How to Record an Audio Book October 5, 2017

So there I was in the studio, listening to actor Pascal Langdale tape the narration of my novel Mad Richard for an audio book.

Born in England, educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Pascal has a jaw-dropping range of accents and tones ready to deploy. Here was the soft voice of Charlotte Brontë, the hesitancy of artist Richard Dadd—the Mad Richard of the title—already locked up in Bedlam. Ahead was the modified Kentish Cockney of Charles Dickens, who would soon stroll into the book as the artistic superstar of the age.

Actor Pascal Langdale

They’ve made audio books of my novels before, but I’ve never been part of the process. This time I found I loved it, the precision and the depth. As someone who works in film as well as books, I have a great love of actors and performance, grabbing every opportunity directors give me to go on set, where I can watch words I’ve written come to life. This time, Pascal had been back and forth on his preparation for the sessions, sending me recordings of his interpretations of the main characters, doing a wonderful job of thinking through multiple roles. Total fun.

I first learned ECW Press was going to do an audio book when I got an email from Jessica Albert, technical director of ECW’s audio books program (among other things), asking what sort of narrator I wanted, whether male or female or one of each.

Mad Richard is split between chapters centring on Charlotte Brontë and Richard Dadd, and I could see how some writers might like two narrators. But I thought that having one would emphasize the unity of the book, which explores being an artist, the wonders and challenges—even the agony—that art can bring.

This is one of my favourite things about writing, the constant series of decisions you make. You have to decide whether to use this word or that one, whether to move your characters forward along one route or another. It’s like fitting the world’s most intricate jigsaw together. You keep changing your mind, of course, jamming in different pieces, seeing what’s the best fit, but I find that fun, too. Later on, it becomes a question of discussing the graphic designer’s various drafts of a cover image, the wording of the cover copy and so on.

Now we were tackling the speaking voices of the characters I’d heard so long in my head.

After approaching several actors’ agents, Jessica was able to send me eight audition tapes of actors who roughly fit the bill. Their tapes were mostly commercials. It’s challenge to judge the suitability of an actor based on his work promoting a car—the sexiest, the flashiest, the most deeply environmental non-gas-guzzling car—but as usual in auditions, we were able rule out some people right away. We wanted a British accent for a novel set in England, and one of the Canadian actors wavered in and out of his accent. Another had a pleasant voice set in a higher register than we were looking for, things like that.

In the end, we invited four actors in for auditions. Some people hate auditions—including many actors—since it’s all about rejection, rejection, rejection. As a writer, I’ve faced rejection, rejection, rejection for years, and I’ve developed a thick skin. None of us is right for everything. If Benedict Cumberbatch decides tomorrow he wants to play King Lear, they’ll probably tell him to wait a few years. (Maybe not. Ticket sales.)

I also hang onto the fact that in casting, you’re going to make one person happy—or at least relieved that the new role will not only pay her/him/them a fee, but add credits to their ACTRA Fraternal insurance plan.

In any case, we offered the narrator’s job to Pascal and luckily he accepted. Now we were recording the first chapter of Mad Richard, where Richard and Charlotte meet in Bedlam.

“They were bringing the final inmate to the Superintendent’s office,” he began. “Mad Richard Dadd the murderer, escorted from the criminal ward.”

And we were off.

 

This blog originally appeared on Open Book, where I was writer-in-residence for the month of June. You can check out all the month’s blogs here.

Meanwhile, please check out blogs from Open Book’s October writer in residence, Andrew Kaufman.