Canapes and Cherryhs with Sable: Seattle’s Sable Jak Talks About Her Upcoming Foreigner Audio Drama Series

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Sable Jak is excited. She has barely touched her lunch here at Cafe Kanape. Her eyes are bright, with gentle laugh lines radiating from their corners.

“I can hardly speak,” she says. “C.J. Cherryh is one of my favorite authors in the world and this is such a great project.”

The project of which she speaks is the adaptation of C.J. Cherryh’s first three Foreigner books–Foreigner, Invader and Inheritor–to audio drama format. “We’re calling it a ‘Movie in Audio,'” she says.

Ever since I first read Merchanter’s Luck and Downbelow Station in high school, I have always thought someone should make a movie of at least one of C.J. Cherryh’s books. Her Ealdwood fantasy books, especially The Tree of Swords and Jewels, positively cry out for a cinematic treatment and Rusalka would certainly be an extraordinary film. Ms. Cherryh’s true reputation, however, rests on her work in science fiction and it is in this field that she has won three Hugo awards. She would laugh at the distinction: she has never considered her fantasy work separate from her science fiction, but rather as two complementary modes of treating the same themes. But her science fiction would also make for brilliant cinema.

Apparently, Sable Jak felt the same way.

“Actually, it all started on Facebook,” she says. “I left C.J. a note on her Facebook wall, saying, ‘Have you ever thought of adapting your work for audio drama?’ and she wrote back to me right away, saying she had but that no one had ever approached her. Naturally I sort of held up my hand and said, ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ I got in touch right away with the guys at Audio Cinema Entertainment, whom I’ve worked with and I love and we put together a demo for her, which she absolutely loved.

“C.J. loved Wednesday’s voice and Gin Hammond and Jane Cater were to her, like a ‘Wow!’ So we did the demo and the actors were phenomenal. They really nailed it. We talked with her agent, Matt, and worked out the contracts so we could get rolling as soon as possible on it.”

Of course it is never so simple in producing audio: something always goes wrong.

“Just as we were really getting going on the script and contracts, I came down with C. Diff,” says Ms. Jak. Clostridium difficile, if you do not know, is a particularly vicious bacteria that often seems to be a minor case of the flu but actually causes severe inflammation of the intestines and can be life-threatening. Recent estimates suggest that C. diff is responsible for around 30,000 deaths in the United States each year.

Fortunately, Ms. Jak is a fighter. “It laid me out for about four almost five months,” she nods. “But I’m not done yet. It just put me behind. It took exactly one year from my first approach, but we signed the contracts finally on August 29. I’m happy to be back to work on this great piece.”

[media-credit name=”Teri Wood” align=”alignleft” width=”178″][/media-credit]Foreigner is a story of first contact. More accurately, it is about the consequences of first contact. In this book, the humans are the aliens. They abandon their space colony to land on a planet of a race called Atevi. The Atevi do not have human emotions; they are clinical, mathematical, logical and their biological instinct is based on hereditary loyalty. The humans colonize a portion of their world and start a disastrous war with the Atevi that is resolved only by the Treaty of the Landing in which one single human may live among the Atevi as the sole point of contact through whom all Atevi-Human relations pass. After a couple hundred years of relations, one of the Atevi hire an assassin to eliminate this human and thus begins the real story.

Ms. Cherryh’s greatest strength lies in her ability to create a world that in almost no way resembles human society yet is perfectly coherent and logical without explaining anything to the reader. Where other science fiction writers (Asimov comes immediately to mind) seem to dote on charts and expository prose, Ms. Cherryh prefers a limited omniscient approach that forces the reader to come to terms with the ethnographic strangeness without any hand-holding by the author. Her technique is relentless and beautiful and always aims at imbuing the very human readers with a sense of modesty about just exactly how limited their way of seeing the universe can be.

Nowhere does Ms. Cherryh pursue this more vividly than in her Foreigner series. In Foreigner, her treatment of cultures clashing is subtle but stark. It is quite atypical of adventure-based science fiction, or high fantasy where absurd and grandiose powers are wielded by flawed characters with an attitude so cavalier it often infuriates. Foreigner is about politics writ large: politics as an interstitial connection between beings of diametrical belief systems. The point is classic Cherryh: one can never assume people believe what they believe because they are unenlightened. They believe as they do because of biology, geography, physics and numerous other factors and in this cosmology humans are not special; they just think they are. Language itself is slippery from culture to culture and disorientation is a fact of life for her characters.

Adapting a novelist of this complexity might seem a daunting task. It would be difficult to adapt visually. How much more difficult it would seem to adapt it purely for audio. But Sable Jak is up for it. Ms. Jak is no stranger to fantasy and science fiction. She is, after all, the author of Writing the Fantasy Film: Heroes and Journeys in Alternate Realities. She is also a prize-winning audio playwright and a huge fan of C.J. Cherryh’s work. As she told me earlier, “I read a lot of books, and I purge books from my shelf regularly. But there are some that just never get purged. C.J.’s are on that list.”

“The book poses some distinct challenges,” says Ms. Jak. “There is the formal language. It’s completely fitting and necessary in the book, but listening to formal dialogue for six hours might translate to boredom. It’s also not your typical sci-fi book, a space opera. There are no lasers and Star Wars sounds. A gun is just a gun. It’s much more basic and stripped-down.

“I’ve had to say no to a lot of ideas,” she laughs.

Just as this is no ordinary science fiction novel, it is no ordinary adaptation. The producers have invited C.J. Cherryh herself to have a strong hand in the production. Ms. Cherryh reserves the right of first refusal on script, actors and even on sound design, ensuring that the adaptation will be extremely faithful to the book.

“C.J. has the best deal ever offered by Audio Cinema Entertainment, definitely,” says Sable Jak.”While writing, I’ve had direct communication with her. Ninety-nine percent of the dialogue is straight from her book. The challenge has been how to handle the narration and description.

“I didn’t want it to be another ‘book-on-tape’ sounding production. I didn’t want an Old Timey Radio kind of narrator to read description from the novel. It would be too boring. So some of the internal monologue and description finds its way into the dialogue of characters. But again, it’s all from C.J.’s own writing. I’ve altered very little. But it’s actually really fascinating to be able to explore just how to convey the sense of the narrator without actually using a narrator.

“An audio version should capture all that. Books give you images but not sound, movies give you images and sound but they’re outside you. When you put on the earbuds, they’re inside your head, all the images and sounds and it’s much more imaginative.”

One has to love her enthusiasm. She still hasn’t touched her food. This is a focused woman, at the helm of an extraordinarily promising project. I smile as we conclude, knowing that this is far from the last time Seattle will hear about this marvelous woman and her marvelous projects.


Categories Culture Literature Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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