Voicing America: How Stacy Schiff’s ‘The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams’ became an audiobook

When Stacy Schiff was asked to choose a narrator for the audiobook version of her latest book, “The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams,” she had an easy time making the selection. After listening to a few samples, she heard a familiar voice: that of Jason Culp, who had narrated her 2005 book “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America.”

Schiff’s latest book takes on the life of Adams, the 18th-century Massachusetts politician and one of the architects of the American revolution. Adams was a slippery figure, remaining elusive to his contemporaries as well as to modern historians: As Schiff writes, “Even in his letters he seems to have one foot out the door. The clock strikes midnight; he cannot linger; he hates to leave us hanging (or so he says). He will tell us more next time.”

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Both Schiff and Culp have had long careers in literature, Schiff as the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Vera Nabokov, Cleopatra, and others, and Culp as the narrator of more than 250 audiobooks over the past 25 years, including titles by Jeffrey Archer, James Patterson and Louis L’Amour.

Schiff and Culp talked about “The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams” via Zoom, Schiff from her home in New York, and Culp from Los Angeles. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Q. Stacy, what made you decide to write a book about Samuel Adams?

Schiff: I think two things converged, and I don’t know which led to the other. I was working with the materials from my Ben Franklin book, which is also narrated by the peerless Jason Culp, and had this cameo of Samuel Adams, about whom I knew relatively little, so I had gone back to research him a little bit. And at the same time, I had finished the book about the Salem witch trials, and I was looking for someone who had a very reliable moral compass, somebody who actually had the courage of his convictions. And one of the people who finally stood up for reason at the very end of the witch trials, very quietly and very anonymously, was a Bostonian named Thomas Brattle, who totally reminded me of Samuel Adams. So I felt like I was combining this person whom I had admired in that narrative with this new subject.

Q. Jason, how much did you know about Samuel Adams before you read Stacy’s book?

Culp: Not nearly enough, especially considering that I was obsessed with presidents when I was a kid, and grew up reading about Lincoln and Washington and so forth. But my knowledge was limited to the presidents themselves. So this just went back to my sort of geek love of early American history in a way that filled in so many blanks that I had about him.

Q. A lot of Americans know Samuel Adams’ name, but might not realize his significance. 

Schiff: That’s exactly what drew me to him. Once you go back and actually read his contemporaries, they all talk about him as the man of the hour. He’s the apostle of liberty, he’s the person who Thomas Jefferson said was the most active and most persevering man of the revolution. And yet, here he’s gone from the record. I would say that the ability to be able to capture an ambient idea and pin it to the page and make it highly accessible to everyone, and then change and unite people around those ideas and really change minds is the contribution here. There was a lot of backroom negotiating and organizing of boycotts and pickets and extralegal assemblies and all kinds of street theater. But I think fundamentally it’s that ability to be able to articulate first principles and do so in a way that makes them resonant for pretty much everybody who was reading the Boston Gazette in those years. But I feel like all of us have lost him, and the beer has probably not helped. If you Google Sam Adams now, you get the beer, you don’t get any American history. And people assume he was a brewer because of the beer.

Q. You write in the book, “At times Adams amounts to little more than a flicker and dash, a vapor trail … He is forever slipping from grasp.” Was it difficult to get a handle on someone who is so elusive? 

Schiff: You do have the sense that you’re dragging him against his will from the shadows. And that’s a feeling I knew from writing about Vera Nabokov. In a funny way, the reluctant subject forces the biographer onto the page a little bit more. because you’re having to come out from behind the scenery a little bit. But the short answer to your question is that his papers, although he destroyed a great deal of them, are actually quite rich. And then there’s a massive wealth of material in the British National Archives and the Parliamentary Archives because all of those poor beleaguered crown officials are writing back sometimes daily to London to complain about this restless incendiary, this Machiavelli of chaos, this little rogue Samuel Adams.

Q. Jason, what are some of the things that leaped out to you when you first read Stacy’s book?

Culp: The first impressions I get when I read a book that I’m going to perform is as an actor: What can I play, what’s playable? And Samuel Adams is so playable because he is so utterly vivid in the way he’s described. And that’s buoyed by the quotes that are in the book, which are chosen so judiciously and which reveal so much about him. So with Adams, the voice came out to me, and there’s even a passage in the book where the voice is somewhat described. She gives you everything. Good writing gives you the performance.

There’s a world of thought amongst audiobook narrators about whether one should do character voices at all in nonfiction. A great many of them will tell you that one must not do it. But it’s horses for courses. There are listeners that like to have variety and dynamics, and others will say, “No, just read it to me. I just want the information.” So being an old ham, and an actor since the age of 10, I just love to characterize those quotes so that they really stand out. Maybe that’s my radio upbringing.

Q. Stacy, what did you think when you heard the voice that Jason had created for Samuel Adams?

Schiff: It was thrilling. It was like watching a character whom you’ve been writing about suddenly appear on the screen. There are a lot of descriptions, especially from John Adams, of how decorous and affable and sweet and formal Samuel Adams was, what a man of tremendous erudition and refinement he had. Jason, I feel like you completely conveyed that in the voice. 

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Culp: It’s an interesting thing to choose a voice of someone who is an American, but so much of the flavor of the way people spoke the English language then, and the way they wrote it, still retained the sophistication that we largely lost as we went along through history. There’s somewhere in the book where Adams’ voice is described; I picked up that it was a manful, English-sounding voice. The actor Jack Hawkins came to my mind because he had this fabulous, deep but cultured voice with a little bit of gravel in it, and that just seemed to work.

Q. Could you talk about what the collaboration process was like for this audiobook?

Schiff: This is as collaborative as we’ve been! We’ve never met or barely communicated. They’ve kept us from each other. It’s terrible!

Culp: The publishers want to protect the authors, and keep them from being peppered with unnecessary bother. So there’s always this mediator in the middle that makes it hard sometimes for a narrator to communicate with an author.

Schiff: The publishers were nice enough to send me a bunch of little samples of narrators, and Jason’s was far and away, so obviously the right voice for the book. Then I didn’t know anything until the whole thing had been recorded. The tone just felt right, and the whole thing just seemed as if it was coming alive in Jason’s telling. You hope the performance is as good as the printed word. In this case, it’s arguably better; Jason gives every em-dash and semicolon a voice.

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