In my experience going to conventions I have had the pleasure to meet some rather famous people. None so famous as Brad Pitt or Justin Bieber, but well know in their circles. It is all about finding your people, I think. If you only have 5,000 fans in the world, you will still be given star treatment if 4,000 of them show up at the event you are attending.
There is a strange patina about fame. It affects the way people see you. The way they perceive you. And the way they treat you. I know this. I have been on the fan side enough times to notice the pounding of the heart, the light-headedness, that comes on at the prospect of meeting your hero. It is not an accident that fans say stupid things, and I hope that famous people realize this: we are not idiots; it is just that all the blood has gone out of our brains in our excitement, and we can no longer operate rationally.
Probably the best advice I ever got for dealing with famous people came from a man who, in his own way, has a devoted following of his own. He gave a long and humorous account of the do’s and don’ts of meeting celebrities, but it basically boiled down to this: Be polite. Be aware of personal space. Be hygienic. Be brief.
Having these parameters in my head has helped me a lot. They can allow me to lay out my conversation in advance, so that when the time comes I can switch over to auto-pilot, taking the controls of my body and mouth firmly away from my oxygen-deprived brain.
So, I suppose, that is the first lesson when meeting famous people: Be polite. Be aware of personal space. Be hygienic. Be brief. Let me break that down for you:
Be polite: this should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people think sending cockroaches to Uncle Kage or boxes of sand to Neil Gaiman is a good idea. Same goes for face-to-face meetings. Be. Polite. Don’t try to be clever, or witty, or that fake standoffishness that only says “yeah, I bet you get so many people being nice to you, you just ignore all of them! Well, you can’t ignore me, I’m being rude.” It gets old. Fast. Just be respectful and sincere. They seem to like that. And if you can’t be respectful and sincere, why are you talking to this celebrity? Don’t bother talking to celebrities you don’t like!
Be aware of personal space: When providing first aid, according to California Law, you must receive consent before you make physical contact with a victim. Either from the victim themselves, or their legal guardian (if they are under age.) (A state of unconsciousness, once determined, is considered implicit consent, FYI.) I like to think of famous people the same way. Not in the bleeding out on the pavement/must perform CPR on them way, but in the sort of way that they probably receive a lot more surprise physical attention than you or I. So I like to ask “May I shake your hand/hug/high-five you?” first. Who knows, they may have a broken hand and you don’t know this.
Be hygienic: do you want a strange-smelling stranger coming up and breathe cabbage fumes on you while you sign their book? I did not think so. Go take a shower. Wear deodorant. For bonus points, wash your hands first.
Finally, be brief: Famous people, it seems, are always busy. Maybe it is because there are so many people who want to talk to them. So do the courteous thing, and be brief. Go up, say your hellos and your “it’s such an honor”s, offer to buy them a drink later, maybe ask them that one burning question you could not do over email or through their agent. Then respectfully remove yourself.
I know (I know) how tempting it can be to have long, intimate conversations with your famous person. You know so much about them, it’s like you practically know each other all ready! But here’s the thing: they don’t know you. It is impossible—impossible!—to develop an intimate friendship with someone over a crash barrier. So don’t try. Get in, pay your respects, get out. If they think you are interesting, they will come and find you. They can do this, I know (I know).
If I sound a bit didactic here, I apologize. I’m writing this down as much as for my future edification as anything else. It covers what to do in those situations where you know you’re going to be meeting your idol face to face. Places like stage doors, book signings, panels at conventions, that sort of thing. But here is what I have learned: these are all bad places to meet famous people. Here, from my own experience, are some examples of good ways to meet famous people.
I have been a fan of 2, the Ranting Gryphon for some time now. When we first met, at AnthroCon in 2009, I was so nervous coming up to his dealer’s table that I couldn’t say anything at first. I had to pretend I was wondering which of his DVDs to buy. Then he saw my name tag (we had been having an email correspondence ever since I started doing covers for his web show), and he insisted I come around and give him a hug.
Actually talking to 2 at AnthroCon is a very difficult thing. He is a very busy man… er, gryphon… and even in the subsequent years when we shared a table I hardly got to talk to him at all. This was because just about everyone at the convention wanted to talk to him. He has a stand up comedy act that he does in the evening, and they give him the biggest ballroom in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh. And it fills up. It’s crazy. The first time I saw him live I had to fight my way through crowds of thronging fans just to touch him on the elbow and say “good work, man!”
I didn’t actually get to know him, really, until a few months later. We were both attending the Midwest FurFest outside Chicago, and one evening I heard a familiar voice outside in the hall. Not really believing my ears I threw open the door and there was 2 standing in the hall with his roommates. It turned out he was in the room right next to ours. They were adjoining rooms, two, with one-sided doors between them. He opened his door, I opened mine, and we proceeded to have a conjoined room party for the rest of the weekend. We talked, we laughed (a lot of laughing; he is a very funny man), we watched cartoons and drank whisky. Well, he drank whisky, I drank Sprite. We’d go out to the con and he’d get mobbed by fans, and then we’d go back to the room and hang out.
By Monday we had exchanged cell phone numbers and were texting each other all the way home. Shortly thereafter he moved out to California, and I drive down to visit him every six months or so. We are (and I am still amazed when I hear myself say this) friends.
Now, 2 is sort of a special case. Outside the furry fandom practically no one knows him. Inside, however (and there are a lot of people inside) he is a star. And I think if we hadn’t had the dumb luck to have been thrown in next to each other that weekend in November, we wouldn’t be the friends we are today.
Luck. It’s all about the luck. I have always contended I’d rather meet celebrities on even ground, where you can have an actual conversation, but to do that you have to get lucky.
My Wonderful Mother is a bigger fan of Connie Willis than I am. But I am still a very big fan. The nice thing about Connie Willis is that she looks like the Good Grandmother, so it is nearly impossible to get nervous around her. Second, you don’t have to worry about keeping your conversations short, because she will take the reins and drive. She is a very funny woman, and you only need to seed the conversation and she’ll be off. Probably about Primeval, but who cares.
I got to meet her (briefly) at the Friday night signing at WFC this year. I gave her a drawing I had done that afternoon: it was a portrait of her, surrounded by little illustrations of things she had talked about in her panels. When I showed it to her she practically squealed, and had to point out every last thing I had put in. She recognized them all, which was very gratifying to me. By the time I bumped into her in the ladies room on Sunday my heart was hardly pounding at all. We stood side by side and washed our hands. I asked her how she was doing. She said she was tired, but having fun. I told her she was doing a great job (which she was). She said thanks.
But I did not ask about Primeval.
Tamora Pierce is a writer I have only recently discovered, and I wish I had discovered her earlier. I had a book called The Dragon Book, which is a collection of dragon-related short stories by various authors. I got it because there was one story in it by the late great Diana Wynne Jones that I had never read, but also in it were some rather good ones by Garth Nix, Peter S. Beagle, and Tamora Pierce. So on Friday night I went around the author’s signing room, getting them to sign their stories.
Except Tamora Pierce was not there. Her table was, with her card on top, but she wasn’t. No problem, I thought, she was on a panel the next day. I could go to the panel, and afterwards I could discreetly come up, compliment her, and ask her to sign my book.
It turned out I was not the only one to have this idea, and after the panel let out I found myself spontaneously organizing the Impromptu Tamora Pierce Signing.
Tamora Pierce is a wonderful woman: she is directly, honest, and blunt to a point. She is opinionated, but we seem to share the same opinions, so that is all right. I liked her immensely just from reading her short story, and I liked her even more from seeing her on the panel. And I liked her enough, after she signed her story to my stuffed dragon, Dafydd, to go straight over to the dealer’s room and purchase a book of her own short stories.
“I’ll just put the dust flap over the title page,” the nice lady at the register said to me, “so she can sign it for you.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I’ll see her again this convention,” I sighed. “It’s okay, she already signed one of my books.That’s enough…”
I turned to leave, and there, across the aisle, coming out of the Art Show, was Tamora Pierce.
I nearly skipped over to her, holding the book. I got to tell her, then, about how much I liked her stories, how much it meant that there were other authors putting good, strong girls in their books. And, to my surprise, she seemed actually interested in what I did.
“Comics,” I said, and pointed at my exhibit in the art show, which contained eight paintings of Shakuro in various positions of badassitude. She seemed to like that quite a lot. She took a flyer. I went away dancing on clouds.
And I did not see her again for the rest of the con.
But the most difficult person of all was, without a doubt Neil Gaiman. Mr Gaiman, it turns out, is something of a rock star among writers. I knew this going in, yet I was still under the naive impression that, surely, after one of his many panels, readings, or signings, I could snatch a few moments to say hi. Tell him I liked his blog. Maybe commiserate about Diana Wynne Jones a little. Wouldn’t take thirty seconds. I’d be polite, respect personal space, I’d wash my hands, and above all I’d be brief.
It turns out that Neil Gaiman has some sort of tractor beam installed in his chest that attracts rabid fans bearing books to be signed. Whenever he gets off a panel he is immediately mobbed by a crowd by at least ten people (usually more) holding their books open above their heads as if they were playing at them being birds. I felt this was in rather poor taste, since it had been announced that Mr Gaiman would be signing books for three hours on Friday evening. Each person would be allowed three books at a time, and then they could get back in the line if they wanted (though they didn’t guarantee you’d go around again).
Recalling the rules from the David Tennant+Catherine Tate signing I attended earlier this year (which is an entirely different story), which were: One item per person; Only one shot; nothing unrelated to the event (a production of Much Ado About Nothing); and no grabbing. The stars would be let out for ten minutes, and then they would be off to dinner.
Compared to that, I found Mr Gaiman’s arrangement quite generous. It meant that, between my Wonderful Mother and I, we could get all 4 volumes of our illustrated edition of Stardust signed.
The signing was to begin at 8 pm. The line began forming three hours before that, in the form of a quirky lady who seemed to be under the impression that the Neil Gaiman signing was the only thing going on at Friday Night’s mass signing. We had to explain to her (while we waited for our panel, which started in half an hour), that, no, it would not be just Neil Gaiman. All the published authors attending World Fantasy would be there, and have their own tables. She blinked at us, widely, as if you say other authors?
My mother and I exchanged nervous looks.
We had a hurried dinner that night, having grown paranoid at the prospect of the line. We wanted to be near the front, since we did in fact have other authors we wanted to see. We got in the line at about 7, behind thirty or so other people. I had drawn a picture for Mr Gaiman, the sister of the one I had done for Connie Willis. It was a portrait of him, surrounded by illustrations from the stories he had read from earlier that day. The portrait came out quite good, and I was looking forward to seeing his reaction. I figured a signing is not a bad place to give someone a drawing. They are sitting behind a desk, presumably they have some sort of bag they could put it in. So when I saw the organizers of the signing coming through, explaining the rules to us (again), I went over and asked if it would be okay to do this.
I was told (a little sharply) no. No you cannot give him anything. There could be water spilt on it. It will get lost. It’s going to be crazy.
I stared at the lady, a little blankly. They had let me hand Catherine Tate a drawing, over the crash barrier, in the packed chaos of that signing. I think she handed it off to one of her assistants.
Still, you do not mess with Neil Gaiman signing organizers. So I nodded and asked that, if it was going to be so crazy, could I perhaps give it to one of them to give to him later.
No, that would not work either. They would not be seeing much of Mr Gaiman outside the signing.
What then, I asked through a strained grin, would it take for me to give him this small gift?
A heavy sigh. I could give it to his assistant, Cat Mihos. If she wasn’t too busy.
Fortunately Cat Mihos was not too busy. She was hanging out by Mr Gaiman’s table, chatting with a friend. As soon as my books were on the table I went over and presented her with a drawing I had done on the spot for her, and the one I did for Mr Gaiman. She accepted her gift graciously, and promised my drawing would be safely delivered. I turned back and found my books had been signed, and Neil Gaiman was already talking to the third person in line behind me.
I didn’t care. I had successfully handed off my picture. I had my signed books. I was free to wander the mass signing. Besides, I could always try to catch him later and ask him if her had got the picture after one of his panels. That couldn’t be too much, could it?
Turned out it was. This was when I began to really notice the Sea of Open Books that greeted him after every panel. Considering the limited attendance to World Fantasy, I wondered that there were still people who hadn’t had a book signed by him. Or, how many books any one person needed him to sign. As I have stated before, I think three is a generous number.
So there I was, standing next to Emma Bull after the In Memoriam event for Diana Wynne Jones, and I saw one of Gaiman’s (many) assistants hovering next to me. I turned to him to say hi. Ask how his weekend had been. I had my mouth open to say these things when he turned to me sharply and said, pointing at Neil Gaiman, “Not now. We have somewhere we need to get him.”
Blankness. I pointed at Emma Bull and said, a little defensively, “I’m with her.” (And in my defense, we had just been having a conversation.)
My poor mother had to hear me complain about this all through dinner. By the walk back to our room, however, I had cooled down considerably. I was cheerfully anticipating the Art Show reception which was to happen later that evening.
The hotel that hosted World Fantasy was a resort of some kind. Inside was a maze of twisting roads, trellised roses, and dark curving alleys. As we passed one of these alleys I spotted two men, standing close together, talking in low voices. One of them was all in black. I was put immediately in mind of a pair of vampires, plotting. Though probably not plotting anything too sinister. As we passed I thought the one in black looked quite familiar.
“Oh look, there he is,” said my mother loudly, excitedly. She waved at the men. “Hi Neil!”
For it was Neil Gaiman. Lurking in a dark alley. Talking to a man I later learned was Greg Kettel.
I stopped. I turned around. I looked around warily for any assistants who might be hiding in the shrubbery, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting fans. Cautiously, I asked if I could come over and say hi.
Neil Gaiman looked surprised. “You can always come over and say hi,” he said, kindly.
So I did. I asked if I could shake his hand; he shook mine. We talked about pointless things like twitter and the art show. I told him I liked his blog.
Neil Gaiman is possessed of a particular kind of gregarious charm that I have found in only two other people on the planet. It is the kind of charm that makes you immediately relaxed and bubbling over with happiness.
It wasn’t until I was back up in the room that I realized I had forgot to ask if he had gotten my picture.
There was a second Neil Gaiman signing on Sunday morning, from 10 to 11:30. I went over to see what the line was like, and to laugh, and got shanghaied by a fan who was looking for extra people to get her books signed. For it was a two-book limit, with no second go-arounds (yet).
I agreed to this simply because I wanted to ask if he had actually got my picture, and I figured this would be my best shot at talking to him, short of another miraculous encounter in a dark alley.
I quickly learned that there are two types of Neil Gaiman fans: there are the intelligent, well-read fans who like him to a reasonable degree, and there are the ones who are completely nutters. I was stuck with two nutters who had ten books they wanted signed, even after the Friday night bonanza. They were upset, as they had not been allowed to go through the line twice. They had been held back while other people who just showed up got let in!
“So, how long have you been a fan?” the husband asked me.
I blinked. Told them I had discovered Gaiman through Coraline.
“Ah,” he said loftily. “So you discovered him right when he was getting real famous. See, we knew him back when he was our Neil.”
Now, if I had had my wits about me I could have pointed out that, if they had been fans for so long, why hadn’t they gotten their books signed by him back before he was a rock star, hmm? Or I could have been really clever and quoted a piece of Sandman at them. The part where Dream tells a serial killer his victim belongs to no one but herself.
As it was I am just pleased I resisted the initial urge to beat them over the head with the first edition hardback of American Gods they had given me.
Then the signing began and we were let in. And there was Neil Gaiman, haggard and baggy-eyed, but still cheerfully signing away. When it got to be my turn I handed the books over and went down on one knee. I said hi. Neil looked up, and to my surprise actually seemed to recognize me. I asked him if he got my drawing.
“Oh, was it the one with me and all the—” he flapped a hand expressively.
“—stuff,” I finished. “Yeah, that one.”
He had got it. He liked it very much. I took the books and went away happy. You see, I had sent a painting to him, years ago, and never heard back. I wasn’t sure if this was just because he was obscenely busy, or if it had gotten lost somehow. With this picture, at least, I know it reached its final destination.
The woman who had shanghaied me earlier ran up and took her books back, then trotted over to join the end of the line. She still had four more books to get signed, by my count. I reminded her they were not letting people through the line twice.
“They always say that,” she said. “And they always change their minds!”
I wondered if she or her husband had even attended any of Neil Gaiman’s panels. The lady from Friday hadn’t; she’d been too busy waiting in line to get her books signed.
The adoration of fans can be a wonderful thing. It can, I have seen first hand, save a person’s life. Certainly their livelihood. But at what point does it become poisonous? Become a drain, rather than an influx, of energy? It suddenly struck me that I understood entirely why Neil Gaiman’s assistants act the way the do. It is their job to filter out the crazies. But at the same time they are too generous. They allow the crazies to make it difficult for the non-crazies.
And I am not sure which one I am.
I’ll tell you who’s not a crazy: my friend Heidi. She did a much better thing. She only wanted to thank Neil for reading a particular story, so she got in line with her already-signed copy of American Gods and, when she got to the front, she put it away. As a reward she tells me she got a minute of Neil Gaiman impersonating Ray Bradbury, and a special thank you.
But I still think it’s gone a bit wrong when the people who just want to talk to an author—just want to say hi, to say thank you—have to filch their way into book signings just to do so, mainly because the people who want books signed don’t limit themselves to designated signing areas and will mob the author wherever he is, thus preventing people who just want to talk from getting within shouting distance.
I understand that with Neil Gaiman this is a rather unique situation. But the situation still exists, and I don’t see it going away any time soon.
We can’t all meet our heroes in dark alleys by accident.
Well, that turned out a great deal longer than I anticipated. I don’t know if this will be helpful to anyone. At the very least, I hope you’ve been able to derive some amusement from it. And if you get the chance, do try to say hi to Neil Gaiman; he is truly a delightful fellow.