On Saturday May 4th, 2019, we’re holding a book fair in Whitby, Ontario called BookMarkIt!
What’s a book fair? It’s where authors come
to sell their books. It’s where people come to sell products related to books.
It’s where yet others come to peruse these wares, meet a favourite author or
two, and discover new favourite authors.
Why hold a book fair?
In my case, it’s because I published a book
recently. And since becoming an author I’ve discovered something:
Books are hard to sell.
This made me want to do something to make
it a bit easier. Not just for myself, but for other writers too.
You might be thinking, how are books hard
to sell? Can’t I just walk into a bookstore and buy them? What about online? Can’t
I just buy them there?
Sure, you can do both those things.
But you’re not necessarily going to find the best books by doing that. Just because a book is online doesn’t mean it’s going to be visible there. Take for example fellow BookMarkIt! organizer and author Pat Flewwelling’s first Helix book, Blight of Exiles. Despite thirteen excellent reviews on Amazon.com and a 4.7 Star rating, it’s still sitting at #10,911,700.
And you might be surprised to learn that a
lot of good books aren’t even in bookstores. Most major book retailers don’t
carry books by independent and self-published authors. There are a lot of
reasons for this, starting with lots of high octane competition and limited
As you can imagine, this is a bit of a challenge
for those who don’t get shelf space.
Independent publishers are committed to
publishing voices you’re not going to find elsewhere. Here in Canada, that
often means Canadian voices. These are publishers willing to take chances, not
wholly driven by the bottom line. They are like craft brewers, except instead
of producing beer, they produce quality books, every bit as unique, distinctive
and flavourful as the suds produced by your favourite craft brewer.
Also, in the last decade or so there’s been
an explosion of self-publishing. Costs have gone down and quality has gone up.
Unfortunately, like the books of many independent publishers, these books don’t
usually make their way into bookstores.
Shelf space in bookstores isn’t the only
challenge for authors and publishers. It costs money to sell books. I mean
beyond the cost of making the books in the first place. There’s the cost of
marketing and advertising those books, which is frequently a challenge for
small publishers and independent authors. Not to mention that everybody involved
in the production and selling of a book has to get their cut. Here’s an example
of how it can work:
One day I took my book to a bricks and mortar Indigo bookstore to sell it. Before I could do this I had to purchase several copies of my book from my publisher to have copies to sell. This was a fair investment to begin with. Indigo kindly gave me a table and a chair and a prominent spot on their floor. I met a lot of nice people and sold nine books that day.
Unfortunately, Chapter’s non-negotiable
policy is to take 45% of the sale price of each book sold. This forced me to
charge a rather high price for each copy of my book to break even. At the end
of the day, after Chapters took their share, I made a little under two dollars
profit for that day’s work (never mind all the work that went into creating the
book in the first place). I don’t see the point of ever trying to sell my book
at Chapters again.
Fortunately there are other avenues to sell
books. Farmer’s Markets and Dealer’s Rooms at conventions, for example. Still,
although these places don’t typically take a share of your profits, you are
required to rent a table. The cost of renting a table varies, anywhere from $10
a table (at a Farmer’s Market in Summerside, P.E.I.) to over $150 a table (at a
science fiction convention in Toronto). Sometimes you can share a table with
another writer, which helps a lot. But if you’re shelling out for a table, you
need to sell a certain number of copies of your book in order to break even.
Whether a convention, a Farmer’s Market, or
another type of event at which you rent a table to sell your books, you don’t
always break even. Why not? Sometimes the sad truth is that no one wants your
particular book. Maybe it just isn’t the right crowd. For example, sometimes
these events are populated predominantly by writers as opposed to readers. So
you wind up trying to sell your books to other writers who are also trying to sell
you their books. This is not entirely an obstacle as writers are a uniquely
supportive lot who frequently buy one another’s books. I have a lot of friends’
books on my shelves.
Of course, these examples are not the only
means by which writers can sell their books. Many writers do book tours and
interviews. Others successfully do outreach to libraries and schools which
raises their profiles while giving back to their communities.
But the more opportunities writers have to
sell their books, and the more opportunities readers have to find those
writers, the better it is for everyone. Which is why my friends and I decided
to create BookMarkIt!
Our goal is to create an attractive
environment to expose as many writers and readers to one another as possible.
And we want to do so at as little cost to writers and readers as possible. This
is why admission to BookMarkIt! is free. BookMarkIt! itself is a non-profit
organization. And writers can rent tables as inexpensively as we can manage,
and share those tables if they choose.
We’ve decided to hold BookMarkIt! at the Whitby Curling Club, located on Brock Street, the main street in Whitby, just north of Whitby’s downtown. There is a lot of traffic on this road, and the Club has a huge sign outside to draw people in. We’re placing Food Trucks in the parking lot to attract further traffic and create a bit of a stir. It will be a family friendly event. The Whitby Curling Club itself is an attractive venue, well laid out inside with plenty of room for vendors and visitors and another whole room we’ll be using for interviews and readings, which we’ll post on social media later to help writers sell their work after the event.
The Splintered Universe is science fiction, published by Iambik Audio, and consists of three separate audiobooks.
In the third book of the Splintered Universe series, entitled Metaverse, Rhea Hawke travels back to Earth, hoping to convince an eccentric mystic to help her defend humanity from an impending Vos attack – only to find herself trapped in a deception that promises to change her and her two worlds forever.
Here’s an audio excerpt from Metaverse:
And just for fun, here’s a selection of proverbs that Rhea Hawke, the main character in the series, is known for using when confronting a challenging adversary or situation. Proverbs that we all can learn from:
“There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same.” Chinese proverb
“Knowledge is learning something every day. Wisdom is letting go of something every day.” Zen proverb
“The acts of this life are the destiny of the next.” Eastern proverb
“Never cut what can be untied.” Portugese proverb
“A little help is better than a lot of pity.” Celtic proverb
“What a fool does in the end, the wise man does in the beginning. “Italian proverb
“Be careful what you wish for; you’re apt to get it.” Chinese proverb
“She who has been bitten by a snake fears a piece of string.” Persian proverb
“He who wants a rose must respect the thorn.” Persian proverb
“A beautiful thing is never perfect.” Egyptian proverb
“Good soyka should be black like the devil, hot like hell, and sweet like a kiss.” Hungarian proverb
“The night hides a world, but reveals a universe.” Persian proverb
“The difficult is done at once, the impossible takes a little longer.” French proverb
“If you can’t dance, you’ll say the drumming is poor.” Jamaican proverb
“A cat pent up becomes a lion.” Italian proverb
“It’s not enough to know to ride; you must also know how to fall.” Mexican proverb
“Each of us must sometimes play the fool.” Yiddish proverb
“The only Zen you find at the top of the mountain is the Zen you bring with you.” Zen proverb
“Beauty without virtue is like a rose without scent.” Swedish proverb
“After the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box.” Italian proverb
“Call on God, but row away from the rocks.” Indian proverb
That’s the end of this special three part series on author Nina Munteanu and her series Splintered Universe. I trust by now you’ve purchased each book and devoured them all. If not, what are you waiting for? 🙂
Here’s what Inner Diverse, the second book in the Splintered Universe series is, all about:
In Book Two of this metaphysical space thriller trilogy, detective Rhea Hawke continues her quest for truth and justice in a world that is not what it seems. Rhea’s search takes her to the far reaches of the known universe from the Weeping Mountains of Horus to the blistering deserts of Upsilon 3. Amidst the turmoil of an imminent extra-galactic war, Rhea holds the key even as those she trusts betray her. No one is what they seem…
And here is an interview with the narrator of the audiobook version, Dawn Harvey:
1. When did you know you wanted to be an audiobook narrator?
I knew I wanted to be an audiobook narrator the first time I ever heard an audiobook. I don’t know when that was but probably 30 or 40 years ago (now I’m just showing my age). Despite wanting to be an audiobook narrator, it wasn’t something that I could realistically consider. At that time, audiobooks were only produced in studio, and that pretty much meant either New York or LA for the North American market. Being Canadian, I would have had to obtain a visa to work in the US and that would have been difficult to do as I could not acquire the experience necessary to qualify for it. So, I didn’t give it a second thought.
Much later in life, I began to do voiceover work and, while exploring the multitude of genre options available to pursue in the voice over world, I was quite predictably drawn to audiobooks. My first audiobook narration class was in 2009 in Los Angeles with Scott Brick, a grand master in the industry, and I have never looked back. I knew immediately that audiobook narration was my home. I do work in other areas of voiceover, as well as doing film work, and I continue to receive acting and technical training in all mediums, but I have concentrated much of my continuing education and networking in the area of audiobooks since taking that first class with Scott.
With advanced technology came high quality, reasonably priced home studios making voiceover, including audiobooks, a career you can pursue no matter where you live. I can record from my home studio anywhere on the planet for clients from anywhere on the planet. That has made it possible for me to do the job that I may have been born to do.
2. How did you wind up narrating audiobooks? Was it always your goal or was it something you stumbled into by chance?
I began performing at a young age, falling in love with both acting and singing. In high school, while pursuing singing and acting, I discovered the law. It became a second love and I couldn’t decide whether to become an actor or a lawyer. So, I just did both!
In the late ‘90s, I ran into some serious problems with my knees. I was way too young for those kinds of problems, so I started to panic a little bit about how I would be able to perform if I could no longer walk. Where I live, the opportunities are rare enough without throwing a wheelchair into the mix! After an initial period of panic (it felt like years but it probably wasn’t), I had a eureka moment and realized that I could become a voice actor and perform just fine. So, within a few years, I began studying voice acting.
3. A lot of narrators seem to have a background in theatre. Is that something you think is essential to a successful narration career?
Today, everyone with a USB microphone and a computer thinks they can be a voice actor. But, they neglect to give weight to one very important word in the name of the profession, and that is “acting.” The profession and the art is “voice acting.” First and foremost, it is acting and that applies to every genre of voiceover.
And you should be thankful for that because when non-actors are hired to do this work, the outcome is often less than satisfying. In the corporate world, I have had to watch many eLearning videos on different aspects of the company and it was evident when an administrative employee did the narration as part of their job vs. when it was voiced by a professional actor. The former is often a very painful experience, through no fault of the employee. Acting requires training or, at least, good acting does!
When I consider the various forms of acting, it seems clear to me that audiobook narration is one of the most difficult acting jobs there is. Usually when we act, we only need to know how be one person. So, we work to understand that one person’s history, wants, needs, challenges, relationships to others in the story, and their part in the larger story that is being told. When we narrate an audiobook, we are everyone in the story and we need to understand the story from every character’s point of view. We need to figuratively leap in and out of people’s heads, including the narrator’s in the case of third-person fiction or non-fiction. We need to understand and portray every character’s personality, desires, problems, relationships, etc., to one degree or another, depending upon their importance to the story being told – not to mention that each must have their own “voice.” It is extremely focused and detailed work.
If you are working from a home studio, you are usually also the director and the engineer. So when you actually do the recording part of audiobook narration, you are already wearing three hats; the engineer, the director and the actor. And as the actor, you are the person who must know all of the technical details of recording such as being aware of mic proximity, deftly handling page turns, listening for outside noise while you record, etc. You are also the narrator, and every other character in the book, responsible for understanding every character and for mastering pronunciations and accents to the point where they sound natural to the characters who are saying those words or who have that accent. So, if you think of the Game of Thrones, the first book in the Fire and Ice series, for example, the narrator created 224 different characters. I haven’t seen any research on the point, but I would venture to guess that an average novel would have between 30 and 50 characters if you take into consideration all of the minor or tertiary characters such as the server at the restaurant or the taxi cab driver. So, even in an average audiobook, the narrator must have either a very large toolbox full of characters or a method to create them.
When performing non-fiction, it is important to remember (as one of my coaches, Sean Allen Pratt, is fond of saying) that non-fiction is not non-acting. I’m sure we’ve all had the teacher who was so dry and boring that we could barely stay awake during their lecture, even if we were interested in the subject! That’s what happens when you try to listen to a non-fiction book narrated by a non-actor – a potentially dangerous situation if you’re driving!
So, the short answer is ‘yes,’ acting training is imperative in this work. But, that doesn’t mean that if you haven’t spent a career as an actor you can’t do this work. It’s just something that you will have to work harder at learning than someone who already has an acting background. Some people, through raw talent or other life experiences, need little coaching to get to a place where their acting skills begin to shine. And, like any profession, the training is never finished. We are always striving to get better; so the acting training should continue for as long as you continue to do the work.
4.Are you an audiobook listener? What about the audiobook format appeals to you?
Yes, I am an avid audiobook listener. I used to listen to audiobooks with my kids anytime we went on long drives, long before I realized it was an occupation that I could now pursue. Once I began working on becoming a narrator, I became a constant listener. I look for reviews of books that have won awards. When I find a review noting that a narrator is doing something that I want to master, I listen to that book to gain more knowledge about my craft. The bad thing about doing that is, because I’m usually only listening to the very best narrators, the storytelling is so good that I often forget I’m supposed to be paying attention to technique and just get lost in the story! In addition, I listen to non-fiction books on topics I’m exploring either personally or professionally. And, of course, anything written by Stephen King or John Grisham!
Part of the rise in the popularity of audiobooks derives from the fact that we all carry devices that can contain entire libraries. Anytime you are doing a task that uses a different part of your brain than where language is found, such as gardening, cleaning, ironing, exercising, driving, painting, knitting, etc., you can be listening to an audiobook. So, where I used to have shelves filled with books I didn’t have time to read, I now have apps filled with audiobooks I don’t have time to listen to! However, even with my overburdened schedule, I still manage to listen to about a book a week. Even if I’m just driving to the store – 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there adds up during the course of a week. I could never manage to read as much as I do were it not for audiobooks. And, if you actually have time to read as well, with whisper sync you can read when it’s convenient and then listen when it’s not because your book syncs to the place in one medium where you left off in the other. It’s the best of all worlds, really.
5. How closely do you prefer to work with authors?
The closer the better. I have such admiration for authors in general (now that I’m becoming one, that statement may start sounding a bit self-serving – LOL). I am in such awe and wonder over the ability of people to pull these incredible stories out of their imaginations, creating such real worlds occupied by real people and real emotions. Whatever we do as actors, we are only piggybacking on the creativity of the people who actually write the stories. So, if for no other reason than that I’m a fan girl, connecting with authors is always a treat for me.
In terms of the specific books that I’ve narrated, being able to work directly with the author allows me to have their input while creating their world and realizing their truth. Collaboration always results in a better product, so if the narrator and the author can collaborate, the resulting work will be so much more satisfying for the listener as well as for the author. I never want the author to listen to a recording I have done and flinch or cringe at anything. A simple point to illustrate this has to do with the name of the central character in the books written by Nina that are the subject of this podcast. The lead character’s name was spelled R-H-E-A. That could either be Ree-a or Ray-a. The audience doesn’t care which way I say it as long as it is consistent. However, if Nina had Ree-a in her head when she wrote the books and I kept saying Ray-a, or vice versa, it would bother her every time she listened to the books. I don’t want that for her. I want her to love the audiobook even more than she loved the written book because it is more; it has had a whole other layer added to it, and she should enjoy the benefit of that additional layer. So, I was very grateful for the opportunity to be able to collaborate with Nina and get her input on how those words sounded. Particularly as this series contains so many foreign, scientific and invented words. Again, the audience wouldn’t care so long as I was consistent, but I wanted it to be Nina’s vision and Nina’s words, not mine. I am but the vessel through which her story flows!
6. If so, which ones stand out to you most, positive or negative?
Yes, I do. Acting is a very subjective art. Acting in audiobooks is no different. Some people will love what you do while other people will hate the exact same performance. You can’t please all of the people all of the time so it’s important not to allow the reviews to damage you personally. For example, I had a book where two reviews in a row said the exact opposite things. One said something to the effect of “I do not know who hired this narrator but she should never work again. Listening to her is like listening to nails on a chalkboard.” The very next review said “I could listen to this narrator read to me forever. I’d listen to her read the phone book.” Must have both been older listeners; do they even have chalkboards or phone books anymore? In any event, this was the exact same book. So, you have to take those completely unconstructive comments with a grain of salt. I do, however, look for patterns. If I find a similar comment across numerous reviewers or numerous books, I will pay attention and consider that they may have a valid point and that this may be an area I need to work on. So I do see utility in the reviews.
And of course, people in general don’t take the time to say something unless it’s negative so the star count is probably a better indication of how much people enjoy your work. I know that I am guilty of not writing reviews. I almost always mark the star count but I’m generally driving when I’m listening to audiobooks so I can’t really take the time or risk involved to write a review at that particular time and I almost never get back to it later. A star I can pull off at a red light!
We are always appreciative of those who take the time to say something positive, and I will often use those reviews in my marketing materials. As actors, we are always looking for work so keep those (positive) cards and letters coming!
7. Who is your “dream author” that you would like to record for?
Well, of course, Stephen King. I fell in love with his work when I was 17 and read The Stand overnight in one sitting. I am truly his number one fan – and please feel free to remind him of this! I’m working on sending a message out to the universe for him to review my work and connect with me for the next book he releases that requires a female narrator. Most of his writing is male first person or male-third person. And understandably so. He does, however, occasionally write books that are suitable for a female narrator. And so, Stephen, the next time you do that, I’m your girl. And, of course, John Grisham. As a lawyer and an audiobook narrator, wouldn’t I be the perfect choice for John? So John, the next time you need a female audiobook narrator, here I am. And, for both of you, I will record these books for no upfront fee whatsoever. If you would like to just assign me one quarter of a percent of sales? One tenth of a percent? I’m pretty sure I’d be good with that. LOL
8. What do you say to those who view listening to audiobooks as “cheating” or as inferior to “real reading”?
I would say that they need to do some research because they would soon find that listening is not cheating. In fact, used in combination with the paper/e-book, it is an absolutely brilliant way for children to learn how to read and properly pronounce words and for everyone to improve their vocabulary and pronunciation. As a narrator, and I know I am not alone in this, a proof listener once caught me on a word that I had apparently been pronouncing wrong my entire life (and I have found some of those myself prior to handing it off to the proofer – look up “shone.” Most of us say it wrong!). Some words we have only read but never heard. We decide in our heads the first time we see that word how it is to be pronounced and then we always “hear” it that way when we read it. Sometimes we may look the word up when we first hit it but often we don’t. When listening to an audiobook, we hear the proper pronunciation of words (assuming the book had good narrators and proof listeners). When listening to an audiobook while following along with the written words, children not only learn proper pronunciation, they are able to listen to material that is several grade levels above their reading ability, increasing their reading, written and spoken vocabulary. Particularly for boys, who are generally not as interested in reading as girls in the first place, this means that they have access to a much broader range of materials and this may increase their interest in reading. And since earlier research has shown that better readers are better students, we are doing children a great disservice if we are NOT including audiobooks in their very early education.
So I would say that those people are simply wrong and missing out on a really great thing!
9. What bits of advice would you give to aspiring audiobook narrators?
This is a very competitive business, as is all acting work. You need to understand that it is in fact “acting” and that having a “nice voice” is not necessarily part of the equation in determining whether or not you will be successful. If you are an actor, and even a voice actor, you will need to spend time studying this art form, as it is as different a medium as stage is to film. If you have no acting experience, you will need to train in acting. There are some “naturals” but, for most people, there’s a lot to learn, not the least of which is finding the courage to wear your heart on your sleeve and open yourself up completely for inspection by the world. That is the “bravery” that is being referred to when people talk about how brave actors are. Most people try to hide their pain and weaknesses; actors must bare it for the world to see, or hear in the case of audiobooks.
And, as many of us work from home studios, the learning involves many other areas. A fairly comprehensive list of the other skills you will need to develop if you don’t already have them include:
deciding what hardware and software to buy
understanding how to use the software and hardware
building and using a home studio
understanding proper recording technique from both sides of the mic
conducting online research
pronouncing words in foreign languages (like you are a native)
learning how to emotionally connect with material
running a small business, and
The marketing part of the business is key, whether to increase sales of royalty share books, or to attract authors and publishers to your narration services. This is a business like any other and needs to be treated as such. Acting in general is different from most businesses because actors are constantly looking for work, even when they’re working. It’s nice to get repeat clients, and I think the audiobook world in general is probably better at that than many other types of acting work, but it is part of the job to do the marketing and treat it like a business, not an “art.” The actual narration isan art but if they don’t know that you’re out there, they don’t hire you. If they don’t hire you, you don’t eat. If you don’t eat, you need to change jobs.
It’s important to realize that the audiobook industry is small and relationships are important. The producers are regularly inundated with solicitations from people who have a computer and a mic and think, “Anyone can read out loud.” These are busy people who can’t afford to have their time wasted. They are very open to, and always looking for, new talent, but they also have to be protective of their time. They don’t have time to work with difficult or untrained people. And you need only one opportunity to make a really bad impression. They need to know that you are capable of doing good work for them, that you follow the rules, and that you meet deadlines. They care equally that you are a good person, that you are easy (better yet, fun) to work with, and that you make their job easier, not harder.
So, you absolutely need to learn good audiobook narration skills. But you still won’t get enough work to make a career out of this if you don’t also take care of all of the other matters. This is not a career for people who want to cut corners and take the easy way. This is very detailed, focused, concentrated work. If that is not the kind of work you like doing, this probably isn’t the job for you.
On the other hand, if this work suits you, it is eminently rewarding. This kind of storytelling is powerful and has an amazing reach, meaning you can have an amazing reach and impact. And, you are creating a legacy with every title you narrate. These are books. They’ll be around for as long as we are (or longer but who’d be here to listen?).
I narrated “Alice in Wonderland” a few years ago thinking North Americans might like to have a North American accented version for their kids to listen to. Unfortunately, it came out a week before Scarlett Johansson’s recording of a North American accented version, so you can imagine how that went for me! But my cover is absolutely beautiful and hers is not, so take that Ms. Johansson (it really is, here’s a link – Alice)! In any event, that book is never going to go out of style and assuming we don’t completely destroy the planet first, my grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to listen to me read it to them. That’s pretty special, and not something common in voiceover work. It’s a pretty amazing job, but you need to be committed, resourceful, willing to accept criticism, able to withstand rejection (standard actor stuff), willing to work to improve, and just willing, in general, to work really hard. For some of us, it is completely worth it. In any event, it all feels like play when it is your passion and I get to say “People pay me to read stories to them!” Does it get better than that?
Back in 1993/94 I spent seven months in Aix-en-Provence, France, drinking red wine, eating les Calissons and attempting to learn some French. When I got home I wrote about the experience. Thought it might be fun to post a few excerpts here. Here’s Part Nine:
Going to skip ahead a bit here and recount one of my more interesting days in France. It was around Christmas time, between Christmas Day and New Years. But a bit of background first.
The room we lived in was on the top floor of a small apartment complex with four floors. It was a long complex, with about three separate sections. You couldn’t get from one section to the next without going outside.
The people living in the unit beneath ours — an old man and a woman and their son — were completely intolerant of noise. The old man and woman were already so old that the word old could also be applied to their son. Their old age didn’t seem to have affected their hearing. In fact their ability to hear seemed to have only improved with age.
So it was that whenever a few of us and our friends gathered in the evening in our apartment we could count on the eventual tap on the floor (their ceiling) and a subsequent phone call. At first I never answered the phone, because these people spoke no English, and in the beginning I spoke no French.
I remember the first time Mark and I had some friends up and the doorbell rang. It was the son, who looked a bit like a Ferengi from Star Trek: The Next Generation in that he had the largest ears of any man I have ever seen. I only ever saw him once or twice, but I still have a strong mental impression of those ears.
I answered the door and the guy started in on me in French. It was pretty obvious that he was going on about the noise. My friends, some of whom spoke French well enough to understand a bit of what the guy was saying, helped me out with the translation. The fellow was a little upset but not too bad this time round. I kept saying, “D’accord, d’accord,” because “okay” was about the only thing I knew how to say in French at that point, and I thought it might help soothe him. My friends laughed over this for months to come, me trying to calm this guy down with my heavily North American accented “d’accord.”
We never really did make a lot of noise. It was rarely more than a group of people speaking, and sometimes when there was no noise at all these people would still complain. One time they rang up to complain when my flatmate Matthew dropped his pencil on the floor. Another time they rang up when we were all playing Axis & Allies (a military boardgame) in Marcus’ room. That time I answered the phone because my French was coming along and it was good practice. I was happy because I got the gist of what the guy was saying. I promised that we would be quieter. We thought that they were crazy but still strove to be respectful. In fact, the problem may have had more to do with the nature of the floor than them. Perhaps we were fortunate not to have had anybody above us.
That’s one piece of background to my interesting day. Here’s the next:
During the year I was fortunate enough to make several French friends. One of these, Francois Esnault, a researcher in the France Department of Forestry, made arrangements to meet me at a cafe called Le Festival, the usual meeting place for all of us. We were to meet at 1:00pm on this particular Friday. Francois was going to drive me to Nantes the following Monday to celebrate New Year’s Eve with other French friends.
I’ve already mentioned in these notes the problem I had with my clock radio (see Part Eight). It ran off time, but I knew how to compensate for it, and in any case I had my watch as a backup. So on this Friday morning, according to my clock radio, I woke up around ten. Because I had stayed up late the night before, and wanted to sleep in, I reset the clock radio using my watch.
I finally got up around 11:30, according to the clock radio, and got ready to go out. I felt quite rested. As I got ready to leave, Marcus told me that we had received a letter from the police saying that we had to go see them that afternoon at five. It had to do with our neighbours complaining about the noise we allegedly made. I found this quite disturbing. I thought it sounded pretty serious, having to go see the police. Apart from sorting out my Carte de Sejour I had never had to see the police before in my entire life, and now here I had to do it in a foreign country! Would they throw us out of the country? That sounded a bit extreme, but I was worried about it.
I was also worried because Marcus planned to move out. He informed me that he wasn’t going to go to the police because it didn’t concern him anymore. Mark was in London for Christmas, so he couldn’t go, and Matthew was nowhere to be seen. It looked like I would have to go to the police on my own, and my French — three months in — was still pretty limited.
With these thoughts on my mind, I left to meet Francois. The day had a strange feel to it. The light outside the apartment complex was weird; off, somehow. Halfway down the hill on my way into the city I met Matthew coming back to the apartment. He asked me if I knew about the letter from the police. I said yes, and he said that he would go with me. The appointment was for four o’clock. I was relieved that he would be there, as his French was pretty good.
He asked me when I planned to be back at the apartment. I told him that I was aiming for three.
He said, how do you expect to do that?
I said, what do you mean?
He said, it’s after three now.
I looked at my watch. It said a quarter to one. The damn thing had stopped. And I had used it to reset the alarm on my clock radio. I cursed and told Matthew that I had been supposed to meet Francois at one. He had a good laugh. I went back up the hill with him, wondering how I would explain this to Francois, and if he would believe my reasons. I felt quite badly about missing my rendezvous with Francois, as he was a really nice guy and I pictured him wasting his lunch hour waiting for me at Le Festival. Also, I knew that it would be difficult for me to explain the situation in my limited French.
Making it all worse was the fact that Francois was to drive me to Nantes the following Monday, a twelve hour drive. I hoped that he would forgive me. If not, it would be an uncomfortable ride, if he still agreed to take me at all.
Later, Matthew and I went to look for the police station, which wasn’t too far away. We discussed how we would defend ourselves. We agreed that Matthew would do most of the talking. We found the police station easily enough and were ushered in by a burly, serious looking officer. It was a small detachment, and it looked like pretty much his show. He asked us to explain our side of the situation. Matthew went on at some length about how crazy these people were, describing the pencil incident and so forth. Afterward the officer said something to the effect of, okay, try to be quiet guys, and don’t get these people too pissed off. Then he asked us how we liked France. We said it was just great. He smiled a big, broad smile and wished us a bon sejour (a good stay). Then an older fellow came into the station, and the officer looked at him with a serious expression and greeted him with a nod and a “jeune homme.” He looked at us and winked, and Matthew and I laughed, myself because I was relieved and also because I had understood the officer’s little joke. I was always quite pleased when I understood any joke in French, even a tiny one like that, because it didn’t happen often.
I phoned Francois that night from a payphone outside the apartment (we couldn’t make calls out from our phone in the apartment, we could only receive calls). I had looked up the words I would need in the dictionary beforehand, such as the word for watch: “montre”. Francois accepted my apology gracefully, and said that, yes, he had waited a bit but that it had been no big deal. I was frustrated that I couldn’t explain in English, sure that I would have come off more sincere.
But Francois still drove me to Nantes, and the drive was lots of fun, and I got a letter from the man three years later when I was back in Canada (“le temps passe vite,” he wrote) so I guess he never held it against me.
And with that we come to the end of the notes I originally made about my time in Aix-en-Provence in 1993/94. I do have some letters I plan to transcribe and a few other interesting memories (well, to me at least) so maybe I’ll get around to posting a few more stories someday. We’ll see.
Atelier Cezanne — although right next door to where I lived in Aix, on rue Cezanne, I never did get around to visiting it
Back in 1993/94 I spent seven months in Aix-en-Provence, France, drinking red wine, eating les Calissons and attempting to learn some French. When I got home I wrote about the experience. Thought it might be fun to post a few excerpts here. Here’s Part Eight:
I woke up to the sound of my clock radio. Some classical music station. This was the same clock radio I’d received as a Christmas gift when I was twelve years old. Up until that time, and probably for some time afterward, I considered this the best gift I’d ever received. It was electronic and had cool red digits to tell the time. It had neat buttons that performed various functions. I dreamed of finding an extra button on it one day, perhaps under a secret panel, a button that would perform some extraordinary function, like enable me to fly or travel in time or something.
So over the years I’d brought this clock with me wherever I lived. I bought a special adapter so I could use it in France. Once in France I was pleased to see that the adapter worked perfectly. Although it did seem to get rather hot.
I discovered something unfortunate about the clock radio, though, after one night’s use. Although I had made sure that it was set accurately the night before, when I awoke after eight hours the time on the clock radio no longer matched that of my watch. It was about eighty minutes too fast. When I picked up the clock radio and examined it I noticed that there appeared to be something loose inside. It had probably been knocked around during the trip over to France. The darn thing was busted, at least as far as telling time was concerned. The radio still worked all right, though.
I didn’t like the thought of losing this valued personal possession. I was also ticked because I didn’t want to fork out more dough for a new alarm clock.
So I didn’t throw it out. I suspected that the problem lay with the power and/or the adapter. Perhaps some discrepancy with the current threw the timing mechanism out of kilter. The following night I discovered that the clock remained absolutely consistent, running ten minutes too fast for every hour, gaining eighty minutes over eight hours.
Cheap sentimental bastard that I was, I hung on to the clock for the entire year. Every night I reset it to the correct time, figured out how long I planned to sleep, then factored in the ten minute per hour time differential when I set the alarm. This foolish system only ever let me down once. I kept it up until the day I left Aix. And then I left my valued clock radio in my room in Aix because it was too much to carry home with me.
I’ve missed it ever since.
Anyway, I got up early to pack my bags on my last morning in the Hotel de la Rennaissance. I showered in the “douche” (the one without the shower curtains) and got water all the hell over everywhere. I hailed a cab on rue Gaston de Saporta which carried me to my new home on rue Cezanne. I got there around eight-thirty. I hadn’t been given keys yet. I knocked but no one answered. I had thought that I was supposed to arrive around this time to get the keys and sort out whatever remained to be sorted out, but when no one answered I began to think I was mistaken. There was no sign of Mark.
This had been the last night the Richauds planned to stay in what was to become my room. This place was their summer home, which they rented to students during the winter. They returned during winter months to their true home in the much disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine (which borders Germany, but is in the hands of the French these days; ownership of Alsace-Lorraine goes back and forth depending on the outcome of the latest European war).
The two Americans already occupied their rooms, I knew. I didn’t want to wake anyone if they weren’t already up, so I just sat there, in the stairwell on the landing, and dug out my Robert Jordan book and read for a while.
After about twenty minutes the door opened and Monsieur Richaud popped his head out. He was surprised to see me just sitting there. He muttered something utterly incomprehensible, though I do believe I caught the words “foolish boy” in there somewhere. I was slightly offended. I did not consider myself a boy at the age of twenty-eight. I wasn’t particularly inclined to dispute the adjective “foolish,” though.
Monsieur Richaud led me inside the apartment. Madame Richaud appeared. Between the two of them they managed to produce some comprehensible English. They provided a key and told me a little about the Americans students staying there. Apparently the Americans’ French was already pretty good and they made it a practice to speak French all the time in the apartment. I liked this notion but found it intimidating, as at this point I hardly knew any French. I knew also that the Americans would likely be disappointed with me and Mark, considering our almost non-existent levels of French. Obviously, speaking French with us would be useless for at least the first three months of our stay.
One of the Americans, Matthew, was home. The other American, Marcus, had stayed out the night before. The Richauds introduced me to Matt, a young guy of about twenty-one, who looked as American as all get out, to me at least. Dressed in casual, hip clothes, Matt was cocky and confident and said things like, “Hey dude,” a lot. Did I mention he was from California?
Matt breezed around the apartment like a young cat. He fried eggs in the tiny kitchen. He may not have been the entire cat: the Richaud’s behaved like he was the cat’s meow. I thought, yikes. I’m living with Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But I came to really like Matt. Turned out you could count on him in a pinch.
I wondered what Marcus would be like. The Richaud’s told me he was twenty-six and studious. This seemed at odds with him having stayed out all night. I liked the thought of meeting somebody closer to my own age, though.
Checking out my room I saw that the bed had no pillow. I brought this up to Monsieur Richaud who seemed disgruntled that I expected him to provide a pillow. He trekked down to the storage room, though, and retrieved a sickly, white affair with yellow stains that wasn’t going anywhere near my head! I thanked Monsieur Richaud just the same and he seemed pleased to have resolved the matter.
The Richauds didn’t provide any blankets, either, apart from one threadbare sheet. Even though it was still fairly warm in Aix during the day, it cooled off at night. So, with no blankets to speak of, that night I froze off my Canadian arse.
Mark eventually showed up. We each unpacked and settled in. I decided that I liked my room, even though it was small. I didn’t have any food, so Mark invited me to hang out with him once again, and off we went to find Mark’s former hotel roommate’s new place.
Where I met several people I would wind up spending a lot of time with.