A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the joys and queasiness of hearing my first two Aaron Tucker books, FOR WHOM THE MINIVAN ROLLS and A FAREWELL TO LEGS, read for audiobook by the talented actor Damon Abdallah. (The third, AS DOG IS MY WITNESS, is now also available, but I haven't heard that one yet.) And I speculated on what the process of reading books for audio must be like. So I got in touch with Mr. Abdallah, and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions about it.
What you're about to read is the first part of our interview, since the whole thing at once would be much too long to deal with in one sitting. So stay tuned--next week we'll discuss audiobooks some more!
Jeff Cohen: What's your process in performing an audiobook? How do you begin? How long do you have to prepare before recording?
Damon Abdallah: How do I prepare? Hmm...at the risk of sounding like a cop-out, I sort of... don't. But please believe there is a strategy behind it! You know when you're reading a book, and it's suspenseful and all page-turney and stuff, and you can't wait to find out what happens next because you don't know? Well, my rationale for not reading the books I record ahead of time is my attempt to retain that sense of anticipation. I'm banking on that feeling somehow coming through in my voice as I'm figuring out what's happening next. Don't know if that works or not, but it's worked for me as a reader.
Sometimes this comes back to bite me, like when I somehow missed the bit of information in "Minivan" where you mentioned Barry Dutton's ethnicity. If you'll notice, the Chief of Police sounds sort of like Walter Matthau in that first book, and then like a black dude in the second and third. We got to the part in Minivan where Aaron makes the joke about "Aren't we supposed to say African American?" and Barry says he can say "nigger" if he wants to, because he's black. At that point, we're about 2/3 of the way through the book, and after consulting with Miles, my recording engineer, we resolved that we couldn't go back and change what we'd done with such a major character, so we stayed the course on Book One and properly "Africanized" poor Chief Dutton in the next two. My fear in reading ahead is that--even unintentionally, on a sub-conscious level--I'll give away the killer in my performance and won't do justice to all your lovely red herrings.
As far as how much prep-time do I have? If I finish a book on a Friday, I'll take the next one home with me on the weekend. At the risk of over-stating things, the only real prep I did for the Aaron Tucker series was read the information on the flaps of the hardcover edition (which was what I used for the recording on all three--I think "Dog" was in paperback) and when I read the "About the author" and saw your picture, and saw that you'd written books about the autism spectrum and had a wife and two kids, I tried to picture Aaron Tucker as looking a bit like this Jeff Cohen guy, and that made it a lot easier to play the part, especially with it being first person narrative.
JC: How does each character--and there are a LOT of characters--get a voice?
DA: The narrator (that's me) comes from a background of stage and film acting, and found I had a knack for improvisation, accents and silly voices early in high school. One of my proudest accomplishments as a regional theatre actor was getting to perform Becky Mode's one-man show "Fully Committed" for two different theatres, a show where I played 40 characters in an hour and a half. When I started working at Books in Motion last year, I pretty much chose to just dive in.
Most halfway decent writers (this excludes you, sir, who I would say is at least three-quarters to all of the way decent) tend to give clues as to a characters accent or manner or way of speaking early on.
Other times, I simply infer traits. If there's a reporter named Rodriguez, I don't make him sound like Cheech Marin, but I'll give it a slight Latin flavor, unless it's a character we're likely only going to encounter for a page or two.
JC: I'll try to retain my level of decency from here on in. Thank you! Now, the question everybody wants to know: How do you keep all those voices straight? How do you know you're not duplicating something?
DA: Sometimes I don't! It's like when I'm in a play and people ask me afterward "How do you memorize all those lines?" It's the thing that impresses people the most sometimes, and the answer is never as spectacular as people expect. You just say it, and say it and say it until it sticks. Same with the voices. I picture the faces of Abby and Ethan and Barry (although his face did some morphing!) and Aaron and each face has its own distinct intonation.
So much of the success of the recordings of these particular books is a testament to your writing though, it really is. You don't waste our time expounding upon a minor character we're only going to meet for a chapter or two and then never see again, so as the reader-alouder, I can put my trust in the fact that the voice I'm applying to the face I'm envisioning isn't going to be wasted. (Side tangent: Stephen King, who's written some amazing fiction that I love, is notorious for that! He made that uncut version of The Stand in the 90's, and it just made it 300 pages more tedious and confusing! Okay, I'm done.)
JC: What happens when you're reading a book you think is lousy?
DA: Ouch, this is prudent. After finishing the lovely Aaron Tucker mysteries, where I enjoyed the characters and the stories and the style of writing, and therefore had a total blast getting paid to read it aloud--I was reading a series of horror novels that is so badly written, so devoid of proper grammar, or correct spelling or sentence structure, that I have been having homicidal feelings toward this "author", whose book feels like pornography written by a virgin.
As to how it affects the recording; it makes it extremely difficult to make progress when you have to stop every two minutes not because you have a throat tickle, or you stuttered or got tongue-tied on some alliteration, but because you have a manuscript that is cluttered with typos, characters whose names are spelled differently from chapter to chapter and have completely interchangeable personalities. I'm in the recording booth tearing out hair that I don't have!
JC: For the Aaron Tucker series, you had to deal with not only narrative and dialogue, but asides to the reader. Is that difficult?
DA: Asides are no biggie for me. Again, working as a stage actor for the past decade, I've gotten pretty good at sharpening what was already a pretty good natural understanding of vocal inflection. (Especially when Aaron's jokes that he just-can't-help are in parentheses!)
JC: Do you have preferences in terms of genre or theme that you seek out?
DA: So far in the past year, I've done some forensic murder-mysteries, a non-fiction about Guantanamo Bay, a psychological horror, and the Aaron Tucker trilogy. Until the current gore-porn slog, I haven’t read anything I've disliked (although I haven’t liked anything as much as Aaron Tucker!), and I like getting to bounce from genre to genre. Some readers at Books In Motion seem to be specialized into certain types of books, hopefully I never will.
Next week: How a 6'2" man does female voices, why we don't hear paper rustling, and how Damon finds the jokes ahead of time.
For a chance to win a copy of one of the Aaron Tucker books on audio, click here!