Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Spoken Story

Barbara here. I am not here to talk about the agony of thinking up book titles, although the topic is fascinating and we writers all have harrowing experiences to share. I am here to discuss a more arcane process; that of converting a written book to audio format.

Over the past few months, all nine books in the Inspector Green series have been converted to audiobooks. I'm thrilled to announce they are all available now at, iTunes, Amazon and probably other sites I haven't heard of. I was delighted to be involved in the process because the narrator chose to consult me about everything from the pronunciation of French Canadian names to the Irish Ottawa Valley accent of some of the characters.

Prior to this experience, I had imagined that an actor was hired, handed the book and placed in front of a recording studio mike, where he or she started reading at the beginning and continued until the end. Possibly with breaks as needed to eat and sleep. I should have known better. One of my daughters is an actor, and I know how committed they are to their craft. Like writers, they do their research, delve into character, and try to get the details right.

When we writers pen our words, we may have an accent in our heads, or an accurate idea of how Gananoque or Archambault should be pronounced. But it actually doesn't matter whether the reader knows or not. Maybe a reader from Australia or Belfast reads those words as Gananoke or Arch-am-bolt without missing a beat. But a listener from anywhere in Ontario, upon hearing Gananoke, would dissolve into a paroxysm of laughter that would destroy any magic the story had woven. The story would lose its credibility, and probably the author with it.

It takes a committed narrator to ensure that doesn't happen. The man who did eight of the nine Green books contacted me early on to ask whether he could verify words with me, and thus began a delightful collaboration that spanned several months and during which I realized just how complicated the conversion from written to spoken word actually is. My narrator was a young American named Kevin Kraft from New Jersey. He had to take a crash course in French names, French phrases, Yiddish, and many other names from around the globe that routinely show up in a cosmopolitan city like Ottawa. From Zdeno Chara to Nadif and Marija to Romeo Dallaire; he checked them all. In fact, not only were most French Canadian names completely foreign to him, but Americans have anglicized their own names of French origin, so the pronunciation is utterly wrong for an Ottawa setting. Imagine if he had pronounced Benoit as Bin-oyt instead of Ben-wah.

Prior to consulting me each time, Kevin researched extensively on the web to try to find either phonetic renderings or audio recordings of the words. To be thorough, he usually found at least two sources, which were often contradictory.The web is full of dictionaries and translation sites that generate audio files. Some of them produced laughable results; for example, the site which suggested Levesque should be pronounced leh-ves-kew. In these cases, I appreciated his thoroughness, although I did wonder how he could possibly be paid enough. Probably, like writers, he wasn't.

I learned a great deal about how to convey sound phonetically. Forget the little accents and dashes and hats we used to put on letters in the dinosaur age. There are no keyboard symbols for those (at least not easily accessible). So we used a whole new system. Caet for cat. Caht for caught. Cayt for Kate. And consonants! Ch, sh, dj, zh... Each word had to be dissected so that words like Majdanek would be correct. Kevin could hear differences in sound too minute for my own ear, but he wanted to be just right. Like a writer, it had to be good enough for himself first.

Kevin also worried about getting the characters' voices and accents right. If I described someone as rough and blue collar, he attempted to portray that. One character in HONOUR AMONG MEN was described as having a Cape Breton accent. Kevin wanted to know what that sounded like, so I sent him a YouTube clip of a couple of Cape Breton comedians. He couldn't understand a word and thought I was joking.

I truly appreciated the care and respect with which he treated my work. So far I have not yet listened to any of the books. I am like most writers in that respect, I suspect. The story and the characters live in our heads, and it would feel odd to hear it read to us. To hear Green speak, and Sullivan answer, in an unexpected Ottawa Valley Irish accent. Perhaps it is much the same way film adaptations seem like strangers to the writers who created the original book. Maybe someday I will have enough courage or emotional distance to hear them. How do other authors feel about their audio books? Is it an odd experience?

In the meantime, I would love to hear from people who have listened to the books. Tell me what you think! And if you like it, tell the world!


Rick Blechta said...

I have a horror story about The Fallen One, my one audio book on audible. They didn't consult me at all. Set in Canada, especially the parts in Quebec, every Francophone speaks with a Parisienne accent. Not a deal-breaker but then an Anglophone Mountie unexpectedly speaks with a French accent! We won't talk about how the bits of joual (French Canadian slang) came out. Needless to say, anyone from Quebec who hears it will get a good chuckle – not quite what they should have been after.

Kevin Kraft said...

Wow, Barbara, thank you for such a flattering account of my workflow and our collaboration to getting your books "heard" by the world. Your own dedication to supporting me in preserving the integrity of your books as they crossed over into audio media was so appreciated. I enjoyed our last few months together tremendously. Your levity and humor and our banter was also thoroughly enjoyable. Many times I felt you were in the booth with me. I think over the course of the 8 books we recorded, we only spoke once. But we emailed or texted so often (usually several times a day) you became sort of my internet pen pal. I've never felt like I know someone so well that I spoke to only once! Such fulfilling working relationships are rare. I miss you, and I miss having Green and Sullivan and Hannah and Sharon and Sid and Jules and McPhail and Paquette and, yes, even Barbara Devine in my life every day.

Kevin Kraft said...

By the way, I completely understand how you feel about authors not wanting to "hear" the book that they wrote, as the character voices a narrator creates can't possibly be an exact match to what was originally dreamed up in the author's head. For similar reasons, I don't like hearing my own singing voice, or seeing myself on film. But, since I'm the narrator and my only relationship to the books is my own interpretation of them, I've embarked upon listening to the entire "Inspector Green" series. I'm doing this partly to evaluate my own work, partly because I want to hear the story at the pacing it was intended (and not the choppy punch and roll editing process of the recording sessions) and partly because I simply enjoyed the books when I read them and was missing the characters! It is interesting to me, as I listen to the first book I recorded for you, "Do or Die", how my character voices have since matured and became more specific as I learned more about the characters through each subsequent book in the series. (Due to deadlines,I don't have the luxury of reading the books before I record them, so they are "cold reads"). So listening to the first one in the series felt like an "early work" to me. I keep thinking, "wait, Sullivan has a deeper voice than that!" or "Green has a higher voice than that"! Or remembering "I recorded that chapter a 3:00 a.m.!) I'm pretty confident that, with your help, all the geographical and proper names are correctly pronounced, and I hope that my accents bear at least some resemblance to the wealth of Canadian dialect diversity represented in your books. I'm excited to see how my collaboration with you informed my choices along the way, as I hope I regard my performance in each book as being closer and closer to your initial vision.