I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Robert Fass when I was in New York in May and I’m delighted that he agreed to an interview. In addition to being a multiple Audie-winning narrator, Fass is also a photographer and writer, with professional roles and affiliations varied enough to truly merit his LinkedIn title “Creative & Corporate Renaissance Man.” An hour talking to him made me want to leave my predictable, if comfortable, suburban life behind and set off to pursue all my life’s dreams, something he seems to do with ease and great success. Read on for a taste of just some of what this modern Renaissance Man has going on these days.
You mentioned in one of your emails that you recently acquired rights to produce a cult mystery novel that you really like. I would love to hear about that.
I would love to tell you about it! The book is called It Happened in Boston? by Russell H. Greenan. It is a mystery novel that was published in 1968 by Random House. I read it—I was a subscriber as a kid to book clubs called The Literary Guild and The Mystery Guild and usually I would get these Alfred Hitchcock short story collections that were these great macabre horror tales and also a lot of classic mysteries and new books. And then along came this book, It Happened in Boston? I was probably about 15 when I read it and it just got me. It was so audacious and crazy and challenging and it was so internal. The narrator is an amazing creation. He’s a genius artist who gets caught up in a very convoluted tale. Alongside the story that occurs, he is on a mission to have a face-to-face encounter with God so that he can basically destroy Him, take His place, and right all the wrongs and injustices of the world. Whether he succeeds or not is left to you as a reader to decide. I don’t want to give anything away because it’s in the last two pages that the book takes this enormous leap and you’re, by then, so enthralled with the narrator that you make the leap right with him. It’s a book that has had a lot of celebrated authors among its fans. Anne Tyler wrote a piece back in the 70s about it in the Washington Post Book World singing its praises. Jonathan Lethem, more recently, wrote something about it and that was incorporated as the introduction to the Modern Library Edition that was put out in 2003 as the 20th Century Rediscovery Series. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a role in that happening. I had lent the book to a friend in my theater company at the time.
The same copy that you got when you were 15?
I’m trying to remember if I lent her that one. I think I found it on a rack at a used bookstore and I said “you have to read this.” She loved it and, a couple of years later, wound up working as an editor at Random House. They gave her the option to greenlight one book to add to the Modern Library and that was the one she chose. So that was a very cool thing, and she got Lethem’s piece in there as the introduction.
My mission has always been to get this book in front of more people, so when I became a narrator it seemed like it was always in the back of my mind as something to do because it is a book that just never let go of me. There are those books that people read, especially at a certain age. … So, as a narrator I thought, “wow, wouldn’t it be great if I could get to do this.” I found that it had never been done in audio but I wasn’t sure that I had the wherewithal and the standing or anything else to get the opportunity to do it if I talked about it and they said “Oh, yeah, that’s a great book. Let’s do it and let’s have this much more famous narrator do it.” That was my paranoia coming into it. But I just kept thinking about it, and at a certain point I thought, “Hell, I’m ready. Why don’t I just try and do it myself in some way. Make it happen.”
So I tried to find a way to reach the author. I wasn’t sure if he was even still alive. But there’s a website that hasn’t been updated in some time and it has a comments page on it. So I sent him a request, introducing myself and expressing my wish to do this and explaining my credentials, as it were. … And so, we made it happen. I worked out agreements with both the author and Blackstone [for distribution] and we had to synchronize those and learn what to do and what not to do. Thankfully … I was able to make this dream come true.
When does it come out?
December 17. Just in time for Christmas. I’ll tell you a couple of coincidences. I was at the AudioFile narrators event a couple of summers ago and we each read a five minute excerpt of something we wanted to share. I was going to do some Stanley Elkin, because he’s my favorite. I had that in my pocket but I had brought It Happened in Boston? with me. As my wife and I were walking across the road from our B&B to the event, which was just 40 people in folding chairs out in the yard under a tent, I said to my wife “you know, I’m going to read the Greenan piece.” It was just a split-second decision, just before I did it. I got up and said, “This is from a book that I’ve loved for a long time. For some reason not a lot of people know it but it is a brilliant work. I’m hoping that I can do it as the narrator as an audiobook. It’s called It Happened in Boston?” This woman in the back row jumps out of her chair and says, “Oh my god! I was responsible for that book getting published 40 years ago!” What are the odds you go to East Boothbay, Maine and there’s somebody who has an integral role in the life of this book? Her name is Beth Gutcheon, she’s an author. She was an editor at Knopf and took the book off the slush pile, campaigned for it, and eventually took the author out to lunch and said “Go see this agent. We love this book.” The book didn’t end up at Knopf, it ended up at Random House, so I was able to fill her in on what became of it and fill the author in on what became of her. What was great about that encounter was that she was friends with Jonathan Lethem, and he is such a huge fan of the book. She was able to be my go-between to acquire his permission to include his introduction in the audiobook as well.
When you were recording it, was there an added element of nervousness or wanting to get it right?
Oh my god, yes. It’s funny. It wasn’t in the recording. It was after I recorded it. It was all the second-guessing around whether it’s right. We haven’t even gotten into the cast of characters, but there’s a really colorful cast of characters and they’re so distinct. When you read them they’re so vivid. All the denizens of the park where he sits and has his little mind time travel moments that pepper the book. There’s this old red-faced man in a wheelchair who might be the devil. There’s this little boy who he has all this wordplay with. The book is full of incredible wordplay and the vocabulary is unbelievable. The list of pronunciation research for me was so long because he travels all through history. And that’s not even the thrust of the book. That’s just a detail of the book. He has these moments where he goes to these places throughout time and they’re far-flung and arcane historical names and places and battles and artists and I just had to look up so many words for this. That is one of the things that I loved about it when I was young—the challenge involved. It wasn’t just easy, complacent reading. It was, “You need to be here and pay attention and go with me.” Lethem even describes it as a magic carpet ride of a book. It really is.
You won the 2013 Audio Drama Audie for Swordspoint. What’s the process for recording an audio drama with full soundscape? Are there special challenges to that kind of work?
Well, in that particular case, with that particular producer, Sue Zizza at SueMedia, she likes to get everybody in the room together if possible. So, all of the soundscape stuff is added later by David Shinn who is a partner in that outfit. So we are just dealing with the text. You have six, seven, eight actors all in the studio together and there’s a little bit of choreography sometimes around stepping up to the mic if you have to share. But, for the most part, it’s kind of great because it’s so rare that, as narrators, we get to actually make eye contact with another person, let alone someone you’re actually engaging with in a scene. So, it really does, to a certain extent, get you in that performance mode.
I always think about that with narrators, because you are actors who are generally known as a group of people who like to be around other people. And then you spend six, seven, eight hours alone in a booth all day. It seems like such an isolating experience for a group that is generally known to want to be around other people all the time.
Well, two things. One is that you are surrounded by the characters in the book, so at least you have them for company. Secondly, you have someone in mind as the listener when you’re reading the book, so you have them for company as well.
You’re also a photographer. I took a look at your work of long-married couples. It’s such a lovely project. Is that ongoing? Are you continuing to do that or other photography projects?
When life allows. That project culminated when I went to Vienna, Austria for one day to give a lecture on the project and I met the woman I’m now married to. So, you can’t really top that. I fought for a long time to get it published in its entirety as a coffee table book with the interviews. I came very close with some publishers, but it just didn’t quite make it. Maybe someday when the print-on-demand technology is good enough to make a quality photo book, maybe I’ll revisit it then. I have these beautiful catalogues of the show. It had a big exhibition at the 92nd Street Y and it toured Europe for three years and I had a really nice catalogue made for that. Maybe someday it will be a book or even an eBook.
In the meantime, I just had the opportunity to participate in a documentary photography project here in the Bronx called The Bronx Artist Documentary Project. A colleague of mine organized it and it was 30 Bronx-based photographers photographing 80 Bronx-based visual artists. The Bronx was going through a cultural renaissance at the moment and this was a really wonderful event that captured, to some extent, all this fantastic activity that was going on in the Bronx, from graffiti artists who’d been at it since the 70s and are still at it to young textile artists and sculptors—any kind of visual art. The point was, we were capturing them at work in their creative space, making art—whatever we could capture of their process. The photography was curated by Michael Kamber, who is the co-founder of the Bronx Documentary Center and an amazing guy and really brought the level of the project up. There was a major show in September at the Andrew Freedman Home, which is an incredible space here in the Bronx. There were over 100 images and it was fantastic. The opening was great and it ran for a month. It’s about to move to Krasdale Gallery here in the Bronx. I’m not sure when that’s happening, but it is having a life and they just successfully mounted a Kickstarter campaign to create a book of the work. So I had two artists, both women, very, very different in their work, in their spaces, and in the challenges that they posed as a photographer, to me. It was really a great experience to be a part of.
I know that you’ve been very busy with recording lately. What should we look for from you?
I’m so glad you asked. It’s been a kind of avalanche. This summer I got to do a wonderful and odd, but really beautiful, literary fiction piece by a German author named Daniel Kehlmann called F. It was a shared narration between myself, Jim Meskimen, and Bronson Pinchot. That was a pretty remarkable experience. Then, I’ve done some really good histories and a few more Ellery Queen books. I’m one of the approved voices to do the Ellery Queen books. Just came out this week was a book called The Hilltop. New Israeli literary fiction by an author named Assaf Gavron. It won a big prize in Israel and I compare it to Catch 22, set on the West Bank. I learned a lot from it. It’s a pretty wild book.
I’m currently doing another in the series that includes Snow White Must Die, the Nele Neuhaus crime thrillers from Germany. This is the prequel to Snow White Must Die. They’re not being translated in their original order. Number three is called The Ice Queen. That’s what I’m recording now and I’ll finish that in a few days. That will be out the beginning of January.
Then I’m doing two other books worth mentioning. One is called The Man Who Touched His Own Heart and it’s, from what I’ve seen so far, the history of the heart from a scientific point of view. It’s by an author named Rob Dunn. It strikes me at first as kind of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, but dealing with the heart rather than these kinds of mental disorders that the Sacks book did. That’s from Hachette and that will be out next year. Then I’m really keen to dive into a new book called The Poser. It’s by an author named Jacob Rubin. It’s a first novel. It’s literary fiction and it really seems up my alley. It’s from Viking. It’s about a perfect impressionist who, basically, doesn’t have his own identity. It looks very good and a thing that I’d very much like to read.
Out of everything you’ve recorded, if you could only recommend one of your audiobooks, which one would it be?
I have a lot of fans for history, and I’ve done a lot of wonderful histories lately. The Unwinding—I’d definitely put that on the list. George Packer’s The Unwinding. It won the National Book Award last year and it’s just really incisive and great. … This new thriller, Peter Pan Must Die, that just came out, the John Verdon series. I’ve done two of those now. So I’ve done Snow White Must Die and I’ve done Peter Pan Must Die so I’m just waiting for Bambi Must Die.