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May Wuthrich, Audiobook Producer and Director - Part 1

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

May Wuthrich, Audiobook Producer and Director - Part 1

When May Wuthrich accepted her friend’s advice and listened to the audiobook HATCHET by Gary Paulsen and narrated by Peter Coyote while driving from New York City to the Hamptons, she had no idea that it would launch an entirely new phase of her career. “We were hooked from that first book,” she said. “We were listening on a regular basis, and I got inspired.”

Now, almost eight years later, May is an experienced audiobook producer and director, working on books by such acclaimed authors as Rick Riordan, Jacqueline Woodson, Azar Nafisi and Mary Oliver.

Below you can find the first part of May’s REAL TALK publishing interview, where she discusses the start of her audiobook career, her mentors and how she prepares for recording sessions. Keep an eye out for part 2, which will go live next Wednesday, September 17th!  Also, be sure to check out our blog post, where we write about what it was like to sit in on one of May's recording sessions --- she was directing Mozhan Marnò, who was narrating Azar Nafisi's latest  book THE REPUBLIC OF IMAGINATION! How and when did you first get involved in audiobook production?

May Wuthrich: I have a long answer to that question because my working life has been a journey, and over the last 25 years, I’ve played a variety of roles in the entertainment industry. I’ve been an actor, film and theater producer, book editor and film development executive (meaning I worked with writers to develop ideas for scripts, many of which were based on books). I also had my own business --- a literary scouting agency --- where I scouted the American book market for film production companies and foreign publishers.  Audiobook producing and directing has become my third career.

I had my scouting company for seven years and I was ready to do something else, but  didn’t know exactly what, so I took some time off and got politically engaged (this was during the 2004 Presidential election) and was also involved in launching  a non-profit theater organization. At the time I was living in New York City with my family, and we commuted on the weekends to our home on Long Island.   A friend suggested that we try audiobooks to pass the time in the car and recommended HATCHET by Gary Paulsen.

It was our first audiobook experience and it was a winner, brilliantly narrated by Peter Coyote.   His performance had us on the edge of our seats. We were hooked from that first book.We were listening on a regular basis and I got inspired.  I thought, “Well, I’ve had all of these experiences and I’m confident about my ability to talk to creative people of all kinds.”  So I set out to educate myself about the audio business.  Because I had many relationships in book publishing, I was able to get meetings with all the major audiobook publishers, and then I got a job --- at HarperMedia, then a division of HarperCollins. I spent a little over a year there and learned the audiobook and the digital publishing businesses --- it was a tremendous opportunity to explore and be a part of that world. And when I left, I was ready to try directing and producing.   The first thing I did was hire someone to teach me how to record, engineer and edit digital audio files.

TRC: That probably was a big learning curve!

MW: Huge, because I was not particularly technologically savvy, and I wanted to understand the role of the engineer because I knew it would inform how I would work with talent in the studio. I had produced some short form projects at Harper, and I had shepherded some books through the audiobook  process, but I didn’t know the hardcore audio production side of it. I got practice by recording and editing myself and others reading short works.

When I felt ready to venture out, I worked with a local bookstore to record a live author event, recorded authors at Ledig House, a writer’s residency program at the OMI International Arts Center, and then I produced a couple of short stories for Harper. I recorded off my laptop with a pretty good microphone and then edited off that same laptop on a program that was simpler than the commonly used Pro Tools.   It was all a bit intimidating and extremely informal, but in the end great fun and it got me going.

That said, a number of people were instrumental in helping me get started, and I can’t emphasize enough the impact that had.   Rick Harris, the Executive Producer at Harper, let me observe recording sessions and made himself available to answer questions; Robert Kessler, a producing veteran, worked with me in his studio  to resolve some technical problems; Michele McGonigle, Hachette’s Director of Production,gave me my first directing jobs, and Dan Zitt, now Vice President, Content Production at Penguin Random House, followed with jobs at Random House Audio.  They were all valued mentors.   And now, almost eight years later, I have a flourishing career that I love. In addition to Hachette, Random House, Listening Library, and Penguin, I did many award-winning and best-selling YA titles for Brilliance --- those by Jacqueline Woodson and Rick Riordan for example, and one of my all time favorite audiobooks was for Blackstone, WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy, and named by Salon as one of the Top 10 Audiobooks of 2013. But, for the last couple of years I’ve been mostly producing and directing for what is now Penguin Random House Audio, and they keep me pretty busy.


TRC: You’re a freelancer. How do you get work? Do you solicit jobs, or do people find you?

MW: Well as a newcomer, getting hired was all about networking and being respectfully persistent. Because of my background, people seemed open to hiring me. They were willing to take a risk and give me a job and see how it went from there.

I got lots of positive feedback --- either from critics reviewing my books or from authors and actors --- and my business just continued to build. But it’s been a process, something that I’ve built. It’s not something that happened on day one.

TRC: Can you tell us about the different roles that are involved in making an audiobook?

MW:It’s very much a team effort --- a team of many talented people who bring different expertise to the process. First, there’s the publisher’s in-house producer, whose job is to make sure the book is recorded and published on schedule.  They shepherd the book through the production process and, depending on the publisher, can manage more than 150 titles per year. They do the casting and liaise with the book’s editor and author and the marketing department.  Sometimes they’ll direct titles themselves, but if not, they make the offers to outside producers and/or directors. 

As a freelance producer, I get involved in choosing the cast. I oversee the post-production process, I coordinate the pick-up sessions [short recording sessions where the director and performer make corrections that the post-production team identify, from background noise to misquotes from the book], and I select music for the beginning and end of the book.   As a freelance producer/director, I have greater involvement than if I’m simply directing.

The sound engineer runs the recording session and, through marking up the script, provides a road map to the post production editor who assembles the master recording (from which CDs are printed or digital copies uploaded to retail sites). They track the number of takes on any given line and are in charge of sound quality.  They listen for technical glitches and extraneous noise, such as body movement, rustling of clothing, mouth noises and little hitches in the actor’s voice.  And finally, they act as my back-up.  If I’ve missed a word change or a performance-related detail, they’ll let me know.  

Most actors are now working off a manuscript they can read from a tablet device, which makes the post-production process far more efficient.  But in the event an actor works off a hard copy of a script, the engineer marks the page turns so that the post-production editor can take those out.

As the director, I read the book in advance, prepare the script and work with the talent --- whether an author or actor --- to get the best possible performance.  Once we are in the studio recording, my job is to ensure that all of the prep work comes alive in the reading.  There’s also listening for the more technical details of character voice and pacing consistency, making certain that the actor is reading what’s written on the page and that we are not telescoping upcoming plot points, etc.

Preparation includes making notes about characters, checking word pronunciations and highlighting important lines or passages to insure they’re given proper emphasis.   I research the time and place, and put together a character breakdown. The more characters who speak, the more detailed I get. I make note of any references to the character’s vocal quality or attitude. I’ll have a phone conversation with the actor before we go into the recording studio, and will email or talk to the author about any questions I might have.   Some titles are pretty straightforward, and others require discussion.

TRC: Discussion about what?

MW: For example, Azar Nafisi’s THE REPUBLIC OF THE IMAGINATION, the book I’m working on with actress Mozhan Marno, is a multi-layered project. It’s told from the first person point of view; it’s part memoir; it’s part polemic; part discussion of three classic American novels, including direct quotes from each.  There are a lot of different layers so we had to decide, how are we going to approach all these different elements of the book?That was a discussion with the in-house producer and the actor.

TRC: Can you tell us about the approach you decided to take with THE REPUBLIC OF IMAGINATION: America in Three Books, and why?

MW: Well, since it’s told from the first person point of view, one question was whether we were going to use an Iranian accent for the first person narrative. And we decided against that. Azar Nafisi is a best-selling author with a unique voice and specific dialect that we wouldn’t want to try and replicate.   (By the way, Azar reads the introduction to the book, so we hear her fabulous voice and all the personal passion she brings to her subject. Then we start chapter one with Mozhan and her very special voice.  It makes for a great counterpoint!)

The next question we grappled with was how to handle the dialogue between the Iranian characters.   Do we give those characters light Iranian accents? And we decided, yes, that would help differentiate characters in dialogue scenes. Then there was the issue of the discussion of each book and the quotes utilized for that purpose.  It was important to separate those out so the listener knows that they are direct quotes and not part of the narrative, so we created separate voices for each of the books: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER and BABBITT.

TRC: Can you talk a bit about your day-to-day responsibilities?

MW: As a producer, you are a multi-tasker, often working on multiple books on any given day.  There are days when I’ve done a pick-up session in the morning --- and those can range from one correction to 50 or more (if a subsequent pass of the script includes changes not included in the pass we recorded from)  --- or I’ve talked to an author about questions I have for a title I’m doing a week out; and then I’ll be in the studio recording a different book the rest of the day. On the train ride home, I’m often prepping my next book.  Then at night, I may be listening to auditions and/or the intro and the outro --- the beginning and end of the book --- and matching them to music.  So there’s the prep part, the production part, the post-production part.  But it’s all rewarding and fun! I love it.   I find it energizing and exciting.

TRC: How many books do you work on each week, on average?

MW: During my busiest times as a producer, I might be working on different phases of production on three or four books a week, but during slower times, it’s more likely to be one to three books per month.  And if I’m directing only, there is less multi-tasking:  my job is prepping the script and working in the studio with the talent.  For the last five months, I’ve been working on average four books a month.  Since audiobooks have become so popular and mainstream, publishers keep increasing the number of titles they are producing a year, but in the end, the number of titles I do depends on the in-house producers matching me with the books they feel are best for what I bring to the process.

TRC: And what kinds of books are those?

MW: Well, it seems that I get matched with books that are literary and character driven, more psychologically complex, where there are strong themes and emotional throughlines, or a complex story to be told.  I’ve been fortunate to work with many authors --- those who read their own fiction, memoir, narrative or prescriptive nonfiction: Adriana Trigiani, Sue Miller, Joanna Hershon, David Pogue, Grace Coddington,  Katrina Kenison, Sally Jenkins, Gail Collins, Kurt Andersen are some authors I’ve directed. And there have also been some Pulitzer Prize-winners: Gail Caldwell, Mary Oliver and Paul Harding.  I’ve done my share of award-winning YA titles, as well as suspense; oh, and some really interesting business books --- NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and Zachary Tumin of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Alan Iny of the Boston Consulting Group, and most recently Linda Rottenberg, CEO and Co-founder of Endeavor Global.  I feel extremely lucky to be recording  such a wide variety of books.  It makes my job all the more compelling and interesting!