Thursday, July 05, 2007

Brief report from a Neil Gaiman signing event

I'm officially crazy in lots of ways. A particular kind of crazy I am is the one I demonstrated yesterday, when I went to a Neil Gaiman signing event in Budapest.

What's crazy about it? Well, probably nothing if you actually live in Budapest. I don't, so for one thing, it's crazy driving 2 hours to Budapest in pouring rain with near zero visibility. Then it's mildly crazy standing in a queue for two hours (part of it in rain outside the bookshop that was the signing venue. No umbrella). The final crazy (although strictly necessary after the first one) is driving home after the event in pouring rain with near zero visibility after dark. Of course, I'm really crazy because I still feel that spending six hours and about forty litres of fuel is a good investment in return for getting seven of my Gaiman books dedicated, and am totally happy about it.

Y'know, in my environment, barely anyone knows who this guy is (now that I think of it, this says something about people surrounding me. I also cannot lend my copies of his books to many folks around here to spread the culture 'cause they're all in English - I don't need no Hungarian translations, most of my friends however can't read the English originals). So I was fairly surprised when I arrived at the bookstore to find a queue extending into the street. The event itself wasn't even too formal - Neil announced it on his blog few days earlier citing as the reason lots of e-mails from local fans (yours truly included) who asked if he could please arrange a signing during his two-week stay in Hungary, seeing how he's otherwise not really often present in this corner of the world.

As for the venue itself, it was the Sárkánytűz ("Dragon Fire"), a bookstore specializing in fantasy books, card games, etc. I really couldn't help feeling that the signing was organized in a wrong location. I look with disdain at most of the contemporary fantasy literature. Most of it is just bad pulp fiction, its authors unable to free themselves from the cliché dominated by elves, trolls, halflings, dragons and knights. Ironically, a genre called "fantasy" really lacks authors that would have any real imagination. Neil Gaiman, on the other hand creates completely original stories, with completely original creatures, and the worlds he paints in his books intersect with our reality. Nothing could be further from the Tolkien-imitating cliché of elves and dragons permeating most of what the bookstore had to offer.

There's apparently a funny phenomenon associated with people queueing in the street in Budapest. Namely, it raises curiosity in strangers. While I was still standing in the part of the queue that extended out in the street, I was approached twice - once by a nicely dressed lady in her fifties, once by a guy resembling a hobo who tries to disguise it. They both inquired about the nature of the event, the wording of their questions implying they were hoping for some sort of a sale. When I told them it was a signing, the guy who looked like a hobo in disguise quickly lost interest. The lady asked who is signing, and when she didn't recognize the name, she asked (seeing how it's a fantasy bookstore) if it is "some sort of fantasy" to which I replied that it definitely isn't. "Then it is sci-fi, right?". This instantly reminded me of "we have both kinds of music" line. I replied patiently that no, it isn't sci-fi either. Then what it is? Well, how do you summarize Neil Gaiman in a single sentence? You don't. I tried to explain to her that she could think of him as maybe a modern day equivalent to Edgar Alan Poe (which I know you might disagree with, as it's both oversimplification and also plain incorrect, but that was the best I could come up with quickly at the spot :-) ) Anyway, she did leave after this...

So, after two hours of queueing I finally got in front of the man himself, got to shake the hand that wrote all those stories and look into the eyes behind them all those same stories were born. Yes, why, I was impressed, even though Neil is really a very friendly and approachable guy (well, approachable through standing in a long queue, but that's barely his fault. I mean, it's really my fault for not reading more obscure authors). Driving up on the highway I had plenty of time to imagine all kinds of witty dialogue I might get into with him, but the cruel reality was that there were still lots of fans waiting for their turn, so it would've been rude to hold them up for inappropriately long time, so we only did a bit of a politeness chat, and I handed over all the seven books I brought for dedication. It'd really be foolish to expect anything more from a signing event, really. I got a drawing of a cracked heart in my copy of Fragile Things - very appropriate. Also, the original printed dedication for Anansi Boys is actually made for easy personalization, which he totally exploited. I can almost see how Neil came up with it after signing his books for years, and felt very smart about it when he wrote it. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, don't worry, just buy a copy of Anansi Boys and read the dedication. Of course, you can also read the rest of the book if you're so inclined, but that won't help you in better understanding what I just said. But it might be worth your time for unrelated reasons, though.)

I also asked whether he has (or at least has a promise to get) a book of Hungarian folklore tales, to which he replied that he actually got one last week and is halfway through it already. If he didn't, I'd have offered to send him one, which was an idea I got while reading The Monarch of the Glen novella from Fragile Things, seeing how it incorporated a motive from Norwegian folklore (namely, a huldra), and Hungarian folk tales definitely have their share of marvels waiting to be incorporated into contemporary literature (I certainly know, I read lots of those to my kids). Anyway, getting Neil to read some of those tales is already been taken care of, hooray. We'll be waiting for the results :-)

A very nice touch at the signing was Neil's daughter Maddy, who was handing out cookies to people standing in the line and later also offering sandwiches at the signing desk. I really needed a bit of refreshments before hitting the road home, so I was really grateful for those as well. I asked Maddy when will she give back her Dad's blog to him, and she said it was her last day as his guest blogger, but she lamented that she can not write the entry because she's here at the signing. I remarked that she could use an exotic technique known as "pen and paper" and later type it up in front of a computer; I have no idea if she took the suggestion, however her goodbye entry was up at 10:01 PM, which I don't actually understand as I can't imagine the signing was over by then and even less that they could reach their hotel room by then - I left at about 9:15, and the queue of waiting fans still extended through the bookstore to the door (nobody waiting on the street anymore though).


Csaba Biro said...

You are definitely crazy! :) Now you have a signature in each of your books, but in a few months, this guy will probably not remember you at all. I really don't understand why it is good.

In fact, on several occasions in my life, it happened to me, that I had the opportunity to talk with a famous person who I respect. Just a few weeks ago I went to a Jason Ricci concert, and just before the concert, the guy was drinking beer among the people in the pub. He was alone. I was thinking that I should walk up to him, but then I thought: what's the point? I won't make friends with someone in 2 minutes. I could ask him some harmonica related question, but there was really nothing on my mind.

However, this seems to make you happy, and even though I don't understand why, this is really all that matters.

Attila Szegedi said...

Oh, I don't have any expectations whatsoever that Neil will remember me; that'd be a foolish thing to expect -- signings are very poor events for befriending authors because of the sheer asymmetry between the numbers of people on the two sides of the table :-)

Yeah, I'm happy I met the guy, I'm happy I have his scribblings in those books now, and as you yourself say, that's what matters, without unnecessary attempts to explain or rationalize it :-)