THERE were plenty of people willing to ask Neil Gaiman questions at his first ever Inverness event.
Though perhaps interviewer Stuart Kelly should not have tried to identify one of the would be questioners by choice of clothing.
"You can’t say ‘person in the black t-shirt’ to identify someone in this audience!" Gaiman laughed.
Black t-shirts are as synonymous with Gaiman himself as G.K. Chesterton’s cape with one of the English writer’s own literary heroes — one of several namechecked in an intelligent and wide ranging discussion that gave an insight into the mind and influences of one of the most successful fantasy writers in the world.
Kelly, in his day job literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, had, like Gaiman, come direct from the Edinburgh Book Festival and noted with satisfaction that this audience, unlike most in the capital, was not mainly composed of grey-heads.
In fact, the sellout audience queuing a considerable way along Academy Street, could easily have been mistaken for one of The Ironworks’ more usual rock concerts rather than a talk with a writer organised by the local branch of Waterstones.
Gaiman, who has described himself as "a load of cults", has a following as devoted as any pop star might wish for, one more than prepared to forgive the long wait for him to come on stage.
He was also coming to the end of a tour just as punishing. By the time he signed the last book for his patient fans hours after he first appeared on The Ironworks stage, he was also signing off on a tour that had taken two-and-a half months and covered two continents.
There were, as he pointed out, no balloons, but it was still reason to celebrate.
The main topic up for discussion was Gaiman’s most recent adult’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, introduced by the author with an enthralling reading that covered burnt toast, suicide and hints of something unworldly about the women who live at the end of the lane.
All of this is seen through the eyes of a young narrator, who might be a bit familiar.
"It’s absolutely not an autobiography, but the narrator is me," Gaiman acknowledged.
"I was one of those kids who took things from books. Sometimes I did things that boys did, because I read them in books. Like climb trees. I’d be 60 feet up a beech tree, not feeling safe, because that’s what boys do in books."
Blame Richmal Crompton’s Just William books for that, though they did come in useful later on when he was working on the comic fantasy Good Omens with Terry Prachett. The working title for that book was William the Antichrist, Gaiman revealed.
He read other things too. A lot of other things, and not always age-appropriate material either: "What are these women doing in here?" the eight-year-old Gaiman would wonder as he ploughed through a Michael Moorcock book.
"Never mind — there’s sword-fighting in it."
Answering a question from the audience later on about what book he would most like to have written, Gaiman’s immediate answer was The Lord of the Rings, a book he had read over and over again in the school library — or as much as he could, given it only had the first two parts of the trilogy. He was able to complete it when he won a book of his choice as school prize for English and opted for The Return of The King.
So much did Gaiman want to have written Lord of the Rings that he claimed to have carried a copy around with him on the off-chance that he fell into a parallel dimension where the book had never been published.
There he would get an adult to type up the manuscript "because sending the book might look suspicious" and he did not know how to type.
"Then I’d have to kill the adult," he added.
Fortunately Gaiman did not have to resort to such murderous means to become a successful fantasy author in his own right with his multi-award winning run on DC Comics mythic Sandman series leading on to successful books like Coraline, Stardust, American Gods and now The Ocean at the End of the Lane — a cheer went up from the audience when Gaiman noted that the new book had knocked DaVinci Code author Dan Brown off the top of the New York Times bestseller chart.
Some of those books are for adults, others for children, but the linking element is the fantastic — old gods, ghosts and witches.
"Fantasy is an incredibly robust tool," Gaiman said.
"What saddens me is that fantasy produces something really special, like Lord of the Rings, then 100,000 authors say: ‘I have to write something just like that.’ No you don’t!"
For Gaiman, fantasy is about taking a look at the world from a different angle, as in his television series and novel Neverwhere.
"For me it was about tackling the idea, the very true thing, that there are people who become invisible, people who fall through the cracks," he said.
"I said: OK — I don’t really want to write a novel saying that there are homeless people living in London and that’s not a good thing. It’s much more interesting for me to push that into the realm of metaphor."
It may also be more effective. Gaiman spoke of how people would tell him that after reading Neverwhere they had started giving money to the homeless or ceased to ignore them and treated them like human beings.
Similarly Gaiman’s novel for younger readers, The Graveyard Book — summed up by its author as "The Jungle Book" with ghosts instead of animals — was his response to what he called "the essential tragedy of parenthood."
"It’s a good tragedy," he explained.
"If you do it right, they will leave. Get it wrong and they’ll end up staying."
In contrast to those earlier books, The Ocean at the End of the Lane was an accidental novel. What had been intended as a short story written for his pop star wife Amanda Palmer while she was away recording, grew until the final word count revealed it was indeed a novel, one that he sent off to his publishers with the most apologetic covering letter of his career, but has turned out to be one of his greatest successes, despite the darkness of some of its themes and a particularly disturbing scene with a bath.
Gaiman’s next book, Fortunately the Milk will be very different, judging by the breathless summary he gave to Kelly.
A story where a simple trip to the shops involves kidnap by pirates and rescue by a time-travelling dinosaur in a hot air balloon.
"And then," Gaiman added, with a true storyteller’s timing, "things start getting weird."