A WRITER OF MANY VOICES
Penguin Random House's Strange Light imprint makes its debut with Sara Peters's I Become A Delight To My Enemies - an experimental work about trauma and terror, told through a multitude of disembodied narrators, that might just make for the most audacious audiobook yet
By SARAH HAMPSON
Saturday, July 13, 2019 Print Edition, Page R6
Sara Peters is on the phone, talking about I Become A Delight To My Enemies, her voice by turns hesitant, pointed, self-deprecating, dark, funny. "I think of it as a novel, I suppose," the 36-year-old begins, when asked how she would categorize the work. "I wanted this book to be poly-vocal and I wanted the form of each piece to be reflective of the speaker," she says. "I was also thinking of how to undermine any notions of linearity."
A mixture of poetry and prose, with no page numbers, the book marks the debut of Strange Light, a new imprint at Penguin Random House (PRH) that illuminates "experimental" and "boundary-pushing" works. (As part of its debut, Strange Light also published Max Porter's second novel, Lanny, a story about a boy who is drawn by a menacing force and vanishes from an idyllic English village.) A brainchild of the editorial team behind Hazlitt, the awardwinning digital magazine at PRH, Strange Light is a bold, creative gambit - an indiestyle initiative in the bosom of the largest trade publisher in the country.
The subject matter, while in some senses timeless, is also very much of the present moment. I Become is a book of voices, disembodied, all of its characters from a nameless town where they experienced sexual abuse and terror. Contributing to the sense of secrecy and shame, some of the text appears occasionally as marginalia, like whispered comments from the periphery of a town's main square. No two pages are alike. The text is often in fragments, abruptly cut, as if the speakers are hesitant about how much they should say.
If the print version was a work of meticulous design the audio version was a leap of faith, weaving the voices of 15 actors to create the feeling of an agitated, toxic town.
"Trauma leaves gaps and is prismatic," Peters explains when discussing the unconventional approach to her subject.
Asked about how people respond to "experimental" work in any media, she says, "I think it's really important to never condescend to people's appetite for art."
She, too, speaks in fragments - growing silent at times, and in other moments blurting out how she feels in surprising admissions.
The eldest of seven children, she was born in Antigonish, N.S. At the age of 5, she wrote simple things about "the moon and water," she recalls with a laugh. But now, "I really hate and resent writing most of the time. I feel compelled to do it. I do. I wish I just went joyously forth."
After an undergraduate degree from Concordia University in Montreal, she completed an MFA from Boston University and was a Stegner fellow in poetry at Stanford.
I ask if I Become took a long time.
"About four years. I write very little and I rewrite endlessly." A silence falls between us for a moment. And then she offers: "I do things like set time limits for myself. Like, 48 minutes."
The time limit is "totally arbitrary," she explains.
How many times does she do these 45minute writing stints?
"Probably five units of 48 minutes a day."
In between, she might go for a walk, eat something or take a nap. Mostly, she likes to work in a library.
"I really like Robarts [library] at U of T because it feels very anonymous ... and I'm shamed by the industry of the undergrads around me," she says with a small laugh.
Her first book, 1996, a collection of poetry, was published in 2013. Since I Become was completed a year ago, she hasn't written anything. "I feel very, like, scraped out," she admits.
After the print version was finalized, the audio version got under way. "The amount of attention that was taken in figuring out each character and thinking about them and how they would be embodied ..." Peters says, trailing off. "I felt honoured by the sensitivity and the precision of it."
Of its adult list, PRH Canada publishes nearly 90 per cent of its titles in audiobook versions (with the exception of cookbooks). In house, it has produced 130 audiobook titles, while others are co-publications in collaboration with colleagues in other countries.
By far, I Become was the most challenging project Ann Jansen - the book's director of audio production - had tackled at PRH. Jansen has produced spoken versions of numerous titles since the department was launched two years ago. "Sound has found its renaissance. It never went away," says Jansen. "It's that pleasure of hearing a human voice tell a story."
For I Become, the audio version is a radio play - in many ways, the truest iteration of its concept. "We wanted layers of voices, almost crashing into each other. Which is realistic if you were to take any sliver of any town in Canada," Jansen explains.
"It was a great experiment," says Sonia Vaillant, associate producer and studio manager, who has a background in theatre.
"But there was never a moment when I thought it wouldn't work."
Much of the work was in pre- and postproduction. The team met with Peters to discuss the tone each of the characters should have and "how to capture the range of femininity," Vaillant says. Then, the actors were brought in one by one over the course of four days to be recorded in studio.
"Sara's words were so alive, so precise,"
says Tess Degenstein, one of the voice actors. "I was leaning so hard on her words."
She allowed the structure of the pieces she read - the spaces between the lines on the page, the punctuation and fragments of words - to inform her reading.
In one of the poetic pieces Degenstein read, Oracle, she took her cue from the slashes in the text. "As an actor, all of these breaks are a sort of innate conflict of wanting to move forward, wanting to drive through, but being stopped at every turn when there was something really important that was to be said. The text created its own emotionality."
For other parts of the book, a number of actors would individually read an entire passage and then, later, in postproduction, different voices were used for different lines - whichever seemed to best suit the words - so that the whole was a tonal tapestry of voices. Caleb Stull, the sound engineer for PRH audiobooks, spent weeks putting I Become together in collaboration with Beverley Cooper, a freelance director.
Many of the actors identified with the female anger in the characters of the book.
"For me, personally, it was less about tapping into a cultural moment and more about tapping into my own physical body and my own experiences," Degenstein says.
Similarly, Peters didn't write the book in reaction to #MeToo. She tells me that she has been thinking about the subject matter of I Become - "specifically how marginalized people experience violence" - since the age of 10 or 11. Questioned about why a girl as young as 11 would be aware of sexual violence, she answered simply, "I am a woman, and I was brought up with the particular set of hideous expectations for people assigned female."
And those are? "How we expect women to look and act and behave and how much they are allowed to speak and how much they are silenced."
Listening to I Become is an aural immersion in a town of people who need to speak out, to reveal truths, to push back against the shame, to hold out hope. And in that way, it's a powerful reflection of #MeToo, whether that was Peters's intention or not.
The voices are literally heard.
The actors behind the audiobook: 1. Paloma Nunez 2. Justin David Miller 3. Angela Asher 4. Amanda Cordner 5. Tess Degenstein 6. Martin Roach 7. Nicole Stamp 8. Maggie Huculak 9. Amy Nostbakken 10. Norah Sadava
PHOTOS BY MAY TRUONG/ THE GLOBE AND MAILTuesday, July 16, 2019