Sunday, November 18, 2007

Our Visit with Neil: Part III

I'm hearing gunshots outside -- deer hunting season in the Midwestern flatlands (man, it's flat out here -- to this Woodchuck). Here's hoping it's a buck bagged, not a hunter. Our drive yesterday afternoon to Minneapolis was punctuated with guys in their red-and-orange garb with various gauges of firearms, clogging the narrow back roads. Have a beer, grab a rifle, hit the scrubby woods. Ah, there's two more shots, higher gauge, a little further off.

Much to tell, little time to write. We've covered more interview ground with Neil, in his home, in the car, but still there's much to do today before Hank and I wing out of here. Poor Neil -- why did he invite us? He hasn't time for this. He's stretched so thin, I don't know how he does it. Still, he indulges the time we need ungrudgingly, and we have some fun, too. Between it all, in snips and snatches, we catch up on life, too; our sons and daughters, this and that.

Of course, the weekend isn't "ours" -- the world is banging on his door daily. The Fabulous Lorraine keeps it at bay and coherently on-track. Anyway, a few highlights:

Yesterday afternoon, Neil invited Hank and I to join him for lunch in Minneapolis with Jack Zipes, Professor of German at the University of Minnesota. Jack is a marvelous fellow, and in fact one of the world's renowned experts on fairy tales, folklore and children's literature. We hit it off and we all have a fine time, over good food and drink. I'll be firing off some care packages to Jack upon my return home, including illustration materials from my movie still and pressbook collection from fairy tale films (I have a lot of curios from the 1960s Mexican and European fairy tale films, including a gem of a still of the Big Bad Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters). Jack is interested in coming to VT to learn to draw comics at one of the Center for Cartoon Studies summer workshops; I will do all I can to make it happen.

The Fantasy Matters symposium at University of Minnesota was the rest of the focus of the day until 6 PM, for which Neil was reading from his novel currently in progress, The Graveyard Book. Greg Ketter of Dreamhaven Books was set up, allowing Greg and I to catch up a bit (as with Neil, it's been years!) and for me to snap up two of Jack Zipes's books, Spells of Enchantment: The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture and a used but perfect condition copy of the long out-of-print The Outspoken Princess and The Gentle Knight. I shamelessly track down Jack to sign both. I'm leaving Spells out to read on the flight home today. Jack graciously signs my books, then Neil, Jack, Hank, our affable Fantasy Matters guide Casey Hoekstra and I were whisked away for an amazing half-hour in the cavern (!) beneath the University Library, where their mind-boggling archival vaults with one of the world's most expansive collections of children's literature and related arcana (manuscripts, illustrations, author's personal collections -- including Jack's -- etc.) are housed in temperature-and-humidity controlled conditions. By the end of the tour, we've all been suitably blown away and have each made the obligatory Burgess Meredith/Twilight Zone/"if ever there's armageddon, here's where we hope to be" wisecracks to one another. One vast chamber of this stronghold is literally Raiders of the Lost Ark final shot material, and Hank and I are plotting how to get our wives to see this so our respective collections are placed in the proper perspective and the immense reason and rationality of our obsessive behavior is at last understood and a source of great love and affection rather than -- oh, sorry. I'll stop now. Out of the Andromeda Strain subterranean complex, back to the surface, back to the symposium.

Neil's reading goes beautifully, as I'm sure most of them do. The opening chapter to The Graveyard Book is chilling, evocative, delightful, funny -- he has the listeners eating out of his hand. He wraps up with two key points about fantasy in literature, which I won't go into here and now (time's a wasting!), then fields a few questions and gives himself over to the crowd for book signings. After the long line has been moved once to another room and each person (including a lanky pair of identical twin brothers) given time for signatures, sketches (Neil's sketches are great fun, one per book) and photos with fans, Neil opens up to a half-hour chat with the young writers attending, and gives more of himself there. For one of the writers, it means folks are immediately scurrying out to the Dreamhaven booth to buy copies of the writer's new novel. This is a boon for the writer, of course, and thus Neil is giving back to his community, to his younger self. He's in a new space in this, now: older, with such an expansive output and such cumulative celebrity that he is no longer a peer on any level with these young writers -- Neil is to them what Harlan Ellison was to 20-something-year-old Neil when he and Harlan first met, and only a few years shy of Harlan's age at that time. Despite his apparent comfort with this, en route home we talk about his discomfort with this new stage, an unresolvable matter, a new life phase.

Lorraine has an Iron Chef-worthy dinner spread waiting for us. We tuck in and eat, Lorraine joins us, and what a feast. Batteries recharged! Afterwards, Neil has the pressing matters of the day's email, phone, etc. to catch up on; we close the evening with another interview session, all somewhat fried, none more than Neil. Neil's affectionate white shepard Cabell demands our attention at various times; why are we just sitting and talking? Stupid humans. We wrap up. Off to bed.

I awaken and read myself back to sleep twice in the middle of the night: I'm in the upstairs library, books are everywhere, incredible books. Cinema Macabre edited by Mark Morris is the potion; I must eventually buy myself a copy and devour it all, but here it's all I need to get back to sleep.

I drift and dream of this and that -- at one point wandering backstreets of a large town synthesis of Wilmington, Brattleboro (VT) and Dover (NJ), my old Kubert School digs. Maia and Dan are having a BBQ with crocodiles and three people I don't know, eating something wrapped in huge leaves; I wander down the street, and at one point cut through someone's front room to get to the parallel street on the other side. From over a high 15-foot wooden fence, I hear a familiar voice, so I climb up and hang my arms over the top of the wall to chat. Marc Vargas, now thicker (as are we all) but dapper as ever, extols the merits of some new charcoal-based shower system; is he trying to sell me one?

Today, we complete all we can, then hustle back to the airport. Getting here was a peach on Friday, easy as can be every step of the way; today is the Sunday of Thanksgiving week, the busiest day of the year at the airport (or so we were told there on Friday); here's hoping it all sings. Neil's off to the Phillipines tomorrow -- how does he juggle all this? -- but at least he'll be spending time with his son there. For my part, I'd love to be seeing Chris and Connie Golden tonight, and home early enough to drive myself back to Windsor and cuddling with Marge and Tuco and Lizzie before 1 AM (if not, return trip to Windsor tomorrow morning it is).

Wish us luck. Have a great Sunday...

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