Tag Archives: Karen White

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein has an almost unbearably sad premise: Karen Neulander, a 40-something political consultant and single mother to a 6 year-old boy named Jake, is dying. She has had a recurrence of ovarian cancer, and is two years into a four-year prognosis. She decides to write a book – a memoir – for Jake, so that he can read it when he is older and understand who his mother was.

Unbearable, right?

Well, I read Our Short History, and I made it through to the other side. I didn’t even cry until the last few pages (and no, Karen doesn’t die at the end of the book). It is sad, to be sure, but it’s also well-written and funny at times and not needlessly maudlin. Karen is flawed, but realistically human. She is in a terrible situation and she’s trying to make the best of it. She is a dedicated, diligent mother with large – but not infinite – reserves of patience for her son, and she’s smart and determined. She also happens to have Stage IV cancer, which has thrown her a big curveball.

The book opens with Jake asking Karen, once again, to find his father and introduce them to each other. Karen has resisted this request of Jake’s for many years, but he has worn her down, and given her (and his) circumstances, she finally relents. She sends a Facebook message to the man she had dated seven years earlier, whom she had loved but who told her he didn’t want children. Karen doesn’t really think through all of the ramifications of this outreach (which is kind of unlike her) – if Dave wants to see Jake, how often will she let that happen? Will visitation become a regular thing? What rights might he have to custody? Will he try to get custody after Karen dies?

Karen may be frustrating at time, even irrational, but I don’t know who wouldn’t be in the same situation. Grodstein has created an utterly realistic depiction of the choices a mother would reasonably make facing her premature death and the care of her beloved son. Karen loves Jake with a ferocity than even she can’t control sometimes, which pushes her to behave in ways she might regret, but which are oh so understandable.

So yes, Our Short History is a sad book, and at times Karen’s plight took my breath away. But I appreciate Grodstein’s writing and her storytelling, which made this much more than a tearjerker. I am a fan of her earlier works, and was not disappointed at all by this one.

I listened to Our Short History on audio. It was performed by accomplished narrator and EDIWTB friend Karen White, who did a great job with this one. She conveyed (fictional) Karen’s desperation and anger as persuasively as she did Karen’s pride and pettiness. I wonder how hard it was to keep her composure when she got to some of the more difficult scenes in the novel. Overall, excellent audiobook.

Summer Shorts 2014: SHARKS AND SEALS by Susanna Daniel

I have a special treat for EDIWTB today.

I am participating in a blog post series called Summer Shorts. In this series, a new short story has been featured every day on a different blog, featuring an audiobook narrator reading the work of one of his or her favorite authors. Readers have listened to a different short story for free each day, and can buy the whole collection from Tantor (with 20 additional bonus tracks) for $9.99 (effective through TOMORROW, June 30; after tomorrow the price goes up to $19.99). Proceeds from the purchases will support ProLiteracy, a literacy outreach and advocacy organization.

Here are all of the posts in this series to date. Yesterday’s post was at Miss Susie’s Readings and Observations.

The blog series moves here to EDIWTB today. I am featuring a narration of Susanna Daniel’s story “Sharks and Seals” by Karen White, a longtime friend of EDIWTB and one of the narrators I interviewed for JIAM last year. I have reviewed two of Daniel’s books – Stiltsville and Sea Creatures. You can listen to the story for free TODAY ONLY here:

I am so excited to be able to feature a Q&A with both the author AND the narrator of this story. It was fascinating to ask the same questions of both the woman who wrote the words and the woman who spoke them. I hope that you enjoy the story and the interview!

First, some background on the story, “Sharks and Seals”. It’s short. Really short. Like 3 minutes short. But so well-written, and memorable. It’s about a girl who is encouraged to join the water polo team in high school by a classmate, Stacia.  They become friends, and she spends time at Stacia’s home, where she learns that some families are very different from her own. When a tragedy befalls Stacia, the main character stays in touch with Stacia’s family, maintaining the relationship that has had such an impact on her and opened her eyes to new possibilities in life.

It’s a short story that really packs a punch, with each phrase – each word, even – contributing to the story without a single extraneous note. Like I said, it’s really short – listen to it. You will finish it before you know it.

Here’s the Q&A with Susanna Daniel and Karen White about “Sharks and Seals”.

Q. What was the inspiration for “Sharks and Seals”?

Susanna: I was asked to write the story for a project called Significant Objects, which pairs garage-sale tchotchkes with short stories about those tchotchkes, then auctions off the pairs for charity. I had a photo of two novelty pens, and from that came my story, which is about love and loss — these are the topics of all my work to date, I think, though I’ve written only rarely about a young adult.

Karen: I’ll let Susanna take that one, but I will say that I was very happy to learn that we’d be able to record contemporary fiction this year for Summer Shorts. I started looking around for short pieces online, and it occurred to me, duh, that I could try to find something by an author I’d already worked with and Susanna came to mind right away. I don’t remember how exactly I searched for it, but I ended up on this page with a photo of a shark and a seal pen and this story. I really loved it so I emailed Susanna and happily, both she and the original publisher were willing to let me record it for the Summer Shorts project.

Q: Susanna, “Sharks and Seals” contains two themes that recur across your work – life on, or in, the water, and communication (or lack thereof) among families. What draws you to these themes? Karen, are you a water lover as well (or has performing Susanna’s work turned you into one?)

Susanna: There might come a time when I give a novel the setting of my daily life — landlocked in the Midwest — but I’m not sure it ever will. The water of the ocean, boats, stilt houses, swimming pools: this is the setting of my childhood, and the backdrop for every fictional world I’ve created to date. Parents and children and spouses and siblings — these are the relationships I find most compelling and consequential, in life and fiction.

Karen: Well, I have to confess that while I love living near the water — walking on the beach and playing in the waves, I am NOT a fan of deep water and I am a pretty terrible swimmer. (Some combination of a bad swim team experience at a young age and reading the novel Jaws when I was 12.) On top of that I recorded Sea Creatures right after we’d moved from CA to NC. I grew up in central NC but now I’m on the coast, and reading the very intense descriptions of Hurricane Andrew kind of freaked me out. So I will definitely be evacuating if there’s any inkling of a big hurricane coming here, and praying that my house can take it!

Q: Parenthood is also a common theme in Susanna’s work. Susanna, why are you drawn to parenthood so frequently in your storytelling? Karen, do you find yourself incorporating your own parenting persona into your performances of Susanna’s work?

Susanna: I think I’m more specifically interested in how the family persona and the individual collide and coincide. In my second novel, Sea Creatures, the narrator, Georgia, has to find agency despite the fact that she’s become overwhelmed by her sometimes conflicting responsibilities to her husband and son. Parenting is one surefire way to put a characters’ weaknesses and strengths on display.

Karen: I think what has always drawn me to acting (and narration, which to me is definitely acting) is that I am fascinated by how other people think. Acting gets me as close as one can get to experiencing how another person thinks. Obviously in narration we’re playing lots of roles, but in a first person narrative like Sea Creatures, I get to live more completely inside the head of the fictional narrator and let that person’s voice take over. So in some ways I let go of my own thought and speech patterns. That said, I think in the best scenarios, I am asked to record a book because when the powers that be read the book (or its description), they think of me and my voice. So I guess what results is some amalgamation of me and the character. I hope I’m not quite as screwed up as most of the mother roles I end up playing (and I have recorded quite a few books about mothers who have issues) but I do think I’m probably a pretty neurotic mom. For instance, I try REALLY hard not to be a helicopter parent, which is one of the things that drives me crazy in the world these days, but in avoidance of it, I probably do a LOT of overthinking. Nobody wants to live inside my head!

Q:  How much interaction do you two have when Karen is preparing to perform one of Susanna’s works? Susanna, do you give any direction about characters, motives, or specific scenes?

Susanna: I’m not an actor and I have no experience with voice work – I leave that to the experts! Of course I answer any questions, like how something is pronounced.

Karen: I just looked up our email exchange and I only asked her two pronunciation questions! In my opinion, when the writing is good, I don’t really need any other input. All the direction is there, and if anyone tries to impose anything on top of that, it often sticks out like it doesn’t belong. Even if Susanna were to share deleted scenes about characters, I’m not sure it would be useful because the reader doesn’t get those scenes. I think it’s like the narration has to fit inside the frame that the book has created and going outside of that frame is at best unnecessary and at worst, a distraction.

Q: What are the challenges of writing and performing a short work like “Sharks and Seals”?

Susanna: My biggest challenge was the word count — I don’t write short, generally. My narrators usually have a lot more room to breathe. It took about ten times as long to whittle down the word count as to write the first draft.

Karen: What I loved about this story was that it was so low key and almost unemotional, and yet I could still feel all this stuff going on underneath. Simple and complex at the same time. For me, the challenge in recording a short story (and this is a really short one) is that there’s no warm-up time, you have to be in it completely from the get go. Also, I’ll confess that starting a book is always the hardest part for me because there’s usually an uncomfortable period while I’m figuring out the tone and pacing. It’s not unusual for me to do a first chapter and then start all over again if I feel like I didn’t get it. I think I recorded this one a few times before I felt like I had it.

Q. Do you think that short fiction is better suited for our digital attention spans than full-length novels? Or is the focused escape of a novel more important now than ever?

Susanna: Digitally or on paper, there’s really no substitute, for me, for a novel’s breadth — short stories can be very intense and artful, and sometimes, as a reader, I find them overpowering. I read more novels than stories, though I think I can learn more from a really smart short story than from anything else.

Karen: YES. Both! In my pleasure reading life, I feel like I’ve been through periods when all I can handle is short stories, and times when I really need that escape into a longer book (and hate it when its over). I will say that it seems like I have recorded more stories for collections this past year. Maybe it is a new trend in audiobooks…

Tomorrow: Summer Shorts 2014 Comes to EDIWTB

Tomorrow (Sunday), Summer Shorts 2014 stops here at EDWITB. I will be featuring a audio short story from Susanna Daniel called “Sharks and Seals”, performed by Karen White, as well as an interview with both Daniel and White about the story and their collaboration. You can listen to the story for free on my blog on Sunday 6/30, so be sure to stop by and give it a try. It’s a really short story – 3 minutes or so – and very memorable. See you tomorrow

June Is Audiobook Month 2014

June is a great month for many reasons, but one of my favorites is that it is Audiobook Month! A whole month to celebrate the wonderful narrators and audio productions of equally wonderful books.

I will be doing a few things here on EDIWTB to mark June is Audiobook Month (JIAM). Last year, I ran a series of three interviews with audiobook narrators. I am lucky to be able to do it again this year. Watch the blog for three Q&A posts with Therese Plummer, Tavia Gilbert, and Patrick Lawlor. I’d like to thank them in advance for taking the time to answer my questions – I have a lot of them!

Summer Shorts June is Audiobook MonthI am also participating in a blog post series called Summer Shorts. In this June series, a new short story is posted every day on a different blog, featuring an audiobook narrator reading the work of one of his or her favorite authors. Readers can listen to a different short story for free each day, and buy the whole collection from Tantor (with 20 additional bonus tracks) for $9.99 (effective through June 30). Proceeds from the purchases will support ProLiteracy, a literacy outreach and advocacy organization.

Here is the full schedule of shorts, as well as the blogs on which they will be available. On June 29, I will be featuring a reading of Susanna Daniel’s Sharks and Seals by Karen White, a longtime friend of EDIWTB and one of the narrators I interviewed for JIAM last year. You can read more about Summer Shorts here. Thanks to Xe Sands and Karen White for organizing Summer Shorts and inviting me to participate!

This month I will also update my Top 10 Best Audiobooks list which I posted last June.

SEA CREATURES by Susanna Daniel

Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel is one of those books that makes you feel lonely while reading it. I don’t mean that in a bad way; it’s just that there is a lot of sadness and isolation in this book that permeates even the experience of reading it.

Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel
Sea Creatures takes place in Miami, like Daniel’s earlier novel Stiltsville (reviewed here). Georgia and Graham Quillian have moved to Miami from their home in Chicago, along with their three year-old son, Frankie. The family has undergone a lot of stress: Frankie has stopped speaking altogether, and Graham, a parasomniac, was forced to leave Chicago because of some incidents that occurred at night while he was sleepwalking. His extreme sleep issues have put a tremendous strain on the family, but they’ve decided to start over fresh living on an houseboat on a canal outside Georgia’s father and stepmother’s house.

The first half of the book establishes Georgia and Graham in their new home, and explores their past as well as Frankie’s selective mutism, which Georgia has learned to accommodate. As she gets to the heart of why Frankie no longer communicates verbally, Graham becomes increasingly resentful of her enabling Frankie and, as he sees it, continually choosing Frankie over him. Their marriage becomes more and more distant, to the point where he takes a months-long job on a ship studying hurricanes, and Georgia starts working for an older man with his own troubled past with whom she develops a complicated relationship.

Ultimately, Sea Creatures is about parenthood –  sacrifices we make to keep our kids safe and mistakes in judgment that sometimes have ramifications far beyond what we feared. There is a lot else going on in Sea Creatures: a lot of sadness and death, marriages and divorce, and the hugely important roles played by Miami and its distinctive weather and neighborhoods and Graham’s sleep disorder. It’s a sad book, for sure, but it’s also rich and thought-provoking. I found it lonely, I think, because so much of it takes place in Georgia’s mind. She kept so many of her feelings to herself, and bore the burden of many difficult things going on around her. She was frustrating at times – for someone who was so in touch with her son and his needs, she could be oddly lax about things like vaccines and the need for pre-school – and made some choices that were clearly not well-founded. But of course, that’s what propelled the story and made Sea Creatures the engrossing story that it is.

I listened to the audio version of Sea Creatures, which was narrated by the excellent Karen White. (White is a friend of EDIWTB – read her Q&A here.) Karen’s voice matched the tone of the book perfectly – urgent, yet emotionally restrained at the same time (like Georgia). This was a great audiobook. It moved along swiftly and effectively conveyed the growing tension throughout the book. White also did a nice job with some of the smaller characters, creating convincing accents for each and giving them an impact that outmatched the number of pages that they inhabited.

So, if you’re looking for a melancholy, moody read that will also make you want to move to Florida and live on the water (something I’ve never been interested in doing before), give Sea Creatures a try. Just be prepared to feel a little lonely. Incidentally, I think Sea Creatures would make an excellent book club choice – lots to discuss here.

Q&A with Audiobook Narrator Karen White

web_karen_5195It’s still June is Audiobook Month (JIAM) here at EDIWTB!

I was lucky to meet three audiobook narrators at BEA last month who were willing to spend the time to answer some of my questions about narration. I posted the first interview, with Robert Fass, last week. Today’s interview is with Karen White. Karen White is a classically trained actress who has been recording audio books since 1999 and has well over 100 books to her credit and is a proud member of SAG-AFTRA.  Honored to be included in Audiofile’s Best Voices 2010 and 2011, she’s also an Audie Finalist and Best Audiobook of the Year winner for 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Q.  How did you get into audiobook narration?

A: Although I am a trained actress, I actually started as an editor in audiobooks.  Back in 1999 here in Los Angeles, most audiobook production involved celebrities and abridged books.  When calling around trying to get narrating work, I was offered a job editing audiobook recording sessions on ProTools (which I quickly taught myself to use).  My supervisor there was hired about six months later to open a Los Angeles recording studio for Books-on-Tape, and he hired me as his assistant.  At that studio I started narrating as well as casting, directing and editing.  It was an amazing immersion in the craft!  When I had my first child, I chose to work less and only as a director and narrator.  (I think mommy-brain and editing-brain could not co-exist in my head.)  About five years ago, I built a home studio and now I work almost full-time for publishers all over the country.

Q. How do you prepare for a new narration role? Do you read the whole book through to get a sense of the characters and story?

Only a couple of times have I been unable (due to last minute scheduling) to read the whole book before beginning recording.  And I really hated it.  No matter the genre, I find that it’s really important to read the whole thing through to “get” the narrative voice: the tone, mood, style, etc.  And inevitably, if you start a fiction title before reading the whole thing, you’ll find out on p. 298 that Uncle George spent time in New Zealand and picked up a bit of an accent.  And it can be a lot of work to replace all of Uncle George’s dialogue with the proper accent!

When I read the book, I am paying attention to the above narrative stylistic elements, and I’m notating all specifics on the characters (if it’s fiction) and any word pronunciations I’m unsure of.  I then organize all this info so I have it at my fingertips when I start recording.  I like to get the right brain work done ahead of time so I can cruise in the left brain and work instinctively as I record.

Q. What is your favorite book that you’ve recorded? Any books on your dream list?

A: Asking about my favorite book is like asking me which of my kids is my favorite!  But I have to say that one of my all time favorites was Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.  (I did the Library version, but not the retail version — not sure why or how that happened).  I’m from North Carolina originally, so I loved being able to work in my home accent.  And I connected personally with the material on so many levels – not so much literally but emotionally.

I think my dream is to record something by Edith Wharton.  I actually lived in her summer home one spring and summer while acting at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA (it is definitely haunted) and I read most of her books then.  I chose a Louisa May Alcott story for our narrator driven fund-raiser Going Public…in Shorts because she was on my mind.  But maybe next year I’ll do a Wharton!

Q.  Where do you do your recording?

I have a “Whisper Room” which is a not-quite-but-pretty-close-soundproof modular booth.  (Meaning if my kids are screaming on the trampoline right outside, I can still hear them.  And I can hear the neighbor’s gardener’s leaf blowers.)  I think I disappoint my booth a bit.  I’m its 3rd owner.  The 1st owner did movie trailers and the 2nd did sports promos. When I bought it, I was told that a million dollars a year of voiceover work had been recorded inside it.  Unfortunately, very few audiobook narrators are making that kind of money!  But I spend a LOT of hours in my little booth and hopefully she’s at least appreciative of the quality of writing I’m working with, if not the quantity of dollars coming in J

Q. Do you ever find that your voice changes from session to session? (Sometimes I think I can tell when one session ends and another starts because the narrator’s voice gets lower, for example.)

A: Because I’ve also worked as a director and I’ve studied to teach vocal production, I am very aware of this possibility, and I try to avoid it.  It’s a good practice to take breaks at the end of a chapter, especially at the end of the day.  It’s also important not to overwork the voice, either by working too long of a day, or by straining or abusing it.  But it can be a challenge to honor an author’s specific descriptions of a gravelly voice or a smoker’s rasp and protect your voice at the same time.

Q. How much interaction, if any, do you have with the author while you’re recording?

That all depends on the author and the publisher. Unless I happen to know an author prior to being cast (this happened when I read a book for pleasure and contacted author Anna Jean Mayhew to tell her how much I loved it, and later she requested me to narrate when the audio rights were sold).  Sometimes authors just don’t have time to interact, but for the most part I’ve found authors to be very helpful in terms of pronunciation help if the information can’t be found easily online. (Author Jilliane Hoffman was very appreciative when I checked in with her on character name pronunciation as she names all her characters after her friends!)  I also tend to promote my books on social media; most authors are appreciative of that.  I had a great time reading with Meg Waite Clayton when she was in town for a bookstore event and I’d love to do more of those.

Q. What do you like to read in your spare time?

Although I always seem to have a half-read parenting book on my bedside table, women’s fiction is definitely my pleasure reading genre of choice.  In fact, I’ve had a little rule since I was in my late twenties that I only purchase books and music written by women, for solidarity.  (If I really want to read a book by a guy, I will get it from the library or borrow it.)  My book club recently read Me Before You by Jo Jo Moyes, which I noticed on your sidebar.  I loved that it made me cry very snottily for the last 20 pages, which would have been tricky if I’d been narrating it.

Q. Anything else you would like you like my readers to know about audiobooks?

I’m just happy people are buying them!  Changes in technology have meant that a much larger percentage of published books are recorded in audio than were even five years ago.  I haven’t seen any numbers which would prove my theory, but I believe that the percentages of female writers having their work published in audio has increased as well.  Selfishly, that’s good because it’s more work for me, but personally, I prefer the woman’s perspective.

Thank you, Karen, for another wonderful audiobook interview! I appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions.

Karen has very generously offered to give away an Audible credit for one of her audiobooks. To win one of the books that she has narrated on audio, leave me a comment here about where you listen to audiobooks. I will select a name at random on Friday, June 28.

June is Audiobook Month

This month is Audiobook Month, and I am celebrating it with some audiobook-related content here at EDIWTB.

I discovered audiobooks in the summer of 2010, when I listened to 21-hour Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Ever since, I  always have an audiobook going in the car. My commute is about 20-30 minutes long, so I can usually get through an audiobook in about three weeks, sometimes less depending on the length of the book. I almost always pick out audiobooks for which I already have the print version, because I like to read along in the print. I find that having the print version lets me re-read passages that might be hard to find on CD, and it helps with learning how characters’ names are spelled, how books are structured, and how key scenes were written. And sometimes when I get close to the end of an audiobook, I finish it off in print because I get impatient to find out how it ends, and print is faster.

Some books aren’t as successful in audio as others (The Red House by Mark Haddon comes to mind), while others seem to dance off the pages on audio (A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash). I’ve read books narrated by their authors, multiple books narrated by the same narrator, and books narrated by multiple authors. I’ve read books narrated by 80s movies stars (hello Campbell Scott and Elizabeth McGovern and Molly Ringwald). And I’ve even had the chance to meet some of the narrators I’ve enjoyed.

Last week at BEA, I went to a breakfast with a group of audiobook narrators and a few other bloggers. It was one of the highlights of my BEA experience. I met Karen White, Robert Fass, Anne Flosnik, Patrick Lawler, Amy Rubinate, Simon Vance, Xe Sands, and Lauren Fortgang, and they couldn’t have been a nicer bunch. They tolerated my many, many questions and recommended books and recordings. They were incredibly supportive of each other, and seemed genuinely happy to be in each others’ company. Please check out their sites and their recordings!

In honor of Audiobook Month, I will be featuring interviews with Karen White, Anne Flosnik and Robert Fass later this month, and I have also created a new category within the blog – Audiobooks – which collects all of the audiobook reviews that I have written. I always cross-post my audio reviews at Audiobook Jukebox, which is a great resource for finding new audiobook reviews, and I also recommend the site Audiogals, which is run by Lea Hensley, whom I also had the pleasure to meet last week.

So keep an eye out for the narrator interviews later this month, and keep listening to the great recorded books that we are lucky to have access to.

Here is a photo of me with the narrators and bloggers at the breakfast last Thursday (thank you Lea for the photo!). I can’t seem to make it any larger.


I’d love to know: what are the best audiobooks you’ve ever listened to? What made them great? I will do a top-5 list later this month.