It was around noon of my third grueling day recording the audiobook of my first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, when my innermost self cried out to be heard. I mean this literally. The disembodied voice of my director burst into my headset to inform me that my disgruntled, empty stomach was grumbling loudly enough to be picked up by the hypersensitive microphone; my solo performance had inadvertently become a duet. To muffle these protests from within, I finished the chapter with a pillow pressed against my belly.
Truth be told, my cantankerous abdomen spoke for the rest of me, too. For the marathon task of recording my own audiobook over four long days proved far more demanding than I had expected.
Getting the gig was deceptively simple. Following the audiobook producer’s instructions, I sat at my desk at home and read the five-page prologue into my iPhone’s voice recorder. Written in the first person from the perspective of a middle-aged man recalling his childhood, the scene is a dreamlike account of a four-year-old boy being carried at daybreak by his father across the majestic ruins of New York’s old Penn Station, the felled granite columns strewn like giant pick-up sticks across the marshy junkyard of New Jersey’s Meadowlands.
Those 13 minutes were all the producer had asked for. But to be sure she was in a position to evaluate my ability to read dialogue, I also recorded a comic sequence in which a 13-year-old smart-aleck meets a self-importantly pious boy at a party, lures him into a Socratic verbal trap, and then obliterates him with a torrent of absurdist, Pythonesque ridicule.
It was my concern about having a stranger narrate these humor-infused episodes—the high-spirited buffoonery of precocious teenage innocents pinballing into each and the world—that led me to audition in the first place. I have a good deal of respect for professional audiobook narrators, and I had little doubt that any number of them would have done a fine job reading my descriptive prose. But I had, in my mind’s ear, a very specific way I wanted the boys’ dialogue to sound, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable handing that task over to an unknown voice actor who might not share my sense of humor.
A few days after I sent in my audition clips, the producer emailed to say the gig was mine if I wanted it: “You have a great recording voice,” she allowed. “Your performance would add a personal touch to the recording that only you as the author can provide with your voice.”
That was the last moment things were easy.
. . . .
My director, a put-together woman with short, lemony hair and an air of brisk competence, greeted me in a gloomily darkened recording room. Her sound engineer, a nearly silent young woman with a Sphinx-like affect, gave me a nod. Then, after a brief orientation from the director, the engineer shut me in a little sound booth for the long haul.
The cell-like booth, the small square window in its door the only visual connection with the outside world, was about the size of a European train commode. It contained a utilitarian chair and a Formica table with a slanted reading surface. A little frayed-edged carpet remnant rested on this surface, and an iPad loaded with the final text of The Gargoyle Hunters sat atop the carpet remnant.
I sailed into the task of recording my tale. I enjoyed it. Friends had predicted it would be strange hearing my written words spoken aloud, but it was anything but; I always read my prose aloud as I write.
. . . .
I started out strong, charging through the prologue and the rollicking first couple of chapters at a good clip. But before the promise of lunch was even a glimmer on the horizon, a certain weariness set in, and it dawned on me: You’ve barely made it out of the starting blocks here. This is going to be an exhausting, long-distance slog during which, paradoxically, it is essential that you sound alert and energetic the entire time. The book was 334 pages, and if we were to complete the reading in four days—the time normally allotted for an actual professional audiobook narrator—a fairly cracking pace would be required. Author or no, there was no glamour here. I was to read and keep reading, and then read some more.
I’ve always admired actors and radio broadcasters, but not until the middle of the first afternoon did I begin to appreciate what an almost athletic performance was required to keep one’s mouth and vocal chords in shape for the duration. No wonder real actors spend years doing voice training and all those weird tongue exercises.
Before long, my throat grew ragged, a condition that worsened over time. And at the end of the third day, a Thursday, the director told me to take Friday and the weekend off so my voice could recover. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she said.