I was never a big fan of audiobooks until I heard Bill Bryson read A Walk in the Woods. Oh, I had enjoyed audios as a kind of archive of authors’ voices, but it seemed like cheating, somehow.
I was a paper man all the way—give me pages, or give me death. Until Bryson’s hilarious complaining stopped me in my tracks and made me laugh out loud. I started bugging others to listen to it. I was like a kid with a new Led Zeppelin album. I bought cassettes of the book for people. I played passages of it in my lit classes to illustrate the Monty Pythonesque delights of awkwardness, discomfort and kvetching.
And then I had kids. And with kids came long car trips. Very long car trips. Trips during which, to arrive at Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, one had to traverse Nebraska. Or Oklahoma. Lovely places all, but somewhat lacking in teen and tween thrills. To avoid losing the kids to handheld devices and Game Boys, we discovered a miraculous combination of the past and the future.
Both my wife and I were and are Tim Curry fans. Who could ever recover from the shock of encountering Dr. Frank N. Furter in Rocky Horror? “Oh, Rocky,” indeed. And our kids were Lemony Snicket fans. And here came that sweet transvestite, with that arch and deliciously deranged voice, narrating Lemony Snicket! Everyone in the car was riveted. We all loved these audiobooks, becoming for hundreds of miles a family in the 1930s gathered around a great radio to travel into unexpected worlds. Perhaps my wife and I were seeing Curry in fishnets in our minds, while the kids were seeing what Lemony wanted them to. But never mind—it worked. And it worked so well, we often hurtled past the various Stuckeys on the road, passing up corn nuts and pecan logs to hear more story.
I have a slight bone to pick with Tim Curry, though—his nefarious influence on our literary habits inspired our daughter to force us to listen to all 9,000 hours of his rendering of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Not knocking Jules Verne, mind you. But, really. The upshot, however, was our daughter announcing that she loved science. Poor girl—she thought all science teachers would sound like Curry.
Never mind the corsets.
Then, it was my turn.
I had published this whopping novel called The Hummingbird’s Daughter. It was my life’s work in a real sense—it took me 20 years to write and research it. When the offer came to record the audio, I thought I had to do it. Who was going to do it justice? Not me, perhaps, but at least I would understand all the jokes and get the Mexican cussing right. I have learned that my readers are very particular about their Spanish obscenities.
So. Nobody told me that a 600-page book would be a pain to record. Literally a pain—in the posterior. Because you sit on this stool the whole time, maintaining a six-inch distance from the mike. Yoga for non-yoga people. And 600 pages, even at a good clip, means about 40 hours in the studio. Perching. With an engineer endlessly stopping you for “stomach noises,” or “weird clicking in your throat” or “gross mouth sounds.” And a producer listening in via Skype to correct any deviation—even one word—from your own text. NO IMPROVISING. Plus, these shadowy characters stun you by pointing out that words you think you’ve always known are actually pronounced another way and you’ve been saying them wrong. What? Thank God I have tenure, you think, because my colleagues from rhetoric have been snickering at me this whole time!
My first producer was a lovely former Broadway musical dancer. “I’m a dancer!” she’d tell me from wherever her fortress of solitude was. “Do you have any idea what we go though? I don’t care if your butt hurts!” But she liked my reading. Except when I used a French word. My accent was appalling, apparently.
The studio was an awesome experience, however. One day, my engineer took me to a small toilet and said, “Look at this.” I looked. “So?” I said. “Dude—Madonna peed there.” I said, “Uh. Bronze the toilet seat?” And back to work.
If you want to feel insane, by the way, spend 40 hours speaking in the voices of different people all day. Especially when they argue. But you know one thing: Long after you’re gone, your voice will remain. To tell your children a bedtime story. And later still, their children. Me and Tim Curry. Forever.
Luis Alberto Urrea is a novelist, poet and short story writer and the author of The Devil’s Highway, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in nonfiction.