Or, a light-hearted and insincere look at how great writers can make a narrator’s life a living hell
So I got an e-mail a year or so ago from Harlan Coben asking me to record his latest book, THE WOODS. No problem, I told him, I’d be thrilled! Well, when I got the news a few months ago I’d been tapped to read his latest, HOLD TIGHT, I shot him a note to tell him how much I was looking forward to it. He sent me a really nice reply, telling me he thought I’d like this one, as it was probably more demanding than his previous titles. “It’s a little different, a little broader,” he told me,…Keep Reading
So I got an e-mail a year or so ago from Harlan Coben asking me to record his latest book, THE WOODS. No problem, I told him, I’d be thrilled! Well, when I got the news a few months ago I’d been tapped to read his latest, HOLD TIGHT, I shot him a note to tell him how much I was looking forward to it. He sent me a really nice reply, telling me he thought I’d like this one, as it was probably more demanding than his previous titles. “It’s a little different, a little broader,” he told me, “five different families whose lives intersect in shocking and tragic ways. Lots and lots of viewpoints. Should be a fun challenge for you.”
Yeah, okay, that’s all well and good, Harlan, but let me go on the record here: Challenges from authors SUCK. Whatever happened to easy reads? To simple, straightforward plots with uncomplicated character breakdowns? Would I really be asking for too much to have a story all take place in ONE person’s head…?
Okay, yes, I’m BSing here, my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek. But bear with me, I’ve got a valid point.
See, for years authors have, in the interest of good storytelling, thrown in tons of bizarre facts and obscure cultural references, liberally sprinkling tongue-twisting nationalities throughout their tales. All well and good; these stories certainly wind up being far more complex than any typical single-locale, single-nationality plotline. But I’m the poor sap who has to say all these obscure words out loud!
Do you have any idea how hard it is to sound believable when you’ve got a conversation between two characters, one of which is from Botswana and the other from Lapland? How about when one of them is a man while the other is a woman? Or when the person from Botswana grew up in Malaysia but served an apprenticeship in Missoula, Montana? Or the guy from Lapland is such a Francophile that he affects a ridiculous French accent, but can’t quite pull off the rolling Rs?
I’ve had those situations come up. It ain’t fun, folks. I’ve barely heard of Botswana, probably couldn’t even find it on a map. You think I’m really going to sound spot-on? That kind of blending of accents is almost as tough as the time I had to read a 20-page scene portraying a dinner party in Argentina during World War II. The dozen or so guests around the table that night were from America, England, Germany, Brazil and Switzerland. There was also a woman from Brazil who’d been educated in Great Britain, and a man from Argentina who had been raised in Texas. And to round things out, there were even two minor characters from Ireland and Scotland. (Ever notice how similar those two accents sound? You’re starting to feel my pain.)
All this to say, Harlan’s e-mail made my heart skip a beat. It actually reminded me of a conversation I had with Brad Meltzer several years back, right before we sat down to record THE ZERO GAME. Brad and I usually chat on the phone to go over character names, pronunciations, that kind of thing. He’ll also occasionally throw in an obscure verbal reference, and will want to make sure I clarify that for the listening audience.
Well, having just finished my initial read-through of ZERO GAME, I was struck by the fact that, halfway through the novel, Brad changes the narrator: It starts off being narrated by one Washington insider, then winds up being narrated by his best friend. Knowing how fickle the reading public can be, knowing how much they hate change, I was blown away Brad would do something so daring. When I asked him why, he told me: “Well, to be honest, one of the reasons was because I wanted to hear how different you made the two characters sound.”
I shook my head and told him, “Brad, I hate to tell you this, but they’re both gonna wind up sounding like me.”
(A note: In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t do over-the-top character voices. Accents yes, where called for; subtle nuances, absolutely; but nothing you’d call cartoon voices or anything. Narrator characters are almost always me; every other character is just various degrees separated from my own voice.)
I had to laugh at Brad’s comment. To be honest, I found it gratifying, as much as I like bitching about it. I laugh because Brad had already been doing stuff in books that made his stories oh so much more challenging than other authors. In THE MILLIONAIRES, he went on and on about the tonal qualities of the bad guy’s Chicago accent – and I, of course, had never even been to Chicago at the time. In ZERO GAME, he went into incredible detail about the differences between northern and southern Floridian accents. And yes, again, at the time I narrated it, I’d never been to the Sunshine State, so how was I supposed to know a northerner from a southerner? He even delved into the intricacies of the flat vowels inherent in the North Dakota accent, and the closest I’d been to that part of the country was seeing FARGO! Man, I started wondering if Brad hated me or something! His latest should be landing in my e-mail box in a few weeks, due out in a couple’a months, and I shudder to think of the Eastern Kuala Lumpur accents in store for me this time.
Okay, I’m going to stop bitching now, because I can’t quite pull off the aggrieved- audiobook-narrator thing. Cry me a river, right? And besides, it being April Fool’s Day, and Brad Meltzer’s birthday, I have to remind anyone who bought into the idea I’m seriously complaining about authors being involved in their own audiobooks to check the date on this posting. I’ve got the coolest job in the world, and authors who put challenges into their books for me to tackle are a godsend, literally. I actually feel quite blessed. I just like bitching and moaning sometimes.
I’ll finish up by explaining that Harlan Coben’s e-mail to me was dead-on: There were indeed a plethora of various character points of view in HOLD TIGHT, which you’ll be able to experience firsthand in a few weeks; April 15th the book hits shelves near you. If you’ve never read his work, you’re in for a treat. Harlan specializes in the surprise, he makes the double-cross an art form.
He’s got a natural gift for something the legendary silent film star Buster Keaton used to do. Buster would stage a scene where he was driving a car towing a house across train tracks, and there’s a train approaching in the distance. The car, of course, would stall, and Keaton would strain mightily to push or drag the house out of danger. Finally he’d run off, avert his gaze and pray, and miraculously the train would pass them by. It turns out it had been on a parallel track — the impending doom was just an illusion, there was no peril at all. Then, just as Keaton would sigh in gratitude and seeming safety, a train would come from the other direction and plow through the house, reducing it to splinters. The initial danger was an illusion, but that moment of safety was a bigger one.
Keaton used to call that “The Big No.” Harlan Coben’s books are like that. Don’t blink, don’t relax, and for God’s sake, don’t get complacent.
Anybody who loved THE WOODS as I did will also get a kick out of a particular story element in HOLD TIGHT. No spoilers here, but trust me, you’ll dig it.
Okay, time to head back to the studio. Gotta polish my Australian accent for THE ATLANTIS PROPHECY, cuz wouldn’t you know, the protagonist’s girlfriend just HAS to be from Sydney…! Thank you, author Thomas Greanias!
Thanks for listening. Happy April Fool’s Day!