oh my gods, we killed Diana Wynne Jones!”
In reality she died from complications due to lung cancer. It could happen to anyone; to you or I, or my brother currently suffering through intense bouts of sickening chemotherapy. But I was her fan, and I was reading her in her last hours of her life and I have some perverse belief, despite all of my efforts to eradicate superstition and fear in my adult life, that my luck is cursed rather than charmed. It was coincidence rather than fate, but I still feel like I had something to do with it.
I was her fan reading her in her last hours after all so I must have been connected to her death.
Who ever said that grief has to make any sense?
Saying that to you felt like a confession of guilt because your obituary for her
was so moving. Your line about her travel jinx only slammed home the thought that I must have killed her, because I was traveling when it happened and she believed she had one. So why couldn’t her jinx jump to me through her book and back to her again? It makes sense on some sort of cosmic level, doesn’t it? We are talking about her
stories and it almost sounds like one of them.
Mostly, I’m just sad that’s she’s gone. And I know that you are too. And I just had to tell you that.
I would have loved the chance to have snagged you from the signing and go for a pot of tea (or coffee); to talk about other books and other authors that we most likely share. Because even though I was there for you, to see you and to fawn over you I wanted to talk to you about other authors – about Charles de Lint (whom I had just finished reading that very morning for the first time). About Lloyd Alexander and Lewis and Carroll and Baum. I wanted to know you exact opinion on the Gormenghast novels and whether or not you ever intend on writing me a Steerpike character (because you really haven’t yet). I wanted to drink pot after pot of caffeine with you and wax rhapsodic about books and poetry and art, about myths and monsters and all things fantastic. I wanted to share laughs and smiles, to tell you about my experience reading American Gods and how I didn’t see the ending coming…and to tell you about my weekend reading Neverwhere while reeling from an old breakup where I spent the time alternatively reading and sobbing in a very empty flat above an art gallery…with a tiny orange tabby kitten to keep me company while my Parisian friend who lived in the flat was away. And how I always buy a copy of Blueberry Girl for my friends who have daughters because they will always find their daughter in that book. And how Graveyard Book is the best book to recommend to children in the bookstore because I get to open every handsell with, “It starts with a grisly murder!” and they still buy it, children and parents both. And how Stardust conjures up images of Peter S. Beagle and The Princess Bride…and how I still haven’t finished Good Omens yet, but that it’s also not the right book to take on a road trip to your very first introduction of your then-boyfriend’s/soon-to-be husband’s extremely Catholic family…and how the nerves and nausea prevented me from absorbing a word of what I had read.
Believe me, I can attest to that one personally.
(…and I do intend on rereading it some day.)
But I couldn’t say any of this because I only had fifteen seconds and monopolized some of my best friend’s interaction with you as is. But she understands. You’re my author after all, not hers.
My long running joke – that I would get to meet you through my Beekeeping Entomologist boyfriend; that we would someday run into each other at an Apiculture conference and that you would approach him and say, “So, I hear that you have kept bees since you were a child.” And he would naturally fall into a conversation with you about insects and not books and the whole time I would be sitting there dumbfounded saying “Holy crap, that’s Neil Fucking Gaiman!” (because you took Amanda’s last name in my head when you wed her. At least in part.).
And I wouldn’t be able to speak to you after all because I wouldn’t be able to say anything more eloquent beyond, “You’re Neil Fucking Gaiman.” And you would laugh and say, “Yes, I am.”
But the joke’s on me. I met you through a proper book channel and not the bees. And I talked to you about Diana Wynne Jones and not you. And hopefully you will remember that because I will never forget it.
I can still fantasize about snatching you away and talking books all night long (despite your extreme jet lag). I never think of authors in a starstruck “Pantheon of the Gods” way. I instead read them and think, “Wow. I want to have a coffee with them and pick their brain about this or that unrelated thing.” Because their medium reaches into my head and my heart and declares me a friend. Because you feel like an old friend separated by circumstances rather than by choice. Because I want to be able to talk to you and go for tea (or coffee) some day and demand to know your thoughts on Peake.
So I’m bridging the gap, because I have a blog and an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I can reach out. Because I know that you won’t come to me, but I think we should talk sometime about Mervyn Peake. Or bees. Or cats. Or art. Or myths and monsters. And I owe you a pot of tea (or coffee).
And I am always here.
(And I think that Amanda and I should be best friends regardless of you. Because I would like to paint her someday.)
(Just saying. I can, and do, paint. And she needs to be painted more. By me.)
So, Neil. If you are feeling inclined, and you are chatty once you are not touring. And jet lagged. And red-eyed. And exhausted. And there aren’t 1,500 people in between us. And you aren’t writing a novel. Or missing Amanda. Or tending the bees. Or playing with your critters and inventing your creatures…come find me. I am waiting for you with many conversations. But we’ll have to talk Diana Wynne Jones some other day, because I am still broken up over it and so are you.
Thank you for the books, the repetitive jokes, and the dark humour.
But, most importantly, thank you for Diana Wynne Jones.
– Follow the Reader –