Sandra Parshall talks with Tavia Gilbert, audiobook producer, director and actress (Part one of two parts)
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: Who decides which reader will record which book? Do narrators specialize in certain genres, or in fiction vs. nonfiction?
TG: A publisher's studio director or casting director is in charge of choosing the narrators for projects. From time to time an author will have the right to approve the reader assigned to their book, so a few samples may be sent to the author to review before a final casting decision has been made. There have been a handful of projects I've hoped for, and it's thrilling when I've been chosen and heart-breaking when another narrator gets the job.
I think yes, some narrators have their niche, and I imagine that every narrator has a genre they are most fond of, but no matter what the material, the job of the narrator is to serve the vision of the writer with the most authentic voice. What I mean to say is that it's imperative for the narrator to fully inhabit the narrative voice and serve as a medium between the printed word and the listener. So no matter the genre, the process is the same: get out of the way of the work, let the work flow freely through you and humbly embody the author's voice and vision.
SP: Do you read a book more than once before you start recording? Do you mark it up, check pronunciations, make notes on characters, etc.?
TG: I read the book in full once before I read. Ideally, I would read the section the night before that I will be narrating the following day, but most often I am reading and prepping next week's project at night. I don't mark my script much at all, though each book is different and so it may require its own marking. I do always try to mark paradox, because to bring those juxtapositions to life requires mindful intention and inflection.
I am responsible for the research for my projects, so I look up a lot of the language in a dictionary or encyclopedia, call hotels or city halls or embassies to double check pronunciations of geographic locations and proper names, call librarians for assistance. When I'm reading fiction or narrative non fiction, I note each character and what they say about themselves, how the author/narrator describes the character, and how they are described by other characters in the book. That's exactly how I would prep a theatrical character, and it helps me make specific acting choices. I will also note how I think the character's voice sounds, i.e., low, laconic, whiny, halting, bright, strained.
SP: How long does it take to record an average length book? How many hours a day do you record?
TG: It generally takes me about two hours to record one finished hour of narration, so a book that totals 10 hours will take 20 hours to record. Sometimes I get down to an hour and a half for one finished hour, but that's a rare, victorious, shining star recording day. I record for five hours a day, at most. I used to do seven, but it's really hard on my body, especially my neck and shoulders.
SP: Do you work with a director who is on hand while you’re recording?
TG: Unfortunately, many audiobooks are no longer being directed. With digital technology transforming the publishing world, budgets have been cut and audiobook narrators are often self-engineering and self-directing.
But I love working with a director, and have frequently paid out of pocket in order to bring one in for the duration of the recording. It's great to have someone to pay attention to the long arc of the story, and it allows me to relax a little bit and trust that someone else is in charge.
I produce, cast, and direct as well, and I've found that when the budget doesn't call for a director for the entire process, it can be very valuable to work with the actor on the narrative voice at the beginning of the recording. The narrative voice is SO important, and I enjoy "sculpting" with an actor the voice they use. I'll sit in on a book for the first couple of hours and then check in later to answer questions, give support, and remind the audio engineer what they should keep in mind creatively as they're running the session. Later I'll give the actors feedback about phrasing, breath, relaxation, paradox, pace.
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.