The work of Dave Reidy first caught my eye when I read his 2009 collection Captive Audience. The title story, about a reclusive man with an obsessive fondness for stand-up comedy, was memorable both for its insights and its portrayal of isolation and loneliness. His novel The Voiceover Artist further explored questions of solitude and performance: its protagonist is a man who, after many years of self-imposed silence, sets out for a very specific career. (The title is a literal one, in this case.) I interviewed Reidy over the winter; an edited and updated version of our conversation follows.
In The Voiceover Artist, you have a main character, Simon Davies, seeking to make his fortune in an unlikely occupation; you have a fascinating family drama with Simon and his brother Connor and their father; and you have a structure in which other voices will take over the narrative and illuminate other corners of this world. Where did the novel begin? Was it with any one of these elements?
For a piece I was writing recently, I went back to find the first note I ever took on the novel that would become The Voiceover Artist. It was October 9, 2007 when I started the book, so it was eight years in the making. It started with a young man with a debilitating stutter. That’s where it really began. The first three drafts of the book were told entirely from Simon’s point of view. I really thought, after three times through, that Simon was not taking on the dimensionality that I wanted him to have. He didn’t seem as sympathetic or as real as I wanted him to be. So I started writing about him from the points of view of other characters. Pretty soon, that became the main form of the book. There are now ten points of view in the book. All but one of them are first person. I needed something to get me excited about writing this book a fourth time, and this multi-voice approach was what really did it. Writing the points of view of the women in the book was a particularly exhilarating part for me.
I feel like the section told from Elaine’s point of view could almost be read as a novella on its own, given the history that it covers.
That’s nice to hear. I wanted the chapters to stand on their own as much as they could while avoiding senseless repetition. Elaine Vasner is Simon’s voiceover agent, and she is a top agent in Chicago. For most of the book, she’s about sixty years old, though we also get much of her backstory as well. She has a compelling voice, brassy and no-nonsense. She was really fun to write.
The title story of your first book, the collection Captive Audience, is about a character who is obsessed with both stand-up comedy itself and the craft of it, to a minute extent. In this novel Simon spends a lot of time thinking about the science of voiceover work. What attracts you to people who work with their voices?
The improv-comedy world in Chicago is where a lot of comedy careers are born. Some of the people we now enjoy in television and movies got their start there, and there are people who are truly great, but only those of us in Chicago ever really know because, for some reason, they don’t leave or they aren’t invited to leave. I thought the Chicago improv scene in particular was ripe for a literary treatment, and to my knowledge it hadn’t really received one. That was lucky for me. I thought I had a way in to this world through my experience of it, mostly as an audience member. I’d done a class at Second City, and my brother is an improv and sketch comedian, as well as a voiceover artist. When I started the book eight years ago, my brother was still starting out in comedy and hadn’t done any voiceover to speak of. Life just started imitating art, and it took me so goddamn long to write this book. But what drove me was the idea that the Chicago improv scene was something that I could give a literary treatment.
With regard to voiceover, the idea of a kid who was interested in the commercials as opposed to the other things on the radio struck me as a very particular kind of person, a person focused on perfection. And in the arc of this book, Simon realizes that there’s much more to art than perfection, that the humanity in it makes it art.
Over the course of this, as elements of your personal and familial life began to overlap with it, did that have any effect on the writing of the book?
As my brother’s actual career began to mirror some aspects of the book, I thought, “I think, at some point, I’m going to have to talk to him about this.” When the book found a publisher, I said, “Look–I don’t think that there’s anything in this book that is you. Connor is an invention. Simon is an invention. You’re both a voiceover artist and an improv comedian, so which character would you even be?” I said, “If you want to read this book before I dig in to editing it, you are more than welcome to, and if there’s something that’s a problem for you or would fuck up something for your career, I will closely consider changing it.” I had worked on the book for, at that point, six and a half years, so every detail of it definitely mattered to me. But I would put any of those details second to my relationship to my brother.
To my brother’s credit, and I think it speaks to who he is as an artist, he said, “Look, as long as you don’t say anything nasty about any real comedy people in the book, I’ve got no problems. You do the art that you need to do; I’m doing the art that I need to do. Let the chips fall.” I give him a lot of credit for that. He did not interfere. He’s been enormously supportive–we’ve done these lit/comedy roundtables, which are these panel discussions that I’ve moderated. It’s my attempt to foster a cultural conversation about how comedy and literature are informing one another. My brother’s helped me get people on the panels and has been very supportive about it.
Both of the brothers in this novel are presented as fairly successful at what they do. I feel like writing fictional comedy can be tricky: if a joke is presented as hilarious but the reader doesn’t see it as funny, it loses credibility. I thought you did a good job of immersing the reader in each brother’s world to the point where both felt believable, without it turning into forty pages of improv comedy or advertising scripts.
It certainly was at risk of that. In an earlier draft, I did write the big, triumphant improv scene that Connor does of the stage of a club called Improviso. I ended up including just the last line in the book. Just the tag that made the scene seem like a masterful thing. If you’ve ever been to an improv-comedy show, you know that it begins with the suggestion of a word. Connor manages to fold the word back in at the end of a fifty-minute scene. That’s all you need to know–that he’s masterful enough to do that.
As far as whether or not they’re good at comedy or voiceover, hopefully the characters—Simon and his agent Elaine and his hero Larry Sellers—hopefully they have enough credibility in the world of the book that if they say something’s good, we as readers can believe them.
There’s a point early on when Simon is sending a demo CD of his voiceover work to different agents. I’ve never done voiceover work, but I could certainly see similarities between that and, as a writer, sending out submissions to different publications. Did you find parallels between that and your own experiences?
I did. The sending out, the looking for representation, the looking for work, the fucking waiting–I was able to draw on real experiences with these things. For some people, voiceover is not an art, it’s a craft. For Simon, it ends up becoming an art. Writing is similar that way—it can be art or merely craft, depending on who is doing it and how they’re doing it.
In terms of the relationship between the two brothers, one of the things that I found interesting about their dynamic was their relationship to characters. Connor creates multiple characters over the course of a night, multiple nights a week, throughout the year. Simon is someone who has mastered the technical craft of voiceover, but over the course of the novel it becomes clear that he needs a character to inhabit, and for him that process is an incredibly wrenching one. When in the process of writing this book did that contrast become apparent?
It was in one of the early drafts where I figured out that Connor, for all of his flaws as a person, had figured out that art has a distinctly human element and that it’s not perfection that’s important about it, it’s inhabiting the human part. Simon had that exactly flipped. For him, what’s important is precision and technique. He’s missing that human element, and he’s missing it in places where he’s appreciating it only for technical prowess and technical acumen. That’s Simon’s journey–to get where Connor already is with his art and his craft. Connor has his own personal journeys to walk, but he has the art thing–that character and humanity are central to art–figured out from the very beginning.
In the novel’s prologue, Simon is listening to a radio broadcast and picking up some incredibly minute, specific things about voiceover technique–things I would never have thought to listen for. How much research did you do into the linguistic part of that?
I dated a linguist for a while. I picked up a few things that way in conversations. In terms of the anatomy and physiology of a stutter, I knew just enough to be dangerous. I’d known some kids who stuttered and overcame it. In the novel, all we really get about the stutter, and what’s important about it, is what it means to the person afflicted with it–what Simon’s stutter means to Simon, and what Simon’s father’s stutter means to Simon’s father. It’s personified for them. They feel like the stutter is this person or entity that’s always at their throat. I figured that I needed to make that part of it real. Simon doesn’t have access to great medical care or a speech-language pathologist, so I didn’t get into areas where I could get in real trouble. I just figured that the stutter and its potency had to be real enough for Simon, and that if it was real enough for Simon, it would be real enough for the reader.
As a writer, how did you approach translating that onto the page? I’m thinking of your novel here; I’m also thinking of David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, where the main character has a stammer. There’s also a character in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City whose breathing has begun to affect his speech by the end of that book. How did you arrive on the particular method that you used?
I struggled with that a little bit. The stuttering is represented in the novel by syllables that are given an em-dash after them, showing the interrupted nature of that speech. I struggled with whether or not to do that. I was worried that it was going to come off as clunky modernism, of the early 20th century kind, where writers were out of touch with the cultures they were writing about were doing bullshit dialects. I was worried about that.
There’s not a ton of stuttering dialogue in the book, but I figured that, where it was happening, it was central to character and plot. In the event that precipitates Simon’s deciding to silence himself as a young boy, his father’s stutter worsens as his father keeps drinking. You needed to see that on the page. You needed to see the number of stuttered syllables increasing as he gets drunker. You could count the dashes. I figured that if the way I was writing the stuttering had that kind of value to the story, people would either appreciate it or forgive it.
Could someone who wanted to become a voiceover artist pick up this novel and use Simon’s search for work as a roadmap, or did you stylize certain aspects of it?
Some of what I know about voiceover I learned when I was advertising. Before I went to an MFA program, I worked in a small advertising agency. I used to write radio spots, and eventually, I got to co-direct and direct them. For most voiceover artists, it’s much more about craft than art. They’ve got the words, they’ve got the pacing, they’ve got their voice, they’ve got a microphone that they can use to accentuate the bass in their voice. The good ones really know how to use a microphone.
What The Voiceover Artist proposes is that craft is good enough for 90% of voiceover artists, but there might be this 10% who have a little more figured out, that find in their work a fully human character that they empathize with and inhabit. And they’re able to see their own humanity and their own brokenness in that character. That’s not territory that people usually associate with advertising. I think that there’s plenty to say about advertising just being an engine at the heart of a capitalist culture, but I think there are a lot of people who, either by virtue of their talent or by virtue of what opportunities they have, end up working in advertising in one way or another, and if those people are finding the human in their work and in the people that they’re working with, it’s better than if they were not.
I was reading your novel around the same time as Jessica Abel’s graphic novel Out on the Wire, which goes into how assorted radio programs like This American Life are made. I feel like the two make interesting companion pieces, as far as how they go into the craft of these different but similar mediums.
Amazon has us in the same obscure category, which, I beleive, is something like Books: Humor and Entertainment: Radio: General Broadcasting. That’s not the only category our books are in, but I think her book is in there, too. We were trading #1 new release in that category for a while. When you sit down to write a literary novel, that’s the category you’re thinking about. You’re thinking, “Someday, in the ‘General Broadcasting’ category, I’ll have a #1 new release.” That’s what you’re hoping for.
You mentioned that this book has been eight years in the making. Were you working on anything else at the same time, either stories or another novel?
I wrote a few short pieces—essays, mostly. Once I was about ready to start sending out The Voiceover Artist, I began work on a nonfiction project that I hope will become a book. It’s a memoir about my attempts to find out about my grandfather, who died before I was born, and about my fear of becoming him for all of the things that are good and bad about him. That’s been in the works for three years. But most of the time during that eight-year period, The Voiceover Artist was my project. Which was why, by the time I was sending it out six years into writing it, the stakes for me personally were very high. I had invested a lot of time in writing this novel.
Were the processes of writing your two books fairly different?
It got more similar when I started writing The Voiceover Artist from multiple points of view. When Elaine was getting her own chapter, I knew I wanted that to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, like a story would. When you introduce a new voice and a new character, your reader needs to identify who this person is, whether they’ve appeared in the novel before then or not. I was able to borrow, at least enough to make myself feel comfortable, some of the techniques I’d used to write short stories. That probably helped me to get through some of the trepidation I felt in taking the multi-voice approach to the novel.
There’s also a subplot in the novel about a church that Simon becomes involved with, and its shifting fortunes. At what point did that become a part of the book? It seems less about Simon being fulfilled on a spiritual or religious level, and more about how it relates to his craft.
You’re right, what draws Simon into a church in the first place is his desire to hone his craft. His mother was a devout Catholic, and he was brought to church as a young boy, so he knew all the moves, and he found, when he moved to Chicago, this down-on-its-luck, poorly attended Catholic parish. Simon signed up to be a lector there, which gave him the chance to challenge himself to stand in front of people and manage his stutter while reading from a script—in this case, scripture—with no re-takes available to him. He saw this as the best preparation available to him for someday working as a professional voiceover artist.
The real arc of Simon’s involvement with that parish, called St. Asella’s, actually has more to do with the fact that when he’s there, he’s keeping the people he sees at arm’s length. A lot of them are misfits. They have no one else. This church community is their only community, their only connection to other people. Many of them are lonely; they have no real family. Because he sees in them some shadow of the isolation he experienced when he couldn’t speak, Simon keeps the misfits of St. Asella’s at arm’s length, as if they’re contagion. Part of Simon’s arc is whether or not he can learn to see some of his own brokenness in those same people.
When you spoke about your conversations with your brother, you mentioned that you hadn’t brought in any real people from the Chicago improv world to the novel. But there are some real people involved: there’s a subplot about a New York Red Bulls radio commercial, and there’s a brief scene where David Cross and Patton Oswalt show up. Where did you set the line as far as where you’d use real people or not?
I always feel like I want to do as much of that as would work. In Captive Audience, there’s a story told from the point of view of the actor Abe Vigoda. There’s a story that deals with a guy who becomes a road musician and then a dancer for R.E.M. in the later days of their career. I really like that. I feel like there are certain artists who have done it better than I have, like Jim Shepard, who has “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which is a story told from the point of view of John Entwhistle, the bassist from The Who. He also wrote a story from the point of view of former Attorney General John Ashcroft. I feel like that can be done artfully, and it appeals to me to bring a real person in and fictionalize him or her.
I felt like I had to be careful in the novel. Partially because, if I were to use real people from the Chicago improv scene, few readers would know who they were. They’re scarcely public figures. I wasn’t sure if it would be effective or fair. So I thought it would be better to invent them.
There’s a scene where Simon is walking through a museum dedicated to his craft, and there’s reference to a 20th-century housing development that advertised a connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Where did that aspect of the research come from? That was fascinating to me.
There’s very little in this book that is effectively researched, but that’s one thing that is. Half of the acknowledgements is spent talking about where that shit comes from. It was called the Hawthorne Court development. Since so much of the book is focused on commercial radio, I started trying to find out what the first radio commercial was. Radio historians point to that piece. Of course, as you might expect, in the early days the line between broadcasting content and advertising was nonexistent. They had the same host do both. The Hawthorne housing piece was some double-digit number of minutes, in the very early 20th century. That part, I did research, because I thought that it was such a cheap ploy. They were trying to give this Manhattan housing development a real literary air, by referring to Hawthorne’s novels when describing the property. It was really weird. Once I realized that I had Simon walking into a museum dedicated to New York radio history, I thought that there might be a place in the novel for that little nugget.
Have you gotten any feedback from comedians or broadcasters about this book so far?
One of the great joys of the pre-publication process was when Keegan-Michael Key agreed to give the novel a blurb. I really admire him and am wildly entertained by him. He’d worked in Chicago in the improv- and sketch-comedy scenes. Chicago was where he met Jordan Peele, though Peele was just visiting from Amsterdam, where he was performing with the improv company Boom Chicago. When Keegan agreed to give a blurb, and the blurb was something to the effect that it was the most authentic portrayal of the Chicago improv scene that he’d ever read–that was a nice bit of validation for the comedy aspects of this book. It’s one of the only things about it that would get the attention of a fan of comedy. The Voiceover Artist as a title does not suggest comedy; blurbs from David Leavitt and Padgett Powell and Valerie Laken and Lindsay Hunter do not necessarily suggest comedy. Having Keegan’s generosity with his good name is probably the most exciting piece of feedback from someone in comedy. The Lit/Comedy Roundtable I did at WORD last night was well-attended, and we had a fantastic panel. I did another Lit/Comedy Roundtable in Chicago and will be doing one in L.A. on April 2nd. Those events might not have come together without that blurb from Keegan.
You mentioned that you’re now working on a nonfiction project. Is there anything that you learned in the course of writing this that you think will have an effect on your subsequent work?
I’m not sure who said it–it might have been Keith Gessen, who wrote it about Chad Harbach, who worked on his novel The Art of Fielding for a very long time. The thought was something like, You’re a different writer every six months. By that math, I was sixteen different writers through the time I was writing and editing this book. It certainly changed me.
The biggest leap I made in this book as a writer was writing from the point of view of women. When I was in my MFA program, a couple of my classmates who were women said, in way that was both a personal and professional insult, “You know, you probably shouldn’t write from the point of view of women. I don’t know if you know women well enough to do it.” Shame on me, I listened to them. My first book, there are women characters in it, and I think they’re reasonably well-drawn, but none of them are given the narrative point of view. And it took me pretty much three drafts of this novel to get the idea—and then the gumption—to write a chapter from the point of view of a woman. The female points of view in The Voiceover Artist are a big part of what made it exciting to me and to my editors, I think. Clearing that hurdle about writing women, though I didn’t exactly place it in my path, should give me more confidence to go right at whatever hurdles I face next in my writing.
Photo: Michael Courier