“It felt like somebody else’s book that I was listening to.” – Charlotte Wood
Ever thought about how an audio book is made? Who reads them? How do they choose a voice for a character? How much is the author involved, and what do they think about it? Charlotte Wood, Miles Franklin shortlisted author of The Natural Way of Things, reveals all…
Better Reading: How was the experience of helping The Natural Way of Things to become an audio book?
Charlotte Wood: I knew who the reader was which I haven’t done before. Other times I’ve had audio books made and they’ve chosen somebody and made it and it’s been perfectly good but this time was different because the reader was Ailsa Piper who happens to be a very good friend of mine, as well as a very sought-after reader for audio books. It’s fantastic because she is fabulous at her job; she’s not only an actor but she’s a writer herself, so she has a feel for language and rhythm.
So I was very excited when I heard Ailsa was going to do it. Then when I heard it I found it incredibly moving in a way that I hadn’t before. It’s hard to explain why but it completely separated the book from me. It felt like somebody else’s book that I was listening to. It made me feel very involved in the story and with the characters in a way that I hadn’t before. When you write it you’re so concerned with all kinds of issues like narrative pace, did you get this right and that, words that annoy you and that sort of thing, but when I had heard Ailsa’s reading I felt it as a completely new experience, it was really very powerful.
CW: We had a talk before she went in but I said to her, “I want you to do whatever you want.” It shouldn’t have anything to do with me because I really believe, whether it’s audio books or plays or films or any other version of a book, it is in fact a whole new piece of work and so the people making it should be free do what they want with it.
But she did ask me some things. She asked me about the first line of the book which is, “So there were kookaburras here.” She asked me about the intent of that line and it was amazing to me about how many different meanings it could have. She said, “If I say there WERE kookaburras here,” it is different to saying ‘There were kookaburras HERE.”
To me it had only one meaning and that was that the character Yolanda was trying to place herself and work out where she is. So it turned into a really interesting discussion about all the really finely calibrated different meanings you can get with a few simple words.
She asked me if I had any particular ideas about the kind of voices they might have and interestingly enough, I hadn’t really given it that much thought at all. I had thought about their bodies and what sort of person they were and what sort of class and that sort of thing. So I would describe how they moved or how they walked and how they thought of themselves and then she said, “Okay, well that says to me they would a more back-in-the-throat kind of voice or something.” It was amazing how she could choose a voice for a character based on what I said. She also had the very tricky job of being able to do that and differentiate between the characters but not go into some kind of ridiculous cartoony overplaying voices.
BR: She would also be doing the male characters and given that some of them were brutal that would have been a challenge?
CW: Yes a lot of it’s about rhythm. It’s not just that a deep voice works for a man. You know one of the guards is quite dangerous but he’s also kind of whiney and weak and sulky. So she could make a voice that wasn’t just a generic man’s voice. It was really fascinating to talk to her about the process of doing it.
BR: There’s a photo of you in the studio. Did you go into the studio with Ailsa for the recording?
We interviewed each other about the process of making an audio book , so we had the conversation about the voices away from the studio then she went in and did the reading. Then she and I had a conversation about what it means to have an audio book as opposed to a print book, and how it affects you as a reader and a listener. We spoke about the decisions she had to make, and she also asked me some things about the writing.
BR: Do you listen to audio books?
Every now and then, if I’m doing a lot of driving I do. Quite a long time ago my husband and I and a couple of friends drove across to Perth and back over a couple of weeks, camping on this big long holiday, and we listened to heaps of audio books in the car and it was fantastic.
Then when I was working on a deadline to finish my PhD last year, I went away by myself so I was working on the screen all day and at night, instead of watching TV, I listened to audio books and it was great. I was so tired and my eyes were so tired from working that I couldn’t read anymore but I could ‘read’ audio. So I listened to the audio book of The Handmaid’s Tale which I had not read before writing The Natural Way of Things. It was an amazing experience on audio. Obviously I knew what it was about but I deliberately didn’t read it until I was finished with my book.