Vance: Indeed, but the work has already been done by the author—I just need to “plug in” to that world, or style, and allow what follows to come naturally. I think it’s a misunderstanding that an actor has to do something to bring a character (or story) to life. No. The skill of acting is in the work beforehand that allows you to absorb the material fully such that you can be open to the influences of whoever has written the piece you are performing—whether on stage, screen, or in an audiobook.
Holsinger: You began your audiobook career recording for the Royal National Institute of Blind People and its Talking Book service. The protagonist of A Burnable Book, John Gower, is starting to lose his vision at the time the story is set, and we know historically that Gower was effectively blind late in his career, when he wrote some of his most arresting poetry—so I’ve been interested in these connections between blindness at the levels of story and sound, and as the Gower series goes on this will become more and more of a theme. Do you imagine a blind audience when you record? Is there a special affinity between audiobook narrators and the blind, who benefit from your work?
Vance: Many of my generation of audiobook narrators began by recording books intended primarily for the blind or partially sighted, and it certainly helps to focus the mind on what exactly it is that we are doing. In a sense I am always reading for the blind. The only goal in my mind is to give my listener the same mind pictures that the author experienced in creating the book in the first place.
Holsinger: The notion of “mind pictures” you’ve suggested is a helpful one, and in fact it’s a very medieval idea that you often find in discussions of memory in the Middle Ages: The mind must create pictures, the more vivid the better, in order to retain and recall the information being stored. I suppose writing is a bit like that, in that an author is drawing on a kind of pictorial reservoir rather than simply a verbal one, and I think soundscapes are also part of this process of invention.
Vance: Although your book is fictional, it is based on certain truths that you must have uncovered about society at the time. Unlike, say, an author of the kind of historical fiction that deals with wizards and dragons, I wonder if you feel an added pressure to get the facts right about the little things in the world of A Burnable Book.
Holsinger: That’s a question that all writers of historical fiction wrestle with in various ways. As I’ve taught historical fiction, I’ve realized that there’s a spectrum of approaches to issues of authenticity and so on, and differing degrees of asceticism or strictness about facts and details. Put a zipper on a medieval bodice, and your novel will be thrown across the room! There’s a whole gleeful genre of anachronism-hunting among readers and even authors of historical fiction that can be quite intimidating for new writers in this mode. I suppose the research has come more naturally to me given my academic work in medieval studies, and I knew a lot of general information about the period going in, of course. But what really surprised and in fact delighted me was my ignorance about a lot of the details of daily life: what a middle-class woman in medieval England would eat for breakfast, for example, or what sorts of items you’d find in a kitchen.
Vance: I particularly enjoyed the process of discovery that came with the part of the story told in installments taken from a letter. These episodes recur all the way through the novel. They’re written in a woman’s voice (though that’s not clear at the start), and it was quite an emotional story, especially toward the end, which made it perhaps the most challenging and yet satisfying part of my own journey as the novel’s narrator.
Holsinger: I’m glad to hear you say that. The internal letter—the story-within-the-story, I suppose you could call it—is one of the shortest parts of the book, just a few thousand words altogether. Yet it also contains the secret to the story as a whole, explaining the background of the manuscript (the “burnable book”) and the emotional investment it inspires on the part of the characters. Originally I wrote this internal narrative as a new Canterbury tale, complete with a prologue in decasyllabic couplets, imagining Chaucer writing it all up after the fact, but I ended up with the simpler solution of embedding it as a letter that tells the crucial backstory. One thing I really loved about your reading of the letter is the distinctive inflections you give to the mysterious narrator’s voice: the high pitch, the slight and indeterminate accent, the moments of hesitation that make us think about what we’ve just heard and learned. It creates just the kind of sonorous atmosphere I heard as I wrote those sequences. So thank you, Simon.
Vance: And thank you for inviting me to join you. John Gower was great company!
A Burnable Book by John Holsinger. Read by Simon Vance. Audible.