interview with Paul Alan Ruben, author of Terms of Engagement

If you’re a fan of books that delve into deep questions and complex characters, Paul Alan Ruben’s Terms of Engagement: Stories of the Father and Son, will leave you asking yourself the big questions, such as: who am I, as a human being? Listen to our interview with the author and director of this short story collection, his advice for getting cast as a narrator, and more. Your recent short story collection, Terms of Engagement, explores father and son as intimate enemies with a yearning to be understood, acknowledged, and validated by each other. Where did the inspiration for the stories come from?

Paul: The inspiration came largely from my own experience as a son, so while the collection is fiction, the themes that are embedded in all of the stories largely grow out of my own experience. This is literary fiction. The things that cause the characters stories to feel incoherent have to do with some of the themes in the book and the difficulty in these stories that both father and son seem to have. Not only did you write this short story collection, but you directed it as well. Can you talk about the benefits and challenges of managing both?

Paul: My background is a theater director and I’ve been an audiobook producer and director for decades. i teach and coach storytelling, so i would say the benefits of being able to direct my own work is that in my head, i hear it, and i don’t have to necessarily talk to someone else about what i think the way an author might have to. I’m also a director so I’m able to think, “Okay, this is what I hear, and I’m going to do my best with the talent I have to actualize what I hear.” The challenge is to make sure that I treat  actors the way I would if they were doing a fiction that wasn’t written by me, which means that if they’re connected, engaged, and effectively doing the job that’s creating a compelling piece of storytelling, to leave them alone and let them interpret without me constantly stopping them. I think I did a pretty fair job, although you’d have to talk to some of the narrators who worked on the book, but at least they’re all still talking to me! As a Grammy winning audiobook producer, director, coach, and of course being an author, it’s clear you have a passion for audiobooks and storytelling. What sparked this passion?

Paul: I’ve always loved working with actors. I’ve worked with actors my whole life and I still, if I’m working with a storyteller doing an audiobook and that actor gets something that we’ve talked about, I still put my first in the air and think, “Yes, they got it, they got it!” i still feel that visceral passion after all these years. I’ve always been interested in the theater. i’ve directed and performed my whole life, so i think that combination translated really smoothly to audiobooks. When you’re casting someone as a narrator for an audiobook, what do you tend to look for?

Paul: I’ve cast a lot of first time narrators who have gone to become household names, like Holter Graham, Oliver Wyman, all the way down the line. What I look for is to see if they can intuitively connect to the subtext, the emotionality of the words. When you’re narrating a book, you’re of course speaking the words; an actor can’t act the words. The only thing they can act are the feelings beneath the words. If there are listeners out there hoping to find success as a narrator, producer, director, or coach, what advice would you give them?

Paul: A director and a coach are essentially working with narrators to create a more compelling performance. Your primary obligation is to know how to work with an actor. You need to understand and know how to give that actor or narrator an actable direction. You have to really enjoy the process of putting together a good team that you believe will create a compelling performance. you always have to have your eye on the final product and on the team’s effort to create the best possible audiobook program. the most important thing for narrators is to connect with the subtext and feel the emotions of the story. Is there anything else you want to add about your process, or about Terms of Engagement?

Paul: There’s a lot of commonality between writing and directing. When you direct a book that has say 100,000 words, so that would be roughly a 10 hour audiobook, your first obligation is to the publisher. They expect you to get that book done. Maybe for every finished hour, it takes you two hours of work, which means that you don’t have time to sit around with the narrator and have a big conversation about the book. You can’t talk about every sentence; you can’t micromanage the storyteller. If I hear the narrator is not connected to the emotionality behind the words, the narrator is reporting information rather than feeling it, my job is to quickly give that narrator an actable direction to get that narrator back into the stream so that they can organically and intuitively be present, and then I don’t have to say anything. Otherwise, it would take you six months to direct an audiobook. You really have to heavily rely on the narrator’s intuitive ability.


Terms of Engagement.

Terms of Engagement explores father and son as intimate enemies, each yearning to be understood, acknowledged, and validated by the other. Raw and gripping, these nine stories take place in collision territory — where father and son engage in trying to repair their alienation. Despite this, hope is the theme that pulses through the collection.
Read more and sample the audio.


This interview has been condensed and edited. For the full interview, listen here.


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