Not Even Morgan Freeman

An actor narrate my book? Speak up, I can’t hear you.

A couple of months ago, I got a call asking whether I wanted to narrate the audio edition of my book. Don’t do it! my unfailingly supportive wife said without hesitation. Get an actor! a wise friend advised. I was a little bit crushed and even more confused. My voice isn’t perfect but it falls well within normal range. It’s a long way from Truman Capote’s voice. Yes, there’s the unmistakable echo of a Philadelphia boyhood that over the years became dusted with a light coating of New Yawk. Still, it’s a long way from Bernie Sanders’ voice.

But my voice wasn’t the issue, I learned when I followed up with my wife and agent. It was concern over my ability to keep a listener transfixed, my storytelling prowess. Professional actors are able to keep us glued to the plot. Characters are distinctive. They have their own voices and verbal tics. Laughs, sobs, and sighs are believable. Not so when most writers read their own books. Most writers tend to read their books, not tell their books. And when they do try to tell them—when they try to assign distinct voices to specific characters, add an extra oomph of suspense or irony to a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter—it’s enough to make your teeth ache. Of course, there are exceptions. It helps to be British. British authors are gentle on the ears, American ears anyway. Take a listen to Helen Macdonald reading H is for Hawk. Sublime. Judi Dench, move over. Or even listen to one of Bill Bryson’s audiobooks. Bryson, who hails from Iowa but has lived in the U.K. for decades, is an immensely popular reader of his own work. Why? Because he sounds like he was raised at Downton Abbey and not in Des Moines.

All this notwithstanding, and flinging their warnings aside, I thanked my wife and agent for their well-meant counsel but told them that it was important to me that I read the book myself. The story is filled with intimate memories relating to certain events and relationships that I’ve neither written nor talked about before. I didn’t like the thought of those memories coming out of some stranger’s mouth, even or especially a classically trained mouth. Those memories are me. A mellifluous voice would necessarily rewrite those memories, and I was unwilling to let them go, even if it made for a more elegant storytelling. Still, I thought, I owed listeners the best story I could possibly deliver. And I owed it to the book as well.

So I embarked on a rigorous training program. I closed myself off in a bedroom with a little tape recorder, where for a while every day I read aloud parts of the manuscript, adjusting the pace of delivery, modulating my tone, then playing these alternate takes back through headphones. I came to realize that everything sounded better if I kept my register in check. Otherwise I sounded a little like Hillary Clinton.

I also made a list of tricky words (“isthmus” was a bitch), repeating them over and over until they tripped off the tongue.

I sweated over whether to pronounce certain names the way we commonly say them or the way each is properly pronounced in the language it belongs to: Haruki Murakami. Vladimir Nabokov. Kazuo Ishiguro.

I told myself I shouldn’t try to mimic, even slightly, what Freud or Alan Watts sounded like; or, God forbid, what Plato might have sounded like.

After about a week, a breakthrough. The trick, I realized, was to fool myself into thinking that I wasn’t, in fact, the author of the book. I was an actor who’d been cast as the author of a book. But not just any actor. Not an actor on the order of Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles or Morgan Freeman, an actor whose vocal chords deserve to be insured by Lloyds of London. No, more of a Jesse Eisenberg (no relation) kind of actor. Insured, perhaps, by GEICO.

By this point, I was up to my earlobes in the quest to advance my narration skills. I reached out to a voice coach and arranged a tutoring session. He passed along a host of helpful tips:

Observe the all-important “two-sentence rule.” Make sure to change the pace of your delivery every couple of sentences. It keeps you from droning on, which in turn would drive the listener into a deep slumber, if only to shut you up.

When reading a scene that described something you’d observed in person, lean in closer to the mic. It brings the listener in on the action.

When offering an ironic aside or a parenthetical comment, especially a snarky one, turn your head slightly and deliver the phrase out of the corner of your mouth.

And don’t forget to bring apple slices and unsalted almonds to the studio. The apple will dissolve the sticky gunk that congeals on the roof of the mouth, while the almonds serve as a good source of protein and provide energy over the course of week’s worth of long days.

In the end, things went swimmingly. The director and the recording engineer were top-notch, offering positive feedback and encouragement throughout. This is gonna be terrific, they said.

And was it?

You may have to tell me. Just yesterday I received a link that allowed me to download the finished product. The file’s sitting on my Mac’s desktop as we speak, just to the right of this open window. Now and then, I glance over at it. But I haven’t opened the file yet. Why? I’m not quite sure, to be honest. There are plenty of performers who say they never revisit their work. Richard Burton, for one. And what a great voice Burton had. Though even he would have been wrong for the part.

The Point Is: Birth, Death, and Everything in Between, to be published on February 2, is also available as an audiobook.

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