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Amanda Palmer on Neil Gaiman: He desperately loves to be surprised

Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman in 2011.
Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman in 2011.
via Tsui

More than most people, Amanda Palmer has an insider's perspective on Neil Gaiman. After all, she's his wife. The Cambridge-based musician met the author through a mutual friend, and after some careful courting, the two haven't looked back.

This June, Gaiman published his first novel for adults in eight years, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The book began life as a short story for Palmer, who was recording Theatre Is Evil in Australia, thousands of miles away from Gaiman in the United States. Over time, the story grew and blossomed into a novel and a poignant love note to their relationship when Gaiman dedicated the book to her.

Palmer described her relationship with Gaiman for this week's cover story: The dark night returns for Neil Gaiman.

Here's more from our interview with Palmer:

Gimme Noise: How did you fall in love with Neil?

Amanda Palmer: [Laughs] I don't know? How much time have you got? Well, it's kind of a complicated story, but I can simplify it. Neil and I met about five, six years ago. We were both dating other people at the time, and we were introduced by Jason Webley, who I was making a record with at the time. He had gotten to know Neil online because Neil had discovered and posted one of Jason's music videos. Jason reached out to thank him, and they started to chat.

I struck up an email conversation with Neil, because Jason introduced us over email, and [Neil and I] were familiar with each other's work, but didn't know each other. I asked Neil if he would write some captions for a book of photographs I was putting out as an album companion, the Who Killed Amanda Palmer book, which was all dead photographs of Amanda Palmer. Neil was like, "Wow, no one's ever asked me to caption a book of dead photographs. I'm going to do it." So he did. And that's how we actually sort of got to know each other.

It's actually better to hear him tell this story... He fell in love with me first, and then he planted himself firmly in a chair, firmly in my periphery, telling me that he was perfectly happy to wait years and years and years to date me. At that point, my last relationship was already breaking up painfully and I sort of wondered, "How do you do this? Do you date Neil Gaiman? He's weirrrd." I think the most important thing about falling in love with him or being able to fall in love with him is that I wasn't even remotely a Neil Gaiman fan, and I didn't have any preconceived, worshipful notion of what he was like. I hadn't been following his career. I didn't know anything about Sandman. I didn't know anything. I didn't know that he was king of a certain world, so that held no attraction.

Although, I did know he was a successful writer, and that certainly held an attraction, but I wasn't mesmerized by "famous Neil Gaiman." I was really intrigued by Neil Gaiman the man who was sort of reclusive, but also super social, very smart, very funny, very sensitive, but also emotionally withdrawn. And that whole combination of things led me into a relationship with him and eventually to fall in love with him.

Can you describe what it's like to have started living with Neil since then?

The cohabitating has not been easy. I have lived alone all of my adult life, and I'm 37. I've had barely so much as a roommate, although I have lived in a commune for the last 13 or 14 years. I've never had to actually share my space. Neil has gotten used to a totally different kind of family style where he lives in a household with kids running around. Colliding our two lifestyles is hilarious and so fantastic because we just take such totally different approaches to how one enters and exits a room. We've learned scores of lessons in our house in Cambridge that we are desperately trying to positively apply to the hunt for our next home in New York, which is where we're moving.

I think a lot of it has to do with psychic artistry and workspace. We're two artists who work at home, and we both have two important tasks. One is to make art and two is to run our respective businesses. It's almost like you've got five homes in one. You've got Amanda and Neil running offices, Amanda and Neil needing to make art, and Amanda and Neil needing to be clothed, fed, and sheltered. Figuring out how to place and puzzle piece together all those myriad ingredients isn't easy.

In your blog about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, you wrote about how you two work in different ways, creatively speaking. That must be a huge challenge.

All I can say is it's not easy. We both built our lives to follow certain grooves, especially going on and off tour. Because in the midst of all this, it's not like we're stay-at-home artists. Both of us -- especially me -- are on the road more than we are at home, and that creates an entirely new set of issues. Neil and I looked at our calendar a few months ago and went, "Holy shit we're not going to see each other for five months! How does that happen?" That just comes down to creating an entirely new sort of communication between two people that isn't necessary in the kind of relationship where the discussions really center around who is picking up the groceries, who is doing the laundry, where are we going to head this weekend? Neil and I have never had a schedule that even remotely approaches the mundane.

How do you wind down when you can get away from all your respective obligations?

As long as I am in the right mood and not super stressed by work, we've found the best way for us to connect with each other is just to have a lot of sex. [Laughs]

You mentioned you're both on tour quite a bit throughout the year. How do you connect over hundreds and thousands of miles between?

We connect mostly through text. It's funny because Neil and I have a lot of lines of communication -- you know, Twitter and texting and email... and our blogs. All of those we're comfortable doing. The one communication that I don't use is Facebook. I'm not on Facebook personally. But you know, we will occasionally have dates on tour when we will only communicate publicly via Twitter. When we both manage to be in far off places at the same time, we talk on the phone. But actually, talking on the phone long-distance -- especially when we're both on the road -- I find sort of difficult.

 

Amanda Palmer on Neil Gaiman: He desperately loves to be surprised
technoevangelist via Flickr

Are there any parts in Ocean that you can tell are specifically for you?

The blog is kind of as close as I want to take it in that respect. The best thought I can say is that I didn't really get it at first. Neil read me the entire book when he was working on the first draft. I loved it, but I didn't get it at all. [Laughs] It wasn't until I was reading it through for the second time and mentioned something to Neil that indicated to him that I totally didn't get it. He had to spell it out to me, and then I got it. I fell even more in love the book, and I can't even really describe how deeply I love the book, especially knowing where it came from and why he felt he needed to write it. I think he was even a little afraid to publish it because it was so personal compared to his other work. But of course, that's what makes it incredible. I was really proud of him.

What's Neil like behind the scenes when he's not in front of an audience or signing for fans?

Neil doesn't really have a performance persona. The impression that the world would have of him if they were looking at him is that he's a very clever, slightly awkward British dude. Neil, in a very British way, has an obsession with his own awkwardness, and it's a prize part of his personality. It's funny, we were just talking about this. He fancies himself an incredibly shy person, but he's the sort of shy person that loves telling people that he's shy. He's also incredibly social and loves to chat and communicate... But he's a writer. He's got a gigantic internal world that only gets exposed to the real world through the medium of his writing and his art. Whereas, I'm really built as a performer and not as a writer. You know I'm very happy to get up on stage and tear my mask off and tear my clothes off and tear my soul out for everyone to see. Neil is much more careful and magically calculating about the way he shares what is going on in there. He's an incredibly complex person. It doesn't strike me as odd that he's got a lot of deep, interesting reserves in there.

Neil has had a very loyal fan base for many years, but he's also had a particularly quick rise to the mainstream in recent years. Has this changed his outlook on things?

He is an artistic workaholic and he has been since the day we started dating, and that's just the way he's built, and I see it and accept it and recognize it because I'm more or less the same way. The one thing that has changed is just the simple fact that he's not used to being recognized in the street quite as much as he has been lately. There's a level of cult fame, you know, and he and I both enjoy that. It's very easy to walk down the street and go unrecognized... and then you're pretty certain that the couple who are clad in black with pierced eyebrows and tattoos, chances are they're gonna know you. He's just starting to cross over into a world where he's getting stopped on every intersection and street corner, and while that's wonderful, and an ego basks in the attention, and it's great and all; it's also a little frightening to think that your privacy might totally vanish.

You've done An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer together, and he's been known to do mini-readings at some of your concerts. Do you see yourselves collaborating on any projects in the future?

We very deliberately don't want to collaborate on any gigantic piece of art because we like each other too much to fuck up our relationship. [Laughs] That being said, we bounce ideas and thoughts and some concepts against one another constantly. We sort of help each other out in unforeseeable ways because we sort of have a nice perspective on the other one's lives and careers. As far as doing some sort of giant collaboration, like a Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer opera, I think that would be the kiss of death.

Neil's famous for his love of sushi. What's his favorite thing to order?

He really like salmon hand rolls. Give the man a salmon hand roll and he's a happy man.

What has been one of the most remarkable moments you've shared with Neil?

That's a good question... we had a really wonderful 50th birthday party for him down in New Orleans. He threw himself this gigantic party and invited 100 friends -- booked a restaurant and a hotel and stuff like that. I surprised him with a kind of a flash wedding in Jackson Square where I managed to get him to walk through the square right by me in my wedding statue costume with all of our friends sort of hiding behind bushes. I've seen photos, and I was there, but it was kind of blurry... It was kind of wonderful-crazy, but I look at photos of that moment where Jason [Webley] was there as the pastor to marry together this man and this statue... I look at the photos of Neil's face in those one or two minutes, and I think I really found the perfect husband.

My deepest passion is surprising people, and that sometimes comes with a psychic price, because not all surprises are pleasant. But he has taken every surprise that I have handed him -- and sometimes they're far more subtle and personal than an explosive flash wedding in a public square -- but he actually is the perfect foil because he desperately loves to be surprised. I think that's one of the reasons we were able to fall in love so easily. He surprises me, and I surprise him. One of the wonderful things about our relationship is that there's no sort of competition between us. We revel and take joy in the other's successes and art making, and it's harder to find than you might think. Especially as a female recording artist -- a successful one -- it's really, really hard to date guys, to find guys to date that weren't threatened by females, the kind of loudness of what I do. Neil not only tolerates it, he basks in it. When you find someone like that, and you're able to bask in each other's work and successes, you treasure it like gold because you know how rare it is.

There are still tickets for the latest installment of An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer at the Town Hall in New York.


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