Saturday, December 11, 2010

Talking Books: The Audiobook Narrator

Sandra Parshall talks with Tavia Gilbert, audiobook producer, director and actress (Part two of two parts)

Tavia Gilbert

This is an abridged version of an interview that originally appeared

Sandra Parshall: I couldn’t live without audiobooks, and one of my dreams has been to have my own work recorded. That dream has come true with the Blackstone Audio edition of my new mystery, Broken Places, narrated by Tavia Gilbert.

Tavia is a stage and voice actress who also produces, directs and narrates books, full-cast recordings and documentaries. She has won the audiobook profession’s Earphones Award and been nominated for an Audie. Recently, she agreed to satisfy my curiosity about the way books are recorded and how audiobook narrators work.

SP: How long have you been an audiobook narrator? How many books have you recorded in that time?

TG: I've been narrating books full time since September of 2007, when I got my first contract with Blackstone Audio. I was, truthfully, a bit lost before that gig. I had left my day job the year before, and I was really struggling to make my way, half-heartedly auditioning for commercial voiceover work and dreaming of really meaningful narration work. After my first job with Blackstone, I continued to get assignments monthly, and now it's a rare week when I don't have a book to record. I've worked on more than 70 books? 80, maybe? I'm losing count.

SP: How does someone get a job as a narrator? Did you audition?

TG: I did audition for my first Blackstone title, after I met Grover Gardner, a veteran narrator and the studio director for Blackstone, at the Audiobook Publishers Association Conference in New York in May 2007. I gently but persistently followed up with Grover after that initial meeting, and he finally sent me an audition piece. He cast me, and the following day he called me back. I was sure he was going to fire me before I even started -- realize his mistake -- but he gave me a rush title to work on, so I had my first two gigs. Every book I do I have a moment of a crisis of faith, and I think that it will surely be the very last book I ever get to do, but so far I'm adding new publishers and new projects fairly steadily.

SP: Have you ever been asked to narrate a book that you hated? How do you handle that kind of problem?

TG: Yes! And it's painful. It's got everything to do with the quality of writing. If the writing is masterful, there is great pleasure in narrating. If the writing is poor, it's an uncomfortable process. There is a vulnerability in great writing -- a revelation of the author's heart -- that is rich and beautiful in its idiosyncratic truth no matter what the subject matter or genre. Knowing that there are gorgeous books to be read, it's disheartening to get a book that relies on trendy cliche, author egotism, or cheap formula. But if I do a project, I am committing to embodying it and believing in it during the whole of the performance. Whether I'm working on a book that is gorgeous and transcendent or just pretty okay, I want the performance to be enjoyed and appreciated by the listener and the author, and so I endeavor to stay present moment-to-moment and not judge the material in the process of recording it.

SP: Recording a book must be like appearing in a play or movie in which you play all the parts. Writing a novel is a lot like that too. Broken Places has characters from different levels of society and different places, and many are natives of the mountains, so when I was writing I heard various accents in my head. How do you prepare to do different voices and accents?

TG: I would LOVE to have a lot of time to prepare dialects and character voices, but a full time audiobook recording schedule is pretty tight. I have a stock of characters that I can pull from ("Ok, he'll be my low, slow Southern guy, and I'll use my bright, breezy snob for her"), and I continue to explore and challenge my vocal instrument and my acting specificity to create new people to play. I use my friend Paul Meier's International Dialects of English Archive, which is an invaluable resource, as well as his dialect training materials, and I use the International Phonetic Alphabet as a shorthand to transcribe the key sounds of a dialect. I constantly soak in the way people speak, listening critically to how people express themselves with sound and language, tone, pacing, rhythm, volume, pitch, placement. I have started finding clips of interesting and idiosyncratic speakers that I can imitate for a particular character, from YouTube or NPR or movies. I also just work on the fly and I try something out until it works. It's very challenging, and I've gone back through an entire book and rerecorded the dialect of a character (a very manipulative Eastern European criminal) because I just wasn't satisfied with my first interpretation.

SP: What do you enjoy most about narrating audiobooks?

TG: I love the moments of work when I am filled with joy and delight with language. Language is the most beautiful gift, and an enchanting phrase, a complex idea masterfully unfolded, the brave exposure of a terrifying truth -- all these awaken me, make me more fully alive, engaged, and present. Sometimes when I'm reading a book I will gasp and tears may come to my eyes because something the author has written is so true, or because I've just learned that I've truly not been alone in thinking or feeling something all my life, or because the writer has been so delightfully playful with their words. I love narrating a book that I wish I myself had written.

Learn more about Tavia and her work at

Sandra Parshall is the award-winning author of the mystery series featuring veterinarian Rachel Goddard. The most recent title in the three-volume series is Broken Places.

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