He Wrote, She Said: The Interpretive Dance of Audio Book Narrating
How do your words sound when someone else speaks them? Okay, how about words that you agonized over?
Personally, I can blow an entire morning thinking and rethinking an absurdly small detail of text. Should the character say, “Thank God” or “Thank goodness!” And how will that exclamation point “sound” in the reader’s mind? Will it be too loud or overly enthusiastic? Maybe “Thank goodness” is better, the italics communicating the gratitude at a lower volume yet with more sincerity …
It’s not lost on me that while others spend their days performing life-saving surgery or prosecuting violent criminals, I spend mine obsessing about italicization. But there you have it. And books are important, too, right?
So take the average writer with the average level of word obsession, and add a narrator who might say those words in not quite the same way the writer hears them in his head, and well, we’ve got ourselves a crisis. After polling a number of my author friends, a high percentage have not listened to their novels in audio at all, or for only a few pages worth, because it just doesn’t sound “right.”
I think it’s the dialog that really throws us. So much of how people communicate is not about the words themselves. It’s about the tone, pitch, cadence, emphasis and mood. The “sound” of a character, in conjunction with their words and actions, is like a signature. For the author, an unfamiliar character voice can feel like identity theft.
But not all authors have a negative reaction.
- Cathy Buchanan says, “I must admit, for the first chapter or so of THE DAY THE FALLS STOOD STILL I was dismayed. But after hanging in for a bit, I changed my mind. The narrator told me she took forever recording the last chapters because she couldn’t keep herself from bawling, and readers have said how beautifully emotional her reading was in the final pages.”
- Allie Larkin says, “I adore the audio version of STAY. The director asked me about word pronunciation and I had a discussion with the narrator. When I first heard the sample audio clip, I got choked up, because it was like actually hearing my main character. I’ve since listened to the whole thing, and I think it’s helped me with my own public readings.”
Having a say in the choice of narrator seems to lead to a much happier author experience.
- Adrienne McDonnell says “My publisher was kind enough to send me audio clips of five actresses who auditioned to read THE DOCTOR AND THE DIVA. I knew immediately who had my vote. I’ve rarely heard such a versatile voice. She’s a virtuoso of dialects and accents, and alternates with ease between genders.”
- M.J. Rose told me “It felt horrible when I didn’t know to ask for a narrator of my own choosing. Since then I’ve chosen the narrator and I love listening. I wish I could have him read it before I do my last draft, to fix things. I have a really special relationship with him since he’s done all 7 books.”
- Melanie Benjamin gives this advice: “I think most audio book producers are open to working with the author, but only when the author makes that happen. With THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB, they asked me about the pronunciation of some word, and that’s when I voiced a concern about the narration. This one email opened the door to them sending me some audio clips of actresses and letting me decide. Moral of the story—always ask!”
My own experience of listening to the audio books of my novels SHELTER ME and DEEP DOWN TRUE were more along the lines of disorientation. They weren’t bad—the narrator of SHELTER ME actually received a Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review for it. But the characters just didn’t sound like they did in my head.
After polling my author pals for this article, I was emboldened to ask if I could be involved with choosing the narrator for my next book, THE SHORTEST WAY HOME. The publisher sent me a clip of the woman they were thinking of using. She seemed great, but the main character is a man! How would it sound for a female voice to express his inner thoughts? I communicated this concern to the publisher. Within 24 hours, they had sent me a clip of a male reader, and he sounded perfect. He recently contacted me to set up a time to talk about it.
That said, I still anticipate having some disorientation. After all, narrating is a vocal interpretive dance, and just as with visual acting, no two actors will perform it the same. It’s even less likely that the actor will perform it precisely the way the author intended.
But having had a hand in the choice of the narrator and talking with him ahead of time, I hope I’ll be more open. I hope I’ll accept that my way isn’t the only way to hear it, and that the narrator can contribute his own interpretation to the listener’s experience. I hope that with a little luck, it won’t feel like identity theft so much as identity gift.