Q & A with Benjamin Dreyer, Author of Dreyer’s English

Dreyer’s English may be the first grammar book that will make readers and listeners laugh out loud—while learning how to be a better writer. And that’s thanks to the humor and helpful expertise of Random House’s longtime Copy Chief, Benjamin Dreyer. As he recently told The New York Times, “It turns out that I have a very good ear, and a nose for finding mistakes.” How appropriate then that this former aspiring actor, and grammar-lover with an expert ear, try his hand (ahem, voice) at narrating. However, it was not his first time behind the mic. Keep reading to learn more about his first audiobook, his first copyeditor, and which books he’s always rereading.

What is the first book you remember reading?

I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember being sentient, maybe even earlier than that. According to my mother, she never taught me to read; she started out reading to me, and then I just started . . . reading. So it’s hard for me to remember what my first book might have been, though I do remember a big old hardcover collection of fairy tales and poems with color illustrations by Kate Greenaway, Palmer Cox, Arthur Rackham, people like that, that I read literally till it fell apart. But I do also particularly recall that the very first official thing I owned with my name on it was a library card, and my mom would take me to the library in Jackson Heights, where I first grew up, and it felt like every week there were five books going home and five books going back, over and over. Basically, if it had writing, I would read it. Even cereal boxes. Especially cereal boxes.

What is the first audiobook you ever listened to?

True confession: Though my fellow is forever listening to audiobooks, I went a long time—a really long time—not listening to them. I guess, especially given what I do for a living, that I’m so attuned to reading with my eyes that reading with my ears never seemed appropriate, or proper. So the first audiobook I broke down and listened to was that of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, and that, in part, because I’m one of the book’s zillion narrators. (I have, as I recall, 27 whole words, and I like to think I delivered them well. Or at least loud and clear.) Well, to be sure, that particular audiobook is quite the extravaganza, and I found it wonderfully entertaining—though I also, another true confession, confess that I listened to it while simultaneously reading the print version alongside it, because I wanted to see—um, hear—how the various narrators were coping with the eccentricities of the writing as it appeared on the page. Anyway, it was a spectacular experience, and I do find myself since then listening to the occasional short story and the odd podcast—though I have a weird tendency to stare fixedly at the source of the sound. Old habits . . .

Dreyer's English Dreyer’s English is your first book! What’s the first thing you did when you finished writing it?

A little crying, a little drinking, a little passing out from sheer relief and exhaustion.

I’ve “finished writing it” a few times, really: There was the first finish, when I finally turned in a complete manuscript without a dozen “I’ll fill this in later” holes. Then the second finish, after I responded to my edits, handed the manuscript back, and was told that, at long last, it was acceptable and accepted. Then came the finished-with-the-copyedit finish, the finished-with-the-typeset-pages finish, and, finally, the finished-recording-the-audiobook finish, which was when it truly felt . . . finished.

By the way, not that you asked, but I’m quite pleased that in the recording of the book I didn’t undergo any sort of massive panic or desire to rewrite the whole thing from start to finish. I was, if anything, pretty darn pleased with it.

What’s the first thing you will listen to (or read) in 2019?

I’ve got books stacked up all over the house, so who knows what I’ll turn to first. When I’m tired, which after what feels like a long year of finishing-the-book I am, I tend to be a rereader of tried-and-true things, so I’m always reaching for two of my favorites, Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase and Peg Bracken’s The I Hate to Cook Book. (What can I tell you? They’re delightful books.) So I don’t really know. But I did recently listen to Garth Greenwell reading his story “The Frog King,” and it was my first exposure to his work and I was completely enchanted. So I might read—or listen to—his novel What Belongs to You.

Who was your first, or most formidable, copyeditor? What do you remember from your first experience having your own work copyedited?

I requested a copy editor—I don’t name her here only because she’s so valuable to my team that I don’t want her getting poached—whom I used to hire a lot back in the day when I was still working, very hands on, on particular books rather than, at something of a remove, on every book in the house. And I asked for her because she’s sharp, and meticulous, and she listens to writers, and she’s one of the best copy editors in the business. And as it happily turned out, she did for me what she’d always done for writers whose books I worked on and what I’ve always tried to do for authors I’ve copyedited myself: She called me out on all my tics and pet words, plus of course my endless penchant for stuffing things into parentheses, and gave me and my writing a good talking-to. But she also laughed—typing in the margins, that is—at my jokes, and one likes to find out that at least one person on earth thinks you’re funny. And she made me feel utterly safe and supported (rather than, you know, talentless and threatened). And she did just a bang-up job; I’m so grateful to her.

Listen to a clip of Benjamin narrating Dreyer’s English below with a little help from brilliant Broadway actress, Alison Fraser!

Want to find more audiobooks to help improve your writing skills? Check out 5 Audiobooks to Motivate You to Write.