Making a Book Out of Sound

Vermillion Cover

This spring, I’ve finished a long-delayed project—recording the audiobook of The Mysterious Tongue of Dr. Vermillion. The book compiles five paranormal mysteries, amounting of 8.5 hours of intrigue, suspense, and snappy one-liners.

Not since the playgrounds of my childhood have I enjoyed such unfettered creativity. Throughout my life, my interests have wandered in many directions at once—in Pittsburgh, I would write magazine articles during the day, study literature in the evening, and perform in stage plays and comedy shows on weekends. I have dabbled, aggressively, in a range of media, from poetry to documentary filmmaking. I love all of these, and I hope to dabble much more in the coming decades.

But there is something especially liberating about The Adventures of Elizabeth Crowne, the short stories I began as a serialized podcast around Halloween in 2016. Typing out each manuscript, I can indulge the “vintage” language I have always loved. I can research the Roaring Twenties to my heart’s content. When recording the podcast, I can read aloud—one of my favorite pastimes—and perform the many characters, mimicking a range of accents and temperaments (albeit with mixed results). Atmospheric music has always been an essential ingredient, and musician friends have been exceedingly generous with their compositions. In the most recent episodes, I’ve started incorporating “foley” sound effects as well, dabbing the auditory landscape with blots of realism. Parenthood makes theatre rehearsals an impractical pursuit, never mind filmmaking. In front of the microphone, though, anything is possible.

Which is why this audiobook is special to me. It’s not just a “straight read.” I have taken the best parts of the podcast (music, audio filters, overlapped dialogue) and applied them to the audiobook. The result is still a body of prose, which relies most heavily on the verbal images; yet I mean the experience to be bolder, more complex, almost cinematic in its delivery. The “transcripts” in the book have been rendered in the style of a wax-cylinder recording. In places, characters interrupt each other, talk over each other, match revelations with musical crescendos. The audiobook remains a homemade project, and there are technical weaknesses, including the endurance of my own vocal cords. Naturally, I hope such gimmicks aren’t necessary for a listener to enjoy the characters and plots. But if there’s anything I love, it’s an audacious experiment, this one in particular.

I can’t assess the quality of such a solo project, since there is no agent or publisher to laud its virtues. At this point, I am no longer self-conscious (as I once was) about crafting these eccentric works in isolation. Some friends have reported reading the Dr. Vermillion paperback in a single afternoon, barely pausing to warm up their tea. Conversely, one friend said he stopped around page 10, because my writing style was “trying too hard.” (A valid criticism). While the podcast has nearly broken 40,000 downloads, and listeners live everywhere from Pittsburgh to New Zealand, few close friends claim to tune in. As my friend Brandon put it: “I know you. I don’t need you to ‘read me a story.’” It can be weird, hearing a familiar voice that’s also disembodied. So for the first time in my career, most of these fans are strangers, and I have no idea what their impressions are.

All I can say is that this audiobook is almost exactly what I envisioned, and I am euphoric to finally share it with you.

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An Audio Journey: Misty Fjords

In late 2017, I traveled to Ketchikan, Alaska, to spend some time with the Forest Service. I was an official guest of the Voices of the Wilderness Artist Residency Program, a dynamic collaboration between professional creatives and U.S. forest rangers. My purpose: to spend a week paddling through Misty Fjords, a massive national park nestled into the Alaskan panhandle.

Things did not turn out as planned—but I still came away with a 46-minute audio documentary and an unforgettable experience in our northernmost state. I met wonderful people, enjoyed some pleasant surprises, and learned a great deal about the Forest Service and all the labor and love they dedicate to our wildest spaces.

I also learned a great deal about nonfiction podcasting—something I have yearned to do in earnest for some years—and although I would have now done many things differently, this is exactly the kind of production I would like to continue doing. “Airmail” is the working title for an ongoing series, produced in roughly this manner; and I am eternally grateful, to Aubrey and Sue and all the other folks I met up north, for giving me the motivation to create it.

From the Archives: “Making Rent”

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Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The following essay first appeared

in Open Salon, in October of 2011

 

“How would you like to see Rent,” my friend Kayla recently asked me, “in a barn?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

So we drove two hours, from Pittsburgh to Loretto, Pennsylvania, to visit the Cresson Lake Playhouse. This is the pinnacle of rural community theater: The playhouse is, in fact, built into a converted barn. The parking lot is gravel and grass. Cider and cocoa are sold from what appears to be an old tool shed. By the time we took our seats, the house was packed, and everybody seemed to know each other.

Rent at the Cresson Playhouse was not what you’d call “good.” It was positivelyawesome. The set was dark, stripped-down, and covered in graffiti. The actors belted their rock-arias with appropriate passion and tonal flair. There were hiccups – Roger had a paunch and kept singing flat, and Mimi Marquez was a delicate blonde. Lyrics were lost to faulty microphones. But the good far exceeded the bad: stunning voices, sharp dancing, not-bad acting, and a magnificent Angel. That is, Angel the AIDS-infected drag-queen who repeatedly makes out with her beefy, African-American, anarchist boyfriend.

That Rent was a joy to watch is beside the point. The point is that Rent was produced at all. Earlier this year, the rights to Rent were released to regional theaters, yet Cambria County isn’t the first place you’d expect to find a production. This is the region Pittsburghers derisively dub “Pennsyltucky,” a county that’s mostly white, very well-armed, and almost completely Christian. Public schools close on the first day of hunting season. These towns were founded by farmers and coal-miners, and many have crumbled. Yes, towns like Loretto are unfairly vilified, but this show was a genuine surprise.

To refresh: Rent was composed in 1996 by Jonathan Larson. One of the great tragedies of Broadway history, Larson died of an aortic embolism during Rent’s first preview, so he never saw his many Tony Awards or Pulitzer Prize. The play was a Broadway behemoth, and touring shows traveled the world.

I was 16 when the show debuted, and as a drama club kid who sang tenor in the school choir, Rent was a revelation. Based loosely on Puccini’s La BohèmeRent concerns a bunch of artists squatting in a run-down apartment building. Half are gay, half straight. One is addicted to heroin, most are HIV-positive, and all of them are dead broke. But they’re snarky, eloquent, and creative, and they muddle through their challenges with something like dignity. For a super-liberal Vermont teen, Rent seemed like the future – a sonic scrapbook of bohemian life.

I’ve heard the recording a few hundred times, know much of the libretto, and I saw it (once) in New York. Among true Rent junkies, this is a ho-hum relationship. Some fans have seen the live show dozens of times. They can sing the songs, play them on guitar, and have choreographed dance-moves to the soundtrack. Before there was “Glee,” there was Rent.

But like most period-pieces, Rent has evolved with time. For one, it’s no longer the “end of the millennium,” as one song proclaims. For two, AIDS is no longer the pandemic plague it once was; tests are faster, the people infected live longer, and the full-blown terror has subsided (for good and ill). Third, and most damning: The Rent lifestyle is no longer feasible. Mark, the resident filmmaker, turns down a lucrative TV job because “that show is so sleazy.” Tom, a philosophy professor, loses his job at a university, so he just bums around for awhile. And Angel, the story’s cross-dressing messiah-figure, seems to wander around spreading love and kind words. These were all delightful pastimes in the 1990s, when American feared neither war nor recession. Artists who blew their resources in New York could always take a Greyhound to California and mooch off a dot-com.

These characters are less appealing today. I was stunned, in 2005, when Chris Columbus directed his bizarre film version. What place did Rent have in the Bush Years? The United States was fighting two wars and openly condoned torture. The gay rights movement had reached a cultural plateau. The East Village had traded broke bohemians for well-heeled hipsters, and the stock market was flying a kamikaze mission. So who cared about a bunch of dropout artists? In the world of Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson, what are HIV and homelessness but godly punishments? Is there one shred of Rent that your average Tea Partier would not abhor?

Indeed, some sentiments are hard to swallow, even by lefty Vermonters who once loved the show. In the song “What You Own,” Mark sings lines like “leave your conscience at the tone.” Such gripers can’t survive in the 21st Century. Roger, the sulky musician, is hardly a character at all – he’s just a sad dude with a guitar. Rock-stars and filmmakers are no longer reliable for sturdy liberal sentiments, and most of Rent’s themes can be boiled down to a few bumper stickers. The play would never be created today, much less garner a Pulitzer Prize. By the time Trey Parker parodied Rent in Team America: World Police (calling it Lease), the show had long lost its context. The era of Rent is nearly as distant to us as Saturday Night Fever.

Still, Rent will probably survive, as it should. As I sat in the audience of the Cresson Lake Playhouse, I wondered how this down-home crowd would respond to same-sex kisses, simulated sex, abusive cops, and crass hobos. Would folks walk out, furious that Obama socialists had infected their town? All my fears dissipated by intermission. Deep down, Rent is about more than bohemian life. It’s about love in a time of dying, unconditional friendship through poverty and decay. Take away the grungy outfits and endless pop-culture references, and Rent is still La Bohème – a story of youth and perseverance. As the cast bowed and reprised “Seasons of Love,” the Thursday-night crowd stood and clapped along. Guys in baseball caps and old women in sweaters smiled and wept. If Rent can find a home in a Cambria County barn, it can find a home anywhere. And that can only help.

And Then I Wrote a TV Pilot

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Last week, I finished a TV pilot. The story is a paranormal mystery. The protagonist is a snarky young woman with intense curiosity. The landscape is misty; the tone is macabre. And if this script became a TV series, I would devour every episode, twice.

The pilot is adapted from my podcast, The Adventures of Elizabeth Crowne, a pulp fiction series that started as a hobby and has ballooned into a franchise of recordings and books. Not long ago, my friend Bill Holman—actor, cinematographer, Renaissance man—urged me to turn the podcast into a TV series. The writing reminded him of BBC’s Sherlock. (He was the third person to say so). With its gritty historical setting and fantastical twists, the stories begged to be broadcast.

The prospect of a pilot already excited me. Then, at the behest of my publisher, I put together a “book trailer” for the latest Elizabeth Crowne novel, which added fuel to the flames:

More than ever, I could see the stories. I could imagine recognizable actors in the roles I had devised. The prose-y descriptions of the podcast felt so easy to translate into “action,” and, in turn, into visuals on a living room screen.

I hesitated for two reasons: First, I know the odds are long. Every bar-back and bell-hop in SoCal has a hard drive full of original pilots, and few of them are ever even read, much less optioned. The last thing a Hollywood producer wants to see is a script from an East Coast playwright, especially a playwright who hasn’t written a play in years.

Then there’s my odd relationship with television: I grew up in a very rural town, and I didn’t really understand what cable was until I was a teenager. I didn’t own a TV set for much of my adult life. When I started writing about television for MSN.com, I did most of my research at friends’ houses (which gave us an excuse to hang out), or I rented entire seasons of Lost and Big Love from Blockbuster. When Netflix started streaming, I discovered the joys of binging—but even now, I’m choosy. The sight of a TV switched on during daylight hours makes me physically ill.

Yet I’ve also come to embrace the “New Golden Age of Television,” as the critics boldly describe it. A two-hour movie now feels quaint by comparison, when the narrative canvas can stretch for years and years. The untamed possibilities of Netflix Originals and Amazon Studios now seem infinite. For screenwriters, this era is a gold rush: Producers are hurling money at new dramas and comedies, desperate to keep up with viewers’ bottomless appetites. The odds are still long, but they don’t feel as long as they used to.

My pilot is an experiment—a clunky, oily hotrod, assembled from spare parts, waiting in the garage to be taken for a spin—but dear lord, was it fun to write. From everything I hear, Hollywood is a cold and caustic place, and industry people get cynical fast. Yet more than one screenwriting coach has said it: Write what you love. Believe in what you’re doing. Such sentimental advice has always startled me, coming from such world-weary writers. I’ve composed countless scripts over the years, mostly for stage, sometimes for screen. But nothing has seemed quite so worth believing in.

A Complicated Sky

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“Are you going to miss anything about Arizona?” a friend asked recently.

We were sitting on a patio, at a bar, on one of my last nights in Phoenix. I had lived in Arizona for two momentous years. I would miss a lot of things—people, mostly, but also hiking trails, sitting outside, well-paved asphalt, and all the cacti. I would miss the easygoing attitude and indifferent dress code. I would miss dust storms and real Mexican food. I would miss the life-changing opportunities the city had leant me.

“Anything you won’t miss?” asked my friend, helpfully adding: “The heat?”

“I don’t mind the heat,” I said, although the summer heat wave hadn’t yet descended on the Valley of the Sun, so I was still full of pro-summer bravado. “One thing I won’t miss—the sky.”

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Books by People I Know: “How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward”

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In 2014, I was performing in a Costa Rican production of The Glass Menagerie. During a rehearsal, I was standing backstage and decided to introduce myself to Caroline.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m a writer,” Caroline said, in her elegant English accent.

“Oh,” I said, thinking she meant blogger or diarist. “What do you write?”

Then Caroline threw me a curve-ball: In the 1980s, she co-authored a bone-rattling account of the Profumo Affair, which, in Great Britain, you might compare to the Watergate Scandal, except that there were a lot of sex parties involved. Caroline’s account, How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward, was a total coup: Few people involved in the Profumo Affair had ever spoken openly about it. The book was a bestseller. It blew the scandal wide open. Years later, the book would inform Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Stephen Ward. Continue reading