IN THE POST’S review of Neil Gaiman’s new novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” contributor Keith Donohue wrote that the “slim work” is perhaps best read on “a sultry summer night to savor its wonder and nostalgia.”
Last Friday, as if made to order, more than a thousand Gaiman fans got that very sultry summer night, and so they spent hours in the author’s star-dusted presence, savoring every page of that slim and enchanting work.
If this was perhaps their last chance to meet Gaiman, let alone have him sign their books, they were going to make it special. Because after this tour, as many of them knew, the British writer is all but retiring his right arm. Oh, he may do the occasional “ninja signing” at a bookstore, or pre-sign some books, but Gaiman wrote on his blog last December that he thinks this will be “the last actual signing tour I ever do.”
“So I’m going to try and make this tour the glorious last U.S. book signing tour, and then stop doing book signing tours for good.”
And so, as if by pilgrimage, they arrived at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium to listen to his talk, which was hosted by Politics & Prose bookstore. Dressed in black blazer and T-shirt, his hair and pants alike a dusty black-gray, Gaiman took the stage shortly after 7 p.m. to rock-star whoops. The author acknowledged the Gaiman-lookalike puppet perched in the front rows, but joked that he declined to bring it onstage, lest it spawn “some odd Internet meme.”
Gaiman spoke for about an hour, reading twice from “Ocean” (both times to a whisper-quiet house) and running through an index-card stack of questions with rapid-fire wit and warmth. Then, he said, it was time to begin that final signing, autographing the fans’ books until his arm fell off.
Someone quickly “whoop!”-ed at that announcement.
Don’t whoop, Gaiman replied, deadpan. The proper response to his arm falling off was not a whoop; this was an occasion for feeling his pain. And so a packed house of nearly 1,500 “Ahhh’d,” and Gaiman remarked that he had no idea Washington, D.C. was capable of so much sympathy.
Then the writer disappeared for a while, only to return with his excalibur of choice: an amber-barreled Pilot 823 fountain pen. Now, not long after 8 p.m., an entirely different experience was about to begin:
Alice Olmstead began reading “Ocean” during her Metro ride to Lisner. Given the high number on her ticket, she knows there’s no need to line up for hours yet. So she, like hundreds of others, settles into her seat. The auditorium doors are wide open, and from inside, as night falls, you can smell the tendrils of evening air.
Olmstead, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Maryland in College Park, returns to delving into “Ocean.”
“I was lost in Neil's book, then listened to Neil speak, then went back to being lost in Neil's book,” Olmstead tells Comic Riffs.
(Gaiman engenders that kind of warmth among his fans — they most all call him “Neil.”)
The throngs get comfortable. Compared with many tired-foot lineups for signings, there’s a striking lack of agitation and antsy-ness. The seats are still mostly filled, as if Lisner were just one large lecture hall, and the mostly under-30 audience were waiting patiently for a turn with the professor.
Michael Dougherty is also biding his time with no sense of hurry. The Annapolis man has a ticket number of “1,429,” he says.
He enjoyed the author’s reading. Then, he says, comes “the signing, and my utmost respect for Neil Gaiman, began.”
The fans line up scores at a time. Multiple women are wearing skeleton-themed dresses. One young woman, by request, gets an embrace from the author, who seemingly takes time to look into most every fan’s eyes, often offering a “Hello.”
Time after time, there are at least several seconds of connection.
After a couple of hours, the called ticket number reaches the 300’s.
At about midpoint, Gaiman needs to refill his Pilot 823. Out comes a bottle of the cherry-colored Noodler’s Ink. Soon, he’s again ready to write past midnight.
“I watched a pageantry of emotions as people had their items signed and left,” Dougherty says later.
Shortly after 11 p.m., there are still hundreds in their seats, many with their heads still deep into “Ocean.”
Gaiman, who had removed his black blazer, now works in the physical freedom of a simple ‘T.’
The writer talks. The clock tocks.
It's nearing midnight. The event began on the summer solstice. If it now feels like the longest night, no one in line can be heard to complain.
“When I got the bittersweet satisfaction of reading the last sentence [of ’Ocean’], I went up and had an admittedly very tired Neil sign my book,” Olmstead says.
Dougherty is the sixth-to-last person in line. Shortly after midnight, it’s his turn.
“I was totally prepared for Neil to be tired, curt, and ready to move us along, but he was friendly, jovial, amazingly polite, and thanked each person for their patience,” Dougherty tells Comic Riffs. “I have seen celebrities give less effort to their fans, but Neil Gaiman made every one feel like we were appreciated.”
Olmstead, the astronomy student, calls the night “magical.”
“All in all,” she says, “a great way to spend a Friday night.”
Dougherty echoes that sentiment.
“I waited four hours to meet the man and have him sign my book,” he says. “After this experience, I would gladly wait 10.”
But of course, Washington likely will never have this signing experience again, at least with Gaiman.
The summer solstice has given way to Saturday, and the seats have emptied. The British writer will take his Pilot 823 and Noodler’s cherry to the next American city, where he will again sign books till his arm “falls off.”
Let’s hope, for his sake, every city is as sympathetic as D.C.