Over the years I’ve had lots and lots of people tell me how much they love Gabra Zackman, the reader for most of the Walker Papers audio books. Gabra emailed me around a year ago and we’ve chatted back and forth in email (and in Skype, recently! SO COOL!) a bit, and I thought, hey! I should ask if she’d do a guest blog sometime!
So I did, and she said yes! And so in honor of the audio version of RAVEN CALLS being released today, I’m posting the blog she sent. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
The Life of an Audiobook Narrator
I’ve had the privilege over the years of recording some extraordinary books, and it occurred to me a few years back to contact some of the people who write them. It was with great excitement and awe that I first contacted Catie to say how much I loved her work, and it was with the same great excitement that I responded to her request for an entry for her newsletter.
I’m currently in the midst of prepping RAVEN CALLS, the seventh book in the Walker Series. I adore it. It’s not fair or nice to play favorites, but… this is one of my favorites. The whole series has been an absolute gift to me. But this one has had me laughing even more (if possible!) and has made my imagination and my heart dance around with joy.
I’ve had three series I’ve done that have meant a great deal to me, and I’ve made contact with all of the authors. In the midst of one, I had lunch with the author at a pivotal moment: I had been through a really rough time in life, and wanted to thank her for her work. In that dark stretch, I got to spend days in a booth with her characters, and it brought me such comfort. To my great surprise, she confessed that she had written the first book of the series while going through a divorce… that she had written the characters to bring HER comfort!!! It was amazing to know that a book she had written to bring happiness into her life affected me in the same way, and I hoped it was the same salve to many other women who listened to it. I feel the same with Joanne Walker… she’s the inner shaman/ goof/ klutz/ kick ass chick who I wish I were on the inside, and her antics can always make me laugh on a rainy day.
I got into audiobooks through something of a fluke. The well-known reader Jonathan Davis has been a dear friend of mine since we did a play together, and he invited me to send an audition to a company he worked for. This company happened to have an opening—a reader with a similar voice had just left—and I was the lucky recipient of the best job I’d ever had. Here’s another way to tell the same story: I have the privilege of working a lot as an actress, but it wasn’t always that way. For a long time I waited tables and catered, and I had gotten to the point of no return. So I decided to have a frank conversation with God. “God,” I said, while wearing a tuxedo and serving canapés, “I can’t imagine this is my greatest good on this earth. If you want me to keep being an actress, you need to give me a way to live. If not, I’m throwing in the towel. You choose.” Shortly thereafter I got a call, and my life profoundly changed. Somewhere between God and Jonathan Davis was my salvation.
From the company I initially started with, I made contacts that went off and formed their own companies… and wound up doing this wonderful work in several different studios. I was one of the first people called when Audible started their own production company, and they are still one of my greatest employers today. One of my early books was THUNDERBIRD FALLS, the second in the Walker series, and I fell in love with it immediately. I was so excited for this book… it appealed so deeply to my love of language, folklore, and funny, powerful women. But there was a catch… another reader read the first book, and this is never a fun situation to go into.
Listeners are loyal. It’s something I’ve learned. And to switch horses on them midstream… pisses them off. So it was no surprise that there was much controversy about this. I read the book with great love and passion, but I was a fairly new narrator at the time, and a bit nervous. The listener reviews nearly killed me… there were all these comparisons to the first reader’s take on it, and it was really hard for me to deal with that. Besides which, I thought she was wonderful, and couldn’t understand the change either… my guess is that she moved or something, because they never switch readers on a series if they can avoid it.
So the whole thing was a source of great paranoia to me at first… and there were a ton of reviews that preferred one or the other of us. To be honest, my terror was selfish… it was less about my work, which I was beginning to be confident about, and more about the series… would they take it away from me? If there were more books, would I get them, or not? I was so relieved when I got the next one, and the next one, and the one after that, five in all for me to read over the years. I feel like these characters have become old friends, and I so look forward to taking them with me into the booth again. At the same time, it’s an interesting thing, having read for so long… there are early choices I made, particularly character’s voices, which I wouldn’t choose now [Catie’s note: That’s okay, as I told Gabra, ’cause if I’d known where they were going, there are some choices I’d have made differently for characters early on, too!]. But what can I do? I’m sorta stuck with them! I tried in one series to switch the voices mid-way, and that was like cooking a stew then deciding to make a consommé. It’s invariably better to stick with the stew.
Reading audiobooks is a strange skill, and a strange experience. I love it, but it’s not for everyone. I typically read about 4-6 hours at a stretch, and it is an extraordinary combination of patience (you can’t move around a lot), stamina (I call it “strapping my Nikes to my vocal chords”) and creativity (we want to hear the characters, but don’t do TOO much!) Usually it’s just me and an engineer, and at this point, we’re all pretty dear friends. It’s an intimate situation, reading a book to someone, and we have all worked together for years. So you can imagine that between long takes, and lots of tea, there are wonderful conversations, all of which occur on either side of insulated glass. Pretty strange? Yes. And pretty awesome. Especially for some of the more graphic romances I’ve read… those tend to be pretty funny nights. Please imagine a bunch of women in their 30s reading graphic romances to mostly male engineers in their 20s! It’s wonderfully fun. I think you need a great sense of humor to be an audiobook narrator. You need to be able to laugh at yourself, and intuitively find the humor of the piece you’re working on, both in equal measure.
There’s often a lot of prep that goes into it as well, depending on the material. For RAVEN CALLS, I’m planning to ask Catie if she knows how to pronounce all the Gaelic words she’s put in there, and if she can help me with it! We often have to ask the authors things like that, particularly if you’re working on sci-fi. I recently completed a sci-fi book that had something like 5 pages of pronunciations, all of which were directly from the author… when you have an entirely self-created world, it’s often like that. But it has cropped up all over the place… I once read a romance that was set in Japan, and had to consult a native speaker about the phrases. And once I read a non-fiction book about an indigenous culture in Alaska and had to make my way through Inuit words. That was a picnic! Again, we all have a good laugh over it, and try our best to do the kind of work we are proud of. At this point, I have recorded over 200 books, so there’s very little that can truly surprise me.
So here I sit, about to prep more of RAVEN CALLS, and I get to look forward to some time with Joanne and her adventures in a dark booth. Likely, an attractive young male friend of mine will be sitting across the glass, and in between Joanne’s tangles with her past and present, my friend and I will talk about our lives. I’ll occasionally say a wrong word, and we’ll laugh. I’ll have to say the Gaelic phrases several times until I’m happy with how they sound. And we’ll drink tea and coffee and listen, together, to all the places this story will go, to all the paths Joanne will walk down, to her irreverent and witty self-effacement. And, frankly, we’ll thank God that this is “one of the good ones” and that we can truly enjoy the evening.
So this is for you, the listeners, who will soon have a chance to read or hear this great new installment… I hope you have as much fun listening to it as I plan to have reading it. Cheers to that!