Tell It to Me

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I never used to have any interest in audiobooks. They weren’t real books. Real books were in print, on paper. Maybe on tablets, but that was as much as I was willing to cede. Audiobooks—originally on tapes and CDs—seemed like a great idea for when I was out walking or driving, but they required too much concentration, because as soon as my mind wandered—traffic light, somebody crossing the street, hawk swooping across my path—I lost the thread and had to back up. I tried to embrace the audiobook of Frances MayesBella Tuscany, telling myself I’d only listen to the tapes when out walking. The incentive plan, I thought. Instead, after countless backups to capture moments I’d missed because of things I’d seen or heard around me, I gave up entirely. The walks ceased, and the tapes ended up in a box in the garage. Clearly, audiobooks weren’t for me.

Years after I’d written off audiobooks, I received an offer to create one. The editor of a journal that had published one of my stories, “The Protectors,” had worked out a deal with Audible where they’d hire an actor to read some of the stories from the journal. Did I want to “The Protectors” to be part of it? Absolutely!

Audible hired the actor, a gentleman named Jamie Renell. (Even if I possessed the talent and experience to record an audiobook, I couldn’t have read “The Protectors” for one simple reason: the story’s first-person narrator is male.) Jamie and I exchanged a couple of emails about how I wanted the story to be read. (In a perfect world, the narrator would have sounded exactly like Dan Blocker playing Hoss Cartwright.) I didn’t bear any of the expenses, but I also didn’t have any say in the blurb for the story post (which, in my humble opinion, is Not Good). But no worries—Jamie did a fine job, and Audible paid me a princely $125.00 for the privilege.

I listened, of course. On the evening I received notice that it had been uploaded, I settled into the bathtub with a glass of wine and listened to my audiobook. It was definitely odd to hear someone else reading my words. Everything in me wanted to add inflections that nobody could have known unless they lived inside my head. The audiobook might not be perfect, but it was fine, I decided. So when my spoken story ended, I set it aside and returned to putting words on pages.

Then came the day when Michelle Obama published Becoming.

If you haven’t seen the hardcover version in the stores, trust me: it’s a doorstop of a book. It’s the kind of book you look at it and think, “I could literally spend the rest of my life reading this one volume.” Plus, it cost $35.00, and to me, that’s a lot to pay for a book. So even though I was very interested in what she had to say, I set aside the idea of devoting a million hours to reading it and went on with other things.

Several months later, Audible sent me yet another of their periodic offers: “Sign up now and get a book free!” The notion of a free book always gets my attention. If someone ever wanted to lure me into a dark cave in order to torture me and maim me and hold me captive forever, all they’d have to do is dangle a free book at the opening: “Hey, look! It’s that book you’ve been wanting to read, and it won’t cost you a dime!”

So I signed up, and I got Becoming for $35 off the cover price—in other words, free. Which was nice, but it turned out that wasn’t the best part, not nearly. The best part was that Michelle Obama read it to me. To me. When I was having lunch or cleaning the bathroom, she was telling me about growing up in Chicago. As I drove up to Tanglewood that summer, Michelle told me about how, on the day the Supreme Court issued its decision about same-sex marriages, she and the girls sneaked outside to see the White House with its rainbow lights. It was glorious.

The next celebrity memoir I acquired was Alison Arngrim’s Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. In case you’ve forgotten, Alison Arngrim played Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie. I’d read the print version of her book, and I loved it. It’s like spending an evening with a smart, fun, gossipy friend who knows all the dirt and isn’t shy about sharing it, and yet also has some deep, important things to talk about. But I’ll tell you this: reading it on the page isn’t nearly as entertaining as hearing her read it aloud. The woman is an actress, for crying out loud. She’s not just reading her book—she’s performing it. Everything in me wanted to sit down with her, open a bottle of wine, and have Alison tell me her story—the horrible stuff (dealing with how her brother sexually abused her), the hilarious stuff (her gay father’s unbridled penchant for publicity), the juicy backstage stuff (Michael Landon’s refusal to wear underwear under those tight pants and Melissa Sue Anderson’s weird behavior with the other kid actors), Alison’s activism for AIDS, and how she ultimately used Nellie Oleson to get a bill passed in California to protect abuse victims.

Michelle Obama got me hooked on the celebrity memoir audiobook genre; Alison Arngrim cemented my passion for it. Since then, pretty much all I listen to in the car are celebrity memoirs on audiobook. My beloved (although he doesn’t know he is, because we’ve never actually met) Yo-Yo Ma did an Audible original about his life last year, and I reveled in it as I traveled back and forth to rehearsals for my chorale’s concert. (He even played the cello in this work, which you obviously cannot do in a print book.) I spent much of last spring listening to Carol Burnett tell me about her experiences coming up in show business as I spread mulch in my garden. Julie Andrews told me about her life with Blake Edwards (I still don’t understand the attraction) while I drove back and forth to rehearsals in Cheshire. Betty White regaled me with stories of her early days in the business as I drove hither and yon, shopping for my elderly parents and carrying meals to them. Sutton Foster ostensibly chatted about crafting, but really confided in me about her family issues as I shoveled my driveway after my snowblower died.

Which is not to say celebrity memoirs are my only audiobooks. I listened to Older, by Pamela Redmond, who also wrote Younger, which was turned into a television series starring Sutton Foster, who read the audiobook of Older which was narrated by the character, Liza, whom Sutton had played on television, which made it feel as if Sutton was narrating her own life, or Liza’s, or both. Most recently, I’ve been reveling in The Secret Life of the American Musical, by Jack Viertel, a person I’d never heard of who apparently has an encyclopedic knowledge of the American musical theater and whose explanation of how a musical is constructed is a master class in how to construct any piece of fiction. Craft and musical theater anecdotes, all in one. Does life get better?

There’s something vibrant and intimate and thrilling about somebody telling you their personal story. Not just writing it down for you—and don’t get me wrong, that’s lovely, it’s what I do and I’ll stand by it to the day I die—but talking to you, just as if the two of you are friends enjoying lunch and maybe a glass of wine or two and they’re spilling some stuff they might not otherwise say. If you don’t believe me, listen to the Howard brothers, Ron and Clint, in The Boys (another doorstop of a book) as they tell you about their parents and their families and their lives in show business and how they came to be where they are and who they are. You may be folding laundry or driving around town as they tell their tales, but I dare you to forget the moment when Clint tells you how, when he was filming The Red Pony at age eleven or thereabouts, he was required to kill—and I mean, really kill—a live bird by bashing its head against a rock again and again until it was dead. Seriously—that child was required to murder a bird on camera. WTGDF??? And nobody stepped in to protect him. Even his father, who watched out for his sons on sets over the years—even Rance Howard himself said Clint had to do it. Somebody—his father or the director, I don’t remember now—said that the bird would just have “take one for team.” Little Clint made sure he did it right the first time so he’d never have to do it again. Adult Clint, telling about this, said in the book, “You can watch the scene if you want. I can’t.” I’m sure it’s powerful on the page, but I guarantee that’s nothing compared to hearing the pain in his voice as he tells it.

To be fair, not all celebrity memoirs will be home runs. When Audible ran a 2-for-1 sale, I downloaded Dolly Parton’s memoir. Make no mistake, this woman is a gem: her Imagination Library has given away nearly 1.8 million books as I write this. Even if she couldn’t sing a note, this alone would be grounds for worshipping her. But her audiobook assumed a level of familiarity with her life and work that I don’t possess, and this left me feeling a bit lost. It’s certainly fair for her to assume I, as a reader/listener, would be a fan who knew her songs and her life, but I don’t know these things. Lacking this context knocked some of the shine off the story for me. Ah, well. She’s still amazing. All I’m saying is that you may not love all the memoirs, and that’s okay. Personal opinion, after all.

Obviously, not everybody reads their own work. Michael Landon would undoubtedly have done an amazing job with his memoir if he’d ever written one, but he was busy with other things right up until he died, and so it fell to Alison Arngrim to talk about how he conducted himself on the set of Little House—not just how freely the alcohol flowed on the set of this wholesome family drama (pause for gasping), but how he treated the child actors the same as the adults, with the same expectations and the same respect as professionals—and how, as a result, “as we like to say, ‘Cast of Little House: no arrests, no convictions.’ And I do believe we owe that to Michael.” But Michael will never be in a position to weigh in on the subject. Luckily, we have Alison, who tells it perfectly.

Some people like listen to novels on audiobooks. If that’s your preference, I won’t say a word against it. Personal opinion again—the audiobooks I like best are the ones about real lives, narrated by the author—the books where somebody sits down and talks to me about their real story. Because for those few hours, we’re pals. I’m hearing the intimate details you only share with your closest friends (and millions of readers/listeners). Your tone, your inflections, your pauses. The part where your voice cracks a little bit because nobody—and I mean nobody—should ever have made you kill a poor, defenseless bird, but nobody stood up and said, “Are you cracked? Don’t make this child do such a horrible thing!” Except that nobody said anything other than “do your job,” and you murdered the bird, and it’s haunting you decades later. Terrible on the page, but so much more heartbreaking to hear the voice.

Now, I look for celebrity memoirs read by the author. Recently, when Audible had a sale, I acquired Martin Short’s memoir and Margaret Atwood talking about writing and life. When I finished Jack Viertel’s story of the American musical theater—which is practically like a memoir because of his intimate knowledge of the subject, and also because he speaks of the theater as if he were talking about his own family—I went on to Martin Short. Yesterday, he was a stranger whom I’d seen in a few movies. Now, he’s telling me about his life. Not just the hilarious public bits, but his struggles and how they have shaped him. He’s explaining to me how he got where he is, what he was thinking and dreaming, how he became the person I encountered one night when I turned on the television and thought I was seeing who he really was.

But don’t take my word for it. Try these audiobooks for yourself. Listen to these people. Hear their stories, just as they tell them. Make them your friends.

I promise you won’t regret it.

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