Learning from Dorothy

Yesterday afternoon, one of my closest friends, Eric, called. He and his fiance, Rosemary, and her daughter, Lucy, were in Manhattan for just 36 hours, he said, and they wondered if I could meet them for dinner. So last night I took the F train from Brooklyn to the East Village to meet them at Angelica Kitchen (my new favorite restaurant, with a totally dairy-free kitchen and an extensive gluten-free menu). The food was delicious, I was delighted to finally meet the woman who so thoroughly and understandably has captured Eric’s heart, and I bonded with 13-year-old Lucy over recaps of Downton Abbey episodes.

It was significant, seeing Eric at this stage in my transition to New York. We’ve been friends for almost 20 years, through all the big shifts of our lives — marriages, divorces, deaths,  breakups and makeups — and it was meaningful that we had an opportunity to so effortlessly mark this new point for both of us. It felt like no coincidence that Eric, who has not been to New York for decades, was in the city less than a week after I arrived, as though we’d been meant to be together — connecting our pasts to our futures.

Over bowls of three-bean chili and glasses of crisp apple cider, I recounted to Rosie how Eric and I had become close. When I was just barely 18 and a sophomore in college at the University of Washington, I applied for a part-time job as a legal secretary at Seattle’s small Sayre Law Offices. Eric, one of the gravest and grouchiest people I’d ever met, interviewed me, after pointing out that I was late for my appointment and lateness would not be acceptable in the future. He was so scary, I told Rosie, laughing as we recalled that he was only 25 years old. But at over 6 feet tall, with a deep voice and a pointed gaze, he was fierce, and within the first week he made me cry, snapping, “It’s just like a phone. You use it just like a phone!” as I tried to figure out how to work the fax machine.

Those were dark and isolated days for me. I lived with my boyfriend, a furious alcoholic who drank a fifth a night when he had money, or a couple forties when he was broke. I still don’t know quite how or why I had so quickly become swallowed up in an abusive relationship. But what had started as a sweet connection with a drama department misfit, a boy who charmed me, saying, as we did our Russian class homework together at a campus coffee shop, “какая красивая девушка,” had, within a month, devolved into the most frightening and violent time of my life.

Jon never assaulted me physically, but when he was drunk (daily), he was threatening, vicious, and lacerating with his words. One  night, just a couple months after starting work at the law office, I called Eric in a panic. It was a pretty inappropriate call, I told Rosie, since Eric was my supervisor, and we weren’t really even friends. But whatever had happened — neither Eric nor I could recall what exact circumstances had prompted the late night plea for help — Eric was the only person I could think to reach out to. When he heard my teary, strained voice on the phone, he said immediately, “Do you need me to come get you?” and within a few minutes he had pulled his beat-up car in front of my building in the U District and took me to the house he shared with his two roommates in Wallingford. Eric held my hand until I stopped crying and my breathing calmed, and finally I drifted to sleep, awakening the next morning to Tom Waites blaring in the living room and pancakes cooking in the kitchen. Eric and his roommates, Mike and Leslie, teased me and fed me, talking to me gently and kindly, without judgment or criticism. For that long morning, I sat at their table, and was comforted.

It took me another stupid year to leave the terrible relationship with Jon, which remained unhealthy and chaotic throughout its duration, but because of it, I gained not only deep understanding about the powerful mental entrapment of an abusive relationship, but one of the best friends of my life.

Through the evening Eric, Rosemary, and I talked about how the two of them came together, how I met Dutra, their wedding plans, our families, their work lives, my hopes and dreams for my career. I wrapped up leftovers to take home to an exhausted Dutra, and then we lingered over the most delicious chocolate cookie, dairy-free cheesecake, and nut brittle, finally standing reluctantly near closing time, pulling on our coats, exchanging hugs and thanks and well-wishes and congratulations and promises to see each other again soon.

As I walked back to the subway, I thought about how, 18 years ago, when I was suffering so much anxiety and heartache, so unsure of myself and fearful and lost, I never could have anticipated this life. I never could have imagined that Eric and I would remain friends, that we’d share meals and exchange phone calls and texts and Facebook messages, that we’d laugh at the things we laugh at, and tell each other that we love each other. I would have been so amazed by the richness of my community of friends, the peace and promise of my daily life, my life’s evolution, my bravery and willingness to live in a healthy and whole way outside my comfort zone.

The wonderful night with Eric and his beloveds reminds me that there is no clear picture of what lies ahead. I don’t know who will be in my life in another 18 years, who will become just a great story or who will be my family. I don’t know where I’ll be working, how much security I’ll have, with whom I’ll share my home. Though I will never again be in a relationship in which I am not safe and cherished, more pain and heartache, as well as joy and abundance, are guaranteed as a natural part of life. When things grow difficult I can fret and worry and play out awful, worst-case scenario stories in my mind about all the possible terrors, or remember that I’ve been through roiling, dark nights before, and even at the highest pitch of the storm, when I’ve cried out for help, I have been shown to safety by unexpected sources of strength, love, and tenderness.

……

From The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Tantor Audio):
It was very dark, and the wind howled horribly around her, but Dorothy found she was riding quite easily. After the first few whirls around, and one other time when the house tipped badly, she felt as if she were being rocked gently, like a baby in a cradle.

Toto did not like it. He ran about the room, now here, now there, barking loudly; but Dorothy sat quite still on the floor and waited to see what would happen…

Hour after hour passed away, and slowly Dorothy got over her fright; but she felt quite lonely, and the wind shrieked so loudly all about her that she nearly became deaf. At first she had wondered if she would be dashed to pieces when the house fell again; but as the hours passed and nothing terrible happened, she stopped worrying and resolved to wait calmly and see what the future would bring. At last she crawled over the swaying floor to her bed, and lay down upon it; and Toto followed and lay down beside her.

In spite of the swaying of the house and the wailing of the wind, Dorothy soon closed her eyes and fell fast asleep.

When Books Take an Unexpected Turn, Make Your Jaw Drop, and Teach You Some Humility

As you all know, I record book after book after book after book in my little recording studio, and I work to make  every project something that I’d want to listen to. That’s the best way I know to keep my standards and expectations of my own craft high.

But I don’t always have high expectations of the books I narrate. When I first began recording audiobooks, I assumed every manuscript that got published and made its way to my sound booth would be artful, insightful, finely-wrought. But let me tell you — that’s far from the truth. Much of what gets published, in print and in audio, is offered to audiences not because the work elevates the soul and spirit of the reader, but because it will sell. And sex sells, violence sells, stereotype sells, anything derivative sells like crazy.

I’ve been very blessed to record  magnificent works of literary art, charming series with recurring characters I adore, and fantastical, sassy, adventure stories, but, like all narrators, I spend my fair share of time recording books that I would never choose to spend time with outside of work.

So when I get a book to narrate that is something very, very special, I am delighted. But I don’t always recognize it immediately. And that was my experience with a book that has become one of my most deeply appreciated  projects to date.

When Harper Audio invited me to narrate a new novel by a sports radio commentator, I was ambivalent. I don’t care about sports at all, except for some sentimentality about the Minnesota Twins (who won the only world series I’ve ever watched, in 1987, with my papa), and a 30-second maximum attention span for YouTube videos of amazing goals by kooky soccer players. I don’t know any names in sports — players, commentators, or otherwise — so when Harper indicated that the book was by Mike Greenberg, my excitement came from finding I had just enough time free in my schedule to squeeze in the recording, not that I was going to work on a book by the man I soon learned was loved and hate-loved by tens of thousands of ESPN devotees.

I started to read All You Could Ask For, which was a funny, well-written story about three women, Brooke, Samantha, and Katherine, who, despite living seemingly perfect lives, were facing challenges I could relate to — broken marriage, aging bodies, bad dates. The book was actually really entertaining, and it was fun and it was all good. It would be a perfectly fine book to spend a week reading and recording.

After I did a little research on Mike, and discovered that he was Greeny, co-host of an enormously popular drive-time radio talk show, I thought it was a little weird that that was the guy writing from first person point of view of three smart, independent, self-assured women, but…you know, I thought, no big deal. The book would probably continue down the path of examining the privileged lives of three affluent women, and, I imagined, they’d all end up in love and happy and a little bit wiser. There would probably be something about sports in there, too, somewhere.

Then Part I of the book came to a close, and Part II picked up, and as I read on, my jaw really did drop as the book took a shocking turn. I know that’s an overused phrase. But I actually was shocked. Not only did I not expect the circumstances of the characters to change so drastically, but I did not expect this sports dude, Mike Greenberg, to write something with so much heart and intensity of feeling. I was deeply moved by the story, by the compassion of the characters, and especially by the bravery that it must have taken for Mike to write something so far out of what I imagined to be his day-to-day life of athletics and competition and stats and scores.

I read through to the end of the book and realized how the story, and the writer, had humbled me. I realized I’d made assumptions about who Mike must be as soon as I learned he was a sports guy, never imagining that he would be as heartfelt, honest, tender, and kind as I now know him to be. My gratitude for the project grew much deeper and my connection to the work much more personal, and my appreciation and affection for Mike was firmly established once I had the pleasure of speaking with him about why the project is some of his most important work so far.

I invite you to listen to the interview, below, in which Mike reveals how the characters in All You Could Ask For were brought to life, how he overcame his doubt and insecurity about such an unlikely project, and what he hopes his novel will inspire and accomplish. It was an honor to be the voice of All You Could Ask For, to speak with Mike, who is an inspiration and a gentleman, and I hope that the novel does make a difference. Today is the publication day, and I congratulate and celebrate Mike, and hope the book finds an enormous audience that is just as grateful as I to spend time with the story, and the story behind the story.

 

The acceptance of failure

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.

 

Little Century

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.

What’s your most outrageous job?

It’s high time I start giving away some free audiobooks, don’t you think? Here’s the start. I have two free copies of my narration of Some Girls, by Jillian Lauren, on CD. Jillian’s memoir is a fascinating account of her experience working as a harem girl for the Sultan of Brunei. Jillian is intrepid and funny and brave and a little outrageous. Now I want your to tell me about your most outrageous job. It can be a job you loved or a job you hated or one you found hilarious or infuriating. Tell your outrageous story in the comments below, in 250 words or less, for your chance to win a copy of Jillian’s story! I’ll post the lucky recipients on Friday, February 1st.

 

Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Dahlia & White Rose

I’m so pleased to have been invited to narrate stories from Joyce Carol Oates‘ collection, Black Dahlia & White Rose, for Harper Audio (to be released on 9/11/12). Oates is a prolific and powerful writer, and I can’t wait to read her stories closely. One of the wonderful things about being both a writer and a voice actor is that, whether the work is beautifully written or not, I get to constantly learn the craft of writing while preparing and narrating books. When I do get an opportunity to work with stories that are thoughtfully crafted, resonant, and evocative, my understanding of writing deepens, and I am utterly inspired. There is reverence in the act of voicing beautiful language and the universal truths that are found in great work.

I’ve only glanced at the book so far while I finish other projects, but I saw in the first story (from which the collection is named) that Oates has made strong, bold choices about structure. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about in my own work, so it’s exciting that this book has found its way to me now (or I’ve found my way to it?).

Except for Black Dahlia & White Rose, which will be multicast with all three of our voices, the stories in the collection are being divided between Coleen Marlo, Paul Michael Garcia, and myself. I wouldn’t want to miss any part of Oates’ writing, so I’ll be reading the collection, as well as some background about the Black Dahlia murder, to prepare for the recording.

Black Dahlia & White Rose: Stories

Robert Fass is a Machine

This June, in honor of June is Audiobook Month 2012, Robert Fass managed to produce thirty videos featuring audiobook professionals, including narrators, publishers, publishers, and others.

It was an impressive accomplishment, and I hope Robert rested after all the work he put in to highlight what dozens of members of the audiobook community are excited about.

I announced two projects in my video, the production of Rachel Corrie’s diary, Let Me Stand Alone, with Ed Asner, and a musical version of the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. Watch the video below, but don’t stop with mine! Visit Robert’s youtube page to see what Jesse Eisenberg, or Scott Brick, or Katy Kellgren have to say about audiobooks! Everyone is excited about audiobooks!