where the writers are
A Letter to Neil Gaiman

Dear Neil,

We’ve met once, you and me, at your Blueberry Girl reading at Books of Wonder last March.  You wouldn’t remember me, and I certainly wouldn’t expect you to; I realized being one of your fans was going to be an entirely different cup of meat than, say, meeting one of my favorite ‘zine publishers when I saw some two hundred people lined up along West 18th Street like they were waiting for Madonna tickets at Madison Square Garden.  However, as the three hundred sixty-fifth person in line, a nervous little peon in striped tights, meeting you was one of those experiences about which I like to say “I can’t wait to tell the foster grandchildren about this someday.” Your exhaustion was rising off you like steam – I would later find out your dad had died that morning – but you were lovely and gracious.  We chatted about mutual acquaintances who’d studied with you at the Clarion Writers’ Conference.  Trying my hand at sci-fi or speculative fiction for the express purpose of studying with you is, as I understand it, precisely what one is not supposed to do as a writer, but if you are as kind and thoughtful an instructor as you seem to be in your everyday life, I’d happily chuck propriety out the window in exchange for the opportunity.

I’ve never been much of a sci-fi/spec fiction reader either, to tell you the truth. Reality has always been something of a mind screw for me. Coping with the aftermath of growing up in the Bible Belt with a seriously loopy mother is challenging enough without delving into mythical realms populated by gnomes and gargoyles and maidens fair. So until a couple of years ago, you sort of bounced around the periphery of my reading life.  I recognized you from the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab ads in BUST magazine; I had a few friends who really dug The Sandman and insisted I would, too. I filed you and your considerable body of work under “later, maybe.” I hope you’ll forgive me.

The summer one of my aforementioned acquaintances was studying with you at Clarion, I was shuttling back and forth between Brooklyn and Pittsburgh, watching my deeply adored grandmother die of cancer. That particular mind screw was more like a rusty bolt hammered into my sternum. My grandmother was one of the few people I’d known who’d ever fully embraced me, warts, tantrums, and all.  She genuinely wanted me to be happy, but I don’t recall her ever commanding me to act cheerful when I didn’t feel like it (or, for that matter, suggest I shouldn’t wear so much black) like many other people in my family.  Seeing her shriveled and mostly bald in her deathbed felt like having the top of my skull whapped off. Without her, I felt, anyone would be free to get their filthy hands on my brain and remake me into the sort of unimaginative, superficially cheerful nonentity I’d always longed not to be.

Grammy was a devout Catholic – the kind who supported abortion rights and laughed at the song “Every Sperm is Sacred,” but devout nonetheless.  She firmly believed after she died, she’d be up in heaven with the Blessed Mother and all her other beloved saints. I’m mostly an atheist, but I like to think she is, too.  I also like to think her spirit entered mine after she died.  It was more likely a psychological response along the lines of Hans Selye’s stress model, but something momentous happened to me on the trip back from her funeral.  It was a rainy day, cool for late August, and some combination of the weather and the dark, fably energy of the funeral mass gave permission to quit trying to perk myself up, if you will, and while I wasn’t quite ready to embrace the moody, sardonic person my grandmother had loved so much, I was at least able to return to the part of me that had always, at some level, equated that dark, fably energy with safety and love.

That’s what led me to pull you and your writing out of the “later, maybe” file. For maybe two months after my grandmother died, you were one of the few authors I was able to read without bawling my brains out.  I read the first chapter of American Gods on your website and sprinted to Borders to buy my own copy as soon as I’d finished with work.  On days off, I’d make a pot of coffee and read it for over an hour before going on the Internet and reading your blog for another couple of hours. It was my way of still being with my grandmother while reassuring myself that her death didn’t mean there were no more safe, loving places. It didn’t matter that the gods were mostly pagan; I’ve always felt there was a fine line between Catholicism and paganism anyway, and the technicalities weren’t anywhere near as important to me as “nourishing my soul,” as Michael Chabon said in the blurb on the book jacket, by immersing myself in this rich, visceral landscape that shifted so effortlessly between the mystical and life on terra firma.

In a similar vein, I suppose it’s something of a transgression to claim you and your writing afforded and continue to afford me a safe haven.  I know you from your books and your blog and would feel distinctly uncomfortable attempting to befriend you in the effortless, unselfconscious way I’ve come to make friends with others who adore your work as much as I do.  You probably know that most of us who queue up for hours at your readings are a rather neurotic bunch, always ducking those who’d sooner have us neat and clean and well-behaved.  So we find each other, and fall in like and sometimes in love, and we use your words to transform our own and to build places where we can be safe and happy.  Maybe that’s not so much a transgression as it is reaping the benefits of your imagination and your generosity.  In any case, and on behalf of my fellow fans who aren’t so exhibitionist as to write an open letter to you, I thank you many, many times over for both.


Karla Keffer