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Audiobook actors are here

They bring books to life, but must refrain from tricks so that they don't distract from author's words.

india Updated: Oct 01, 2005 19:13 IST

Tom Stechschulte leans into the microphone and wraps his cracker-barrel voice around a tale of bloody battles in the old West.

As golden-throated actors in other studios at Recorded Books read works about religious cabals, vampires and perky girls in the big city, Stechschulte is turning the pages of Apache Storm into an audiobook. He pauses to roll a few Apache words around his tongue, practicing pronunciations to give a honeyed delivery of such lines as: "Kiannatah watched the Nakai-Ye die, choking on his own blood, his body convulsing as he tried in vain to draw air into his lungs."

This is acting, audiobook style.

It's a job full of contradictions. Actors must bring books to life, but cannot lean on thespian tricks so heavily that they distract from the author's words. Narrators read for hours in isolation, but make surprisingly personal connections to the people who listen on car stereos and earbuds.

"It's a phenomenon that people treat lightly, and it should not be treated lightly," says George Guidall, who has read 850 books, from Kafka to Stephen King. "It's something that's essential to human beings: listening to stories."

It's also the backbone of an $800 million (euro666 million) business. Audiobooks are a small but growing slice of the overall book market as more people listen to books in transit or just noodling around. Sales of downloadable books are particularly robust - Faulkner and Freakonomics can now share space on portable music players smaller than a candy bar.

Recorded Books' ninth-floor studios in Manhattan produce about 700 unabridged audiobooks a year, from spy stories to chick lit to history. The company was a pioneer in 1979, but now competes with dozens of operations, including audio divisions of major publishing companies.

While authors will sometimes read their own books, as Malcolm Gladwell did with his best seller, Blink, books are typically read by actors. Sean Penn (Bob Dylan's Chronicles) and Julia Roberts (The Nanny Diaries) are among the stars who have done it.

But most audiobooks are read by less heralded actors; many have turned it into a steady gig _ like L.J. Ganser and Jim Dale. Dale is the lone narrator behind the audiobook versions of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, winning a spoken word Grammy in 2001 for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. For the latest installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Dale provides voices for 117 characters.

On a recent morning, Ganser is narrating a Da Vinci Code-like thriller titled Map of Bones. He makes hand gestures no one will see and cocks his hand to his ear like an old-time radio announcer. He is sealed inside what looks like a quiz show isolation booth. A window allows him to see a director tracking his performance on a computer that displays his cadences like an EKG.

The novel is thick with lines about superconductivity and Vatican history. But Ganser gives a bouncy reading, later explaining, "I try to give it some juice." He had read the book through to get a sense of the story.

As for the technical stuff, well, he's an actor. "I couldn't really tell you what a superconductor is," he said. What makes a good reader?

An audiobook narrator has to approximate the "voice" of the book imagined in readers' heads. Dickens is best read by Brits. A Southern accent helps for "All the King's Men." Still, it's tricky: A narrator has to walk the fine line of enlivening texts without overshadowing them.

Hit a Russian accent too hard, you sound like Boris and Natasha in the Rocky and Bullwinkle TV series, complains Robin Whitten, editor of AudioFile magazine. Reviewers on the audible.com Web site offer similar cartoon-themed critiques: a Da Vinci Code listener said the French accents sounded like the Pink Panther; a narrator for The Devil Wears Prada is compared to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Skilled narrators such as 25-year-old Jennifer Ikeda, rely on more subtle strategies.

Sitting with a knee tucked under her chin in a Recorded Books studio, she reads a book about a small-town Christian girl in New York City titled Emily Ever After. Emily is done in a slightly high voice to convey youth and openness. Ikeda gives Emily's antagonist a catty edge.

"It's sort of like doing a one-man show," Ikeda says, "except you don't have to memorize your lines."

Ikeda has a rich voice she can make sound girlie for lines like, "I wiggle my toes in my high heels and feel a little giggly." On the other end of the scale, 67-year-old Guidall sounds elegant, like someone who could give advice on wine.

The actors are among the 150 distinct voices Recorded Books executive producer Claudia Howard chooses from for new books. She is a casting director for audiobooks, judging diction, timbre and timing. Which male voice fits a war story? Which woman for a fashion-world novel? Romance books are a wild card. Females work, though suave-sounding males are good for bodice-rippers. Competition for narrating gigs can be cutthroat. Howard has a drawer jammed with mailed-in audition discs. She listens to maybe 500 to 600 new voices a year, but on average adds a half-dozen actors a year to her stable. Amateurs need not apply. Pay is typically by the job, and many actors use the work to cobble together a career along with stage work and guest spots on TV and film.

"This audiobook job pays the bills in the downtime," Ikeda says.

A lot of actors just fall into it. Guidall, a stage and soap opera veteran, started by reading for the blind more than 15 years ago. A big break came after he successfully auditioned to voice Tony Hillerman's popular Joe Leaphorn Navajo mysteries. "I had no idea it would be me," Guidall said. "I'm from New Jersey."

It can be a good gig. Reading a book can take 20 hours, but usually over weeks in two-hour sessions. Dress is casual and, unlike Broadway, there are no nights and weekends. Stechschulte says the work can be more enjoyable than other gigs.

"Better scripts," he explains. "You get to play all the characters. And you get to direct it. If you're doing a guest spot on `Law & Order' you're being told what to do, you know, `Tilt your head a quarter of an inch more."'

Some narrators, like Guidall and Dale are well known by listeners. But it's a different kind of fame. They're disembodied voices connected to the books, what Guidall calls "anonymous celebrity." Still, Guidall happily recounts listeners coming up to him at his library readings to ask: Do you remember when Joe Leaphorn did this?

Downsides include the occasional crummy book, poorly drawn characters (harder to act out) and dense text. Howard says narration of James Joyce's "Ulysses" (sample line: "Pronosophical philotheology. Metephysics in Mecklenburg street!") took about an hour a page.

"One of the hardest words for readers is `clasped,"' says Guidall's director, Johanna Parker.

"The other one is `asked' after `Jack"' Guidall said. "`Jack asked."'

Readers are Type A about pronunciation. Words that narrators are unsure how to pronounce _ such as Meissner field, Izvestia, Gisele Bundchen _ are given to researchers.

Many pronunciation questions can be settled by quick calls to businesses or press agents. Some can't. Researcher Margo Passalaqua cringes thinking about getting definitive pronunciations for an edition of the Bible _ no press agents for Shadrach, Meshach or Abednego _ which required looking up pages of words. When mistakes are made, narrators simply record over selected lines as Guidall did recently.

Working off corrected galleys, he polishes a French phrase and corrects the death count of the Lockerbie bombing. He slips in fixed phrasing in the same mellifluous voice. "They'll never know," he jokes, and goes on reading into the mike.

First Published: Sep 30, 2005 17:48 IST