Meg Howrey on Speaking for Her Novel’s Protagonist
“I hope the little world that is me disappears under the different world that is her.”
“A perimenisapal Cind,” I said. “Oops, hold on.” I took a breath. “A perimesopollo—yikes.” In my headphones, I heard my director laugh. I had no idea where she was, physically. Somewhere in the Pacific Time Zone.
The engineer outside my booth made no comment. I couldn’t see him, just a corner of his console.
“A perimenopausal Cinderella.” The third try was successful, and I carried on with my character’s description of dancing in pointe shoes, in her forties.
I wrote a novel. I narrated the audiobook for that novel. Now I’m writing about the experience of narrating the audiobook. What’s next? Making an audio recording of this essay? In art there is something called the Droste Effect, a recursive loop where smaller versions of an image are placed inside themselves. It takes its name from a 1904 product label for Droste Cacao by Jan Misset: a nurse holds a tray with a tin of Droste’s Cacoa, labeled with a tiny version of herself holding a tray with a tin of Droste’s Cacoa. A woman holding herself, infinitely. Or as long as the resolution holds.
My book is a novel, though. An imprint of myself, but not my own story. The experience the character Carlisle Martin has, dancing around like a perimenopausal Cinderella, is not one I’ve had. I do have a box of old pointe shoes in my closet, though, saved from last performances. And when I wrote about Carlisle putting them on, I tested out a pair in my kitchen. Possibly while having a hot flash.
They’re Going to Love You is my fourth novel (sixth if you count the two I coauthored under a penname) but my first to narrate. My last book, The Wanderers, had seven major characters of different nationalities plus some technical language to do with space exploration and I was more than happy to have a wonderful actress engaged for the audiobook. This new novel, though, I wanted to voice myself.
echnically it was within my capabilities: not too long, not many characters. I’d already read the entire book out loud, it’s the last thing I did before sending the final draft to my editor. The main character is near my age, also from the Midwest, and steeped in the world of ballet as I once was. I’m not her, but I’m good casting for her.
I’d been an actor too, once upon a time, and even had a voice-over reel of commercial work from those days. As an audition, my agent sent the producer at Penguin Random House two minutes of me selling bathroom tissue, tampons, health insurance, laundry detergent and ham, in a collection of voices. (Sexy lady, chummy girlfriend, compassionate friend, funny mom, dingbat hostess.) I was told I had range.
Still, I hadn’t expected them to say yes, and once they did, I feared I’d been over-confident. I had about a week from getting the gig to sitting down in the booth. Time enough to haunt some professional narrator’s podcasts chumming for tips, ask the advice of a writer friend who’d voiced his own novel, and book a session with my actor friend Amelia to work on an accent for the character from London. (The goal was to not roam the length and breadth of England with the vowels.)
Then to the business of making choices for the voices. The book is told in the first person, so it made sense to bring Carlisle out in as close to my natural speaking voice as possible, to avoid inconsistencies.
But the first-person is a little striptease of a pronoun, undressing and concealing to the very end. It would be an interesting experiment, I guess possible on a Kindle or other surveillance device, to know at what point a reader flips to the back of the book and checks out the author photo/bio. Is it the first time the “I” describes itself and the reader wants to know if author is more or less hot than “I” claims? Or when “I” describes their job or field of expertise, and the reader wants to know if author has credentials in named field and “I” can be trusted?
A novel written in first person must feel deeply personal and rigorously honest, even when the “I” isn’t aware of what they are concealing or revealing. Especially then.
Carlisle’s honesty was not my own. Except for moments when they touched.
Carlisle’s body is not my body. Carlisle’s voice—the voice of the book—is not only a product of her background and circumstances, the hardwiring of her brain, her desires and fears and conflict and vocabulary and syntax and all the rest, but also the voice of a female body that since her teens is much taller than the average female body, a body that thwarted her ambitions until her ambitions changed, a body that holds memories her mind has sometimes not the strength to carry. I lived in her body for the length of writing the book and took on her voice with joy and sorrow and reluctance and relief but that didn’t mean I could produce it from my own—different—body, inside a booth, almost a year after the last edits of the book had been turned in.
Writing is, for me, a physical and performative act. I do it at home, where I will not disturb others with my wild gesticulations and general flinging about as I try to feel my way inside my character’s bodies. Fitted inside their skins, flexing their muscles, tracing their nerve endings, I know the cut of their jib but only the vaguest sense of what anyone’s face looks like, in the same way I have—I think—only a vague sense of what my own face looks like. (The shock, always, of photographs.)To be an artist of any kind is to be on intimate terms with failure.
The bodies of my imagined people, I know. (My own body, I know.) Inside a booth, I’d become a talking head. This wouldn’t do. I choreographed for myself a posture for each character: a pulled-down scapula, an outstretched hand, a tilted chin, things that might reasonably be performed without ruckus in a sound cage. I got cough drops. I practiced saying the word “chiaroscuro.”
The recording sessions were booked at a studio within walking distance of my apartment in Los Angeles. I was at that point less nervous about my performance than that the moment would slip away from me. I’d been graced with one last opportunity to be with the people of my book, live inside their bodies, feel everything as I’d felt when writing this story. I’d had the unbelievably good fortune of having the book taken out of my hands and—soon—released into the world, but that process is also a kind of grief. After the last copyedits, the theatre of the novel has to be cleared out, so to speak. The scenery and lights dismantled, costumes and wigs borne away, programs and false eyelashes and flowers tossed out. The stage swept for the next show.
I wanted it all back.
The work went too quickly, the way a performance always does. The director stopped me when I missed a word. I stopped myself when I garbled a sentence or lost my concentration. The engineer stopped us all when it was time to order lunch. If did my job well, there was only silence.
To be an artist of any kind is to be on intimate terms with failure. The characters of this book know this keenly, and so we all crowded into the booth together and wished we were better versions of ourselves. I had brief sensations of technical satisfaction and stranger sensations that the book was happening to me, upon me, out of my control. I held a pillow over my stomach for the afternoon sessions to mask sounds of digestion.
I said the last sentence of the book. Had I gotten it—or anything—right? Now, at the time of this writing, publication is a month away. I’ve not heard anything yet of the audio recording. I hope Carlisle’s voice doesn’t sound too much like me. I hope the little world that is me disappears under the different world that is her. The rest is silence.
They’re Going to Love You by Meg Howrey is available from Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.