It all started with a begging letter. I, of soundish mind and body, had thrown dignity to the wind and fired off an email to Waterstones head office begging to be placed on the reserve list for a once in a lifetime event, a private meet and greet, reading and signing session in London with Neil Gaiman, exclusive to Waterstones employees. The 100 odd seats had long since been filled but I had not seen it advertised until it was too late. Or was it?
Never have I been more proud to wear the W on my chest.
It was Matthew, the event co-ordinator who emailed back, polite chap that he is, saying he could squeeze us onto the guestlist. A quick celebratory air guitar shred was followed by a quick phone call to my girlfriend. “Debs, you know how we’re in London for your birthday next month, well i’ve only gone and bagged us a meet and greet with Neil Gaiman!”
We are both huge Neil Gaiman fans, having absorbed most of his creative output, be it his novels, his comic books, his TV shows and films… Deborah even has an Ankh necklace fashioned after the character Death from Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed Sandman comic book series. It’s one of the things I remember from when I first met her.
The burning question in my mind was, “What do I say to him?” and more than that, “What the hell do I bring to get signed?”
I considered his excellent novel “American Gods” and Book 1 of The Sandman, but a month of deliberation ended with the graphic novel “What Ever Happened To The Caped Crusader?”, a love letter to Batman on the night of his wake (following the events of Batman RIP). As you all well know I am nerd for anything Batman so I thought what better than something that connects both Neil and myself than a character that inspires both of us?
On the afternoon of the event, having met a few of the other lovely Waterstones people from other stores who had travelled to London for the day, Waterstones had kindly arranged for us out of towners to take a trip around Bloomsbury Publishing, famed publishers of the Harry Potter books, Khaled Hosseini, and many others. Located in an old, renovated town house, Bloomsbury is staffed by a conspicuously young workforce. We were plied with wine and cake and led on a tour of the building, shown into little offices where among the endless paper stacks sat unreleased, prototype Harry Potter boxsets, Lego Christmas books, paintings of Hogwarts, and awards. It was interesting to see the other side of the book industry, not the retail side, but the planning and marketing and hectic schedules.
We returned to Waterstones Picadilly around 6pm for a quick browse of the mammoth store and then, passing through the hidden conference doors, eagerly took our seats for the event. And then he emerged from a little side door and took a seat near us. Neil Gaiman was sitting two rows away. Like it wasn’t even a thing. Matthew took the podium and welcomed the now full room. “Some of you have travelled quite far to be here tonight, but hands down the champions, travelling a massive 457 miles, from Waterstones Newry and Lisburn, Billy and Deborah!”
"And as a little thank you we would like to give you these personalised gift cards," he said presenting us with two prototype giftcards, bearing illustrations from Coraline, and each carrying a handwritten message from Neil Gaiman.
We looked over at Neil who smiled and waved. I was so excited I planted a kiss on Deborah’s cheek. Looking back on that, it probably seemed like Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch. I’m such a tool.
Afterwards, Neil Gaiman gave a funny and insightful speech to the room before reading a chapter from his new children’s book, Fortunately The Milk. This was followed by a long Q&A from the fans on any topic they wished. He was always courteous and candid, telling stories that involved Terry Pratchett, his inspirations, and covering all aspects of his work.
We queued after for the signing session and upon reaching his table, he shook our hands, then in his lilting English accent, “You’ve come quite a long way.” On Deborah’s Sandman Book he wrote “Happy Birthday Deborah” and signed her American Gods novel.
"You’ve come quite a long way too," he said to me.
"Wouldn’t miss it for the world," I blurted back. I told him how I had finished his latest novel, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane in a single evening and thanked him profusely for the gift cards and he wrote a note in my Batman book. "You’re entirely welcome," he said as I bowed my thanks and left.
I got back to Deborah and opened my Batman book, “Billy - Bats Wishes”.
The creative buzz that surged through my veins was a high like no other. We cornered Matthew before we left and thanked him for getting us on the list. He had really gone out of his way to make the trip a memorable experience and he thanked us for coming.
I’m actually a little hazy about most of it now. It’s one of those memories that will linger on as an emotion of happiness, inspiration and energy, the kind that lights a fire that won’t go out. The kind that sparks a page of ink and ideas and hopefully, that lights a pyre in the mind spinning out an inferno of words.
To Matthew and the other folks at Waterstones, thank you so much.
To Neil Gaiman, you have inspired me more than I can say. Thank you.