When my first novel Sideways was published in 2003 I didn’t even know there was going to be an audiobook until I got a call from my agent saying he had negotiated a deal with Blackstone Audiobooks, one of the biggest in the business. I didn’t listen to audiobooks back then. They came in boxes with six or seven CDs, were difficult to navigate around in, unlike a physical book. The narrator of Sideways was Scott Brick. I didn’t know him. We never had a conversation. Sideways is so personal, so dialogue-driven, I feared listening to it. When I did, I turned it off immediately. It didn’t sound at all like how I and my friend, Roy Gittens, the model for the character of my alter-ego Miles’s foil Jack, talked.
I wrote two Sideways sequels in the ensuing years. Both were voiced by Scott Brick for Blackstone Audiobooks and, again, I was not involved in the process, and they came to me in beautiful boxes with many CDs. I didn’t listen to them, again fearing that they wouldn’t sound like how I and my characters spoke, the voices that every writer hears in their head. Honestly? And I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I almost couldn’t care less that they existed, but I was glad they did.
Then, something changed. Audiobooks no longer came in CDs, they came in downloads to apps on your phone. The books were more navigable, more portable, no longer required a CD player. Audible, now owned by behemoth Amazon, had an app that allowed for some search functions, allowed a listener to go forward and backward to certain chapters. Even more impressive the books had gotten better, way better. The narrators were improving, honing their craft, in this new and fast-evolving format for books. There were still good ones and bad ones and mediocre ones. There were the male narrators who would launch into histrionic falsettos for a woman character’s dialogue and you wanted to cringe. Then there was a narrator who could bring a barbarously long book like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 hypnotically to life. I don’t think I could have read the 1,000-page Bolaño in a million years, but I listened to it every night with anticipatory relish. No less than five – five! – narrators pulled me down into Bolaño’s mesmerizing prose and I was sold on audiobooks from that moment forward. I listen to audiobooks all the time now. A great narrator can make a mediocre, or difficult, book come to life. A dreadful narrator can take you out of The Great Gatsby and make you think it’s Fifty Shades of Grey.
Five years ago I embarked, unbeknownst to me at the time, on my longest and deepest work of fiction. I have written, and spoken on podcasts, elsewhere about my inspiration for The Archivist. The novel is really two novels in one. There’s the main story of a young female project archivist who comes to a fictional university and a fictional Special Collections & Archives in southern California to finish up a job. Her predecessor died in a drowning accident, or so it was ruled. We go back a year earlier to the drowned archivist’s story, and that story I wrote in first person to personalize it and differentiate it from the deep third-person narration of my project archivist’s story.
Three years ago Blackstone Audiobooks became a full-scale publishing house. I had originally written The Archivist as a limited series for TV, but now I had an opportunity to write the novel that the limited series was based on but hadn’t yet been written. Blackstone gave me green light and I was off to the races on a half-year journey writing it.
As Blackstone and I went through the line- and copy-editing process I began to think more and more about the audiobook. I knew that long novels were a tough sell, and The Archivist weighed in at a whopping final 641 pages. Conversations, however, with friends who are big audiobook aficionados taught me something: deep immersive reading was being replaced by deep immersive listening. And though they’re not the same, it hit me: audiobooks may be the savior of the long novel. If, IF, they are wonderfully narrated.
I let everyone at Blackstone know that I wanted to be involved in the audiobook narrator selection this time. They are the most accommodating publishing house I have ever had the pleasure to work with. When the time was right – i.e., the book had been copy-edited down to its last dangling modifier and misplaced comma – they sent me six audition tapes. They were all women, of course, since my two main characters are women. I listened to all of them with keen circumspection. I also gave the audition tapes to Kate Saeed, the archivist who processed my papers and who was the inspiration for the novel, and who is co-credited on the teleplay. She had an immediate positive reaction to one: Caroline Hewitt. I confess she was neck-and-neck with another “voice actor,” but I started poking around and doing some social media stalking. I liked the fact that Caroline spoke fluent French and that she came from a serious theater background. She could more easily voice, I reasoned, the more intellectually sophisticated deceased archivist. I also loved learning that she had written a play adaptation of Howard’s End – a favorite film of mine. For The Archivist, and the voices of two women, one 27 years of age, the other 40, I agreed with Kate: Caroline (probably early-thirties from photos) was the right choice. Blackstone was thrilled with my selection. Did they know something I didn’t?
I have written and directed two indie feature films and been involved with a handful of productions of my Sideways play adaptations, so I’ve had experience working with actors. To me, they’re a different breed of artist than, say, writers. We both need to access feeling, but a writer gets there through the oftentimes unsatisfactory abstraction of words; an actor gets there through an ineffable process that’s hard to put a finger on. To me, acting is a gift you’re born with. It can be honed in acting classes and with experience in theater and on TV and film sets, but it is almost always an unquantifiable gift. Writing is a gift, too, and hard to teach, but I feel that more people have access to it if they have the perseverance required to stick it out.
Once the decision had been made on my audiobook narrator, I asked Blackstone if I could talk with Caroline. I said I’d love to speak with her about the different characters’ voices, get a feel for what she is thinking. They said she was amenable to it. We set up a Zoom.
Caroline is unlike a lot of actors I’ve known. She is well-read, very intellectual, not at all histrionic or actorish in person. Our conversation ranged over a lot of topics, but when we got down to what she was thinking about for voicing The Archivist she was open to a dialectic, even willing to entertain some of my worst ideas – what if Nadia, the deceased archivist was voiced with a slight French accent? That was quickly quashed. We both felt it could come off sounding affected and annoying and may ultimately pull the listener out of the book.
Alexander Payne, the great director of Sideways and other movies, once told me that casting was everything. He said if he cast right his work was almost over, assuming he had great material. In fact, he almost didn’t make Sideways because he was frustrated he couldn’t find his Miles. When he auditioned Paul Giamatti and offered him the role on the spot his excitement was so palpable I could feel it through the phone lines when he called me all excited to announce he had found his Miles. And he wasn’t wrong. I quickly became aware that whoever I cast to read The Archivist was a crucial decision in whether the audiobook was going to work or not.
It was such a delight talking with Caroline about her process, about how she was going to approach the reading of The Archivist. My confidence in my choice grew with every engaging minute on our Zoom call.
One of the main reasons I chose Caroline over some of the others who auditioned is that she’s only been an audiobook narrator for two years. And though she has some impressive credits, I really feel – and I could be wrong – this is a profession where burnout could be a real factor. There are audiobook narrators who have voiced hundreds of books! How can you stay fresh to the material? I worried.
Caroline, like many audiobook narrators, works at home in her own acoustically-customized studio – in her case, fashioned out of a large clothes closet. She tries for two recorded hours in a day, but sometimes she is under the gun of a deadline or takes a job where they want her to accelerate the process. Those two hours usually take her four hours. She does vocal exercises to warm up. She takes breaks during the narration. To rest her voice; do yoga to relax. She told me she sometimes doesn’t feel like the take was her at her best and she’ll reverse herself back and redo a section, the consummate professional. Caroline is hard on herself, perhaps her harshest critic. So are the best writers.
I now understand why actors like Caroline enjoy the process of voicing an audiobook. It is minimal, or no, direction. You are the center of that book’s universe. You get to play every character. You get to make all the choices about how those characters should be played. Sure, an audio engineer will come back to her with fixes, and in rare instances, with big publishing houses there might be a director, but, in essence, Caroline is almost always directing herself, in a universe of the author’s making, but one in which she now has free rein over its audio incarnation.
Caroline grew up in a small town in Maine. She felt a palpable sense of “loneliness” growing up and yearned desperately to get out and see the world, find herself, her burgeoning talent as an actress/writer in a bigger, more cosmopolitan world. But until she came of age where she could take possession of those adult choices she immersed herself in books. In books, she told me, she found imaginary escape. In a second Zoom interview I did with her for this article, she quickly pulled up a famous quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald about the value and importance of literature and typed it into the chat window: “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” Caroline wanted to belong. And in books, in her youth, she could dream herself away to those places she would ultimately journey to.
In our first Zoom meeting, I didn’t want to wear out Caroline with too many analyses of her choices for how she was going to narrate my massive The Archivist. Content that she got it after a thorough first read, satisfied that she was approaching it professionally, I didn’t want to do something that is a big no-no in golf: “paralysis by over-analysis.” Keep it simple, in other words. The more you think it and the less you feel it the more wooden and affected and disingenuous it’s going to be. You have to let it go to her, trust her instincts, trust the choice you made in her.
Several weeks elapsed. Unbeknownst to me, Caroline, like most audiobook narrators, will often work on multiple projects concomitantly. Turns out she was also voicing Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks. (When I learned that I was doubly impressed because I’m a huge fan of Highsmith’s work.) Thinking more and more about the audiobook for The Archivist and thinking more and more about how audiobooks were the new deep immersive reading and possibly the savior of long-form fiction, I wanted to write an article about Caroline. I begged Blackstone for the audiobook before its release date. They sent me some 50-odd files. I started to listen to them. It’s hard for an author. I never read a novel I’ve written once it’s published, with one exception: I had to read Sideways in order to do the play adaptation, but I didn’t want to. When I’ve waved goodbye I’ve waved goodbye.
The Archivist is not in my voice, it’s in the voice of two women characters who drive the narrative with another four or five characters who circumambulate it with strong roles. I was eager to hear what Caroline had done. At first I could only listen to bits and pieces because it was hard to separate me, the writer who had written these words that he might change if he was vouchsafed one more go at it, and the listener, the objective listener who could just luxuriate in Caroline’s narrating voice.
I spoke to Caroline again on Zoom. But, this time it was me interviewing her for an article I wanted to write on audiobook narrators. I complimented her on her work but told her it might be a while before I could sit down, pop in my Airpods, and let myself go to her rendition of all my characters, the ones who had lived in my head for nearly five years, through countless drafts. She waved off my reservations, told me she can’t listen to her own audiobooks when she’s finished with them. Something is spent. A certain subjectivity has taken hold and all we hear are what we would like to do over again if we had the chance.
It was then that I realized we had so much in common. I told her that when I wrote my Sideways play it was so moving when actors brought my words to life, that it felt like they were honoring those words with their own instruments. When actors deliver the emotional truth of what you wrote, they raise the level of your dialogue to empyrean heights. Or can. The same is true of audiobook narrators. They impart a theatrical life to your book that no reader could ever be able to capture in their imagination when reading. There it is, your words, your story, your novel, sonorously brought to life, as if it were now a radio play, but something different, something more intimate because it’s one person reading it, one person investing herself in your words.
Audiobook narrators are voice artists. With their craft, their thespian skills, they bring books to the blind and others with poor eyesight, to those who don’t have time to sit down and physically open a book but want something more than the monochromatic daily news in a podcast on their commute to work. Audiobook narrators bring literary fiction, an art which is threatened by this tsunami of content daily deluging us, to life on a walk in the neighborhood or on the beach or on a long, exhausting flight. They bring the beauty of story and characters into our imaginations in a way that just reading them could never do. With audiobooks on the rise in popularity, my instinct was correct: it’s vitally important who you choose to narrate your book; it’s important that you, the author, do choose. It’s the difference between someone wanting to listen to the words you spent months writing to someone moving on to the next book or podcast in the queue.
I finally sat down and listened to Caroline Hewitt, the actor I had chosen to narrate my book. Caroline brought heart and soul and feeling to The Archivist in a way I couldn’t have imagined. After immersing myself in her voice of my words, I thought: God forbid artificial intelligence will supplant audiobook narrators with machine readers using borrowed inflections from real actors, as Caroline said was the audiobook narrator’s biggest fear. God forbid, AI will write the future literature. Surely it would be the death of both.
When asked, Caroline said I was the first author she had ever enjoyed a lengthy talk with before the audiobook narration process had commenced. I was astounded. What author wouldn’t want to meet the actor voicing their book? To get a chance to engage with them, to learn a little about their life, the rigors and exigencies of their profession, to give them feedback on the characters? It would be as if a film director called action and then walked off the set. We talked about her life, growing up in Maine, studying French at Vassar, spending an intensive semester abroad in France, then on to San Francisco and starring in plays, eventually getting an M.F.A. at ACT, to her in her closet in Brooklyn with no A/C (that would destroy the audio recording with its hum) pearled with perspiration as she put in her hours, diving deep into a book, into its world somewhere else, its characters she has never met, the little girl in Maine dreaming herself to another realm, and getting paid to do it.
Audiobooks are not just an author’s words read out loud; they are an author’s words brought to life. And just as I felt humbled by her taking my words to a height that mere reading could never summit, Caroline confided to me that the opportunity to read a writer’s work was also an honor for her, that she was chosen to give life to their words.
And, unlike theater – which only lasts at the moment, in your memory – an audiobook, like a physical book, like a movie, lives forever.
Just before we spoke, the New York Times had selected a list of “16 Books Coming in November.” Out of no doubt hundreds of titles clamoring for that endorsement, The Archivist made the list. But so, too, did the Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks.
“Two out of sixteen, Caroline, that’s not too shabby for a month of work,” I complimented her as we concluded our Zoom meeting.
She smiled wryly. “They’ll remember you,” she said self-effacingly.
“Yeah, but I’ll always remember you, Caroline. You alchemized my words into music.”