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This interview is sponsored by Harper.


In Lisa Barr's seductive second novel, The Unbreakables, a woman flees to France in the wake of her husband's betrayal. But for 42-year-old Sophie Bloom, heartbreak leads to a creative and sexual revival, spurring her to rediscover her passion for sculpting and her sense of adventure. We asked Barr a few questions about this saucy story of self-discovery.

You started your career in journalism, and worked as an editor as well. What was the transition to writing novels like for you?
Let me tell you a secret: There was no transition. I still do it all—just at different levels of intensity. I’d also like to toss into the mix that I’m a mom of three daughters (aka: Drama Central). I’ve had a very full career as an author/journalist/blogger—both here in Chicago and in Jerusalem. I’m very disciplined out of necessity, and it’s really a matter of divide and conquer. When my girls were younger, I would report or edit during the day while they were in school and write fiction at night after they fell asleep. Or, I’d wake up and write at 5 a.m. before they got up. Now that they are older, my time is my own. I also started a Mom blog—“GIRLilla Warfare”—in 2013, right when my first novel came out. It’s a lot of blending and mixing, and sometimes I feel like I’m in Crazy Town. But my journalism skills have really helped my fiction, especially in terms of pacing and cutting away the fat. And I always think in terms of the who, what, where, when, why and how in both fiction and journalism. It’s too ingrained to let that go. There is a lot more freedom with fiction—and I kinda love that.

What’s your favorite thing about Sophie?
Sophie is all heart—she gives so much of herself to those she loves. I admire her vulnerability, but I also relish when she goes from hot mess to badass. Although her husband and best friends betrayed her, the truth is, Sophie abandoned herself long before that. It is a joy to watch her grow and blossom.

When Sophie starts her new life, she comes up with 12 “unbreakable” rules for living. Do you have any rules to live by?
I try to incorporate several of Sophie’s rules into my own life. My rules to live by are simple: Be kind. Be loving. Be communicative. Be strong and stand proud. Be Me in all my forms—the good, bad, strong and vulnerable. Living in a house of women and writing about lots of women’s issues, “you are enough” is probably the number one rule that I’ve embraced and try to put out into the world. And “you got this” is my daily motto—it is the sword I use to slay my fears.

Visual arts play a central role in both The Unbreakables and your debut, Fugitive Colors, a historical novel. How do you research the art world, and were there differences between understanding it in a contemporary context versus a historical one?
I’m a writer, not an artist—but art/passion runs through everything I do and write. Fugitive Colors was a labor of love. Four years of research on stolen art, the artists themselves, the time period, Expressionism and the Nazi persecution of the avant-garde, before I would even allow myself to write a single word. I read everything I could get my hands on, and I even had the Holocaust Museum vet my manuscript. My greatest compliments for that book have come from artists themselves—and it means the world to me. Along a recent journey, I met a sculptor in Napa. He fell in love with Fugitive Colors, and I fell in love with his work. He taught me a lot, and gave me the background in sculpting for The Unbreakables. I researched, watched films, tutorials and read articles. I did my book “research” in the south of France to get all the feels and sense of place. The only difference between understanding art in a contemporary context versus historical was time. Historical research requires SO much attention to detail, time period and trying to understand an artist’s mindset within the context of history. It’s exciting but all-consuming—a quest to get it right. Contemporary is lighter for me—but no less passionate.

 

The drive to create and be creative is the same whether you’re a visual artist or a writer. Did you find that writing about different types of creativity led you to think about writing differently?
Yes. I think what I’ve really learned from visual artists is that I need to incorporate all my senses into my writing. The sex scenes are very visual in The Unbreakables, and I created them as if they were a painting. And ironically, one of the stronger sensual scenes in the book is actually Sophie “acting” out a painting that moved her, charged her, stimulated her to the point of arousal. Artists, in my mind, bring such beauty and passion into this world, and I try to evoke those same emotions on the page—my own blank canvas.

 

What do you wish more people knew about women at midlife?
Women are so much better in midlife. We are stronger, sexier, smarter, more decisive, don’t take crap—we know who we are in midlife. This is such a great age—minus the wrinkles, joint pains, forgetfulness and terrible eyesight. I certainly have come into my own—the insecurities of the past have fallen away. And good riddance. It’s almost as if I want to say, “Hey, this is me, and I like what I see, what I feel, who I am.” This simply doesn’t happen in one’s youth. It’s a journey that comes with the seasons.

 

What are you working on next?
I’m sort of that “forbidden fruit” in the publishing world: I’m a genre jumper. My first novel was historical fiction, the second contemporary women’s fiction—and the next, suspense. But I dig strong women who come into their own with hurdles and challenges. I like to create characters who are not afraid to be vulnerable, go to dark places, get their sexy on, face trials and tribulations, seek passion and truth and, ultimately, find their redemption in a new beginning.

 

Author photo © Tell Draper.

In The Unbreakables, a woman's heartbreak leads to a creative and sexual revival as she rediscovers her life’s passions in France.
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This interview is sponsored by Macmillan Audio.


Mary Kay Andrews is the bestselling author of The High Tide Club, The Weekenders, Beach Town and more. She’s also a big fan of audiobooks! In fact, for her latest audiobook, Sunset Beach, Andrews herself reads a bonus chapter, “Beach House Dreaming,” that is included on the program. Accomplished voice actress Kathleen McInerney narrates the rest of ​​​​​​​Sunset Beach and many of Andrews’ other audiobooks. Here Andrews poses some questions to McInerney about the Sunset Beach audiobook and her process.

MKA: Set the scene in the recording studio for me: What do you wear? Do you bring anything to eat or drink into the booth with you?

KM: Narrating books is an intensively creative, yet incredibly unglamorous job. When I open the studio door, I step into the world that I will live in for the next few days (literally and figuratively). Technically speaking (ha!), recording sessions are around 8 hours a day so loose, quiet clothing is required. I bring light snacks to eat throughout the day and lots of water!

What was your process like in preparing to narrate Sunset Beach?

To prepare a book, I read it. (This may sound obvious but some people don’t.) I note the storyline, the tone of voice of narrator, the setting/time period, words that need pronunciation help (in English or other languages), etc. I write down all the characters and anything that is said to describe them. Then, I build all of the voices off of the main character. She is normally in ‘the middle’ and others are ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ in comparison, a kind of vocal tapestry. Some accents are brought in as needed. I try to keep in mind what will help the listener clearly understand who is talking, especially in group scenes, and allow them to be drawn into the story. I look at each audiobook as a sort of play. The character development and interaction is so important to how the scenes play out and the story is told.

 

"I look at each audiobook as a sort of play."

 

How is Sunset Beach different than my other audiobooks you’ve narrated?

I suppose this is a good time to say that I am a big fan of all of your books! I really love a strong female character who has incredible challenges and finds herself by taking a path that was not clear from the start. They are stories that entertain and inspire me. ​​​​​​​Sunset Beach is a terrific mystery which kept me guessing until the end. Getting to narrate this was so fun. I have to tell the story in a way that doesn’t give away the ending prematurely, but, rather, keeps the listener on the edge of their seat. Also, the longer format of this book allows for a deeper dive into the lives of the characters and the story and, therefore, a more "meaty" journey for the listener/reader. And, speaking of food…amazing meals are served in this book. I was hungry the whole time!

How did you come up with main character Drue Campbell’s voice?

Drue is a woman figuring out how she wants to fit in, where she wants her life to go. She is unassuming and quiet one minute, self assured and headstrong the next. She needed to have a voice that allowed for that range and could show her intelligence and the growth in her self-confidence.  

Any challenges in voicing Sunset Beach?

The main challenge in narrating a mystery is to not make the bad guy a suspect from the beginning. Also, any type of romance that may or may not blossom needs to be handled carefully so the listener can decide what is going on, not be hit over the head with my interpretation.

How does the Southern setting impact your narration?

Certainly the Southern setting allows for a variety of accents for some characters, which is fun. But, honestly, I think the setting mostly impacts my enjoyment of the book. The descriptions of the places, the food, the houses….I can really visualize where I am and live in that place for a while. It makes for nice "armchair traveling," if you know what I mean.  

Do you listen to audiobooks, or is that too close to work for you?

My daughter and I often listen together on road trips. Our favorite was Roald Dahl’s The Witches, narrated amazingly by Lynn Redgrave. We listened to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for her summer reading assignment in 8th grade. I was able to pause and explain the jokes…very helpful! I find audiobooks to be entertaining and inspiring. I get ideas from how other narrators approach characters and pace the story. I don’t listen as often as I’d like as I am consumed by NPR while driving and prepping the next book that I am working on when at home!

 

Andrews author photo © Bill Miles.

 

This interview is sponsored by Macmillan Audio. Mary Kay Andrews is the bestselling author of The High Tide Club, The Weekenders, Beach Town and more. She’s also a big fan of audiobooks! In fact, for her latest audiobook, Sunset Beach, Andrews herself reads a bonus chapter, “Beach House Dreaming,” that is included on the program. […]
Interview by

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.
Interview by

The drama and relationship foibles of trust-fund billionaires make for tremendous fun in Kevin Kwan’s novel Sex and Vanity, which cavorts from an over-the-top wedding in Capri to the streets of New York City. Lydia Look makes it all come alive in the relentlessly entertaining audiobook.

Look, a Los Angeles-based actor, writer and producer who has over a hundred film, TV, theater and voice credits, and who has previously narrated Kwan’s novels China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, brilliantly hops from one character to another, switching accents and attitudes in a dazzling performance. Here she discusses the “infinite magic” of Kwan’s fiction and what it’s like to produce audiobooks during the pandemic.

Tell me a bit about transforming Sex and Vanity into an audiobook. How did you prepare, and what did you most enjoy about the preparation?
It paralleled Lucie’s journey to Capri at the top of the book. Fraught with highs and lows, it was truly memorable. The highs were being asked to do the job and the prepping of the book—that was magical. The lows being that it coincided with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were in complete lockdown and had to revert to recording from home. I spent a great deal of time trying to get supplies to arrive in time in order for my broadcast-quality home studio to be ready for the job, and it was a challenge putting it all together in quarantine lockdown mode, to say the least.

I start by reading the book, then rereading certain passages that strike a chord personally. Then comes the best part—I start getting personal with the characters, in my waking hours and in my dreaming hours. The latter is where all the magic happens, as I live vicariously through them as I sleep.

Prepping the book is no different than filling an empty canvas with color. The more detailed you get, the richer they appear as people. The most enjoyable part was getting up-front and cozy with the wonderful characters in the book and assigning people in my life as them. I have a relationship with every character that I voice, and I love it.

“There is infinite magic to Kevin Kwan’s writing, and he spreads great joy through it.”

The wealthy, globetrotting cast has so many different accents. Tell me about the process of capturing their voices. Was there a character’s voice that proved especially challenging, or perhaps one you enjoyed most?
It was great fun! I’m lucky in life to have grown up and been surrounded with a diverse crowd of people of all colors and creeds that I constantly draw from. They make my imagination rich, and I’m so grateful for it. I cast people in my life as the characters in the book, but they remain anonymous in perpetuity. Casting is top secret! The essence of each character’s unique voice comes from having an intimate relationship with them, and I did with great relish. Each character’s vocal timbre reveals his/her inner truth, and the accompanying accent is a road map of their life experiences in total. Accents betray class and pedigree, and timbre reveals a person’s inner truth.

Like Cecil and George in the book, many of Kevin’s characters are well-heeled travelers that code switch easily between accents depending on the company they’re keeping, and that gave me license to create each character’s unique sound in each different setting. That kept me joyfully engaged and on my tippy toes!

I don’t play favorites with the characters I get to breathe life into, but I am very tender toward Rosemary, as I see many shades of my own dynamic, irrepressible and life-loving mother in her. It would be wonderful to get to play her on screen if I could.

Sex and VanityThis is the third of Kevin Kwan’s novels that you’ve narrated. What have you learned in the process, about your work and about Kwan’s?
There is a beautiful shorthand that inherently exists between Kevin and I. It’s blossomed and deepened further over the books, and I really cherish it. I’ve also learned that I can never, ever be as fully prepared as I like and to just show up. In narrating Kevin’s books, you have to be fully present, as his words flow fast and his complex and chameleonic characters appear in a blink of an eye, often unpredictably. There is infinite magic to Kevin Kwan’s writing, and he spreads great joy through it. Be warned, he’s highly addictive!

Sex and Vanity is a reimagining of A Room With a View. Did the film adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel influence your performance in any way?
Oh, very much so! Kevin was majorly influenced by the Merchant Ivory film and requested that I revisit the film prior to recording. I was glad to be able to draw from the film’s witty spirit and astute observations of class and pedigree from a brilliant British cast. Watching it again gave me the permission I needed to have fun with the vocal storytelling. Nothing is too much if it’s grounded in truth, and the film displays that in full finery.

Kwan’s footnotes are especially fun, as they offer commentary from a seemingly omniscient narrator. Who is this voice, to you?
They are my favorite, too! I have had the pleasure of voicing them in three books now and always look forward to them. Those wickedly razor-sharp observations crack me up yet deliver a sobering dose of reality check at the same time. Brilliant, really. I never kiss and tell in casting, but I’ll reveal this one due to it’s obviousness. The spirit and essence of the omniscient narrator is Kevin Kwan, of course! But it’s Kevin’s female doppelgänger, Kevina Kwan (pronounced Keh-vee-nah). It was impossible to imagine anyone else in this part.

Kwan’s novels enjoy poking gentle fun at the incredibly wealthy, without ever being unkind. Similarly, your narration finds humor in the events without ever being mean. How do you balance this?
The more incredibly wealthy they are, the more human their foibles are to me. Their everyday cares and concerns are no different than ours. All they have are incredible means in terms of wealth and power, which they use to fix their everyday problems and that don’t always work. Money can’t buy you everything, not for the things that truly matter in life. So I try to find humor in their pathos and brevity in their farce. Besides, it’s impossible to be mean with Kevin’s writing. He spreads joy. It’s pure love.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of the Sex and Vanity audiobook.


What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a narrator of audiobooks? What is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to this experience through your reading?
Ignorance. Initially, it was brilliant that I had no hindsight of what was really in store for me, so I had zero fear going in. Also, I have no shame. The microphone gives me permission. I am utterly shameless in front of it. I am blessed with a very good ear and, to quote the Irish nuns that nurtured me in my childhood, “a gift of the gab.” The most rewarding is hearing the character’s truth, when it works, as I breathe life into them. It’s a complete high for me! Yes, I can have fun all by myself. Ahem . . .

What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
It’s hard work! I have so much respect for the craft. When it works, it’s pure elation. When it doesn’t, it is utter devastation. You’re all alone, with a stone-cold mic and only the sound of silence as your scene partner. Narrators are storytellers. I breathe life into the writer’s words and characters and hope to bring you on a journey with me. One hopefully filled with joy and pathos. I pray for a transformative one for the listener. Also, it takes a village to make an audiobook! Big love to my intrepid director Christina Rooney, who guided me expertly, and the wonderful team at Penguin Random House Audio.

The drama and relationship foibles of trust-fund billionaires make for tremendous fun in Kevin Kwan’s novel Sex and Vanity, which cavorts from an over-the-top wedding in Capri to the streets of New York City. Narrator Lydia Look makes it all come alive in the relentlessly entertaining audiobook.

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