The Transcriptionist

A Novel


By Amy Rowland

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“Haunting and provocative . . . Rowland’s writing is compelling and masterful.” —Delia Ephron, author of The Lion Is In

Once, there were many transcriptionists at the Record, a behemoth New York City newspaper, but new technology has put most of them out of work. So now Lena, the last transcriptionist, sits alone in a room–a human conduit, silently turning reporters’ recorded stories into print–until the day she encounters a story so shocking that it shatters the reverie that has become her life.

This exquisite novel, written by an author who spent more than a decade as a transcriptionist at the New York Times, asks probing questions about journalism and ethics, about the decline of the newspaper and the failure of language. It is also the story of a woman’s effort to establish her place in an increasingly alien and alienating world.

The Transcriptionist is suffused with prescient insight into journalism, ethics, and alienation . . . A thought provoking, original work.” —New York Journal of Books

“Rowland seems that rare thing, the naturally gifted novelist . . . [She] deftly maps a very specific kind of urban loneliness, the inner ache of the intelligent, damaged soul who prefers the company of ideas and words to that of people . . . That urge–to make words holy–is at the heart of this novel’s strange, sad beauty.” —The Washington Post

The Transcriptionist holds many pleasures . . . [and] can be read through many lenses . . . Rowland plays with the notions of truth and reliability . . . Sharp and affecting.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A strange, mesmerizing novel . . . about the decline of newspapers and the subsequent loss of humanity—and yes, these are related.” —Booklist, starred review

“Ambitious and fascinating . . . Disturbing and powerful.” —Library Journal

“Entering the city Rowland creates, with its tightly strung dialogue and soulful, lonely citizens, is a memorable experience.” —The Boston Globe

“Unforgettable. Written with such delight, compassion, and humanity it’s newsworthy.”—Alex Gilvarry, author of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant




Scientists Celebrate Theory of Everything

No one can find it. That's the first thing. The Recording Room is on the eleventh floor, at the end of a rat-hued hallway that some workers at the newspaper have never seen; they give up on the ancient elevator, which makes only local stops with loud creaks of protest. Like New Yorkers who refuse to venture above Fourteenth Street, there are newspaper workers who refuse to go above the fourth floor for fear of being lost forever if they leave the well-lit newsroom for dark floors unknown. The newsroom, renovated, almost aglow with new computers and pale paint, seems to float in the center of the hulking institution, as if someday it will break off, drift over to Broadway, and join the Clifford and Barney balloons in the annual Macy's parade.

Occasionally, a reporter wearing cell phones, mini-keyboards, and a look of euphoric deflation finds his or her way to the eleventh floor, down the long hallway to door 1107, the Recording Room. It is an industrial door, once white, now suitably dingy, with a steel lever handle that has been known to come off and stay that way, until the proper number of union employees can be assembled for the repair.

The room is the color of old opossum or new pumice, the color of newspaper without ink. Gray. It is the room where the transcriptionist, or, in the perplexing vocabulary of the corporate world, Recording Room operator, sits alone all day with a headset and a Dictaphone and transcribes all the words that have been recorded for the Record.

Four dirty windows overlook Forty-Third Street and provide obstructed views of traffic and arguments, frequent parades, constant tourists, and occasional suicides. A pigeon on the window ledge presides over this scene and pecks itself incessantly, afflicted with either lice or obsessive-compulsive disorder. The windows have not been opened in three years, not since a transcriptionist pried one open and leaned out to view the body of a reporter who had jumped to his death from the roof's machine room. That transcriptionist retired soon after. Now there is one.

Today, someone has made the journey to the eleventh floor, and the Recording Room door opens. The transcriptionist looks at the metro reporter. He is handsome in a mannequin sort of way, young, tan, unlike most fluorescent-tinted reporters. The transcriptionist has always been a bit suspicious of his skin, which seems as smooth and odorless as dry ice, as if he has undergone plastination. His nervous manner makes him more bearable. Russell.

"Hi, Carol." He is one of two reporters who calls her by name and congratulates himself by repeating it often. "Thanks for the bird flu transcript. Terrifying, isn't it, Carol? Did you enjoy the interview?"


"You don't sound like you care, Carol."

"You didn't ask like you cared, Russell."

He shrugs, fills out the transcription log, leaves his two-tape interview about a state senator's prostatectomy, and closes the door gently with a "Many thanks, Carol."

She decided long ago not to mention that her name is Lena.

Lena is a transcriptionist, rarely mentioned in literature except to note, "The errors of copyists are the least excusable." There is basic equipment required: a headset, a Dictaphone to play the tapes that must be transcribed, and patience, a willingness to become a human conduit as the words of others enter through her ears, course through her veins, and drip out unseen through fast-moving fingertips.

While rewinding Russell's tapes, she glances at today's Metro Section: A couple charged with forcing their foster daughter to "wait on" an elderly relative as he lay dead upstairs. An article detailing the fascinating affliction of hoarding. A NYC Task Force on Hoarding has been formed. One woman quoted has a puppet problem; she buys them from a TV shopping channel. "I feel bad for them when no one else bids," she said.

Another day, another edition of the Record, another itemized receipt of humanity's victories and losses.

On page 3, Lena sees Russell's byline; above the story is a photo of someone who looks vaguely familiar, a middle-aged woman turned in profile, wild hair, a calm expression, eyes downcast. And the news: The woman broke into the Bronx Zoo two days ago, invaded the lions' den, and was killed. She was blind.

"Zoo officials said the woman's clothes were damp, suggesting she swam the moat. She was found lying about 40 feet from the viewing area in front of one of the dens. The employee entrances in the rear of the exhibit were locked and no keys were missing, according to zoo officials.

" 'The Bronx Zoo is very concerned about the safety of its visitors,' a zoo spokesman read from a statement. 'This incident will be studied very carefully.'

"An animal keeper discovered the body. The lions were apparently behaving strangely and would not go inside their cages to be fed.

"The animal keeper went into the lions' outdoor enclosure to try to lead them to their feeding cages. There, he found the woman, whose arms, scalp, and neck were mutilated. According to the police report, the victim suffered scratches and bite wounds over most of her body.

"The Associated Press reported that the woman had been partly devoured."

LENA STUDIES THE small picture, grainy and pale. There is something familiar about the face, but the woman has turned away from the camera and is looking off to the left, as if to protect her identity from readers of the Record.

She tries to remember where she has seen this woman, a woman who would swim a moat to be eaten by lions. She snaps the first tape into the Dictaphone and begins to transcribe but has difficulty concentrating. She types "prostate" and "Gleason score" and "potency" but her mind is elsewhere. When she hears the words "seminal vesicles" she lifts her foot off the pedal and pauses. She moves her foot slightly to the right and quickly presses down, then releases. The tape rewinds and she moves her foot back to the center of the pedal and presses: "seminal vesicles." Yes, that's what he said. It's enough to make one feel sorry for politicians; even their seminal vesicles are subject to discussion. But then Russell asks if it's true that the senator urged the president to send the military into a Binghamton suburb to arrest terrorism suspects. "It would seem to be a clear violation of posse comitatus," Russell says. "Posse comitatus," the senator shouts. "I'm sure the president did not violate posse comitatus. What is posse comitatus? It sounds vaguely pornographic and I'm sure the president had nothing to do with it."

She closes her eyes, then opens them and focuses on the telephones across the room. Three black phones are mounted on a panel and linked to recorders with electrical umbilical cords so that reporters can call in to dictate their stories. The bulk of work these days is the transcription of long interviews that are folded into stories like the one she is typing now, although calls come in sporadically, unpredictably. There is a red light above the telephone that flashes with an incoming call. She imagines this to be like the red button of Samuel Beckett's telephone, although he used his to exclude incoming calls, which, alas, the transcriptionist cannot. And anyway, these phones are not for transmitting literature; they are news lines, dedicated to the who, the what, the when, the where, and sometimes, perhaps, the why. To talk on these phones, the transcriptionist must press a button on the receiver and hold it down while she speaks. But once she has taken the initial, necessary information (caller, desk, time, location, slug), she rarely presses the button again. This makes for a cleaner transcript because if the button on the receiver is not pressed and the transcriptionist does not speak, there is no background noise on the tape. She is a transcriptionist, but also a gatekeeper for background noise.

She continues typing about the politician's prostate, and her mind drifts from Samuel Beckett's telephone to the blind woman to butterflies. This may seem a strange progression to someone who has not been a transcriptionist. But transcriptionists know that typing someone else's words encourages a mysterious progression of thoughts, as in dreams. So, Coetzee, Nabokov, Saramago—butterfly men all. She had cried on the R train once while reading of the rasp of butterfly teeth. What was the passage?

"The scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust."

In her daydream, as her fingers continue to move silently over the keyboard, Lena already sees the grave of the blind woman who was devoured by lions. It is in a potter's field; small white bricks serve as markers, row upon row, like long lines of white hyphens where names should be recorded. That is what will happen if the woman's body is not claimed. It will not be enough for her, but that is what will be done.

While transcribing, Lena recites things to herself. Recitation is a habit she has always found soothing, silently reciting whatever passage occurs as her fingers play the keys. But recently the recitation does not seem to stop. She awakens in the morning with someone else's words, someone else's thoughts, ribboning around her brain. And while she is transcribing, she recites, without realizing, things she has learned from transcribing stories and interviews, mixed in with the flotsam of dreams until she does not know anymore what is real and what is Record: That the world is made of two shapes, the doughnut and the sphere. That Newton lived his whole life within 150 miles and died a virgin. That there are nine billion pieces of candy corn.

She closes her eyes and sees the blind woman's face. Her job is to remember voices and she has gradually stopped remembering faces. But not this one.

Russell opens the door halfway. "Hey, Carol, how's the transcript coming?"

She nods.


She nods again and sighs as the door closes. Once again a politician's prostate must take priority—an unfortunate but common truth.

The telephone rings; the red light flashes. She removes the headset and crosses the room, picks up the receiver of the first phone on the panel while simultaneously pressing "record" on the Dictaphone.

"Recording Room."

"Hi, this is John Miller with a lead for the science desk."

"OK, John, where are you calling from?"


She records the time and location of the call on the phone log.

"What's the slug?"

"Slug it Theory of Everything."

"OK, go ahead when you're ready."

She watches the tape wind slowly around the spool and listens for the dictation to begin.

"Physicists gathered in Aspen to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of string theory comma the so hyphen called theory of everything comma which they admit that they still cannot test stop."

Lena gently hangs the receiver next to the recorder, on a plastic hook that keeps the call from being disconnected. She returns to her desk, replaces her headphones, and continues with the prostatectomy.

Six minutes later, while she is standing by the panel rewinding the Theory of Everything, the phone rings.

"Hi, this is John Miller calling from Aspen. I have a lead for the science desk. Slug it Theory of Nothing."

Lena presses the button that allows her to speak on the recording line. "Hi, John. I thought you just called from Aspen with the lead for the Theory of Everything."

There is a loud curse on the other end. "I did. Can you believe it? The Theory of Nothing people, not to be outdone by the Theory of Everything people, are holding their conference in a hotel across the street. So I'm running back and forth between the two, glancing up at the banner in the banquet room to remember if I'm at Everything or Nothing."

She laughs.

"Don't laugh. These damn physicists. They've got more splinter groups than Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia."

"But aren't the theory of everything and the theory of nothing the same thing?"


"Maybe I could just play the Theory of Everything lead backward and I'd have the Theory of Nothing."

There is silence on the line.

"It was a joke, John. Go ahead with the Theory of Nothing."

"OK. Lead. Physicists gathered in Aspen to celebrate the theory of nothing stop. Physicists concede that in technical terms a nothing is really a something dash the energy in empty space stop. But that did not prevent the group here from celebrating the anniversary of nothing as the beginning of everything comma or what one of the cosmologists here called the deeper nothing stop."

AT SEVEN O'CLOCK she calls the news desks for a "goodnight," or permission to leave, first foreign, then national, then metro.

"Hi, this is the Recording Room calling for a goodnight."

The news clerk puts the phone down to ask the desk head's permission and then comes back on the line.

"Good night, Recording."

She repeats this with the other desks and is given the goodnight from people who know her name only as "Recording." It is a holdover from years ago, when there were twenty-four transcriptionists and they had to be available for breaking news and frantic phone calls late into the night. The young news clerks seem to enjoy this mysterious nightly ritual of a voice somewhere in the belly of the Record asking to go home. It is evidence of something, of tradition and history, for which they otherwise have no use.

A few times in the past four years she has been asked to call again an hour or two hours or three hours later for the goodnight: on September 11, and after the American Airlines flight to the Dominican Republic crashed in Queens. When the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed she was called in on a weekend. She stays late to transcribe big speeches, the State of the Union address, presidential debates. On those nights a news clerk is sent up to the Recording Room to cut five- and eight-minute sections of tape while Lena transcribes.

She turns out the lights and takes the phones off the hooks so that calls will bounce to the overnight machine. She locks the door, then unlocks it again. The newspaper is in its hanging file folder by the door—a week's worth of Record—and she removes today's paper and cuts out the article on the blind woman, which she folds and puts in her pocket.

On the sidewalk she hesitates, choosing her route home. East on Forty-Third, then down Fifth Avenue? Sometimes she walks down Broadway and east on Forty-Second Street. This is her masochistic route, letting Forty-Second Street overwhelm her; she seeks the garish sights of Times Square, where pedestrians take on the glow of the afterlife.

Not today; she turns east on Forty-Third, and the fifty-cent lady steps from the shadows of the building. She wears loose-laced brogans with no socks, a long pleated skirt, and, though it is eighty-five degrees, a stained men's trench coat in which she resembles a distraught Electra in her slain father's clothing. "Fifty cents!" she cries, exclaiming rather than questioning. She never speaks any other words, but her tone indicates that she recognizes the newspaper workers who pass her every day. It is as if the exact amount owed and denied is being recorded and must be answered for on that day when all one's failures and shortcomings are tallied. Lena places two quarters in the woman's lined palm and walks away. When she first began working at the paper, the woman shouted, "Twenty-five cents!" and it depresses her to think that she has been a transcriptionist long enough for inflation to influence the homeless.

Across Broadway the NYPD sign blinks in neon above its small metal shack like an old-fashioned diner in a desert. She continues past the Woodstock Hotel, where dapper old men sit with a boom box, past the Japanese grocery with a bulletin board advertising apartments, language lessons, and a painting, Madonna of the Harpies. She turns south at Sixth Avenue, then east on Forty-Second, past Bryant Park with its monuments to Goethe and Gertrude, who squats like a cranky, sleepy Buddha near the lawn. The lawn where, according to a vague but shocking park association note, "for a brief period the city buried hundreds of poor." Perhaps a few shards of anonymous bones still lie beneath the grassy lawn where democracy prevails on sunny days, when the rich and poor remove their shoes and lie side by side, their faces toward the sun.

When she turns right on Fifth Avenue, the library lions Patience and Fortitude provide familiar comfort. In contrast to Gertrude Stein's statue, they recline with feline grace, unflappable and serene.

It is here, in front of the library filled with names and words of those long dead, that Lena thinks again of the blind woman and remembers where she saw her.

It was on the bus.

Three days ago she had a migraine, and here in front of the library is where she succumbed. With migraines, her vision sometimes becomes static, reflecting still images instead of moving ones. Of all the interesting and bizarre experiences of New York, seeing the city frozen instead of in motion is the most unsettling. So when the downtown bus stopped, Lena got on and sat beside a woman who had a braille book on her lap. The woman could have been in her forties or her sixties. She had an oval, open face, striking because it had not settled into the Manhattan mask of predator or prey. Lena focused on the woman to fight nausea and steady her vision. The bus lurched and motion returned. Are the blind immune to motion sickness? she wondered.

The woman's hands were lined; ropy veins ended at large knuckles. Elongated fingers moved with fluidity over the raised letters. Lena thought she would make it home if she focused on the fingers. She swallowed, realized she was quietly repeating a phrase to herself as had become her habit. "Truth beareth away the victory," from the library's facade. The blind woman's fingers stopped; she turned and seemed to see Lena, who blushed and looked down at her hands in confusion. When she glanced up again the woman was still turned toward her with a rueful half smile.

"What are you reading?" Lena asked.

"The Veldt."

"Ray Bradbury?"

"You know it?"

"It affected me greatly as a teenager."

"Yes," the woman said, smiling, as if she were considering a secret, and Lena realized how mysterious smiles are when the eyes are dead. "Yes. But it's different now."


"It's quite blunt, but still chilling. When the man finds his wallet that the lions have been chewing—"

"And when he and his wife recognize their own screams."

"Yes," the woman said. "That's the part that affects me most, the couple recognizing their own voices."

Lena tried to imagine the blind woman screaming and then silently chastised herself for wondering if blind people scream. Of course they could, physically, but for some reason she couldn't imagine it.

"Would you recognize your own?" the woman said quietly.

Lena's head was pulsing with pain. She told herself that the woman was probably not being as cryptic as she seemed, that it was the distorted dreaminess of a migraine. "I'm not much of a screamer."

"It's like murder. We all have the capacity, but we don't all have the desire."

Lena was too surprised to respond, and she flinched as the bus bounced over a bump. She didn't think she had made any sound, but the woman asked, "Are you OK?"

"I have a migraine, it makes me unsteady."

The woman nodded. "I used to have them, but then I went blind and was cured."

"Hmm," Lena said, because it felt impolite to laugh.

"Here, may I try something? Give me your hand."

"You're not going to read my palm, are you?" Lena asked, trying to hide her discomfort.

The woman smiled and reached out, grasping Lena's hand as if she had perfect vision. "Oh, I know," the woman said. "You hate mysticism."

"Well, then, maybe you are a mind reader."

The woman lightly stroked her hand, and Lena was too stunned to move. But I'm not the hand-holding type, she almost said, but didn't. She tried to remember the last time she had held hands with anyone. It wasn't with her last lover, Richard. They were neither of them hand-holders and they had understood that about each other. She had been out with exactly one man since then. On the third date, he not only held her hand while walking down the street but swung it back and forth. She had broken things off with him the same night.

"The world goes by my cage but no one sees me."


"I'm looking inside your cage," the woman said. "I see words."

"I'm a transcriptionist for the Record."

She glanced around to see if anyone had noticed that she was holding a woman's hand, but all the passengers were absorbed with palm-size screens or lost in a tired-eyed commuter's coma.

The woman tapped her hand gently, in a reassuring, comforting way.

"I'm a court reporter," she said. "Voices coursing through our veins. You can't live that way forever, not people like us."

"What kind of people are we?"

The woman lightly pressed the web of skin between Lena's thumb and index finger. The two of them sat silently for a full minute or more, and Lena realized that although she still had a headache, she didn't feel as dizzy.

"Be careful what you listen to," the woman said. "Be careful what you hear."

"But that's my job. I have to listen to everything. That's what I do."

"We can't keep up with the suffering of others. We have to close ourselves off. How else can we survive?"

The bus was close to Twenty-Third Street and Lena stood abruptly. "I have to go. This is my stop."

"Be careful," the woman said. "You live a dangerous life." Then she began to read again. Lena watched her fingers flit across the white page, the words concealed to all but the blind. She wanted to say something more but she didn't know with what words, so she said thank you and got in line to exit.

". . . that roar which lies on the other side of silence."

Lena wasn't sure she had heard right and looked back, but the woman had turned her head toward the window and her expression was inscrutable. All went still and static again; there was no movement, no sound. She thought of Lot's wife, turning back, turning to salt stone, but in Lena's version, stranger still, it was New York that was turning to stone as she watched, helpless.

Someone behind her said, "Hey," and gave her a slight push. "Go if you're going. I got to get off."

The pain came roaring back, behind her eyes, pushing to exit through her ears, a stormy sea was in her head, and she stumbled down the bus steps to the street.

She stepped on someone's foot, and vomit rose along with apology in her throat. She swallowed them both and for a terrible moment she could not see. She made it to a metal trash can on the corner and heaved with a violence that shocked her. No one seemed to notice, and she eventually shuffled to a bench in Madison Square Park near the statue of Chester Arthur. The man who became president only after the assassination of another stood before his throne-like bronze chair and she wanted to tell him that he could be seated.


Hearing Is the Last Sense to Abandon the Dying

Tonight, she is still thinking of the blind woman as she approaches the Salvation Army residence on Gramercy Park. The Parkside Evangeline, where "many advantages of home are provided for young women of moderate income." Some of the residents have not been young in quite a long time, but Lena tries not to think about this because she is terrified of becoming one of them, a woman who never leaves.

She enters Parkside, passes the reception desk, where the old widow, Mrs. Pelletier (don't call her "Ms."), sits guarding her imagined treasures, the residents' chastity. If a man steps foot past her Plexiglas lookout post, she flings her hand up like a stop sign and cries out, "Stop! Go no further!" Lena sometimes silently adds, "Stop! I am a temple of the Holy Ghost!" like the girl in Flannery O'Connor's story.


  • “A haunting and provocative novel about the mysteries of life and a death, the written word, things seen and unseen, heard and forgotten. Amy Rowland's writing is compelling and masterful.” —Delia Ephron, author of The Lion Is In

    “This haunting, beautiful book set me thinking and dreaming about language and personality. It proves that language can make us whole. The entire book tends towards liberation, and the end is so suggestive and life-affirming, though not a typical happy ending. It's something better, something the reader can carry back into life.” —Rebecca Lee, author of Bobcat and Other Stories

    “If one had to name an antecedent for the strange, golden sheen that covers Amy Rowland’s debut novel, possibly early John Cheever, with its dreamy imaginings of commuter intrigues, or beautifully cadenced, resonant verbal exchanges, would be closest. Entering the city Rowland creates, with its tightly strung dialogue and soulful, lonely citizens, is a memorable experience.” —The Boston Globe

    “A lively tale, light and enjoyable, about a sensitive, reflective and articulate soul in a fast-paced, often soulless world.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

    “Rowland, a former transcriptionist for the New York Times, has written a strange, mesmerizing novel about language, isolation, ethics, technology, and the lack of trust between institutions and the people they purportedly serve . . . A fine debut novel about the decline of newspapers and the subsequent loss of humanity--and yes, these are related.” —Booklist, starred review

    “Sly and humane and with a delicate touch of surrealism, The Transcriptionist is a masterpiece.” —Haven Kimmel, author of Iodine and A Girl Named Zippy

    “What a laser-sharp eye Amy Rowland has! From her perch in the most out-of-the-way nook in the world's most powerful paper, her heroine seems to be able to take in the whole world. This first novel is wise, beautifully written, with just the right amount of wickedness.” —James Magnuson, author of Famous Writers I Have Known

    “Unforgettable. Written with such delight, compassion, and humanity it’s newsworthy. Amy Rowland is the debut of the year.” —Alex Gilvarry, author of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant 

    The Transcriptionist is suffused with prescient insight into journalism, ethics, and alienation . . . A thought provoking, original work.” —New York Journal of Books

On Sale
May 13, 2014
Page Count
272 pages
Algonquin Books

Amy Rowland

About the Author

Amy Rowland is the author of two novels. The Transcriptionist, (Algonquin 2014) received the Addison M. Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is the recipient of fellowships and residencies from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, the Norman Mailer Center, and the Sewanee Writers Conference. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The New York Times, The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, Literary Hub, New Letters, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at the New York Times Book Review and she is currently a lecturer at UC Berkeley. She has also taught at Princeton University and at The School of The New York Times.

Learn more about this author