The Novelist as Performer: What Authors Can Learn from Charles Dickens

It's that time of year. A Christmas Carol is being displayed in bookstores and fresh theatrical versions are playing. The prolific Charles Dickens wrote a new Christmas story every year, but in later years he began to dread this labor, calling it "the Christmas Stone."

What Dickens never tired of, however, was performing his work. Whether he was doing charity readings of A Christmas Carol or, later, for-profit readings of scenes from his novels (he selected scenes for their performance potential and edited them to heighten their effect), Dickens was a maestro. In the excellent recent biography, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, actor and author Simon Callow writes: "Dickens was most at ease within his own immediate circle, and his office staff at Household Words; but felt most completely himself in front of an audience."

That's not exactly how I felt at Skylight Books last month, while doing an "in conversation" about my novel with poet James Ragan. Early on, my eyes flitted past polite women and a streetwise dude to the back row of chairs, from where a guy in a gray hoodie stared at me evenly, in between bouts of bending his head to a book. Intuition told me to avoid making eye contact; he exuded a chilly air and I couldn't place why he unsettled me.

At Skylight, I had planned to speak only about my novel, but Ragan urged me to read from the book as well. "Let them hear the rhythm of your words," he said.

Since this was coming from a poet whose performance experiences include reading with Bob Dylan, reading for four Presidents, and reading at Carnegie Hall, I nodded and selected a chapter to read from.

Ragan sat in the front row, closing his eyes at times to savor my reading, which almost neutralized the stares from the gray hoodie. When Ragan came up for the "in conversation" after, I noticed how he pointedly made eye contact with the audience. He'd hold someone's gaze for a few seconds; he thrived on that connection.

When authors read in bookstores today, we sometimes worry about what sort of audience we'll have, or if we'll have any audience. It can be helpful to remember that in doing public readings, we are following an ancient tradition of oral storytelling.

Last month, I attended a reading by Luis Alberto Urrea (The Hummingbird's Daughter), followed by an "in conversation" with Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW's Bookworm. As a boy, Urrea consumed a steady diet of family stories in Tijuana. This evening, he announced that instead of a "reading," he was going to recite, from memory, three chapters from his book Queen of America.

"Either it'll be wonderful," he said, "or else I'll look really stupid."

I felt nervous for him. Three chapters? I hoped he wouldn't look "really stupid." There was no backup--no book in sight in the majestic Lensic stage. Urrea stood there alone, with a glass of water, and his memory.

Dickens, of course, memorized his texts, "rehearsing them for hours on end." In 1867, he embarked on an American reading tour, despite concerns about his deteriorating health, even worry that this tour would "kill him." At one venue in New York, there were two lines, each 800 people long, to get tickets to his reading. The tour lasted four months; when Dickens woke up in the mornings, he often found he'd lost his voice. On a dubious liquid diet, he kept up a punishing schedule. His performances were hailed everywhere, but only close friends knew the price he was paying: "His left leg swelled up during Readings, blood rushed into his hands so that they became almost black."

Urrea, thankfully, seemed to be experiencing no such problems. He was narrating a tale with the ease of a born storyteller. In the first chapter, when Tomás is not offered breakfast at home, Urrea makes us feel his unease. In the second chapter, Teresita is called upon to miraculously heal a sick boy, and we feel the bewildered delight of Jamie who has never encountered anyone like Teresita before. In the third chapter, in which Tomás throws a "grand soiree," we feel his need for showmanship (maybe Urrea himself shares this).

Who is the ultimate showman if not a politician? Riding on this logic, I turned up recently at the Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe where former Governor Bill Richardson was making a book-tour stop for his book How to Sweet-Talk a Shark. When I walked in, the bookstore owner told me apologetically that Richardson "will not talk, he will only sign." After a gracious introduction from the bookstore owner, Richardson gave her a hug; then, without a word, he gestured to the first person in line to come up, so he could begin signing.

It can be argued that writing down a story is a performance in its own right and no other performance is needed. Hemingway, unsurprisingly, compared the feat to fighting a boxing match. He said: "I wouldn't fight Dr. Tolstoi in a 20 round bout because I know he would knock my ears off. The Dr. had terrific wind and could go on forever and then some." Being Hemingway, though, he added: "But I would take him on for 6 and he would never hit me and [I] would knock the shit out of him and maybe knock him out."

When Urrea finished narrating the third chapter, he got a tremendous applause. There was palpable relief in the audience that he'd carried off what is a unique feat by modern standards--to do a reading without a book. This way of reading allowed him, like Dickens, to fully inhabit his characters and give us a performance. Dickens was so good at this, he was likened to a one-man theater company.

When Dickens entered the stage, he got "an ovation that would satisfy a pop star." He poured himself a glass of water, and then he looked at his audience. "If ever a look spoke it was just in that moment," said a contemporary reviewer. "It felt as if he were making friends with us all." His readers, who'd so far experienced his books only by their firesides, watched enthralled as Dickens brought Fagin or David Copperfield to life on the stage, using only his voice and his dramatic instinct. The audiences wept, they roared with laughter, and they blessed him when he left; his reading tours were a "continuous triumph."

Urrea's experiential stories are ideal for the oral storytelling tradition. In the conversation that followed, Michael Silverblatt characterized his work thus: "He is able to make words disappear into feeling and experience. Luis does that."

After the evening was over, Urrea admitted that this was his greatest performance ever. Dickens might have roared out: "Hear, hear!"

Priyanka Kumar is a filmmaker and the author of the novel, Take Wing and Fly Here.