I've been re-reading Laughing Matters, a memoir of television and movie writing by the late, incomparably brilliant Larry Gelbart. And I've been re-reading one passage especially this week for my own selfish reasons.
Speaking of perhaps his most famous triumph, M*A*S*H the television series, Gelbart writes, "The worst aspect of watching reruns is compulsively, mentally rewirting the material, trying to write better lines to rush over to Stage 9 to make changes in an episode that was irreversibly imprinted on film twenty-five years ago."
I got a tiny taste of that this week. Through the courtesy of the good people at Books In Motion, I heard my first novel, For Whom The Minivan Rolls, read--no, performed--by Damon Abdallah, whom I have never so much as exchanged an email with, let alone met.
Mr. Abdallah does a very nice job with the material, not overdoing it with exaggerated voices the way many voice actors do when reading a novel with a large cast. I have no idea how many characters I wrote into Minivan, but I noticed as he was reading it that there were a lot. He had clearly given a good deal of thought into how each would talk, aided very little by my descriptions, which when they exist at all are minimal.
Oh, I'd tweak things here and there, largely because the writer always has an inflection and a delivery in his head when writing dialogue especially, but the vast majority of what Mr. Abdallah has done with my work (and I'm now starting on his performance of the second Aaron Tucker novel, A Farewell to Legs) is really creative and presents the material in a way that the author--that's me--would say is true to the original vision.
But now I can't get the guy's voice out of my head. I don't know if I'll ever be able to write in my own voice again without thinking, "I wonder how Damon Abdallah would read this," or simply channel his inflections into my work. It's a little disconcerting.
Maybe I should have spread the listening experience out a little bit.
The other thing about hearing someone read your work out loud, I've discovered, is that every little miscalculation, every misplaced word, every unconsidered choice, is amplified at the same volume as all the words one might find a source of pride. The mistakes just sound like they're at a decibel level that could fill Central Park.
To be fair, it is now 10 years since Minivan was first published, which means it's at least 11 years since I wrote it. So the primitive nature of the technology Aaron uses (he apparently has never heard of Google and thinks a cell phone is the absolute cutting edge of gadgetry--I'd be horrified to show him an iPhone) is period-appropriate.
Some of the pop culture references are a tiny bit dated as well, but not awfully. The book, to my ear, is a clear example of a writer not the least bit confident in his ability to write a novel, but who has a good sense of character and can write dialogue. I don't by any means disllike the book--it's very dear to my heart, and I honestly believe the story still works well--but now on published book #11, I have a clearer vision of what will land on the floor with a clunk and should therefore be avoided.
After a while listening to an audio performance of your work, it's interesting how two things happen: As a writer, you remember certain phrases that you're especially proud of just before they come up, and brace yourself for how they'll be read. Will it be what you expected? Usually, yes it will.
The other thing is that you want to go back and change stuff. You want to stop the reader at certain points and say, "Wait! I know that's the word on the page--but this is so much better!" Gelbart's frustration must have been what I'm feeling, multiplied geometrically.
The other phenomenon is that you really want to sit down with the person who did the reading and discuss his process in detail. Mr. Abdallah, how did you conceive the voices? How did you get through some of my marathon, rambling sentences with all the supportive clauses without taking a breath or even a drink of water? How long did it take to record each book? How long had you prepared beforehand? Did you like the book?
It's funny how you want the guy who reads the book to enjoy it.
Someday, I hope I'll get the chance to discuss the Aaron Tucker books with Mr. Abdallah (the third, As Dog Is My Witness, will be available from Books In Motion shortly, I'm told--perhaps Damon is reading it now).
I can call him "Damon," you know. We share something.