Before I publicly criticize a New York Times best seller, a cult icon, a writer whose words I admire, let me just say — I wanted to love this event. It sold out within days; we waited to hear if we could get in, not getting the call until the last minute. We were in.
Sometimes you just don’t want to know what’s behind the words you like so much. Authors always have had strange reputations apart from their work. Writers, as a whole, are pretty useless apart from the page; that is, if they’re good, channeling every ounce of their being into words. Neil Gaiman is a good author, no doubt — maybe that’s why he seemed so shallow in person.
On June 27, it was the tenth anniversary of American Gods, Gaiman’s bestseller. The line wrapped around the quiet Berkeley block leading right into the courtyard of the First Congregational Church. His fans were buzzing, dedicated, waiting to get their hardcover copies signed and scramble to the front pews.
Adam Savage, from MythBusters fame, came out onto the stage first. The premise was he would be interviewing Gaiman about aspects of his novel in an intimate retrospective climate. (An echoing and sterile church with frequent audio malfunctions.) Savage proposed discussing the immigrant journey through America and the alleged nonexistence of folklore in American history. If you’ve never read American Gods, the protagonist, Shadow, traverses the country while encountering mythological entities posed in a modern setting.
So: excellent opening question for the author. In response, Gaiman delved into a monologue rife with British witticisms and platitudes and ended on a discussion about the weather in America. THE WEATHER? He did mention some inside information about his personal travels and the things that have inspired him to create these characters. How, while driving through American landscapes, the author had “American Gods moments” when he felt compelled to document his experiences in his novel. He spoke at length about trips to Iceland and New Hampshire where he saw things “you wouldn’t possibly believe.”
Next Gaiman read an excerpt, the part where Shadow and Wednesday go to a café on Haight Street to meet Easter and a pagan waitress. The words were great, and only widened the gap between his genius and his mouth. As a preamble to the excerpt, he joked about the stereotypical Haight Street symbols: hippies, pagans, apathetic waitresses, etc. I kept wondering if it was just me thinking he sounded like a caricature of himself, going for the easy laugh rather than insight. The audience was eating it up, and I wondered if I had missed the cups of Kool Aid on the way in.
Adam Savage salvaged this experience for me with his grounded, well-researched questions. After Gaiman finished the excerpt, Savage brought up the similarities between American Gods and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: the romantic American road trip written by a foreigner. Gaiman glossed over, saying how he and Nabokov were “coming from the same place… in America if you want to find something, just drive until you find it.”
Getting a glimpse into the real life eccentricities of a great author will not prevent me from enjoying his fiction. It only reaffirms his humanity. It’s even comforting to know that writing is the supreme form of communication to a widespread audience and if you excel in that then how you communicate outside the art is irrelevant.
I was able to film, albeit from the back of the church because the crowd was at capacity. The videos don’t quite do the event justice, but I think you will see what I mean.