My Life Story, Someone Else’s Voice: Why I Won’t Be Narrating My Memoir’s Audiobook

James Tate Hill on the Way We Listen to Contemporary Memoir

The good news came in late January, six months before the publication of my debut memoir. Audio rights had sold to Dreamscape. In recent years, most titles by W.W. Norton and similar-sized publishers have become audiobooks, so my editor’s email wasn’t entirely unexpected. The line of her message that gave me pause came at the end: “Were you still interested in doing the narration?”

Due to the onset of blindness at age 16, every book I’ve read for the last 28 years has been read with my ears, either as audiobooks or with the electronic voice of a computer or eReader. Larger fonts and a 22X loupe like the kind jewelers use can help my blurry peripheral vision make out a few words, but this feels less like reading than slow, painstaking detective work. After a sentence or two, my eyes are ready for an extended break.

One of my least favorite memories from college is my senior thesis reading, during which my roommate and fellow English major stepped behind the lectern to read the 22 interminable pages of my short story. I listened anxiously from the audience, hoping no one would ask me afterward why I hadn’t read it myself. My professors and closest friends knew the reason, but back then it still seemed important, imperative even, to deny what must have been more obvious than I ever let myself believe.

As I chronicle in my memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff, I devoted much of my time and energy to passing for sighted, to downplaying what I couldn’t see in hopes that everyone I knew, from girlfriends to roommates to myself, might forget that I was blind.

A few years after college, pricey screen-reading software allowed me to use a computer for more than blind typing. In addition to email and the internet, my screen reader made it possible to edit inside the document instead of the microcassette recorders I had been using to compose papers and short stories. With earbuds in, I’d rewind the tape and repeat my words as they arrived in my ears, testing the rhythm and content of each sentence. Now I did the same with the synthetic voice of my software.

When the end of my MFA program approached, along with another thesis reading, I thought I had a solution. After endless hours of practice, my method of repeating the words in my earbuds a quarter second after I heard them, adding inflection to the digital speech, worked pretty well.

When I was finally able to share the news of my narrator, my enthusiasm was a far cry from the shame of my college roommate reading aloud from my senior thesis.

Fellow blind writer M. Leona Godin, author of 2021’s There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, calls this the “Cyrano” method of reading aloud. And like Cyrano de Bergerac, concealing his identity while he relayed romantic bon mots to Roxane’s suitor, I didn’t reveal the purpose of my earbuds to my audience. My charade wouldn’t end for several more years, and I spent much of that thesis-reading staring at the printed pages of my unfinished novel, a blurry prop I pretended I could actually see.

A dozen years after that reading, I Cyranoed my way through a modest book tour for my debut novel, Academy Gothic. Because the book featured a blind protagonist—and because I had navigated a winding path to self-acceptance—I sometimes explained the insertion of earbuds before I started reading. I had rehearsed the first two chapters so thoroughly that I had practically memorized the sentences as well as my delivery. When people approached me afterward to say they thought I was actually reading, my relief came not from fooling them but from having held their interest.

Published by a small university press, Academy Gothic stood little chance of becoming an audiobook. Even if it had, I wouldn’t have been a candidate to serve as its narrator. Covering audiobooks, I encounter only a handful of traditionally published writers each year who narrate their own novels or short story collections. Memoirs, on the other hand, are another story.

Long before my editor asked if I was interested in narrating Blind Man’s Bluff, friends and relatives had already inquired about the possibility. I usually demurred, saying that most memoirists did tend to narrate their own audiobooks.

“You totally should,” they’d reply, sometimes adding that I had a great voice.

With their latter point, I could not have disagreed more. Few of us like the sound of our own voice, but I have always found my own particularly unappealing. As much as its nasal timbre, my dislike might stem from the countless hours I have spent with it on all those microcassettes, sounding ridiculously pleased with stories I was still learning how to write.

But narrating an audiobook is about more than the narrator’s voice. The best performances come less from the voice than how it’s employed. The most skilled narrators betray a deep understanding of the text they’re reading, conveying tone and meaning in the rhythm of their delivery. And who could understand my book better than me?

*

Like most writers who aren’t celebrities, Melissa Faliveno had to audition to narrate the audiobook of Tomboyland, her 2020 debut memoir in essays. After producers liked the sample she submitted as her audition, Brilliance Audio planned to fly her from New York to their Michigan studio. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and producers said they would need to hire a voice actor.

It seemed best to leave those decisions to people who produced books for a living, people who had read a book with their eyes more recently than the first month of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

“I was devastated,” Faliveno told me in a recent interview. “Then I was like, wait a minute. I’m a musician, I used to make a podcast, I have a bunch of audio gear and know how to edit. My partner produces music. I think I can do this.”

She built a studio in the tiny, “blistering-hot” closet of her Brooklyn apartment, hanging blankets on the walls and trying out a variety of microphones, clothes on hangers serving as another layer of insulation.

Faliveno sent producers more samples, and she got the part a second time. With live direction from Michigan, she sweated profusely while she read, placing ice packs on her computer to minimize noise from the laptop’s fan. “The irony of recording a book that’s in many ways a coming out from inside a closet” was not lost on her.

The result is some of the clearest sound I’ve encountered in an audiobook. If Faliveno hadn’t told me where she recorded it, I would have assumed she was reading in a state-of-the-art studio. Her narration, too, captures the nuance of emotionally complex essays with the skill of a professional narrator.

The deeply personal subject matter of the essays was one reason Faliveno wanted to narrate Tomboyland herself. She also felt protective of the many friends and family who appear in the book.

“These stories are theirs as much as mine,” she said, “so it was important that, at the very least, someone who knows working-class Wisconsin, where I come from and where much of this book takes place, give them voice.”

Long before my editor asked if I was interested in narrating Blind Man’s Bluff, friends and relatives had already inquired about the possibility.

M. Leona Godin also had strong feelings about narrating There Plant Eyes herself. The money writers are paid for their narration was one factor, but the bigger reason was her closeness to the material. Although not a traditional memoir, There Plant Eyes tells the cultural history of blindness with the author serving as “a sort of blind guide.” Godin stands close to her many sources, offering illustrations from her own experience of vision loss that began at age eleven.

“These days there’s quite a bit of talk about own-voices stories,” Godin told me, “and so my audiobook is a literal response to that.”

The #OwnVoices movement emphasizes the need for stories from marginalized or underrepresented groups being written by members of that group, rather than someone without that lived experience. To that end, Godin began writing her book to dismantle false perceptions of blindness by the sighted world. She knew right away that she wanted to narrate the audiobook herself, unaware until weeks before the recording how many complications lay ahead for a blind narrator.

“I know a couple of blind writers who read their own audiobooks using braille, but I didn’t know any authors who had attempted reading by ear.”

Godin, who has learned braille later in life, knew she wouldn’t be fast enough to pull off narration at a professional pace using that method. When she explained to producers what she’d be doing, they grew concerned, first and foremost, that she wouldn’t be using the same PDF file they would have on their screens. Another concern was the potentially audible clicking of laptop keys needed to stop and start Godin’s screen reader. Ultimately, a prefatory statement was included to explain the clicks listeners might hear, and Godin’s performance allayed the remaining concerns of Penguin Random House Audio.

It’s worth noting that I heard none of the laptop sounds Godin alludes to in her author’s note, or if I did I was too engrossed in the book to notice. It’s also worth noting that Godin possesses a rich and versatile voice along with a performing background. She has acted on camera, onstage, and even done stand-up comedy. She acknowledges that the performer in her bristled at the thought of sharing credit with another actor on her own book.

If the majority of memoirists have become narrators of our own audiobooks, most of us have little to no experience performing. But as I’ve written about a number of audiobook memoirs, that’s okay. There can be profound pleasure in simply hearing the material in the unfiltered, unmediated voice of the author who has experienced it. Perhaps that would be enough. Perhaps, too, I had an obligation as a blind writer to give literal voice to the story I was telling.

I emailed to say I was, indeed, interested in narrating my own memoir. When the time came, I slowed down my screen reader, donned my earbuds, and recorded my three-minute sample.

*

Last fall, I filled out a standard questionnaire for my publisher’s production team. Did I prefer the acknowledgements to appear in the front or back of the book? Would I have a dedication page? An epigraph? A table of contents? My answers were: in the back, yes, yes, and yes.

The questions became increasingly difficult. Did I have a typeface preference? Were there any recent books I found particularly attractive in design or format? Did I have a binding color preference? My initial thoughts: no, no, and what exactly is a binding color?

She knew right away that she wanted to narrate the audiobook herself, unaware until weeks before the recording how many complications lay ahead for a blind narrator.

It seemed best to leave those decisions to people who produced books for a living, people who had read a book with their eyes more recently than the first month of Bill Clinton’s presidency. I trusted the production team and typed as much on the questionnaire.

This was when I first began to ponder the audiobook. Whatever the audio equivalent was for a binding color, I probably would have a preference. The biggest decision, of course, involved the narrator, and long before the audio rights sold, the voice I heard when I fantasized about my ideal adaptation was not my own.

Fortunately, I was not the only one who didn’t regard me as the ideal narrator. Within 48 hours of sending along my sample, I received a response from my audio publisher. They believed a professional narrator would better be able to bring out the humor and emotion in my book.

My first thought was how little I had practiced, only an hour as opposed to the days I spent rehearsing before public readings I’ve given. My second thought was how relieved I felt. If I have suffered briefer disappointments, I don’t remember what they were. Within minutes, I was downright jubilant at the prospect of an audiobook I might actually want to listen to.

The biggest relief was that after years spent writing this memoir, and many years before that of simply coming to terms with the story I’d been unable to tell since I was 16, my work was done. My editor, agent, and so many readers had helped me refine what I’d been trying to say, and I had already said it.

*

In a conversation included on the audiobook of Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, narrator Julia Whelan asks author Adrienne Brodeur why she chose not to narrate her memoir. Brodeur cites time constraints in caring for her aging mother, but adds that after listening to Whelan’s performance, she’s confident that her narrator did a better job than she could have.

Whelan, who also directs narrators in the studio, describes how difficult it can be for an author “to get used to the mechanics of narrating while also being embedded in their story and having to relive it again. It can be more challenging than people expect it to be.”

Gina Frangello’s 2021 memoir, Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason, explores the dissolution of her marriage, the death of her father and a close friend, and her diagnosis of cancer. But it wasn’t the prospect of reliving such trauma, she told me, that caused her to pass on narrating the audiobook. In addition to having less time during the pandemic, she hasn’t read many audiobooks since the Harry Potter series on road trips with her children. When producers asked if she had any interest in narrating Blow Your House Down, she thought they’d be in better hands with a pro. That pro, I will add, Hillary Huber, turns in a virtuosic performance—“navigating a tightrope of heightened emotion and lyrical introspection,” I wrote in my audiobooks column.

Long before the audio rights sold, the voice I heard when I fantasized about my ideal adaptation was not my own.

The possibility of an actor getting her inflections wrong—“wrong in this context meaning not how we hear them in our heads”—didn’t really bother Frangello.

“I think everyone who reads a text [visually],” she added, “also has an inflection and tone in their head as they read that is no doubt not identical to the author’s own, and that’s part of the cool thing about literature: the way things change based on who is reading.”

Michele Filgate, author and editor of the 2019 anthology What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, told me it was important to narrate her own contribution to the collection.

“I spent so many years carrying this story around in me and not knowing how to articulate it,” she said, “and I couldn’t imagine it in anyone else’s voice other than my own.”

As one might imagine, logistics prevent most anthologies from allowing every contributor to record their own piece. If any of the authors in Filgate’s collection had strong feelings about the professionals who gave voice to their essays, no one has mentioned them to her. For my part, while reading the audiobook when it came out, I found myself double-checking the cast, convinced at times that I was listening to the authors reading their own work.

*

Within minutes of learning I wouldn’t be playing the role of myself in the audiobook about my life, I replied to say how thrilled I was that I could listen to my own memoir with pleasure. I looked forward to hearing the samples of narrators from which I would choose mine. I nearly hit send before typing another paragraph.

“I’m sure Dreamscape has their own stable of narrators and go-to people in mind, and this is the longest of longshots,” I wrote, “but the actor Curtis Armstrong has been in my head as my dream narrator. He did the audiobook of Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the ‘80s Changed Hollywood Forever by Nick de Semlyen in 2019, and his ability to blend the book’s humor with its tender, contemplative moments is what I hope my narrator can pull off. I don’t know if reaching out to Mr. Armstrong is even an option, or if his fees or availability would put him out of reach, but I told myself I’d regret not mentioning his name when/if the time came. And either way, I’m excited to move forward with a pro.”

The actor perhaps best known for roles in Revenge of the Nerds, Moonlighting, and Supernatural seemed to have only narrated two audiobooks, one of them his own memoir, 2017’s Revenge of the Nerd. I had started reading that audiobook shortly after Wild and Crazy Guys, and the narration was equally engaging. He had a way of finding the subtle hinges in every sentence, of making precise choices without calling attention to his delivery. If nothing else, like I said, maybe they could find someone like him.

“Sometimes,” Curtis Armstrong’s Miles Dalby tells Tom Cruise’s Joel Goodson in Risky Business, “you gotta say what the fuck. Make your move.”

In April, I received the news from Dreamscape: “We were able to get Curtis!”

Many authors I’ve spoken to have told me they have never listened to their own audiobooks. The reasons are varied, but one of the most common is nerves, especially when another narrator is giving voice to their words, their characters, their own lived experience. I haven’t yet had the chance to hear the audiobook of Blind Man’s Bluff, but I could not be less nervous.

When I was finally able to share the news of my narrator, my enthusiasm was a far cry from the shame of my college roommate reading aloud from my senior thesis. Instead of stowing cartons of audiobooks inside a trunk under the bed of my dorm room, I write about them in a monthly column. Rather than hiding the disability I spent half my life trying to escape, the title of my memoir announces it to the world. And whether you read it with your eyes, ears, or fingers, the voice on every page remains my own.

______________________________

blind man's bluff

Blind Man’s Bluff, by James Tate Hill, is available now from W.W. Norton.

James Tate Hill
James Tate Hill
James Tate Hill is the author of a memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff (W. W. Norton, 2021). His fiction debut, Academy Gothic, won the Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel. He serves as fiction editor for Monkeybicycle and a contributing editor for Lit Hub, where he writes a monthly audiobooks column.





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