For the past several months, Butler University English Professor Susan Neville has become a fixture in the Irwin Library for her latest literary project.
Neville is not poring over books, however. She is not researching her next novel. The Creative Writing professor is adjusting microphone volume levels in a cozy soundproof booth in the library’s lower level. To her right is best-selling author Dan Wakefield, who penned Going All the Way and Starting Over, covered historic events like the first foreign press interview with former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, wrote about the Emmett Till trial for magazines like The Atlantic and The Nation, and is considered Kurt Vonnegut’s oldest living friend.
Neville and Wakefield are about halfway through recording Naptown Season One: A Memoir of the 20th Century. The podcast will consist of 20 episodes featuring different chapters of Wakefield’s life, which started in Broad Ripple, Indiana, continued to New York City as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter, then to academia in Florida, and now back to Indianapolis. All 20 episodes will be released at once on iTunes, Wakefield’s website, Irwin Library’s website, and Butler’s Digital Commons in May for maximum binge listening, and to celebrate Wakefield’s 88th birthday.
“He’s a great storyteller and I wanted to capture those stories,” says Neville, who received a $2,000 grant from the Indiana Humanities Council to assist with the production. “These episodes will be kind of his memoir, only done through interviews.”
The soundbooth only fits two people, but the results are as high-level as anything on Podcast One. Neville and Wakefield mapped out every episode, about an hour in length each. So far, they’ve completed episodes focusing on Vonnegut, novelist James Baldwin, and a trio of Wakefield’s mentors from his undergraduate days at Columbia College: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Van Doren, literary critic Lionel Trilling, and famed sociologist C. Wright Mills, who Wakefield served as a research assistant.
Neville enlisted the help of Academic Technology Specialist Megan Grady-Rutledge to help edit each episode, which starts with music and short introductions and outros from Neville. The rest is all Wakefield answering Neville’s questions, recalling major career milestones, and reading from his published works.
“Once he gets on a roll, he gets on a roll,” says Neville with a laugh. “I was a journalism major as an undergrad and have written a lot of freelance feature articles, so I’m used to doing interviews. Recording a podcast is a combination of radio and the print journalism I’m used to.”
Neville reveals that Season Two will consist of Vonnegut interviews she conducted in 1989 and 1990. Those conversations currently live on microcassettes, but will be transferred to a digital format after Season One launches.
“Talking with Susan, I’m remembering a lot of things,” Wakefield says. “I feel like there’s a big hole in our history and in Indianapolis, like the great jazz scene we had here. A lot of if isn’t mentioned in a lot of places so I’m glad to be able to talk about that.”
Part of the author’s comfort in the recording booth stems from Wakefield’s connection with Neville. They first met when Wakefield was still a graduate writing professor at Florida International University and Neville was a guest speaker at the Seaside Writers Conference. Wakefield has paid close attention to Neville’s career, which includes creative nonfiction works Sailing the Inland Sea, Iconography, and Indiana Winter.
“Susan Neville is the best author today in this city and state,” says Wakefield, noting her 2019 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction award for her collection of short stories The Town of Whispering Dolls. “I feel very lucky to be doing this with her. I feel very comfortable. We have sort of the same literary outlook and framework. We share the same prejudices about writers we like and admire. I know whatever I talk about, she will understand what I’m talking about.”
Naptown is recorded with Audacity and just a few clicks. The writers test their speaking levels for a few minutes, listen to the playback, and then start to record the episode.
For a December 10 session, Wakefield was prepared to speak on his former influential professors. Among his notes, Wakefield brought the March 1968 copy of The Atlantic, which consisted solely of Wakefield’s long-form article on the Vietnam War. The piece, Supernation at Peace and War, mentions some of his former Columbia University professors.
Before the session, Wakefield was a guest at Neville’s first-year seminar on Vonnegut. The students had been reading Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and they poured over Wakefield’s essay on his old friend titled Kurt Vonnegut, Christ-Loving Atheist.
“They were in awe of him,” Neville says. “He told stories about Kurt and his family, and he brought fresh insights to the books they’d been reading all semester. They were amazed.”
And the students will get to know much more about Wakefield, Vonnegut, and 20th century American literature in a fresh format thanks to Neville and Naptown.
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