At Sam’s suggestion, I began recording my novels on my website and uploading them to iTunes. This is an unexpected undertaking for someone who’s always abhorred the sound of her own voice. I have honestly always thought my tones were shrill, that my accent made me sound like a hick—and it kind of does.
So why do it?
Because this writing business has been a thirty-year slog to nowhere, during which I’ve only managed to snag two agents, both of them British, neither able to sell my work because it’s too American for their market. This, anyway, is what I was told. And, through research and observation, I have found it to be true. British publishers only publish American books if they’re best-sellers or proven authors in America first. I imagine it’s the same in reverse.
In the US—and granted, I haven’t spent that much time here—I ’ve been unable to find an agent who would even glance at my work. Over the years I’ve sent out at least a hundred query letters and, when appropriate, samples of my work. In return I’ve received form letters of rejection or nothing at all. And during the span of this stagnant career, I’ve read some books that are breathtakingly brilliant, so out of my range that I curdle inside, brought down by my own deficiency. But I’ve also come across many books that have huge sales that are simply trash, so poorly written that the contempt of the authors and publishers for the reading public makes me nauseous. I’m a solid writer, but a significant obstacle is that I’m stymied when it comes to identifying a genre. The closest I can come to defining what I do is dark comedy or, in some cases, dramedy.
I tell stories. It’s what I do. I’m a story-teller. My characters are simultaneously transparent and complex, always a little on the crazy side, fathomable, if not rational, and caught up in predicaments of their own making. The journey from front to finish is clear—I’m no Virginia Woolf, no James Joyce. The pace is steady and the balance between dark and light is comfortable. Some of my novels are better than others. I’ve put the first chapters of my favorite ones on the homepage of my website.
But for all the pleasure I take in my work, my commitment to this new entity, this podcasting, has taught me some practical, sometimes disconcerting, lessons.
For one thing, in a state known for its slow drawl, I’ve always spoken very quickly; and I’ve been proud of my agile tongue—but not so much now. Recordings reveal slurred words, lost consonants, imprecise vowels. How, I wonder, has anyone understood me up to this point in my life? My enunciation is a mess.
Another factor—an annoyance, really—is that there’s a huge difference between reading dialogue silently and reading it orally. In writing to be read silently, I hardly ever insert tags, but instead break up the dialogue with a bit of description or action. But when reading aloud, it’s unclear who’s speaking without the he-said, she-said, so now I inject the cues, which renders an oral version made choppy by awkward “he replies,” and “she answers,” and “he asks.”
Here’s a comment from a friend, Marla, who now lives in St. Louis, and was in a years-ago writers’ group with me: Jenny, where do you see this podcast going? I remember you hating to read your chapters out loud. You thought your voice was too high and you read too fast. You’re still going too fast, but I found your vocal pitch to be mellow, almost relaxing. Best wishes in your new enterprise, Marla
I’m interpreting mellow and relaxing as her tactful way of saying I lack inflection.
Jerry, a fellow writer from the MFA program, made no effort to be tactful. Here’s what he wrote: Jen, how is this being received? I see no comments or likes on your site or iTunes postings. Have you considered that in order to create a following you need to publicize? Also, in your dialogue, not only is it hard to tell who’s speaking, the first-person voice makes it hard to tell if the narrator is speaking aloud or if we’re being given the thoughts in her head. Good luck, Jerry
Jerry. I never cared for him. And did he "like" me or post a comment? No.
Sam painted a picture of a thousand strangers searching through iTunes, catching a bit of my readings, being drawn in by my soothing accent and the nuttiness of my characters, and then enthusing to their friends about their prodigious new find. And these friends would presumably listen, enjoy, and tell their friends. There are a lot of people in the world. Some of them must occasionally pull up new items on iTunes. It could happen.