Short Story America
Let me apologize right up front if you were stuck behind my little white Mazda on I-95 in the late ’90s, headed south from Washington D.C. to Beaufort, South Carolina. You probably passed me in a furious hurry and wagged your finger at the sight of a furry white dog licking the tears streaming down my face as I drove. You are forgiven for whatever blond, female driver accusation you probably hurtled at me. I blame it all on audio books. One in particular: Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie.” Not only did this book-on-cassette keep me awake, though admittedly distracted, on the nine-hour drive to visit Byrne Miller, it changed the way I understood aging, love, grief and honesty.
Fast forward a few cars, years and hair colors later, and you’ll understand why I knew I wanted to record an audio book version of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” as soon as it was published. As a kid, I adored hearing my mother read books to me and I never outgrew it. I had to get over the weirdness of hearing my own voice when I decided to become a television reporter and studied delivery techniques with a vocal coach in grad school. I’ve been lucky enough to voice everything from documentaries for ETV to virtual news networks for the Department of Homeland Security and a Short Story America piece which aired on NPR.
So when Joggling Board Press’s marketing and social media guru, Will Green, said his recording studio at the JBP offices in Summerville was ready for me I had no reservations. He figured we’d get halfway through if we recorded “The Other Mother” for three days straight. I packed an overnight bag but thought we’d get through much more than that. Afterall, I was known as “one-take Teresa” back at WJWJ.
This is me, on day one of the audio book recording. In a closet. Literally. It’s so small the mic stand legs can’t spread far enough to balance without bungee cord assists. If I felt compelled to do a chicken dance my elbows would scrape the walls.
Now I can’t actually say that I’ve never voiced in a closet before. Back in my Ogilvy days, I had to cut the voice track of a video news release in a storage closet of a conference room at the World Trade Center. But that script was one page, about a minute’s worth of copy. “The Other Mother: a rememoir” is 417 pages – with no soundbites to break up the narration.
Will designed his studio so that he gets to sit outside the closet, listening to the recording through comfy hipster headphones at a spacious desk. The “talent” has to pass strict height and girth requirements to even fit in the shoe-box sized recording booth. Even so, the first day was fun. I tried to image that I was curled up in bed, reading the love story of Byrne and Duncan Miller for the first time. Hours sped by and despite the fact that a guy Will’s age is definitely not the target audience, he fell under the spell of the book as well.
Day two I was a little stiff and sore but my voice was holding up. Susan, my editor and the publisher of Joggling Board Press, had plenty of hot tea and honey on hand and made me stop for soothing snack breaks of plump and juicy grapes (She’s clearly got a bit of Other Mother in her.)
Even when you’ve written and rewritten, and edited and re-edited the words in front of your face, there are surprises in a marathon recording session. Like the sheer number of French and Spanish words that somehow ended up in the book. I don’t speak French, unless you count the ballet terms I learned as a kid. I had to rely on my memory of the way those dance terms sounded on the lips of many dance teachers. The street Spanish sprinkled through the pages are much fresher memories and I’ve always found the language lyrical and lovely to speak.
The tough part came when I hit the chapters where I incorporate lyrics from The Doors into the dialog between young Teresa and her common-law-husband. It made perfect sense when I wrote the book. The half-Mexican surfer character, Sonny, listened to Jim Morrison all the time. Songs like “Gloria,” “Light My Fire” and “The End” and were the soundtrack of our relationship.
But when they popped back up in front of me, I had to make a split second decision about how to deliver those lines in spoken form. On the first pass I did it straight.
Now that we know each other a little bit better, why don’t you come over here? Make me feel alright.
I could hear Susan’s guffaw from the other side of the closet wall. My PBS-serious delivery of a familiar lyric was laugh-out-loud funny. We took a break. Listened to the song on the internet. Marveled at the way Jim Morrison manages to sound simultaneously stoned and psychic. He sneers the words and yet they’re seductive. He belts out “make me feel alright” with a raspy earnestness that still makes fathers guard their daughters with shotguns.
I tried imitating it. It was even funnier than saying it straight. I tried sing speaking it. I sounded more ridiculous each minute. Finally we decided I would try to deliver the line with Jim Morrison’s cadence and rhythm since there was no way I could mimic anything else. I climbed back into the closet, took a deep breath and only exhaled when I didn’t hear Susan or Will laughing. We did multiple takes and I’ll leave it to the judgment of a 29-year-old man to pick the version least likely to elicit howls from future listeners.
Day three and I was so claustrophobic, in character and eye-strained that I would have belted out any Jim Morrison lyrics with abandon. My one-take reputation began to crumble. Infusions of Starbucks didn’t even help. As I read each chapter I kept thinking of my likely audience – women of all ages – and how they wouldn’t be charmed by the froggy, come hither instrument my voice was becoming. We took a long lunch break and I let Will and Susan do all the talking, thinking I’d bounce back. Still, by two o’clock I was clearing my throat with more frequency than I finished sentences. I learned exactly where vocal chords begin, lower down than I had assumed before they started stinging and chafing like sand paper on a paper cut.
Ironically, just as I was falling apart, Will was hitting the book’s stride. It’s riveting stuff – electroshock therapy, schizophrenia, burlesque, open marriages, and phony marriages. He was following along so closely that he could almost predict when I would switch words or omit them altogether. At 2:30pm, a shade before the Kindle counter said I’d reached 50% of the book, Will made the executive decision to stop and record the rest when my voice has recovered.
The Other Mother: a rememoir” may be deliciously intriguing, even shocking, but it shouldn’t sound like I’m reading “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Beaufort plays host to another cultural first this weekend – the first annual Short Story America Festival. You get to hear the award-winning stories from the anthology Short Story America 1 and 2 read aloud – sometimes by fans like me and other times by the authors themselves. Like Ron Tucker has done for the Beaufort International Film Festival, Tim Johnston and his army of volunteers have managed to get many of the authors themselves to come from around the country to share their work. So if you love the Q&A with filmmakers and screenwriters you met at BIFF, here’s your chance to talk to some of the country’s best short story writers. They’re even going to play a short film from BIFF during intermission Saturday evening, the wonderfully scary “Beast”, which I’m betting started out as a short story.
I’ll admit – I’m not a long-time devotee of short stories; I’m more of a recent convert. What converted me were the short stories my poet friends got me reading – Mary Alice Monroe, Rosario Castellanos and Etgar Keret and the like. I began to see how much the literary form has in common with poetry – the concision, the layering of meaning and the musicality of carefully chosen words. So it came as no big surprise to realize that the poet Warren Slesinger (USCB students might know him as professor Slesinger, others as the publisher of Bench Press and the guy he first published, Ron Rash) is also a great short story writer. The stories I’ve heard him read at Otram Slabess gatherings are like mirrors of his heart – they cut right to what pauses him, what haunts him. They are elegant and wistful and they say more in a few pages than some of the great big long mighty famous novels of late did (I’m talking to you – Roberto Bolano and the practically 2666 days of misery you put me through)
You can hear Warren read his work “Box of Light” at an 11am session on Saturday at USCB and “Once Again and Then” during the second half of the evening session of readings. The other must-see event, in my opinion, is Natalie Daise’s reading of Guy Tirondola’s “Israel’s Pig.” Great, I just realized the award winning actress (she’s way more than Gullah Gullah Island, in case you’re in a time warp, Natalie’s latest artistic triumph is her one-woman show as Harriet Tubman) reads right before I do. Talk about a hard act to follow. Luckily, I’ll be reading a great story by a very talented New England writer who unfortunately can’t come – Michele Coppola. I won’t give it away, but anyone who’s ever loved a dog, or a man, will feel this one in the gut.
So – to come – the best deal is to go online and “register” for an all-events pass. IT’s easy…just click this . For $35 you get to go to a reception Friday night in the Old Bay Marketplace Loft where authors will sign copies of Short Story America, plus free entrance to the writing seminars Saturday morning and the readings. Here’s a good wrapup of the schedule from the literary champions at Low Country Weekly. I’m hoping Tim and the writers get a big turnout so the festival stays where it started, right here, instead of moving on to bigger cities.