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First Reading | 2012 | The Person Who Gets It


May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art - write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.  

-Neil Gaiman


Heaven Is Not Waiting

Neil Gaiman  
He is much less daunting in person. Good cheekbones.

Amber and I arrive at the Sosnoff Theater at Bard College an hour and a half before the doors open for Neil Gaiman's reading. In my bag, I have two sandwiches (dinner for Amber and me); a copy of Anansi Boys I hope to have Gaiman sign; and my two published novels, signed and with a note thanking him for being an inspiration. Gaiman had announced a week and a half ago on his Tumblr that he would like to read a story he had just written, the same day his wife, Amanda Palmer, would be holding the first of her two concerts as part of her artist's residency. Originally, he was told by Bard that he could do a lunchtime reading, which meant I would likely be unable to attend as it was to be my first day back at work proper. When I (and many hundreds of others, largely high school students) beseeched him to reconsider, he sent me a personal (though understandably very short) message saying I ought to stop by and say "hullo", as he had changed the time to 6PM.

I expected there would be no one in front of us, arriving as early as we did, but at least twenty other people got this idea. Before the doors opened, another six hundred lined up behind us, proving such an impediment that security was sent out to stop them from blocking on-campus traffic.

Liz and one of her friends appear, having driven up from the City for this occasion, no small trip. A man from Bard comes out to find out who traveled the farthest to be here, sounding as though he is gloating that he had to roll out of bed and walk a dozen yards. From what I hear, that dubious honor goes to someone who flew from California to wait in this line.

I call Daniel to ask him where he is, as he would only have to cross a bridge.

"Standing guard at the coffee shop," he says.

"Why are you not in line, awaiting Neil Gaiman with me?" I demand.
The crowd outside  
It goes down a hill and around a parking lot.

"When I thought you wouldn't be able to go, I was going to skip work. But since you could go... I know I couldn't possibly enjoy it more than you are going to, so I didn't bother."

I pause in my faux righteous indignation. "That is... oddly flattering logic. You are excused."

The doors open with fifteen minutes to spare and we push in with a minimum amount of violence. Amber and I settle into seats on the right of the theater, in the second row, directly in front of a row of reserved seats soon filled by people who seem slightly other than human (whether it is simply the Bard culture or Gaiman fandom specifically, there is a good smattering of people in clothes that do not belong in the same time period or who move as though they are trying so hard to avoid arousing the suspicions of humans). Liz's friend points out that this placement gets us closer to the stage, but not closer to Neil, as there is a podium on the left side. By the time we realize this, the left rows are filled a dozen back, so I stand my ground.

I had joked earlier that seeing Neil Gaiman speak would make me faint, but I feel actually lightheaded. I refuse to pass out, to miss even the anticipation of seeing him for the first time.

Gideon, a man in charge of the theatrical aspects of Bard College, reads a quick introduction that is as unnecessary as it is unabsorbed. I am too excited to retain any preamble.

When Neil mounts the stage. I clap and shout as I have never before. I have been on stage with my then favorite musician, who serenaded me with her cover of Nelly's "Hot in Herre". That experience provoked barely half this sensation. My knees shake and I cheer, distantly aware that Amber is laughing at me. I don't care.

Neil apologizes to the crowd for thinking only twenty or thirty people would show up to listen to him. He has us utterly from the start. A girl in the first balcony leans on her crossed hands on a banister with almost comical admiration (as a fun coincidence, I think I found the blog of this person here when I was looking for pictures).

Yet, despite how I feel my cells are all about to vibrate to another dimension, Neil Gaiman seems curiously human in a way that I have never before encountered in the presence of deserved celebrity. I see Amanda Palmer come in a few moments before he does (sitting, of course, in the reserved seat on the left, where I would have been only a few rows behind her had I not veered left). I motion toward her with my head and whisper urgently to attract Amber's attention, but she does not seem to recognize Amanda Palmer without her makeup. She, too, seems very real to me, as though we are old friends. The problem is that neither of them realizes it yet.

This strikes me as stalker logic.

Neil promises us a special surprise for sitting through the story, a combination of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty called "Sleeper's Spindle" (which, as Amanda mentioned to him that his mic is hissing, is not the best title). I hope that he will say the surprise is that he is signing for the first few rows, something that will bring me close enough to give him my books, but I know how unlikely this is. He would cause a minor riot by saying not everyone could have his signature (and I have heard tale of Gaiman staying hours late at bookstores to be certain everyone in line is satisfied, so this is not in his character).

I do not record the story, because there is a sign before we entered the theater forbidding any sort of recording. The last thing I would ever want would be for Neil Gaiman to have me expelled from hearing him read, so I do not attempt even a picture. Others are not half as considerate, flashing him with photos and holding up video cameras to capture his every word.
The crowd inside  
Do you see how enthralled I am?
(Taken from and edited)

When he finishes reading to thunderous applause and a standing ovation ("Was that for my story or because I made you sit for so long and you needed a stretch?" Neil asks, full of self-deprecation), he announces that our reward is a song.

Amanda hops on stage with a ukulele and rushes into "Ukulele Anthem", a song about how wonderful the instrument is, how that Sid Vicious may have spared the life of Nancy Spungeon if only he had written songs for this diminutive stringed instrument. Neil closes out the reading with a poem he swears is non-fiction about a resurrected/undead saint being silenced with burial for saying there is no Heaven or Hell, that God is not how one imagines, though there is nothing quite like listening to Gaiman read it.

He bows out again to thunderous applause, after telling us that Amanda and he will return in April. I see my chance to give him my books retreating. I can't allow this, though I cannot throw them at him (it seems a bit impolite and at best likely to get me removed from campus). I see some of the reserved seat fillers walk onto the stage and ask to be directed to Neil backstage. I cannot bring myself to pretend I am with them - I can't imagine the ruse would not fall apart within a minute - but motion to Gideon on the stage, who comes over to me.

I offer the books in my hand, protected only with a ripping Ziploc. "Listen, I just wanted to give these to Neil."

"You want to give him this?" he says, I think seeing for the first time that these are not books written by Gaiman.

"Exactly. I am an author and Neil Gaiman was a huge inspiration. So I wanted him to have these books. They are actually about a version of Bard College, so it seems sort of perfect, you know?" I do not mention that one of my main antagonists shares the name Gideon. It seems unlikely to get me a desired result.

He accepts them and, I choose to believe, does not drop them in the nearest bin. It is all I can do, knowing that further bravery would be easy to mistake for bald stupidity. Maybe Neil Gaiman won't ever read them. Maybe they will be used as doorstops or, as Amber suggests, as apiary architecture. It does not matter, I did what I needed to do. (A day later, asking Gaiman if he received my books from Gideon, he replies, "I did! And he did! Thank you!" and nearly stops my heart.)

We are led outside and I don't think I have ever breathed more deeply of the evening's air. I am nearly delirious. I could fight a dragon or float to the clouds, but instead cling to Amber and dot her face with my kisses, so jubilant am I. I feel transformed by the ecstasy of having "met" my literary idol. While I know this high cannot last, I relish it while it does. I down a seltzer and tell Amber that I wish I had a stiff drink or a cigarette, though I neither drink nor smoke.

As I wait in line to get into Amanda Palmer's concert next, a man walks up to the woman beside me, takes her hand, and announces while glancing at me that "Owen is dead. Tell no one yet." This is a bit spooky, as this is a plot point in my first book. Soon after, someone mentions a main character ("Dylan will be so excited!") in my next book, just a bit too loudly to be a casual coincidence, like an extra in this scene flubbing her one portentous line. I am uncertain what to make of these omens, but I am on the lookout thereafter for Shanes, Roselyns, Drydens, or Eliots.

I expect the concert to be in a massive and packed hall and am startled to be led into a black room hardly bigger than my apartment. Hipsters of all ages and dispositions mill about, but no more than fifty. Is it simply the fact that it is a Wednesday that is putting them off? Could it be that the over seven hundred people who thronged Gaiman's reading were not willing to stick around to listen to his wife? Could a measly $35 a ticket charge be sufficient to dissuade all but 5%?

A friend of Jacki's walks up and relays to me that she managed to slip Amanda Palmer a copy of her latest art book. I feel slightly lamer for my enlisting Gideon as my messenger. While I do not doubt that authors slip books to their literary betters whenever possible, I could not even manage to do it directly as this woman had.

The opening band is Sticklips, no one I have ever heard before but an exemplar of that genre of music that is played in the background of modern fantasy shows, ethereal female singing backed up by occasionally experimental alternative rock. I wonder at the vagaries of Fate that allowed them to open up for Amanda Palmer and, though I am not remotely musically inclined, envy them a bit. While Amber and I absently sway to the beat, I imagine ways of unobtrusively weaving them into my Night's Dream universe.

I whisper to Amber between acts, as Leonard Cohen is blasted over the speakers (which is apparently a thing one can do with access to audio equipment at a concert), that I may be having the best night of my life and that she will have to step up her game for our eventual wedding.

"I will have Neil Gaiman attend," she says.

"Will he do a reading?"

"No, he shall officiate the ceremony," she continues.

"Beyond perfect."

The next act, to my confusion but not displeasure, was Amanda's bass player. He is the sort of person who seems to exist nowhere outside of modern satiric fiction, a bit too rawboned and incredible to exist. It is not the ever so slightly oddly tailored suit he wears or the pomade wave in his hair that makes it look shellacked. That is artifice, but he is weird to the core and I find it captivating. He explains that, before Amanda comes out, he is going to play several songs he has arranged with a local string quartet they hired and that the "Grand Theft Orchestra" would always be a rotating quartet of locals wherever the band played. He then says, as though this is a slightly embarrassing minor secret, that he grew up on a sailboat. Somehow, this one fact make him come into clear focus for me, having adored a few people homeschooled on farms, grew up on mountaintops, or who did not see the inside of a proper classroom until they were teens. It warps one far enough away from the beaten path that one must learn both to think for and entertain oneself.

When Amanda does come on, she seems so much larger than life, particularly in contrast to her appearance at Neil's reading. Her white silky dress slips by design to her waist by the second song, revealing a black corset emblazoned with a faux Victorian portrait of a man. Her eye shadow embarrasses several colors of the rainbow into submission. This Amanda Palmer seems like the superheroic persona of the one who whispered correction to Neil Gaiman hours ago. Of course we recognize that they are one and the same (just as I am sure no one in Metropolis is really fooled by Superman's glasses), but it is tricky to keep them both in your head at the same time. Given that she later tells us, imitating the Teutonic petulance of an Austrian interviewer, that the "Berlin" in a song is not the city but her stage name as a stripper, I don't think it too unfair to hypothesize that she wears identities as freely as any other costume piece: to be outrageous, for emphasis, to be someone else onstage, as armor, to be yanked off because it will be a bit of fun.

She does not have me as her husband did - instantly and unashamedly - but she does not need to. Amber and I dance and laugh (particularly when she and her band stop their song with a devilish glint in their eyes, dash across stage, and play one another's instruments multiple times), enjoying our first proper concert together. This is among the most intimate show I have ever attended, helped in no small part by her being no more than a few feet from me for most of it or roaming among us while singing.

The rest of my life will have to try quite hard to top this, but I feel it is up to the challenge if this is what it can manage with a Wednesday night.

Soon in Xenology: Apples.

last watched: Neverwhere
reading: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland
listening: Amanda Palmer

First Reading | 2012 | The Person Who Gets It

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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