Muffling the Gongs and Sending the Puppy Away: The Burning Light of Two Stars Audiobook

I’ve always loved backyard gongs. Their deep mellow tones soothe me. So, I started collecting them. Once a year, when I taught at Esalen, I’d stop by Café Nepenthe where they had a beautiful collection of chimes on the deck behind the store, and I’d treat myself to a new one. I liked the deep ones better than the high tinkly ones. I got one in the key of G. In the key of C. In the key of E. I kept this up for several years until Karyn stopped me. She spends a lot more time in the backyard than I do and she prefers silence. Natural sounds. So, I stopped buying chimes. But the ones still in our yard are lovely. But there were not going to be lovely chiming behind my voice on an audiobook. So, I got a ladder (they are mounted high in trees), several dishtowels and some small metal binder clips. And I wrapping the center of each bell with cloth and clipped the cloth in place. Voila! Silenced chimes.

The bigger problem was going to be Luna, our five-month-old yellow lab puppy. As she moves from puppyhood into adolescence, her voice has gotten louder, and barking dogs are definitely not okay in an audiobook. I told Karyn that she was going to have to take Luna somewhere while we were recording—which promises to be at least eight three-hour sessions, on Friday and Saturday mornings. The thing is, Luna isn’t even fully vaccinated yet. Her experience of the world outside our house is pretty much limited to short, sniffy walks around the neighborhood, half an hour max. She still pulls at the leash, is frightened by cars on busy streets, and prefers to pee and poop at home, as most puppies do. Our longest outings with her have been no more than an hour. And now I was asking my forbearing and patient spouse to keep Luna away from home for three hours at a stretch. I was definitely asking a lot. But Karyn said yes.

I’d also been told to drink a lot of liquids in the weeks leading up to our recording sessions, to “moisten my vocal folds” and someone recommended that I stop eating dairy. So, I did. No more feta cheese in my eggs. No more Viccolo’s frozen pizzas. Lots of homemade ginger-lemon tea. I made it by the potful. And I kept practicing reading out loud. Since I wrote it, I know the book intimately, but sentences that are perfectly good on the page can become terrible tongue twisters when you read them out loud. So I fastidiously marked up my manuscript—places to pause, words I wanted to emphasize (often the verbs, I came to discover), words that I had to slow down to say properly. Words I had to learn to pronounce—like “rapprochement.” Marking each place there was a new beat or a new mood. Where the reading should be matter of fact. Where it should be emotional.

Becky and I scheduled a practice session, and I was amazed that our Zoom interface worked. We turned off our cameras, buried the Zoom screen behind the others, so all I could see on my laptop screen was the script in a large font, which I scrolled through with a track pad, and the Audacity recording screen, so I could make sure we were actually recording and that the levels were right. I could hear Becky in my ears, reading my mother’s voice, my brother’s voice, my kids’ voices, Karyn’s voice. She became the doctor, the nurse, the people in the auditorium, the dinner guests—any time someone other than me was talking, Becky was doing their voice in my ear. And she could hear me as well. We could stop and talk whenever we wanted to.

The first morning we recorded, Karyn left the house with Luna at 8:30 AM, armed with dog treats, water, a zip lock bag full of kibble, Luna’s harness and leash. I checked the gongs to make sure they were still well-wrapped. Then I entered my dark little booth and closed the door. I was nervous. I was beyond nervous. I kept clearing my throat and I couldn’t stop coughing.

In the sound booth with me, I had several tonics and throat sprays designed to soothe the voice. A giant thermos of homemade ginger-lemon-honey tea. My book coach, Joshua, had given me some warm-up exercises to do, as had my student, Rachel Michelberg, an opera singer and vocal coach. She taught me about straw phonation, where you open your voice by expressing sound through a straw. So, in the half hour leading up to our start time, I practiced those exercises, along with one I’d learned in 7th grade speech class—reading the first few paragraphs out loud with my tongue fully extended as a way to open the throat.

At our designated start time, Becky and I got on Zoom together, and I began reading chapter one. I kept coughing and my voice was tight. But eventually, I settled down into a nice rhythm. Occasionally, Becky stopped me and suggested I try reading a line or a section another way. I was grateful for her coaching. And I did the same with her. “No, I think my mother needs to sound more like a victim there.” Or “Angry, but not that angry.”

The strangest part was that Becky’s portrayal sounds nothing like the real people. I didn’t expect it to. But the fact that her voice doesn’t resemble the vocal qualities of the people in my head is jarring. And there are times I get so caught up in the emotion of a scene that it’s hard to pull myself back to the more neutral voice of the narrator.

But the biggest surprise is how exhausting it is. I couldn’t believe how completely wiped out I was after our first weekend sessions. The level of concentration is huge. You’re reading, listening, watching audio levels, responding to another reader’s delivery, trying to give the right inflection, and looking ahead to the end of the paragraph or chapter.

What will it all sound like when it’s done? I guess we’re all going to have to wait to find out.

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