Just got an email from one Jeff Ryan today, a bit of a behind the scenes look at the paperback release of the version of his book Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America.
The voice in my head
Last summer, I attended Seattle’s PAX Prime, the video game convention. I was there promoting my book Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, which had just come out. Back in my home state of New Jersey, though, there was a hurricane a-brewing. This meant that my connecting flight home via Chicago was now a plain old flight to Chicago: any flights trying to cross into the Eastern Time Zone were grounded.
I made some friends on the plane who were also trying to get to Jersey, and we rented a car and drove all night. Stuck for entertainment, I suggested listening to the audiobook of Super Mario. My publisher had given me four of them, audiobooks are designed for car trips, and we had nothing else but terrestrial radio.
It would have been weird listening to any book as I was driving 14 hours straight with total strangers (nice total strangers, but still new to me). But listening to your own words? Read by someone else? I tried to keep my “this is bizarre” comments to a minimum.
The reader was Ray Porter, who’s narrated everything from dark fiction to pop-science books. He sounds young, and energized, and (I’ll admit it) much manlier than I am. I was very happy to find out he was in a Lost episode, since this meant that I was one degree removed from Ben Linus and John Locke.
The book’s introduction has some stories of me growing up: those became Ray’s stories of growing up. My thoughts about Mario became Ray’s thoughts about Mario. My jokes were now his jokes – and he often told them better than they sounded in my head. I’ve listened to hundreds of audiobooks, and am the sort of nerd who has favorite narrators. (Shout-out to Scott Brick!) I can’t really think of someone I’ve heard who would be a better fit for the material than Ray (I think I can call him Ray now, even though we’ve never met or emailed).
At the same time, the way Ray was approaching the material wasn’t precisely what was in my head. Nothing was wrong, but he was more serious with some lines than I intended. And more playful with others. Even-keeled where I would have sped along to the last sentence of the paragraph. What he had done was what every narrator from time immemorial has done: interpreted the text. Made it his own.
Listening to Ray read was one of the best parts of becoming an author. It gave the book legitimacy to me almost as much as the unboxing-George-McFly’s-novel moment of seeing an actual copy of it.
Cut to a few weeks ago: I’m working on a new chapter for the paperback version of Super Mario. I’ve written plenty of Mario-related stuff between book’s end and now, but they were blog pieces or magazine articles or interviews. For the book I retrieved the book-voice I had developed: less playful and more concise than my workaday writing.
And, just as writing guru John McPhee instructs, when I was done I read the chapter to myself. You’re supposed to do it out loud, but I inaudibly whisper it: works just as well for me. Except this time, the voice in my head reading wasn’t mine. It was Ray’s.
He had pulled a Malcovich! Crawled inside my head! Things I wrote, when I whispered them like some sort of incantation, were coming out in Ray’s delivery style! It was like I was trying to write as Ray! Who was just reading me my own words back! He had become my muse!
This actually guided me as I was editing: when a line wasn’t working, or wasn’t conveying what it was supposed to, I cranked up the Ray voice. Ray gave line readings of various options, and I picked which one sounded best from him. And now the chapter’s done, it really does feel like it matches the dye lot of the rest of the book, despite being written years later.
There’s a tiny list of authors with enough clout to pick their own audiobook readers, and I ain’t one of them. (I had wanted George Takei forSuper Mario, but he’s understandably a pretty hard get. And I would have had to rewrite to include satisfied chuckling every other paragraph.) If what I’m working on now gets an audio adaptation, I probably won’t have a say about who reads it. So I can’t pick Ray. And thus if book #2 gets an audio adaption, I might end up with two distinct voices in my head, each pretending to be me. (At which point I’ll understand what it’s like to be Charlie Sheen.)
Maybe I should try out different voices. For an important bit, I’ll throw on Morgan Freeman or Edward Hermann. For a funny bit, Stephen Colbert. For a fast-moving bit, Scott Brick. For a contemplative bit, Grover Gardner. (I’d ask for George Takei, but even in my fantasies he does not return my calls.)
There are worse things to have stuck in your head than a good actor making your lines sound better than they sometimes are. For instance, the Mario theme song. DOO DOO DOO, doo-doo doo-doo, DOO-DOO-doo-doo DOO DOO-DOO doo DOO-doo. And now it’s in your head, too! Welcome to the club!