Musician Amanda Palmer and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman met, fell in love, toured and have now made an album. The misfit heroes of the alt scene share their lives with millions of Twitter fans. What's public and what's off-limits? Hermione Hoby joins them for gluten-free crackers and a chat
Over the past few years Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman have become a kind of Kim and Kanye for the Comic Con classes, a pair whose couplehood now almost transcends their individual fame. She: a 37-year-old Boston-born musician and performance artist who has ploughed a goth-cabaret furrow since her days with the Dresden Dolls. He: the 53-year-old British graphic novelist beloved for Coraline and The Sandman series.
They share a fan demographic in self-identified teenage misfits and tonight, at a sold-out show in New York's Times Square, the auditorium is filled with skinny boys dressed as Doctor Who and girl goths in rainbow-striped tights and dog collars, as death-obsessed as they are twee. There is lots of shy smiling and eagerness. The show is to accompany an album the couple have made, An Evening With Amanda Palmer & Neil Gaiman, a three-disc, Kickstarter-funded album of songs and readings taken from their joint 2011 tour.
Though he reads from behind a lectern, it sounds as if it's fireside – he lilts through his cadences, sonorous and theatrical. He sings, too – they open with the duet Making Whoopee.
"You know, I think I was actually better when I wasn't as good," he tells me later. "Because when I wasn't as good and obviously completely terrified, you get the entire 2,000 people just rooting for me."
But this audience couldn't be rooting for both of them harder. The show is shambolic, in that welcome-to-our-living-room way that Palmer – who really has played fans' living rooms – is so loved for. Readings and songs are punctuated by confusion over the whereabouts of mic stands, for example, and the crowd loves it. I think they would love it even if the two passed three hours on stage picking their noses.
When Palmer performs Map of Tasmania, a song about female pubic hair the whole room, unprompted, yells the refrain: "Fuck it!" These fans are intense in the way that only teenagers can be, as sentimental as they are extreme. There's a smattering of adults, but that audience shout is distinctly young and female.
The following morning, I visit them in a SoHo apartment owned by their friend, the author and cartoonist Art Spiegelman. They are staying there while in New York but plan to move to the city properly soon – Gaiman is a professor at nearby Bard College, where he teaches a writing course on "the history of the fantastic, approaches to fantasy fiction, and the meaning of fantasy today".
Rumpled and craggy, he answers the door, as kindly as a cup of tea. We sit around the kitchen table where he has laid out an unorthodox breakfast of cheese, gluten-free crackers and rice cakes. Palmer is in a torn khaki T-shirt and last night's eyeliner ("we've been awake about 20 minutes") and he, as ever, is all in black.
"Everybody there wants to feel very together," says Palmer, when I mention the intense fandom of the night before, "and there's such a community vibe that when you start to segment it, people all of a sudden feel they're not invited to the party."
As she talks I notice something keeps attracting and holding her attention on the wall to my right. It's a large mirror. Over the next hour and a half her own reflection is the recipient of a lot of eye contact.
Palmer and Gaiman's relationship began over email. He blogged about liking a song of hers, she sent him a thank-you note and a correspondence was born. Eventually she asked him to caption a series of photographs she had taken of herself dead, originally meant to accompany her first solo album, 2008's Who Killed Amanda Palmer.
"And I wrote back and said, yeah, because nobody had ever asked me to write captions for photographs of themselves dead." It was platonic and when they finally met in person (where else but the green room of New York's Comic Con), "I didn't even think she was cute."
"He looked like hell," she says.
Palmer was in a relationship at the time. "Long story short," she says, "I embarked on a very long tour and the tour pretty much destroyed the relationship. And somewhere in there Neil decided he was in love with me."
"Camden," he says softly. And then explains: "She'd been an American in Belfast and had looked the wrong way while crossing the road so she was now doing gigs on crutches. I remember being in Camden. I stopped off for a day and popped in to see her gig and she came upstairs on crutches with her boot on and I looked at her and I thought: Ohhh. It was like being hit over the back of the head with a love-shaped brick. I just thought: 'I want to look after you.' And I didn't actually do anything ..."
He notices the wildly skeptical face she's pulling.
"I didn't!" he protests.
"Sooooo not true," she says. She turns to me: "Neil told me as I came off stage that night he would marry me."
"I don't think I said it out loud ..."
A few months later, she agreed to date him. "I wooed her," he says, proudly.
They quibble over which occasion qualifies as their first date.
"We didn't go anywhere," he says, when she suggests it was a night in LA where Gaiman, in his own words, "being chivalrous and noble and English", surprised her with a two-bed suite on the last night of a tour. "You have to go somewhere for it to be a date."
The suite's second bed turned out to be just a sofa.
"So," he says, "that felt like the universe telling us we should probably sleep in the same bed. Which we did. And ..."
She chips in: "It was our first exercise in realising that our sexual chemistry was very awkward."
"Incredibly awkward," he agrees. And then, sounding surprised. "It's got quite good since."
"It has, it's got really fantastic since, but he was used to making out with people in an entirely different way."
"Oh God!" he cries with a visible cringe. "See? It gets much, much, much too ..."
"You wanted to tell the entire story," she says.
"No, I didn't, I just wanted to tell the funny bit about the bed."
In January of 2010 they got engaged and were married a year later. They remain as smoochy with each other as adolescents. Performative, perhaps, but I find it sweet. Both, in fact, seem teenager-ish in their sensibilities – here, for example, is how Gaiman describes himself in his Twitter bio: "Will eventually grow up and get a real job. Until then, will keep making things up and writing them down."
Those made-up things include comics, graphic novels, six books of fiction, 15 young adult works, several screenplays and a trove of short stories. His latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, debuted at No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. He is probably the higher profile of the two, although it seems her fans are fiercer. He agrees.
"Yeah. Her fans."
"Absolutely not," she says. "I think his are more rabid." She adds: "You rarely see men saying: 'I want to feel about my wife the way Neil Gaiman feels about his wife.' But you do see a lot of women going: 'I can't wait to find a husband like Neil Gaiman!' But I think that could also be that I reveal a lot more about the inner workings of the marriage and Neil's more stand-offish."
He mumbles, through a rice cake, something that sounds like "embarrassed".
"Embarrassed?" I say.
"British," Palmer corrects me.
He swallows his rice cake. "I said embarrassed, but either will work. We both have our lines in the sand on how much we communicate to the internet, it's just, you know, my line in the sand is in Brighton and hers is in Plymouth."
The two have an open marriage, of which Gaiman has said: "We would not allow another relationship to imperil what we have. We talk. And talk. And talk. And hug a lot. And talk some more. And then do whatever needs to be done in the real world."
But the difficulties and delicacies of polyamory must be compounded by their other very open relationship, the one they have with their public. She has close to a million Twitter followers, his number almost two million and they talk to them all the time.
"There's an art or a skill that there really isn't a name for yet," Palmer says, "but it's how to negotiate the intimacies of your real-life relationships and the intimacies of your internet sphere. Neil and I learned this lesson early on – you don't complain about the marriage on Twitter."
She has said before that,"when I go to the other room to Twitter with my followers, it feels like sneaking off for a quick shag".
She laughs when I remind her of this, but says: "If you look at the Twitter feed as just another relationship that you dominate and it feeds your ego, it does have that sense of: 'I'm tired of reality over here, I'm just going to run across the street and go where it's simple.'"
Twitter, though, is by no means always a refuge for her. There was the post-Kickstarter scandal last year, where, having raised a then unprecedented amount of money ($1.2m) for her new album, she asked musicians to play for free on her tour, or at least, in exchange for "beer, hugs and high fives". "Pretty much everybody on Earth has a threshold for how much to indulge an idiot who doesn't know how to conduct herself," Steve Albini wrote, "and I think Ms Palmer has found her audience's threshold."
Then, last April, in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings, she published 'a poem for dzhokhar', a seemingly sympathetic address to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old charged with co-perpetrating the attacks that killed three people and injured more than 200 others. As both literature and gesture it was almost universally deplored and derided. The parodies included one Poem for Amanda Palmer, which begins: "you don't know that there are ways of responding to a tragedy without being narcissistic and self-serving / you don't know how a national crisis and the death of at least three innocent people could not be about you."
I put to her the possibility that the devotion of her fans functions as a sort of cocoon, perhaps blinkering her from her own actions.
"If all my fans were doing was stroking my ego constantly, and never criticising me or questioning me, I'd be afraid of them."
So they do criticise her?
"Oh, absolutely. Sometimes the most wonderful thing about having an open dialogue and very honest relationship with my fanbase is that they're as quick to criticise me, albeit much more compassionately, than the haters and the trolls."
What was their critical response to 'a poem for dzhokhar' then?
"'Not your best poem but we know where you were coming from,'" she says briskly.
"And a bunch of your fans going 'too soon'," Gaiman offers.
"Yeah, but I think the difference between my fanbase and the rest of the outside world that came thundering in is that my fanbase understood the intention and didn't misconstrue it."
Gaiman seems as soft-hearted a soul as they come. I wonder how he copes with his wife being publicly attacked.
"I was astounded," he says gently, "It was spilling over from Amanda's stuff to my stuff: 'Your cunt wife should have her legs cut off and a bomb shoved up her cunt for writing love poems to this terrorist.'"
Last summer the Daily Mail reviewed Palmer's performance at Glastonbury by focusing on an errant nipple. She responded with Dear Daily Mail, a blithe and deliciously witty song that includes the line: "Your focus on debasing women's appearances ruins our species of humans."
"It was one of the highlights of my life having one of Neil's aged British aunts clutch my hand and say" – and she puts on an impressive English accent – 'I absolutely adored your Dear Daily Mail song.'"
"I suddenly saw a new phrase after that," says Gaiman. "I kept seeing: 'Say what you will about Amanda Palmer, BUT ...' – and I thought, OK, we have turned some kind of corner from the Amanda haters."
She sees it a little differently. "The weather will just keep constantly fucking changing, you have no control over it, and if you let yourself be too pleased with yourself that you managed to get back into the good favour of the internet ... fuck it, it's all meaningless. The hardest thing about being attacked in such a way is how deeply misunderstood you feel. To feel misunderstood hurts a lot more than feeling disliked."
She looks at Gaiman. "I can feel ignored, I can feel irritated, but he never misunderstands my intentions. And that's why I married him."
"I married her," he says, "because I couldn't ever imagine getting bored of talking to her."
She reaches out her arm for his hand, he reaches out for hers, and the two of them paddle palms, looking at each other. Her eyes, I realise, are flooded with tears.
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