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Audio Buzz, Past
Audio Book News
By Jonathan Lowe

March 2008

by Jonathan Lowe

Has the world gone mad? It would seem so, says Eckhart Tolle in his book A NEW EARTH, which describes this collective madness as enslavement by the ego's obsessive thought patterns. What's the ego? According to Tolle, it's who you THINK you are--a substitute identity for who you really are. The ego is at the core of what's wrong with the world because it's such a pervasive delusion. So people who brag and scheme, who obsess over status, who tailgate you and worry about keeping up with the Joneses. . . these people are enslaved by their "egoic mind," says Tolle in this Oprah pick, and are not happy campers. Not only are they not happy, they don't want anyone else to be happy either. (Misery loves company, after all.) What's the alternative to being judgmental, vain, impatient, competitive and / or ruthless? Well, apparently for some it's to acquire a collective group identity---a political party, a sports team, a cult. An "us versus them" mentality which then replaces the lonely and terrified "I" that fears inevitable loss. . .or rather the ego that demands to be perceived as right. To find one's true identity, however, explains Tolle, a person needs to slow down and realize that the future is only a concept, and never a reality. So being conscious of the present moment as one's only true possession is key. Such an awareness also dissolves the past, substituting a sense of joy and "being" for the more typical regret, angst, and anxiety. Read by the author, the audiobook version resonates with many of these seemingly simple yet profound truths, evident to the listener in Eckhart's own narrative tone--never preachy, never soapbox maudlin, and most of all never accepting of "The Secret" mindset espoused by other self help gurus who've gotten rich by holding up material wealth (rather than mental & spiritual health) as the ultimate goal. As such, it's a worthy followup to Tolle's masterpiece "The Power of Now." (Penguin Audio or download; 9 hours unabridged)

Next, a classic murder mystery with an appeal to anyone, but particularly to students assigned a book report, is CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky, given a new reading by actor Anthony Heald for Blackstone. Originally published in 1866, this masterpiece explores the tortures that conscience imposes on a Russian citizen who murders a despicable pawnbroker. Trapped by his own mind, Raskolnikov narrates his disordered psychological descent into darkness with a fevered intensity, and who better to act out his story than Heald, a Tony and Obie award winner who also had a role in Silence of the Lambs. Heald is relatively new to the audiobook scene, but is a commanding presence, able to acquire a character's unique voice with subtle ease, especially those whose complex emotions make for a compelling and nuanced interpretation. As book report material, the novel is often required reading, but as an audiobook performance, let us now assign it as required listening. (Blackstone Audio; 20 hours on Mp3 disk format)

Finally, David Baldacci has sold 50 million copies of his novels in 35 languages and in 85 countries. These include Absolute Power, Total Control, The Winner, The Simple Truth, Saving Faith, Wish You Well, The Christmas Train, Split Second, The Camel Club, Simple Genius, and STONE COLD, his new "Camel Club" novel featuring a character named Oliver Stone--a former CIA assassin who tries to protect a con artist being hunted by the casino don she conned out of millions, and who killed her mother. Narrated by Ron McLarty for Hachette Audio, the audiobook has garnered praise as a twisting plot romp among various shadow agencies and governments. David's next novel, due out next month, is The Whole Truth, and I spoke to him via phone about his writing, audiobooks in general, and McLarty in particular.

JONATHAN LOWE: Mystery writer Dennis LeHane said that he starts with characters, sets them in conflict, and lets them work out the plot. Do you start with an outline, yourself, and if so, which comes first--the characters or the action?

David Baldacci: I've done it both ways. Had some novels where I've started with characters, and built the plot around them. Other times I've come up with an interesting plot, and constructed characters to inhabit that story. That said, you can have a great plot, but if the characters are cardboard, and the reader doesn't care what happens to them, even the greatest plot in the world won't hold their attention.


LOWE: How much of the writing is discovery for you, then, and do you know the ending when you begin?

Baldacci: I hardly ever know the ending when I begin. I'm not smart enough to know everything that's going to happen. Some writers have very elaborate outlines, and they don't deviate from that. It's an evolutionary process for me. As I research a subject, new subplots and ideas occur to me. I may not know what characters are capable of in the first hundred pages, and so this dictates future action.


LOWE: I know what you mean, although I also know some writers who start with the ending and work backward, not knowing how they're going to get there. It's more fun not knowing, in any case, isn't it?

Baldacci: Oh, it is. I mean, I don't want to sit down and say, 'okay, today I'm going to be writing section two, subparagraph nine...' (Laughs)


LOWE: I've read once that you like trains, and you wrote "The Christmas Train." What trips have you taken on trains, and what inspired that book, specifically?

Baldacci: Well, I took a trip across the country which was documented in that book in a fictional sense. The Capitol Limited, Washington to Chicago, then to L.A. on the Southwest Chief. You know, I grew up reading the Sherlock Holmes, the Hercule Poirots, the Jane Marples of the world, and they used trains and seemed mysterious and also enlightening. It's a great place to people watch. I've also taken trains in Europe, across Italy, France, Germany. . . Most of the time I have to fly just because of the demands of time, but love taking trains, and I've written so much on trains, just sitting in your compartment, the lights flashing by, the darkness outside. It's the perfect atmosphere to write.


LOWE: I wonder if you've read "Strangers on a Train" by Patricia Highsmith, and what other writers have influenced you.

Baldacci: I actually enjoy Patricia Highsmith's work. She is quite dark and compelling, and also unpredictable. That type of genre appeals to me. I like mysteries that break outside the normal rules. Other writers, John Irving, Anne Tyler, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, John Updike. Updike deals with many generations of people, as does Irving. Any writer can be influential, depending on what you're reading them for.


LOWE: How are the movie and TV projects coming along?

Baldacci: "Absolute Power" as a movie did very well. A couple other books have been in development too. But it's tough, you've got seventy different factors out there competing.


LOWE: Screenwriting is very different from novel writing, isn't it?

Baldacci: It is. Different questions are asked, and there's a different discipline involved. I've sold a number of screenplays, none produced yet, but I worked with producers at studios, where everybody has input, you know, depending on what day it is, and what angle they want you to take. And so you have to know your marks. I've sat in offices with six people on the other side, just firing questions. And it helped me, in a way, because it made me think out things a little better. In a script, if you don't think things out, at some point they start asking questions, and it becomes a long afternoon.


LOWE: Do you listen to your audiobooks, and what do you think of the medium?

Baldacci: I do, and it's an exploding medium. It's amazing, the number of audiobooks that are sold now. For example, I've gone to Cracker Barrel, and seen the displays there, and I think it's a great value-added thing for customers, because more and more people these days are popping them in their cars while commuting. People don't want to carry books around, and would rather listen to them while they're doing something else.


LOWE: Plus they don't have time.

Baldacci: Right, they really don't have time to sit down with a book, but if they can do something else too, that's a great thing. Just looking at the numbers of my books, it's extraordinary the increases over the years. I enjoy them. I remember first listening to Ron McLarty reading "Last Man Standing," actually while on a train, and he's like this diminutive Irish character actor you see all the time, but when he did the voice of this big villain, I couldn't believe it. It was like the guy was right in the train with me! I wrote him a letter, and said, "my God, you just nailed that character!" He did that voice so effectively.


LOWE: Some of his female characters are just uncanny, too. You start to wonder. . . there's gotta be somebody else in the studio. . . some woman there doing this!

Baldacci: (Laughs) I know, it's talent. I certainly can't do it.


LOWE: Literacy is one of your charities. I'm wondering how much TV you let your kids watch, and how parents can get their kids to read more.

Baldacci: Our kids don't watch much TV. We're very strict about that. No video games in our house, just a computer where we let them go to specific sites while we're there. We read to each other instead, and make it a family affair, even making up stories sometimes. Often we'll read a story, come to the end, and I'll close the book and say, 'what did you think of that ending?' Then we'll discuss alternative endings, and why an author did it the way he or she did. Kids want to be creative, use their imaginations.


LOWE: And if you're just watching TV, everything is given to you, so you can't picture things in your own mind.

Baldacci: Right, it's totally passive. I gave my daughter a journal, and told her she could write anything she wanted in there, drawings included. And if she wants to show me anything, we'll discuss it. Our kids are outside playing, too, coming up with things on their own, as opposed to just clicking on a Game Boy. And what we're doing is paying off. Our kids are bright, imaginative, they play well, and come up with interesting stuff. I'm convinced it's because they don't sit in front of the television.

2008 Past Columns

David Baldacci / Mar Reviews

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