Interview Monday: narrator Robertson Dean on William Gibson’s Distrust That Particular Flavor

Dear readers of Audible SF/F, you are in for a treat. Today’s installment of Interview Monday is a conversation with narrator (and stage, film, and TV actorRobertson Dean.

Dean has narrated nearly 200 titles, from Beowulf to all manner of current fiction and non-fiction, and has become for all intents and purposes the voice of William Gibson in audio, having narrated 2007’s Spook Country, 2010’s Zero History, a 2011 unabridged production of Neuromancer, and the just-released essay collection Distrust That Particular Flavor. He is perfectly cast for Gibson’s books, particularly his characterization of Milgrim in Spook Country and Zero History, and I was very happy to interview him via e-mail after a brief phone conversation.

Q: First off: Hooray for more William Gibson! Before narrating his books, had you read much of his work?

A: The only drawback to narrating audiobooks is that my recreational reading is of course a bit curtailed. If I’m going to do this right, it takes a lot of prep – the most important being the time spent simply reading the book in an unhurried manner, without taking notes, just listening to the author and trying to catch his voice. Then I skim it in some detail, bookmarking words I don’t know how to pronounce. Then I find out how to pronounce them. Then I record it. Then I hightail it to A Noise Within, a classical repertory theater here in LA where I’ve worked many years acting Shakespeare, Moliere, Miller, Beckett, and dozens more of the greatest playwrights of all time. At bedtime I curl up with Boswell’s Life of Johnson, at least for the past four months, read a few pages and peter out. Not to say that I don’t narrate a lot of important and involving books – I do. I’m lucky that way. But my professional life being what it is, I doubt Mr. Gibson would have taken his rightful place alongside Mr. Boswell on my bedside table. So, yeah, hooray for the happy confluence of Mr. Gibson’s astounding talent and my job, which is probably the only thing that would have brought me to him.

Q: Can you tell me a bit more about yourself and how you came to be a narrator?

A: Here’s something about me: BA Tufts. MFA Yale School of Drama, where a friend and I read most of Walter Scott and Dickens aloud to each other over the course of three years. That’s really when I learned to narrate. Classical roles in practically every regional theater in the US. Lived 15 years in NYC, where I started narrating for the American Foundation for the Blind. Worked my way up to major off-Broadway and finally a couple of Broadway shows. Figured the work was far better in Baltimore, or a dozen other cities. At a loose existential end, moved to LA, which I had always liked, and fell in love with it. I’ve done several movies, some small some real big, quite a bit of TV, but now I prefer to narrate or do other voicework during the day and act at the above-mentioned A Noise Within classical rep at night. I’m a happy man. Beautiful words support me. TMI? Hope not.

Q: Before we talk about Distrust That Particular Flavor, I’d like to talk about your previous work on Gibson’s novels, starting with your 2011 narration of his first novel, Neuromancer. You mentioned that this was the first time you’d read the novel. How does it hold up for a first-time reader, over 25 years later?

A: You ask how I think Neuromancer, Mr. Gibson’s first novel, in which he imagined, and indeed named “cyberspace,” holds up after 25 years. You know as well as I that the story is told so artfully, engages our imaginations so fully, that the real question is how do we hold up when reading it.

You know as well as I that the story is told so artfully, engages our imaginations so fully, that the real question is how do we hold up when reading it.

Can we use our imaginations sufficiently to hold on for the utterly unconventional ride, or do we now expect, as with most popular entertainment, to be led safely along to a neatly wrapped conclusion? He simply drops us into places we have to make some sense out of, along with his desperate characters, with their achingly human needs, shrouded in ultra-hipness as they may be. We must supply subtext; Mr. Gibson is on to the next marvel. And, as he points out in an essay, it’s all done without the appearance of a cellphone. In this future world of a high-tech we haven’t come near to approaching, even Mr. Gibson didn’t envision such a thing; characters dash to pay phones! Can the young and the hip get past that? Hope so.

Q: In addition to the technology, Neuromancer is filled with memorable characters (Case, Molly, Armitage, Wintermute, on and on) and excellent line by line description, dialog, and action. Are there lines, either of description or dialog, that have really stuck with you since narrating the novel? (Personally I’ll never forget that opening line, having grown up with honest to goodness cathode ray tube TVs and tuners and static.)

 A: Oh yeah. Toward the end. Case, our hero, suddenly on the beach in cyberland. Looming data towers, city-like, in the distance. The quiet, unbearably intense stillness after such wild cyber-surfing Case confronted with a sad, drained clueless digital version of what Nueromancer thinks might stop him in his threatening pursuit. How the machine knows so much, and so little. We’re human, you see. Hence, for this reader, all of Gibson. Let me set up my favorite line: As the dark blanket of Neuromancer’s immune system closes in:

Exponential.

 Darkness fell in from every side, a sphere of singing black, pressure on the extended crystal nerves of the universe of data he had nearly become. And when he was nothing, compressed at the heart of all that black, there came a point where the dark could be no more, and something tore…And here all things could be counted, each one. He knew the number of grains of sand in the construct of the beach (a number coded in a mathematical system that existed nowhere outside the mind that was Neuromancer).

And here’s the line: The boy (Neuromancer) on the beach tells him, “You were wrong, Case. To live here is to live. There is no difference.”

That is what I see as Mr. Gibson’s great story and strength – Are we becoming the net, or is it becoming us?

That is what I see as Mr. Gibson’s great story and strength – Are we becoming the net, or is it becoming us?

Q: From locative art and radioactive bullets to the high-stakes world of military fashion, from New York to Los Angeles to Vancouver to London, the two “Bigend” books you’ve narrated (Spook Country and Zero History) have quite a range. What were the biggest challenges in narrating these two novels?

A: That’s easy: Bigend. I was never sure how much to reveal of him, that he was or was not as he appeared. I tried to find the line between vocally hinting that something was up, which I hate, and just defaulting to complete neutrality, and thereby downplaying all sorts of rich stuff that I really wanted to share with the listener. I didn’t want to give anything away, and yet I wanted him to make sense, at least in the moment, to the other characters and to the listener. He is a very powerful man with a very elusive character. I took my best shot.

Q: Zero History narrows down to two points of view, Hollis Henry and Milgrim — and they’re often together. When Heidi arrives it is an injection of humor and your characterization of her in this novel seems much more animated than from Spook Country. Did you sense that the audiobook of Zero History needed that additional lift?

A: Heidi comes into her own in Zero History. She is called upon to do much more, we learn about her deeply edgy background, and she enters with such a bang that I just went with it. I didn’t sense such insouciant intensity in her in Spook Country. Maybe I just had a tin ear until Mr. Gibson served her up on a platter for us in Zero History.

Q: All right, let’s talk about the just-released Distrust That Personal Flavor, which collects 26 of Gibson’s essays, from magazine pieces for Rolling Stone and Wired to his memorable talk at the 2010 Book Expo in New York. I’ve only just started listening; what can you tell me about the essays that I won’t find on the jacket copy?

A: Some of the essays are chilling, some hilarious. Mr. Gibson’s commentaries after each essay are a gold mine for anyone interested in how a visionary writer assimilates cutting edge culture and still remains charming and relaxed, even in his acute perceptiveness. He is a wellspring of radical ideas and arresting observations, yet I get the feeling that he’d just as soon be out chopping wood. And let’s face it: He concludes that the net is not augmenting us, but that we are augmenting the net. Our definition of “human being” is changing right now. He makes no bones about that, and he is, as he would say, “several clicks” ahead of most people in thinking about this re-definition.

Q: Any favorites among the essays?

A: The one where he tells us of the generation of Japanese (a million of them) who have not left their rooms for many years, but only venture forth when they know they will not be observed. And how do they get away with this? Mr. Gibson states flatly, “A Japanese parent will not enter his child’s room without permission.” Oh, OK…

And of course there’s the Singapore masterpiece. As funny as it is horrifying. Mr. Gibson folds with uncharacteristic finality: “My ass is out of here.”

Q: What are the challenges and differences between narrating a fiction novel, with a cast of characters and changing settings, action, etc. and narrating a series of essays like this?

A: Novels are easier for me because usually enormous variety is built in, and must simply be enthusiastically embraced. With non-fiction, I have to really act. I must envision a listener who is utterly interested in what I am reading, that I am in a comfy armchair facing the listener’s comfy armchair, and that my listener needs my diction to be just slightly clearer than it might be in a normal conversation, so that I can be understood effortlessly over the crackling of the fire in the fireplace, four feet away. My listener must be a very specific type of person in my mind, or I will wind up sounding impersonal.

Q: Do you have any audiobooks coming soon, whether recently narrated or coming later in the year?

A: I have several narrations coming out soon, but one stands out. Wyn Craig Wade’s The Titanic: End of a Dream is being re-released in time for the centennial of the sinking this April. Some material has been added to the original book, and now it will be called The Titanic: Disaster of the Century (February 1, Tantor Audio). Everyone in the know says, and they are absolutely right, that if you read any book on the disaster, this should be the one. Magnificent prose. Absolutely breathtaking in its comprehensive account of all that led to that awful night. Starts with the Victorian Dream taking form in Albert’s Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, and describes the death of that Dream on April 15, 1912, and what replaced it – our own Age of Anxiety. He puts it firmly in context, and now all the stories, apocryphal and true, mean so much more to me than they did. It is a true masterpiece.

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