Posts Tagged ‘characters’

My Good Friend Rick Steinberg Mentioned…

December 29th, 2006 7 comments

<!–[if supportFields]> SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1<![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>

by Dick Hill

I think my good friend Rick Steinberg mentioned in these pages as he covered for me last month that he did so because I was involved in the longest, most challenging narration job of my life, the taping of AGAINST THE DAY, Thomas Pynchon’s latest, longest, long awaited novel, to which information I must add my confession , that in truth I had never read Pynchon before being awarded this job, which, given the buzz about the work, and the huge splash created in literary waters by the controversial prize-winner and his Olympic sized opus, I consider it an honor to have been charged with, particularly in light of the enormous challenges presented by a genius of this sort to any reader, let alone a reader presuming to read the words aloud, for those words issue forth in a variety of styles that range from boy’s adventure novel to science-fiction to humorous song, (not always in English) to noir detective homage, and through half a dozen more styles and enough characters (numbering in the hundreds!) that I created an alphabetized set of index cards to keep their voices straight, though not all of the characters were, straight that is, for a fair number of them were of Cambridge education, though among those were not the anarchists, bombers, private detectives, nor Bela Lugosi or any of the plutocrats or the quaternionists and other mathematical types who spouted formulae that were greek to me and for the most part the western American sorts who brought to mind sometimes the classic literary cowboy sort though they tended more often to have a mining background which accounted for their familiarity with explosives that gave them a connection to other miners and bombers in Europe and Italian submariners and of course the wonderful yet awful mayonnaise drowning scene and the various foreign names and places which posed a challenge which was surpassed only by the master writer’s incredible vocabulary, embracing as it did an awe-inspiring and somewhat depressing number of English words I’d never before heard nor dreamt of and all this in a book of 1085 pages, which came out to a little over 53 hours of recorded audio and the largest check I have ever received, said fact being but one of the marvels about this work, not the least of which was the occasional inclusion of sentences nearly as long as this one, though far more gracefully shaped.

That’s in contrast to something I heard yesterday on NPR, a

snippet in which some sort of challenge was made to sum up an idea, or a life principle, or even, perhaps, a life in only six words. The fellow did so thusly, as an example

“If there’s more, I want it”. Six words. They said a lot.

It appears to me that unless one is truly titanic in terms of talent, (as Mr. Pynchon most certainly is, in my estimation. My director, engineer, lover, wife Susie and I stopped to marvel at some passage of cutting humor, erotic intensity, brilliant philosophical insight, groan-worthy punsmanship or some other masterstroke of literary derring-do a hundred times or more) it might be wise to exercise some judicious restraint when it comes to verbiage, and the six word exercise might be helpful in developing writer’s muscles of that sort . That’s all I have this month. I may be fulla’ shit. Often am. So here I offer my attempt, …….

Cut, cut, then cut some more.

dick hill

It's not Jazz This Time, but…

October 30th, 2006 5 comments

by Dick Hill

Okay, it’s not jazz this time, though jazz did trigger this little riff, for what it’s worth. I’m not a trained singer, but I’ve always had iron pipes, and a pretty good musical sense. (Not a trained musician of any sort, but I’ve played one on tv. Well, on stage, anyway.) In years past I’ve had a fair number of roles in musicals. Some chorus work, but mostly character or even lead roles. It was easier for me to sing solo than to do chorus work, because of the freedom I had, well, the freedom I took, to tweak the song a bit so I could hit it with my vocal sweet spot so to speak. Capitalize on my strengths, such as they were, and avoid my weaknesses in front of an audience accepting of such practice.

Sometimes, though, I’ve found myself in a situation where “style” wasn’t an option, and I had to sing it as written. Some bit of an oratorio or a madrigal, some such hoary piece that was better known by the listeners than by me. In over my head, out of my depth. Either sing the piece as written and expose my inability to do so well, or rearrange it slightly to lie within reach of my strengths and do a good job handling a bad imitation of the original. Either way is bound to disappoint the knowledgeable, and unfortunately, there are knowledgeable folks out there. I attend a church, well, a Unitarian Universalist church, which is more like a debating society than a church, and find myself asked to sing such pieces occasionally. This is definitely a knowledgeable crowd, but I give it my best shot, comforting myself with thoughts of the humility I’m exercising. And hey, they’re Unitarians. Like that kid Mikey in the old commercial, they’ll eat anything, A not quite so accepting listener, however, would at the very least, pity my shortcomings, or if I tried to disguise them by rewriting, by making it up to suit myself, despise them, and walk out of the joint.

All this comes to mind because of a piece I recently recorded. In it, a rather stereotyped tough guy is speaking to the woman he eventually wins in the end. Part of the author’s rendering of this guy as a man’s man who can stand up to all villains and win the heart of the fair maiden is to make him an ex-Marine. Fairly widely accepted shorthand for tough, capable, manly man. As an ex-jarhead myself, I generally have no problem with that characterization. Fuckin’ A, straight shit, USMC, Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children. I’ll buy into that any day, and even do what I can to spread the legend. HOOrah. However, this author goes on to have the guy explaining the necessity of a tough decision to the heroine by relating a combat story. One where he and the other members of his squad of hard-bitten elites left wounded comrades crying out for help in the jungle because a platoon, or maybe it was a company, of NVA were closing in. Marines do not, I repeat, do not, leave their wounded behind. It’s an article of faith. Part of life. I imagine it has happened some time or other, but any Marine who acted that way would not pull the incident out and use it as an illustration of hard-headed realism, or whatever the hell it was the author was shooting for. It would have been a gnawing shameful secret that ate at the guy’s gut and colored his entire life in dark murky grays. (Which would have made for a far more interesting story) Any Marine who came across that passage would be likely to toss that book, the same way any classical music lover would likely walk out of the joint if I tried my bush-league Broadway-Vegas stylings on the bass-baritone solos from Handel’s Messiah. Hell, I’m not even sure if I spelled Handel right, (Haendel?). I sure as hell can’t sing his stuff.

Guess what I’m saying is, even fiction writers have to hew to a certain level of accepted truth. Fail to do so at your own peril. Even more appalling is failure to fact-check and edit carefully in non-fiction. (Funny how our brains work, mine leading me to this next story of non-factual facts, which I’d all but forgotten.) Tun’s Tavern, 10 November 1775, Philadelphia is a date any jarhead knows as well as his own birthday, and probably better than his or her spouses. It’s the birthday of the Marine Corps. Can you imagine my shock, some years back, to be recording a non-fiction history of the Corps that started off by getting that date wrong? By a fair number of years? I informed the publisher I could not and would not record the piece as it stood. It went back for fact checking and further editing, leaving me to wonder why in hell that hadn’t happened first, and what would have happened if the reader hadn’t known better. They held up the print edition too. Maybe there’s less effort to fact check and edit these days than there is to market. There’s certainly a world of difference between the bulk of what I see nowadays and the beautifully flowing, mistake free books I’ve taped by Faulkner, say, or Twain.

I’ve also come across numerous passages in the many outdoors books, or thrillers, or police procedurals, where authors have described simply impossible feats of marksmanship or physical prowess in a book that isn’t written in the style of an over the top, mythically gifted kind of thing, but seems instead to want to be taken as true life, gritty realism. You lose the grit and the realism when suddenly your anti-hero becomes super-hero.

So write about what you know, and check what you write for accuracy and feasibility. Then check it again. Don’t have much more to offer than that I’m afraid, and won’t have a chance to try to do better. Things have been incredibly busy in the studio, more work than I’ve ever had, and absolutely no time to do anything BUT work for weeks now. However, part of the work involves doing a little checking myself, a bit of research, not for facts, but for pronunciations. And that led me to a phone call today checking pronunciations of various wise-guy’s names with a source given me by the author of a soon-to-be-released non-fiction book. A very helpful, amiable fellow who, among a life full of other crimes, had happened to kill six people. Real life guy every bit as colorful as anything I’ve ever seen in a Scorcese flick or on HBO. Also bright and funny. Way cool.

So that’s all I’ve got this week, and even that may be of questionable value. I may be fulla’ shit. Often am.

–Dick Hill


September 29th, 2006 8 comments

by Dick Hill

You can’t have jazz without rhythm. It may be familiar, a 32 bar, repeating sort of thing, or it may be Brubeck telling you to Take Five but do it in four, or creating a seven-sided unsquare dance, but in some form or other it’s there. Same, or so it seems to this non-writing reader, with writing. Now, I’m talkin’ prose, not poetry, so it’s not gonna’ be as readily apparent. In fact, most often, it may not be apparent at all. But I believe it’s there. It’s what guides my delivery as I record, and I think it does the same for your readers who don’t move their lips. I’m not sure writers are always conscious of the rhythms they bring to a piece, it may be something that flows unconsciously from their pens, but it is nonetheless there. A major part of my job is finding that rhythm.

Sometimes the rhythm is something that only plays out over a series of scenes, or even chapters, which I guess you could liken to the rhythm of the seasons, sometimes more immediate, like the beating of a heart. I once recorded Hawthorne’s THE SCARLET LETTER, with its customary introductory piece, THE CUSTOM HOUSE. Take a look at just one Hawthorne sentence…

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf,—but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig, half-way down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood,—at the head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass,—here, with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious edifice of brick. Compare that to the robust rhythms, say, of Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.

I’m pretty free-wheeling and improvisational, as much as you can be, when I record people’s work. I read every word, of course, and use my voice as best I can to match mood and character, but I often ignore punctuation, stringing sentences together in a breakneck or breathless manner to underscore the author’s intent. It works well in the audio format, and I’ve gotten very positive responses from authors regarding this practice. If the author were to put it on paper the way I deliver it, it’d probably look like stream of consciousness, and might be a bit off putting, yet that is often the truest presentation of what they offer, and they’ve told me as much. It’s not something I’m inventing or imposing, so much as uncovering……simply giving voice to. I have a hunch many of your readers unconsciously pick up on the rhythm of a scene in the same manner, racing through action scenes, lingering and savoring more lyrical, evocative passages. I sometimes pause, as if searching for the perfect word, the capper, to some thought. Of course I don’t need to search, it’s right there on the printed page, but the search enhances the value of what follows.

Just yesterday I recorded a short story by Tolstoy, YOUTH. It was a beautiful recollection of summer nights, of stepping silently into the dark wonder of the lawn surrounding a house, of listening to the sounds of life retiring inside, awakening in the trees without. It demanded a slow unfolding of memory’s treasures, set off and made sacred by still, hushed caesuras. Like negative space in art, those pauses can be eloquent, allow the listener to join me in that moment of search, before sharing that sense of wonder and awe in discovering ”…both Nature and the moon and I were one.”, which I offered slowly and reverently as…”both Nature (beat) and the moon (beat) and I (lo-o-ng beat) were one.”

There is a rhythmic possibility, if not inevitability, inherent in all writing. I do my best to uncover those possibilities when I read aloud, and I think your readers do the same, if not as consciously and purposefully as I do. But then, I’m offering a performance of sorts, appearing, as a friend and fellow voice talent put it, in the role of Ivana Paychek, and it behooves me to do everything I can to honor and embrace through my craft what the writer has created through his art. What Sinatra, or Ella, or Mel Torme do with their phrasing of a lyric, that’s what I aspire to do when I read. Hey, a guy’s gotta’ dream, right?

Sometimes a writer will very consciously offer a rhythm that is impossible to ignore. One that is purposefully used to drive home a message of importance. One that grabs you by the throat, (or the heart) and demands you listen. One that says, here, pay heed to what I say. Want a great example of that sort of strength? Take a look at my friend Rick Steinberg’s last entry. Librarians.

So I’m gonna’ wind this up now. A commercial catch phrase just horned in on my thoughts. Beef. It’s what for dinner. Rhythm. It makes good writing. Of course, I may be fulla’ shit. Often am.

Gonna’ sign off with my trigger words, to prime the pump for next month’s attempt, same as I did last month. Jazz again. I think there’s something more there.

— Dick Hill


August 29th, 2006 10 comments

By Dick Hill

So my friend puts me in touch with a guy who asks if I want to be a contributor to this collaborative journal, Storytellers Unplugged. I’ve read some of his entries, and some from other folks, so I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with it. Write about writing? Not exactly the best fit, I thought. In the first place, I’m not a writer. I don’t write. Other than emails, an occasional letter to the editor, and last month a letter of recommendation for a good friend seeking tenure. (I got a real kick out of that one. Took me four and a half years, plus two summer school sessions to make it out of high school, and that was it for formal education and me. Truancy, minor crimes, boredom, lack of discipline, you name it. Just not cut out for school. So there I was, writing a letter explaining why I felt Dr. Michael Pal’o’mine should be granted tenure in the Department of Fancy Academic Stuff at a small midwestern college. I should point out that Michael does indeed teach and lecture about Fancy Academic Stuff, but he himself is not a Fancy Academic. Regular sort of guy. For a Brit. When he asked if I would write this thing, speaking as a professional of some regard in my definitely not chosen, more or less stumbled into, field, I was happy to oblige. Asked him if he had a preference as to what color crayon I used. But I digress.)

I have written some things for the stage, and they were produced, one even won a prize, but once I’d satisfied myself that yes, I could write a musical review, and yes I could write a successful straight play, I had no further interest. I don’t feel I have anything to share with the world that hasn’t already been said, and far better than I could ever manage, so my writing pretty much ground to a well deserved halt. I have some talent in that regard, (easy claim to make if you have no output for people to look at) but I am by no means a writer. As my aforementioned friend who nudged me toward this exercise has often said, writers write.

So just what is it I can offer to this journal? Well, I may not write, but I do read. I do it aloud. Into a microphone. It’s how I earn my living, and it’s a fairly decent one. I’m lucky enough to have stumbled into this work, which seems to be a perfect match for my talents and temperament. I’m lucky that critics and listeners and authors generally seem to feel I’m good at it. I have recorded a lot of books. From Twain and Steinbeck down to mystifyingly successful hacks whose names I wouldn’t share even if I hadn’t managed to erase them from my memory. When you record an audiobook, you are reading every single word, doing your best to find what’s of value and present it in the best way possible. Since you are reading every single word, savoring what’s delicious, trying to make up for what’s not as well prepared with superior plating and presentation, you notice a lot. A lot. Things that are filled with grace, things that are clumsy and misshapen. Things that lead you toward truth and beauty on paths you’d never have discovered on your own, things that limp and shuffle and walk blindly into walls, and expect you to follow. If the creators of those literary lumps could hear what sort of remarks are exchanged among the narrator and director and engineers as they deal with such things, they’d be appalled. And maybe, in some small way, enlightened, . The work may work 99.9 percent of the time, but all it takes is one pothole to make the reader stop and groan, deal with the sense of outrage at what the author has tried to foist upon him, or perhaps merely neglected to attend to, and fall out of that suspension of disbelief that I think is as necessary for readers as for theater audiences. Maybe if I share a few observations from the booth, they might serve to help aspiring, or even established, writers produce something that will flow more evenly, engage more completely, or at the very least, not offend. Then again, I may be fulla’ shit. Often am.

Some writer or other has said that he always ends his sessions by setting down a word or sentence that will be the start of his next day’s work. Can’t remember who it was, but he was an actual writer, and as such, knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, so I’ll take his advice, hoping that next month it will prove helpful to me. Jazz. Next month, jazz.