Dateline: Monday, May 16, 2022 – Tonight I stepped foot on the campus of Butler University for the first time in 19 years because the Neil Gaiman thoughtfully included Indianapolis on his current cross-country speaking tour, and Clowes Hall was the venue of choice for the occasion. In exchange for this rare opportunity, strict rules were implemented. Rule #1: Masks were required. Freebies were handed out to those who needed them. No problem: I brought my own.
Rule #2: No photos or video during the performance. This isn’t an unusual or oppressive rule to me (especially not video — no pivoting to same on this website), but whenever this rule is laid down and I’m itching to share the story online, most venues have something I can photograph as a memento of the event in lieu of the performers themselves — a marquee, a billboard, a cardboard standee, any kind of one-night-only visual prop as evidence that a festive occasion was in store. Clowes Hall had absolutely nothing. We might as well have been walking into calculus class.
So I had to make my own cheapskate pic to lead this entry.I took a photo of the stage before the performance, went home, taught myself how to use the Magic Select function in MS Paint 3-D, and…well, you see what I did up there for the very first time ever in my entire life. I never learned to Photoshop and my crappy networking means I don’t have friends that I can simply message and beg to make me single-use gag art. Heck, I could’ve doubled down on my DIY stubbornness, chucked the photo and made an entirely Matt Feazell-style Neil Gaiman stick figure. It was tempting. Instead I tried to do slightly better. And now I have my own unique memento, all because Clowes Hall is mean and hates sprucing themselves up for their special guests. Minor point of order: his hair’s grayer now than it was on The Simpsons. I could’ve recolored it, but it’s getting late and I already learned one (1) new thing today.
Anyway: Neil Gaiman! The event was scheduled for 7:30. Despite the long line at the parking garage I reached my seat around 7:20, albeit with no time to check out the merchandise tables. Gaiman emerged circa 7:48 and delivered two straight hours of lively eloquence…after a spot of initial housekeeping when he and a crewman worked together to push his podium a few feet farther away from the edge of the stage so fans sitting directly in front of him could actually see him over the top of it. Everyone was perfectly okay with this time-out for thoughtfulness.
Gaiman devoted half his time to answering audience questions that were submitted in advance on paper. I had no idea this was an option and can only congratulate the fans who received this privilege. The other half of his time was a delightful literature reading. His complete Indianapolis set list, so to speak:
- “Professor Bananas” – An unpublished all-ages bit of silliness shared with a shout-out to a specific four-year-old in the house that he hoped might appreciate it before she fell asleep, concerning mad-science concoctions comprising seemingly random ingredients, whose side effects become more or less desirable depending on the amount of cherries used.
- “Chivalry” – A short from an old fantasy anthology about a widow who buys the Holy Grail from a thrift shop and loves how it looks on her mantel. It was reprinted in his 1998 Smoke and Mirrors collection and adapted in 2022 into a graphic novel (last month, in fact) with art by Colleen Doran.
- “The Day the Saucers Came” – What if every apocalypse happened on the same day, but you couldn’t be bothered? From his 2006 Fragile Things collection, and adapted into comics by artist Paul Chadwick in The Problem of Susan and Other Stories.
- “Click-Clack the RattleBag” – Much as Gaiman would tell spooky stories to his kids, so does the narrator for his girlfriend’s kid brother. Made-up terrors are demanded, as imaginative kids are wont to do. From his 2015 Trigger Warning collection.
- “Locks” – A celebration of oral storytelling as a loving means of preserving traditions and life lessons for our descendants who need them, particularly those inclined to break into bear families’ houses. Also in Fragile Things, and redone by P. Craig Russell for The Problem of Susan and Other Stories.
- The “October” segment from A Calendar of Tales, one of a dozen stories inspired by Twitter followers and written over three days in 2013 as a promotional project for BlackBerry, then later included in Trigger Warning. In this companion piece to “Chivalry”, a genie awakens from his lamp only to be confounded by a new master who has no need for wishes.
- “What You Need to Be Warm” – A poem constructed from 1000+ responses to a simple Twitter question of his, which became the centerpiece of a 2020 charity fundraiser for refugees worldwide.
- “I will Write in Words of Fire” – A 2012 poem commissioned by a fan for a rather complex tattoo project to be illustrated by David Mack.
So there’s your reading list if you’d like to cozy up with the written words at home. For this night, the joy was in the live performance experience, in hundreds (or more) of listeners enraptured in unison in a singular moment in space-time. There’s a certain magic to be had in poetry reading, or poetically-minded-prose reading, when the poet in question has the dual-wielding proficiency to deliver the words aloud in entertaining fashion, exactly as they imagined them — the cadence, the pauses, the emphases, the precisely timed understatements that spur our double-take responses, and so on. The two-year hiatus from live performance as an art form was unkind for many. Gaiman’s touring contributions to make up for that lost time are highly appreciated.
The Q&A portions between readings covered a variety of topics. An endorsement of old-fashioned fountain pens. The pleasures of working with Terry Pratchett. The awesomeness of libraries and librarians, and the subtly growing insidiousness of unqualified library board members. Which stories may or may not have been inspired by his own life. What he does when he’s written a story off the rails and can’t find his way back on (which he says happened at one point with a deleted American Gods chapter). And more, more, more, with nary a dull moment crept in between.
Then, after a parking lot mass exodus that took me 40 minutes to escape, we had to rejoin the ordinary world and hold onto the poetry of this evening for as long we could, whether in our mind’s eye or in whatever external forms we could best capture it. For most attendees, I’m sure that meant using better tools than MS Paint 3-D.