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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

by Terry Ryan

Tuffy's Adventures in Promotion & PR

The following appeared in #224 (3/16/01) of Holt Uncensored, a twice-weekly email column and website about books and the book industry written by Pat Holt, former Book Review Editor and Critic for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Tuffy's Great Audio Adventure
(adapting the book to audio format):
Part I | Part II

Media Training in Hollywood:
Tuffy Meets the Spackle Sisters

The Home Town Responds:
Tuffy's Big Day in Defiance Ohio

The Midwestern Publicity Tour:
Terry Meets the "Knuckleheads in the News"

The Prize Winner on TV:
CBS Sunday Morning News, Part I
Part II | Part III

The Prize Winner Goes to the Movies:
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V


Here we are back at the San Francisco sound studio where my partner Terry is reading her book aloud for the audiocassette and CD abridgment of her book.

Terry's earphoned Mr. Potatohead look is all we can see through the angled window in the sound booth - soon she takes the earphone off and is dwarfed by the giant microphone above her - while just outside, engineer Gary Dominguez adjusts voice levels and producer Elisa Shokoff reads along, making big circles and arrows on the script.

Although they haven't met until today - the first of a three-day session - Gary (freelance) and Elisa (S&S) team up like the pair of seasoned pros they are: Both remember the era in recorded books when physical tape was spliced with razor blades and have gratefully turned to digital technology as the easier, simpler, cleaner process of their dreams.

So: How do audiobook producers keep the rustling of pages and tongue clicks and nose-hair tootles out of the recording? Do they use a software program that erases unwanted audio pixels (if that's what they're called)? Do they employ a professional page-turner who wears gloves to muffle the sound (as a listener I've imagined every scenario).

No, to get rid of the "thunderstorm" effect (people used to hit the mike with the page like a thunderclap), Gary simply erects a wide music stand in front of Terry's microphone so that she can read three pages of the script at a time, without touching paper.

Elisa has even seen to it that every page ends in a period, "so your voice won't have that hanging-in-the-air sound in mid-sentence when you turn to the top of the next page."

It's very impressive to see how the process is geared to give the performer every possible relief. "Don't worry if you fumble or stumble," Elisa says. "You can re-read a passage or keep going; we'll come back and do 'pick-ups' at the page break."

Lemony hot water and apple slices are at the ready - they cut through foggy, frog-occupied throats. Milk is not advised, even in coffee (contributes to mucus), and sweets create that sticky catch in the back of the tongue that can give the voice a crackle after a few hours.

The Formal Start

So now. All is in readiness. Terry under the microphone looks a bit nervous because each time she practiced this week, her voice dropped about three registers, and she's found herself tongue-tied on the simplest sentences.

However, as Elisa promises, "it's fine if the first few pages sound a little off. They do to everybody. Remember, the one thing we always, always, ALWAYS do, even with professional actors, even with Jeremy Irons, is to go back after you finish and re-record the beginning."

With that comforting thought, the formal reading is about to begin. Gary takes his place at a huge console of keyboard, screens and speakers. Elisa dons headphones and positions her big soft pencil and script.

Terry in her booth takes a deep relaxing breath and begins reading, and just as the maverick columnist in the room holds her breath to listen as acutely as possible, Elisa and Gary suddenly explode in conversation.

I can't believe it. These two don't seem to be listening at all, consumed as they are in technical matters - cycles, splatters, filters, mike pops, roll-offs, slivers, flaps, EQs (equilizing measures) and slates.

At one point they even turn the overhead sound down, as if that distracting Terry Ryan is interrupting their vital electronic work. But they're really in the thick of "EQ-ing," as they say: Gary is routing out any hint of tinny or flat or tremulous voice levels while Elisa is listening hard for Terry's most appealing natural voice.

"Once we find it," she says later, "everything is set in stone. From then on, nothing changes technically, including the exact distance of the performer from the microphone. Sometimes we'll take polaroids to make sure the distance is the same when we come back the next day. Or we might mark the floor or desk with tape."

Indeed, their relief is palpable when they get to that point. Like chickens who've arrived squawking and pecking - and in this case slowly become satisfied with rolling dials, jumping needles and ticker-tape spikes on the screen - they stop their fluttering and sit down.

The overhead sound is turned back up, and calming statements are uttered - "great presence," "good levels," "she's fine" - as Terry, who's been oblivious to it all, continues on.

So we all settle back to listen and record, falling into a happy routine of pick-ups, corrections, re-readings and sips of lemon water.

Elisa never interrupts - that would be too jarring to the reader - never speaks negatively. At the end of every three-page segment, her voice is thoughtful, supportive, respectful.

"That was great," she says. "Can you give me the last sentence with different emphasis?" or "try bringing that question up just a little bit," or "our error - nothing you did was wrong, but read that paragraph one more time. . . "

Even when the extra-sensitive microphone picks up the most minute extraneous sounds, such as Terry's knees rubbing together or hunger pangs growling up from the abdominal deep, Elisa like a good director keeps her performer's spirits up. "We just had a cameo from your stomach, Terry," she says.

The Big Surprise

There should be no surprises, since Elisa has pored over the abridgment at least six times - and confessed she once missed her train stop in New York because her eyes teared up at the end. So no one expects much of a reaction by now.

But Gary has not read the book and out of nowhere begins chortling, chuckling, shaking his head and laughing out loud for much of it - even yelling despite himself, "Why, that a--hole!" in the more painful parts. None of this gets recorded on the tape, of course, but it does stir the spirit in the room.

Terry's book is called "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less." It's about the contest era of the '50s and '60s when Madison Avenue invited consumers to save boxtops and coupons and write jingles, poems and limericks extolling the wonders of advertised products.

Evelyn Ryan, Terry's mother, proved so good at filling out lines such as "I like Dial because . . . " or writing such earnest jingles as "Kraft's Parkay won't tear fresh bread/Even ice cold it will smoothly spread," that she won huge prizes - cars, trips to Europe, gold watches, refrigerators, TVs, color TVs, a jukebox - as well as small cash awards ($1 per poem) for a 20-year period.

Terry's voice becomes newly animated for the jingles her mother wrote, such as this one about the indentations that separate segments in Tootsie Rolls:

"For chewy, toothsome, wholesome goodness,
Tootsie Rolls are right.
Lots of nibbling for a nickel,
And they show me where to bite."

Gary bursts out laughing with every one of these - there are over a hundred. When it develops that the Ryan family was one of the poorest in the small town of Defiance, Ohio, and that Evelyn, filling out entries at her ironing board, won three separate Grand Prizes, each time saving her family from eviction, hunger and foreclosure, he lets out little whoops of triumph in the kind of solidarity we all feel for this resourceful mother of long ago.

(The "a--hole" remark he utters is about Terry's father, an alcoholic who drank up so much of his small paycheck that Evelyn felt compelled to win more and more contests. In one unexpectedly humorous scene, Leo Ryan turns violent in the kitchen, and in the ensuing melee, a bowl of Jell-O is sent hurling through the air, its contents plopping right on Dad. At that point all the kids and Mom can think of is not the father's attack on Mom but Evelyn's latest entry:

"For picnic or party, Jell-O's a boon -
Made by nine, all 'set' by noon -
With taste and shimmer-shake appeal,
Jell-O jollies any meal.")

I, too, have read the book and the abridgment many times, having acted as Terry's pre-submission editor, but there's something about the spontaneous expression of emotion by this nice man Gary, a stranger to the story; and to Terry overcoming her deep shyness to read her mother's tale out loud to the world; and to Elisa who brings such exquisite care to this process, that moves me to the bone.

In fact, we all feel it. (See Rachel Remen's letter below, by the way. Apparently it's not uncommon that this kind of emotion affects everyone within earshot of a reading like this.)

Jaws That Go Click in the Night

By this time, Terry's grown more confident, her voice losing that hollow boomy barrel sound and becoming light and animated. "She's getting good at spotting," says Gary, meaning she now corrects her own glitches and sails right along.

But what do you do, I ask Elisa later, about performers whose jaws develop those funny clicks or whose sinuses seem to cramp up and emit odd little pips in the middle of sentence after sentence?

Well, digital audio really has been a revolution, Elisa says. There was one occasion when an actor had a lot of dental work done the day before the recording. "His teeth were still loose when he came in," she says, "so the reading sounded like he had a box of Chiclets in his mouth."

For this, she found a special software program that helped erase every ivory rattle. "It's not magic," she says. "No program can fix it all. But if you're willing to put in the hours, you can clean the track manually - physically pull out the problems click by click and breath by breath."

Recordings are so precise today that Elisa and Gary even record the "room tone" when Terry goes out for lunch. This is because the tape editor, who lives in Colorado, may have a different sound of silence in his studio than the one here.

I think of the many traffic jams in which I've listened to book adaptations on audiocassette with horns blaring all around. Probably I'll never hear a change in "room tone," but it's heartening to know these professionals are taking pains to make sure nobody will.

The Importance of That Nothing Sound

But room tone is regarded as an essential if not saving ingredient for audio producers. "It's like a 'reaction shot' in a movie," Elisa says. The camera shoots each side of a conversation at different times, and the director has to make sure the lighting and ambiance of the scene are the same so the viewer feels it's one integrated piece.

"When reading, if Terry coughs between sentences, we would edit out the cough and put a little bit of room tone in to make for smooth continuity. Or if she got a little rushed at some point, I could come in later with a quarter-second or half-second of room tone to fill out or slow down the pacing."

The trap is to do the reverse - to use room tone to create too many or unnecessarily elaborate dramatic pauses. "You never want room tone to suggest something too precious, or to telegraph the importance of a statement," Elisa says. "It should be very subtle but also very definite, and it must be consistent with the unique way each performer reads the book."

Gad, this is heartening, I feel. As much thought goes into a quarter-second of no sound at all in the audio version of a book as a one-hundredth of an inch of space in a newspaper book review.

What It Really Takes

At the end of the recording session, a wistfulness sets in as the little group, now having worked together for three days straight, wraps it up. "This experience," Elisa says, "is often so intense and intimate that it's like leaving your family when we're done."

What an intriguing thought. I've often felt that the reason people love books adapted to audio is that the listener so easily falls into the mode of a child being read to by a loving adult.

There's something safe, trusting - even hypnotic - about hearing a book in this way, so much so that one almost feels the intimacy of that studio and that little recording family coming right through the wires.

You may not be a fan of abridged readings (I'm not), but you can't deny the love that sends them into the world.