Ever since I voiced the magnificently written Little Century, the story of a young woman making her way in turn-of-the-century Oregon, I’ve wanted to highlight the debut novelist Anna Keesey. I deeply admire Anna’s writing — her clearly drawn characters, the undercurrent of tension and yearning throughout the narrative, the richly realized sense of place that is so familiar to me, a child of the American West.
My Little Century recording days moved far more slowly than usual, as I laid down a scene with dialogue between characters, and then re-recorded the lines, then took yet another turn at getting them just right. I very rarely work with such careful deliberation and fretting — I’ve found that my first impulse is, more often than not, the best one to follow in this work — but Anna’s writing was demanding. Not only did the dialogue on the page vibrate with subtext, necessitating that at least two layers of thought and feeling be simultaneously realized, but it was clear that, more than ever before, my job was to get out of the way of the text. It took very careful rendering of the work to not insinuate myself into the recording, but to do my best to disappear and allow Anna’s words to be all.
Once the book was complete, I had the honor of having an extended conversation with Anna, during an exclusive interview for Blackstone Audio. Talking as an emerging writer with a skilled and knowledgeable writer was a great pleasure, and it was meaningful to discuss our shared love of the area in Oregon in which the book is set, the writing communities we have in common, and the particularly gorgeous passages that continued to resonate for me, weeks after the completion of the recording.*
So, why has it taken me so long to feature this book, one of my absolute favorite projects? In many ways, for a very long time, I felt like I had failed utterly. I uploaded my tracks for Blackstone, and made the corrections, and sent off my invoice. At that point I am usually long into other projects that capture my attention and energy. But this book nagged at me. I wanted to start again, redo it, do better by it, and by Anna. I worried that it was not right, that instead of making the work sing, I had stifled something beautiful in it, that rather than bringing the words to life, I had diminished them, dampened their power somehow.
And then I read the review from Publishers Weekly, and it wasn’t devastating, by any means — there were many kind things said about the strengths of the performance — but it troubled my heart. This book that I believed in and cared so deeply for, for that reviewer, at least, fell flat. For a few days I felt heartsick, and sorry.
And then Anna sent me the kindest message, thanking me for my work, and telling me how much she loved the recording, how she heard in my voice the lines she’d written, the voices of the characters, and they sounded new, and still real and true and right to her. And then I went back to the recording, and I listened to it, and I, too, believed in it. It’s not perfect — no performance is ever perfect — but even to my critical, anxious ear, the work sounded real and true and right to me, too. Anna’s story was beautiful, and powerful, and rich, and I got out of the way of it, so that the gorgeous prose stood alone, without interference.
So was the reviewer wrong? No. My performance just didn’t fully work for that listener. Was I wrong to worry so much, through the entire process, about failure, second-guessing myself and finessing the recording line by line? Absolutely not. It’s when a book is as good as Anna’s Little Century that the work of narrating becomes so challenging, requiring subtlety and nuance which may not work for everyone. Had I not cared so much about it, I would have sat down, pounded it out, sent it off, and not learned anything new about the craft of writing or the craft of narrating. So this book was a great gift, so much so that more than six months later, I’m still thinking about it. My fear of failure — failing the life of the book, failing a writer I deeply respect, failing my own expectations and standards — kept me committed through the process, and even to evaluating the recording more deeply after the project’s completion. The discovery that I didn’t profoundly fail or ruin anything was only made possible by my humble desire to do my very best possible work.
Anna continues to inspire me, to make me think about writing, and love, and devotion, and hope. She has just published a wonderful essay on the literary site Bloom, called “Keyhole,” about the acceptance of failure, which prompted me to think about her novel, and considerations of grief and failure, and acceptance. I am grateful for Anna, for Little Century, for “Keyhole,” and for the opportunity to try and fail and try and fail, and to accept imperfection as a part of the story. So that’s why, today, I share this extraordinary book with you, even with an imperfect review of my performance of it. Like Anna says in her essay, it’s time that I no longer choose “avoidance and delay over the fear of…possible humiliations.” I wish that the review had been positive without reservation, but it’s no excuse to delay calling attention to this most beautiful of stories.
WRITTEN BY ANNA KEESEY, READ BY TAVIA GILBERT
Listen to samples:
* Passages like this one:
The buckaroos often sing, and she knows why. The unpeopled distance and the careless cold weigh upon a person, compressing the spirit into a chunk without movement. Any two notes sung together press back and make a space for the tiny soul to warm up and swirl about.