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They Want to Say It in Their Own Words

Books: When it comes to audio recordings, many authors want their voices on the tapes.

May 15, 1997|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN FLYNN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Having the last word is not always what an author hopes it will be.

Because of a rapidly expanding audio book industry--some 5,000 fiction and nonfiction titles are released each year--authors often find their work released on tape as well as paper. All writers must approve abridgments; some suggest narrators or background music. And a growing number cozy up to the microphones themselves.

Their reasons for doing so are as varied as the plots they create. Some like the idea of having total control over a project; some prefer the sound of their own voices to those of hired guns. Others--like Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy, who recently read from his novel "The Flaming Corsage"--relish "the challenge of it."

Chris Radant, author of "Home for the Holidays and Other Calamities," acknowledged it has a lot to do with control. "I didn't want anybody else to read it, for fear they would make it smarmy, funny, overact," she explained.

Stephen King stepped behind a mike to record several books, including the "Dark Tower" series, "Needful Things" and "Rose Madder," because "it seemed to me that writers know their own work best."

During a telephone conversation from his home in Bangor, Maine, King acknowledged that authors may not read as well as actors. "But I thought that even a writer such as myself, one that could do a halfway decent job of reading the books, would have one thing no actor would: I've heard the words inside my head."

John Updike, another Pulitzer Prize winning-author who often reads his own work, agreed.

"My experience is that actors, being actors, tend to overact. They don't really trust the words; they put a lot of expressiveness into it that gets in the way. . . . I cling to my thought that even if doing it badly, there's some way in which an author is doing it better than an actor."

Control is not the only reason an author will read his or her own words. Earlier this year, soft-spoken Canadian Carol Shields read both her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Stone Diaries," and "The Republic of Love." She had never been happy with the "funny voices" and "actress-y" renditions she's heard on other recordings of her work. She also acknowledged in an interview from Winnipeg that she had "always wanted to be an actor. I just thought it would be a lot of fun."

Mary Karr, on the other hand, was quite upfront as to why she read her heart-wrenching memoir, "The Liar's Club": "For the money," she said by telephone from her home in Syracuse, N.Y. "They gave me, like, $4,000 to do it, and I did."

*

Karr's fee for a four-hour audio book was average for a writer narrating for the first time. The industry may be worth almost $1.8 billion a year, but payments to the "voice talent" vary hugely.

A Broadway actor who is not well-known but considered a trained voice could earn $3,000 to $4,000 for a three-hour audio, twice that for a six-hour production. A well-known Broadway actor can tack on about $1,000 more. Film or television stars start at $4,000 to $5,000. Not bad, but low when compared to celebrity authors and pop culture gurus who generally name their own price. Inexperienced and lesser-known authors start at about the same level as a trained Broadway actor.

But despite the lure of fun and money, writers-turned-readers sometimes find that reading their books is not a delightful experience.

Radant laughingly reported she made it through the two-day recording process "by doing drugs." All she popped, however, was a beta-blocker, which "does not make you feel dopey but prevents you from having sweaty palms, a rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure," she said. "So you really don't feel like you're nervous."

Karr may have earned high wages for a two-day stint, but the Texas-born, Syracuse-based author did not enjoy the experience.

"I'm one of these writers who doesn't ever read anything she's written after it's done. And certainly it was painful.

"A weird phenomenon happened in that I did it in about a third of the time that you normally have to do it. The only place I had to do takes over and over were during the scenes of my mother's psychotic break and the scene of the sexual abuse. I would just read a sentence and then stumble and we'd have to do it again. I wasn't weeping or anything," she said, "but I just couldn't get the words out."

*

The problems don't always end in the studio: How the work is eventually presented can bring its own set of pitfalls--and is as important to an author as who will narrate.

There is the "to cut or not to cut" dilemma, which is not often a question because the majority of books are abridged--unless the author is a King who wields a powerful financial scepter. King's publisher, Penguin Audiobooks, recognizes that his fans may never before have bought an audio but will reach for one he has narrated. And reach with both hands, as his books are rarely truncated.

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