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May Wuthrich, Audiobook Producer and Director - Part 2

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

May Wuthrich, Audiobook Producer and Director - Part 2

When May Wuthrich accepted her friend’s advice and listened to the audiobook HATCHET by Gary Paulsen and narrated by Peter Coyote while driving from New York City to the Hamptons, she had no idea that it would launch an entirely new phase of her career. “We were hooked from that first book,” she said. “We were listening on a regular basis, and I got inspired.”

Now, almost eight years later, May is an experienced audiobook producer and director, working on books by such acclaimed authors as Rick Riordan, Jacqueline Woodson, Azar Nafisi and Mary Oliver.

Below you can find the second part of May's REAL TALK publishing interview, where she talks about the audition process for narrators, how she chooses the music at the beginning and end of audiobooks and just how long it actually takes to record a 300-page book.

In case you missed it, be sure to check out our blog post, where we write about what it was like to sit in on one of May's recording sessions (with Mozhan Marnò, who was narrating Azar Nafisi's latest  book THE REPUBLIC OF IMAGINATION), and Part 1 of this interview! Part 3 will go live on Wednesday, September 24th

TRC: When recording audiobooks, in what ways do you work with the author?

MW: It depends on the book. A lot of it is questions about pronunciation. I want to make sure our performer pronounces the character names the way the author has imagined them, especially for the main characters! I often apologize to the author because sometimes the pronunciation of a character’s name may seem obvious, but I prefer to err on the side of caution. And if the author has done a lot of research for their book, it’s great to consult with them about everything from setting, time and place to characterizations.

Sometimes we talk about approach --- and although authors might have an opinion that we want to take into consideration --- I find the best results come when we can allow for an organic process to unfold in the recording studio.

I just finished recording a book called THE GARDEN OF LETTERS by Alyson Richman,and it’s an absolutely gorgeous book. Alyson, who writes historical fiction and is a New York Times bestselling author, was more involved in the process than most authors. This book is set in Italy during World War II against the backdrop of the Italian resistance movement. There are a few German characters, but mostly Italians.

So for the narrative, what kind of voice did we want? American or Mid-Atlantic or British? So in auditions I offered a variety of approaches and we agreed that Elizabeth Sastre, a wonderful British actress, was the right voice for this story. Then the question was: how do we deal with the Italian characters? Because we want to differentiate them somehow from the narrative, and we want to feel the Italian setting, but we don’t want to create too much of a barrier between the listener and the book by over-emphasizing the Italian accent.

So Elizabeth recorded samples of the character voices with different levels of Italian inflection so all of us, including the author, could think about what would work best. For me, working with authors who love the audio format and want to be involved can be an exciting part of the process, and with Alyson Richman that was definitely the case!

TRC: Is an author’s level of involvement in the audiobook process completely up to them?

MW: Yes and no. Ultimately, it’s the publisher’s decision whether to involve the author, but if the author does get involved, it’s their level of interest that will dictate how involved. The profile of audiobooks has increased so much in the past number of years. It used to be that the audiobook was a kind of stepchild, but now, just as with eBooks, the audio format is integrated into the whole publishing plan. So although you want buy-in from the author with the audiobook, some authors are keenly interested and others less so. It’s a very personal thing.

Here’s another example. The main character in THE GARDEN OF LETTERS is a talented 20-year-old cellist who joins the resistance movement. Her music becomes a mode of communicating information to the partisans --- code is being imbedded into the music she’s playing. Well, quite unexpectedly, the author met a fan at one of her book events who happened to be a young cellist. And the two developed a relationship. When the author came in to the studio to record the author’s note, she brought the cellist with her! We recorded some of the classical pieces referred to in the book. It was exciting. And that music is being used at the beginning and end, and to bookend the author’s note. The idea came out of a conversation I had with the author and it definitely adds something special to the program.

TRC: How do narrators prepare for a recording session?

MW: Every narrator is different, but mostly, they look for the best way to tell the story. Of course there are pronunciation questions and distinct character voices to create, but in the end it’s all about engaging the listener in an intimate form of storytelling. If there are many characters and scenes of dialogue, it’s great if the actor comes into the studio with voice sample references for each character or at least has a sense of what they want to do and then they can refine it in the booth. A lot of actors will highlight the dialogue --- one character is yellow, one character is green, etc --- so that they have a code for character voices. And they can spend a lot of time researching accents, historical background, time and place, etc.

TRC: What makes a good narrator?

MW: Being prepared is of course key. They become detectives of sorts, looking for clues in the text for character development, plot turns and dramatic moments. But no matter how prepared an actor is, if they don’t know how to tell the story, if they can’t paint a picture with words or find the music in the language, you will get a flatter, less immediate reading of the book. A great narrator must be able to connect with the material on an emotional, intellectual and even spiritual level. Make it personal and intimate. Of course, vocal flexibility, being able to do distinct voices and being open to direction all contribute to making a good performance. And then, of course, there is stamina. It requires a tremendous amount of stamina to be in the studio for 7 hours a day. We take breaks, but generally they are in a small booth recording from 10am to 4 or 5pm. That requires tremendous physical and vocal stamina. 

A great narrator must be able to connect with the material on an emotional, intellectual and even spiritual level.

And we have this term “efficiency.” Some actors are very efficient, where they’ll read the page as it’s written and they’ll perhaps stumble over a word here or there, but they’re pretty much reading/performing at a steady pace. Like Mozhan Marnò [who narrated THE REPUBLIC OF IMAGINATION] and Elizabeth Sastre [who narrated GARDEN OF LETTERS] --- they are both incredibly efficient readers. They are well-prepared, read at a steady pace and don’t make a lot of errors, and that’s a very, very specific skill. Part of it is a kind of talent, but part of it is experience --- the more experience you get, the more efficient you can become. The challenge, of course, is not to be overly focused on getting each word right but rather keeping the storytelling alive and fresh.

TRC: How do you cast audiobooks? Is there an audition process?

MW: Usually, I cast a book off of a partial reading of the script, because I won’t have time to read the whole book so far in advance of recording it.

The way I’ve cast at Penguin, where I’ve done my producing, is to have actors record a short section of the book that I’ve identified. For the audition piece, I want to include narrative and dialogue. I may have 5, 6 or 7 actors read, and then I’ll choose 3 to 5 possible actors to present to the author. But we don’t do auditions for every book; there are some books where we say, “oh, this person would be perfect for it, let’s just go with them.” 

In that event, the in-house producer will often pull a clip of that particular actor reading another book and present that to the author.

TRC: Sometimes authors read their own books. How do you decide if the author or an actor is going to narrate the audiobook?

MW: That’s the publisher’s decision. And whether the author has expressed interest in doing so. If the author is a celebrity or public figure, the publisher will usually want them to read.

TRC: Is it different working in the studio with an actor than with an author? How so?

MW: An actor is used to being directed. Actors welcome the feedback of a director and are grateful to have a director in the room. And there’s a common vocabulary with actors.

When you’re working with an author, especially one who’s never recorded a book, you kind of have to teach them the vocabulary and the process. And you have to be very attuned to the limits of what they can do. You have to be sensitive to that process. Creative people can be so hard on themselves, and just being gentle with people as they’re going through the process is key.

And with both actors and authors, my goal is to maintain a positive attitude no matter what’s happening in the studio, because everyone wants it to be the best it can be. You want to create an environment where people can express themselves creatively. And I give a lot of positive feedback, because they’re in a vulnerable position in that recording booth with that microphone. And even with experienced, confident actors, it helps them to know that they’re on the right track. Sometimes it just takes a single note to completely change something.

TRC: Can you give an example?

MW: I worked with Joe Morton, an incredibly versatile actor who’s done film, television and theater, and is also a musician and singer. He’s just an amazing talent. And I worked with him on Ralph Ellison’s book JUNETEENTH. Joe had recorded INVISIBLE MAN and the Ellison estate was in love with him. They gave him the rights to adapt INVISIBLE MAN into a stage play, and folks had been trying for years to get those rights and they gave them to Joe. But I’m digressing...At the time of the recording, Joe was on vacation from a TV show he was doing called “Eureka.”

He was vacationing on Fire Island and working with me and an engineer in a studio in Freeport. He came in super prepared, he recorded from a standing position and he didn’t want to take breaks, not even a lunch break --- he wanted to maintain his energy and focus, and working straight through, with few breaks and not eating, was part of that for him. That man had incredible energy and stamina.

At the very beginning of the session --- literally within the first pages --- I suggested that he age one of two major characters in the book. They needed to sound distinct from each other and it was the simplest way to differentiate the two voices. That one piece of direction informed the way the whole book was performed. Of course there were other minor things I stopped him for, but really, it was that one note. So it can be just one note and minor things, or it can be acting as a coach or guide.  It depends on the actor and the book.

TRC: What do you listen for during a recording session?

MW: Once the actor has established a rhythm and pace and voice for the book, I’m listening for character voice consistency, hitting the emotional moments and keeping the pace going. Especially in suspense novels, you want to make sure the tension builds in all the right places. Also more technical things --- like getting the words as they’re written, proper emphasis, clipped words or extraneous noise. By the way, I’ll often go back at the end of Day One and re-record the first few pages of the book, because it sometimes does take an actor a few pages to find that right rhythm, tone and voice.

TRC: Are there certain books that lend themselves more to being made into audiobooks than others?

MW: Well, for me, books with a lot of dialogue, complex characters and a story that’s moving forward at a good pace. But all different kinds of books are being recorded now, and they’re all worthwhile because there are so many listeners out there for every possible kind of book.

TRC: For a 300-page book, how much time would you spend in the studio?

MW: It really depends on the actor and the density of the text. How much dialogue there is, how dense the material is, etc. Generally we can do between 80 and 100 pages a day depending on the narrator and the material, but I recently did a YA book where we covered 120 pages per day.

TRC: If an audiobook was 10 hours, how long would that have taken you to record?

MW: We should be able to do a 10 hour book in 3 days, but again it depends on the material and the reader.

TRC: Can you talk a bit about what happens after you record something? Is there a big editing process?

MW: So, at the end of each recording day, we email a link to the session and a scanned copy of the engineer’s marked script to the post production editor who is assembling the master recording (and using the marked script as a roadmap).

The editor will go through the script and the audio and put together a seamless program, editing out extraneous noise, retakes of lines, etc. They’ll make sure the sound levels and the pacing is consistent, and many other things. Once that process is complete, it will be QCed [quality controlled] by another editor who is part of the post-production team, then pick-ups [corrections] will be recorded, and finally it will go to the publisher for their own QC. If the publisher identifies other corrections to be made, those can usually get fixed in post production; it doesn’t require the actor to come in and record additional pickups.

TRC: Are you involved in that process at all?

MW: I’m overseeing it. Often I’ll listen to the first 20 pages or to the end of the book. And I may have some notes for the editor based on what I’ve heard or I may decide to re-record something that I’ve spot checked. But I’m not in the room, involved in the actual physical editing of it. 

TRC: You talked about how producers choose the music for audiobooks. Can you explain that process?

MW: The first time that I put music to a book was when I was doing an independent project for a nonprofit company. I narrated, edited and mastered a children’s picture book (I’ve always loved to read aloud, especially kid’s books), put music at the beginning and the end, and it took me about three hours to find just the right music. It was labor-intensive, listening to many, many, 30 second music clips, both alone and then under the text. Since I had never done it before, I was second guessing myself a lot, but in the end I found what I thought was the perfect music for the program and was very happy with it.

At the very beginning of the session --- literally within the first pages --- I suggested that [Joe Morton] age one of two major characters in the book...that one piece of direction informed the way the whole book was performed.

Now, almost 100 books later, if I’m lucky, it will take me 15 minutes to find the right match --- it depends on the genre, the actor’s voice and the tone. It’s become a very personal part of the production for me. Some books I have a more natural affinity for in terms of matching up the music. But I really enjoy that process now, and am much more efficient in the decision-making.

Once the music is locked in, the rights are licensed and we are good to go.

TRC: What about other noises? Do you ever put in bells or wind or anything like that?

MW: That’s another publishing decision.  I haven’t done books with sound effects. At least not yet. But there are producers who specialize in that.