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May Wuthrich, Audiobook Producer and Director - Part 3

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

May Wuthrich, Audiobook Producer and Director - Part 3

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 final part of May's REAL TALK publishing interview, where she talks about her favorite audiobooks, why an emotional connection to a narrator and book is so important, and what she really thinks about home studios.

In case you missed it, 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 (with Mozhan Marnò, who was narrating Azar Nafisi's latest  book THE REPUBLIC OF IMAGINATION). You can also read the earlier parts of our interview with May --- click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2! 

TRC: You mentioned that in the past few years, audiobooks have soared in popularity. Why?

MW: Well, I think there are a number of factors.  There’s a clear correlation between the greater number of audiobook titles to choose from and the increased appetite for them.  There’s something for everyone.  And then there’s also greater access because of the digital format.  People can listen on many different kinds of devices --- so it’s easy and they can listen on the go.  It’s not just in the car, but when they exercise, when they cook, clean and when they’re on the subway.   And as more people have satisfying experiences, word of mouth grows.  In general, I’m hearing a lot more conversation about audiobooks than ever before.  It all adds up to greater interest and opportunity, thus more demand.

People can listen on many different kinds of devices --- so it’s easy and they can listen on the go.  It’s not just in the car, but when they exercise, when they cook, clean and when they’re on the subway.  

TRC: Could you tell me about your favorite part of your job, and the most challenging part?

MW: Well it’s hard for me to narrow it down to one, so I’ll tell you my two favorite parts.  The first is preparation.   I love to dive deep into books, take them in and then take them apart.  As an actor, then story analyst, book editor and film executive adapting books to movies, I got a lot of practice sharpening that skill.   So, that’s what I do when I prepare a book for recording.  Reading the book for the first time is exciting, making discoveries about the characters and how they change over the course of the story, the twists and turns of plot, the underlying themes.  I want to get emotionally connected to the text and the lives of the characters.  I want to get my heart broken and be inspired at the same time.

And I love immersing myself in the world of the book, researching the time and place makes the exploration of character and story so much richer.  In the case of nonfiction, it’s about getting into an author’s head or gaining insight into an author’s life or learning a new area of expertise. 

Second is working in the studio with the actor or author, that’s when I get to put it all back together. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, we’re on a journey together and I want to feel the immediacy of that.  I want it to be personal and intimate. And I want to be intellectually engaged as well as entertained.  That’s a tall order. If an actor can do all that, then we are both doing our jobs.  

Mozhan Marnò and I worked on the historical novel I ALWAYS LOVED YOU by Robin Oliveira about the birth of the Impressionist movement and the relationship between Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. Throughout the recording process, she and I were so emotionally connected to the material and each other that we actually broke down at the same places in the book, stopped recording and took breaks.  Not every book has that level of emotion and intensity, but when it does, and the storytelling becomes personal for both the actor and me --- well, it’s very gratifying. 

My biggest challenge is spending hours upon hours in rooms (studios) with no natural light. And sitting in a chair for those same hours!  I’ve learned to deal with those physical challenges.  Now, I often direct from a standing position, and I make sure to get a good, brisk walk outside before and after any day in the recording studio.

TRC: You’ve done many things in publishing. How is working in audiobooks different from working in other parts of the publishing industry?

MW: Well, because it’s performance-based, audiobooks bring the world of theater and literature together in a totally distinct art form, and, given my background, that’s special in a meaningful way.  And it’s hands-on in a different way because through oral storytelling we are animating, interpreting and bringing the author’s work to life through the most sensitive instrument we have: the human voice.  The publisher has already done the heavy lifting of developing the book with the author, so for us, it’s visceral and it’s all in the moment.

Through oral storytelling we are animating, interpreting and bringing the author’s work to life through the most sensitive instrument we have: the human voice.

TRC: Do you have any favorite audiobooks (not necessarily ones that you worked on)?

MW: As I mentioned earlier, HATCHET by Gary Paulsen, narrated by Peter Coyote. We actually sat in our car, in the driveway, so that we could finish listening. Other books that got me hooked and we enjoyed as a family are the Newbery Medal-winner WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech, performed by Hope Davis. It’s such a poignant story, and Hope Davis's performance is funny and moving.  And driving our son back and forth to camp one summer we listened to a 15 hour book called EON: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman, an Asian-inspired fantasy of dragons and magic and power politics that deals with themes of gender and identity narrated by Nancy Wu. 

As far as books that I’ve directed, there are favorites galore: In the YA category there are The Kane Chronicles ---an action-packed three-part series by Rick Riordan featuring two siblings who take on the world of Egyption gods and goddesses narrated by Katherine Kellgren and Kevin Free.  For your teen (and cross-over adult audiences), OUT OF THE EASY by Ruta Sepetys, a coming of age story set in the 1950s French Quarter of New Orleans narrated by Lauren Fortgang; and more recently SAVAGE GIRL by Jean Zimmerman,  a mystery with a twist set in NYC during the Guilded Age, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini; and CONVERSION by Katherine Howe set during senior year at an all-girls private school that draws comparisons to the Salem Witch Panic, narrated by Khristine Hvam (which won an Earphones Award from Audiofile Magazine, the preeminent magazine for audiobook lovers). 

TRC: You mentioned that lots of actors have their own recording studios, and don't work with directors or sound engineers. Can you tell me your thoughts on this?

MW: While many talented, experienced and skilled audiobook narrators deliver high quality performances without the help of a director or engineer, and do so from their home studio, I ask at what cost to the individual actor and the industry as a whole. In the short term, as demand for audio content has increased exponentially, the home studio has been a cost-effective strategy for publishers. However, in the long term, it’s my opinion that the move to home studio recording will come at a price, mainly in the reduction of immediacy and intimacy in the actors performance. I’ve asked many experienced actors who record from home studios if they would prefer to be working with directors in studio, and they invariably say, “Yes!  If only it was our choice.”

The actor in the home studio is simultaneously performing the book, playing director by making judgment calls about what should be re-recorded, as well as engineering the session, meaning they are listening for extraneous noise and editing the audio files as they go along (the latter, so that when they finish recording the book they have a rough edit to deliver to the publisher).  Often, the actor delivering this edit is not being paid a rate above what they would make in a studio environment with a director and/or engineer partnering with them to help create the highest quality product.

Also, in a home studio environment, deadlines are often tighter and therefore the need to get the book done faster forces decisions that might not be made with a director in the room. 

These decisions, or judgment calls, when made by a director (or an engineer who is also directing), give the reader the freedom to fully engage with the material and focus solely on delivering a great performance.

By eliminating the director and engineer, each with highly specialized skill sets, the collaborative process and creation of this art form is subverted.

So...out of necessity, the actor is looking to develop a style of recording that will be as efficient as possible, meaning with as few stumbles, clipped or mispronounced words, language changes and overall stops and starts for performance as they can manage. In this process, the emphasis can tend to be on getting each word right rather than intimate storytelling.  Even an audiobook narrator with some experience is bound to develop habits that do not serve the performance, but put an inexperienced narrator in a home studio and the result will be a narrating style that is flatter and without the animation and immediacy that can be delivered by an actor who has the freedom to focus solely on performance and engaging with the material.

Publishers like Amazon-owned Audible who mine genre backlists for possible audio content are in a position to offer many opportunities to actors with home studios as well as give newcomers a shot at learning the craft. Unfortunately, the demands of the job for a newcomer are onerous. They are often contracting to deliver a large number of titles in a short period of time; e.g. 30 titles in 13 weeks (Or in audiobook parlance, 10-15 finished hours per week, for a total of 200 listener hours of finished audio over the course of 13 weeks. That number of finished hours will take an efficient home narrator 400 hours of recording time, which doesn’t account for script preparation and research.)  Actors operating on that time frame without a director coaching them through the process are at a serious disadvantage. 

Home studio recording is a lonely business.  By eliminating the director and engineer, each with highly specialized skill sets, the collaborative process and creation of this art form is subverted.Taking a long-term view, my concern is that the loosening of quality control and lowering of standards that has resulted from getting more books out into the marketplace more quickly through home studio recording may cause a slowing of the growth in new listeners (if not a decline in interest by avid listeners).  Consider the example of my own experience with HATCHET, the first book I listened to. Put a great audiobook in the hands of a new listener and you have a fan for life. Put a bad audiobook in those same hands and you risk a costly missed opportunity.  

TRC: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in becoming an audio director or producer one day?  

MW: Learn the business by working for a book or audio publishing company or in a production studio. 

TRC: What skills or qualities would make someone a good audio producer or director?  

MW: Love of literature and theater, ability to work with creative people of all kinds, attention to detail while simultaneously keeping an eye/ear on the big picture.  

TRC: Is there anything you’re working on right now that’s really exciting for you?

MW: Different things excite me.  A beautifully written book paired with the perfect actor creates a very special kind of magic.  Discovering a writer that’s new to me or being in a learning mode with a nonfiction book is incredibly energizing.  But at the moment, what’s really interesting to me is noticing the connecting thread between the different books I’m doing, a sort of convergence if you will. 

I’m starting to work on a new book called JUST MERCY: A Story of Justice and Redemption, which I’m recording with the author, Bryan Stevenson, a brilliant, accomplished and dedicated lawyer based in Alabama.  Bryan founded an organization called The Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice that defends the poor and wrongly condemned.  (He’s often referred to as a young, American Mandela.)  I’m nearly finished with my first read of the book and am immersed in the harrowing journey of an innocent black man on death row and Bryan’s herculean efforts within the community, and up against a biased and broken justice system, to free him.

At the same time I’m recording THE REPUBLIC OF IMAGINATION by Azar Nafisi and am hearing about the brutality of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and the writing of his semi-autobiographical first novel --- GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN. Earlier in the summer I did a novel called DOLLBABY by Laura Lane McNeal, narrated by January Lavoy.  Set during the Civil Rights era in New Orleans it’s filled with lovable, quirky characters and family secrets that cross racial lines.   So…it’s just very interesting when all these different kinds of books converge, build upon one another, and explore powerful themes from very different angles.

TRC: Do you have any other favorite audiobooks that you’ve worked on that you’d like to tell us about?

MW: Yes --- I have so many! I’ve named a few, like the book with Mozhan that I mentioned, I ALWAYS LOVED YOU by Robin Oliveira. I learned a lot about my own family through working on that book. My father was born and raised in Switzerland and his sister was a gifted painter, never married, and lived and worked out of her art studio in Bern just as many of the impressionist artists did in Paris during Cassatt and Degas’ time.

I also enjoy working with authors.  Some years back, Paul Harding won the Pulitzer for his first novel TINKERS.  Paul wasn’t satisfied with the reading of that book and wanted to try narrating himself. ENON was only his second novel and it was interesting to observe him learning about his own writing as he was reading aloud.  Throughout the recording process, he, and most of the authors I’ve directed, express appreciation for the guidance I offer and that’s truly gratifying.

Other favorite projects include oneof the first books I did for Hachette, OFF SEASON by Anne Rivers Siddons, performed by Jane Alexander.  It’s part existential ghost story part memory play, a story of family, love and loss.   That was another one of those recording experiences where the actor and I continued our conversation about the book over lunches and shared many personal stories.

And then there’s IN FALLING SNOW by Mary-Rose MacColl, a heartbreaking first novel set in France during World War I, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy; and with Adriana Trigiani, there were the three books of her Big Stone Gap series.  She and I had many deep conversations about marriage and family and growing up and old as it related to those books.  Another was THE CONFIDANT by Hélène Grémillon, a first novel translated from the French, narrated by Ellen Archer, Robert Petkoff, Natalie Moore and Maggi-Meg Reed.   It’s a haunting wartime story set in Paris that takes the reader back and forth in time between 1975 and 1940.   And finally, THE WISDOM OF COMPASSION: Stories of Remarkable Encounters and Timeless Insights by H.H. Dalai Lama and Victor Chan, narrated by Rich Orlow.  The title says it all! 


TRC: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, May!

 MW: And thank you for this time together! I’ve really enjoyed talking with you about the work I do.