Someone once told me that the only difference between a child who grows up to make it in life and one who doesn’t is that the successful adult was read to—that’s right, someone curled up at bedtime and read aloud to her, filling her head with images, ideas and stories before she went off to dreamland and schemed her own.
There’s a craze in the world of books right now that no one predicted: Adults are buying coloring books. They buy sleeves of colored pencils and fill in complex line drawings making their own grown-up works of art, Pre-K style. It would only stand to reason that the audiobook, sometimes called the audible, would be surging, too. We like the hands-free reading experience. We enjoy listening to a story interpreted by a skilled actor. It’s soothing, comforting, entertaining and can even be educational. And if you’re someone who has less time than chores, you can elevate your mind while you paint your house, clean your closet or make that long commute.
Authors take the production values and narrator of the audio version of their books seriously. When your novel is edited, and around the time you are polishing the bells and testing the whistles, the subject of the selection of the narrator of the audio version of your book comes up. Through the years I’ve had some glittering stars, including my honorary brother Mario Cantone, who took the novel Rococo and turned it into his own personal opus, with the female voices conjured by him from the MGM leading lady roster during the golden age of Hollywood.
The process of casting the reader for an audiobook is every bit as serious as casting a major Hollywood film. You are looking for the perfect match in vocal tone, cadence and delivery for the time period and setting of your story. You hope for an actor who can bring the book to life and dramatize the journey of the characters against the backdrop you’ve written. You want to feel the emotions of the characters, their longing and yearning, heartache and grief, and joy and connection. The actor has to make the story clear and lead the listener through the action. All she has is her voice and her ability to connect through that instrument—she has no props, costumes, music or fellow actors. She hasn’t a sleeve of colored pencils, only her own interpretation of the words before her and her particular ability to distill them for the listener.
It’s a one-woman show. Recording an audiobook is a camp-out under a relentless spotlight in a glass box with headphones snapped over her ears and hundreds of double-spaced pages on a music stand, read, interpreted and flipped in near silence as she digs deeply into the text. A director will stop and start the action, keeping an ear on the flow, pace and energy. The director is also looking for colors, shading, electricity in the performance when called for, and smooth endings to chapters, plus big swells to their beginnings.
For the actor, it’s intense work, a lot of consecutive days of staying in the moment, remaining focused, soothing the voice by biting into green apples and downing lemon and honey in warm water. There’s no physical release, as there is in acting onstage. Recording an audiobook is the interpretation through the voice; it’s mental, a soul connection. It’s hard work, but it can never sound like it. The characters have to dance through the air in the imagination of the listener as the actor reads their words aloud.
When it came time to cast All the Stars in the Heavens, we needed an actor who could play a feast of great actors and actresses of all ages from the early days of American movies. I could only think of one woman who could skate between exchanges between Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young, or David Niven and Clark Gable, and bring a poor nun in a halfway house to life. We needed an actor with scope and range, but one whose voice was both velvet and gingham, who could conjure burlap and old rum. We needed youth and world weary, glorious and shabby, the kind of actor who can play it all, and frankly has. Blair Brown possesses all of these qualities, but she is also original, fresh and unwraps the words with delight. You keep listening because she is invested in the story, and you must know what happens.
I’m the daughter of a librarian who played story-time records for us when we were children. We heard Danny Kaye read classic fairy tales, my first audiobook on an LP. When I went to college and majored in theater, I went straight to the library when studying the classics and listened to the Shakespeare plays recorded by Nigel Hawthorne and Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Laurence Olivier. I loved listening to plays read aloud. But it wasn’t all academia and serious drama—one of my favorite audiobook memories is picking up Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano’s Story of Life in the Mafia by Peter Maas at the Cracker Barrel on Route 81 in the hills of Virginia. It was read by the great Philip Bosco. I laughed in a car with my dad for eight hours straight as we listened to Mr. Bosco cuss and wheel and deal as only an organized crime rat can do. You see, audiobooks are part of the happy memories with my family. They’re wonderful, and they fill us up as only a good story can.
A playwright, TV writer/producer and film director, Adriana Trigiani is the author of 16 books, including her beloved debut, Big Stone Gap. Trigiani’s latest novel, All the Stars in the Heavens, is a fictional take on the real-life romance between two stars of Hollywood’s golden age: Loretta Young and Clark Gable.
This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.