Seabiscuit Author Interview

Horses

The following interview was conducted via phone just prior to the release of the movie SEABISCUIT, for XM radio. Journalist Laura Hillenbrand’s fame was sealed when her article on the legendary race horse won on the Eclipse Award for Magazine Writing, and led to her Random House book, which became the blockbuster movie starring Jeff Bridges. Her next book was UNBROKEN.
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JONATHAN LOWE: You wrote on occasion for Equus, a horse magazine. What in your background led to that, and what was your job there?
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LAURA HILLENBRAND: As a contributing editor. I’ve been a horse person all my life, actually. My parents had a farm next to a battlefield, and they had an agreement with people throughout the county that if someone had horses they couldn’t keep they’d end up at our farm. So my sister and I would ride them. I suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome now, though, so I don’t keep a horse today, although I wish I could.
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LOWE: It’s a fascinating story-–Seabiscuit-–and I’m particularly impressed with your race descriptions. You consistently maintain the suspense.
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HILLENBRAND: Thank you.
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LOWE: How much of this suspense was inherent in the true story, and how much was due to your experience as a magazine reporter?
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HILLENBRAND: Most of it was the story itself. My focus might have been different than someone else because I’ve always been passionate about horse racing, and I even wanted to be a jockey for a while, until I learned how dangerous it is. I was fascinated with jockeys too, and I spoke to a huge number of them to get the feel of what it’s like to actually be in the race, and to get the reader up on the horse.
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LOWE: Into the saddle, so to speak.
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HILLENBRAND: Right.
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LOWE: What was it about Seabiscuit that captured America’s imagination back in the late 1930s?
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HILLENBRAND: I think Seabiscuit would have been a star in any generation because he was a great athlete and a captivating athlete. I think what enabled him to transcend sport and become a cultural icon was the Depression. He was a rags to riches horse, and was surrounded by men who were hard luck people, and this was something the American public could identify with. The whole country was down and out, and this was a horse that looked just like them! He was beat up, ugly, from the wrong side of the tracks, and he was very, very persistent. And I think that’s what got people passionately behind him. It is amazing to see the passion that people felt for this horse. . . of people weeping after his races, leaping the rails at the track and running after him. It was quite extraordinary.
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LOWE: The listener feels that too. That’s what is so amazing about this audiobook. But the horse was not large, and had crooked knees, so how could he be so fast?
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HILLENBRAND: (laughs) I think heart was a big part of the equation with this horse. He had an ugly gait, what they call an eggbeater gait. . . he would kinda stab out with one of his forelegs when he flung it forward, and his knees didn’t straighten all the way. He was a bit of a mess bio-mechanically, but he was a very hard horse to discourage, and he would try his heart out every time, and that was the main factor for him, I think.
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LOWE: Was Seabiscuit the fastest horse ever? What about Secretariat and others?
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HILLENBRAND: It’s impossible to compare great race horses of different generations, really, because the conditions are so much different. Horses today carry less weight, and the tracks are faster. The think I will say, comparatively speaking, is that of all the horses who ever lived, if it came down to a nose-to-nose fight down the home stretch, there is no horse I would pick over Seabiscuit.
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LOWE: The showdown between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, when the jockeys knew what the crowd watching did not, was stunning. There are really in tune with their horses. So do horses reject substitute jockeys sometimes? Do horses have to be familiar or connected emotionally with the rider to run their best?
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HILLENBRAND: I think jockeys are underrated in their role in the success of race horses. A lot of horses are comfortable under different jockeys, but there are horses who will really run only for one guy. And I think Red Pollard had much to do with Seabiscuit’s success. His early jockeys really did not get this horse, while Seabiscuit and Pollard were kindred souls. Seabiscuit was a very difficult horse to ride.
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LOWE: Horses really have personalities, like people, don’t they?
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HILLENBRAND: They are as complicated as people. They have complex emotional lives. They are not carbon copies, but have as broad a range of personalities as people. Some are as sweet as puppy dogs, and some are very high strung, that’s right.
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LOWE: Actor Campbell Scott, who is George C. Scott’s son, reads the audiobook version, and I think he made the right choice by not being overly dramatic with the text, but just telling it like a documentary. What did you think?
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HILLENBRAND: I think he did a wonderful job, and was the perfect choice for it, too. The feedback I’ve gotten, people just loved it. He used the right tone, and put just the right stress on all the words.

Sophie Chen Keller Interview

Sophie Chen Keller

In this story for readers of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and A Man Called Ove, when all seems lost, you need to find what matters most. Walter Lavender Jr. is a master of finding. A wearer of high-tops. A maker of croissants. A son keeping vigil, twelve years counting. But he wouldn’t be able to tell you. Silenced by his motor speech disorder, Walter’s life gets lonely. Fortunately, he has The Lavenders—his mother’s enchanted dessert shop, where marzipan dragons breathe actual fire. He also has a knack for tracking down any missing thing—except for his lost father. So when the Book at the root of the bakery’s magic vanishes, Walter, accompanied by his overweight golden retriever, journeys through New York City to find it—along the way encountering an unforgettable cast of lost souls. Steeped in nostalgic wonder, The Luster of Lost Things explores the depths of our capacity for kindness and our ability to heal. A lyrical meditation on why we become lost and how we are found, from the bright, broken heart of a boy who knows where to look for everyone but himself.
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JL, Tower Review) What gave you the idea to write this book?
Sophie Chen Keller) Some of my earliest memories are of my mom reading out loud to me from the books we’d check out from the library in stacks of twenty or thirty at a time—books that would whisk me off to magical places, by authors like EB White and Roald Dahl. I wanted my debut novel to be a grown-up version of those childhood classics—a tale that was warm and wondrous and pure, yet at the same time layered with meaning and observations on what it is to live, to be human. I wanted to take people back to that lost time, when the world was bright and brimming with possibility, because as we get it older, it becomes easier to forget that it can still be that way. There are times when we all could use that breath of fresh air—that reminder of the goodness that lives in us, and in the people around us. The specific idea of a boy who looks for lost things came to me later, in the summer of 2014. I came across a “Lost” flyer posted at a campsite, for a missing camera that contained sentimental family photos. I started wondering whether the lost camera had been returned, and about all the other things that people lost. What did it say about them? What were they really looking for when they looked for something like a lost camera? As I wondered if anyone responded to “Lost” flyers like that one, I had my first idea of who Walter would be—a boy who answered “Lost” flyers, finding the things that people had lost and were so desperately looking for.
TR) How does food figure into your conception?
SCK) I spend a lot of time eating food, thinking about the food I’m going to eat next and watching people on TV prepare food that I can then imagine eating. I like exploring different foods—I’m the one holding up the line at the gelato shop or the bakery, inquiring about every item in the display and hemming and hawing over which one to choose. So really, I couldn’t resist writing about food.
TR) A real sweet tooth! And Walter?
SCK) In the book, the main character, Walter Lavender Jr. struggles to find a place to belong because of the motor speech disorder that renders him virtually speechless, trapping him inside his own head. Food, desserts especially, have a way of bringing people together, and of transporting them back to a time and place where they felt like they belonged. One bite, one whiff of warm chocolate chip cookie, and you’re transported decades back to Grandma’s kitchen as she’s pulling a baking sheet out of the oven. At The Lavenders, the magical bakery run by Walter’s mother, Walter is able to experience the sense of belonging and connection that he longs for. The Lavenders is what my ultimate dream bakery would look like, comprised of my favorite elements from various bakeries I’ve been to—the whimsical touches of a California chocolatier, the home-spun coziness of a German bäckerei, the classic brass elegance of a French patisserie, the sugary brightness of a closet-sized Manhattan bakery.
TR) So inviting, and imaginative.
SCR) You’d step in, order, and be transported to anywhere in the world you wished—the bourbon peach pie would take you to the South, the maple walnut whoopie pies to New England, the mango napoleon to Thailand, the sticky toffee pudding to England, the rose macaron to France, the green matcha croissant to Japan. And now…I’m hungry!
TR) What is your favorite dessert recipe?
SCK) Rainbow cupcake cones! On the surface, they look like that hot-weather staple from childhood…but once you dig in, you’re in for a delightful surprise. These “ice-cream cones” are actually cupcakes baked inside ice-cream cones and frosted to look like scoops of ice cream. Whimsical, delicious and easy to make, I love them most of all because they capture the magic of being a kid, in a fresh, unexpected way—kind of like The Luster of Lost Things itself. To get the recipe, download The Luster of Lost Things custom book club kit from Putnam’s Facebook page, here: http://bit.ly/2eRCBSH.
TR) Have you found your writing voice, and what’s next for you?
SCK) When my parents and I first immigrated to the US from China, I didn’t know a word of English. I remember starting school and not being able to understand what anyone was saying to me. I couldn’t communicate my thoughts or even my basic needs—being thirsty, hungry, tired. I wound up crying in the bathroom at lunchtime from the loneliness and frustration. But as Walter does in his journey, through my journey, I ended up discovering something unexpected: my writing voice. To help me learn English, my mom would spend hours reading out loud to me every night, and that was the beginning of my love for books—those bedtime stories that taught me English and kept me company when I felt alone. Soon enough, I started writing stories of my own while continuing to read anything I could get my hands on—books of all genres, books on the craft of writing, short stories. My first short story was published when I was 15, in Glimmer Train. A decade later, I started writing The Luster of Lost Things. Now, I’m working on a second novel, and am already very excited about it!
TR) Kirby Heyborne is your talented narrator for the audiobook. He narrated a Murakami book recently, plus romance from Karen Kingsbury, and children’s books like “Terrific,” which was terrific. What did you think?
SCK) Kirby Heyborne is phenomenal. His voice is the epitome of timeless magic, all golden warmth and nuanced emotion. I felt like I was sitting in front of a crackling fire—with a giant hot chocolate, of course—being regaled by a master storyteller. His range is incredible, and that’s another reason I’m so excited he’s narrating the book. As Walter searches for the one lost object that will save The Lavenders, he encounters people who are a familiar and distinctive part of New York City, including food vendors, can collectors and train conductors. These characters are the beating heart of the story, and Kirby imbues each of them with that unique spark as he brings them to life. I am deeply grateful for the love and care that he and the Penguin Random House Audio team put into bringing The Luster of Lost Things to audiobook.

Never Judge a Narrator by their Cover

Horror movies

Lorna Raver is a film and stage actress who also has a career as an audiobook narrator. She records for many publishers, her next to be about the public school system titled “These Schools Belong to You and Me.” Her longtime companion was the late great Yuri Rasovsky, the Grammy winning radio drama icon. Lorna starred in a horror movie DRAG ME TO HELL, directed by Sam Raimi (very much out of character for her…she’s a sweet lady, whom I met at the Audie awards in LA.)

 

JONATHAN LOWE: Which came first for you–stage acting or voice acting?

 

LORNA RAVER: I started as a stage actor and stage acting will always be closest to my heart. I love inhabiting another life. I love the discipline of stage work, the challenge of re-creating night after night while keeping it fresh, the interaction with other actors – and with the audience, the exercise of all your skills – mental, spiritual and physical. My first experience with voice acting came about when I was hired to do a play for Yuri Rasovsky’s prestigious National Radio Theatre in Chicago. As is the case with most stage actors who do audio drama, I had a ball! Learning how to convey vocally what one might express physically on stage was very exciting, and there’s no better teacher for that than Yuri.

 

Q: What are the difficulties and similarities involved?

 

A: Discovering the emotional resonance of your character and the play as a whole is not significantly different from stage acting, but the techniques required of the actor are different. For example, you may have an emotionally intense scene with another actor but because of a necessary mic set-up, you may not be able to make eye contact with that actor – you must convey all the interaction with your voice. You really learn how to listen! And you really learn how to mean what you say and say what you mean! Of course, voice acting broadens your casting opportunities, too. If you can realistically sound like an old person or a child, you can be hired to play one, even though you may be neither.

 

Q: I can’t think of any narrators who haven’t acted on stage or on TV at the very least, although I’m sure there must be some. What must a TV or film actor learn in order to make the transition to voice acting, given that he or she can’t be seen?

 

A: Audiobook narration, to me, is not as closely related to stage acting as is audio drama. Fiction narration certainly requires the ability to “act” the characters in the book and to honor the arc of the narrative, but audiobooks present other challenges different from stage, TV or film acting. Technically, there is the simple fact that you are restricted in movement for long stretches of time. You’re sitting in a booth and you need to be always aware of mic position. Audiobook narration can be grueling and requires mental and vocal stamina. It is incredibly focused work. I am blessed with vocal stamina so that after hours of recording, it is rarely my voice that goes, it is my brain!

 

Q: What about creating multiple character voices?

 

A: When it comes to creating different voices for different characters, I don’t feel that I have a good vocabulary for describing that process technically. It’s related to the same process one would use creating a character for stage, film or TV, except that an audiobook may require a dozen different characters not of the narrator’s age, gender or race, all of which need to be distinct, identifiable and consistent. Listening to and practicing voices and accents are useful, but you also need to apply them appropriately. If you really want a tutorial on how to broaden your “voice library,” go out for an evening with Barbara Rosenblat. She studies the sound of everyone she encounters from the cab driver to the waiter to the lady eating at the next table!

 

Q: What a great suggestion! Have interviewed her. She’s fantastic. Now, was it easier for you to transition to film acting than it might be for someone doing the reverse, do you think?

 

A: I didn’t really transition from audio to film since, while I had done audio drama before I worked in film, it was only after I had done a substantial amount of stage and TV and some film work that I began narrating audio books. However, the difficulty of audiobook narration is often underrated by those who haven’t done it. On more than one occasion while working on a film or TV show, I’ve had other actors tell me that they tried narrating audiobooks and it was just too hard! Episodic TV requires stamina, but the work flow is so different. You shoot a scene then break then shoot again then break and so on rather than spend an hour or more at a time in the booth recording.

 

Q: What types of audiobooks do you most enjoy narrating?

 

A: All types. I like the diversity of narrating both fiction and non-fiction. I think fiction is much more demanding and having the occasional non-fiction break is refreshing to me.

 

Q: Full cast must be a lot of fun, working with Yuri. I only met him once, after he produced my novel Fame Island. Radio drama is the only acting I’ve tried myself, as solo narration is beyond me. As a medium, it is very time consuming and therefore rare. Any favorites there?

 

A: The kick you get from acting in audio drama is closest to the kick from working on stage! Yuri is such a skilled audio director, and always gets wonderful actors for his productions, so I’m ready to go whenever he has something he thinks I’m right for. I had a chance to do some “audio noir” or channel my inner Barbara Stanwyck! in his Hollywood Theatre of the Ear production of BLACK MASK AUDIO MAGAZINE for Blackstone Audio, and also had a good time playing a Brit in his Audie Award winning production of THE SHERLOCK HOLMES THEATRE, also for Blackstone Audio.

 

Q: In non-fiction, I see you’ve recently narrated CHEAP–The High Cost of Discount Culture. What was the research like?

 

A: My main goals in non-fiction narration are clarity and conveying the “mood” of the book. The research involved in preparing for a non-fiction read is often much more extensive and time-consuming than for fiction. For example, I read two books on ancient Egypt for Tantor: TEMPLES, TOMBS & HIEROGLYPHS and RED LAND, BLACK LAND both by Barbara Mertz, and which involved major research. It is of invaluable assistance when the author is available for consultation, as was the case with those two books, but you don’t always have an author contact. One thing I really like about non-fiction narration is that I learn so much – especially about topics I would not necessarily be drawn to otherwise.

Furman
Lorna Raver has narrated both Cujo by Stephen King and an audiobook about Mother Teresa.

Lorna Raver:

Barbara Rosenblat:

Best Living Mystery Writer

James Lee Burke

If ever someone asks me “which author impressed you most?” the name James Lee Burke inevitably passes my lips. In addition to Ray Bradbury and Clive Cussler, he has most influenced me to become a writer, too.  He is best known for his offbeat and moody mystery novels featuring a former police detective turned bait shop owner, Dave Robicheaux.  Many authors write mysteries, but this man has no peers.  I spoke with him via phone at his home in Montana a few years back.

JONATHAN LOWE: You’re in Montana now, where your novel Bitterroot was set.  I take it you’re what they call in Arizona a “snowbird?”

JAMES LEE BURKE: Well, I guess that’s fair to say. We live in Louisiana part of the year.

Lowe:  It is New Iberia or Lafayette, Louisiana where you go in the winter?

Burke:  New Iberia, now, which is a couple hours west of New Orleans.

Lowe:  What is your background. When did you start writing?

Burke:  A long time ago. I published my first story when I was 19, and my first novel back in the mid-1960s.  It was titled Half of Paradise. After college, and before Black Cherry Blues, I did a lot of other things to make money, and that included teaching, social work, driving a truck, and working in the Texas oil fields.

Lowe:  Where did your characters Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland come from?  You seem to be alternating point of view between those two in some of your books, much like you alternate between states yourself during the year.

Burke: Well, all the characters have been published in over twenty books now.  I think they all have the same origin, and are composite biographical characters, but have a reality of their own.  Like any writer, I draw from the subconscious.  The elements of myth, which comes from the unconscious, figures into it, and there are allusions from classical literature too.

Lowe:  You’re one of my personal favorite authors, and I can tell you why. It’s because you don’t use lazy clichés like “he screamed like a stuck pig,” something I read in a bestseller by another author who shall be nameless.

Burke: (laughs)

Lowe:  I also like it that you actually take the time to create images, making characters out of objects and settings. Just like John D. MacDonald did in the Travis McGee series. Who are your favorite authors, and who influenced you?

Burke: I’d have to say Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, and Gerald Manley Hopkins, and William Faulkner.

Lowe: You’ve been compared to William Faulkner, who used stream-of-consciousness as a literary device.

Burke:  Well, that’s an old method. The Sound and the Fury is one of the best books we have.

Lowe:  What do you think about the state of fiction today?  I’m pretty disappointed with the serial killer sub-genre.  I don’t want to know who-dun-it, but rather why they did it. Get the feeling you’re the same, true?

Burke:  I feel that the psychological story as narrative art is what interests me. Hemingway did it well, and you can spend a lifetime learning it.

Lowe:  Will Patton is the perfect narrator for your own stories on audio. He’s got the accents down, but more than that, the attitudes of the characters. Very believable.

Burke:  He’s done a very good job, and also Mark Hammer on the unabridged. They’re both excellent as narrators.

Lowe:  My favorite book of yours is Sunset Limited, I’m not sure why. The last CD of that one contains some of the best writing I’ve ever heard.

Burke:  Thank you.

Lowe:  Do you have a favorite?  I suppose you have to say it’s your latest, in answer to that question, though, right?

Burke:  Well, actually, my favorite is Purple Cane Road. Everything came together on that one.

Lowe:  Thank you for that. It’s a great novel as well.  Very personal and also a culmination of redemption for its first person point of view character.  What about Bitterroot?

Burke:  Well, it’s set in Montana, about a former Texas lawman who helps a friend in trouble and then runs into a prison parolee who’s out for revenge. That’s the overview, anyway.

Lowe:  What was your Hollywood experience like?  I loved your movie Heaven’s Prisoners, which starred Alec Baldwin.

Burke:  Yes, it was adapted, and my experience on that was really good. Everyone on the creative team very vibrant.  Of course in Hollywood it’s all a matter of money.  If you have a hundred million for the budget, you can take anything and make it look good.  It doesn’t take much to be a producer, either, besides knowing how to write a gaudy bill.  You just get you director Michael Mann and screenwriter Joe Esterhaus, and you’re off to the races! (laughs)

Lowe:  So is there another movie in the future, do you think, based on another book?

Burke:  I don’t know, I kinda stay away from that.

Lowe:  Do you work all the time, or just part of the year? A book a year, or more?

Burke:  Oh, I work all the time. I work every day, seven days a week.  It’s what I do. Been at it for a long, long time. 

Will Patton is an award–winning actor who has narrated audiobooks by such authors as Charles Frazier, Larry McMurtry, Don DeLillo, and Ernest Hemingway. He has won thirty-two AudioFile Earphones Award for his narrations. His numerous film credits include Remember the Titans, The Punisher, The Mothman Prophesies, Armageddon, and The Spitfire Grill. He starred in the TNT miniseries Into the West and on the CBS series The Agency and won Obie Awards in the theater for his performances in Fool for Love and What Did He See.

Purple Cane Road is a beautifully written psychologically complex, stunningly atmospheric page-turner. James Lee Burke is the Faulkner of crime fiction.” –Jonathan Kellerman, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“No other living writer has been more influential on the contemporary crime novel than James Lee Burke. Using a painter’s careful brush strokes of character and place, he has turned the form into a literary exploration of the moral ambiguities that lie in the darkness of our souls. His work has set the watermark so high that I don’t think anyone else will ever reach it. With Purple Cane Road, he has gone and moved it up yet one more notch. This one is his best.” –Michael Connelly, #1 New York Times bestselling author