Wally And George: A Chat With An Author And His Narrator
Wally Lamb’s sixth novel, "I’ll Take You There" is his third to be narrated by George Guidall. Here the two discuss their love of storytelling, and the special collaboration between two artists who deeply respect one another. By StaffJan 12, 2017 12:06 PM
Note: Text may not match video exactly.
George Guidall: My first question was, “Where is he taking me?” I mean, I’ll Take You There — and I didn’t know where I was going!
Wally Lamb: You know, I didn’t know either. Really, I’m always envious of the kind of writers who are writing toward a preconceived ending, but it doesn’t work that way for me. I have to discover what the story means by writing the story and, in a sense, following the characters rather than being the master puppeteer who’s pulling their strings.
GG: That’s what I felt when I was reading it, first, before I was recording it. “I don’t know how it ends,” I thought, but I didn’t really have to know how it ends, which I discovered when it ended.
WL: Yeah, I’m just glad that it does end.
GG: Because you took me there, you took me to this whole range of looking at women in different ways, and it was, as have all of your other books that I’ve recorded. You have a way of embracing your characters so fully, so totally, that it’s never … I mean, I can’t say what’s my favorite character, because each one is so distinct and so specific, and it’s full of humanity. It’s just a pleasure to read.
WL: Well, if you don’t mind my asking you a question here, I almost always, in fact I always have written from the point of view of the character. I’m not saying I’ll never write a third-person novel, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not inclined to do that, because for me, the joy is sort of shedding my own skin and inhabiting some other skin, and I’m wondering, as a seasoned actor, does that sound like what you do?
GG: It’s almost on the nose. My favorite saying is that I consider myself a literary hermit crab, entering the currents of literature and finding a home in someone else’s imagined truth, and when I find that home, it’s a performer’s dream come true.
When you’re so comfortable in it that you forget who you are because you’re so much into the character, and your characters have that capability of sucking me in and saying, “This is who I am,” and I have no choice but to do it that way, to follow your intent.
WL: Thank you, sir.
GG: You’re welcome.
“I’ve gotten letters from people about my books that say, ‘Make sure you get George Guidall to do this.’”
WL: You mentioned the word “truth,” and for me, basically I make my living by playing with my imaginary friends and telling lies about who I am, but by putting aside facts, I’m always looking for deeper truths, and when you perform as these characters that I imagined being, you bring a depth to it. I can never pick up one of my own books and read it in silence, but I can listen to your performance.
GG: Thank you.
WL: There’s something about your performances that help me to learn things about these characters that I didn’t necessarily know before. I don’t know if it’s a matter of inflection, or emphasis. There’s something that you do that helps me to sort of get reacquainted with them or acquainted in a different way with these characters.
GG: It’s fascinating because I learn from your characters as a person. You’re a narrator, and you’re not just reading out loud, you’re changing the written word to the spoken one. And that process is loaded with interpretation, bias, prejudice, and preconceived ideas and you try to get away from that.
In shedding those things, your characters come through and have room to grow. I wait, always, for your next book, starting with I Know This Much Is True, which was my first introduction to you, and then The Hour I First Believed, which carried me, and readers who constantly email me. They send me letters, they send me wonderful emails, all just saying, “Is Wally Lamb writing another book?” or asking me questions about the characters themselves. Vicariously, I’m the author. Really the storyteller, but ultimately I’m telling the story.
WL: I’ve gotten letters from people about my books that say, “Make sure you get George Guidall to do this.” No, really, seriously, I have.
GG: That’s my family writing.
WL: (Laughs) Hardly. Yeah, I’ve taken on the narration a couple of times. I’ve always been a sort of a frustrated actor. Not that I’ve had acting experience, but I’ve had, several times, the actor’s nightmare, where I’m supposed to memorize lines and it’s the night of the play and nobody knows that I don’t have my lines memorized.
GG: Maybe that’s why we work so well together, because I’m a frustrated writer. (Laughs)
“One thing I’ve learned in audiobook experience is that you can’t talk down to an audience. You can’t underestimate them. They know when you’re not there.”
WL: Could be.
GG: And I vicariously experience this.
WL: We’ve gotten to this bottom of this.
GG: Exactly. Lots of people have talked to me, they said, “How do you do those women voices? I just believe that you’re a female talking.” My instinct is to say that I keep a pair of red pumps and a simple black dress in the studio, but I wouldn’t say that. When I first started in the business long ago, my voice went up high, I tried to do that. That’s so offensive, as I hear it now. It’s not necessary. He does 50% or 75% of it by saying, “she said,” or “she looked at him and began to speak.” That’s half of it or more and the only thing I do is lighten the voice and just do a different color. The fact that you know it’s a woman talking helps me a great deal. Characters in a book are amazing challenges because one thing I’ve learned in audiobook experience is that you can’t talk down to an audience. You can’t underestimate them. They know when you’re not there.
WL: I remember the time that we did an event together. I had just edited, and we published, a book of my prison students’ work. I read from Wishin’ and Hopin’, and you read from I Know This Much Is True, and then the women read their pieces. You know, of all the readings and events that I’ve done over the years, I think that’s my favorite.
GG: Well, it was certainly significant that you’ve worked with these women in prison who have learned how to write their stories. You can’t ignore the importance for them. They look at you as if you’re the god that came and saved them.
WL: That teaching, volunteer teaching that I’ve done has really changed my life, and hopefully has helped them abide as they’re doing their time.
GG: And that depth of character goes into a book like I’ll Take You There. It’s always there, which is what a narrator looks for. You’ve got to find that depth of character; otherwise, you’re on the surface. What was it Shakespeare who said, “The censure of the one must o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.” That one person who knows the truth that you’re dealing with has got to be convinced that it’s there, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But every character in it, the ghost is marvelous, because she’s so full of love and she’s so patient with you, and with him. I was there with him. I’m not going to give the book away, it’s just the title I’ll Take You There was in my mind all the way through and constantly asking, “Where is he taking me?” And finally, you took me to a place that I hope will satisfy a lot of listeners, because it was a place of truth, of ultimate truth.
WL: Thanks, George. You know, could I ask you a little bit about your time as a therapist? You were doing book narration as well, right?
GG: Sure, yeah.
WL: All right, so to me, that’s what makes you so good in your performances of my material, which has a lot of psychological examination in it. You bring both of those callings to it. Your skill as an actor and your understanding of the human spirit.
GG: They feed each other, both professions. When I was doing therapy, the fact that I was an actor was so helpful to speak to people in a way that they felt I was with them to deal with what they were doing. And when I dealt with couples, I was directing a scene. You know where a scene should go and that’s where this couple could go. You try to lead them to it, without manipulating them, but letting them find that out.
WL: That’s so interesting to me, that you put it that way.
GG: When I speak to audiences about the work, I tell them that not every narrator will do the same thing with a book. Some people say, “I need a book, I can’t just listen to a book, I need the book in my hand because I want to use my own imagination.” Well, I say to them, “Do you want to read a play, do you want to see a play, do you want to watch a play?” Translating this written word to the spoken one is an amazing process. Interpretation is unavoidable, so therefore he who interprets must know what he’s doing.
There are some performers, some narrators, performers, singers, that don’t plumb the depths of a character; they’re satisfied with the machinations of their craft. If I can’t feel the depth of character, what the character wants, what he’s trying to achieve, it’s not working for me. I have to be there totally and that feeds the narrator process. It’s not just reading out loud, as many people think. It’s translating something into a felt experience. The voice is the brush which paints an immediacy on the event on the page, and if it doesn’t, if it’s not immediate to the listener, it’s not going to be immediate. It has to be as if it’s happening there.
WL: Well, I think that there’s something more primal that you do than what I do, because I’m working with words on a page or on a computer screen, but your gift is to go back to sort of pre-history, pre-writing, where people used to sit around a campfire and somebody told or performed a story.
GG: Right. That’s right. The first audiobook was when a caveman came back and grunted to the fact that he’d killed a sabertooth tiger and we can all eat around the fireplace.
WL: Right, and make cool jewelry from those teeth.
GG: And now the sabertooth tigers are 18-wheelers and the cave is your living room, or wherever you are when you listen to a book.
“It’s not just reading out loud. The voice is the brush which paints an immediacy on the event on the page.”
WL: Sometimes I’m asked if, having performed a little bit in audio and having listened to your interpretation of my work, does that change the process for me? I don’t think so. Writing is difficult, and it’s humbling on a daily basis, but one of the easier things for me to do is to write dialogue. I can hear conversations in my head as I’m creating them. What always strikes me about your work in particular is that either I was able to telegraph something to you about how to do it, how to perform it, or, even cooler for me, you take it in a place that I wouldn’t have thought to go in performance. That’s a great gift to me.
GG: That’s the magic of it, when that happens for an actor, in a play, when you create something that the playwright or the author will say, “I never thought of seeing it that way, thank you,” and that’s what it’s all about, that kind of switch. It’s a wonderful experience.
WL: I’ll be curious, when I sit down and enjoy your performance, to see what you did with the couple of chapters that are Aliza’s. In one chapter, she’s a writer in her 20s, she’s just making it in New York, and she’s assigned to cover a story for their “Yesteryear” issue. That’s all exposition; she’s not in a scene with another character. I was wondering what’s different about tackling that? Then, of course, she has her blog. She’s sort of the Lena Dunham generation and she’s a bit of a hipster who’s writing this blog, a 21st-century feminist blog. I’m wondering how you approached it? Was that an approach that you had to do differently?
GG: I had to do it moment by moment, because a character does not realize consciously what they’re unconsciously doing. So as far as she’s concerned, not being happy with this assignment is what it’s all about. Her character comes out of that, out of that frustration and anger. “I’m better than that, I can write something better.” Doing those moments, I understand what she’s doing as I’m doing it. So as you’re writing a conversation, I’m experiencing something similar as the conversation goes, and part of me is saying, “Oh, I see where it’s going,” and then I go in that direction, rather than a planned kind of attack on it.
And you look for material that satisfies your soul as a performer, as an artist, and it is an art. People don’t realize that, that taking a book like this, or taking any one of your books, to make it live. You can say “The boy went to the store” 50 different ways and it’ll mean 50 different things. Depending who the narrator is, depending what the narrator’s feeling about that boy going to the store is, makes that come alive. Even though it’s exposition, the listener will say, “Well, why is he doing that?” That’s what you want to do. You want to grab them at the beginning.
How do you feel about audiobooks?
WL: Well, what I think is really cool about audio, as opposed to, say, a film that’s made of a book, is that it allows for more imaginative interpretation on the part of the listener. I remember when MTV first came out and I would know a song — I had heard it on the radio — I liked the song, but then when a video director did an interpretation of it, lots of times it was reductive; I enjoyed the song more before the visual was imposed on it. And I think that’s also true of audio performance. Almost everybody always says, “Oh yeah, I read the book, the book was much better than the movie,” you know? But nobody says, “Oh, the book was better than the audio.”
GG: No, that’s right, because it’s two different experiences. Totally different.
WL: Yeah, right, yeah.
GG: The experience of listening. Some of the fan mail I get about that, and they all talk about it, they said, for example, something like your book I Know That Much Is True, something like Don Quixote, Les Misérables, people say, “I tried to read that book, but it was just too much for me. I couldn’t get through it. I tried to read a couple of times, but when I heard the recording, it became so much my possession. Now it’s mine.” And I realized that people who listen to I’ll Take You There, to your other books that I’ve read, their idea of those books are my idea, but they’re really your idea … but they’re my idea.
WL: Well, it’s a collaborative effort, I think, yeah.
GG: It’s a collaborative effort.
WL: Even though we’re doing it in two different places.
GG: Right, that’s correct. And somebody in the state of Washington and somebody in New York will listen to the book and they’ll have the same experience with it, because it’s the same person doing it, which is a fascinating thing about audiobooks. It’s amazing.