Reading is the necessary rehearsal or preparation for the act and art of writing. But so is listening. Really, have you ever just had to put a book down and give up on it? Even some of the greatest authors just make it hard to sit still and pay attention for long. And by “long” I don’t mean the “short attention span theater” type that has a million devices dinging and buzzing all around, but the avid reader who looks forward to the quiet moments alone with a book. The first author I think of when I admit great admiration of, but little patience, for is Salman Rushdie, one of the most wondrous minds of our time. How he can write so extensively about so many disparate character types and subjects, not to mention locations and cultures, is beyond my comprehension. How do I know he is so wonderful if I just admitted that his verbosity makes me squirm? I LISTEN to him.
Audio books are not a new phenomenon nor are they hard to find, but did you ever really consider that the medium through which the story is delivered can affect the enjoyment factor and even affect comprehension? Of course it can. Professional storytellers are professionals for the very reason that they are able to deliver a tale through the expert command of language, inflection, diction, pace, and tone. Now, these vocal skills are enhanced by body language. Take away the body language, and you have only the one tool left to catch the audience. The voice.
I adore listening to Rushdie read his books. I can listen to him for the hours it takes to complete a novel and even look forward to a re-listen. I believe that his ability to capture the reader lies in the fact that he is the only one who has the personal connection to the text to deliver it as it should be with all the inflections, ironies, pain, and even objective distance that a reader must provide the listener. This is not to say that only the author can engage a listening reader, but the voice artist must seem to fully immerse himself in the telling.
Neil Gaiman is another author whom I cannot help but be captivated by when he reads. I don’t think I could listen to anyone else read his works though. He has such a wonderful and highly individual speaking voice that I’m definitely prejudiced in favor of his voice being the only one for my ears. I will also add that I can sit with Gaiman’s texts easily. He does not factor into the “can only listen to or I’m out” category.
The first time I actually listened to Rushdie, he was read by one of my favorite actors Art Malik whom I remember best for playing Hari Kumar in Masterpiece Theatre’s production of The Jewel in the Crown, in, gads, 1984 (I’m feeling old right now). It might have been that I was inclined to enjoy the text hearing that lovely voice of Malik’s, but I don’t think he would have lasted if he was not sincere in his verbal interpretation of the text as a whole. Once I listened to Rushdie read some of his other works though, I decided it was Rushdie or no one.
Perhaps it is simply that I can picture Malik, or Rushdie, or Gaiman as I hear them. Perhaps the visual aspect of storytelling does come in to play here as well. I envision them performing. That is something to consider. Regardless, while I’ve covered the easy part—listening to famous authors—let’s think about how to find new authors in the same way. With the little time that I have to read or re-read even the texts that I have to spend time with for my work, I find it hard to get to the pile of those I am interested in for pure enjoyment. And how do I find new works to add to my list of “must reads”? I LISTEN to these new voices. I make the time to go to readings and observe the writer deliver her work. Even truncated tales or works in progress are worth the time spent if the author can draw you in and make you want him to finish the work soon or deliver a signed copy into your hands before the night is through.
My recent personal literary resolution is to find as many local authors as I can and familiarize myself with their works. I say “personal” because my work as a professor (adjunct assistant, read “broke but happy”) and tutor does not always allow me to be as exclusive in my choices. A couple of weeks ago, I found a flier on the counter in my husband’s gallery in Flemington, NJ (small plug: Kissimmee River Pottery; www.riverpots.com). It announced that the SOMI Fine Art Gallery, just down the sidewalk from our studio, was to host an evening of readings by David Galef, Mia Siegert, and Cassia Rainne (aka Keisha Thorpe). This announcement came just in time. As my yoga instructors always remind me, when events or experiences are ready for you and you ready for them, they will become available. Well, we were ready for each other. I’d been dying to learn again. I spend so much time teaching writing and being isolated with my own projects that I begin to miss the thrill of being guided by someone and of sharing ideas. I try to encourage my students to find themselves in even the least desired or interesting assignments they must complete. At the least, I tell them, you don’t have to love writing, but you must be able to respect your own language and ideas to present them clearly and fully. That goes for fiction and nonfiction. All well and good, but where is my guru and guide these days? It’s good that I never feel competitive with other writers. I feel inspired by the gifted ones, hopeful for the weakest or beginners of the group. The point is finding the right group and, on this particular night, the right group came to me.
*Galef is a prolific author and is currently professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Montclair State University. I picked up a copy of his latest book of short stories My Date with Neanderthal Woman after he read to us about a kleptomaniac as described to us by her loving husband. It was amusing, enthralling, bizarre, and poignant. As now go through my notes from the night, scribbled on the back of the flier for the readings, I remember something very interesting about this couple, the kleptomaniac and the CPA. Well, I’ll start with the fact that the husband is a CPA. Order vs. chaos and unpredictability? Too obvious? I feel it to be more amusing than predictable. While Galef lists off the strange behaviors of this wife and her obsession, which happens to spiral inwards and affect her husband’s own belongings, he refers at times to Plato. This switch from mundane weirdness to cerebral ruminations did not isolate those who had not taken Philosophy 101 or one of The Great Courses on DVD. His references guided us to an understanding of the characters and Galef himself, rather than weeding us out and making us feel embarrassed. I feel that a great read should of course contain believable events and that the historical, literary, philosophical references, etc., must be accurate. But must it necessarily require extensive research for the reader and audience to understand all references? No. Galef helps us out knowing we might need it and without holding a grudge.
It was freeing to hear him acknowledge that the works in My Date with Neanderthal Woman have no particular connecting thread. What a relief to know that not all writing must be so perfectly definable. Let it flow.
Wow. Yes, I am partial to the short story form, but with so many volumes of work competing for my attention, listening to Galef put me over the edge and into ownership of his text. I found him in it as he read. Galef enjoyed the text as much as we loved giving him our attention.
Mia Siegert graduated with an MFA from Goddard College and has been teaching fiction courses at Southern New Hampshire University as well as various locations in Hunterdon Co., New Jersey. Her bio notes that she has been published by Word Riot, Capboard House, and soon, by Robocup Press. We were treated to an excerpt from a YA novel in progress that, from what we experienced, will most probably be a must read for both the YA crowd and adults who appreciate a mature and believable approaches to adolescent and teenage perspectives on family and personal development.
Siegert also shared a brief passage from a novel she is in the process of developing based on real-life events in the “A” circuit equestrian world. Honestly, when I heard “horse” I thought, “oh, not another person trying to pass whinnies and rolling eyes off as knowledge of horses.” But, as it turns out, she has worked under the tutelage of George Morris, the top of the heap in the Hunter/Jumper world for those who have not travelled that route. While I was too faint of heart to work with the fierce Morris myself, I did train with a number of his students and colleagues. Siegert is the real deal. She knows the A circuit. She knows the scandals too and I can’t wait to see what she makes of them. I hope in some aspects, only the names have been changed. The stories need to be told, but not for the sake of the “gotcha” factor but for the sake of the people now entering the business and the horses still in the field. Awareness can only lead to better practices. Siegert is not obligated to hold the torch for change though. I would not be averse to her own interpretation for her own reasons. After all, her work is fiction and at this she is no slouch.
Cassia Rainne is also a graduate of Goddard College with an MFAW. Like me, she is an adjunct professor but also an academic advisor. I was astounded to find that she also acts, directs, and produces. I can understand why she was a radio host for a number of years. Her soft but clear and direct voice holds your attention during both her readings and her casual discussion. I love that the end of her bio tells us that in what I assume is her minimal spare time she can be found “standing in tree pose focusing on what’s next.” Wow, as a yoga enthusiast myself, I completely get that. The balance and focus it takes to stay in proper tree pose is much like the focus and attention that one needs to stay on the creative path. Many distractions want to pull us off our delicately balanced stance and our own doubts or competing desires can prevent that foot from even lifting off the floor to begin with.
What can I say about her work? What I remember most pointedly is the mood she created. She had us all in a trance as her warm voice told us of a woman simply preparing eggs. But the eggs were not the point so much as what memories and musings their presence triggered. I am probably not doing her story justice, but what I can say is that I’m dying to hear it again and more of it. Her style is a mix of observation and intentionally limited explanation. We are both voyeurs and confidents as we stand in the room with the character and listen to her history while watching her every move. We are with her, yet her privacy does not seem violated by our presence. The delivery here is all in the rhythm of the words and their patterns of logic.
Now, none of this is to say that I would not have wanted to read any of these authors’ works if I had not heard them first. A bad book is a bad book as far as I’m concerned, but quality work is illuminated by empathetic reading, no matter how brief the encounter. This experience brought to this intimate gathering 3 worthwhile pens and voices.
Here are some memorable statements and sound ideas from the authors given during the Q & A session and so graciously in casual conversation afterward (as I recall and decipher from my notes):
Galef: When asked how much of the author must be expected to seep into a narrative, Galef stated simply but strongly that “the self is inescapable.” I take this to mean that a work must not necessarily at any point be autobiographical, but one must not expect to disappear entirely, nor desire to. What you learn often becomes what your characters know, don’t you think?
Rainne: When I asked her what ignites the idea for a story, she discussed not needing to plan or brainstorm so much as letting a moment of inspiration or even a simple object like an egg take her on a path. She lets the moment be “the moment.”
Siegert: “I don’t want to write about me,” she smiled and said. Siegert does not argue that our own selves and experiences may very well feed our creations. After all, her forthcoming novel about the world of A-circuit horse shows is inspired by real life. She does share with us that one of her most challenging assignments was to write from a boy’s perspective or someone she could not readily form just by reaching inside for like a kind of Eve’s rib.
For more on these wonderful writers:
Cassia Rainne: contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Purple Shamrock’s Facebook page
David Galef: http://www.davidgalef.com
*I had unfortunately conflated two of David’s stories when I wrote this blog. The CPA and his kleptomaniac wife can be found in “Petty Larceny” while “More Than a Platonic Relationship” is the tale that, as the title reflects, contains the references to Plato. David was very gracious in his correction and I am pleased to be able to make good on my mistake.