Wednesday, March 3, 2010

rock star writer, neil gaiman

Niki Bruce experiences the rock 'n roll style of fantasy writer Neil Gaiman.

ALONG with about 800+ other people, I turned up to hear writer Neil Gaiman speak in Singapore at the annual writers festival.

But I wasn't nearly so excited as his hardcore fans, some of whom had turned up at his every appearance during the recent Singapore Writers Festival held over the last week.

After a few dramas, including the apparent scalping of tickets to this Meet the Author event – despite the fact that they were actually free – and a move to a larger venue, Singapore finally got to sit down and listen to the rock star of modern writing chat with adjudicator Lim Cheng Tju, who reviews graphic novels and comics for The Straits Times' Life! section.

Although the show started about 10 minutes late, the rousing applause when Gaiman arrived shook the rafters. A few whistles and catcalls later, and the lanky, curly-haired, black-clad Gaiman settled in for a friendly chat.

Gaiman is currently one of the English language's most popular writers. He's done everything from fantasy novels and children's books to the celebrated The Sandman series of graphic novels.

Known by the mainstream  for his work like American Gods and his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, Gaiman is just as popular in the more underground world of graphic novels and cartoons.

The adjudicator, Mr Lim, mentioned in his introduction that his first Gaiman book, Good Omens, he bought had been stolen by a girl, and so he'd had to buy another one.

Gaiman laughed in response, telling the crowd that his theory for why Good Omens has sold so many copies is because they keep getting borrowed, so people keep having to buy new ones.

"The originals are always brownish; they've been dropped in the bath at least once and had soup spilled on them," Gaiman joked. "Girls always borrow copies of Good Omens and you never get them back."

A number of Gaiman's books, most notably Stardust and more recently Coraline, have been adapted for film and these topics – Good Omens and film adaptations of his work – topped the hot list of questions asked by the crowd on Sunday.

However Mr Lim launched the session with a question about Gaiman's up-coming 50th birthday; how did he feel about the big 5-Oh?

"Odd, really odd," Gaiman responded. "I've got a really cool life, I've done all I set out to do... if tomorrow my plane goes down, it will be alright."

He then launched into a story about how the only time he'd been worried about flying was on a trip to America in 1988 when he had just begun the Sandman series and was carrying a number of precious drawings by Dave Mckean from Black Orchid with him.

This was just the first in a series of humorous anecdotes that Gaiman indulged in through-out the almost hour-long event. He is, as his fans and readers of his work know, a very funny writer.

What is less well-known is that Gaiman is just as funny in real life – he'd make a great standup comic, or he'd be great on one of those humorous treks around the world like Michael Palin does.

Whatever the organisers of this year's Singapore Writers Festival had to spend to get Gaiman here, was well worth it.

This guy really gave value for money with his friendly, approachable style and 'laugh-out-loud' humour. He also went out of his way to ensure that everyone who brought something to sign, got his signature. Apparently he sat for more than 2 hours on Saturday alone signing books, drawings and graphic novels for Singapore fans.

On Sunday, Gaiman won over the crowd immediately – not that there seemed to be anyone there who wasn't a fan to begin with – with his fabulous description of Singaporeans.

"Singaporeans are very enthusiastic, but in a quiet, polite and very organised way," said Gaiman, going on to make an unflattering comment or two about the Filipinos, which he hastily withdrew, covering with a reference to their "noisiness".

"When I landed in Manilla, I couldn't believe it; they're louder than the Brazilians... and I didn't think anyone could be louder than Brazilians!"

More endearing was Gaiman's theory of a 'secret Singaporean delicacy'. He came up with the theory that 'stuffed author' was a secret Singaporean delicacy, where you take "one graying, older author. Feed him wonderful food until he's completely stuffed, and then slice him up into little pick packages".

Naturally enough, Gaiman gained a another round of applause for this pronouncement. Confirming, yet again, that he is a consummate performer.

Don't get me wrong, Gaiman is not at all calculated; he's just very polished in his delivery. He has obviously learned how to make these sorts of events as fun as possible for every one involved.

The adjudicator also asked the writer if he had a preferred medium to work in, or whether he felt that some stories belonged in particular mediums. Gaiman answered that translation was acceptable, but transliteration was not.

Gaiman said that while he enjoyed the movie versions of Stardust and Coraline, they were the directors' versions, not his. His favourite movie was an 8 minute short he'd shot himself staring Bill Nighy and his girlfriend Amanda Palmer – who accompanied Gaiman on the trip and who received her own round of applause at his mention.

He was also given the opportunity to talk about his latest project, a non-fiction look at the story of The Journey to the West – Gaiman had just returned from his third trip to China doing research and interviews for his book. He seemed quite fascinated by the myth.

After a few more questions from the adjudicator, the session was thrown open to the crowd and interestingly enough, the first question was one about new media – specifically this medium, blogging.

As a former journalist, Gaiman was asked whether he thought blogging would take over from traditional media reporting.

"Blogging is something else; it's commentary," he said in answer. "It isn't somebody going out and seeing something and then telling you what really happened. It's not like journalism where... two reporters brought down a presidency (in reference to Watergate).

"Bloggers don't have the same resources, but blogging is a new communication tool, so maybe it could be used for breaking news?" Gaiman asked back, but left the audience in no doubt as to his stand on the issue.

Other questions followed in rapid order with Gaiman explaining the origin of his nickname of 'Scary Trousers', from graphic novelist Alan Moore; and why there are Hayao Miyazaki references in his work, describing a lovely day he spent with Mr Miyazaki.

Gaiman's voluble answers were finally corralled by the adjudicator and he thanked the crowd and the organisers, before receiving a bit of a standing ovation.

Whereupon practically the entire theatre stood up and raced for the exits, so they could get in line for the book signing. Although Gaiman said he'd ensure that everyone got one thing signed, it still meant that people were lined up from The Arts House, all the way down to the riverside.
Author Neil Gaiman in Singapore
Author Neil Gaiman happily signed fans' books after his Meet the Author session on Sunday. ST PHOTO

All in all, Gaiman's Meet the Author session was an enjoyable hour spent listening to an intelligent, humorous man with a unique take on the world. For his fans, it was obviously the best time of their lives; with many of them attending not only Gaiman's events but also the performances of his girlfriend, Amanda Palmer.

If there was anything at all off-putting about the double act that is Gaiman and Palmer, it was their constant references to each other at all their events. Yes, they are obviously madly in love with each other, and think their lovers' work is the best thing since sliced bread, but possibly they should be slightly less 'joined at the hip'.

But, that could just be the cynical journalist in me; nobody else seemed to have a problem with the pair's gushing descriptions of how fabulous their other half is. Besides, they are both damn good at what they do, so maybe they're justified in their gushing?
Still, kudos goes to the organisers of the event and to whoever chose to give Singapore the darkly, glimmering show that is the rock star writer, Neil Gaiman.

Neil Gaiman's works are available at good book stores and online. Amanda Palmer is the lead singer of Dresden Dolls, as well as an independent performer in her own right. Her work is available from good CD stores and online. The Singapore Writer's Festival is a bi-annual event.

First published in The Straits Times blogs on November 02, 2009 


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