Peter Johnson leads me into a small conference room at the offices of the Columbia University Press in Lincoln Center. An oblong table occupies most of the room. It is littered with books and recording equipment.
“You sit here.” He points to the head of the table and positions me before a large hollow black box. Its interior is coated with soundproofing foam and it holds one of those huge microphones – the kind you see in studios protected by a flat round screen.
I am reading a one-minute excerpt of Anvil of God for “The Author Corner for Public Radio” and Peter is the host of the show, director and voice coach all rolled into one.
“Let’s do a quick read just for length,” he says. When I finish, he frowns. “That leaves us only about five to ten seconds to do the set up. Do you mind?” He grabs the script and begins to edit. Some authors might blanch at this, but I’m so used to being edited that I let him pare down the excerpt. Most of the edits are minor so no harm, no foul.
He asks a few questions about the book and within minutes writes a short introduction to set up the read. We go back and forth about what is important for the listener to know, and then once we agree, it’s show time. I read through both the intro and the selected scene. Peter is frowning again.
“We’re still long. You’ll have to read faster.”
Another run-through. Another frown.
“That was good for time, but I need you to be more animated. Do you have little nieces and nephews? Say five years old or thereabouts?”
“Read this as if you are telling the story to them. Exaggerate. If you think it’s over the top, it is probably perfect.”
Another read. “Bigger.”
Another. “Faster and bigger.” He starts underlining words. “These are really great words. Try to emphasize them. So, now I’m to read it bigger, faster, and to emphasize certain words.
I start again and feel like I’m shouting into the microphone.
“No need to shout,” Peter says. “But you know that line ‘and he will dream of becoming king’? That’s the whole thing. And he will DREAM OF BECOMING KING!” Now he is shouting. I nod my head. I think I’ve got it.
I’m big and fast and I hit all the words AND HE WILL DREAM OF BECOMING KING! I almost laugh at this point but keep going.
Peter smiles. One more time he says. I read it again. He smiles again. “I think we got it.” I feel like Eliza Doolittle. “It will likely air sometime in March,” he says, shaking my hand and escorting me out of the conference room. I suddenly find myself back outside on the street, watching cabs roll by in the snowy New York City afternoon, wondering how big and fast I will sound to my nieces and nephews.