Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
I couldn’t live without audiobooks, and one of my dreams has been to have my own work recorded. That dream has come true with the Blackstone Audio edition of my new mystery, Broken Places, narrated by Tavia Gilbert. Tavia is a stage and voice actress who also produces, directs, and narrates books, full-cast recordings, and documentaries. She has won the audiobooks profession’s Earphones Award and been nominated for an Audie. Recently she agreed to satisfy my curiosity about the way books are recorded and how audiobook narrators work.
Q. How long have you been an audiobook narrator? How many books have you recorded in that time?
A. I've been narrating books full-time since September of 2007, when I got my first contract with Blackstone Audio. I was, truthfully, a bit lost before that gig. I had left my day-job the year before, and I was really struggling to make my way, half-heartedly auditioning for commercial voiceover work and dreaming of really meaningful narration work. After my first job with Blackstone, I continued to get assignments monthly, and now it's a rare week when I don't have a book to record. I've worked on more than 70 books? 80, maybe? I'm losing count.
Q. How does someone get a job as a narrator? Did you audition?
A. I did audition for my first Blackstone title, after I met Grover Gardner, a veteran narrator and the studio director for Blackstone, at the Audiobook Publishers Association Conference in New York in May 2007. I gently but persistently followed up with Grover after that initial meeting, and he finally sent me an audition piece. He cast me, and the following day he called me back. I was sure he was going to fire me before I even started - realize his mistake - but he gave me a rush title to work on, so I had my first two gigs. Every book I do I have a moment of a crisis of faith, and I think that it will surely be the very last book I ever get to do, but so far I'm adding new publishers and new projects fairly steadily.
Q. Who decides which reader will record which book? Do narrators specialize in certain genres, or in fiction vs. nonfiction?
A. A publisher's studio director or casting director is in charge of choosing the narrators for projects. From time to time an author will have the right to approve the reader assigned to their book, so a few samples may be sent to the author to review before a final casting decision has been made. There have been a handful of projects I've hoped for, and it's thrilling when I've been chosen and heart-breaking when another narrator gets the job. One gig was already assigned to another narrator when I heard about it, and after campaigning for about a year, I was finally given the assignment. The book was Sing Them Home, by Stephanie Kallos, who is a dear friend of mine and one of my college instructors (voice and speech for the theater), and the book won my first Earphones Award and got great reviews, so my determination to land the project paid off.
I think yes, some narrators have their niche, and I imagine that every narrator has a genre they are most fond of, but no matter what the material, the job of the narrator is to serve the vision of the writer with the most authentic voice. What I mean to say is that it's imperative for the narrator to fully inhabit the narrative voice and serve as a medium between the printed word and the listener. So no matter the genre, the process is the same - get out of the way of the work - let the work flow freely through you - and humbly embody the author's voice and vision.
I've done everything from children's and young adult titles, mystery & suspense, contemporary fiction, sociology, biography/memoir, full-cast theater, philosophy, religion, historical fiction, and science fiction. I'm not sure there is a genre I've not had a chance to do yet, but my favorite projects are literary fiction, meaningful memoir, philosophy, and creative non-fiction. I am never so fulfilled as when I get a project that is about social justice and equality. I've been really fortunate to do projects that I think are important, most recently, Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, which inspired and infuriated me.
Q. Have you ever been asked to narrate a book that you hated? How do you handle that kind of problem?
A. Yes! And it's painful. It's got everything to do with the quality of writing. If the writing is masterful, there is great pleasure in narrating. If the writing is poor, it's an uncomfortable process. There is a vulnerability in great writing - a revelation of the author's heart - that is rich and beautiful in its idiosyncratic truth no matter what the subject matter or genre. Knowing that there are gorgeous books to be read, it's disheartening to get a book that relies on trendy cliche, author egotism, or cheap formula. The worst for me is reading books with female characters that are stereotypes, or books that use sexual violence to titillate. I have turned projects down if I feel that I can't commit in good conscience to the work. I've used a voice name to distance myself from a piece of work that I am uncomfortable with. But if I do a project, I am committing to embodying it and believing in it during the whole of the performance. Whether I'm working on a book that is gorgeous and transcendent or just pretty okay, I want the performance to be enjoyed and appreciated by the listener and the author, and so I endeavor to stay present moment to moment and not judge the material in the process of recording it.
Q. Do you read a book more than once before you start recording? Do you mark it up, check pronunciations, make notes on characters, etc.?
A. I read the book in full once before I read. Ideally, I would read the section the night before that I will be narrating the following day, but most often I am reading and prepping next week's project at night. I don't mark my script much at all, though each book is different and so it may require its own marking. I do always try to mark paradox, because to bring those juxtapositions to life requires mindful intention and inflection.
I am responsible for the research for my projects, so I look up a lot of the language in a dictionary or encyclopedia, call hotels or city halls or embassies to double-check pronunciations of geographic locations and proper names, call librarians for assistance. When I'm reading fiction or narrative non-fiction, I note each character and what they say about themselves, how the author/narrator describe the character, and how they are described by other characters in the book. That's exactly how I would prep a theatrical character, and it helps me make specific acting choices. I will also note how I think the character's voice sounds - i.e., low, laconic, whiny, halting, bright, strained.
Q. Recording a book must be like appearing in a play or movie in which you play all the parts. Writing a novel is a lot like that too. Broken Places has characters from different levels of society and different places, and many are natives of the mountains, so when I was writing I heard various accents in my head. How do you prepare to do different voices and accents?
A. I would LOVE to have a lot of time to prepare dialects and character voices, but a full-time audiobook recording schedule is pretty tight. I have a stock of characters that I can pull from ("Ok, he'll be my low, slow Southern guy, and I'll use my bright, breezy snob for her"), and I continue to explore and challenge my vocal instrument and my acting specificity to create new people to play. I use my friend Paul Meier's International Dialects of English Archive, which is an invaluable resource, as well as his dialect training materials, and I use the International Phonetic Alphabet as a shorthand to transcribe the key sounds of a dialect.
I constantly soak in the way people speak, listening critically to how people express themselves with sound and language, tone, pacing, rhythm, volume, pitch, placement. I have started finding clips of interesting and idiosyncratic speakers that I can imitate for a particular character, from YouTube or NPR or movies. I also just work on the fly and I try something out until it works. It's very challenging, and I've gone back through an entire book and rerecorded the dialect of a character (a very manipulative Eastern European criminal) because I just wasn't satisfied with my first interpretation.
Q. How long does it take to record an average-length book? How many hours a day do you record?
A. It generally takes me about two hours to record one finished hour of narration, so a book that totals 10 hours will take 20 hours to record. Sometimes I get down to an hour and a half for one finished hour, but that's a rare, victorious, shining star recording day. I record for five hours a day, at most. I used to do seven, but it's really hard on my body, especially my neck and shoulders.
Q. Do you work with a director who is on hand while you’re recording?
A. Unfortunately, many audiobooks are no longer being directed. With digital technology transforming the publishing world, budgets have been cut, and audiobook narrators are often self-engineering and self-directing. But I love working with a director, and have frequently paid out of pocket in order to bring one in for the duration of the recording. I've worked many times with a wonderful director and long-time theater collaborator, Stephen, and we are close enough that we've had great disagreements and debates about character, language, word emphasis, and tone. It's great to have someone to pay attention to the long arc of the story, and it allows me to relax a little bit and trust that someone else is in charge. For the first year and a half I narrated I always paid for a director, and it was a great investment. I am successful self-directing because I've had such a great director to work with. When audiobook publishers are willing to invest in a director, it really pays off with the best possible performance.
I produce, cast, and direct as well, and I've found that when the budget doesn't call for a director for the entire process, it can be very valuable to work with the actor on the narrative voice at the beginning of the recording. The narrative voice is SO important, and I enjoy "sculpting" with an actor the voice they use. I'll sit in on a book for the first couple of hours and then check in later to answer questions, give support, and remind the audio engineer what they should keep in mind creatively as they're running the session. Later I'll give the actors feedback about phrasing, breath, relaxation, paradox, pace.
Q. How do you fit this in with your other work?
A. I do some theater, commercial voiceover, and on camera work, but audiobooks is my main gig. (How lucky am I? Reading for a job! It's pretty great.) But it's going to get exponentially more complicated and challenging when I start a two-year, low-residency masters program in creative non-fiction this summer at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I'll be reading and narrating for work and reading and writing for my MFA. I have a business in development, Talkbox, which I believe will be the key to my sustainability as an artist, and where I can weave together the inter-related passions of my life - theater, photography, writing, sound design, story-telling, and activism - and produce and publish work. I want to keep paving my own way in the world, and I'm open to wherever pursuing risks and joy may lead me.
Q. What do you enjoy least about narrating audiobooks?
A. What do I enjoy the least? Days when I have persistent mouth noise. My own reluctance to get the work done on a book that's not a lot of fun to read. Tension and tightness when I want to be so relaxed. Jaw tension. Oh, this is my biggest frustration. Some days I feel like I have lock jaw, and that's a real sign of fatigue and the need to do some body work - get into the pool, do tai chi or qi gong, or talk a walk on the beach. Very aggravating to feel these things when I'm on a tight deadline.
Q. What do you enjoy most?
A. I love the moments of work when I am filled with joy and delight with language. Language is the most beautiful gift, and an enchanting phrase, a complex idea masterfully unfolded, the brave exposure of a terrifying truth - all these awaken me, make me more fully alive, engaged, and present. Sometimes when I'm reading a book I will gasp and tears may come to my eyes because something the author has written is so true, or because I've just learn that I've truly not been alone in thinking or feeling something all my life, or because the writer has been so delightfully playful with their words. I love narrating a book that I wish I myself had written. I love that I am a better writer because of this very intimate, intensive exploration of language through audiobooks. I appreciate that I have an opportunity to tell a story that someone will absolutely love, as I adore stories voiced by narrators like Davina Porter, Barbara Rosenblat, and Norman Dietz.
Learn more about Tavia and hear a sample of her work at www.taviagilbert.com.