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December 17, 2014
By Ryan Joe
Award-winning narrator Robert Fass turned to self-publishing for the audio edition of one of his favorite novels.

Russell Greenan’s It Happened In Boston?, first published by Random House in 1968 and now back in print, may be one of the best novels you’ve never read. And, as of December 17, you can hear it too, thanks to the efforts of Audie Award-winning narrator Robert Fass.

Fass has taken the unusual step of acquiring the audio rights to and self-publishing It Happened In Boston?, which he both performed and produced at his home studio in the Bronx. Blackstone Audio is handling distribution and marketing.   

“This is the first time I sought the rights to the project," Fass said, "because I love the book.”

And while this is Fass's first foray into self-publishing, that isn't the case for Blackstone. According to Anne Fonteneau, the company's head of sales, Blackstone has handled marketing and distribution for other self-published audiobooks.
"We are always interested in bringing quality audiobooks to the market, especially overlooked gems like It Happened in Boston?," she said. "Robert did such a wonderful job on this production that we were just very pleased to be able to get behind his project." 

Fass's affection for the book goes back to his teen years, when he stumbled upon the title. “It’s about big questions of existence and faith and reality, and as a 15 year old, I was interested in exploring those big ideas,” he said. “It lodged in my brain.”

The book certainly has that effect on its small but devoted cult following, though simple plot description inadequately conveys how exactly the book hooks in so deeply. On the surface, It Happened in Boston? is about a painter whose hold on reality becomes increasingly tenuous, and who, as a result, finds himself -- both wittingly and not -- embroiled deeper into various plots and schemes.

"This is the first time I sought the rights to the project, because I love the book."
But if It Happened In Boston? is also “a magic spell of a book” -- as author Jonathan Lethem introduces it in Modern Library’s out-of-print 2003 re-issue -- then its mix of potions include the murder mystery, magical realism, and the existentialist novel. It’s never entirely clear what incidents the narrator describes are supposed to be “real” and the book ends in what Fass describes as “a real mindbender.”

“By the time you reach it, you are so in thrall to the narrator and his account of things that it leaves you with a dilemma of whether or not to believe him,” Fass said. “But it gives you that choice, which is tremendously empowering -- not to mention entertaining -- as a reader/listener.”

Fass initially tried to get the novel’s rights to adapt it as a play, but the author declined. He took another shot after finding out Greenan was no longer working with the same agent. He sent a message via Russell Greenan’s official website inquiring again about the audio rights.

“I didn’t know what kind of response I’d get, or whether he was even still alive,” Fass recalled. He got a reply both from Greenan’s daughter who now represents him and from Greenan himself, who told Fass that the audio rights would revert from Random House back to Greenan on his 88th birthday, and to get back in contact then. Greenan is now 89, and the audio version of It Happened In Boston? will coincide with the book’s Kindle and Blurb re-release, spearheaded by the author's daughter.

“We arranged to do this simultaneously,” Fass said. As an added bonus, he managed to secure permission to include his narration of Lethem’s Modern Library introduction, which, like his efforts to get novel rights, also required a little bit of fate and a little bit of hustle.

Two summers ago, Fass attended an AudioFile magazine event in Maine at which narrators could read something they liked for five minutes. Fass had chosen a Stanley Elkin piece, but, at the last second, he decided to read a section from It Happened In Boston?

“I prefaced it by saying I’m hoping to narrate it some day, that I’ve been a fan for years, and at the back, some woman jumps to her feet and says, ‘Oh my God, I was responsible for that book being published!’” Fass said.

That woman was Beth Gutcheon, current author and a former Knopf editor, who plucked Greenan’s novel from the slush heap nearly 50 years ago (though the book ultimately ended up at Random House). Gutcheon is also friends with Lethem, and it was through her connection -- and the connection they shared with Greenan’s book -- that Fass was allowed to perform Lethem’s introduction, a move he hopes will help attract a larger audience.

Understandably, Fass, who spearheaded this audiobook project, is plenty invested in its financial performance. His duties, consequently, go well beyond the performance aspects he’s most familiar with. For example, he needed to understand Blackstone's process from a distribution and marketing standpoint. He also needed to educate the author’s side on the audiobook process.

“I was very grateful to a few colleagues for opening my eyes to certain issues I wouldn’t have thought of,” Fass said. “For instance, the artwork. That’s a whole separate negotiation. If you get the rights to the book, that doesn’t mean you have the rights to the artwork, and if the original publisher has those rights, you might need to spend some money to get that.”

He was fortunate that new artwork has already been commissioned for the upcoming Blurb and Kindle versions of the novel.

But even as a performer, Fass’s workload was magnified. He reads off his iPad in a sound-proof whisper room -- a five-by-seven foot booth. In this capacity, Fass works largely alone since he is his own director and his own engineer. He uses a process called punch and roll in which he can pause, easily rewind, and record over any strange noises or misreads.

Traditionally, the narrator strictly performs the author’s text, which is captured and processed by the engineer and the director. Consequently, working alone is not the most fluid performance method since it requires him to dive in and out at odd intervals. “It’s doable, but I don’t think it’s anyone’s preference,” Fass said. “I’d much rather work with the engineer, but I’ve been a director in theater for a lot of years, so I’m okay self-directing. Nine times out of 10, that’s how I work.”

Another element that made the adaptation trickier was the amount of research Fass had to do when preparing his performance. “My research list was a lot longer for this book than others that were three times the length,” he said.

As a standard course, an audiobook narrator notes any names or words in a book he needs to research in order to get the pronunciation correct. It Happened in Boston? takes place in art galleries and studios, where painters huddle, hone their craft, and worry about money -- a world painted by Greenan’s rich vocabulary.

Further complicating Fass’s research process is a plot element in which the book’s narrator, while ostensibly sitting quietly on a Boston park bench, experiences “reveries” that allow him to dip in and out of different time periods. 

“The lion’s share of terms I had to look up for pronunciation -- and, in some cases, meaning -- were arcane place names and historical figures (such as Gades, Gaugamela, Pollaiuolo, Sennacherib, and Tejekem), plus Latin and Greek terms, not to mention how Bostonians pronounce local street names and neighborhoods,” Fass said. “Tremont,” for instance, is pronounced differently in the Bronx than it is in Boston.

“The challenge is not to interrupt the flow or ‘point at’ such terms in the narration,” Fass said. “Rather to make them part of the natural speech and thoughts of this remarkable protagonist whose mind we enter.”

It’s a mind that Fass hopes numerous others will enter as well, and with the release of the book’s Kindle and Blurb versions, as well as his own audio production, they’ll now have that opportunity.