Reading Myself Aloud | The New Yorker
I’m sitting in a small glass soundproof booth. A microphone, suspended from the ceiling, hangs in front of me. This is huge and round, like a luxury showerhead covered with fine metal mesh. Below it, on a slanting surface, lies the glowing screen of an iPad. This contains my most recent novel, “Dawson’s Fall.” When you write a book, you know every word of it. If you are an obsessive, you have rewritten and reconsidered every one of these words, hundreds of times. It should be easy to read them aloud.
My publisher wrote me about an audio version, sending an actor’s audition tape. An actor seemed necessary for this complicated narrative. It’s set mostly in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1889, but the main character (Dawson, my great-grandfather) is English and grew up in London. He came here to fight for the Confederacy and lived the rest of his life in Charleston. He married Sarah, my great-grandmother, who was from Baton Rouge. They both spoke French, and they hired a French governess so the family could speak it at home. There are other characters, too, local friends and family, each with their own way of speaking. It’s a hot linguistic mess.
The actor was good on some things but terrible on others. I made a radical proposal: to read the book myself. I wouldn’t try to mimic other people’s accents; I’d read everything in my own standard American. This would be the author as unifying principle. The director agreed. He reserved a recording studio for five days, Monday through Friday, from ten to five. I had no idea how to prepare. I looked online for a Charleston accent but couldn’t find one that seemed right. The night before, it occurred to me that I should have been rereading the book, immersing myself in it, but I hadn’t. I’d done nothing. It was like going in to take an exam without knowing the subject.
The next morning, I met the director and engineer, both in their early forties, both friendly and professional. The director had a short, neat beard and wore jeans and a sweater. He explained how things would work. The engineer had heavy eyebrows and black-rimmed glasses; he wore jeans and a sweatshirt. He took me into the booth, adjusted the microphone, and showed me how to work the iPad.
When he shut the door, I heard the seal lock into place, and a living silence closed around me. Through the glass wall, I could see the engineer, now sitting at a long electronic control panel. I asked a last-minute question, about which page to start on, and the director answered. Magically, we could all hear each other. Then we all fell silent as the engineer switched levers and turned dials. Finally, he spoke.
“O.K.,” he said, “we’re rolling. Whenever you’re ready.”
I take a breath and begin.
“Dawson’s Fall,” I say, “Part One.”
My voice is familiar but strange in my ears—formal, precise, magnified. The words are both known and unknown: known because I wrote them, unknown because I have never encountered them like this. I have never drawn these written words through my lungs and throat, making them into something new—a spoken story, made by the breath from my chest. My exhalation will go directly from my mouth to your ears. This seems unbearably intimate, personal, risky. I wonder what you will think of me.
To change the page, I swipe my index finger soundlessly down the screen. Miraculously, the text slides upward, into the light. As I read, I discover that, though these are sentences I’ve written, in simple English, they’re difficult to speak aloud. “The world outside was turning toward the light; he heard the first soft twitterings as birds entered the day.” This looks easy, but it’s full of land mines. I stumble over the “S”s and “T”s in “first soft twitterings.” I have to repeat it, and then the “birds entered the day” turns clumsy. Every line requires correct emphasis, perfect pronunciation, smooth breath control.
When I stumble, I stop, return to the start of the sentence, and begin again. Later, the engineer will replace the bungled phrase with the good one. Sometimes I start over on my own; sometimes he interrupts politely. “Sorry,” he says, “could we just take it again from, ‘Dawson looked up when she came in?’ ” These are easy words. It’s embarrassing to have to repeat them.
Gradually, I sink into the text. I begin to read as I used to for the children, when they were small. Part of me is slipping away, like Mrs. Ramsay, reading about the flounder but thinking about the lighthouse. I’m slipping away, though part of me is aware of the words. I realize that I’m already past the place where she opens the curtains. Did I miss the part about Sue Covington?
Some of the phrases and sentences are in French, but I can manage this. The rest I plan to read in my ordinary American voice.
That’s my plan, but, when I get to Sarah’s diary, a soft Southern accent slips into my voice. That’s how Sarah speaks in my head, so that’s how the words come out. I’m pretty sure the accent is wrong (I never looked for a Baton Rouge accent), but I don’t seem to have a choice. Confusingly, Sarah doesn’t speak this way throughout the rest of the book, only here, and I hope the readers will forgive me.
After the diary, I return again to my plan. This works until I get to Helene, the French governess. She speaks her first line as she holds up a sick child for the doctor to examine. Her English is very poor, and, when the doctor asks how old the baby is, she says, “He has nine months.” In an American accent, this would sound idiotic.
But Helene won’t speak in an American accent. She will only speak in a thick French accent. My French aunt speaks this way, and it’s her voice I hear as I move through the text. I don’t have a choice here, either.
Switching between Helene’s accent and my own is tricky, but trickier by far are the conversations in the kitchen. My great-grandparents’ household was like an ethnic joke: a German cook, an Irish parlormaid, a French governess, and a local butler. Their discussions are like Class VI rapids. There is no way to avoid this, though, so as they start talking off I shoot down the river, switching accents, banging against boulders, barely righting myself in the foam, swept along by the current, knowing I’m bungling it, hoping my readers will forgive me.
As I read, I see how imperfect the writing is. Why did I use that phrase? I’m sure I had something better in an earlier draft. Is this shift made clear to the reader? Why is this so clumsy? I can’t change anything, though; the engineer is listening to every word. If I say something that’s not there, he asks me to start the sentence again.
I’m more and more engrossed by the story. The characters have taken me up, as they did while I was writing them. The engineer is listening, too. At our lunch break, we sit across from each other with our sandwiches. He asks, “Did all that really happen?” I nod. He shakes his head. “Amazing,” he says.
Day after day, I sit in the intimate silence of the shadowy booth. When I was writing this book, I used only my mind, finding the words to tell the story of these characters. Now I’m using my heart and breath to tell their feelings. My own voice is part of it. The way I speak comes from my family, out of my own history, which comes from the lives lived by these characters. My voice was passed down by these people. My reading, clumsy and imperfect, is part of this story. Just as my writing, clumsy and imperfect, is part of it. They both show who I am.
Hour after hour, I slide my finger down the screen, drawing the words up from the darkness. I speak them aloud. They move through my mind and then my body, through my throat and chest, then out into the world. I wonder what you will think.