Neil Gaiman, the Beekeeper Wizard

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On July 6, 2013, Neil Gaiman ventured as far into Northern California as he ever has, as Copperfield’s books scored a major publicity coup by bringing him to Santa Rosa for a signing event. 1200 people packed the Santa Rosa High School Auditorium to hear this rock-star writer read and speak.


Vicki, the Copperfield’s Event Director, gave us the groundrules and kicked off the evening.


Joanna, the biggest Gaiman fan at Copperfield’s, introduced him.

Gaiman read from his most recent published work, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, answered some of the questions we had written on index cards and turned in before he came out. Then he read from something else.

He is a rock-star, but he keeps the look he has perfected over the past two decades; the black suit with a floppy jacket, a black T-shirt, hair like a dandelion clock. Just a regular, slightly befuddled Englishman, a gentlemanly beekeeper, not a being of vast and mysterious power. A little, in fact like the fictional character he sometimes writes for, Doctor Who. Nothing special to see here, no sir. Just a beekeeping wizard.

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Gaiman reads from The Ocean at the End of the Lane

He read a longish scene that takes place in the Hempstock kitchen, when the little boy who is the main character has realized that something is going wrong at his house (and others, it turns out). He performed the voices of the characters, and the best was Old Mrs. Hempstock.

He announced that The Ocean at the End of the Lane had bumped Dan Brown’s book from #1 on the bestseller list for one week, to a round of applause. As an update, it has now bumped Brown for two weeks.

the auditorium

An attentive crowd of 1200 people.

He talked a little bit about the book, then began shuffling through the index cards and took some questions.

Why does he call Ocean at the End of the Lane an accidental novel?

Most readers have already noticed that Ocean is a slim novel, much shorter than most of his works. Gaiman said that usually when he writes a novel, he has a plan. “I think, ‘there is a novel, and I will write it.’” Ocean came about because he wanted to write his wife a short story to show her he missed her (his wife, Amanda Palmer, was in Australia recording an album). He thought he’d write about some things she liked. “She likes me… and she likes feelings. She really’s good at feelings, which I am not. I’m much too English and too male.” The story grew, reaching novelette size (he was happy about that, he said, because while he has a Hugo for a novel, a novella and a short story, he’s never had one for a novelette) then left novelette in the rear view. Finally he said he sent his editor an apologetic e-mail. “Written a novel. Sorry.  Won’t do it again.”

Does he keep bees, or are beekeeping references just metaphors?

He keeps bees. Apparently a lot of people knew this, but I didn’t. He told a suspenseful and funny story about moving a bee hive. You have to do it carefully, smoothly, gracefully, like the wind, like a willow tree, no jarring, no jolting… so you can guess how the story goes.

Does he listen to music while he writes?

Why this question? Because new writers always ask their gods these kinds of magical, how-to-set-the-scene questions, and Gaiman, the most generous of gods, knows to answer them. He does listen to music, he said. He is finding that as he gets older, it’s harder to listen to music with lyrics because he can no longer concentrate.

The magical gift that I took away is that this particular god writes in long-hand and transcribes the work later.

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How does he get everything done?

Well, what’s everything? Except for massive signing and reading tours, adult novels, children’s books, short stories, poetry, graphic novel collaborations, screenplays and teleplays, and taking care of bees, what’s the man got to do, anyway? His answer is that he is very organized and he schedules things. The exception is screenplays. Early in his career he set aside six months to write two screenplays, then waited for six months for the Hollywood people to give him the go-ahead. The lesson he learned was that “screenplays now fit into the cracks.”

Who is his favorite Doctor Who?

You go to a Neil Gaiman event, you get Doctor Who questions. It’s unavoidable. His personal Doctor Who was the second, Patrick Troughton, but his favorite is Matt Smith.

Responding to a question that had not been asked, Gaiman volunteered the information that he had not written his award-winning episode “The Doctor’s Wife” with Matt Smith in mind, because when he originally wrote it, Smith had not been cast as the Doctor. Then episode was bumped from  the first  Smith season, when Amy was his sole companion, and he had to do rewrites when the character of Rory was added.

Who is his favorite Muppet?

“My favorite would have to be The Great Gonzo, but the early Gonzo, back when he was young and lean and hungry.”

My friends and I think this was a planted question, or at least a question from someone who has heard Gaiman read before, since it so-conveniently led into a charming story about writing as a career. In the first Muppet Movie, the Muppets find The Great Gonzo hitch-hiking with a chicken. They stop and ask where he is going. “I plan to hitch-hike to the city of Bangalore in India where I will become a movie star.” The Muppets say, “Well, we’re driving to Hollywood, California, to become movie stars. Would you like to join us?” Gonzo sniffs. “Well, sure,” he says, “If you want to do it the easy way.”

What work is he most proud of?

He said The Graveyard Book made him finally think he was a real writer, and would not have a visit from “The Fraud Police.” He talked a bit about Impostor Syndrome, this idea that someday the jig will be up and people will realize that he can’t do this. (A fear most writers share.) Now, though, when the Fraud Police come to the door, he will show them his Newbery medal and they will leave, “Because the Fraud Police are terrified of Newbery Awards for some reason.”

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What did he read as a child and what were his influences?

His short answer; everything. His story; his parents used to drop him off at the library on their way to work. (His warning; librarians don’t like when he tells this story, because libraries are not child care centers. We all imagine Neil to have been a quiet, obedient child, so this was not a problem.) He started in the Children’s Library and read everything, starting with A. He says this is why he writes everything; because everything influenced him. Later he said, he started with the Adult section. “As you know,” he said, “if you try to read everything in the adult library, you have to read some very bad books.”

Yes, he is good friends with Terry Prachett, and yes, that is his own hair.

He read a bit from a book due out in September, called Fortunately the Milk. The book is, he said, a response to The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. The dad in that book, he said, doesn’t do much except read the paper and get swapped for things. Gaiman felt that perhaps this had been “dadist.” The father in Fortunately the Milk has many wild adventures in his quest to bring home some milk for his children’s breakfast cereal.

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Still waiting…

After this, he signed books. And signed books, and signed books, and signed more books. There were 1200 people. Probably six of them took advantage of the offer to swap their book for a pre-signed one in the lobby. If it were you, and this was one of your idols, wouldn’t you want to opportunity to watch him sign your book with his own hand, maybe exchange a scrap of conversation with him, tell him the impact one of his works had on you? Because he would sign one other item (no memorabilia or body parts) and an unlimited number of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, no one in line that I saw had fewer than two items for his signature.

the bookstore

In the lobby, the bookstore was in full swing.

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The line… at any point during the evening.

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Shark Girl

As we came in we were given a card with a letter on it, and that was our “signing group.” The groups were called to queue up alphabetically. We were in the K group. The groups ended at P. We waited three hours for signing, and there were 200 people behind us. I didn’t mind it; I had books and good friends, and there were plenty of interesting people to see. I did worry though, about the hands of a wizard who creates his magic in longhand.

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One Response to Neil Gaiman, the Beekeeper Wizard

  1. Chad Hull says:

    He writes it out by hand? Now that is quarky. I’m a odd one, but I’ve never enjoyed his adult fiction.

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