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Bridging the Gap Between My Writing and Reading Selves:
an Author’s Experience of Recording an Audiobook

Padma Venkatraman

Pad­ma Venka­tra­man

The woman who read Climb­ing the Stairs aloud did a great job,” my friend said. She was telling me, with delight, how her chil­dren and their friends—two girls and two boys—listened with rapt atten­tion to the audio book ver­sion of my debut nov­el, refus­ing to get out of the car when the trip end­ed but the sto­ry hadn’t yet.

Delight­ed though I was to hear both how much the young peo­ple enjoyed the audio­book, I feel a twinge of dis­ap­point­ment. After all, I love read­ing books aloud—and I tend to think I do a pret­ty good job of it—and I was nev­er offered the chance to read my own nov­el for the audio­book ver­sion. 

An entire decade’s flown by since Climb­ing the Stairs was released. It’s still in print, which is a won­der­ful achieve­ment. It’s also no longer my only nov­el. Dur­ing this decade, Island’s End and A Time to Dance were also pub­lished. And, as I had a baby and spent vast and won­der­ful amounts of time read­ing to her and watch­ing her read, I didn’t have a spare moment to con­sid­er doing the audio for either of those nov­els. 

Then, just a few months ago, Pen­guin con­tact­ed me to say the audio book ver­sion of The Bridge Home would be released simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with the print ver­sion, in Feb­ru­ary 2019. I was thrilled to hear this—and when I men­tioned this to my fam­i­ly at the din­ner table, my daugh­ter prompt­ly asked if I would be read­ing it aloud.

Padma Venkatraman's four novels

No,” I said. “They’ll get a pro­fes­sion­al actress to read it aloud.”

But you read so well!” Hear­ing the dis­ap­point­ment in her tone revived that sense of dis­ap­point­ment I’d felt all those years ago.

And, I want­ed, just as much as ever, to read my own work aloud. I’d had ten years of read­ing books aloud every night. Sure­ly I was bet­ter at it, not worse?

What’s the worst they could say,” my spouse said. “No?”

He was right about that. But I want­ed the best for my audio­book. I didn’t want to make a com­plete hash of read­ing it aloud.

Pub­lish­ers have many excel­lent rea­sons for employ­ing pro­fes­sion­al actors to read books aloud (rather than authors). Some authors do their work a dis­ser­vice when they read it aloud. And even those who read aloud well aren’t pro­fes­sion­al actors. We don’t learn how to “do dif­fer­ent voic­es” and we work with edi­tors, not direc­tors. Read­ing hun­dreds of pages at one stretch is not the same as read­ing aloud to an engaged and eager audi­ence for ten whole min­utes. The art of the spo­ken word is not the same as the art of the writ­ten word. Being a good writer doesn’t imply one has any act­ing capa­bil­i­ty, let alone tal­ent.

I thought it over, and then decid­ed I’d regret it if I didn’t give it a chance. So, I asked Pen­guin for per­mis­sion to audi­tion for the audio­book (and yes, authors do have to audi­tion to read their own books aloud which is in their own best inter­est). The audio book pub­lish­er was kind enough to give me per­mis­sion to send a sev­en-minute (or so) audio clip. I was instruct­ed to read a sec­tion that con­tained dia­logue.

My daugh­ter was delight­ed. She insist­ed on sit­ting right next to me as I record­ed my audi­tion.

That’s when I had my first inkling of how hard the process would be.

When I read aloud, I often make mistakes—but I gloss over those mis­takes. I change the sen­tence I’m read­ing if nec­es­sary, so it’s gram­mat­i­cal­ly cor­rect. I’m not good at read­ing pre­cise­ly what’s on the page—although this is, of course, what one needs to do when read­ing a mid­dle grade book aloud.

After try­ing three times and dis­cov­er­ing the third time isn’t any more “the charm” than the first two, I was ready to give up. My daugh­ter, how­ev­er, wasn’t ready to give up on me.

And giv­en that I hope she’ll be per­sis­tent and that I want to lead by exam­ple, I forced myself to read a fourth and final­ly a fifth time. That fifth time I almost made it all the way through three pages with­out a sin­gle error. Or maybe two and a half.

So I sent off my audi­tion tape and wait­ed.

In a day or two, I had a warm reply from the pub­lish­er. She described my audi­tion as “love­ly” and said she was hap­py to have me read, or to have a pro­fes­sion­al read. She sent me links to two mar­velous read­ers whom she had in mind. After lis­ten­ing to oth­er audio books those two actress­es had read, I was more con­fused than ever.

I sent a long let­ter to the pub­lish­er, express­ing my dilem­ma. I loved audio­books and I had spo­ken seri­ous­ly to the Perkins Insti­tute about vol­un­teer­ing to read books aloud for them. I always dreamed of read­ing my own nov­el, some day—at least one of my nov­els. But then, I want­ed the best pos­si­ble read­er to read it aloud—and I couldn’t tell if that per­son was me.

Let’s talk,” the pub­lish­er said.

I called and left a long and wor­ried mes­sage on her answer­ing machine.

When she called back, she was enthu­si­as­tic. “I lis­tened to your mes­sage a cou­ple of times,” she said.

Real­ly? I’m not even sure my spouse lis­tened to any mes­sage I left him a cou­ple of times. Nor, for that mat­ter, although I love his voice, have I ever lis­tened to his mes­sages repeat­ed­ly.

She said she’d also watched the links of my inter­views on nation­al and inter­na­tion­al TV and radio.

I was thrilled. At least some­one was actu­al­ly lis­ten­ing to those links which had tak­en my Lud­dite self years to load onto my web­site.

Based on all this, she said, she was will­ing to give me a chance. “It’s your fourth nov­el. You’ve earned it.” She assured me she want­ed the best for the book too, and I could tell she real­ly did, just as much if not more, than I did.

A mix­ture of tri­umph and trep­i­da­tion filled me, as I entered the record­ing stu­dio, about a week lat­er. It wasn’t real­ly any dif­fer­ent from a booth at a radio sta­tion, as far as I could tell. And it was far less for­bid­ding than a TV set. Yet my hands were trem­bling as I got into “the sad­dle” and put on my head­phones.

For the next two days—two whole days—I read and re-read and read. A direc­tor super­vised my work and he was bril­liant.

His words of wis­dom: “If you get tired, if your mind starts wan­der­ing, take a short break and then come right back and attack it with all your ener­gy and con­cen­tra­tion. Don’t give me a half-assed per­for­mance. Read like you mean every word. An author—in this case you—spent years work­ing on it. And I always tell my actors, I don’t care how they feel, they owe it to the author to give it every­thing they’ve got. You owe it to your­self.”

Or, I thought, I owed it to my char­ac­ters. I loved the four char­ac­ters in The Bridge Home. They are real to me, now, and I want the best for them. I want them to be loved. I want their sto­ry to be loved.

At some point dur­ing the writ­ing process, I read an entire nov­el aloud—but when I do that, I’m lis­ten­ing and pay­ing atten­tion in a dif­fer­ent way. I use those read­ings to help me refine and edit my drafts.

Read­ing aloud for the audio­book was very dif­fer­ent. It was far more stren­u­ous. I had to “get into character”—every char­ac­ter in the book, real­ly. It’s what I do any­way, when I write, but in this case, I had to speak in char­ac­ter instead of just lis­ten­ing to my char­ac­ters speak and writ­ing down the words they said in my head.

Don’t wor­ry about get­ting the words right,” my direc­tor said. “Every­one makes mis­takes, and every­one has to come back to make cor­rec­tions lat­er.” Those cor­rec­tions are what the indus­try calls pick-ups.

What I need­ed to do was read in such a way that the lis­ten­er hears just enough emo­tion to stay engaged. Too much turns lis­ten­ers off, and too lit­tle leaves them bored. That’s not unlike writing—as a writer, I’ve always main­tained that it’s not just what I say and how I say it, it’s also what I leave out.

My director’s gold­en words of wis­dom helped me under­stand this fine bal­ance as I read aloud “You don’t need to act the writer’s words. You just need to feel the words as you read.”

When I began to see a movie in my head, the way I do when I’m close to com­plet­ing a nov­el, I real­ized that I was in busi­ness. And after a few tri­als, I was in the zone—a sort of wak­ing dream in which I sensed the char­ac­ters haunt­ing my mind and tak­ing over my heart. And I stayed in that zone as my voice was record­ed, allow­ing the char­ac­ters to pos­sess my soul, so I was with them dur­ing every step of the jour­ney, from the first page to the last.

When I final­ly took off the head­phones and slid off the high stool on which I’d perched as I read and walked out of the record­ing booth, the own­er of the record­ing stu­dio declared, “You’re the real thing. I almost cried.”

Thanks,” I said.

Then he added, gruffly, “The only rea­son it’s almost instead of actu­al­ly cry­ing is because I’m an old white man and we weren’t allowed to do that.”

That evening, I get home exhaust­ed and exhil­a­rat­ed, in equal mea­sure.

Will I read all my future books, my spouse and daugh­ter want­ed to know when I returned. I wasn’t sure.

I’m still not sure.

But what I am sure of is that I’m glad I did it for The Bridge Home.

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From Gridlock to Road Trip

gridlock

If you were stuck in bumper to bumper grid­lock, head­ing south on Hwy 100 last week, you may have noticed a woman laugh­ing all alone in her car as she wait­ed patient­ly (with eyes on the road) for things to start mov­ing again. The very next day you might have caught a glimpse of that same lady wip­ing a tear or two from her cheek, again, stay­ing atten­tive to the traf­fic. This emo­tion­al dri­ver wasn’t react­ing to the road con­ges­tion or the fact that her time behind the wind­shield was dou­ble what it should be. The source of her amuse­ment and sad­ness was com­ing from her car radio speak­ers, more specif­i­cal­ly, the audio­book Gone Crazy in Alaba­ma, writ­ten by Rita Williams-Gar­cia, nar­rat­ed by Sisi A. John­son. That cap­ti­vat­ed listener/careful motorist was me, mak­ing the most of rush hour by savor­ing a sto­ry that begs to be heard in audio for­mat.

Gone Crazy in AlabamaThe Gaither sis­ters, Del­phine, Vonet­ta and Fern, along with Big Ma, their grand­moth­er, and Ma Charles, their great grand­moth­er, joined me for the com­mute down Hwy 100 for about a week. The com­bi­na­tion of exquis­ite writ­ing by Ms. Williams and enthralling nar­ra­tion by Ms. John­son trans­formed sev­er­al days of dif­fi­cult maneu­ver­ing on the inter­state to an extend­ed road trip with some of my very best friends. There was even one morn­ing when I final­ly arrived at the school park­ing lot only to have to pull myself away from my vehi­cle, after telling myself “Just five more min­utes to fin­ish this chap­ter!”

In addi­tion to Gone Crazy in Alaba­ma, I have enjoyed near­ly three dozen oth­er audio titles in the past year. My top rec­om­men­da­tions stand out for their mem­o­rable and engag­ing nar­ra­tions. Oth­er than The Hate U Give (most appro­pri­ate for age 12+), these audio­books would be great addi­tions to mid­dle grade (4th-6th) class­rooms.

All Amer­i­can Boys by Bren­den Kiely and Jason Reynolds

Crossover by Kwame Alexan­der

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esper­an­za Ris­ing by Pam Muñoz Ryan

The Hate U Give by Angela Thomas

Listen, SlowlyLis­ten Slow­ly by Thanhha Lai

One Crazy Sum­mer by Rita Williams-Gar­cia

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Gar­cia

Refugee by Alan Katz

Reign Rain by Ann M. Mar­tin

Stel­la by Starlight by Sharon Drap­er

The War that Saved My Life by Kim­ber­ly Brubak­er Bradley

My all-time favorite audio­book adven­ture was Echo, by Pam Munoz Ryan. With a run­ning time of ten and a half hours, this mas­ter­piece is well worth every minute spent tak­ing in the cap­ti­vat­ing tale of mag­ic, mys­tery and har­mon­i­ca music. The fate of three chil­dren is inter­wo­ven from Ger­many to the Unit­ed States, from the Rise of Hitler to post-Pearl Har­bor as the har­mon­i­ca plays an inte­gral role in the char­ac­ters’ con­nec­tions and the book’s con­clu­sion. I am con­vinced that the audio pro­duc­tion of Echo offers a unique and mem­o­rable expe­ri­ence that is beyond com­par­i­son to either the read aloud or inde­pen­dent read­ing option. Whether Echo becomes your first audio­book or lands at the top of your exist­ing “to be lis­tened to” list, you will not be dis­ap­point­ed (well, per­haps you will be, but only because it has to come to an end).

If you are look­ing for oth­er great audio picks, con­sid­er the award win­ners cho­sen by YALSA and ALSC.

The Odyssey Award spon­sored by YALSA (Young Adult Library Ser­vices Asso­ci­a­tion) rec­og­nizes the best audio­book pro­duced each year for chil­dren and/or young adults. In 2016, the Hon­or Record­ing was Echo.

In addi­tion to the Odyssey Award win­ners, a longer list of exem­plary audio record­ings are offered annu­al­ly on the Notable Children’s Record­ings list, select­ed by the ALSC (Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren). In 2011, One Crazy Sum­mer was rec­og­nized.

Late­ly, I’ve been reflect­ing on a pow­er­ful quote from Kylene Beers from Notice & Note: Strate­gies for Close Read­ing; “Non­fic­tion lets us learn more; fic­tion lets us be more.” This is what I want most for young read­ers and I bet you do as well.  Yet, like me, you might won­der just how many of our kids have ever expe­ri­enced this pow­er­ful aspect of fic­tion? I believe that for some, if not many, excep­tion­al audio­books may be the tick­et to help­ing kids be more through the books they expe­ri­ence. There was a time in my teach­ing career when I didn’t give audio­books and their lis­ten­ers the cred­it they deserve. I have come to appre­ci­ate the aur­al read­ing expe­ri­ence both per­son­al­ly and pro­fes­sion­al­ly. I hope you feel the same.

Resources that pro­mote access to audio­books:

Epic!

Epic! is the lead­ing dig­i­tal library for kids, with unlim­it­ed access to an incred­i­ble selec­tion of 25,000 high-qual­i­ty books, learn­ing videos, quizzes and more. You can access Epic! on any device, includ­ing your smart­phone, iPad or computer—FREE for edu­ca­tors!

Over­drive

Bor­row eBooks, audio­books, and more from your local pub­lic library—anywhere, any­time. All you need is a library card.

Scribd

Scribd is a read­ing sub­scrip­tion that is avail­able any­time and on any device. Enjoy access to 3 books and 1 audio­book each month—plus unlim­it­ed access to mag­a­zines and documents—for $8.99/month.

Sky­brary

Sky­brary is a care­ful­ly curat­ed, ever expand­ing inter­ac­tive library of dig­i­tal books and video explo­rations designed to engage young read­ers and fos­ter a love of learn­ing.

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The Ruby in the Smoke Audio-book

In our roadtrip/vacation van there are four very dif­fer­ent readers—different inter­ests, dif­fer­ent read­ing inter­ests, vary­ing atten­tion spans, etc. In addi­tion to these dif­fer­ences and vari­ances, the kids are five and a half years apart. Find­ing a book that keeps every­one enter­tained and is appro­pri­ate for all ages can be a chal­lenge. Two years ago, The […]

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The Borrowers (audio book)

One of the first books we lis­tened to in the car was Mary Norton’s The Bor­row­ers. We had one child and he was very small. But he’d been well-trained on audio books. He fell asleep to The Vel­veteen Rab­bit (Meryl Streep and George Win­ston) or Win­nie-the-Pooh (The BBC ver­sion) every night. So we popped in […]

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