What is an abridgment? Do you call yourself an abridger?
I suppose abridger is the technical term! An abridgment is not a précis or a rewrite. The closest description I can come up with is that it is a radical edit. The challenge is to reduce a book (from a standard length of around 80,000 words) to 2,000 words—and to give an accurate and rounded picture of it without rewriting the text. One can change the odd word to make transitions better or to clarify a point, but I am not rewriting anything; I am extracting the essence of a text and presenting it in an entertaining form for radio.
Do you have a kind of book that you like to work on or are known for?
I much prefer non-fiction. I’ve read a wonderful range of quirky texts, from a long evaluation of the myth of Santa Claus to a history of food adulteration to the posthumous fortunes of Jane Austen’s work, and so on. It’s a delight. I read books I might never have come across and dip my toe into all sorts of bizarre and esoteric challenges.
Although I used to work on fiction, I haven’t done it for years. That was my decision—I write fiction myself and am very uneasy about cutting a work of fiction to this degree. This is not to knock fiction abridgments—people enjoy listening to them, they get people buying and reading fiction—it’s a personal thing. I remember when a friend of mine, a novelist named Liz Jensen, had her book The Ninth Life of Louis Drax abridged for Book at Bedtime, she said to me in amazement, “They lost a whole subplot and character!” I understand that there simply isn’t time for every complexity, but for me that’s more problematic when it comes to fiction.
Do you start out with the amount of time you have and work from that? Is there a basic equation—say, one chapter = 10 minutes of air time?
For a BBC radio series such as Book of the Week, I probably have to produce five 14-minute slots, broadcast on consecutive days. The basic rule of thumb is that 2,000 words takes 14 minutes to read. This varies, however. Some years ago I did two abridgments, both about 2,000 words long—one ran over time while the other ran under. I didn’t understand why at first, but then I thought about the nature of the texts: one was Edmund Hillary’s account of climbing Everest, High Adventure: The True Story of the First Ascent of Everest. It was an action-packed firsthand account, in relatively simple language; the other was a book about Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens, by Jane Dunn, full of polysyllabic Elizabethan names and more academic language. The word count alone simply did not reflect the kind of words used, which was why one book took much longer to read than the other.
In compressing, do you keep essential lines of dialogue and then squeeze other parts?
Because I work with non-fiction, dialogue isn’t central to the texts. The trick really is to pick out sections that work and somehow knit them together into a whole that makes sense over five episodes. If you pruned the text too much it would end up being a digest, not the work and words of the author.
How do you decide what to keep and what to cut?
Obviously, my primary thought is: will this make entertaining and interesting listening? There are always sections or facts or events that strike me particularly during the initial read-through. I follow what I personally think is interesting, while at the same time trying to give a balanced version of the whole text. It’s a question of combining my taste and judgment with respect for the intentions of the author.
In a book such as Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, is it better to lose characters altogether or to limit what they say??
There simply isn’t the space to have everything and everybody in the abridgment of a book like that—so, yes, I do have to decide which strands of the narrative to keep. In The Hare, for example, I decided to dwell less on the Japanese and American sections and to focus on the 19th- and 20th-century European fortunes of de Waal’s netsuke.
Have you worked on books that were very difficult to abridge—or, conversely, where you felt the book positively benefited from being abridged?
I recently did Manning Marable’s 500-page biography Malcom X: A Life of Reinvention. It is quite a tome—a scholarly, very detailed account of his life and politics, set in their historical context. This is the hardest kind of book to abridge, because one has also to respect the chronology of the work—you have to evoke a life unfolding, so certain details cannot be skipped. It presents real problems of space.
The reverse situation, where abridgment is beneficial, I’ve encountered on several occasions. With a book where a fascinating subject has been tackled by a less than brilliant author, by presenting the facts while cutting out tedious sections you can give it a very rosy impression. Then when a book is broadcast, people flock to buy it, and I suppose there have been times when I’ve thought, hmmm… Would I really recommend that anyone plow their way through this book? And of course the opposite is also true: an abridgment can never do full credit to a wonderful book. At that point one can only hope that people do go out and buy it and read it and experience the full richness of the text for themselves.
Have you ever felt that one of your abridgments didn’t really do justice to complex plotting or characterization?
My first ever, more than 20 years ago, was a super-honed novel, Love and Death on Long Island, by Gilbert Adair. It was terrifying. There was no extra fat to cut—the text was as lean as it could be. The easier texts to abridge are those with more verbiage, more digressions, more incidentals. Anthologies are reasonably straightforward, because there are numerous discrete pieces and one can choose for length and entertainment value together. And then continuity is much less of an issue.
Do you get direct feedback from listeners?
We get letters, and they are always appreciative and enthusiastic. One in particular stays with me. Years ago, in the 1980s, I did Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera. We received a long and deeply moving letter from an old German woman, who had been a refugee from Nazi Germany and came to Britain with her husband. He had died shortly before the broadcast. The story, as you probably know, is about a love affair between two old people, and for this woman, listening to it night after night, without her beloved husband, it had been both deeply painful and a source of comfort and happy memories for her. She wrote that he had read to her every night of their married life.
Do you work on living authors, and if so, have you consulted the authors themselves in any way—or might that be detrimental?
All the books I abridge for Book of the Week are by living authors (with the exception, as it happens, of Hillary and Manning Marable). I often have a chat with the authors, but the final editorial decision has to be that of the abridger and producer. You can’t abridge a book by committee, although obviously you always listen to what authors have to say. I’ve never had any problems or disagreements. One writer once said to me, “When I read the abridgment through the first time, I wanted to kill you; then I read it again and realized you’d done a great job.” That’s the nature of the beast—it has to be a fair and elegant hatchet job!