Storytellers . . . unplugged

[August 2006] I recently attended “Harry, Carrie and Garp” (HCG) at Radio City Music Hall in New York. A fundraiser, the evening featured three authors—Stephen King, John Irving and JK Rowling—standing in front of 6000 people doing what they do best: telling stories. They weren’t playing music, telling jokes or leaping through hoops of fire; they were simply reading. For over two-and-a-half hours, a contented audience sat, without refreshments or intermissions, and listened.

The first time I saw a writer really work a room was at my first or second World Horror Convention. I remember sitting in a fairly small room with chairs spread around haphazardly as Matthew Warner “read a story.” That’s an oversimplification of what he did—he was TELLING A STORY, and he made sure the audience knew it. The tale was about a man at an airport who sees something weird happening in the bathroom across from the gate. People went in one way and never came back out again. Matt didn’t hang out behind his lectern and read stiffly from his stapled sheets of paper. He stormed around the room. He made funny faces and aggressive gestures. He got in people’s faces. He directed parts of the narrative at individuals in the audience, as if expecting them to respond. I’m not sure everyone knew what to make of this fellow, but it was both effective and memorable.

Readings are tough gigs, and they don’t get any easier as we get older. I remember one a couple of summers back that was held in an outdoor venue. The organizers hadn’t factored nightfall into the equation, so by the time my turn arrived, I couldn’t see my manuscript. The fellow ahead of me had quit halfway through in frustration. The moon was bright that night, but not bright enough. Someone retrieved a handheld flashlight from their glove compartment for me, so I had to juggle manuscript, flashlight and microphone, while at the same time trying to make sure I was looking through the right part of my new “graduated lenses.”[1] What with making sure the particular sentence I was reading was illuminated and that my mouth was close enough to the mike to make sure anyone more then five feet away could hear me (without deafening those closer than that), I had little left in me to “perform” the story, so I expect it was a rather dreary affair.

I came away from HCG with an insight into reading for an audience. If your material is funny, you’ll get great feedback. That seems self-evident, but I’d never looked at it from the reader’s point of view before. King read the pie-eating contest scene from “The Body,” and Irving read the Christmas pageant scene from A Prayer for Owen Meany. They both had the audience in stitches. Rowling read from Harry Potter. There was a hush over Radio City Music Hall, and her fans were doubtless entranced, but I’m not sure what the experience was like for her—for a reading is a two-way experience. Give and take.

I attended another reading a few years ago where one of the celebrity authors read a passage that was so graphic, visceral and disturbing that the audience didn’t know how to react. This was a general crowd, not at a horror convention. There was polite applause at the end, but I sensed discomfort during the reading, and not the kind that the author was necessarily hoping to invoke.

A couple of other memorable readings: Tom Monteleone reading “Horn of Plenty” at HorrorFind in Phoenix. It was an experience not to be missed. Tom didn’t work the room the same way Matt Warner did, but he put on that story like you put on a winter coat. He wrapped himself up in it and inhabited the character of this young, black jazz musician. If you know Tom, the first two adjectives don’t describe him—I can’t vouch for the rest.[2]

Then, Gary Braunbeck reading “We Now Pause for Station Identification” at World Horror in New York. I was so blown away I made a point of attending when he performed again at the Stokers in L.A. The story is a first-person narrative told by a radio personality who is broadcasting live (but perhaps not to anyone alive) while zombies take over the city. There’s not a sentence of narrative in the story—it’s a 30-minute soliloquy and listening to Gary “read” (again, an insufficient word) put readers completely in the story. You could close your eyes and imagine that you were listening to the radio as these events transpired.[3]

Some stories were never meant to be read aloud. I’ll never read “One of Those Weeks,” my tale in Borderlands 5, because the ending of the story relies on a visual component—the way the words are printed, or NOT printed on the page—that can’t be conveyed when reading it aloud.

Three types of stories are particularly good for readings. There are probably more, but these are the ones that occur to me:

  1. Campfire tales. King’s reading of “The Revenge of Lard-Ass Hogan” from “The Body” is a good example of this. The narrator is telling it the way it went down, just as if he were sitting by the fire entertaining a wide-eyed group of campers.
  2. Soliloquies. These are rarer, but Gary’s tale is a perfect example of this. If the reader can find the right voice, he’ll have the audience in his hands.
  3. First person narratives. A cross between the two. If you ever get the chance to listen to the audio version of Bag of Bones, you’ll know how effective it can be. The narrator, Mike Noonan, is telling you what happened to him, and it’s like having the author speak directly to you.

I heard reports of another successful Monteleone reading at HorrorFind last week, which makes me wish I’d been there.[4] We all tell stories, but when you find an author who can not only captivate readers on the page but also transcend the page and entertain an audience with his or her creations, then you’ve found a real storyteller.

[1] A polite euphemism for “bifocals”

[2] The story is available on audio read by Tom as part of Borderlands Press’s Dark Voices series. You won’t get to see Tom, but just hearing him will be an experience.

[3] Video of Gary reading this story is available online—a well-crafted Google search should turn it up for you.

[4] Since I mention Tom so often in this essay, these footnotes are in his honor.

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