- Katey Psencik American-Statesman Staff
The privilege of being Neil Gaiman is that every word he speaks sounds profound the moment it leaves his lips.
In Austin on Thursday, an audience member posed the question, “How do you get your hair to do that?”
The 56-year-old “American Gods” author slowly, simply explained that it just is that way — and the audience soaked it up. It was the beginning of an evening that he promised would be a little lighter than his last appearance in Austin, which came on the heels of the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015.
“Last time I was here was very strange and slightly dark ... tonight I will aim towards the upbeat,” he told the Long Center crowd, before pulling out a stash of notecards upon which fans had asked questions ranging from the hair inquiry to advice on writing and editing to what it was like working with legendary authors Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams.
Adams, who wrote “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” was the subject of Gaiman’s 2009 book “Don’t Panic,” widely lauded as the definitive companion to Adams’ classic novel. Gaiman said the author was definitively one of the smartest people he’d ever met and had likely predicted the rise of e-books “about a decade” before Kindles and Nooks came onto the market.
“He said, ‘Books will be fine. Books are sharks. There were sharks before there were dinosaurs and there are still sharks. And that’s because nothing came along that’s better at being a shark than a shark.’”
Gaiman’s gentle profundity shone through in the most subtle moments: When he pulled pen after pen out from his coat pocket, demonstrating how he used a different color each day to track his progress when he was working on a novel; when he shared a story about the time his then-2-year-old son rode a tricycle around a cemetery and inspired “The Graveyard Book”; when he discussed the time his then-4-year-old daughter climbed into his lap and dictated a story to him about coming home to discover her mother wasn’t actually her mother (the story that inspired “Coraline”); when he said that having cats keeps him humble because “cats don’t think you’re anything special.”
Gaiman, whose latest work “Norse Mythology” is one of the best selling books of the year, is known for surprising his audiences with readings from his wide range of works — as he told the American-Statesman in June, he doesn’t decide what he’s going to read until the day of the show, based on how he’s feeling that day or based on questions he receives from the audience.
Thursday night’s first reading was from “Norse Mythology,” a story titled “Freya’s Unusual Wedding” in which Thor is forced to dress as a woman to get his hammer back from an ogre who had stolen it. The compilation of stories about the great Norse myths are interspersed with Gaiman’s quick wit and unique style, despite the fact that he says it took him about eight years to finish the book, writing mostly between other projects.
His second reading, which captured the muggy, somewhat rainy July mood in Austin perfectly, was from his “Calendar of Tales” published in 2015’s “Trigger Warning.” The calendar came out of a 2013 partnership with BlackBerry, when he tweeted 12 questions to his followers (one for each month), picked his favorite answers and wrote 12 short stories inspired by them. The July story, inspired by a tweet about “an igloo made of books,” could be interpreted as an allegory for escaping into a world of reading when times are hard, something that Gaiman fans identify with strongly. When Gaiman read the line about books in the shapes of bears, “filled with words that could wound with their beauty,” it felt like he was speaking about his own works.
Other readings included deleted scenes from “Good Omens,” the coming-soon television adaptation of his novel co-written with Terry Pratchett about “an angel and a demon trying to avert the apocalypse,” as well as “Adventure Story” from “Trigger Warning.” He ended with a poem called “The Day The Saucers Came,” which can only be described as a sci-fi love poem that Gaiman says is read a lot at weddings, which “baffles and delights me,” before coming back for an encore reading of “In Relig Odhráin,” a poem he penned about the story of Saint Columba and Oran, the first Christian to be buried on the island of Iona, “a little poem about murder.” And after an evening of levity and laughter, Gaiman retreated into the darkness.