Listening to The Salt-Stained Book by Julia Jones

The Salt-Stained Book was my first published novel. When, in 2011,  I saw its words on a page, in type, I felt an unexpected rush of emotion. I'll be honest, I cried. The story itself had come easily -- with conviction and delight -- but it had been a long struggle to get it into print. I love books and once the words were there, fixed and ready to read, it felt like one of the greatest moments of my life. An electronic edition came later and was exciting but less profoundly moving. I'd got used to seeing the physical shape of the words away from my own screen.

What I hadn't fully experienced was their sound. Yes, of course I'd read it aloud in my mind as I was working. For a brief couple of terms, many years ago, I had the poet, Charles Tomlinson, as my university tutor. He required every undergraduate essay, however nitpickingly abstruse (or, more likely, naively tendentious), to be read to him in his rather large room from the other side of a grand mahogany table. (At least that's how I remember it.) Then he would wince at every repetition, tautology or unintended internal rhyme. It was a terrifyingly effective discipline.

Anna Bentinck
One wet evening, in May this year, I made my way to a studio in a bleak area near King's Cross station in London to hear actress Anna Bentinck record the final fifty pages of the SSB for publication as an audio download. I was nervous and so it turned out was Anna. “I've never had the author listening before.” This amazed me. Anna is a hugely experienced actress who has made over eight hundred BBC radio broadcasts and has been reading audio books all the years I've known her. Authors are regularly invited to attend when their books being recorded for film or TV but not for audio. I think that's something that's about to change radically with the advent of Amazon’s ACX system in the UK and writers' direct involvement in both the commissioning and production of spoken word versions of their books. I'd have been unable to embark on this project without the distribution facilities of ACX. 

The studio was calm and welcoming, a small insulated capsule where producer Adam Helal works with intense concentration from early morning until late in the night. He's busy these days. “People have got their smart phones and their ipods and they're finding that they want more than music to listen to.” With the advent of the download replacing the spoken word CD or cassette it's now much more economical to produce unabridged versions of books. It means hours of work for the narrator and the production team but, as with ebooks, all the costs of the packaging and distribution of physical objects have gone and there must be adults all over the world re-discovering the delight of being read to without the frequent disappointments of a poor abridgment -- jerky plots, inconsistent detail, radically slashed description. No wonder writers were kept away!

(The real reason that studios and actors prefer to work on their own are more mundane. Profit margins on traditionally produced audio books are very tight so hourly rates are low and all costs must be kept to a minimum. Speed is of the essence and a good actor / producer relationship is astonishing quick and effective -- as I was about to witness. Including a third party could put all this in jeopardy.)

They continued from where they'd left off
Adam and Anna have worked together on many occasions and were swiftly continuing from where they'd left the story at a previous session. I was nervous that I'd cough or drop something but Adam reassured me that no extraneous sound would be detected. For Anna it was different. "You're popping." "You're clicking." "There's a bit of tummy there," Adam would tell her and they'd go back seamlessly, pick up from the previous sentence and re-record the offending passage. She'd not been allowed to drink milk all day as milk makes the voice 'growly'. She'd also had to eat a meal precisely two hours before recording to minimise stomach noise. He told me that I'd begin to hear these flaws but I didn't. It was all quite personal but also completely professional. Adam was also reassuring: "That's lovely Anna." "Yes, brilliant, you're doing well."  Accepting that she was a creative artist giving a performance without an audience. (She wasn't reading to me: she was reading to people she'd never know or meet.)

It was a performance I was honoured to witness. I'd never fully appreciated the skill of a voice actress. I'd seen Anna 'prepping' a book and had casually assumed that meant skimming through to get the flow and check any pronunciation issues. How wrong I was. Even a relatively short novel like The Salt-Stained Book turns out to have a multiplicity of distinct voices. Later, I counted thirty different speakers. Most of those are walk-on parts – a policewoman, a school administrator, a playground bully, a media relations officer – but there are ten named adult characters, six named children and a deaf woman who communicates by signing. Anna needed voices for ALL of these! I was glad when she rang me up one weekend to ask questions about some of the characters but essentially all the 'casting' decisions were hers.

Adam Helal
working in Tileyard Studios
I was hugely relieved that I was the right side of the sound proof screen as there were several occasions that I burst out laughing at Anna's interpretations of two of my characters who I'd hoped to present as grimly comic. They weren't quite the voices I'd had for them inside my own head: they were better. A repertoire of accents is part of Anna's stock in trade and I especially loved the expert Australian of Great Aunt Ellen, the expressive West African of Joshua and June Ribiero and the unexpected (but again completely right) Irish accent of Mr McMullen, Donny's tutor. Then they all started talking to one another and she had to switch with the skill of a ventriloquist. All on her own in a bare, softly-lit room, reading from an ipad and liable to be checked and asked to repeat at any moment. There were moments I found myself more moved than I'd ever been before. And I'm allegedly the writer!

The child characters might have been more difficult. They were the ones Anna had phoned to talk about. The central character, Donny, has grown up in Leeds. Should he therefore have a Northern accent? Well no, probably not. He has been brought up by his granny, an RP (Received Pronunciation) speaker and his mother who is profoundly deaf. Their home language is a version of BSL (British Sign Language) idiosyncratically influenced by Granny's small collection of classic books and whatever Donny borrows from the library. Donny's home and school lives are strictly separate and they don't possess a television. His own voice is unlikely to be Yorkshire. 

The edition of Swallows & Amazons
which Donny and his mother buy
Should he be RP? No again. There is an aspect of The Salt-Stained Book that is a commentary on Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. Donny has his counterpart in Ransome's John Walker, confident, boarding-school educated, eldest son of a naval officer. Donny is none of those things. He's thirteen. His voice is beginning to break. He's slightly inarticulate, lacks confidence and is prone to outbursts of anger. “Voice him as Ordinary Boy,please” I asked Anna, once again not quite appreciating the challenge. Because Donny is also the hero. He must be Ordinary Boy with the full range of internal development, imagination and expression. The entire story is experienced from Donny's point of view so, fortunately, when we are in Donny's mind we are listening to Anna's own beautiful narrative speech. This feels completely the right solution to me as the voice that we hear in our heads is significantly different from the one that bursts awkwardly out of our mouths.

Anna first read The Salt-Stained Book several years ago in a very early draft. It was New Year and we'd been staying in an ancient mill-house in Somerset. Outside was wet and cold. Indoors there was one room with a huge log fire. The owners of the house are among my dearest, most trusted friends so when Francis and I and our children had returned home to Essex I left behind a typescript of the SSB (Mark1). A small group of three or four remaining guests, including Anna, sat round the fire over two or three evenings and read it to each other. Pippa, our hostess, filtered back the comments and I incorporated them as best I could.

Anna had commented specifically on the speech of my character Xanthe Ribiero. Xanthe and her sister Maggi correspond loosely to Ransome's Nancy and Peggy Blackett. They are clever, confident, professional-class girls, successful dinghy racers with lovingly supportive parents. The only thing that's unusual about them, in the context of a rural Suffolk comprehensive school, is their skin colour. Xanthe is the older and stronger character and the most apt to sound arrogant or to drawl when she's angry. She was born in England, not Ghana, but has lived in France and Canada and likes to think of herself as a world citizen. How should she speak? Anna felt, from that first fireside reading, that Xanthe's mixture of 'cool' speak (Hey man!) and Ramsonesque 'Terror of the Seas' vocabulary didn't quite work. I tried to take note of her suggestions but when I asked her after the recording how she'd got on with Xanthe, she said “Yep, she was the only one I really had difficulty with.”

Over the past few days I've been listening to the completed SSB (as available from Audible, itunes and Amazon) and I think it's teaching me many useful lessons about my own writing. The words sound as new and subtly different as they did when I first read them on a printed page. In some ways they feel more exposed. I'm a shockingly quick reader who skims passages of description and reflection and gobbles action. I speed up and slow down. The pace of listening, however, is steady, unchanging, giving all sections of the book something much closer to parity. I'm going to remember that as I write. But mostly I'm going to try to remember the lesson of Xanthe.

Anna Bentinck away from the studio
Anna, Adam and I went to the pub afterwards and one of the things Anna explained was the importance, to her, of a character's idiolect, their distinctively personal selection of words. Onto that she can weave whatever tone of accent is appropriate, without it, the spoken aspect of the personality is unlikely to succeed. I nodded and agreed. It's a basic novelist's skill. Yet evidently, in the case of Xanthe, it hadn't worked. I mind particularly as Xanthe is the central character of my current work in progress. I admire and like her and want to get her right. Clearly I must learn to listen even harder -- and spend more time hanging around with the voice professionals.

DIY - by proxy
I've said little about the mechanics of DIY audiobook production. Officially, on the ACX system, The Salt-Stained Book is classed as DIY but almost everything has been professionally produced, just as any other mainstream novel. Anna's next project was Emma Healey's novel Elizabeth is Missing, one of this summer's top-sellers from Harper Collins and Adam's website lists a host of his recent successes, including Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.  There were a few jobs managed from home -- and cunningly I made sure that my son Bertie Wheen (the SSB's very first reader and now a computer science undergraduate) was there to see me through. Adam had sent us the sound files, divided into chapters + opening and closing credits and a less-than-5-minute sample. Bertie used a splitter programme to slice off a different sample which I felt was more representative of the book, though less of a showcase for Anna's talent. We spent an inordinate amount of time turning the rectangular book cover into a CD shaped square and then we (he) uploaded all the files and waited for the ACX quality control system to wave it through -- which, unsurprisingly it did. Audible have sent me some promotional credits which are to be allocated to reviewers -- and yes, please, dear friends -- I'd LOVE some readers and ratings. However the point of view I'd really like to get is actress Anna Bentinck's ... I wonder what she'd say?


madwippitt said…
This is a fascinating glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes! So much that I hadn't realised ...
My mum has been a massive audiobook reader for years now, ever since her eyesight deteriorated to the point that she couldn't read large print. And as I help her to pick titles at the library, I found a couple of books I thought I'd try too.
Instant conversion - so I got me an MP4 player and joined Audible and I'm now building up a fabulous library of audio books. Even when you have already read a book, listening to it brings a whole fresh perspective: it's like meeting it anew. It's the perfect way to unwind last thing at night, and absolutely brilliant for doing the really boring chores round the house, or weeding and digging on the allotment - you get to carry on 'reading' while doing them, which let's face is it, is what you really want to do. You might have to put a print book aside but not an audio one.

Mari Biella said…
Interesting post. I'm not sure I'll ever get round to creating an audiobook, but this was a fascinating look behind the scenes!
Bill Kirton said…
What a wonderful, absorbing description of the whole process and a terrific analysis of the dynamics of a character's voice and the way the actor's interpretation makes the writer rethink her/his approach. (And what a clumsy sentence that was.) Playwrights are used to the notion of collaboration, of course, but for novelists it can be a revelation. Thanks for sharing such a lovely experience, Julia. The way you describe it suggests the audio version will be a great success. I hope it is.
Lydia Bennet said…
So glad you have done this Julia and blogged about it! I've signed up for ACX but I have been unable so far to find someone with a tyneside/geordie accent to do The Rotting Spot - I'd do it myself if I had access to a studio and I'm going to look into that when I get a chance. I do feel audiobooks are a big coming market for authors.

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