Bitterwood has recently been released in audio format through Audible, Amazon, and ITunes. The narrator and producer was Dave Thompson, an editor at PodCastle and narrator of the audio books Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout and Briarpatch by Tim Pratt. Bitterwood is my first audio book, so I was glad to be partnered with someone who knew what he was doing. Translating a book into an audio performance is definitely an art form of its own, leaving me with several questions as to how Dave had pulled it off so masterfully. Fortunately, Dave was generous enough with his time to answer some of my questions:
JM: How did you get started in audiobook narration?
DT: I love the idea of reading stories to people of all ages. But adults - well, we don't get story time like we used to when we were children, and that's a shame, because a lot of us still love it. After my first kid was born, I discovered Escape Pod (a Science Fiction podcast), and loved listening to short stories on my commute. I had written a MG book, and decided to do a podcast of it, and loved the experience. Then I had the good fortune to start hosting and co-editing at PodCastle - Escape Pod's fantasy sister podcast. And I've loved reading stories there. Eventually, some of the authors I'd worked with published books, and those books never came out in audio, which really bummed me out. So when ACX arrived, I knew it was a big opportunity for me, and thought about those authors and those books, and asked if they were interested. Luckily, they were!
JM: Digging back even further, do you remember the first audio book you ever listened to? How did you feel about the whole notion of audiobooks then?
DT: Ha. The first audiobook I ever listened to was an abridged Dean Koontz novel that I absolutely despised (to this day I shudder when I read ABRIDGED in parenthesis)! That did me in for a while. But I got to see Neil Gaiman read a couple of times from his books, and that changed everything. Initially, I started listening to books I had read previously, and the first ones I remember were Gaiman's Anansi Boys and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. I liked both those books when I read them the first time, but I was FLOORED by listening to them. Lenny Henry's reading of Anansi Boys is one of the funniest things I've ever heard - he's hysterical. And I Am Legend is just absolutely brutal and chilling. Robertson Dean read that one, and it was a very flat and minimal read, which just added to the sheer horror of that story. It was just great.
When I started getting really into audiobooks, I started off mainly listening to books I'd already read. But pretty quickly, I branched out, and now I find myself doing the primary portion of my reading through listening to books.
JM: For me, the most amazing thing about your narration is the way you give all the characters unique voices, then stay in character through the whole book. This book has a couple of dozen characters with speaking parts. How did you decide what they sounded like? And how on earth did you keep track of them?
DT: Aw, man. Thanks so much for saying that! I generally consider myself a relatively minimalistic narrator, and I knew when I read Bitterwood, with the large cast of characters - a lot of them dragons - they'd need very distinct voices, and it would be a particular challenge I hadn't had a chance at yet. So I went through the book, and sounded out the characters, and tried to give them their own voices. Most of them came pretty naturally, really, which I put down to the writing!
I had been reading the old Hobbit book - the picture book of the old animated movie - to my son over and over again, and I tried out some of the characters there. In the end, Vendevorex sounded an awful lot like Gandalf when I was reading my son the Hobbit. *laughs*
After I figured out what everyone should sound like, I created a separate file, and recorded sound bites of the major characters so I could refer to them whenever I needed. Some characters I didn't really need to refer to - like Bant, Metron, and Albekizahn - there were certain lines from the story that really just anchored their voice. But even so, I used that character index file a lot!
JM: It's interesting that you talk about minimalism, since that was one of the things that really attracted me to your audition. The book opens in a rather emotionally charged scene but you read it without slipping into melodrama, managing to be both subdued and energetic while letting the words do the real work of conveying the drama. Even though you use different voices for the characters, they're very subtle. Can you give me an example of a line you came across when you first went through the book that revealed a voice to you?
DT: Thank you! Well, the letter Bant started writing to Recanna was incredible. Reading that - I'm pretty sure right from the get go - I knew exactly how Bant should sound, and felt like that was a really strong anchor for him. Whenever I worried he was sounding too gravelly or something, I'd just take a breath, say "Dear Recanna," and slip right back into it.
JM: What's your work process like? How many hours of work does it take to record a 13 hour audiobook?
DT: *LAUGHS* I don't know if I want to answer that question! It took me several full weekends to record. That's not straight recording, of course, it's preparation and practice and all that too. The editing is the difficult, time consuming part for me. If a chapter ended up being an hour of a raw, unedited recording, it takes me about 3-4 hours to edit it down. I'd guess editing was about 60 hours of work.
JM: Amazon has recently introduced a feature called Whispersynch for audio that lets Kindle users switch back and forth between audio editions and ebooks without losing their place. This was an innovation I'd never even thought of until it arrived. What kind of changes do you see coming in the world of audiobooks?
DT: Whispersynch is a really cool technology that I have to admit completely baffles me. I have a hard time imagining jumping between text and audio, to be honest. I love reading and I love listening to books, but I haven't yet been tempted to stop listening and read one, or vice versa.
Recently, there's been a lot of talk about DRM free eBooks, which is great. But whenever I read about a publisher or author proudly announcing that they're eBook is DRM free, my first thought is always "Great, but what about the audiobook?" It would make me incredibly happy if Audible (and the book publishers) dropped DRM from audiobooks. There are currently other, lesser known audiobook sites - Downpour being the biggest one I'm familiar with.
I'm also really curious about Kickstarter. I see a lot of authors Kickstarting their books, which is very exciting for me as a fan. I wonder if there's some kind of way for audiobook to do that too. It's a bit weird with audiobooks, because there's more than just the author involved, but I think it would be a really interesting concept. Right now the biggest drawback is that I don't believe Audible would agree to sell the audiobook afterward, the way an eBook can easily be sold in the Kindle/B&N/Apple stores after the Kickstarter. So it feels like a less accessible item than an eBook might. Unless audiobook stores open the doors.
JM: I know you've just had a new addition to your household. Congratulations! Not many people have a new book and a new baby launched on the same day. I'm sure you're taking a little time off from recording, but when will you be back in the microphone and have you decided what your next project will be?
DT: Ha! It was really a surprise that it happened like that! I didn't expect Audible to release the book for another week or so, so here I was checking into the hospital with my wife and my phone starts buzzing with notifications from my fellow AudioBookaneer Sam congratulating me on the release of Bitterwood. And I'm thinking - wow, this is an experience - a baby and a book in one day. That'll never happen to me again!
But yeah, I've taken a little time off since then. I actually talked with my co-editor at PodCastle several months back to see if I could take some recording time off there. I'm still helping select stories and getting readers, but not recording anything myself for a little while.
That'll only last so long, though! I'm hoping to do Middle Grade reader by my friend Greg van Eekhout, whose book Norse Code I read. It would be great to have recorded a book my kids can listen to! After that...well, I think I read somewhere there might be a sequel or two to Bitterwood? So fingers crossed!
If you'd like to hear a sample of Dave's reading, you can listen to an excerpt on Audible. Just click the "sample" button beneath the cover.
Welcome to my worlds!
I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collection, There is No Wheel. In 2017, I'll be releasing a new superhero series, The Butterfly Cage. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public.