Tag Archives: Q&A

Q&A with Michelle Brafman, author of BERTRAND COURT

I was fortunate enough to be one of the many people who crammed into Politics and Prose last month to hear Michelle Brafman talk about her new book, Bertrand Court. (Yesterday was the EDIWTB online book club for Bertrand Court.) Here’s what Brafman had to say.

  1. Bertrand Court is a book defined by “random assignments”. Life is “one long cul de sac”, like Bertrand Court, and the characters of the book are connected in random ways like on this street. (She calls this “cul de sac lit”).
  2. She wanted to show a different side of DC, one made up of the people who work for the famous people.
  3. Bertrand Court is named for Bertrand Farkas, an Emmy award winning producer who had a distinctive style that conveyed a sense of eavesdropping. He was very good at establishing time and place.
  4. The book doesn’t necessarily have a plot, but it has an arc. It covers from babies to death.
  5. She wanted to explore “the glorious messiness of connectivity”, with stories told by characters who are in the hot seat, behaving badly.
  6. She found it fascinating to write the same thing from different perspectives. She kept writing stories she had from different points of view, revealing where the characters were based on their perspective.
  7. The characters in Bertrand Court are messy and inconsistent from story to story. It’s a book about connection but also about how hard it is to accept the cul-de-sac-ing in other people.

Q&A:

download-1Did you picture the book graphically?

Yes, I did. But I didn’t end up doing it on paper.

Jewish themes are big in your books. Do they play a big role here?

Yes, there are a lot of Jewish people here – not all. Some are interfaith. The first story is based on a Jewish folk tale. But this is not like Washing The Dead – this is more of a secular book.

Were some characters easier to write than others?

Not really, because I was always so compelled to write the next story. The men were so easy to write, as they were so far from my experience.

This book was written over the course of 15 years. Why so long?

I did a lot of backstitching, weaving back into the book.

When did you know it was done? Did you have an end in mind?

I always knew the last story would go at the end. I fudged around with the order of the other pieces.

Which was the last story you wrote?

“Two Truths and a Lie”.

Did you know the stories would be linked?

I wrote them in triptychs – groups of three. I wanted to tell the conflict from three perspectives, but have it all belong to the same world.

How you know when a sentence is done?

Never.

You’ve written a novel and novelistic stories. Which do you feel more comfortable with?

I prefer writing a novel. When I wrote these, I felt like I was working toward the novel.

Would you like to revisit these characters 10 years later?

I hadn’t thought of that, but it would be fun.

 

 

Pre-Vacation Post

I am finally going on vacation this week, which I am really looking forward to. 8 days in Italy, with hopefully enough downtime to read some books.

Here is what I am bringing with me to read.

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A few other things to share:

  1. My friend Nicole Bonia of Linus’s Blanket and I have started a podcast for Readerly magazine. Here is the first episode. It’s not on iTunes yet, but I will share the link when it’s up. For now, you can listen at the Readerly site. We talk about what we’re reading, what’s coming out soon, and what you might have missed this summer. Give it a listen! We’re recording another show today.
  2. I went to a reading by Carolyn Parkhurst on Saturday at Politics and Prose, where she talked about Harmony, the book we just read for the EDIWTB online book club. Here is some of what I learned in her Q&A:
    • Parkhurst has a son on the autism spectrum. She made Tilly a girl so that there would be differences between her son and Tilly.
    • Pop culture informs her writing a lot.
    • She told Alexandra’s perspective in the second person so that the reader could be closer to her and understand what is going on in her head She wanted those chapters to feel more intimate, so that the reader would viscerally feel the chaos in her life.
    • Harmony was the most difficult book she has written and took the longest to write, in part because it was the most personal. She worried whether it was OK to be writing about her kids.
    • She is still not sure whether she got Tilly’s voice right. Her son’s mind is incredible, unlike anyone’s she has ever met. She wanted Tilly to be unique too and had to create that voice for her.
    • Scott was the hardest character to write. He says the right things and makes sense on the surface. He is not based on anyone she knows, though she spent a lot of time thinking about cults when she wrote him.
    • She has ideas for her next book but is not writing anything right now.
  3. I also enjoyed this Wall Street Journal post about Parkhurst’s son reading Harmony.

I’ll be offline for the next two weeks or so but hope to have a few reviews to post when I get back! Happy August, everyone.

Q&A with Yaa Gyesi, author of HOMEGOING

I was fortunate to hear Yaa Gyesi answer questions about her new novel Homegoing at Politics & Prose a few weeks ago. (Here is my review of her book.)

Here is what she had to say about Homegoing and her writing process.

Q: What was the inspiration for writing the novel?

A: I went to visit Cape Coast Castle in Ghana in 2009 on a grant from Stanford. The inspiration for the book was instantaneous once I got there. I knew that’s what the book would center around. British soldiers would marry local woman and live upstairs, and slaves were kept in the dungeons below. The castle is majestic and beautiful, contrasted with what was going on downstairs.

Q: Did you feel the weight of a spiritual presence there?

A. Yes. The place is haunted. How many people died there? They had no light, air or food.

Q: Your book focuses on the experience of women.

A: It is very hard to erase the pain of these people’s lives. Very little has been done to make amends for what they went through. When you go there, you feel grief and rage. How could this have happened for so many hundreds of years?

Gyasi YaaQ: Homegoing is not a bitter novel. Were you conscious of the emotional demands you were making on your readers?

A: I did not want to ascribe blame. I wanted to show the complexity of the situation. There are no villains or heroes here; it’s a nuanced representation of how people came to evil circumstances.

Q: Do we all bear responsibility?

A: Yes, you’d have to wonder what would have happened if ethnic groups in Africa had banded together and fought back? We all had responsibility for stopping it before we did.

Q: What research did you do for Homegoing? How did you pick the Ashanti tribe? How did you establish the chronology for the book?

A: I picked the Ashanti tribe because they were central, inland and incredibly powerful. They were feared by both English and Africans. They won a lot of wars against the British. The Fanti are coastal, and would also sell people to the British. The two tribes would invade each other’s villages and sell the captives. I wrote chronologically, and would research what was going on in the background so that I could put it in the book. I didn’t want the book to feel stuffed with research.

Q: The book has one storyline in Africa and one in America, with 14 characters across separate sections.

A: I knew I wantd the book to end in the present tense, talking about the African-American experience. I made as many pitstops in between as possible. I needed it to cohere.

Q: Did you think of the different chapters as short stories?

A: No. The book always felt novelistic in scope. It felt complete and holistic. The chapters can be read separately but the point is what they all look like together.

Q: Did you ever second guess this structure and feel like you needed to write it in a more traditional way?

A: I started it in a more traditional way, but it wasn’t working. This structure suited me better.

Q You have a lot of different cultures in this book.

A: I grew up between cultures. I didn’t feel Ghanaian or African-American enough. This is the physical manifestation of straddling two worlds. I wouldn’t have written the book if I hadn’t been born in Ghana and grown up in Alabama.

Q: Who are your literary inspirations/heroes?

A: Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon totally got me started. Edward Jones. Jhumpa Lahiri.

Q: This is a story of disruption, where so much is lost. But there is hope too.

A: Diaspora is hugely important to me. My sense of self, racially, was confused. I was cut off from African culture and left for college asking a lot about diaspora. My trip to Ghana was a chance to connect with my own roots. The slave trade fractured families so completely. What did that mean for the future and our legacy?

INNOCENTS AND OTHERS by Dana Spiotta

9781501122729 (1)Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is a hot book these days, so I thought I’d give it a try and grabbed it from the library. It’s the story of three women: Meadow and Carrie – both filmmakers, who were best friends growing up in LA – and Jelly, a woman living in upstate New York who contacted powerful men in Hollywood as a hobby and engaged in longterm phone relationships with them under an assumed name. (Jelly is based on a real-life woman named Miranda Grosvenor (not her real name) who engaged in similar catfishing of famous men.) Innocents and Others tracks Meadow and Carrie’s careers and friendship, and weaves in Jelly’s story so that it intersects with Meadow’s as well.

Here’s what Innocents and Others has:

-A close female friendship where both women work in the same field, with the expected ups and downs, jealousies and betrayals, but abiding love and respect

-A fascinating look at a woman who is so afraid of real connection that she spends her days hiding behind a fake identity and living through the movies

-An exploration of the responsibility of a filmmaker to pass judgment on her subject (or at least acknowledge wrongdoing). Is it wrong, for example, for a documentarian to focus on the perpetrators of massive crimes against humanity (Argentine executioners who adopted the children of their victims) rather than on the victims, to try to understand who they were?

-A variety of narrative devices, such as transcripts, lists of movies, interviews, essays

-A lot about movies and the study of filmmaking

I mostly enjoyed reading Innocents and Others, but it’s also one of those books that made me feel like I wasn’t smart enough to really get it. Maybe it was the passages about the history of cinema or the mechanics of filmmaking – those are not areas I know a lot about and I ended up skimming a fair amount of them. But I did enjoy the rest of it. I like Spiotta’s writing – a little detached but wonderfully detailed about the things that matter. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the parts about friendship and connection more than those about filmmaking.

I went to a reading by Spiotta last week at Politics & Prose here in DC in the hopes that hearing her speak would enhance my understanding of the book, and it did. Here’s what she had to say:

-What does she like about writing? Having questions and trying to figure them out through writing. Just like reading, writing brings joy when you feel the self go away and you can imagine other experiences and have connections, even if you’re making them yourself.

Innocents and Others is full of connections and discovery through the imaginary and the observational.

-Jelly, Meadow and Claire are all strange women. Reading fiction can make our own experiences more clear (?).

-Spiotta is interested in outdated technologies, like landlines. How funny that you would pick up the phone and there would be a stranger there! We hate the phone now – there is something intimate and intrusive about being called on the phone rather than being texted. Using landlines in the book established a “slight location to the recent past” so that we could see it more clearly and precisely.

Innocents and Others also follows the theme of listening vs looking (phone vs film). Spiotta wanted to explore “the tyranny of the visual”, where what you’re saying doesn’t matter, but what you’re seeing that wins out. The power of the image overrides other senses.

-About the three plots in the book: Spiotta knew the stories would intersect, she just wasn’t sure when. She doesn’t like to write in a big line; she jumps from thing to thing as she’s going through. The rhythm of the novel comes from switching the stories around.

In the end, I liked Innocents and Others a lot and am glad I read it. (Just feel free to skim the filmmaking stuff if you’re not getting it.)

Q&A

Q&A with Hilary Liftin, author of MOVIE STAR BY LIZZIE PEPPER

A few days ago, I reviewed Hilary Liftin’s new novel, Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper. Hilary was gracious enough to answer some questions I had for her about writing the book.

mail_image_preview-180x180Q: How much of your affinity for writing can you attribute to your role as Features Editor of The Discus (our high school newspaper)?

HL: Well, all I can really say is that it was when working for The Discus that I first began to understand that nobody thinks I’m as funny as I think I am.

Q: I read that you knew nothing about writing fiction before Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper. How hard was it to develop the plot structure and the pacing of the novel without having done it before?

HL: I had never tried my hand at fiction, but I read enough (and was an English major, etc.) so at least I had a sense of what I wanted to achieve. Also, when I ghostwrite memoirs, I’m always thinking about the narrative structure and pacing–it’s just that I’m limited by the real stories and timeline of my clients’ lives. So in part I relished the freedoms of fiction–I could create a story to live up to my ideals. On the other hand, I had to create it. That was the part that was most new to me. I’m used to writing celebrity books on a tight deadline. I had to slow down and try to develop the skill of actually having ideas out of thin air. It’s a muscle I haven’t exercised much.

Q: You and I share a love of candy. What do you eat while you’re writing?

HL: I wrote most of this book at the charming chain restaurant, Le Pain Quotidien, where I could drink green tea refills punctuated with obscene helpings of their proprietary version of Nutella. Which is basically candy.

Q: Do you have a preference between writing fiction and non-fiction?

HL: The non-fiction books I do are more fun and in some way less challenging because, as I suggested above, the material is mostly handed to me. They are easier and I pretty much have endless energy for them. Fiction is more grueling for me, but having freedom and control — and being involved through publication — has been fun in a different way. I just don’t think I could ever be as prolific at fiction, but it’s been a very exciting shift.

Q: (spoiler ahead) I thought the saddest part of Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper was when Lizzie found Emil’s scripts in Rob’s office.  Did you base that element of the story on something you’d read elsewhere, or was that your creation?

HL: That element of the story has no basis in fact. In fact, I have to say that even though it’s one of my favorite parts of the book, the idea actually came from a friend of mine, Esta, who thought of it for me in a spin class. What a gift that was! As a professional collaborator, I have no shame in sharing the credit where it’s due! All writers should have friends like Esta. Or we should all spin.

Q: How do you think Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper would have been received if Tom Cruise had never married Katie Holmes? Do we as readers need to project this story onto real life people that we can picture or is a good story a good story regardless of its origin?

HL: If we weren’t fascinated with celebrity culture in general, I never would have written this book. It’s fiction–I don’t think we need to feel like this is or is meant to represent actual people–but so much of it is about fame, how it looks from the outside versus how it feels from the inside, that I think you have to have some level of curiosity about that notion to get drawn into the book.

Q: I love that Stevie Nicks is one of your dream ghostwriting clients. I think those rock stars approaching their 60s must have incredible stories to tell. (I decided I needed to write a book about a reuniting girls’ rock band after seeing the Go-Gos in concert last summer). Who else’s memoir would you like to pen?

HL: There are a few older stars whom I don’t think have done books–Barbra Streisand! Bruce Springsteen!–and of course there’s Caitlyn Jenner. I’m really open to anyone who has a story with interesting turns that have never been fully explained.

Q: Talk about your writing process. Lots of drafts? Or do you get it right the first time? How much did you cut out before the book was finished?

HL: I threw away chunks that weren’t working as I went–it’s hard to say how much, I don’t know, sixty pages? I’m also a big editor. I move and add whole chapters, paragraphs, sentences. Thank God for word processing. My husband, who is also a writer, did a very heavy edit over a three-day weekend that was supposed to be half-vacation but ended up being all work. And, finally, I love tightening prose, and I did that endless times with this book. I was finding things I wanted to fix up until the very end. I wrote very apologetic letters to my editor and did everything I could to persuade her that I was sane.

Q: Finally, when will you be in DC next and will you sign my book?

HL: I don’t know when I’m next coming to DC! But I’d be delighted to send you a signed copy.

Q&A with Jane Smiley, SOME LUCK

I attended a Q&A with Jane Smiley at Politics & Prose earlier this fall, and since I just reviewed her new book Some Luck, I thought I’d post the Q&A now.

Smiley calls Some Luck an “old person’s way of writing a novel” – with the years progressing evenly, as “happy and tragic events came and went”.

Q: A lot has happened since you started writing. Has it affected your writing or could you have written the same book 20 years ago?

A: I think so. I came up with this idea 5 years ago, decided on a setting, settled on Walter and Rosanna, gave the kids personalities, and set them on their way. The book is mostly made up of history and gossip.

Q: A lot of your books have an agricultural motif. Have you lived on a farm?

A: No, but I lived in Ames – what’s the difference? I moved to Iowa City at age 22. I was interested in farming, the ecology of farming in our lifetime. If I had gone to UVA, I would have gone down another path.

Q: You used to teach. When you taught, did it affect your writing, and did your writing affect your teaching?

A: Yes. Once I was writing a story, and teaching undergrads, and I was giving tips for storywriting and in the process came up with how to move on in the story.

Q: Do you write thinking about how the book will sound out loud? Do you ever wish you’d changed a word?

A: Yes, in fact I did tonight during my reading.

Q: A Thousand Acres had King Lear as its background. Did anything inspire Some Luck?

A: No, I just wanted to fill this title: A Hundred Years. This was much more free form. I knew where I was headed. I knew Frank would go to war and the farm would change and someone would stay on the farm. It had boundaries, but not structure like King Lear.

Q: Some Luck is the first of a trilogy. Are the other two books finished?

A: Yes. I need to fiddle with the last 5 years.

Q: Which books influenced you as a girl? Little House on the Prairie?

A: That series was read to me as a kid. The books that had the most influence on me were the ones I read as a 13-14 year old: Giants in the Earth, David Copperfield, The Web of Life.

Here is a video of the reading.

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…

June is Audiobook Month: Q&A with Narrator Tavia Gilbert

taviagilbertI met Tavia Gilbert last fall, when I participated in an online panel discussion about audiobook narrators and social media. She is a narrator extraordinaire, with 150+ narrations under her belt, and is a genuinely kind and funny person too. (Read more about Tavia here.)

I was lucky to be seated next to Tavia at the BEA audiobook narrator lunch in New York last month, and she graciously agreed to answer my Q&A about narration in honor of June is Audiobook Month. (This is my third in a series of three interviews with narrators.)

Q. How did you get into audiobook narration?

A: I was a listener before I was a voice actor. And I was an acting student before I was a listener. I had a long drive from Seattle, where I was in college studying theater, to visit my family in Idaho, and I thought, I guess I’ll get a book on tape for the drive. I went to my local library and checked out a novel written by Joanna Trollope, gorgeously narrated by Davina Porter, put the first cassette into the tape player of my Dodge Neon, and set out on I5. Davina was the perfect narrator to introduce me to the art-form of narration. How lucky I was! She is a masterful storyteller — delicate, strong, nuanced, precise, conversational, heart-felt, intelligent, articulate, and well-read (and these qualities show up in one’s voice and performances, absolutely). I admire her greatly. At the time, I thought, “I want to do that! I want to DO that!!” It took another seven years or so, but one acting degree, lots of work on stage and on camera, a tremendous amount of practice, a lot of classes and coaching, and a huge amount of passion and ambition later, I got my first contract. I’ve been working steadily ever since.

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?

A: I read the text and get a feel for the tone, pace, rhythm, and feel of the project. I learn about the writer — who they are, what they care about, why they wrote the book. I highlight my scripts (which are all on my iPad — I don’t use paper scripts any longer) with different colors to call my attention later to points that will influence my character choices — blue for specific vocal characterization notes, like dialects or voice qualities (i.e., rough, raspy, squeaky, etc.); orange for character background (like physical description or description of the character’s personality or internal life, etc.). I mark in red every word I need to look up or ask the author to pronounce, so that I am voicing everything correctly. I mark in green every bit of information the author has provided that gives me specific performance direction (i.e., “he whispered,” “she called over her shoulder,” “he slurred, drunkenly,” etc.). Then, after researching all my vocabulary, I’m ready to record.

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

A: I have many, many projects that I’ve absolutely loved recording, from science fiction to memoir to literary fiction to young adult to theology. But my latest favorite book is The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, by Jessica Lawson, for Dreamscape. It’s a young adult novel featuring the character from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. But in The Actual and Truthful Adventures, 11-year-old Becky takes center stage, and she proves herself to be smart, funny, brave, loyal, fierce, sensitive, and absolutely wonderful. If I had a daughter, I think I’d like a girl just like her, so it’s going to be great fun voicing her adventures. My birthday is this month, so perhaps I’ll begin recording her story on the actual day, which would be a very fine birthday present, indeed!

And on my dream list? I’d love to record more in the Linda Barnes Carlotta Carlyle series, because the series is fantastic and I adore Carlotta, and Little Women, the Little House on the Prairie series, and Anne of Green Gables, because they meant so much to me as a child.

Q: Where do you do your recording?

Much of the time I’m working in my studio in my Brooklyn apartment, but occasionally I’ll work in a recording studio in Manhattan, depending on the project. My booth is a double-insulated WhisperRoom in an office on the second floor of a brownstone. It’s awfully hot in the summer, but I’ve heard that one of the biggest contributors to job satisfaction is a short commute. At no more than ten seconds between the living room and my studio, my commute cannot be beat. (It doesn’t leave me a lot of travel time for audiobook listening, however. I have to wait until I do housework or jump on my bike to put in my earbuds.)

Q: What is your favorite genre for narrating?

A: Whatever is beautifully written makes me very, very happy, but if I was forced to choose a favorite, I think a fantastically written mystery can’t be beat. I don’t get enough of it, and I’m always really excited when a great mystery comes my way. I really enjoy tough, wise, female leads and wonderful supporting characters; compelling suspense; and surprising twists and turns. I also really love narrating literary fiction, memoir, and children’s and young adult work. See!? I can’t choose! If the writer is skilled and compassionate and thoughtful, has a clear vision and voice, and tells a great story, how could I ever possibly choose?

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

A: More often than not, I connect with the writer to some degree. With some I may just exchange a quick Facebook message. With some I may have a phone call. With some writers I’ll sit down over lunch and a glass of wine and then we’ll email and call and text and become lifelong friends. It’s been very surprising and very meaningful to have developed a few close friendships with writers whose books I’ve narrated.

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

A: Spare time? What spare time? I kid… kind of. I really have so much to read all the time, so many books to prep and record, that it’s very difficult to get in any reading solely for pleasure or personal enrichment. But I can get it in in fits and starts, or by listening to an audiobook during housework or while I’m exercising. Almost everything I read for myself is non-fiction, mostly memoir, though I do sometimes read literary fiction. On audio I listen to whatever my favorite narrators are performing, whether that’s contemporary fiction, a classic, philosophy, or memoir.

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

A: I suppose I’ll take this opportunity to ask that no one ever ask a narrator again, “Do you also act?” Audiobook narrators are acting every time they sit behind the mic. The art-form of narration is specialized acting performance. Just as we would if we were in a play or a film, we’re developing character, playing our objectives, making specific acting choices to bring the text to life. We are voice actors, and if you listen to an audiobook, you’re listening to an actor perform just for you! How awesome is that?

Thank you, Tavia!

Q&A With Audiobook Narrator Patrick Lawlor

Patrick-LawlorI have had the pleasure of meeting audiobook narrator Patrick Lawlor twice, at BEA 2013 and 2014. He’s an incredibly friendly, interesting guy who has recorded over 300 audiobooks in just about every genre. He has been an Audie Finalist 3 times, and has received several AudioFile Earphones Awards. He has won one Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award, Numerous Library Journal and Kirkus Starred Audio Reviews, Multiple Editors Pick, Top 10 and Year’s Best Lists.

Patrick has helped fuel my obsession with audiobook narrators by answering my questions here on EDIWTB as part of June is Audiobook Month. Thanks, Patrick! You can follow Patrick on Facebook here.

Q: How did you get into audiobook narration?

A: I started out as an actor, primarily on stage. Actually, my MFA is in Classical Acting, primarily Shakespeare. I have done all I can to make a living as an actor, and part of that has been expanding my definition of what it means to be a working actor. Subsequently, over the years, I have done stage, film, television, radio plays, theme parks, renaissance faires, murder mystery weekends, corporate training projects, industrial films. I’ve been an actor, director, stuntman, fight choreographer, teacher, tour guide, dancer, pub singer, bad mime, and yes, waiter, bartender and LOTS of file clerk gigs.

I was very lucky to get into audiobooks at a time when there were a lot less people trying to do this for a living. The Audio Publishers’ Association held a yearly job market, which was, in essence, a chance for prospective narrators to audition for a bunch of publishers at once, and then have several opportunities to socialize with them and start to get to know them. I was able to make several lasting relationships and got my first gig halfway through the day! I did 5 books my first year, 9 my second year, and about 12 my third. Since then, I average between 25 and 30 books a year. This has become my full-time job and I couldn’t be happier about it. I still do theatre when I can, but mainly I record. I have a studio in my home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and these days, record most of my work there, though I still travel to studios 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?

A: As far as my preparation is concerned, I have a fairly flexible routine. Each book is unique and presents unique challenges. Some have a lot of technical, foreign or invented words that need pronunciations. Some need a lot of character voices and/or accents or dialects. Sometimes I have to learn a whole way of talking, for instance if I’m reading military nonfiction, business books  or any number of things I don’t personally know about. Nothing is worse than listening to an authority who obviously doesn’t really know what he’s talking about! Generally, though, I always read the book (well, almost always. Sometimes time prohibits a pre-read). I make a list of all words I don’t know how to say. You’d be surprised how many everyday words you think you know that you’ve never actually said aloud. I pay special attention to real people’s names, regional pronunciations, odd words and technical words and phrases. If possible, I talk to the author to get her/his take on pronunciations and anything else they might find important. If it is a nonfiction, I then start to record. I normally do not do any distinct voices for nonfiction, unless they are specifically called for or the person has a famous voice. If it is fiction, this is where the fun starts. Character work! I come up with voices, accents and dialects for every character in the book. I draw as much as possible from clues in the text – accent, stutter, quiet, fast talker, etc. Once this is done, I hit the studio!

Q: What is your favorite genre for narrating?

A: Honestly, I love all genres. I really like the diversity of the material I get to read. If I had to pick a favorite genre, though, I’d have to say its a tie between Crime Thrillers and Young Audience books. Oh, and Dog Books! I LOVE Dog Books! And Romance. I’ve been doing a lot more of that lately and really enjoying it! Oh, heck! I like most of the stuff I read! Which is a good thing, because what I read for work is pretty much all I read. I don’t really get the opportunity to read much outside of what I’m recording, so I’m lucky I enjoy it! Mostly, when I do get the chance to look at outside stuff, it’s Runner’s World magazine, or stuff like the Harry Potter books. (Which should tell you how long its been since I read as a leisure activity!) My 13 year old niece is after me to read the Divergent books, so I foresee those will be next.

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

A: I really value interaction with the authors whose work I record. Unfortunately, I don’t get to do it enough. Whenever I do, I get fantastic insight into the work, and am able to craft my work to better serve what they have done. I feel that, with very few exceptions, narrators and authors should do everything they can to develop a working relationship. It only helps the work. This is especially true when dealing with a series. I have one author that I have worked with now for 10 years, recording over 20 books. Her name is Suzanne Brockmann and she writes mainly Romance. But FUN, action-adventure, Navy SEAL, high-octane Romance. Lots of humor, action and really good writing. They are the most fun books I do. I look forward to working on them. Generally, I read them with a female partner, as Suz writes in a deep POV style that lends itself to dual reads. I have had great partners in these reads, mainly Melanie Ewbank, but also Renee Raudman and one book with Angela Dawe! With that kind of talent, really, all I have to do is show up! Suz and I hit it off right away, and over the years we have gotten to the point where we are in each others’ heads. I know what she is going to say as I’m reading, and she knows how I’m going to sound as she’s writing! Mel and Renee and I have bonded with Suz in a way that is remarkable and fairly rare. It has gotten to the point where she knows us and writes characters specifically for us to read.  We have developed a shorthand that makes our jobs much easier. There is always a real team feel when we do a Suzanne Brockmann book. In addition, Suz and I have gotten to be friends, though I just met her face-to-face for the first time last month in New York. Our relationship allows us to cut to the chase when we’re working. I like to think we both do better work because of it. I know it’s more fun!

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

A: What else can I tell you about myself? I have won 4 Audiofile Earphones Awards and a Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award. I have been an Audie Award Finalist 3 times. I have several starred reviews from Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. I have been featured in numerous Best Of, Year’s Best, Editor’s choice, Fan Favorite and other similar lists. I am the only working male audiobook narrator in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (There ARE two female narrators, but one of them lives in a suburb, and the other does mostly theatre). I’m happily married to the very talented filmmaker, Karen Erbach (check out the Girl Scouts of America’s 100th Anniversary commercial, To Get Her There. It still airs all over the country! I’m a huge fan!) We have a fantastic 4 year-old American Staffordshire (Pittie) Mix named Charlie, who is, quite possibly, the best dog in the world, and we foster a 1 year old Boxer/Pit mix named Billy who is… stinking cute and trying really hard to be a good dog. To relax in our spare time, we run marathons.

Q&A With Debbie Stier, author of THE PERFECT SCORE PROJECT

I recently reviewed (and loved) Debbie Stier’s The Perfect Score Project, a book about her year spent studying for and taking the SAT seven times. Debbie graciously agreed to do a Q&A on EDIWTB. Here it is:

debbie-stierQ: At what point in the project did you decide that you would write a book about it? 

A: I started poking around the SAT in the summer of 2010 and was instantly hooked. It took a few weeks before I declared on my blog that wanted to try for a perfect score.  At the time, I was thinking I’d take one SAT!

But then a publisher called and said, “that’s a book,” at which point I came up with a “book structure” i.e. taking every test every time it was offered in 2011 (7 times) at different test locations (5, because I had to repeat a few), and trying out 12 different methods of test prep (i.e. 1 per month).

I was going to write a “consumer report” on the SAT and test prep.

Then, my kids rebelled halfway through and an unanticipated layer was added to the story: how to motivate a teenager to care about the SAT.

Q: This must have been a difficult book to organize, considering that you had so many concurrent efforts going at once. How did you keep everything straight so that you could divide up the topics so neatly into chapters?

A: An author told me to have the structure down before starting to write, which I took seriously and spent months figuring out. The story part of the book is written chronologically, which was easy; trying to figure out the point of each chapter took months of sorting through notes.

After the first draft, I pulled out the “hard [SAT] info” and put it into boxes within the narrative, which freed me up and I was able to tell the story more easily.

Q: Was it difficult to isolate the distinct impact that each study method had on your test-taking ability? 

A: Yes, though I always knew the project was an anecdotal experiment, not scientific.

Q: Has your audience been mostly parents, students, or educators/test industry professionals?

A: I wrote the book with parents in mind and have been surprised that many have given it to their kids to read after finishing. I probably wouldn’t have shared all my “secrets,” had I known there would be teenagers reading!

I also get a lot of email and calls from educators and test industry professionals, which is gratifying. From the reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the audience seems to be evenly divided between parents, students, educators and test industry professionals.

Q: Did you take time off from your publishing job to do The Perfect Score Project? 

A: Yes! There is no way I could have written a book and held a job at the same time.  I couldn’t even look at the Internet while writing. It took total and utter focus.

Q: You love the SAT, but for most kids it is a dreaded experience that they are happy to put behind them. Given your perspective on the test, do you think it is a useful barometer for colleges to evaluate achievement, ability, and the likelihood of success?

A: I think the SAT is an accurate barometer one’s mastery of the skills tested: reading, writing and math – at one moment in time.  I’m living proof that you can improve significantly, so it’s definitely a test of ability, which is why I don’t think it’s an accurate predictor of “success in life.”

I read one study that said your high school’s SAT average is a better predictor of success in life than your personal SAT score. That seems more accurate to me.

Q: Any more books on the horizon or are you back to your day job?

A: Not sure!

I’m in the midst of writing another book about educating my daughter Daisy (now home schooled), and, she is writing a novel that I’m in the midst of editing.

My guess is that her book and proposal will be finished before mine.

Q: Did you enjoy recording the audio of The Perfect Score Project?

A: I loved it!  I’d do it again in a heartbeat, though I wish I’d taken diction lessons before I recorded it!

Next time!