Sometimes, you never know where life will take you. Who knew a last minute musical gig involving the Charles In Charge theme song would lead to the apex of fan girl experience? A few lines of “I want Charles in charge of me,” an exchange of weekend plans, and five days later my husband received an invitation to the potluck dinner for the Unchained Tour in Charleston, SC. Along with my visiting partner in Good Girls Gone Geek crime, Proffitt, we were going to dine in the presence of one of our favorite authors of all time. Oh yes, did I mention Neil Gaiman was on the Unchained Tour?
I put myself on verbal lockdown, not mentioning the dinner to anyone who would have the vaguest idea of who Neil Gaiman is. I suppressed any excitement with the constant thought of “I will not believe this is happening until he is standing inches away from me.” The mental self-psych out did work. Until I realized, as the Unchained van was parking in front of the house, that I’d been avoiding thinking about it and therefore hadn’t thought about it and was now in a panic induced state of “What am I going to say to this creator of stories I’ve been reading for over 20 years?” I had a beer and took pictures of some chickens to settle my nerves and rejoiced a little inside that klutzy me fell on my face right before Unchained’s arrival rather than after. I walked inside and passed Neil Gaiman waiting at the end of the line for a plate, I paused one moment and excused myself for having “a fan girl moment.” He pleasantly held out his hand and said “Hi, I’m Neil.” How awesome is that reaction to just mellow out a crazed fan? It actually worked. Or maybe it was just the smooth, familiar voice of The Simpsons dubbed “British Fonzie.” Next thing I knew I referred to him as Mr. Amanda F****** Palmer. Then I ran away for awhile, happy.
As dinner and conversations progressed, it became clear that many of the guests were oddly not aware of who this black-clad British gentleman was. Many were there just to support the spirit of this awesome event or they were from the local music scene, like Rachel Kate Gillon and Joel T. Hamilton who supplied the musical interludes between the Unchained stories. After devouring one of the best dinners ever, I summoned the blind courage to just approach Neil as he was standing alone. Proffitt and I wished to thank him for the effect he has had on our lives. Neil tweeted about us twice last year when we started a reread of Sandman, and was instrumental in getting people other than our friends to read us. I remember saying something to him, with wild hand gestures, about how much impressive “stuff” he has in his head (nervous speak for “brilliant ideas and a vast, various, impressive amount of knowledge”). Neil was gracious, engaging, and supportive and offered to scribble (his word) on something if I had a book of his I wanted signed. Oh did I. He proceeded to design my future headstone on The Graveyard Book. He was also agreeable to posing for a few pictures, and even got the official Unchained photographer, Andrew Von Goellner, to take some as well. It was wonderful to be able to have a few moments with someone we have been faithfully reading for over half of our lives, and in a casual setting as opposed to having a long line of other fans queuing for the same moment.
The Unchained event itself was even more entertaining than the dinner. George Dawes Green founded the Unchained Tour and its mission statement is “Unchained believes that the art of the raconteur—the telling of unscripted, personal, porch-style stories—is one of the great arts, and that nights of storytelling are vital to any vibrant and healthy community. Our mission is to bring brilliant raconteurs, along with musicians and writers and other artists, to towns large and small across the South—and eventually across the continent. We’ll champion the local and homegrown: independent bookstores, community gardens, performing cafes. We’ll advocate getting offline and off the grid, and wherever we go we’ll celebrate the pleasure and inspiration of raconteuring.” George came on stage briefly to preach a mini sermon on the importance of tangible books in the e-reader, electronically obsessed world.
The real emcee of the evening, however, was storyteller Peter Aguero. Peter himself seems to be a rough around the edges guy and his stories gave the feeling they could go raunchy at any moment, but were surprisingly about love- his parents’ and also about his own wife who apparently surprised him by flying into Charleston that day. Dawn J. Fraser spoke of her experience as a Trinidadian California transplant trying to find herself and overcome aggression from her mom’s new dog. Fraser was funny and full of rambunctious energy. Playwrite, stage performer, all around interesting guy Edgar Oliver was the third raconteur. His voice and diction reminded me fondly of Peter Lorre. Oliver spun the longest of the tales and it was filled with fear, love, paranoia and insecurity peppered with laughs and to be honest, some awkward glances between the audience because we refused to believe, despite Peter’s insistence, that was Oliver’s real voice. Rachel Kate Gillon and Joel T. Hamilton provided musical interludes and brought up special local guests Sarah Bandy and Cary Ann Hearst to perform an old hymn. (Hearst has had a song featured at the end of True Blood and you may have seen her serving Anthony Bourdain at Jestine’s Kitchen during his Charleston visit on No Reservations.) The live music was a nice touch, and gave it a more intimate feeling of we’re just sitting on the porch talking together and strumming tonight.
The crowd draw was saved for last. As Aguero introduced Gaiman, he told the crowd to chill out and enjoy the moment because the next storyteller was “just a dude who wrote some stuff about some sand.” Enter Neil Gaiman, who has probably never told a bad story in the last 30 years. Neil said he was going to answer a question for us he did not answer when the New Yorker asked – when he knew he was writer. His original answer was he is a person not a comic book character and does not have an origin story. Neil then said pointedly, “I lied.” He proceeded to narrate in that soothing, smooth voice a childhood memory involving a vulgar rhyme and nearly being kicked out of school which culminated in the f word bringing a realization that words have power. And then the evening was over too soon. Neil was gracious enough to stand at the Captain’s Comics and Toys table and sign autographs for awhile after the show. However, joy and excitement can be so very exhausting, we went straight home to bed (after madly attacking all forms of social media with “Hey guess who we just met!”).
The Unchained Tour is a marvelous thing is this day and age. Even if a story has been told 100 times before, there is an intimacy in sharing it with others in person that makes you feel you are in on something special at the time. It was refreshing to have someone on stage call all of us out for trying to filter experiences through a phone camera lens or computer screen and remind us to unplug and unchain ourselves. I will make a point to keep updated on all things Unchained and I will be there if they come near Charleston. And I must agree with Peter Aguero, to a point. Neil Gaiman seemed very much just a regular dude. But he’s a dude who has written stories that have brought tears to my eyes, intrigued me, scared me, and made me laugh. Sure, he’s just a dude, but he’s one amazing dude. And he’s one polite dude who after the tour tweeted about meeting Proffitt and I and called us wonderful, and funny. Is there a cloud 20? Because we’re so there.
You can read Rachel’s account and see more photos of our evening here.