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June 10, 2012

Rachel Simon on Recording RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER

Rachel Simon is the award-winning author of six books and a nationally-recognized public speaker on issues related to diversity and disability. Her titles include the bestsellers, THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL and RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER. Both books are frequent selections of book clubs and school reading programs around the country. Rachel's work has been adapted for theater, NPR, the Lifetime Channel, and Hallmark Hall of Fame. Rachel Simon lives in Wilmington, Delaware. Here, she talks about the eye-opening experience of recording RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER.

When I found out last fall that Hachette Audio wanted to record my memoir, RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER, I was relieved, grateful --- and nervous.

Relieved because the book came out ten years ago, and, though it had done well and been adapted by Hallmark Hall of Fame, the publisher (not Hachette) had never sold the audio rights. Grateful because when Hachette Books published my latest book, THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL, in 2011 and put it out in audio, they asked to buy the audio rights for RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER. Nervous because they wanted me to be the reader.

I do public speaking but had never even been in a school play. I can barely read my husband a paragraph of an op-ed without flubbing a word. And I can’t open my mouth in the streets of Seattle or Little Rock without getting pegged as a native of the Northeast.

I listened to THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL. The reader --- a serious professional, Kate Reading --- did a magnificent job. Would I be expected to read like her? Without trippingovermywords or revealing my Joisey accent? Would I have to come up with different voices for me as an adult and child, my sister (who has an intellectual disability), and every bus driver and passenger?

Amber, a production coordinator in the audio department at Hachette, reassured me they could do several takes until they got it right. Then she booked five days of recording time in a studio in Philadelphia, near where I live. Telling me a book would make too much noise, she sent the manuscript.

I didn’t look at it. I never reread my books once I’m done. Besides, what would be the point, unless I reread it out loud?

Then, in January, I drove to the studio.

Amber greeted me warmly. Jeff, the engineer, brought me to a recording booth. With its thick carpet and bright lights, it was exceedingly warm. (Great for me, as someone who’s always shivering.) I set headphones on my head. Jeff shut the two doors between them and me.

He and Amber looked at me through the window. The glass was dark so I couldn’t see much except ghostly images of their faces and my reflection. Through the headphones he said, “I need to do a sound check. Just read.”

I looked at words I’d first written in a whole other life --- before I was married, before I was a public speaker, before I’d been on a movie set, before I’d worked things out with my sister. I heard my voice in my ears, and suddenly I was back there, a single woman living alone, feeling guilty about being a “bad sister,” getting on a bus with my sister for the first time.

Amber, speaking into my headphones, said it sounded good. Jeff said, “Okay, ready.”

I took a sip of water.

And then, carried along by words someone I knew once wrote, reading in a voice that sounded an awful lot like mine, I traveled to another time. I was 39, my sister 38, and I was back in that first freezing morning, racing out from her apartment into the moonlight, hurrying down a snow-filled street into a MacDonald’s. I could smell the coffee she bought. I could see the other customers. We bolted out to a bus shelter ---

“Bus shelter,” Amber said in my headphones.

Ah, yes. I’d said, “Buh shelter.”

I backed up to the previous comma, grateful for those natural pauses, which that other Rachel happened to have placed where this Rachel needed to breathe.

For the first several hours, Amber and sometimes Jeff, gently jumped in a few times a page. “You’ve picked up the pace.” “We could hear the page turn.” “It’s ‘a’ bus, not ‘the’ bus.”

But near the end of the first day, I could see where my weaknesses lay: slurring words together when the first ends and the second begins with “s.” Letting my mind drift. Falling into my New Jersey pronunciation --- “theater” being the most recurring and frustrating.

Soon, I was able to catch myself. (Well, not with the growls of my stomach. I kept imagining that no one else heard that, until Amber or Jeff would say, “Let’s redo that line.”) When I’d recognize a listener wouldn’t quite be able to hear what I’d said, and I’d back up to the previous comma and reread.

Commas became my friends. Periods, my very good friends. Paragraphs, my bosom buddies. New chapters were the loves of my life.

I gave up the idea of distinguishing all the voices, which took a level of skill I didn’t have. I just figured that people interested in audio books read by the author are willing to sacrifice virtuosity for authenticity. The more I let myself be myself, the better the book would be.

So for the three days we needed for the recording, I read, and once again, I was the guilt-ridden, giddy, confused, controlling, annoyed, admiring, lonely, and loving sister I’d been when I’d ridden the buses. In the flashback sections, I was, again, four, seven, thirteen, sixteen.

All along, Amber and Jeff listened as professionals. At the same time, they listened as regular people. Both of them, it turned out, had a personal connection to the material. When I emerged from the room for breaks, I could see my feelings mirrored in their eyes.

It was the most private of public remembering. Alone in a room, where I could hear no one but myself and my audience of two, I could let myself be fully vulnerable. Then I’d remember that inside those headphones sat thousands, maybe millions, of others. I was with all those who’d once been in my life while at the same time all those who have yet to be. Then I’d look back at the page, return to my time travel, and let everyone stay on the far side of the dark window.

The audio book of RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER came out a few months later. Now strangers keep asking what I used to ask. How did I read so flawlessly? I tell them that sometimes I read the words a second time. You do what you need to get it right.

But I now know that reading words a second time is, in fact, a minor part of the experience. More important is that you read your life a second time. You become who you were, and you remind yourself who you are, and you take that long journey again, from then to now. As you do, alone in a room with an audience of ghosts, you can say to yourself, Hey, you did some dumb things way back when, but in the end you made some good choices. You learned where your weaknesses lay. You got the knack for correcting yourself. You might have always known where you needed the commas, but now you also know how to breathe.