The Unexpected Agony of Recording Your Own Audiobook

I thought I had processed the emotions in my memoir. Then I read every word aloud to a stranger.
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The recording booth where the author spent three days. (Katie Hafner)

It hadn't occurred to me to narrate my own memoir. When Random House told me the audiobook of Mother Daughter Me was to be produced, I thought I'd be fine with hearing a talented stranger who reads books aloud professionally bring the book to life. But the voices of the performers the audiobook company asked me to choose from sounded, if not robotic exactly, more like the Hertz NeverLost lady than Meryl Streep—far from the voice I imagined reading my intensely personal narrative.

So, unaware of what I was getting myself into, I volunteered myself. Reading aloud over three days in a tiny, dark, soundproof, and airless recording booth turned out to be among the most fascinating and taxing experiences I've ever had. When I finished, I was spent. Yet I'd do it all again.

Before I get to why, some background: Mother Daughter Me is about a misbegotten experiment in multigenerational living in 2009, when I invited my mother to move from San Diego to San Francisco to live with my teenage daughter and me. My mother had been a severe alcoholic, and my sister and I were taken away from her when we were 12 and 10. Through the years I held fast to a fairy-tale view of our relationship that made me certain everything would work out. So did my mother. We even referred to our adventure as our "Year in Provence." What I found instead was that I was sandwiched squarely between my obligation to an aging parent—a woman I barely knew—and my responsibility for my daughter. Our Year in Provence ended after six months, when my mother moved out.

***

Before I arrived earlier this month at Mosaic Audio in Los Angeles, I had pictured a sleek, sun-drenched building containing rows of shiny, glassed-in recording studios, with a tanned receptionist issuing me a visitor's badge. Instead, my GPS led me through a residential neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley and into the driveway of a modest, single-story house.

I was greeted by Zach, an independent audio engineer who, it turns out, is Mosaic's sole proprietor. Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, Zach wouldn't have looked out of place at a skateboard park. He showed me to the studio, a converted in-law apartment behind the house. Then he handed me an iPad (turning pages makes too much noise) and a glass of water, pointed to my insulated recording cave and said, "Ready?" I cleared my throat, which seemed like the most appropriate preparation I could muster.

Any narrator can tell you about the physical challenges of narrating a book. It begins with long days filled with nothing but speaking the words you see as they scroll past you on a screen. Add to that the problem of extraneous noises: a dry mouth that produces "pops," fingertips glancing across your jeans, or the teeniest stomach gurgle. Shift ever so slightly in your chair, and the microphone picks it up. Ditto for sirens, planes and helicopters. Any of the above requires a retake.

And oh the flubs! At the beginning I could scarcely read two sentences without stumbling. Patiently, Zach would rewind to the last half of the previous sentence and have me pick up at the start of the sentence where I tripped. (This fix-as-you-go approach is called "punch and roll" recording.) Occasionally one word bedeviled me for no apparent reason, and required three or four tries. Were there such a thing as bleary tongued, that was me.

"How many mistakes do professional narrators make?" I asked Zach at the end of the first day.

The best pros, he said, make just one mistake a page. For a 300-page book, that still adds up. Shirley Jones had just been in Zach's studio reading her book, and she was great, Zach reported. But even Shirley Jones made mistakes. Reading aloud is hard.

While reading one particularly brutal scene with my mother, I inhabited the fury with which she screamed the word "bullshit!" at me. I was shaking, for her. Then, the next sentence pulled me back on task, back into neutral narrator tone.

When it came to taking on others' voices, Zach weighed in with advice. I gave him my best imitation of my stepmother's highbrow British accent. "It would probably be better not to even try," he said diplomatically. But I did go for my 16-year-old daughter's studied boredom, and my mother's higher-pitched, grainier version of my own voice. Men in the book say blessedly little, but one especially bizarre challenge came with imitating my six-year-old daughter's own imitation of my New York Times editor's baritone. That required repeated punching and rolling.

The ever-attentive Zach read right along with me. If I skipped a word—which I did pretty often, without noticing—he was on it. If I went too quickly, he told me to slow down. He became my alter ego, my verbal shadow. After a while, we were in such sync that when I hesitated at the start of a word even a little, I simply stopped, he said nothing, and within seconds he was feeding me just the tail end of the last sentence and I was jumping in without missing a beat. I started going for longer stretches without mangling a word. Sometimes I felt like I was reading straight to Zach. I hoped he was enjoying the book.

That was the easy part.

***

Like many memoirs, mine is packed with emotional highs and lows, funny passages and harrowing ones. I write about an affair I had while married, and I describe the sudden death of three close family members. I delve into a level detail I could handle when there was some distance—when the words traveled out of my brain, through my fingers, and onto the keyboard.

Speaking those words was something else entirely. I had to commit to them with a level of accountability—and acceptance—I had never considered. As I read, I was surprised anew by each crisis, struck again by what people had said and done in the wake of tragedy. It had been hard enough to write down my experience of sitting in dread, on the useless end of a telephone in California while doctors in Seattle tried to revive my 45-year-old husband after a sudden heart attack. But speaking those words into a microphone and hearing them reverberate through Zach's headphones and back into my ear didn't merely impart a particularly acute sense of realness. It was the stuff of madness.

Many people believe that reading a good book can be a far richer experience than watching the same story as a movie, because the reader has more room to conjure. This also creates wiggle room for the writer, whose gift to the reader is that extra rein of imagination. Also, readers can pick and choose what they absorb and what they deflect. This is how the color spectrum works: darker colors absorb light while lighter colors deflect it, depending on where they are on the spectrum. While writing the book, I had made the choice to be on the brighter, less absorptive end of the spectrum. But as the writer, once I was speaking the words I had written, I did not have that option. The scenes I was describing returned to me in granular detail. I became pure black.

This is when it grew agonizing. As I read, I cried unexpectedly. While reading one particularly brutal scene with my mother, I inhabited the fury with which she screamed the word "bullshit!" at me. I was shaking, for her. Then, the next sentence pulled me back on task, back into neutral narrator tone. I got good at shifting emotions according to the content. I began to feel like a fake. Or an actor. At points I thought I might suffocate from the lack of air in that tiny space. As soon as I finished reading a chapter, I snatched off the headphones—as if they were the problem—flung open the heavy door, fanned it for air and took a short break while I waited for Zach to save the chapter and send it off to his mother (it's a family operation), who lives in Denver, to proofread. Zach offered more water.

Zach had scheduled five days for the narration. I finished in three. After I read the final words—the credits for Tantor Media, the audiobook publisher—I stayed in L.A. for a day, waiting for Zach's mother to finish proofing. I then returned to the studio for a handful of "pickups" or small corrections. Thirty minutes later, I was back in my car, driving home to San Francisco. I felt depleted, empty in ways I have yet to fully grasp. I had finally given each of those 91,108 words all that I had.

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Katie Hafner is the author of Mother Daughter Me. She has previously written books about the origins of the Internet, computer hackers, and the pianist Glenn Gould. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times.

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