1. What has been your evolution as a public reader of your work? Has your approach remained the same?
I used to be more nervous before and at the very beginning of a reading, in a more manifest and troublesome way than I am now: sweating palms, shaking voice, trembling chin, blind empty-mind panic, etc. And doing a reading after a long break (such as a year or two), or in an especially daunting venue, can bring some of these symptoms back, though milder than they were once. Now I'm just somewhat dissociated before a reading, removed from my environs and the people around me in a mildly nightmarish but not so debilitating way as formerly. People say Are you nervous? and I now say Not exactly.
One thing that's helped me with standing up in front of people is the fact that I've lectured in a university for over twenty years. In fact, one of my primary motives for becoming a teacher was to overcome my public speaking anxieties. In four years, I figured, I'd have them licked and could move on.
Well, I'm still teaching and I'm still reading on stage. An important moment for me was the one when I realized that my nervousness in front of people was rooted in the fear that I would not just make a fool of myself but would choose to do so. It was like realizing that your fear of heights is not really a fear of falling so much as a fear of throwing yourself over the edge. Eventually I understood that this fear was just a reaction against my own egotism. Really I was just worrying about myself. I'm not saying it didn't take a lot of experience in front of people to reach this point. But eventually it did come to me that the people out there are not particularly interested in whether I make a fool of myself or not. That would only embarrass them. They've come to hear a reading, not to be embarrassed for somebody, so the least I can do is give them what we've contracted for.
So, aside from focussing less on myself as a point at issue in the situation, my approach has always been fundamentally the same: perform the text.
Yes, constantly. And now more than ever, since not being so self-conscious on stage has freed up awareness. So I watch their faces, the faces of individuals. This can tell you everything about how the reading is going. Yes, I prefer them to be pleased and laughing, but not every passage is amusing, so attentive is fine. Restless and looking at their watches is not so good.
For me personally, Hell is being trapped at a bad reading. A book I can put down, a reading I can't flee is like an hour of fingernails scraping up and down the inside of my skull. It doesn't help that I'm hypercritical of unfocussed writing and almost pathologically unable to follow it read aloud. Anyway, I think this problem has made me sensitive to the suffering of audiences. Not only do I appreciate very much the effort they've made to get to the venue, but also I know just how very bad an experience an irritating or boring reading can be.
I think good crowd sizes are likely to have to do more with the kind as well as the fame of the writer as a writer rather than with the writer as a reader. In my own case the crowds certainly haven't got consistently larger. I've started reading in the States this year, and there I'm back to groups of 5 and 6 people. But this can also happen to me at ay time in Canada. As a writer I think I'm more what's called a "serious actor" than a star. Stars tend to play themselves, more or less, in each role and even off stage, and so get better and better known. Me, people don't quite know how to identify from story to story, book to book, and so audiences are likely to come and go. They're not quite sure who I am and so don't particularly identify with me as a person and aren't necessarily drawn to hear me read just because it's me.
I should add that I decided to be a writer in the days before a writer was expected to be a public figure, and that was one of the attractions. The book could go out there for you. I never calculated fame into the equation. But now it seems difficult to be a 'successful' writer without some degree of fame. I still find this strange. Performance is such a different kind of energy from the work of writing. And essentially hostile to it, I would add.
I look after my own readings schedule, except when a publisher is organizing a promotion for a particular book. I don't solicit readings but only respond to requests and decide on the basis of timing, kind and amount of travel involved, accommodation arrangements, fee, weather, etc. whether to say yes or no. Sometimes, when needing to fit Canada Council requirements to do with funding and distance travelled, there has been need for a second or third venue on a particular trip, but normally this has been done by the primary inviters, who are often part of a readings circuit.
Venues will respond to a small press book as well as a large, as long as it's seen as good or interesting or local or whatever. The worst thing, I think, is when either the author loses confidence in the book or when the reception has been largely uninterested or hostile, and still you he or she must go out and promote it. You see authors this has happened to, and they look devastated.
I would say forty minutes is about as long a reading as most audiences should be expected to sit still for. I prefer two shorter readings, say 10 or 15 minutes and 20 minutes, each from a different book and with a different flavour to it. With a novel I think one longish passage that works on its own is much preferable to a scattering of small ones intended to display the arc of the story. By the way, I do find that anything with wit or humour in it tends to work much better than something heavy. That said, I've noticed that with some readers what looks quite dark on the page can sometimes sound lighter and wittier when read by them aloud.
When I hear 'performance' I think of actors reading my work, and by and large I hate the way they do it, because all I can hear is their personal and professional mannerisms. But the writing can't speak for itself because all it is is ink on paper. For me me writing is 85% getting the voice right: the voice necessary to tell this story the best way it can be told. By the time the story is finished I can hear the voice very clearly inside my head. And when I read the story aloud, I can tell very quickly whether the voice in the writing turly has come into focus yet or not. If it has, it does feel as if the writing is simply speaking for itself, because all I seem to have to do is read it and the necessary rhythms and patterns are there.
No, I've never thought of imitating someone else's reading style. I'm impressed by a friend who sometimes will deliver his fiction entirely from memory. Writers who often appeal to me when I'm in an audience are those whose between-readings patter is fresh and engaging. The danger of course, and it's a common one, is that the patter is more interesting than the readings, which come to feel like the price you must pay for the company of this incredibly charming person. To date I do patter really only at the beginning, to assure the audience that I'm not horribly nervous or in a bad mood and would rather be somewhere else. I want to relax people. I'll do more patter if it occurs to me, or if I feel there's time. I do like to open things up to questions afterwards, to finish the hour, and that can be good for everyone.
Any venue in which the audience must deal with distractions is the worst. This often happens in big bookstores, which rarely have a truly sequestered space for readings. Cafes in which the phone will ring or the espresso machine will start steaming or the pop machine will kick on can also be very trying. Venues in which people wander in mid-reading or are constantly passing through, also as in bookstores and cafes, are not fun. Otherwise, generally, the best places to read are those with the best audiences, and those are places where the people are actively reading and--often--writing, themselves. These places tend to support fine bookstores that have established a local readings culture, so you get discriminating and informed audiences. I'm thinking of places like Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, Prairie Lights in Iowa City, and Greenwoods' bookstores in Edmonton. Prairie audiences tend to be good. So do Maritime audiences. The U.S. Pacific Northwest harbours a lot of good readers. Wherever people are still reading books you'll find good audiences.
I like reading for both. If the audience is with you, it's with you. Discussion afterward is usually more satisfying with a small audience, because a relatively higher proportion of the people is directly involved.
I don't rehearse much, unless I'm worried about how long something is going to run. With any one book there are finally going to be only four or five best-working passages, and which one you read will depend on the audience. So I may try out this or that passage when deciding which ones to read, but beyond that I don't feel the need to rehearse. Certainly when I do it, it doesn't seem to affect the quality of the reading. When a passage is too unfamiliar, however, I do run the risk of stumbing over diction or rhythm if I haven't checked it over first. As for the patter, I certainly don't script it, but before a reading, some part of my mind is usually turning over what might be appropriate to say to start things off. The thing is, the atmosphere of any particular venue or audience is extremely difficult to anticipate, and something scripted that doesn't quite hit the right note can really throw off your connection to your audience and consequently your actual reading. So it's best, I think, to try to be responsive to what is actually in the air on-site.
I enjoy both very much, with a big audience perhaps more the reading, with a little audience perhaps more the discussion. With the captivated (captive?!) audience there is an impression that everyone is engaged, and that's very pleasurable for the reader. It's harder to get and maintain that sense in the discussion part, unless, as I said, the audience is small.
Whether the audience is large or small, I like to remain out of sight, mainly because I'm in a 'removed' state and not feeling much like conversation. Also, everyone is surrpetiously trying to have a look at you, and that makes me self-conscious.
I do try to write something personal, if there's anything to work with, but by and large I'm a terrible inscription writer. I need hours to come up with a good inscription. So usually I end up writing something earnest or clunkingly literal-minded. And yes, if I can't think of anything, I rapidly switch to generic.
Signings are OK, because it's a chance to exchange a few words with the person who's buying the book. The only really terrible part of signings is when you're at a table with several authors and everyone can see how long each author's line is. If yours is short, what you must do is talk to each person for a long time. Another terrible part of signing, come to think of it, is going to the distributor and signing a thousand or two copies at a sitting. You're amazed to see how freely your signature mutates.
I need to bring along my Pilot Hi-Tecpoint V5 Extra Fine in Black, for the signings.
As long as I can see it, I don't care what I read from, though if it's been published I tend to stick with one edition. If I'm reading from a typescript I print it out in a 14-point font, for easier reading. Number your pages. Read from a clean text, double-spaced. Decide how you're most comfortable reading: at a lectern, a stool, standing with book in hand, sitting, etc. Organizers are usually eager to let you read as you wish. Know yourself what you wish. A glass of water can be important. Proper lighting. Sharp shadows on the page can be a problem in some theatre stages.
For a couple of years as a kid, when I was in Grade 8 and 9, I used to elocute: recite (other people's) poems and dramatic pieces in Legion halls, arenas, Ladies' Auxiliary Meetings, and strangers' living rooms. I did it because I was told I had talent, and although (because?) I didn't find it particularly enjoyable it seemed something that I should do.
A coffee-house reading on a bill with a poet who'd had a prefrontal lobotomy for incurable violence. The audience was all there to hear him. His most memorable opening couplet: "Shortly after entering Regina/ I entered your vagina."
I only change things that need clarifying or omitting because the passage is part of something larger that the audience doesn't know. My fiction tends to be visual in quality and to have a certain degree of wit in the texture of it, so it's friendly to being read.
There are two factors here. First, whether the voice of what I've written works. If it doesn't, if it wasn't got right on the page, it will feel all wrong to me as I read it, and that's an awful feeling, though not one necessarily picked up by the audience. But usually. Second, whether the audience is with me. This is not entirely within my control, and I can be "on" with a reading and still they're left cold, or at least baffled or mystified. But often their alienation from me has affected the reading in some way that I can discern by the time it's done. It feels "off."
Make sure the writing is as good as you can possibly make it. This is the most important thing. Remember that nervousness is only natural, and that it can serve as a wonderful source of energy for your performance. (And it's not as if you might forget your lines. They're right in front of you.) Remember too (though this may take a while to sink in) that if the nervousness is excessive, it's probably because you're focussed on yourself. Remember that the audience, large or small, is only a collection of individuals who are odd and special enough to care about books and even about writing. Do everything you can to relate to them as individuals, whether when signing for them or--nervousness levels permitting--when reading to them. Eye contact, in other words. See, as you read, how the response of each of them is progressing. Finally, you do want to project what you've done outward into the space you've been invited into. This is no time for reading to the page or pretending that you're not really here, not really standing up in front of all these people. You need to send it out there, so they can hear the voices that have been in your head , just as clearly as you've been hearing them yourself all these months and years.
------Interview by I.J. Schecter (unpublished).