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.

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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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