Interview with the director of the 2013 Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production

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John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, the 2013 Odyssey Award-winner, is the subject of my interview with Laura Grafton, who has directed all of Green’s audiobooks for Brilliance Audio. The interview appears in the current issue of Booklist magazine, but the word-count limit means that some of Grafton’s remarks had to be left out. So here’s her entire interview, a fascinating look inside the production narrated by Kate Rudd, selected by the Odyssey committee chaired by Teri S. Lesesne – a group that deserves a tip of the headphones for evaluating over 500 contenders for the award!

MB: During ALA’s 2007 Annual Conference, I was fortunate to moderate a panel with John Green, Bruce Coville, Judy Blume and Jack Gantos titled “Celebrating Excellence in Audiobooks for Children and Young Adults,” which focused on the brand-new Odyssey Award.  In his presentation, Green discussed the relationship between textual and nontextual means of narrative communication, such as audiobooks. “As literature people, we’ve privileged text for too long, and that the idea that the only good books are the ones that contain only text is a troubling. The Odyssey Award is recognition that audiobooks are being taken seriously as literature.”  Do you feel that Green was prophetic in his assessment of the Odyssey’s impact?

LG: Audiobooks should be taken seriously as literature. For millennia, literature was only aural. The story depended heavily on the interpretation of the storyteller, and no one saw anything wrong with this. Strictly textual storytelling is a relatively new tool, and as such has been assumed to be superior. But embracing the new should not mean we discard the old. It is a sign of hubris in a writer to begrudge anyone reading his works aloud to anyone else, assuming that adding a layer of interpretation detracts from his message or skill. Is Shakespeare’s writing lessened by being interpreted? The Odyssey Award represents an endorsement of audiobooks by libraries, which have traditionally been bastions of the written word but have opened their doors in recent years to new methods of communication. It opens minds that previously may have been biased against audiobooks by saying: These are worth your time.  They do everything a textual book does –stimulate thought, feelings, imagination. We love books, and if we can embrace audiobooks, so can you.

MB: During his remarks in 2007, Green said, “Listening to audiobooks opens up opportunities to have more experiences with literature. They reflect the aural nature of literature. While writing, I read my drafts at least a hundred times out loud. You actually edit like crazy when you read aloud. You don’t say this doesn’t read right, you say this doesn’t sound right.” What are your roles as an audiobook producer and director to craft an audio that sounds right? What behind-the-scene steps are critical in any polished production?

LG: The first step for a producer is casting, usually based on the protagonist(s) and the tone and type of writing. Do we employ one voice or two  - of what age – do we use accents, characterizations – should they be broad or subtle?  Selection of the right director can also make a big difference: when possible, the director should be interested in the subject matter and/or the genre, able to understand and appreciate the nuances the author is attempting to communicate and make a good faith effort to represent the author while in the control room. This includes reading the book thoroughly before any of it is recorded, researching all unfamiliar words so there are no jarring mispronunciations, researching accents (often this is done by watching films featuring those accents), and thinking about the author’s intent in writing the book. If possible the director should speak with the narrator and the author about these things before production begins. The characters should be discussed – their motivations, characteristics. For The Fault in Our Stars, Kate and I talked about our presentation of Hazel: her damaged health, her sarcasm, her depression, her surprising joy. I talked with John about the book  -  got a feel for why he wrote it, what he was trying to say. Making the sound engineer a part of the production is also important: as the only member of the recording team who has not read the entire book, I find it very useful to ask my engineer for his or her impressions of the book as we progress, to make sure we are creating the right images for an audience. As a director you also have to put yourself in the consumer’s place. Even though you know the ending, you have to live in the present of the narration and if something doesn’t sound right in that context, you fix it.

MB: Green emphasized, “Young Adult books tend to be voice-centric, they require as a baseline a good voice. You can hear there’s a cadence to the prose. In good narrative prose, there’s always a cadence to the prose.” In praising the narration of his audiobooks, Green commented, “You can hear me tapping my foot as I’m typing. “  This year’s Odyssey Award Committee Chair Teri S. Lesesne called The Fault in Our Stars “an exquisitely understated performance by Kate Rudd, which captured the magic of John Green’s words and our hearts.” Could you please comment on the synergy between your role as producer/director and Rudd as narrator when developing the toe-tapping cadence, characterizations, and accents in this Odyssey-worthy audio?

LG: Well, first, I chose Kate to narrate because she’s sensitive, sounds young, has great emotional range, and is Midwestern (the book is set in Indianapolis). When I read the book, I could hear Kate saying the words in my head. It is a testament to John’s skill that he captured those Midwestern rhythms so well. Kate and I talked before we began, and we discussed the presentation throughout. If a joke fell flat, we tried emphasizing different words so it was communicated better. If the emotional impact of a scene wasn’t coming through, we would stop to figure out what we could do better and try it a different way. We might speed up the read, or slow it down for more impact. When a character became drunk in the course of a scene, we decided how to present it so as to give the impression of drunkenness without interfering with the storytelling. When Hazel was physically taxed, we concluded she should pant a bit, but we also felt it might be too difficult to listen to if she wheezed through the whole book. I did, however,  urge the post-production engineer not to edit out her breaths as we usually would, and the recording engineer EQed the sessions so her breath was more evident, to subtly remind the listener of her physical frailty. When Kate became emotionally involved with the book, we had to make decisions about when to keep going, and when to give her a break. The honesty of her narration came through by keeping some of the takes when she was openly weeping, because Hazel would have been crying, too. But Kate felt the dignity of Hazel’s character should keep us from letting her cry through the whole end of the book, and I respected that decision. In a good audiobook, a balance has to be reached between the director’s vision and the actor’s, and both should be subservient to what will make for a valid interpretation of the author’s vision.

MB: In 2007, Green observed, “Upper-level young adult books on audio, it’s a hard sell. In some ways, an audiobook is a more visceral experience; it feels more gritty to hear explicit language or sexually explicit situations described. But the reason there are good upper-level young adult books today are because of the courageous collection decisions of young adult librarians. As audiobooks begin their explosive growth curve, we need those same courageous collection decisions by young adult librarians to bring audiobooks to teenagers, so that it becomes possible for publishers to publish those audiobooks, for authors to write them.” After last year’s Odyssey-award recognition of the indisputably gritty Rotters (Listening Library) and this year’s recognition of The Fault in Our Stars, with its tender exploration of love and sexuality, do you feel that recognition by the American Library Association affects the YA audiobook market?

LG: Literary grittiness may be more apparent in audio than the written word, but that is not an excuse to restrict publication of tough audiobooks. Giving awards to YA audiobooks with frank sexual or violent content certainly opens the door to publish similar books, and it gives consumers permission to buy those books without guilt. Thankfully, librarians are no longer held responsible for being a community’s literary censors. To the contrary, they now often act as local defenders of the First Amendment. And as such, it is entirely appropriate that the ALA’s awards should consider the quality of literature and not whether it offends someone’s sense of propriety. Parents and teachers should decide for themselves whether they think their child can handle the honesty of these books. And if young adults are beyond the age that their parents make those decisions, then they are old enough to listen to the audiobooks. In a time when the market seems to demand that all our media become increasingly graphic in their depictions, it is useful to have awards that tell consumers, “Yes, this is sexual, or this is violent, but that is not its major attribute. It is primarily a good audiobook.”

MB: The inclusion of the bonus Q & A with John Green on The Fault in Our Stars gives deeper insight into the book, and where he shares why he chose to have a professional “legitimate” audiobook version of as well as a self-voiced one for his video blog fans. He also praises the music and singing in the 2011 Odyssey Honor title, Green and David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson (Brilliance). When do you, as a producer, decide to add bonus content or music to an audiobook? (and is that you in the interview?)

LG: Yes, I wrote the questions, and I asked them in the interview. I have been very fortunate  to have directed the narration of the audiobook versions of all John Green’s books. In the case of Will Grayson, Will Grayson,  the book was filled with the lyrics from the musical that is the climax of the book. We could have just read the lyrics, but I happened to know that Nick Podehl has a wonderful singing voice, and MacLeod Andrews wrote some great and believable melodies, so we went with it. When lyrics come up in a book, our narrators only sing in the audiobook if the melody is public domain, or if we (or the author) write the music ourselves. It was worth doing on this one, since it was central to the storyline, and it added immensely to the joyful, zany flavor of the audio. We have also added bonus visual content in the form of pdfs to an audiobook when the visuals of a print book are too important to leave out. This can be in the form of graphs and charts in a nonfiction book, or if the illustrations are a fundamental part of the storytelling and too good to leave out, as was the case in the tremendous audiobook We Are the Ship.

MB: The YA audiobook market is truly exploding; Odyssey Chair Lesesne reports that over 500 audiobooks were evaluated for the award, and that committee members averaged more than 500 hours of listening – the equivalent of over three months of full-time employment under the headphones. Is this exploding market a double-edged sword – do increased numbers equal a greater need for careful production standards, or will a lessening of quality control and dropping standards make awards like the Odyssey even more important?

LG: There isn’t a body that would be able or have the right to impose quality standards on the industry, especially given the ever increasing number of audiobooks out there, but awards can provide positive reinforcement that will encourage better work. More choices are almost always good.  But if listeners feel they are drowning in a sea of choices, awards like the Odyssey can throw them a lifeline by saying, “This is a good one, it’s worth your time.” However, bodies like the ALA have to be careful to make this a judgment based on production and literary standards, and not moral standards, as we discussed earlier.

MB: And feel free to add any other remarks you’d like to share, or add your own questions & answer them!

LG: The Fault in Our Stars  is a wonderful work of literature, in a class with Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace. I think my great grandchildren will consider this book a classic, and I hope Kate’s audio rendition will still be around then, a powerful classic in its own right.

Thanks so much to Laura for sharing her thoughts in this terrific interview!

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About the Author:

Mary Burkey is a National Board Certified teacher-librarian in the Olentangy School District in Columbus, Ohio.

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