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Talking with Robert Fass
April 2015:—There are certain books that 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, yet simultaneously they create an entire world which pulls you in, makes demands on your imagination, and weaves an enchantment which continues to hold you, 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. When I first discovered this swirling, erudite tale encompassing art, genius, love, madness, betrayal, God, and murder, I was still in my teens. It stealthily took up residence somewhere in the recesses of my mind and has dwelt there, quietly palpitating, ever since.
With a librarian mother, I was already a voracious reader as a teenager with a particular bent for mystery and horror and finely tuned language. From its opening line--“Lately I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me.”--Greenan’s book hooked me with its dense interiority and clever wordplay, its strangeness, and what eventually emerges as the perfection of its construction. I identified with the nameless narrator, his pursuit of beauty and his deep indignation at the injustices of the world. That I did so despite some of the shocking acts he ultimately commits is a testament to Greenan’s remarkable ability as an author. And I loved that the vocabulary was so far above my head that it permanently expanded my awareness. (As LOLITA’s Humbert Humbert says, “you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” IHIB? proves the point.)
The novel received glowing reviews when it came out: The New York Times called it “superbly macabre and satisfying.” The Boston Globe said it had “all the terror and excitement of a Hitchcock thriller.” Nevertheless, 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 IHIB? 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 tried (unsuccessfully) to acquire the theatrical rights so I could adapt it as a play. 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?
And so, after some research, 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-- which at the time were still held by Random House--would revert to him the following fall on his 88th birthday. He hoped we could work something out then.
Then something serendipitous occurred. While attending an AudioFile narrator event, I made a last-minute choice to substitute a short excerpt from Greenan’s book in place of the Stanley Elkin piece I’d planned to read. In the audience, as fortune would have it, was author Beth Gutcheon--who, as a young staffer at Little, Brown some four decades earlier, had originally helped IHIB? get published! Not only was she still enthusiastic about the book, she also offered me a connection to Jonathan Lethem, who generously granted me permission to record the wonderful introduction he wrote for the 2003 Modern Library edition so it could be included in the audiobook.
Eagerly counting the days to Greenan’s birthday, I began calling on narrator and producer colleagues who had undertaken similar labors of love. They offered valuable insight on the wide variety of expertise and considerations necessary 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 (now lightly updated) 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 distributing IHIB? and were as much of a joy to work with while I wore my producer’s hat as they have always been when I’ve worked with them strictly as a narrator.
Once the ink had dried on all the contracts (and the extensive pronunciation research was complete), I took a very deep breath, entered my recording booth with the manuscript and--at last!--began narrating.
As I write this, the audiobook of IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? has just been officially released. My first--perhaps only (I’ll appropriate Greenan’s question mark here)--foray into audiobook publishing. I’ve had wonderful support from the online book community and the press (thank you, AudioFile, for this opportunity) 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. With this audiobook and the new ebook and print editions--nearly fifty years after it was first published-- his amazing novel will finally be readily available to a new (and I hope, wide) audience of listeners and readers.—Robert Fass
Photo courtesy of narrator
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