The atmosphere of frenzied excitement is almost overwhelming. Hundreds of fans are crammed into a small theatre, chattering with breathless excitement, grinning feverishly and fidgeting with anticipation. Eyes glitter in exuberant expectation as two men walk on to the stage and the theatre erupts in wild screams, shouts and ecstatic cheers. But this isn’t as a result of an A-list actor or singer, this anticipation is for the presence of two authors: Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman.
Few, if any, other authors could hold the same kind of iconic status as Neil Gaiman. With almost 2 million followers on Twitter (@neilhimself), a hoard of devoted subscribers to his blog and writing credits outside his fictional works including Doctor Who and Princess Mononoke – Neil Gaiman commands an immense and passionate fandom, almost like a literary/nerdy One Direction.
The overwhelming adoration for Gaiman and his works resulted in the tour which this evening formed a part of; for the past months the author has been touring the world reading from his new book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, talking about his inspirations and signing his work for swarms of fans. On this occasion Gaiman was joined in conversation by his friend and fellow author Philip Pullman, another mammoth of fiction, mainly noted for the His Dark Materials trilogy, which no doubt formed the foundation of many children’s book shelves.
To any other crowd Philip Pullman would have commanded an absolute fascination and authority, but on this occasion the majority of the audience were utterly fixated on Neil Gaiman. This didn’t, however, hinder the force of conversation between the two, as they exchanged ideas on children’s literature, the power of imagination and the importance of visual elements in stories.
Walking onto the stage Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman are both exactly what you would expect. Gaiman, fantasy and sci-fi writer and fan, lopes onto the stage with an untamed mop of black hair and a faded all-black outfit to match. Pullman, famous for his Oxford connections, wears a beige suit and flamboyant shirt, looking the perfect English gentleman. As the conversation begins, it is clear that despite their contrasting appearances, these men have a lot in common. They talk of their shared love for Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (pausing to mention that the two last met, Gaiman was dressed as Badger) and how both were inspired to write by the children’s authors they encountered when they were young.
Gaiman went on to talk about his love of comics and his adoration of the visual side of story telling, when he was young, he told the audience he had been banned from reading comics at school. Upon the suggestion from his teacher that comics deter reading he responded that he was “the only kid in the school that read comics, and the only one that had read the library… The whole library…”. It was clear from his words that Gaiman is passionate about comics and the visual (he spends award prize money on pieces of art) and the worlds he creates seem imbued with this intense sense of the visual. Ranging further from this, Gaiman was keen to talk on the more intense or philosophical inspirations and influences within his work. He talked of how his fantasy is inspired by science, but in a misunderstood way and that he faces his novels in full belief of their content, embracing the more ethereal and philosophical alongside the scientific and fantastical.
An evening in conversation with these two giants of literature was simply not enough. Throughout the evening there was the distinct sense that the talk could have gone on for hours, neither audience or authors tiring of the chatter. But after a mere hour and a half the conversation drew to a close. Not, however, as a result of theatre time constraints, but because Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman were completing a signing after the show. One in which Gaiman had pledged to remain until everyone who wanted a signature had one. The night before, in Cambridge, this had taken 4 hours, and judging from the queues stretching through the theatre, Oxford would be no different. It is a testament to Gaiman’s respect for his fans, and their reciprocal devotion to him that he undertakes these signings. He is, most certainly, a man who knows how to keep his fans happy.
Hear the conversation online https://soundcloud.com/waterstones/neil-gaiman-and-philip-pullman