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Find more The Booklist Interview
Jack Gantos began narrating his own books in 1999 with his reading of Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key (Listening Library). Should he ever decide to leave his award-winning (Newbery, Printz, Sibert, and more) writing career behind, he has the vocal talent to become a sought-after audiobook reader. From voicing Rotten Ralph Helps Out (Live Oak, 2006) to reading his deeply personal autobiography, Hole in My Life (Listening Library, 2007), and the fictional escapades of young Jack Gantos in Dead End in Norvelt (Macmillan, 2011), he has proven himself an outstanding audiobook reader. I was fortunate to talk with Gantos in a phone conversation as he walked home from the Boston Athenaeum, where he goes daily to write.
You recorded a wonderful author interview at the end of the marvelous
audiobook production of Dead End in Norvelt (given a starred review in the October 15, 2011, issue of Booklist). Is the story a reflection of your childhood? And how did you start narrating audiobooks?
GANTOS: Well, I was born in Norvelt, though I didn’t grow up full time there. My mom was raised there, and my dad grew up in a town a stone’s throw away. I have to say that even though I didn’t spend a lot of time in Norvelt, the western Pennsylvania voice has stayed within me. Joey Pigza is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania (not quite as far west as Norvelt), and I sound like I belong there. When you write picture books, such as the Rotten Ralph titles, you read them aloud so you can hear how that spare text rolls off the tongue—or not. I never thought of myself as having a voice worth recording. But after I listened to the first—and only—book of mine narrated by someone else, I thought, “Dang, I know I’m not good, but I’m better than that!” The book is funny, and the guy couldn’t deliver a joke. He was so slow that you could drive a truck between every sentence. I realized, “He’s got no feel for the material. He’s got no zip on his fastball. All the fun is sponged up out of it.” Then at the National Book Award readings, I read a portion of Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, and Tim Ditlow, then at Listening Library, came up and said he wanted me to record the novel. I was a bit stunned, but he was very enthusiastic and persuasive. I’m so fortunate that he was generous enough to offer me the opportunity.
What’s the recording process like for you?
GANTOS: It’s really hard work because you have to put your heart and soul into it. I can’t do voices. I can’t sound like a Frenchman, a German, or a Spaniard, but I can give emotional modulation to the characters. But it just wears you out. It’s like you’ve been crying or laughing all day, and you are definitely wrung out. The studio director guides my performance saying, “You know, Jack, I think you could get a little bit more emotion in that” or “It’s a very, sort of, dreary emotion. Maybe you want to slow down the pace to match the emotional material you’re delivering.” It’s almost as if I’m an actor onstage and being directed. I always look ahead to the funny parts, and when I know they’re coming, I look forward to delivering the zinger punch line and knocking listeners for a loop. That is just delicious reading.
As a librarian, I find that boys love to hear males read audiobooks and actively seek out titles with guy readers. And when they find humor combined with the author’s own voice, they’re hooked. What do you think is the reason for this preference?
GANTOS: I’m not sure I can get to the root of it, but I think there is a sense that if a man is reading the book, then it is entirely cool to sit and listen to it. It’s a man-to-man relationship around a good story. Perhaps it’s like sitting around a campfire and hearing a good tale. As a boy, my father would take me to his clubs, and I’d sit and listen to the men tell stories and jokes and spin all kinds of details into a narrative—even if they were just telling you the story of their day, it was infused with drama and humor. I love to listen to a good story, and I’m sure a lot of young men feel the same way, too. My first audio experience was with Bill Cosby records. I would come home from school, and no matter how miserable my day was, I would listen to Bill Cosby and laugh until I was crying tears of laughter. I must have listened to those records until I wore out the grooves. You could just sit on the edge of your bed and howl and slap the bed or slap the floor and roll around and laugh. Listening to stories is wonderful.
Some librarians wonder why there isn’t more great stuff written for boys. What is your take on that?
GANTOS: I think there is great stuff for guys. But there needs to be more humor and real-life stuff, because a lot of young guys, they’re not after werewolves and spaceships all the time. They want real-life kid stories—fabulously immature stuff. I think the guy connection is very powerful. I do a lot of school visits, and I tell stories straight off, almost like a stage show. You can really see the boys in the crowd wringing their hands and laughing hysterically. They cannot believe their good luck. They’re looking around thinking, “Somebody brought in the entertainment, finally! This is the good stuff.” Then I teach them how to write stories. I’m breaking the stories down into beginning, middle, and end; problem, action, and solution, giving kids the structural evidence of how a story is put together. But, in the beginning, I’m just telling the story, and the audience has an absolute blast. I’m not saying that the girls aren’t involved, because the girls are definitely involved, but the boys are looking up and going, “Yeah, somebody brought in the funny man who knows how to reach me.”
Is there a difference between teen literature and adult literature?
When I look at literature, I really don’t break it down into adult literature, teen literature, young literature. I look at literature as a very wide category. I think that the standards of children’s books go right up against the standards of great adult literature. You’ve got to draw readers in and make sure they are part of your book and will become absorbed into the narrative. You want readers to see themselves in the story and understand the characters, both what they feel and see. I think that’s the kind of engagement that a young reader or any reader wants; they want to be captured by the book.
You capture readers and listeners by your books and your voice. Are there any audiobooks that have captured you?
GANTOS: There are some books that I’ve experienced both as a listener and a reader, for instance, the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials series (Listening Library). I have to say I enjoyed everything about it when I read it, and then when I listened to the audiobook, the reading was so good that I was on the edge of my seat—and I was in my car! Listening and reading complement each other. For some, if they listen, they want to read the book or if you read the book and then listen to it, you’re getting everything out of the meal. I certainly love to read. I love the privacy of reading, and I love the interior mind of reading. In fact I love everything about reading. But audiobook listening is a valid, valid experience. It really allows you to just be totally a passive audience member and take it on the chin. That whole idea of “I’m just going to lay back, close my eyes, and enjoy it” is what audio listening is all about—even if it’s difficult material. I remember I was listening to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (available in download), and it’s very intense, and yet I was so into it and relaxed, I was spellbound. You can just become swept away with your imagination while listening. A good narrator speaks to the listener as an equal and never talks down. In fact, it’s a wonderful way to talk to kids, as if you were talking to an adult.
Are there any reactions to your audiobooks that have been especially meaningful?
GANTOS: I think the most impressive moment came when I walked into a prison, where I was going to speak to young men. And before they opened the solid-steel door, I could hear this faint voice, and it sort of sounded familiar. Then, I realized it was my voice over a loud speaker. The cell block where I was going to speak had the audiobook of Hole in My Life blasting out of a speaker, and the prisoners were just going about their business while listening. I thought that was pretty cool. I wish I had audiobooks when I was in prison.
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