Shortly after recording his reading of William Maxwell’s classic novel So Long, See You Tomorrow for 92Y, award-winning actor John Lithgow sat down with us to discuss his personal relationship with the book, his reading habits, the perils and pleasures of voice acting, being moved to tears in the recording booth, and more. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
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On revisiting a favorite novel and reading it aloud
I read something wonderful about So Long, See You Tomorrow around when it came out and first read it aloud to my wife as we drove across the country. I lived in about eight or nine different places growing up, and about four of them were in Ohio, in the Midwest. One was a small town outside Toledo. I was in seventh grade the year that I lived there — that incredibly impressionable year in all of our lives. It’s just ineffably evoked by William Maxwell’s writing about the state of Illinois, the farmland of Illinois and the farm cultures. My friends and I played in the barns and shot bb guns in the woods. I was the new kid in school. I was an outsider. So the book, it just killed me. It has remained my favorite book.
I remembered it being just packed with detail, the tangible, tactile details of living and working on farms. I will never forget those pages where Maxwell does his storytelling from the point of view of Trixie the dog. I mean, that is so heartbreaking. It was almost unbearable to read. And I remember it had that impact on me the first time. So twice through, both times, I’ve read it aloud. That’s the actor in me. I just left myself wide open to the kind of emotion that gets triggered when you actually perform something.
On reading habits and audio books
I’m a very slow reader. It drives me crazy that it takes me so long to read a novel. I savor literature almost too much. I can’t read it fast. I’ve done a couple of delightful audio books. I did an abridged audio book of Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, which has a huge long cast list of extraordinary, bizarre, crazy, very New Yorky characters in different accents and different attitudes and different social echelons. That was so much fun, because you know that you’re creating a world with just words – you’re creating a big cast of characters with just words. I missed the chance to read Ann Patchett’s most recent novel. Don’t tell Tom Hanks, because they went to him instead.
On channeling William Maxwell’s story
All acting work is more similar than different. I’m frequently asked about the difference between stage and film, between tragedy and drama and horror and different genres. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked about what it’s like to perform an audio book. It’s all the same process. You’re channeling the writing or the filmmaking of somebody else, but it’s an extraordinary emotional exercise. It is technical in the fact that you’re actually reading from a page, you haven’t learned your lines and you’re not pretending to be another person. You’re not creating a suspension of disbelief in front of people. You’re doing it all with your voice. But I love it. I’ve done a lot of radio and radio drama and the audio books, and it’s very hard to sustain that energy over a couple of days.
I’ve had the experience of doing audio books of my own books. And I have often had the reaction of reading my own material and saying, "Who wrote this shit? Is he never going to shut up?" But with Maxwell, boy, you just savor the literature and leave yourself wide open. The character who’s telling this story in the first person is not directly involved in the central tragic event. He’s an outsider, he’s indirectly involved. He tells the story of the dissolution of two farms and two families, going from an almost Eden of agriculture cooperation, and family friendship to a hell, pure hell devastating several lives. It’s an intensely moving memory piece. There were moments when I just had to stop. It was so moving that I couldn’t go on. I literally had to recover. We had Kleenex next to me.
John Lithgow’s recording of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow is available for a limited time only.