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Writing compelling fiction is like trying to take a picture of the world with the camera pointed backward and the lens cap on. It’s like straining to hear an exquisite singer lip-synching the memory of a melody. Like trying to inhale the scent of an orchid trapped inside a glass globe. Or tasting key lime pie without taking it out of the oven. Or caressing silk and velvet locked away in a brass-bound chest. You have only the abstractions of your senses. Words. Just words. Your own words.
The Bee Gees and Boyzone offered up that sentiment in a song of the same name. “It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away…” Writing is like that. You have to steal hearts with only words. Journey to the stars verbally. Slay villains or save victims with syllables. You must bring out every mote and measure, every nuance, every throbbing passion, aching resolve, burning revenge, resolute quest, inspiration, fear and desire of the human heart, the human mind, the human soul with words alone.
It’s not fair. Singers have Sound. Painters have Palettes. Actors have Audiences up close and personal. But writers must work with abstractions – cold sterile symbols – scribbles, in fact, that stand for words that stand for thoughts that stand for all the universe in a grain of sand.
Them’s the rules. That’s the choice some of you as authors and I have made. And all of us, by the act of merely reading those funny marks printed on a screen or acid-free paper, connect with it. We deal in words. There are advantages. Words leap across chasms of time and space – anywhere, everywhere. All things & events, all people, all ideas – words can get you there without even snapping your fingers. So writers are freedom whores. Their passports read: CROSS ALL BORDERS. Readers get smuggled in with the luggage.
But as I’ve happily learned in the last year, if the writer is lucky enough to team with an audiobook narrator who can reverse engineer the creative process so that the abstract symbol becomes the thing that inspired it again, he can have his cake and eat it too. That’s because the human voice can impart some of the sensory quality and underlying nuance that gets stripped away from the abstract symbol.
This is what happened to me with audio releases of two of my novels, DUST OF EDEN and THE MARTYRING. The narrator turned out to be a remarkable individual whose credentials span both coasts and a lot of art forms. Yes, he has a world-class reader’s voice, but that really doesn’t explain it. It goes to something else: a grasp of the idiom of words, of people, of life. At that level you have to have the eyes, the ears, and something superb between them to process what you experience over the years. You have to do this with accuracy and insight. And you have to add to that an almost anal-retentive fussiness over detail and a craftsman’s ethic to get it right. Because it isn’t fussiness at all if you see deeply enough, and if to you everything that appears to be minutia to everyone else is actually significant. It may not consciously enter the mind of the reader thereafter; but as an artist you know it has impact. This is so in theater, in film, in painting, and music; and it is all the more true with the abstract creation required for writing. The name of this happy confluence of characteristics turned out to be Bob Walter.
From the moment I heard his audition demo I knew he got it. All the nuance and subtlety I thought I put into the book was there in his voice. I heard it in his pace, his emphasis, the rhythm, the changes, the tone – countless meticulous ways – and especially in what I call pause patterns. The pause patterns in particular were quite simply me. The pictures from my imagination, the eccentricities of character and voice, were things I couldn’t insert into abstract symbols. Not easily, anyway. I guess they were there to some degree, else how could Bob hear them. But he did. Not just in my writing. But in my voice – my eccentric voice – the way I talk, think, imagine, feel. This is not easy. Jangly, half poetry, half coinage of obscure metaphors – well, you’re reading me now, so I guess you get a hint. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard friends try to tell others, “No, that’s really how Sully talks.”
Bob Walter got most of it instinctively, intuitively, and he ferreted out the rest. Apologetically at first, he emailed or phoned, trying to nail down the least aspect of interpretation. And, boy, he got them all. Found myself having to explain character background that wasn’t even in the books. I loved it. All meaningful to me…and meaningful to the Wizard of Eartown – Bob’s West Coast studio.
So, with all these provisos, I guess my point is that audiobooks can be a tremendous enhancement to the art of writing and the enjoyment of reading. That wasn’t my mind-set prior to those two novels coming out. I thought audiobooks were something for the car dash if you were too busy to sit down and read. What a delight to find a hybrid art form with its own wings.
Take a look, if you will, at this short film clip of Bob reading from DUST OF EDEN. Scary dude. But that’s a fit with the task at hand. He has acted and directed in many venues, and it shows. Another thing that is rare is that he does not try to usurp the material – he doesn’t point at his own acting. The film clip simply emphasizes what I hear in the audiotapes: that he is reading with every atom of his considerable talents for insight and delivery. Watch his expressions. He talks with his eyebrows. His eyes go from great, gluey innocence to wry cynicism with each character voice. This is a man who gets the material, gets life, and puts it all back out there in a way that connects with some of those missing sensory elements that the written word forgoes. The video clip:
Cheap self-serving pitch to close out here. There are free samplers from both novels at these links:
Thanks for reading…and listening! Have a great March 17th and beyond!
Thomas “Sully” Sullivan
You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage or follow me on Facebook: