Cat Acree

It’s rare for a novelist to read their own audiobook. Most authors who step up to the mic are recording nonfiction, with fiction audiobooks typically being performed by a voice actor or full cast. But Booker Prize finalist Mohsin Hamid possesses transportive powers as an audiobook narrator, and with new recordings of his first two novels, Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (4.5 hours), he has now narrated all five of his books.

Told in a first-person monologue by a Pakistani man named Changez to an unnamed American at a cafe in Lahore not long after 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist makes for an especially powerful listening experience as, over the course of one evening, a sense of dread builds and demands a reckoning. For his first ever interview on his work as a narrator, Hamid took a video call at his home in Pakistan to discuss this “one-man play.”

When writing The Reluctant Fundamentalist, how much did you think about what it would be like to step into the role of author-narrator-character?
I sort of wrote all of my books as audiobooks. I didn’t realize this until years later, but I really do think of literature or fiction as something we absorb through our aural circuitry more than our visual circuitry. Many of us read books with our eyes—some people read with their fingers or with their ears, as with audiobooks—but so many of us grew up reading with our eyes, so it’s a very visual experience, and the way things look should be important. But I tend to feel that the circuitry involved is still very much the circuitry of sound and language and rhythm and cadence. 

One of the formative moments for me as a writer was taking a creative writing workshop with Toni Morrison back in 1993 spring in college. . . . And one thing she did in her class is that she would read our work aloud back to us. She could make a Corn Flakes box sound like poetry. She was the greatest reader I ever encountered, and when she would read . . . I thought, “Wow, I can really write! I’ve got it!” 

She said things like, “You want to keep your reader a sort of half-heartbeat ahead of the action, so that what comes next can be a surprise, but it should feel like it was inevitable.” . . . One of the ways we do that in cinema, for example, is through the soundtrack, which suggests movements and motions and directions even while the visuals are doing something else. In written fiction, cadence and sound and rhythm can begin to establish these sorts of movements and directions, so that you have the chance of this feeling of inevitability.

“I’d always imagined it as this almost stage story, and suddenly I was on this stage, and it felt oddly like coming full circle.”

The Reluctant Fundamentalist wasn’t originally conceived as a 9/11 novel. You finished its first draft prior to that day, but as the world changed, so did your book. Now we have the opportunity to revisit your 9/11 novel with the gift of hindsight. What do you think is its place in our current reading environment?
It’s hard for me to answer that. I remember once being at this literary festival in Mantua, Italy. And as I say this, I should make clear that my life is not spent at literary festivals in Mantua, Italy. It was as exotic for me to be there as it is to say it to you now, but there I was under some clock tower in the open air, the stars above us, and Russell Banks was there. . . . I knew that a book of his had come out recently, and I had asked him if he was happy with how it had done and, you know, the usual chitchat you try to make with some literary icon when you’re this young kid who’s written a book or two. And he said something that stuck with me. 

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

He said, “You know, it’s too soon to say. . .  . It’s not until about 10 years after a book comes out that you begin to have a sense of what it’s doing. And the reasons why people are still reading it 10 years on are probably what you actually did. That’s what people got from it.” This is the kind of thing you go to literary festivals for, so that some much more experienced writer can unload this wisdom on you. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is now 15 years old, so it’s past the Russell Banks 10-year law, and I think people still seem to be reading it.

I wrote that book very much with the idea of the reader as a kind of character. Not that the novel is addressed to you, necessarily, but the book is a kind of half novel. We never hear half of the story; we never hear Changez’s interlocutor really say anything. Even more than most novels—or all novels, by virtue of being pieces of ink printed on paper that require a transmutation by the reader that makes them come alive—this book, because so much of it is missing, [forces the reader] to try and restabilize this narrative. The book was intended as a way for the reader to encounter how they feel about the story. What are the instincts that it provokes in them? What are their inclinations? Who do you think is threatening whom? Why? And it leads you, in a sense, to a position that isn’t quite resolved, and so you have to figure out either how to resolve it or what that unresolved state makes you feel. And I think it still does that, I imagine. 

The form of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is this dramatic monologue, is really akin to a one-man play. So in doing an audiobook, I was performing that one-man play. I’d always imagined it as this almost stage story, and suddenly I was on this stage, and it felt oddly like coming full circle.

Read our starred review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist audiobook.

That dramatic monologue is so effective as an audiobook. The listener is called upon in a very different way than with other novels. We feel like we’re being addressed.
That’s good to hear. It is a very direct form of address. It has to be. And in that book in particular, voice is so important because Changez, we learn, is ostensibly Muslim. But he doesn’t pray, he drinks, he has sex, he doesn’t quote the Quran or think about the doings of the Prophet. . . . His Islam appears to be a sort of tribal [affiliation]. It’s sort of “these are my people, I belong to something,” much more than it is an operating system, you know, like MacOS.

Some people might imagine that Islam has a kind of . . . rigidity or formality, that it has a kind of, you know, menace. I think these sorts of perceptions that many people do have about Islam—who are not Muslims or don’t know very many Muslims, particularly in that post-9/11 environment—the novel doesn’t give those attributes to Changez, but it does use a voice that can invoke those attributes. So you can end up believing things about this guy, not because he thinks in a certain way or even does anything, but just because it sounds like he might. 

And so the reading of that book was very interesting and actually fun because Changez speaks in this very formal, kind of anachronistic way, and that formality is also a distancing, and it builds to what feels like a kind of menace because, you know, so often we assume that a more colloquial, friendly form of address is not threatening, but Changez’s quite formal address [makes us wonder,] “Why is he keeping me at a distance? What does he intend to do to me? What kind of person speaks in this way? Why does he think like this?” 

I used to talk about The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a thriller in which nothing really happens. And I think that sense of thrill comes from the fact that we are already frightened of each other. There’s a preexisting thrill in the reader—whether it’s a reader who sympathizes with Changez and is frightened of the American, or sympathizes with the American and is frightened of Changez—and the novel tries to invoke within the reader a feeling of that discomfort that we were all encouraged to have in those years, that we belonged to these different groups and that we had to be in conflict.

And as audiobook listeners, we’re even more vulnerable to what the story wants to invoke in us. We’re passive receivers; we’re not even moving our eyes across the page.
Weirdly enough, it’s closer to the experience of Changez’s interlocutor in the book itself. The confined space of this conversation, where somebody is forced to listen to somebody else for hours, is more akin to an audiobook experience, where you’re sort of sitting there and this person is coming at you with their voice.

“I used to talk about The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a thriller in which nothing really happens. And I think that sense of thrill comes from the fact that we are already frightened of each other.”

Are you a frequent audiobook listener?
I tend to feel that the inbound-information-to-my-eyes thing is a little bit overloaded. Either I’m reading stuff online or I’m actually reading a book or I’m writing something, and then when I’m not, there’s a complex series of advertisements directed at me and my kids’ devices, and I think that I long to just have my eyes be free. And that’s when the idea of just listening to something becomes so attractive. My daughter does the exact same thing, but she listens to music for hours every day, and she’s dancing in her room by herself, and she has that relationship with music that teens and preteens sort of have had from time immemorial. It’s just ears. It’s ears and your body in space.

You know, I’m now reminded of this thing that Philip Gourevitch once said to me when he was editor of The Paris Review. He said, “It’s strange, but we get more short story submissions than we have subscribers.” . . . I feel a little bit like that, where I’ve recorded this handful of audiobooks these last few years, but how many have I listened to? I think I’m like the Paris Review submitter of audiobooks. I talk a good game, but I don’t really walk the walk as far as listening is concerned. So it’s a bit shameful, but anyway, I’m a writer, so I make the things. I don’t listen that much.

Photo of Mohsin Hamid by Jillian Edelstein

Fifteen years after its initial publication, The Reluctant Fundamentalist gets a haunting new audiobook recorded by its author.

In recent years, we’ve seen an uptick in stellar novels of the immigrant experience—from Behold the Dreamers to Americanah, from The Book of Unknown Americans to The Buddha in the Attic—and 2017 continues that trend, with an even greater emphasis on refugees’ tales. It seems every month so far this year has offered a handful of stories that give a voice to the displaced, the fishes out of water, the strangers in strange lands. These are 12 of our favorites.


Lucky BoyLucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Fans of The Light Between Oceans will enjoy the moral dilemmas and tremendous heart of Sekaran’s second novel, the story of one boy tangled up in two families. When Soli, an illegal Mexican immigrant, is put in immigration detention, her 1-year-old son, Ignacio, enters the foster care system. He is placed with Kavya and Rishi Reddy, successful Indian-American immigrants. But as much as they may love him, Ignacio is not their son. Read our review.


Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Already one of the best books of the year, this multigenerational epic from Lee (Free Food for Millionaires) is a powerful account of one of the world’s most persecuted immigrant communities—Koreans living in Japan. This heartbreaking historical novel spans the entire 20th century through four generations and three wars, as a Korean family struggles to find a sense of belonging in a culture that regards them as aliens. Read our interview with Lee.


American StreetAmerican Street by Ibi Zoboi

Don’t mind the YA label: Adult readers should read Zoboi’s debut as well as teens. Fabiola Toussaint, an American citizen by birth, is separated from her Haitian mother while going through Customs, and so she must travel by herself to Detroit, where her American cousins introduce her to a very new world. It’s an unforgettable story of what happens when cultures, nationalities, races and religions collide. Read our interview with Zoboi.


Waking LionsWaking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

The chilling and provocative debut from Israeli author Gundar-Goshen opens with a hit-and-run, when Israeli neurosurgeon Eitan Green accidentally kills an illegal Eritrean immigrant. The victim’s wife, the enigmatic Sirkit, blackmails Eitan into treating sick Eritreans in the desert. With ruminations on pain and medicine woven throughout, this is a superb exploration of how we see—or fail to see—each other. Read our review.


Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid

Hamid adds a dash of gentle magic to his tale of refugees and matters of the heart. In a Middle Eastern country on the brink of civil war, Nadia and Saeed fall in love. But soon they must flee their ruined homeland, passing through a doorway that acts as a portal to another city. As they journey around the world, the bonds of love are both forged and tested by displacement and survival. A must-read for 2017. Read our review.


The LeaversThe Leavers by Lisa Ko

Ko’s timely, assured debut received major critical acclaim before it was even published, as Barbara Kingsolver awarded it the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction (given to a novel that addresses issues of social justice). It’s the coming-of-age tale of 11-year-old Deming, who is adopted by a pair of white professors after his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, doesn’t return from work one day. Read our review.


No One Can Pronounce My NameNo One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal

That wry title is only a glimmer of the wonderful sense of humor that permeates the second novel from Satyal. The lives of three Indian Americans living in Ohio unfold with compassionate comedy and a nuanced look at sexuality and gender identity. It’s hard to categorize a book that tackles so many things so well, and the result can only be described as the new American novel. Read our review, and don’t miss our Q&A with Satyal.


Salt HousesSalt Houses by Hala Alyan

Alyan’s debut is a sweeping family tale told through multiple perspectives, and it all begins with the Six-Day War in 1967, when the Yacoub family is uprooted and forced to scatter across the globe. Alyan’s own parents met in Kuwait City and, after Saddam Hussein’s invasion, were forced to seek refuge in the United States. This spectacular novel, touching on questions of home and heritage, was our May Top Pick in Fiction. Read our review.


Live from CairoLive from Cairo by Ian Bassingthwaighte

Bassingthwaighte tapped his own experiences as a legal aid worker to craft his debut, set in 2011 Cairo. Four characters are at the heart of this remarkable novel: an Iraqi refugee who is denied her request to join her husband in the U.S.; the Iraqi volunteer assigned to her case; a lawyer for the Refugee Relief Project; and his translator. There is so much to like about this book, from brilliant characterization to exceptional writing. Coming July 11.


RefugeRefuge by Dina Nayeri

Nayeri moved to America when she was 10 years old, and the protagonist of her second novel makes a similar move, except she leaves her father behind. Over the course of 20 years, the daughter and father build a relationship through four visits, each in a different city. The more their lives diverge, the more they come to rely on each other—especially when the daughter becomes involved in the present-day refugee crisis. Coming July 11.


What We LoseWhat We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

Perfect for fans of Americanah, the much-anticipated debut from Clemmons unfolds through poignant vignettes and centers on the daughter of an immigrant. Raised in Philadelphia, Thandi is the daughter of a South African mother and an American father. Her identity is split, and when her mother dies, Thandi begins a moving, multidimensional exploration of grief and loss. Coming July 11.


Home FireHome Fire by Kamila Shamsie

From acclaimed novelist Shamsie comes the story of two Muslim sisters: Isma, who has just left London to attend grad school in America; and the headstrong, politically inclined Aneeka, who stayed behind. Their brother, Parvaiz, is seeking his own dream in the shadow of his jihadist father. And then the son of a powerful political figure enters the girls’ lives, setting in motion a tale of complicated loyalty. Coming August 15.


Plus one more: It’s not a novel, but we have to mention Viet Thanh Nguyen’s exceptional collection of short stories, The Refugees. The nine stories, set within California’s Vietnamese community or in Vietnam, are dedicated to “all refugees, everywhere.”

In recent years, we’ve seen an uptick in stellar novels of the immigrant experience—from Behold the Dreamers to Americanah, from The Book of Unknown Americans to The Buddha in the Attic—and 2017 continues that trend, with an even greater emphasis on refugees’ tales. It seems every month so far this year has offered a handful of stories that give a voice […]

New York-based actor and audio narrator Thérèse Plummer is the voice behind more than 350 audiobooks, including all of Robyn Carr’s Virgin River, Thunder Point and Sullivan’s Crossing series, plus her standalone novels like Sunrise at Half Moon Bay. Plummer won the 2019 Audie Award for her work in the multicast audio production of Sadie by Courtney Summers and was a recent finalist in the Audies’ 2020 Best Fiction and Audiobook of the Year (multicast) categories.

How does an audiobook powerhouse like Plummer do it? Here, she shares a look into the audiobook industry and describes how narrating a new book is like meeting a new friend.

What’s a day in the studio like for you?
I get to the studio to start my session at 10 a.m. I will yuck it up with the engineers and whoever else is around, and then get into my studio for a full day of performing. I love the pomodoro technique lately, as it is fantastic for productivity and keeps my energy levels at a sustainable level. It’s a time management system that encourages people to work with the time they have, rather than against it. Using this method, you break your workday into 25-minute chunks separated by five-minute breaks. These intervals are referred to as pomodoros. After about four pomodoros, you take a longer break of about 15 to 20 minutes.

Tell me a bit about transforming books into audiobooks. How do you prepare, and what do you most enjoy about the preparation? From one project to the next, how much do you change your approach to each audiobook?
I love this question! Each book is a new friend I have just met, and in order to get to know her, I need to really listen. The book tells me everything I need to know, because the author has taken the time to create this world and the characters whose journeys I am lucky to go on and bring to life. Every story has its own personality and vibe. If I have questions regarding pronunciations, I will submit a word list to my producers and also will collaborate with the authors if I am able to ask specific questions about how they “hear” certain characters. After I read the entire book and highlight “directions” I see (e.g. he whispered, she muttered, he said in a flat voice, she roared), I will have made a new friend, so when I go into the studio to give the book a voice, it is now a dialogue with my new friend.

“Storytelling is the oldest form of entertainment and connection, and to have a voice perform a story to you is such an intimate and beautiful experience.”

What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a narrator of books? What is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to this experience through your reading?
I believe my greatest strength as a storyteller is the ability to immerse my whole self into all of the characters and trust myself to then translate that vocally. I lose myself in the story and the characters, and I think you have to do that to bring the authors world alive vocally. It is so fun to play characters like lycans, vampires, gargoyles, etc., or little kids talking to their parents, and to hear my voice become what’s in my head. I am one of eight kids in my family, and I have 15 nephews and nieces to date, so I have lots of inspiration.

Tell us about your narration of Robyn Carr’s work. How you approach romance as a narrator? (Especially kissing/love scenes!)
I was asked to audition to narrate Virgin River in 2009 at Recorded Books in NYC. They chose my voice, and none of us knew the journey we would all go on! The romance books are the same as any other story, as it is a friend I have yet to meet. The thing I love about these stories though is that each book has so many mini stories going on that it feels like a soap opera or television show while I narrate.

The love scenes are intimate, personal, passionate and sometimes funny, so as the voice of the man and the woman and the narrator, I have my work cut out for me. There is a way to soften my voice by getting closer to the microphone so I am not too soft and bring the scene to life. I have cracked myself up when the groan I emit as the man comes out more like a croak, and my engineer and I will have a good chuckle before going back and getting it right. Again, I am bringing a story alive to your ears, so the more natural and realistic I can get it, the better for you. That is my goal.

I am blessed to call Robyn a friend, and she is one of the funniest, most real, badass queens I know. I was able to narrate all of her Virgin River, Thunder Point and Sullivan’s Crossing series, as well as her standalone novels. I adore these stories and characters. I was able to audition and landed a role on season one of “Virgin River” for Netflix. To walk on set and be in Jack’s bar after bringing it to life for so many years through audio was surreal and amazing. I think they did an amazing job with the series! The best part of Robyn’s books is that she writes about people all of us know. Everyone can relate and escape into a really good story for a while. It’s healthy escapism.

Robyn Carr and Therese Plummer
Robyn Carr (left) and Thérèse Plummer

What do audiobooks offer that a book can’t? And considering how much audiobooks are booming, why do you think we’re being drawn to this medium more and more?
When I was 12 years old, I remember reading a book called Tully by Paullina Simons and being absolutely mesmerized. I couldn’t focus in school as I kept thinking about Tully and the next chapter I would get to after school. I was fully invested in this story and these characters. It was so real for me. That’s what a good story does. If I were to guess, I think when a listener finds a voice that works for them, it is the ultimate escape and experience. I have had listeners tell me they won’t leave their car until the chapter ends. Storytelling is the oldest form of entertainment and connection, and to have a voice perform a story to you is such an intimate and beautiful experience.

What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
It is exhausting! The pomodoro technique helps me with energy, but at the end of a six- or eight-hour day, I usually come home and crash. I am used to playing one character on stage and film, but in the studio, it is a one-woman show and sometimes up to 40 characters a book. I have so much respect for my community of storytellers!

How do you take care of your voice?
Sleep is my number one voice-care. The others are vocal/diaphragm warmups before my session. Stretching my tongue, jaw, throat and face. Also lots of water, espresso (not sure that’s a good one, but is my vice) and tea. I love soups. And Airborne at the beginning and end of a session.

Tell us a bit about being a woman in the audiobook industry. Do you face any particular challenges? How have things changed over time?
The biggest change has been our union (SAG-AFTRA) negotiating contracts with publishers on our behalf to solidify our rates in the last 10 years or so. I think the biggest challenge as a woman is speaking up for a higher rate as time goes on. If I were a man, it would be less intimidating, but the good news is that my community of storytellers is filled with like-minded, strong, beautiful, talented and fierce queens who band together in support and encouragement of each other. We know our worth and ask for what we want and need. The worst thing that can happen is they say no, but it is worth the discomfort. As freelance artists, it is really scary, because if we ask and they say no, we don’t want to lose work or be seen as greedy or annoying to work with, so a lot of us stay quiet. The few times I advocated for myself and asked, it was greeted with approval, but my God, it was terrifying. I try to channel my inner vampire or werewolf strength at times. LOL.

Who in your life has had the biggest impact on your work as a narrator?
My father. He was a professional actor in his younger days, and when I was growing up, he was always singing and bringing characters in his head to life. We never knew who would be serving us our French toast. Was it a French man or an Italian man? Accents and characters galore. It was a one-man show and incredibly entertaining. He performed a one-man show of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and every year I sat in the audience and was mesmerized how he brought every character in that story to life! I was in awe. When he retired, my brother and I took over the tradition and perform A Christmas Carol at Grey Towers in Milford, Pennsylvania, the first weekend in December every year. What a gift.

How does an audiobook powerhouse like Thérèse Plummer do it? Here, she shares a look into the audiobook industry and describes how narrating a new book is like meeting a new friend.

After more than 300 recorded audiobooks, acclaimed narrator and voice-over actor Saskia Maarleveld knows that every audiobook requires something special. But what’s the difference between narrating a historical book versus a biography of a beloved icon? Comparing two of Maarleveld’s performances, The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History and Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge, offers a look into an audio narrator’s preparation, devotion and ability to roll with the punches.

Here she discusses a day behind the audiobook curtain, what it’s like to deliver Carrie Fisher’s jokes and why narrating nonfiction is so much harder than fiction.


Tell me a bit about transforming books into audiobooks. How do you prepare, and what do you enjoy about the preparation? From one project to the next, how much do you change your approach to each audiobook?
Once I have a script, I will first and foremost read it through. That’s the most important prep you can do: knowing the book, its characters and flow. Depending on the genre, there will then be a certain amount of research to do. Looking up correct pronunciations is one of the most important. I also like to know about the author and more about the subject matter, especially if it is a genre like historical fiction or nonfiction. I tend to not “overprep” a book, as for me the most fun part is having the story feel fresh in the booth. You want to know it but not have belabored it such that the words and characters don’t feel alive. Being open to what might come out in the booth is part of the fun!

What’s a day in the studio like for you?
I live in New York City and am lucky to be surrounded by the best audiobook studios and producers, so I go into a bunch of different studios to record. I always have an engineer and sometimes a director. A usual day for us is 10 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. We take bathroom and water breaks when we need them and have a lunch hour, but otherwise I’m in the booth recording the entire time! I like these longer days, as you can really get on a roll with whatever you are working on, recording usually about three finished hours or more in a session. Surprisingly, it’s usually my brain that starts to fray at the end of the day before my voice!

“It puts a lot of pressure on the narrator when you are trying to portray an icon like Carrie Fisher—you need to get it right!”

I’d love to discuss two audiobooks you recently narrated: Carrie Fisher and The Queens of Animation. What was most important to you as a narrator as you approached each audiobook? Did one pose more challenges than the other?
Both of these were nonfiction, which was a thrill as I mainly record fiction. Being nonfiction, it was important to me that I respect the stories of these people, doing thorough research before getting in the booth. For Carrie Fisher, I watched a ton of interviews with her to get a feel for her voice, personality and sense of humor. I watched a lot of clips from Disney movies to revisit the scenes I was describing in The Queens of Animation. This prep helps the words not fall flat when they are being read; there is life and movement behind what I am describing to the listener. This comes through most when I have a clear picture on my head.

Carrie FisherIt was a special treat to hear your ability to deliver Carrie Fisher’s jokes. What is it like to tap into an icon like Carrie Fisher? How is it different from tapping into a fictional character?
I loved having the opportunity to learn more about Carrie Fisher, a person I knew from on screen but now had to embody in a much more personal way. Having read the book ahead of time obviously gave me so much of what I needed, but also the interviews and clips I watched helped me with delivering the Carrie lines in ways that embodied her. It puts a lot of pressure on the narrator when you are trying to portray an icon like Carrie Fisher—you need to get it right! Whereas with fictional characters, you have much more room for interpretation and imagination.

The Queens of AnimationWith The Queens of Animation, our audio columnist especially loved the way you draw readers in, “like [you’re] confiding a dark secret.” Is this something you set out to do intentionally for this book?
Nonfiction can feel a little impersonal if the narrator just reads the words on the page and remains removed from them. It’s hard because you aren’t narrating as a character, so the more you can make the listener feel like you are talking directly to them, telling them the story, the more personal it becomes. I’m glad that came across in this project!

Does your work impact how you read?
I have always loved reading, so unfortunately these days it is very rare that I have the time to read for pleasure as I am always reading for work! And when I do occasionally have the time, it takes time to turn off the narrator side of my brain thinking, How do I pronounce that word? How does this character avoids sound? I should highlight this! I thought when I stopped working to have my daughter, I would have time to get back into reading for pleasure again, but with a newborn, reading is a whole new challenge!

What do audiobooks offer that a book can’t? And considering how much audiobooks are booming, why do you think we’re being drawn to this medium more and more?
Time is precious, and these days so many of us are constantly multitasking. Sitting down with a book is a luxury, something you have to focus on not only with your mind but also your body. Being able to listen to an audiobook while driving, ironing, cooking, etc., is such a gift, as we don’t have to stop the busy work our bodies are doing while escaping into the world of a story.

What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a reader of books? What is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to this experience through your reading?
I was trained as an actor, so my skill at creating characters is something I take pride in, and I also specialize in accent and dialect work. Also, as mentioned in an earlier question, I aim to connect the listener to the story in a very personal way. I want them to feel I am speaking directly to them, drawing them into whatever world we are sharing. If I achieve this, I think my job is done!

What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
I work on many projects that I get really attached to, and it is surprisingly hard to read that last word and know my time with this tale has ended. It is a very intimate experience to share a story and embody characters, so after hours and days of disappearing into a book, leaving it behind can be very sad!

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read about Saskia Maarleveld’s narration of Carrie Fisher and The Queens of Animation.

After more than 300 recorded audiobooks, acclaimed narrator and voice-over actor Saskia Maarleveld knows that every audiobook requires something special in its reading. Here she discusses a day behind the audiobook curtain, what it’s like to deliver Carrie Fisher’s jokes and why narrating nonfiction is so much harder than fiction.

One of 2019’s most exciting audiobooks was a new recording of the 1953 Newbery Honor book Charlotte’s Web, read by an ensemble cast that included Meryl Streep and with a new cover by E.B. White biographer and mixed-media artist Melissa Sweet. It’s the first new audiobook of the beloved classic since White’s own recording in 1970.

Some pig? Some audiobook! We wanted to hear more about this astounding audio production and reached out to its producer, Kelly Gildea, who has also worked on award-winners like Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (another ensemble audiobook) and Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (a graphic novel adaptation). Gildea shares a look into the world of audiobook production and chats about working with Streep and hearing voices when she reads. 


In the most basic terms, for audio fans who may not know, what does an audiobook producer do?
Well, to put it very basically: We read the book, cast the book and carry it through the recording and post-production processes. At Penguin Random House, we divvy up our title list among the producers. Each individual producer is working on many titles at once, in different stages of production. It starts with reading the manuscript and thinking about what the text is asking for: what type of narrator, how many narrators, etc. Then we consult with the author to check that our visions line up for the program. Once we have a plan in place, we schedule our recording with the selected narrator(s) and, in most cases, a director. Sometimes, our producers also direct the recording sessions, as I did with Charlotte’s Web.

All along the way, we are in continuous contact with the author, consulting on pronunciations, text queries and any other questions that come up. Once the recording has wrapped, our post-production team takes it through edit and QC, after which we are weighing in again on any notes that come back. It’s a lengthy, exciting process and there’s a great sense of accomplishment for the whole team when a project has wrapped.

Describe the production process for us. How long does it take? What’s a day in the studio like?
An average book might take about four days to record. But it truly depends on the book’s length, density and difficulty. Charlotte’s Web, though short, took a very long time to produce, because there were so many moving parts: booking the many sessions, recording all of the actors individually and working closely with the audio editor once all the pieces were assembled.

A typical day in the studio would be about four or five hours of actual reading, with a few breaks and a lunch. For Charlotte’s Web, I spent a day and a half in the studio with Meryl Streep and several hours with each of the main characters. A lot of the additional featured characters had very brief recording sessions, an hour or so.

Charlotte’s Web is such a cherished and stunning piece of literature, so that makes it both thrilling and terrifying to adapt to audio.”

How do you decide whether a book will be a full-cast production (like Charlotte’s Web and Lincoln in the Bardo) versus a single-narrator production? How involved are you in the casting?
Most times, the format of the book dictates how we approach it. For something like Lincoln in the Bardo, which was constructed almost like a play, it seemed only natural to use many voices, and author George Saunders was fully on board for that. For Charlotte’s Web, both the Estate of E.B. White and Listening Library had decided to release a full-cast production before I was assigned to produce and direct. Our producers decide the casting of each program, with input from our authors.

Tell us a bit about transforming a beloved classic like Charlotte’s Web into a new audiobook. What is difficult about a classic? What was easy?
Charlotte’s Web is such a cherished and stunning piece of literature, so that makes it both thrilling and terrifying to adapt to audio. When Meryl Streep accepted our offer to narrate, I decided to hold off on casting the remainder of the book until she had done so. Her reading was so warm and captivating, and I knew I had to round out the cast with actors who could give performances that would fit with the tone Meryl had created. Everyone recorded separately, so we really didn’t know (until all the sessions were edited together) exactly what we had on our hands, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried that it would not marry together well. Thankfully, I got to work with Ted Scott and Heather Scott, a post-production team who also worked with me on Lincoln in the Bardo (and many others), and their work was exceptional. It is such a beautiful, cohesive piece, and it could not have been achieved without this stellar cast and crew.

On a similar note, are there any special considerations when creating an audiobook for a children’s book versus a book for adults?
That’s a good question. In this case, I wanted to create something that would be enjoyable for everyone, a true family program. E.B. White’s tone is never condescending. He spoke to children as he’d speak to anyone, with immense respect and trust. It’s there in the text, and I think it’s evident in the performances. For young children’s books, we work very hard to make sure our programs are word perfect, to honor the author’s work, while also taking into consideration the fact that some kids might be following along with a piece of text.

Does your work impact how you read? When you read, do you always find yourself thinking, “Oh, so-and-so would be such a great narrator for this?”
Yes! It’s funny, because rarely can I read something these days without thinking about narrators and pronunciations. Pretty soon after starting a book, someone’s voice will likely pop into my head. I guess I’m now hardwired to think about the audio approach to everything.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Three authors and two audiobook readers share a peek into the art of audiobooks.


Do you listen to audiobooks for fun, or is that too much like work?
I do listen to audiobooks on my commute to work. It’s really the only way I can read books that I’m not working on. And my son, Miles (who’s 9), and I will often listen to children’s books when we’re in the car together. We listened to Charlotte’s Web once it was finished, and I was constantly looking in the rearview mirror to gauge his reactions! (Fun fact: Miles and several of his friends are the voices of the goslings and the baby spiders in the program! That made listening, for them, extra special.)

What’s the weirdest thing about your job, or something that audiobook listeners might not expect?
One of the weirdest (and coolest) things about the audiobook industry is that it’s a relatively tight-knit community and seems to remain so even as it grows. Even for those who work in isolation, when we all come together for conferences or awards shows, the energy is extremely positive and supportive. This is a community of people who love books, so there is deep appreciation for each other.

What do audiobooks offer that a book can’t? In the case of Charlotte’s Web, what do you think the production offered?
For me, audiobooks offer a way to take in books that I otherwise would not have the time or capability to read. Though some people might reject audiobooks based on the idea that, in many ways, it is someone else’s interpretation of the text. But I can assure you that the producers, directors and narrators take this responsibility very seriously and do all that they can to honor the text and present it in the most authentic way possible. I think that E.B. White’s recording of Charlotte’s Web is beautiful. Our new production just opens another door into that world, where every single voice is realized by a person who fully committed to their character.

Audiobooks are booming! Digital audio is the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry. Why do you think this is? What do you see as the future of audio?
Audio is so readily accessible. If you want a book, you can download it and start listening immediately. For many works of nonfiction, it has been incredible to hear the words in the author’s own voice. And fiction can be completely elevated by an exceptional performance. I think the format offers so many possibilities, and I think we’re just going to see more exciting things from this industry in the future.

One of 2019’s most exciting audiobooks was a new recording of the 1953 Newbery Honor book Charlotte’s Web, read by an ensemble cast that included Meryl Streep. Some pig? Some audiobook! We wanted to hear more about this astounding audio production and reached out to its producer, Kelly Gildea.

Early in Sarah Blake’s debut novel, the titular character, wife of Noah, smashes a pair of gerbils with a hard thwack of her spoon. The reader doesn’t yet know that there are spare gerbils—they brought extras of the “clean” animals, Naamah explains—so in this brief moment, she becomes an exterminator, an Old Testament God in her power and willful engagement with easy death. She is the one who determines which species will survive the interminable floodwaters—not Noah, not her sons or their wives, and not God.

But perhaps most alarming is that she cannot see the gerbil, nor any of the animals on the ark. She can hear them, smell them, but she has gone blind to them. “When someone dies and you forget how they look or how they laughed, that is how they forgot the land,” Naamah says. In the same way, she has forgotten how to see the animals to whom she is protector. And as she begins to take long swims in the sea—once a punishment and now an escape from the holding cell of the ark—she seems on the cusp of forgetting her former life altogether.

Beneath the surface of the water, there is an angel who seduces Naamah, inviting her to the depths where a ghastly world awaits. Soon her life on the surface becomes just as adrift, as she succumbs to dreams that seem endless, and she explores this dreamland and its mysteries with the help of a cockatoo named Jael. When the waters begin to recede, Naamah’s hallucinatory experiences continue, and the promise of firm ground seems to offer no assurance of stability to a woman so irretrievably, determinedly lost.

Revelatory, ethereal and transfixing, Naamah cracks open the ancient tale of Noah to reveal a danger that exists in supposedly safe places, the force of a woman charged with maintaining the world’s tremulous balance and the depth of our mind’s eye. Blake has previously published two poetry collections, and her language and storytelling style are as playful as they are sensual, as fluid and surreal as they are crisp and hyper-realistic.

In the tradition of Madeline Miller’s Circe, Naamah plucks a female character from myth and imbues her with sexuality, personality and intimacy, making her an altogether more modern hero—the kind of woman capable of giving a stern talking-to to a vengeful god.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Behind the Book feature from Sarah Blake on Naamah.

Early in Sarah Blake’s debut novel, the titular character, wife of Noah, smashes a pair of gerbils with a hard thwack of her spoon. The reader doesn’t yet know that there are spare gerbils—they brought extras of the “clean” animals, Naamah explains—so in this brief moment, she becomes an exterminator, an Old Testament God in her power and willful engagement with easy death. She is the one who determines which species will survive the interminable floodwaters—not Noah, not her sons or their wives, and not God.

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