It’s no secret that I love audiobook narrators. I love what they do to me when they channel just the right book. I also love their passion for what they do. Robert Fass, a narrator I had the good fortune to meet in person a couple of years ago in New York, is no exception. This month sees the release of the audiobook version of It Happened in Boston? by Russell H. Greenan. This novel was originally published in 1968. It was a book that Robert connected with as a teenager. This novel has never before been released as an audiobook until now and this is due in no small part to Robert’s love of the book and dedication to his craft.I loved his story about this audiobook so much that I just had to share it. Luckily Robert was happy to oblige.
Giveaway: If you enjoy what you’ve read, please leave a comment letting us know what most interested you about the interview or It Happened in Boston? Robert has two copies of the audiobook to give away. I’ll randomly select two comments on December 27 and reach out for your mailing address. Robert will mail the prizes out after the first of the year. Good luck!
If you just can’t wait to get started, you can always pick up It Happened in Boston? from Downpour.com or other audiobook retailers. For more information on Robert Fass, check out his Facebook page and follow him on Twitter.
On with the interview:
Literate Housewife: Robert, first of all, it’s nice to work with you again. It was wonderful getting to know you a couple of years ago for Baby, It’s Cold Outside. Are you planning to head to Vienna again this Christmas? Have you made room for me in your luggage?
Robert Fass: Nice to team with you again as well! My wife and I are indeed making the trip to Vienna and, just in case, we’ve poked some air holes in one of the bags, pre-stocked with some pretzels and watery overpriced cocktails. (And I think my answers to your questions below are so long that it will help you pass most of the time!)
LH: We’re here today to discuss a project very near and dear to your heart, It Happened in Boston by Russell H. Greenan. When did you first read the book? What were your experiences with it?
RF: I think I was 15 when the book arrived in the mail through a subscription I had to The Mystery Guild, a book-of-the-month club kind of thing. My first response was that I was pulled into a spellbinding tale unlike anything I’d read before. It’s a first-person novel that begins with the line, “Lately I have come to feel as though the pigeons are spying on me.” As a somewhat introverted teenager—while I wasn’t quite that paranoid—I could identify with the interiority and insularity of the narrator’s world. Here was someone who gave precise voice to his passions, frustrations, desires, loves, and fears. On the other hand, like all great books, it provided an escape—an immersion into a fantastic world filled with wonder, beauty, and menace (it is, after all, a tale of murder). Second, the language! Anyone who knows It Happened in Boston? knows that Greenan’s vocabulary and wordplay are amazing—even venturing at times into Nabokov territory. At that young age I didn’t comprehend half of what I was reading on a literal level, but I just held onto the reins and took the ride. And I loved it.
Moreover, beyond the challenge of the language, there’s a more fundamental challenge, one which I’d never encountered as a reader before: deciding once you reach the end what the reality is. Many things, including many of the wonderful cast of colorful characters, may or may not be what they seem to be. The unreliability of the narrator and the ambiguity in the story’s surprising resolution invite you to look back and re-examine the whole tale and decide for yourself: Is he sane or insane? Did these things really happen? In his introduction to the Modern Library edition—which I was fortunate to be able to include in the audiobook—Jonathan Lethem says that he reaches a different conclusion every time he reads the book; I’m the same way. The events are absolutely fantastic, but Greenan and his protagonist are that convincing.
LH: You have had the opportunity to speak with the author. How did that have an impact on your personal response to the book?
RF: In truth, I haven’t ever actually spoken with him directly, just corresponded by letter; his daughter Althea, who lives in the UK, represents him now, and I have had many Skype conversations and online exchanges with her. She has been and continues to be my connection to Greenan, carrying my questions to him and returning to me with his answers. (For instance, I got confirmation that while the book is extremely evocative of Boston, the narration should not be done in a Boston accent. That was a relief…)
LH: From what I’ve read about this book, it is hard to classify. How have you recommended it to others over the years?
RF: Usually it’s something along the lines of, “oh my god, there’s a copy of It Happened in Boston?!! This guy’s a genius… you have got to read this!!!!!”
LH: Although I’m not a narrator, I have gathered that there are some standard ways in which a narrator is chosen for a project. For example, this might happen through an audition process, a special request, or through established relationships with a publisher. That’s not how It Happened in Boston became an audiobook, is it? Would you mind telling us about the journey you took to make this audiobook happen?
RF: Yes, this was quite different from my usual experience, and it has been a journey indeed. I’ve wanted to do something with it for a long, long time. Before I became a narrator—in 2002—I wrote to Greenan’s agent asking if I could option the rights to try and adapt it into a stage play. She was all for it, but he wrote me a letter from his home in France saying “no” very nicely. Once I began narrating audiobooks, the growing sense took root that I wanted to record it. I looked into it, and learned that it had never been released in audio. At first, I hoped—as you say—that I might get hired by a publisher to do it. But over time, and having built a home studio, I decided in the summer of 2012 that I would take the initiative and approach him directly.
I had some leverage that gave me a fighting chance. Besides the fact that I was something of a veteran narrator and a huge fan of the book, I had by then learned that I had a role in the book getting a second life in 2003 (it was originally published in 1968). One of the people I had turned on to the book half a dozen years earlier was Judy Sternlight, a friend with whom I’d been in an improv company for several years. She had flipped over it. She went on to become an editor at Random House for a time and, while there, was given the opportunity to add one title to the Modern Library. She chose It Happened in Boston? and it was released as part of the ML’s “20th Century Rediscovery” series, with the Lethem essay as introduction. My connection to that event was pretty meaningful to the author, as it turned out.
Because he was no longer represented by an agent, I wasn’t sure how to reach him. As far as I knew, he was still living and writing in France. Web searches led me mostly to blog posts referring to Greenan as “criminally neglected”, a “literary prestidigitator”, and the like, as well as reviews by rabid fans like myself, mirroring my experiences of discovering the book, loving it, and becoming missionaries for it. I discovered that IHIB? sits at #2 on the Goodreads list of “Great Underrated and Obscure Books.” These discoveries didn’t get me any closer to the author, but they strengthened my resolve to pursue the idea of making an audiobook. Eventually I ran across a website,russellhgreenan.info, an official site devoted to his work, which looked like it hadn’t been updated in some time. But it had a “contact us” link, so I wrote a lengthy message introducing myself and expressing my desire to help get an audiobook made of the novel, hopefully with me as the narrator. I received a reply from Althea Greenan saying that her father was interested and that I would be receiving a letter from him soon elaborating his thoughts on the idea. A small parcel arrived from Greenan a couple of days later, containing inscribed editions of a couple of his books along with a letter expressing his enthusiasm for an audio version of IHIB?. I also learned that he’d grown up in the Bronx, where I live now, and had relocated back to the United States. At that time, Random House still held the audio rights, but he said they would be reverting to him the following year and we could discuss an audiobook deal at that time.
In the meantime, I began looking into various options for making It Happened in Boston? into an audiobook, including as a DIY project. I spoke with a number of narrator-producers—among them Scott Brick, Stefan Rudnicki, Tavia Gilbert, and Jeffrey Kafer—about their experiences, the various risks and rewards, so that I could weigh those options and, when the time came, discuss them with Althea and her father.
Then there was the crazy coincidence of meeting author Beth Gutcheon at a narrator event in East Boothbay, Maine. I chose at the last minute to substitute a passage from It Happened in Boston? for the piece I’d intended to read and it turned out that Beth had been a young editor at Knopf in the 60s. When I announced the title I was about to read from, she jumped out of her chair and shouted, “I was responsible for that book getting published!” She left before the event was over, but I ran after her and we exchanged information. It turns out that she is friends with Jonathan Lethem, and through her I was able to obtain his permission to include the introduction in the audio version.
It wasn’t until September of 2013 (on Greenan’s 88th birthday in fact) that all the rights to the book reverted to the author and he was free to assign them. He pretty much put himself in my hands at that point; I shared everything I had learned and we began working out an agreement. Simultaneously, narrator extraordinaire Grover Gardner, who is also Associate Casting Director at Blackstone Audio, had suggested I approach Anne Fonteneau, Blackstone’s director of sales, to see whether they would be interested in partnering with me in some way. (I record a lot of titles with Blackstone and so had already built a good relationship with their production staff.) Anne was interested from the start; she was extremely clear in answering my questions, offering advice, and laying out a few options as to how Blackstone might be involved. Basically it came down to a choice to either do the book purely as the narrator, hired at my normal pay rate by Blackstone, who would acquire the rights; or to acquire the rights from the author myself, self-produce the audio and retain ownership of the recordings, with Blackstone handling the manufacturing, marketing, and distribution and then paying me a royalty which I would then share with the author. (I could also have done it entirely on my own and taken responsibility for the marketing/distribution, but I have absolutely zero mechanism for doing that, whereas they have a global network of relationships and channels for getting the work out to consumers and libraries, etc.) So I chose to take a deep breath and go through Door Number Two. I worked out agreements with both the author and Blackstone, navigating those waters as best I could. I recorded the audiobook “on spec,” having enough faith in the work that eventually I would at least break even—but in any case achieving my primary goal of getting the book out to a new audience. And so it’s happened.
LH: Given this was your first time publishing an audiobook, how if at all did that impact the way that you approached recording the audiobook? Did being in the driver seat make it easier or more difficult to sit in your recording booth with the material?
RF: Blackstone was fantastic in all ways. They agreed to treat it like any other title I record for them in my home studio, with their proofers handling the QC and their engineers taking care of the final mastering of the audio files. So that took away a lot of trepidation, because for me it was the same experience as always: doing the research (which was considerable in light of Greenan’s vocabulary); choosing the many voices for the colorful cast of characters; recording and sending in each days’ chapters and then making any chances necessary once the whole thing had been proofed by Blackstone. Plus, the book is an old friend, so I had a greater comfort level with it as a text to be read. That said, I realized early on that my sense of responsibility to the author and to my own long-held dream was underlying this one. So there was definitely an added dynamic. My brother listened to it recently and told me that he could detect a subtle element of reverence for the text in my narration (compared to other audiobooks of mine he’s listened to) which he felt enhanced the listening experience. I hope all listeners will be engaged by it as I am.
LH: As someone who is in the process of rediscovering her own faith, I was intrigued by the premise of the book. While there is no end of books about plots to kill a king to take over his kingdom, it must take a special kind of courage, pride, and crazy for a person to think he could not only take over but do a better job than God. What was it like to get into this character’s head?
RF: I think everyone has had moments where they have either witnessed or personally endured some injustice, large or small, and said to themselves, “if I were in charge, I’d never let that happen.” I certainly have. Because the narrator is so fully drawn, it was frighteningly easy to slip into his skin; but it was also just plain frightening, because he is a murderer, after all. As I said, it’s first-person, so that invites you as a reader or listener to identify with the character. The book alternates between chapters of his journal entries—which have something of the feel of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman—and his accounts of the characters, encounters, and events that drive the story. Greenan allows the plot line about the narrator’s desire to confront God to subtly surface along the way; in the world of the book, it’s a logical evolution. The primary narrative is that of a brilliant, unsung painter who is tragically used. As an artist myself who remains somewhat idealistic and hates unfairness, it was easy to inhabit his attitudes about the purity of his craft, his love of his friends, his playfulness with language, and his desire for a more just world; as for the paranoia, the increasingly desperate, even unhinged actions of the protagonist as events carry him toward the book’s climax, well… that’s where the joy of acting comes in. But Greenan is so gifted a writer, that you feel that his choices are justified. Anne Tyler wrote an appreciation of IHIB? years ago and pointed out that no matter how wild the protagonist’s tellings are, be they his accounts of time travel, his own genius, the fantastic events that take place, they are so exquisitely detailed that we accept them. Being a narrator can be such a rewarding profession, and you realize that fact when you get to perform books this entertaining and rich in ideas.
LH: Clearly this project is a deeply personal one for you. How does it feel to release it out into the world? What advice would you give the first time reader? Would your advice be any different for those rediscovering the book through audio?
RF: It feels terrific. Of course I’m nervous, and I hope I’ve done a good job and I hope I’m successful in helping to bring the book—in audio and print—to the attention of all kinds of people; but it also feels like I’ve done what I set out to do. So far, at any rate. I’m thrilled to have brought the book out in Greenan’s lifetime. (He’s 89 now and still writing, by the way – he’s published about a dozen books.)
Now that it’s released, it’s up to me to do everything I can to publicize its arrival, which is why I am so grateful to you and the other bloggers I’ve approached who have been willing to help shine a spotlight on it. To quote Chaucer: “Go, litel bok.”
As for advice to the first-time reader? Know that the book is dense, full of heightened language, sometimes deadpan, sometimes funny, intensely clever and audacious; but take the ride and let Greenan whisk you into his world. Allow me to quote again, this time from Jonathan Lethem’s introduction: “What a pleasure it is to introduce to you, listener, this little masterpiece on the subject of the world’s neglect of masterpieces!”
Anyone who is already a fan of the book no doubt feels a certain reverence toward it as I do, so I hope they’ll feel I have done it justice. I should also inform those folks that Greenan has made slight revisions to the original manuscript throughout the novel. Nothing that alters anything in the plot, just tweaks to the language that he felt clarified the moment in some way.
LH: If there was just one thing you’d like everyone to know about this project, what would that be?
RF: Oh my god, there’s an audiobook of It Happened in Boston?!! You have got to hear this!!!!!”
LH: The best of luck to you and to It Happened in Boston?, Robert! I hope all of my readers leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of this special audiobook for themselves.