Monday, October 6, 2008

National Book Festival

I wasn't going to post this until after Christmas (you'll see why if you read on), but Debi has made it sound as if I can. Elder son asked way back in the summer if someone would take him to the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, on September 27. Neil Gaiman was on the program, and elder son really wanted to hear him speak even if it meant getting there super-early to stand in line and wait. At the time younger son agreed to handle the driving. (Younger son is 18 and has a driver's license; elder son is 20 and has a learner's permit.)

Fast forward to the week before the National Book Festival, and younger son decided he'd rather go to the Vegetarian Festival here in Charlottesville than the Book Festival in DC. Not wanting to see older son heartbroken, I agreed to take him. I will be honest here and say up front that at the time I had never read a word by Neil Gaiman. I'd been meaning to, after hearing both sons extol Neil's writing, and after reading several of Debi's reviews. I did get Neverwhere (the local Barnes and Noble was out of American Gods and start to read it Tuesday of that week, but that was as far as I'd gotten. When Don and I were talking on Tuesday night about our upcoming adventure on Saturday, I mentioned that I could get a book signed, too. He suggested that I could get one signed for Annie, so I shot a quick e-mail to Debi and asked whether I could do that--was there a Neil Gaiman book that she and Rich would like to give Annie for Christmas that I could take up and get inscribed? She replied the next day that they would love to give Annie a copy of Coraline, so I picked that up Wednesday night.

Saturday morning, older son and I left the house at 7:00, drove to Vienna, where we hopped on the Metro. We were on the Mall at about 10:00. Neil was speaking from 11:45 to 12:15 and signing from 1:00 to 3:00. As we approached the area where the Book Festival was, we could see a line that may have been a quarter of a mile long waiting to pass though a medical detector, bag search, and other security. We started to get a bit nervous about spending the day in the security line. Luckily, a chat with someone in the line revealed that this was the line to get into the children's tent, where Laura and Jenna Bush were speaking and signing. Neil was going to be in the teens and childrens tent, and we could walk through the children's tent security line and straight into that tent. We got seats in the back, and listened to the end of the first talk, by Judith Viorst. When people left after her talk, we grabbed two seats in the front row, and sat through two more talks by people we'd never heard of but who were still somewhat interesting. It also gave me the chance to see what kind of photo ops I might have with the 10X zoom lens on my digital camera. The picture here is of the speaker who preceded Neil, Joseph Bruchac.

By the time Neil came on, the tent was packed to the gills. He told some great stories including that The Graveyard Book is one of the few books for which he can say very definitively how he got the idea. He also told about the two books inspired by his children (Wolves in the Wall, and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish). He read part of The Graveyard Book and answered some questions. Very, very entertaining and, yes, for those of you who might be wondering, very, very pleasant to gaze at and listen to. As you can see in the photos, he was dressed in his usual black jeans, black t-shirt, and black leather jacket. He was also wearing black leather shoes that I almost took a photo of but didn't. They looked somewhat clunky, but comfortable, like the sort of shoes I like. They also looked as if they might add an inch to his height, though I have no idea if that was the intent.

After the talk ended, older son and I hustled to the book sale tent and scored three copies of The Graveyard Book. It actually wasn't released until the following Tuesday (September 30), but the publisher had agreed to let copies be sold in conjunction with Neil's appearance at the Festival. I don't know how many copies they had on sale, but they sold out while we were standing in line to pay for ours. Of course, we saw a couple of people with six or more copies in their arms, but perhaps they were buying for friends who were holding places in the signing line.

As for the signing line, that's where we hustled to from the book sale tent. We arrived there at 12:45 and were directed to the end of a line. We were thinking that we weren't all that far back in line which was good. About that time, though, we realized that the line to our right was also a Neil Gaiman line as was the line to its right. It turned out that we were in the fifth Neil Gaiman line. We were initially told that he would sign three things for each person. Fine, we decided. I could get Coraline signed for Annie, one copy of The Graveyard Book signed for Debi, and another signed for me. Older son could get Sandman signed for himself, American Gods signed for younger son, and another book signed for a teenaged friend of mine who goes to the College of William and Mary. Not too much later, as the seventh line was filling up, they announced that it would be one item per person. (Oh, yeah, I didn't mention that Neil had a broken finger on his right hand, the middle finger, in one of those funky metal braces.) I decided then and there that my one item would be Coraline for Annie. Much as I would have liked to have something signed by Neil Gaiman (I had been reading The Graveyard Book in line and was greatly enjoying it), I knew that it would be even more special for Annie to have something.

So we stood. We sat. Don lay down and slept for a while. I read half of The Graveyard Book before it started to drizzle. We stood up. Drizzle changed to rain. Rain changed to hard rain at an angle. We waited, by this time watching lines two and three move forward. At 3:00, they stopped letting people get in line and announced that Neil would be staying until at least 5:00; they later announced that he would stay until everyone in line by 3:00 had been seen. We watched line four move. Eventually, line five started to move. By this time it had stopped raining, and there was a rainbow that put the pot of gold in, of all places, the U.S. Capitol. I found this somewhat appropriate given that this was the weekend right after the first attempt at a Wall Street bailout had failed.

Finally, four hours after we got in line, we got up to the signing table. Neil was joking and thanking people for waiting for him in the rain. I handed over Coraline, with a card inside saying "Annie" (we had been directed to do this so that he didn't have to ask how to spell the name). I told him, though, that I wasn't Annie, so please don't write something like "thanks for waiting." He asked who Annie was, and I told him she was my cousin. He commented that she must be pretty special if I was having the book signed for her and not myself. I said that she certainly was special, that she had used National Novel Writing Month last year to write a 50,000 word novel at the age of 10. "She IS very special then," he said as he drew ... a mouse ... and autographed it.

Then Don got his book signed, and we headed back down the mall to the Metro station. We took the Metro back to Vienna, hopped in the car. After picking up food to eat on the way home (we hadn't eaten since breakfast in the car on the way up), we got home around 8:30. It was a very long day, but a great time. It was also a long day for Neil. According to his blog, at about 5:00 he took his pen and just moved down the line signing a book for everyone. The National Book Festival estimated that he signed for 1,400 people. Wow!

As for why this wasn't supposed to be published until after Christmas, well, as Debi put it, she and Rich "caved" and gave Annie her book early. I can't say I blame them. I probably would have given it early, too.


Debi said...

Oh, I'm so excited that you got a chance to post this...I cannot wait until Annie gets home and I can show it to her! I wanted her to get the full story from you. Thank you again, so very, very much!

Great photos, by the way!

Debi said...

Oh, and something's up with your post...the first couple paragraphs repeat themselves.

Jean said...


I think I've fixed the repeat text--thanks for alerting me! I think it happened while I was inserting the photos. It never wants to put the photos where I click, so I have to cut and paste the html code. I guess some other text went along for the ride.

Nymeth said...

What a sweet story! You did such a sweet thing for Annie. And of course, she more than deserves it, because like even Neil Gaiman says, she is very special indeed!

Also, you took some great pictures. Thank you for sharing :)

Anonymous said...

That is so wonderful!

Neil Gaiman is my Writer Crush so of course I would think it's wonderful!

Debi said...

I can't tell you how excited I was when I found out about it, Jean! It was sooo nice that you got a book for me instead of one for you...Thank you very very very very very very much!


Lis Garrett said...

Oh, how very sweet of you to do such nice thing for Annie!

Heather J. said...

WOW! What a wonderful thing to do! I followed the link from Debi's blog so I could read the whole story.

Caroline M said...

What a lovely thing to do. I stood in line for two hours (indoors, out of the rain) for the Yarn Harlot to sign my book and I thought that was a wait (she knew my name, it was worth it)

Dewey said...

This is a great story! And Neil sounds awfully gracious for someone who'd been signing books for hours and hours!