Certain books have the spellbinding quality of placing such trust in you as a reader that you feel they were written for you alone. They are intimate and confessional, creating an entire world which pulls you in, and weave an enchantment which continues to fascinate you long after you reach the end.
Russell H. Greenan’s debut novel from 1968, the brilliant, audacious cult classic IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON?, is one of those books for me. When I first discovered this swirling tale encompassing art, genius, love, madness, betrayal, God, and murder, I was still in my teens. It took up residence somewhere in the recesses of my mind and has dwelt there, quietly palpitating, ever since.
“Lately I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me.”
From that opening line Greenan’s book hooked me with its dense interiority and clever wordplay, its strangeness, and what emerges as the perfection of its construction. I identified with the nameless narrator, and that I did so despite some of the shocking acts he ultimately commits is a testament to Greenan’s ability as an author. And I loved that the vocabulary was so far above my head that it permanently expanded my awareness.
The novel received glowing reviews when it came out, yet it seemed to have quickly disappeared, consigned to the shelves of libraries and used bookstores, waiting to be discovered anew. Over the decades I have returned to it several times and have been a quiet advocate for it. I was thrilled when celebrated writers such as Anne Tyler and Jonathan Lethem publicly sang its praises. I had a role in its being republished as a Modern Library edition in 2003. I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.
When my acting career led me to begin narrating audiobooks, I wondered whether I might someday be fortunate enough to be chosen to give voice to Greenan’s novel, which had never been recorded in audio. As time went on and I gained experience, one day it struck me: Why not do it myself, rather than wait for it to happen? I had never published an audiobook before, but with all the changes in the marketplace, publishing a one-off wasn’t unheard of. Why not take the risk?
I found a way to reach the author and acquaint him with my desire to narrate his work. An enthusiastic note soon arrived from Mr. Greenan, who was grateful for my efforts on his behalf, saying that the audio rights would revert to him the following fall on his 88th birthday. He hoped we could work something out then.
Calling on narrator and producer colleagues who had undertaken similar labors of love brought valuable insight on the wide variety of expertise and considerations to bring such a project to a successful completion. Big thanks to Stefan Rudnicki, Scott Brick, Jeffrey Kafer, Grover Gardner, and Tavia Gilbert.
When Mr. Greenan’s 88th finally arrived in 2013, his daughter and I negotiated an agreement for the exclusive rights to create an audiobook of his work, to be released simultaneously with the new ebook and Blurb editions she was publishing independently. Blackstone Audio enthusiastically signed on to be my partner in manufacturing, marketing, and distribution, and were a joy to work with while I wore my producer’s hat. Once the ink had dried on all the contracts, and the extensive pronunciation research was complete, I entered my recording booth with the manuscript and–at last!–began narrating.
The audiobook of IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? officially released in 2015. My first, and perhaps only (although I’ll appropriate Greenan’s question mark here), foray into audiobook publishing had wonderful support from the online book community and the press in spreading the word. I am tremendously grateful to the good Mr. Greenan for entrusting his creation to me, and to Blackstone for helping me realize my dream of performing IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? in audio. This audiobook and the new ebook and print editions, arriving nearly fifty years after it was first published, makes this amazing novel readily available to a new (and I hope, wide) audience of listeners and readers.
Robert Fass is an actor who has recorded over 100 audiobooks across a wide variety of genres including History, Sci-Fi, Journalism, Young Adult, Mystery, and Literary Fiction. Along the way he has received two Audie awards and multiple Earphones awards and was listed among AudioFile’s Best Audiobooks of the Year in 2011, 2012, and 2013. He is also a writer and photographer. He lives in the Bronx.
This AudiOpinion has been edited from its original longer form in the print issue of AudioFile Magazine, April/May 2015.
© AudioFile 2015, Portland, Maine
April is National Poetry Month, and poetry is a form of language and literature that begs to be
heard. In short, it’s a great time to call attention to poetry and poets we can meet in the medium they deserve, thanks to audiobooks. Poetry paints with rhythm and imagery what visual artists may use paint or other material to convey.
As with any fine work of art—as well as with our first exposures to spoken language—form and the moment may be more engaging than the effort to understand the how and why of meaning. Lord Byron’s CHILDE HAROLD’S PILGRIMAGE, as brought to our ears in Jamie Parker’s performance, doesn’t demand that we act as students investigating meaning or the workings underlying its form in order to enjoy its flow.
Caroline Kennedy, an experienced and sensitive editor, has compiled SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems as a way of offering the guidance of the art of poetry to the winding path many women’s lives can take. Sandra Cisneros, Gertrude Stein, and Sharon Olds are among the poets whose words come to us through performances by Jane Alexander, John Bedford Lloyd, Hope Davis, Campbell Scott, and Kennedy herself. The range of selections here is broad as well as well chosen: e.e. cummings, Anne Bradstreet, Gregory Corso, and Vikram Seth, as well as Mary Oliver and William Blake. In short, if anything is stinting here, its the direction the title might suggest that this be for women only; look beyond that title, just as, for centuries, women had to assume that “man” was inclusive of all humans.
Our tradition of poetry in America is diverse and makes imaginative use of the past as well as the poets’ own present. Walter Dean Myers’s HERE IN HARLEM, recorded by a full cast including Patricia R. Floyd, Kevin R. Free, Dion Graham, Robin Miles, and Lizan Mitchell, is itself an homage to Edgar Lee Masters’s now century-old SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY. Marilyn Singer’s FOLLOW FOLLOW, which she performs with Joe Morton, looks to folktales for initial spark and then turns what we think we know as the narrative upside down, the play of words when reversed or performed in tones that alter their habitually expected meaning.
Audiobooks and poetry offer a natural combination for enjoyment of both. You can find more of them to explore in our newest reviews.
April 12 marks iconic American children’s author Beverly Cleary’s 100th birthday. It’s been nearly 70 years since her writing career began, and her books, made instantly popular for the very ordinariness of her fictional people, have become touchstones for readers and writers interested in the compelling nature of ordinary concerns of many children.
Mrs. Cleary’s storytelling found a voice precisely because she saw a disconnection between the kids who were coming to her library and the then-stocked books available to them. Her dedication to connecting the dots between potential reader and stories in which familiar childhood experiences and feelings evoke a sense of identification and comfort. This approach delighted young readers for a few generations and continues to serve as instructive to more contemporary authors who write today. This sense of making satisfaction discoverable through story in a book also has inspired a birthday celebration of decades’ standing in Mrs. Cleary’s honor. Drop Everything And Read—or DEAR Day—becomes an occasion for community members to visit school classes simply to read aloud to students for 20 minutes or so, with no pressure beyond listening to a good book.
Mrs. Cleary’s books seem to have arrived primed for listening enjoyment. Even when read with the eyes, cadences and character tones are clear. A variety of excellent narrators have performed many of them. In particular, B.D. Wong’s aural celebration of Ralph S. Mouse, who appears in THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE, as well as a couple of sequels, and Stockard Channing’s Ramona performances, including her Earphones Award-winning RAMONA FOREVER, can leave listeners peering into their audiobook players to see how Mrs. Cleary’s characters could have set up housekeeping there.
Mrs. Cleary’s influence on other writers, both for children and as children, has furthered the riches available to us as reading and listening choices. Judy Blume, Kate DiCamillo, Sara Pennypacker, Amy Poehler, and Eric A. Kimmel are among many authors she inspired when they read her earlier in their lives, and they, too, are well represented in audiobook choices. It seems a Drop Everything And Listen occasion might be an event with which we listeners would happily DEAL. So grab an audiobook by Beverly Cleary, or by someone who names her as inspiration, and expand your own experience with how extraordinarily engaging and satisfying the ordinary world can sound.
Happy birthday, Beverly Cleary, 100 times!
Audiobook narrators are my heroes. They have to do with voice alone what stage or screen actors can do with eyebrows, posture, hands, and physical beauty. In fact, it’s surprisingly often the marquee-name actors who breeze into the recording booth prepared to blow us away as narrators, yet wind up in the dust because they underestimated how hard it is to do all of their acting with just one of their tools.
The narrator doesn’t get nearly enough adulation, in my book, but too often s/he also doesn’t get the same kind of triple-checking support from the publisher that the print version of a book does. Many times, the actor who translates the book into sound does a good job interpreting the text while failing through pronunciation or production mistakes that are the aural equivalent of copy-editing errors. The details that can trip up a narrator from returning a perfect performance can be avoided through research and a closer reading of a book before recording time.
After polling a wide range of audiobook reviewers and judges, passionate listeners, and newcomers to audiobooks, I’ve compiled a list of mistakes that they report as pulling them out of the moment and cause annoyance rather than engagement and contentment.
- The narrator should know where a sentence is going before she gets into it and not come to rest halfway through, as if that comma or semicolon were a full stop. If the author has put all those words into one sentence, it distorts meaning and the writer’s rhythm if the narrator breaks them up her own way.
- The audio recording should avoid extreme changes of level. Most of us are not listening in pristine sound booths, and if a character expresses malice by whispering so softly that we have to keep fiddling the dials at 60 mph, it’s a problem.
- Mouth sounds and an audible turning of pages are distractions. In the very early days of audiobooks, a beloved author recorded his own memoir and included the sounds of swallowing, the setting down of his drinking glass, and mildly suppressed belches. It was rather charming, but a very special case.
- The narrator shouldn’t assume he knows how to pronounce something if there is a chance that he doesn’t. Much can depend on regional and cultural differences in all aspects of pronunciation, from syllable emphasis to letters that seem to be elided when a word is said aloud in some areas. If you don’t know whether a BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA would pronounce “aunt” to rhyme with “haunt” or with “ant,” call a library in Charleston and ask. Librarians love to help. The educational attainment and class of the character also informs pronunciation that sounds authentic. When a narrator speaks the words of someone who would know the difference between pronouncing forte, when it references strength, as “fort,” rather than “for-tay” (which means “loud”), the correct pronunciation should be employed.
- Mispronunciations of proper names and place names occur when non-locals assume the pronunciation they know matches local practice. The key to pronouncing Theodore Roosevelt‘s surname or the Swiss French-speaking city of Montreux can be discovered through authoritative sound files freely available on the World Wide Web. Bangor, Maine, like Bangor, Wales, responds to frequent mispronunciation of their home through the edifyingly humorous video below. Since proper names may well occur twenty or thirty times in a given audiobook, the impression locals develop of being disrespected when you get their local names wrong can become wildly annoying.
Mispronunciation yanks the listener out of the story, perhaps even more joltingly than typos or spelling mistakes on a page since a great narration puts you inside the story and the story literally inside your head. Narrators should always check how to say foreign words, and especially if they have not been trained in the language the words come from. Listeners will enjoy your work so much more if your “Dvorak” is pronounced Dvor-zhak, both for the authenticity and for the beauty and strangeness of it. You are building a universe from sounds for your listener; don’t leave out the good parts.
In addition to turning to librarians, if the writer of the text you are performing is alive, ask the publisher if you may talk to him or her about pronunciations and even characterizations. Every writer I know would welcome this.
We audiobook addicts adore what great narrators do for us. They are the bedrock of one corner of the literary world that is thriving and growing and as such, they are profoundly important to readers and writers everywhere. All we ask is that they be perfect.
Beth Gutcheon is a novelist with ten novels in print, six of which have been recorded. She has reviewed hundreds of audiobooks, consumed many hundreds more as a civilian, and serves as a judge for the Audie awards. Her most recent novel and first murder mystery, Death at Breakfast, appeared in May.
This AudiOpinion has been edited from its original longer form in the print issue of AudioFile Magazine, December 2015/January 2016.
© AudioFile 2015, Portland, Maine
Janis Ian came to public attention using both her voice and her lyricism while she was still a teenager. Today, she continues to work both with her voice and her poetry, and we’re all still listening and learning to think prejudices under her tutelage.
In SOCIETY’S CHILD: MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY, we have the wonderful experience of hearing her memories and developing ideals and ideas in her own narration. STARS takes us on journeys of the imagination in which Janis Ian’s songs inspire speculative short stories from a variety of science fiction authors and are performed here by ten narrators, including that songwriter who sparked these short stories.
She lends her mellifluous and quiet voice to others stories with equal justice and Earphones Award-winning grace. Miriam Therese Winter’s autobiography, THE SINGER AND THE SONG comes to us in Janis Ian’s voice. As happens with some author and narrator combinations, they became a team to create this, reaching out to befriend each other as the print book moved to voice.
These days, Janis is working on a couple of audiobook projects, including a collection of poetry from her youth. We’re looking forward to that and hope you move it onto your future listening list, too! While waiting, we can visit her at home performing the upcoming children’s audiobook, THE TINY MOUSE.
Portrait photo of Janis Ian by Floyd Bagge