Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Who is Sylvia?

I had only met Sylvia on a couple of brief occasions before we started to work together on the Josephine Baker biography. I was still relatively new to the process of monitoring, and I had yet to record anything myself -- my first narration was much later, Julian Barnes's wonderful Flaubert's Parrot -- while Sylvia had a long track record . . .  and a reputation for doing things her way. I had yet to discover that her personal warmth was as abundant as her unruly gray curls, and that the steely professionalism that I rightly detected beneath a too-obvious veneer of self-deprecation was itself another veneer covering deeper insecurities about her career (but never her undeniable talent).

During our first session, I heard her stop reading mid-sentence, and so I halted the tape and informed her over the intercom that we would be restarting. I assumed she had lost her place in the book momentarily. (Whenever Sylvia made a mistake, I always apologized to her.)

It was reel-to-reel tape in those days; the studio has since gone digital. Because the erase head and the recording head on the old machines were about half a second apart, picking up after a break was a rather complex ritual that was 50% button-pushing and 50% sheer faith that you weren't going to cut off the end of a successfully recorded sentence, especially a long one. So while I was going through the motions for the restart -- it hadn't yet become second nature as it would be later -- Sylvia buzzed. I took off the headphones to use the intercom.

"Why did you stop me?" she asked.

I realized I hadn't explained properly. "Oh, you left rather a long pause there, so I guessed you wanted to do it again," I told her.

There was another pause, and then her voice, frosty, on the intercom.

"My dear," she said, "that was acting!"

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