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 award-winning digital magazine at PRH, Strange Light is a bold, creative gambit – an indie-style 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.
She speaks about her creative process with the exasperation of a talented chef who hates making soufflés.
How many times does she do these 45-minute 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. Bringing her previous experience at CBC Radio, where she worked on radio dramas and Canada Reads, Jansen has produced spoken versions of numerous titles since the department was launched two years ago in response to changing consumer habits. “Sound has found its renaissance. It never went away,” says Jansen. “It’s that pleasure of hearing a human voice tell a story.” Instead of taking out dusty CDs from a library, smart devices allow people “the elegance of plugging in their earbuds,” she says.
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. It was a piecing together of an intricate quilt pattern. We had a lot of these beautiful pieces and you have a beautiful pattern ahead of you and all you have to do is put it all together.”
Much of the work was in pre- and post-production. 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. Some are earnest while others are “more hardened by their experiences, coarser and with a certain tightness,” she adds. 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 post-production, 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.
Making an imprint
Ruthless Neon. Confirmed Moon. Soft Landing.
And that’s just the beginning. There were other many other suggestions – nearly 60 – for the name of the imprint that would become Strange Light.
In 2016, Jordan Ginsberg and Haley Cullingham were editor-in-chief and senior editor, respectively, at Hazlitt, a digital magazine that showcased award-winning stories, many of which would later develop into books, including Dirty Work by Anna Maxymiw and One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul.
The digital magazine, seen as a bold initiative at its inception in 2012, had lived up to its promise as an “incubator for writers and book projects” explains Ginsberg, averaging 100,000 readers a month by 2016. That year, it moved from the digital-publishing department within PRH Canada to the book-publishing group – a moment that gave Ginsberg and Cullingham the impetus to propose the new imprint.
“We started thinking, ‘What does Hazlitt do well and what lessons did we learn?’ ” Ginsberg explains.
Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita, published first as a long feature in Hazlitt in 2014 and later developed into a book of the same title, is the perfect example of the kind of unexpected story that found a wide readership, he notes. Part true-crime narrative about the real-life abduction of Sally Horner in 1948 and part examination of Vladimir Nabokov’s sensational 1955 novel, Lolita – in which he briefly mentions the Horner case – the story, which had 500,000 readers within weeks of its publication, remains one of Hazlitt’s most-viewed pieces.
Analytics also show that stories such as Anthony Oliveira’s 2018 piece Death in the Village, a portrait of the Toronto neighbourhood where serial killer Bruce McArthur targeted gay men, “resonated widely compared to more straightforward reporting,” he says.
The imprint launched in May with Sara Peters’s I Become A Delight to My Enemies and Max Porter’s Lanny.
Ginsberg and Cullingham continue to helm Hazlitt magazine in addition to his responsibility as editorial director of Strange Light and hers as the imprint’s senior editor.
Strange Light has an eclectic lineup for 2020. It will publish Hello Pig, by Anshuman Iddamsetty, an “experimental polemic/cultural critique,” Ginsberg says, that makes a case for the fat body as a point of pride. A queer man who grew up in Kuwait and later moved to Newfoundland, Iddamsetty wrote an essay for Hazlitt, Swole Without a Goal, in 2015, which was nominated for a National Magazine Award. It described how he wanted to take up as much space as possible.
Another book slated for publication next year is This Red Line Goes Straight To Your Heart by Madhur Anand, an ecology professor at Guelph University. It tells the story of her parents’ emigration from prepartition Pakistan to India and then to Canada by imagining it in their voices, as part of an examination of the way memories are embedded in families and communities.
Not every title is unconventional in form. Next spring, Strange Light will publish Amina Cain’s novel, Indelicacy, a story about a woman searching for her true calling. “It feels much more straightforward than anything we would have published up to this time,” Ginsberg says. “You want to be careful it is not purely form or structure that is going to differentiate a book from those on another [imprint’s] list.”
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Thanks to the latest boom in audiobooks, Ian Brown finds, listening beats reading for a surprising range of literary works