I now listen to audiobooks now with heightened respect for whoever has done the reading. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn’s audiobook diary: plentiful bananas, dry mouth and self-doubt

Recording your own book is an unexpected feat of endurance.

I love an audiobook. I listen while I’m walking and find that thrillers are a particularly good spur to exercise. With a Tana French, Jo Nesbø or Gillian Flynn on the go, I’m desperate to find out what happens next, so I pound the streets, headphones clamped on, lost in the plot.

I’ve got my preferred readers, too, as the narrator can make or break a book. My favourites include Sam West reading The Day of the Triffids and his dad, Tim, reading Trollope; or Patricia Hodge bringing Nancy Mitford to life. Katherine Kellgren, who I encountered via Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, has a voice of such beauty that it is a sensual pleasure to have her murmuring in your ear. Tina Fey and David Sedaris, for their part, have both recorded audiobooks that are even funnier than the versions printed on paper.

You might think listening to a book is easier than reading, maybe even cheating, but it requires concentration. No flicking back, going: “Who’s that again? Have we met him before?” No sliding your eye over boring descriptions of landscape or weather. Listening is unabridged – you hear every word – but a skilful narrator makes the actual job of reading sound like a breeze, and, as I now know, this is not the case at all.

I’m in the studio this week reading my new book, Naked at the Albert Hall, and as I learned last year when recording Bedsit Disco Queen, it is a feat of endurance. You start in the morning and spend the first hour in your sealed, soundproofed booth getting warmed up, clearing your throat, and being told to slow down. In hour two you settle into a kind of rhythm and things start to flow, although at that point you begin to notice things about this book you’ve written. Reading aloud highlights every flaw, every clumsy construction; you hear how you could have phrased it better. Occasionally you think, hang on, is that true, is that what I really meant?

By the third hour it’s getting towards lunchtime and your stomach starts to rumble. This picks up on the mike, so the producer interrupts you after every growl to reread the last sentence, until after a while you have to stop and have a banana. Hour four flies by. You look at your watch and can’t believe the time, but your voice is getting husky and so you have a cup of something, preferably not tea or coffee, which will speed you up.

Hour five, your tongue starts to become clumsy in your mouth, as it does when you’re drunk. The saliva is drying up, so your mouth opens with a click every time you speak. The remedy for this is a green apple, so you eat a green apple, whether you want it or not. God, the amount of things you’ve eaten and drunk so far, just in order to read a book. Who knew?

Day two, you do it all again. You realise that the hard part isn’t the vocal tiredness but the concentration; the way in which – however slowly and clearly you try to read – the words seem to be speeding up on the page, rushing and rising towards you like the road in an arcade driving game. You stumble and falter. You have another banana. You hit a word you don’t know how to pronounce, someone’s name, maybe, which you’ve casually written but never said. You realise what a pretentious idiot you’ve been for writing a book that refers to Gramsci and Tannhäuser. But then again, it turns out you’re not sure how to pronounce “privacy”, or “inherently”, or “Deborah Kerr” either, so really you shouldn’t have written a book at all.

All in all, it’s hilariously exhausting, for something that sounds so easy. I listen to audiobooks now with a new sense of awe and heightened respect for whoever has done the reading. As I stagger to the end of my third day and finally turn the last page, I realise I am lucky to be able to escape and I can’t help thinking of Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, held captive by the crazed Mr Todd, forced to read over and over again the complete works of Dickens. It’s always struck me as something of a nightmare ending for a book, but now – brrrr – it seems even more so.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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In the name of the father: Patricia Lockwood on sex, centaurs and Catholicism

The author of the viral poem “Rape Joke” talks about growing up with her gun-toting Catholic “priestdaddy”.

“Oh my fricking God. It’s a centaur.” The American poet Patricia Lockwood and I are in the lobby of a Whitehall hotel and she is finding the quantity of equine art distracting. I have already been skipped along a corridor to examine the bizarrely detailed rendering of a horse’s anus in a Napoleonic painting (“They made a point of doing him straight up the butt”) that turns out to be a copy of Théodore Géricault’s Charging Chasseur. Now a statue on the mantelpiece has caught her eye, prompting a reverie on what she saw at the British Museum a couple of days ago: “A wonderful statue of a man kneeing a centaur in the balls. It’s the most important thing to me there. It’s so beautiful.”

The confluence of violence, sex, orifices, animals and mythology runs throughout Lockwood’s work in wild and witty poems such as “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” (inspired by the realisation that “Bambi is a puberty movie”) and “Revealing Nature Photographs” (pastoral verse meets porn spam) – and it also colours her new book, Priestdaddy, a deeply idiosyncratic family memoir in which copulation is a go-to metaphor. Her dad’s frenzied, tuneless playing raises the prospect that he might be “having sex with the guitar”; during Lockwood’s teenage depression, she writes, the only thing she was having sex with “was the intolerable sadness of the human condition, which sucked so much in bed”.

Lockwood (pictured at her First Holy Communion) has dark, cropped hair and elfin features, pearly white nails and sleeping cats on her knees (an effect achieved with decorated tights – “Let this be for the stocking boys,” she says). Her voice is deadpan, frequently dipping into laughter without losing her poise. She is one day off her 35th birthday and has been married since she was 21. Her father, Greg, is a priest and, along with her four siblings in a succession of rectories across the Midwest, she was raised a Catholic – thus ensuring, she says, the permanent sexual warping of her mind.

“We Catholics become perverts because of the way sex is discussed in strictly negative terms. I saw pictures of aborted foetuses before I knew what basic anatomy was.”

As a devout teenager, she attended a youth group called God’s Gang and was given a virginity pledge in the form of a business card. The group leaders had a “very hip and young” approach: “We’re going to tell you every single thing you can do, in explicit terms, and just be like, ‘But don’t do it.’”

The ribald humour of her writing – Lockwood is renowned on Twitter for her surreal “sexts” – often contains a darkness. The poem that made her name, “Rape Joke”, takes her experience of being raped at 19 by a boyfriend and metes it out in discrete, increasingly devastating soundbites and images. It was posted online in 2013 and went viral, leading to a publishing deal for her collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

After the rape, Lockwood was “absolutely insane” for about five years, but it’s not as if she was entirely happy before: at 16, she had attempted suicide by taking a hundred Tylenol tablets. Her memoir recounts, too, being embedded in a church mired in scandal, a claustrophobic situation that hit home when a priest close to her was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Such events led to Lockwood abandoning her faith and escaping with Jason, her future husband, whom she met on an online poetry messageboard.

When Patricia was 30, she and Jason ran out of money and moved back to the rectory, allowing her to observe her parents afresh. The resulting portraits in Priestdaddy are larger than life: her mother, Karen, is a hyperactive generator of mad puns and proverbs; her ex-navy father is a self-mythologising, right-wing whirlwind of talk radio, guns and Tom Clancy novels. Married Catholic priests are rare but Greg, previously a Lutheran minister, got the pope’s permission to convert. Usually to be found in his underwear, he wants for no new expensive gadget or guitar, though the family is expected to make sacrifices. In 2001, two weeks before Patricia – who learned to read at three and was writing poetry at seven – was supposed to leave for college, he told her that they couldn’t afford it. He later “changed the story in his mind so that I had said I don’t need to go”.

“Growing up in my household,” she says, “all of these far-right, retrograde ideas of gender roles and the man as patriarch existed from the very beginning. But I didn’t think of my house as a bellwether of what was going to happen.” It came as no surprise to her that Greg and many like him voted for Trump. When she reported on a Trump rally in February 2016, she “moved like a ghost through the crowd. They saw me as one of their own.”

Anger at her father’s selfishness “would be useless”, and Lockwood respects his sense of vocation, which she feels she has inherited. She has believed in her own genius ever since she was writing “mermaids-having-sex-with-Jesus poems” at the age of 19. Jason is her support staff, licking her envelopes and buying her clothes. His offering the previous day was a T-shirt emblazoned with Justin Bieber’s face: it revealed how much she resembles the singer – “a full 90 per cent overlap” – and is definitely not ironic.

“Do you think we only got irony after Christ was crucified?” she wonders, and then spots two black-clad priests in dog collars who have sat down across the room from us. “Ooh,” she exclaims, awed and delighted, and then, in a whisper, ever confident in her powers of creation: “I manifested them.”

“Priestdaddy: A Memoir” is published by Allen Lane. “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” is published by Penguin

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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