Last week, as I drove to and from Delaware to speak about HAMILTON AND PEGGY, I listened to the wondrous narration of my other novel published this year, SUSPECT RED, which is about McCarthyism, to get back into 1953-54. I worried my head was so full of the Revolution that I would falter in my details on the Red Scare.
What a gift Liz Wiley’s performance of the novel is! Her vocal acting brings the 1950s so alive and the exchanges between my characters such depth, humor, irony, sadness, embarrassment, forgiveness. It's SUCH a powerful experience! All the little subplots and sub-themes are beautifully punctuated by her inflection in voice and emotive shadings. And once again, I marveled at her seamlessly slipping between accents and dialects, male and female characters, old and young, admirable and deceitful, moments of reflection and heart-pumping action. Even little gradations of accent in Czech-born characters and the intonations of an alpha society girl versus a budding feminist. She made me laugh and even shed a few tears with one scene—and I already knew what was going to happen, having written it!!
So I asked Liz to write a guest blog about how she achieves all that! See below.
Our first “collaboration” was for UNDER A WAR-TORN SKY, which has happily become a perennial in many school curriculums. Because of its material—WWII pilots and Resistance civilians—the novel has ended up on many “reluctant readers” lists. Liz’s evocative narration has been such a blessing for challenged readers, to listen and read at the same time. I’ll never forget the 8th grader in a very rural school who was repeating the grade telling me that Liz’s narration is what inspired him to “knuckle down,” as he quoted one of the characters, enough to graduate into high school. SUSPECT RED is a very different kind of narrative—but I hope now the novel is coming out in paperback in September that it will have a similar pairing with her narration in schools.
Part of the reason I wrote SUSPECT RED was to offer a contextualizing companion read for The Crucible and Fahrenheit 451, both of which burst into the national consciousness in 1953. Arthur Miller specifically wrote his play about Salem witch-trials as a metaphor for the Red Scare and its blacklists, the national hysteria and persecution of independent thinkers by McCarthy and his Senate committee. My novel also illustrates the book-burning/censorship so hauntingly addressed in Fahrenheit 451, as it begins with the mother of my protagonist yanking a copy of Robin Hood away from my teen protagonist, because it is banned. (Robin Hood took from the rich to give to the poor, a theme deemed pro-communist and “subversive.” Yes, I know. But it’s true that that was the thinking.) (For suggested lesson plans see: http://lmelliott.com/teachers-librarians )
My character Abby utters the question that permeated America in 1953—what would Mr. Hoover/Senator McCarthy think if they knew Richard was reading such “dangerously un-American” works. What would happen to his father (who worked at the FBI), would his loyalty to the country be suspect?
Which leads me to a relevancy I hadn’t anticipated when I first began work on SUSPECT RED. President Truman said of McCarthyism: “It is the corruption of truth…the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism.” There are many disturbing parallels between Senator McCarthy and President Trump in terms of using hate language and denigrating labels to discredit opponents and the media, to gin up xenophobia, to polarize Americans, and to create an extremely narrow definition of patriotism.
Last week’s decision by the NFL to mandate that players stand for the National Anthem or be subject to fines or blackballing eerily echoes the spread of “Loyalty Review Boards” within work places in reaction to McCarthy’s hunt for hidden subversives and “fellow travelers.” They proliferated because of McCarthy’s threats to encourage boycotting or to have federal agencies look into their licensing if the companies and community agencies didn’t tow his line. (Not unlike Mr. Trump’s tweets calling for firing of players and tax reviews/changes of the NFL if it didn’t comply with his pronouncements they were “disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country.” ) Thousands of people lost their jobs under those board reviews, sometimes for simply reading books --(like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath which showcased the plight of workers)-- or signing petitions protesting attacks on First Amendment rights.
Memorial Day seems a good moment to run this blog, as today we should all pause to think on and thank the brave Americans who have fought and died protecting our liberties. My Daddy, a WWII pilot and then a 22-year reservist following the war, would not have liked/applauded Colin Kaepernick sitting or kneeling during the National Anthem. BUT he would have said that Mr. Kaepernick had the right to protest what America was doing wrong (ie police brutality and racial profiling); that peaceful protest meant to promote respectful conversation is part of the process within a democratic society seeking to better itself; and that protecting our Constitutional Rights of free speech was precisely why he had fought the Nazis.
Liz’s narration of SUSPECT RED won a much coveted Earphones Award.
https://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/129393/. Take it away, Liz:
Best to say this up front: I am an unabashed fan of L.M. Elliott’s books.
I had narrated two of Laura’s books already – Under a War-Torn Sky and DaVinci’s Tiger – so I was thrilled to accept the assignment of narrating Suspect Red. Before I start recording a book I read it all the way through, of course, to get to know the characters and the feel of the narrative. True to Elliott’s style, she immediately pulled me in with relatable characters and a setting rich with details specific to the era. I always research things in the text in advance of getting in front of the microphone, like if I question the pronunciation of a name, or if I want to understand a reference better. Sometimes, though, I can draw on my own experience – like hearing the way some of those 1953 figures of speech might be spoken that nowadays sound pretty quaint. Since I was born in the 1960s and all my siblings were products of the 1950s, I recognized a lot of the characters’ expressions. No joking! I remember my dad telling my brother to eat his brussels sprouts because “it’ll put hair on your chest” (my dad told me the same thing, trying humor to coerce me to eat the vile things, unsuccessfully, as they gave me “the willies”). I remember my other brother complaining about having to go to dance class to learn to waltz – only we didn’t call it cotillion in the north, like it was called for Richard when he learned to dance with Dottie. I remember my mom and I pressing autumn leaves between sheets of waxed paper with an iron, like Ginny does. I remember the mothers and fathers on TV shows like Leave It to Beaver, and how the role of women as nurturers and homemakers was captured in the way they talk, while fathers could likewise be heard alternating between being indulgent and stern in their vocal delivery. These kinds of references, along with Elliott’s rich characterizations – clues she builds seamlessly into their behaviors, their thoughts, their dialogue -- are some of the things I took into account as I prepared to narrate Suspect Red.
With the news clips and article excerpts opening each chapter I had the benefit of being able to listen to actual recordings or videos of the speaker quoted. Did I try to create impersonations of, say, J. Edgar Hoover or Senator McCarthy? Well, no. I mean, first of all, I’m female. And I’m not trying to make you believe you’re really hearing those historical figures; it’s more that I want to evoke the mood, the intention, the sense of that person and what they’re saying. It also helped for me to take on a broadcast-style or political speech-style delivery to set apart those news clips from the story’s narrative. But whether it was different news reporters or the various boys in the gym playing basketball, I tried to differentiate the voices to help listeners hear the scene more clearly. I use pitch, pacing, timbre (vocal quality), inflection, phrasing patterns, and more to help me define a character’s voice. When dialect is involved, as for Vladimir’s family, that gives me another aspect to play with.
As you listen you might wonder, when song lyrics come up, why I don’t sing them. Spoken songs in audiobooks have nothing to do with how well or poorly the narrator can carry a tune. I can and do sing, actually, but not when I’m narrating audiobooks. It has to do with the publishing rights to the song, which can get complicated and fussy, so our publishers just tell us to speak the words to songs. This is something that irks me as a listener, I admit. If a character is singing “how much is that doggie in the window?” I want to hear it sung. But to try to satisfy all sides, I hint at the rhythm just enough to suggest the song. I hope it works.
I want to comment on one last aspect of narrating L.M. Elliott novels: I love how she includes sound effects in her storytelling. When the needle on the record player reaches the end, there’s the scratch scratch scratch; on the basketball court there’s the wham bounce bounce bounce. I had better know the actual sound she is evoking, so that I can best imitate it. Plus, the sound of someone dribbling a basketball and shooting at the backboard casually will have a different impact than someone shooting hoops in a frustrated way, won’t it?
Laura writes the story fully, to help us be in the midst of it with all our senses as well as engaging our critical thinking. She gives me quite a lot of material to contribute to the aural landscape of the book. As I finish this blog, I think about the sound of fingers ticking on my laptop keyboard and how it’s different than the sound of a 1950s typewriter. What I need now is Charlie Parker’s jazz sax spinning on a turntable, but I’ll stream some be-bop instead and call it a good day.
If you’re interested in Liz’s narration of UNDER A WAR-TORN SKY: https://www.goodreads.com/videos/86718-under-a-war-torn-sky-author-narrator-interview