I Read My Own Audiobook Like It Was Someone Else’s
I expected that inhabiting the roles of both the author and the narrator at once would bring me closer to the text than ever, in a way that might feel uncomfortable.
Late last summer, I hunched over a microphone in my bedroom closet, bending my body into shapes I knew it would protest for hours afterward. I was in my home recording studio to narrate an audiobook: a practical, survivor-informed guide aimed at teaching young people how to have healthy and consensual sex. “Home recording studio,” though, is putting it generously. My desk chair didn’t fit all the way into the closet, my laptop was balanced on a metal shelving unit, and every time I moved my head, a hanging cardigan would brush against my cheek. To reach a decent distance from the mic, I had to lean forward at the waist and angle my neck downward like a cartoon vulture from The Jungle Book. But my discomfort was a problem for the future. In the moment, I was totally lost in the meditative work of reading aloud, sentences ticking past me like highway markings beneath a front fender.
All of this meant I was surprised when the engineer cleared his throat to tell me, with audible discomfort, that we had to stop and go back because I’d pronounced anal sex wrong. His was a disembodied but gentle voice in my headphones, cutting in apologetically when the audio glitched or when I skipped a word or when, as had allegedly happened, I pronounced anal sex wrong.
I couldn’t think of how else one might conceivably pronounce it (was it, like, a scansion thing?), but there are two types of people whose auditory judgments I will never challenge: studio engineers and piano tuners. I apologized, rewound to the previous clause, and gave it another shot.
“Over seventy percent [of women] report pain during aner sex.” I heard it myself that time, which was good, because I don’t think the poor guy had it in him to tell me again.
In a field that operates in four-hour stretches—the standard length of an audiobook recording session (and the amount of time I spent pretzeled in the closet)—this type of brain glitch is par for the course. I was also fairly new to the work: Prior to this job, I’d only narrated one other audiobook—or, more precisely, 33 percent of one, Mary Lawson’s Booker Prize–nominated novel A Town Called Solace. The novel is told in three different character voices and accordingly narrated by three different actors. But the glitch is also an illustrative example of how I approach the work: I’m a stickler for tone, which means I sometimes lose track of sense (see: aner sex, which I delivered twice with perfect seriousness). For something like Lawson’s novel, I built my performance around each sentence’s emotional tenor; for heavily researched and reported nonfiction, like this guide to consent, I prioritized lucidity, using my voice to make dense information easier on the listener. I only deviated if it was in service to the text, as when I had to say things like “Oh yeah, give it to me.”
I’m a stickler for tone, which means I sometimes lose track of sense.
I’d wanted to land narration jobs for years. I’ve been doing cartoon voice work for more than two decades, but I spent nearly half that time trying to break into audiobooks. When gigs started trickling into Toronto, where I live and work, they were mercilessly gatekept—exclusive training courses, closely guarded knowledge, auditions you had to pay for. Without the right combination of those skeleton keys, my decade-plus of experience looked like bad currency. My sense is that the pandemic democratized the field out of necessity. The practice of asking actors to self-tape their auditions, rather than asking them to come into studio for a five-minute session, was already becoming more widespread before things went virtual; when everything shifted to self-taping in spring 2020, audiobook narration got folded in along with it. When they finally let me in (to my closet), I was thrilled to confirm as fact what I’d suspected to be true all along: that, as with cartoon work, you find the voice that best serves the text and you lock onto that frequency for the duration of the project.
I’d calibrated the voice for A Town Called Solace during the audition process, after I’d been sent an excerpt of the script and a character description. Clara, one of the narrators, is a seven-year-old girl whose teenage sister left home after a fight with their mother. Since Clara is so young, few of the adults around her take her seriously, which takes an understandable toll—naturally quiet and withdrawn, Clara spends most of the book nursing a steadily simmering resentment. As I read the novel for the first time, I annotated the text to map out Clara’s emotional journey across the book. This initial read-through was meant to prepare me on a few different levels—getting familiar with the story, for one. Another was to look up words I might not know how to pronounce. But the heaviest markup came with noting shifts in tone, flagging moments of particularly intense emotion or sudden tonal changes. At standard reading-aloud pace, there’s not often time to look ahead and clock what’s happening in the next clause. But if you develop a system and put it into the script—a squiggly underline means anger, for example—then it’s easier to process those shifts in real time.
The work that I do as a voice actor, of finding a voice for a project and setting its tonal parameters, has also informed the way I approach my own written work. Finding the right angle on a subject is quite often, for me, of a piece with finding the right voice to explore it. The only attitude that felt faithful to the essays in my debut collection, Some of My Best Friends—the only real conduit to the truth of the material as I understand it—was one that highlighted the comic absurdity of my subject. The collection maps a very distinct pattern of contemporary life: the phenomenon of institutional entities suddenly becoming fluent in the language of social justice but persistently failing to back that language up with meaningful action. One of my most enjoyable challenges, in writing the book, was to highlight the hilarious, dark weirdness of this encounter, the uncanny, what-the-fuck moment when an entity, like a corporation, suddenly opens its mouth (it has a mouth?!) to speak in too-convenient progressive language. In prioritizing comedy, absurdity, and irony, I wanted to create a very particular experience for my readers: the sensation that I’ve given words to a cultural tone they can recognize from experience but may not have articulated, or perceived, in quite that way before.
I wanted to create a very particular experience for my readers.
The tricky thing, though, is that funny, absurd, and ironic are not necessarily part of the tonal palette that people expect of work engaged with subjects like inequity, tokenization, and systemic discrimination—subjects that mostly (and wrongly) get represented in the zeitgeist as shameful and boring and polarizing. I’ve been running into this wall since before I sold the book. When the deal was first announced, enough people nervously joked “Lol, am I gonna be in it?” that I knew what I was up against: readers who expected to be called out. In meetings about the book, I expressed the persistent desire (and felt that that desire was mostly heard) that the collection be positioned as a critique of the world rather than the experience of inhabiting a certain subject position, a common bait and switch when hawking books by racialized authors. I’ve long been aware, even too aware, of the lazy slippage that can happen between a writer’s background and the contents of their writing. A well-intentioned marketer may try to deploy it as a clean appositive clause, a disconnected bit of description, a fun bit of trivia—Tajja Isen, a woman of color, writes about the world and her experiences—but good luck trying to keep that from bleeding into Tajja Isen writes about her experiences in the world as a woman of color. There’s nothing inherently bad or inferior about a book that matches that latter summary. It just describes a totally different book.
All of this can have a bearing on how the work gets read and marketed and discussed and received, which is why I’m so vigilant about trying to control the narrative. While these responses can be frustrating and disheartening, they’re not surprising. The way you read a book that you expect to dress you down is very different from how you read a book that you expect to give you pleasure. (There’s even an essay on this in my book—I told you I was too aware.)
Luckily, I was hired to record my own audiobook, which gave me an opportunity to consider these questions anew. I was still fresh enough off the second round of proofreading that I worried I’d still have too many ideas about the book as I read it aloud, see too many things I wanted to change. I expected that inhabiting the roles of both the author and the narrator at once would bring me closer to the text than ever, in a way that might feel uncomfortable. That the author in me would somehow take precedence over the narrator, turning the experience into something intensely, destructively personal—two wolves inside of me battling it out in a final, cinematic showdown.
As it turns out, recording Some of My Best Friends didn’t feel much different from all those other times I’d been on the mic reading someone else’s work, at least at first. During my first session—which, thank god, was in a studio near my house rather than a near-studio in my house—I was thrown by the professional, even clinical distance I felt from the material. I wondered if my brain had automatically defaulted to voice-acting mode in a way that was preventing me from connecting with the essays in the way I needed to as their writer. But, as I moved from the introduction into the first essay, I realized I could turn this sensation of distance to my advantage. It wasn’t a failure to connect with the work, but an opportunity to put my goals for the book into practice. I could use this distance, strategically, to conjure exactly the kind of experience and tone I’d tried to capture on the page.
And so I read my own audiobook like it was someone else’s. Like every other project I’ve ever worked on, I tuned in to the right voice for the role and locked onto the frequency. I wasn’t troubled by any thoughts of sounding “like myself”—twenty years of doing different voices have effectively liberated me from that weird bit of ego—so I could focus on the tonal palette that best suited the story I wanted to tell (and maybe, possibly, anticipate and control against the lizard-brain defensiveness of this book is gonna call me out). The narrator of my audiobook is wry and often smiling. She’s approachable, composed, sometimes laughs at her own jokes, and, while often bemused by the narcissism of the world, is always willing to think through the murkier questions rather than let them pass by unchecked. Your company is far from incidental. She just wants you to have a good time.