Hot (but not too)

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY RON CHARLES

Au­dio­book ac­tors try to con­vey emo­tions but not sound like porn stars.

This Valen­tine’s Day, you might whis­per into your lover’s ear for a few min­utes.

Pity the poor au­dio­book nar­ra­tor who has to keep that up for hours.

It’s a chal­lenge, par­tic­u­larly for the voice ac­tors who record ro­mance nov­els. Per­haps no group of peo­ple has thought more deeply about the com­pli­cated sound of pas­sion than these nar­ra­tors who speak the words that ro­mance au­thors set down on pa­per. They lit­er­ally sing the body elec­tric.

Au­dio­book nar­ra­tors are al­most all ac­tors or for­mer ac­tors, work­ing in a field that hov­ers some­where be­tween an­nounc­ing the news and per­form­ing in a play. Their full-bod­ied voices are as honed and sculpted as the abs of any ro­mance novel’s cover model. They court us with the witty, tragic or sus­pense­ful sto­ries of wicked dukes and trou­bled sis­ters, es­caped slaves and young wid­ows, ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tives and horny shape-shifters.

“The sure way they touched, so ob­vi­ously fa­mil­iar with each other’s bod­ies, killed me.”

— “Dirty,” by Kylie Scott

But the con­di­tions of the job are any­thing but ro­man­tic. Andi Arndt, who won the 2017 Audie Award for Ro­mance, says, “I sit alone in a lit­tle box and read all day.”

That sounds like the plight of some Brothers Grimm hero­ine, but this is no fairy tale. It’s ex­act­ing work that has given rise to a cot­tage in­dus­try of in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors who are part lit­er­ary crit­ics, part ac­tors, part sound engi­neers. Many work alone, some­times in their own homes. “When I first started,” Arndt says, “I’d have this ex­is­ten­tial mo­ment: ‘ Will any­body ever hear this?’ ”

She needn’t worry about that any­more. Af­ter record­ing about 250 books over the past seven years, Arndt is adored by le­gions of lis­ten­ers, and she keeps them con­stantly in mind when she’s record­ing. “I don’t want to tire them out,” she says. “It’s not about me grab­bing them by the lapels. I can’t sus­tain that for an eight-hour book. It’s about the au­thor’s words.”

In a sense, the au­dio­book nar­ra­tor par­tic­i­pates in a mé­nage à trois with the nov­el­ist and the lis­tener. If that re­la­tion­ship works, the nar­ra­tor en­hances the reader’s ex­pe­ri­ence — but never dom­i­nates it.

Kat Lam­brix, di­rec­tor of Au­di­ble Stu­dios (a sub­sidiary of Ama­zon, whose founder, Jef­frey P. Be­zos, owns The Wash­ing­ton Post), says she wants voice ac­tors who can un­der­stand each ro­mance novel on an emo­tional level. “Are they go­ing to be true to the ethos of the story?” she asks. “Are there double-en­ten­dres they’re go­ing to hit just right? Are they go­ing to be able to em­body the writer and the char­ac­ters?”

She ac­knowl­edges that “there are so many dif­fer­ent ways that peo­ple’s voices can em­body sex­i­ness,” but it all comes down to one pow­er­ful but in­ef­fa­ble tone in the ac­tor’s voice: “When you’re do­ing ro­mance, in­ti­mate is the most im­por­tant qual­ity.” The best nar­ra­tors “take you along the jour­ney with them, and you’re in the room with them and feel­ing those emo­tions along with them.”

“From out of mem­ory, an im­age came unto his mind and took his breath away. It was of a tall slen­der fe­male.”

— “The Cho­sen,” by J.R. Ward

When the sto­ries are very in­ti­mate, even erotic, that can get touchy.

Jim Fran­gione, an ac­tor who nar­rates J.R. Ward’s pop­u­lar Black Dag­ger Brother­hood nov­els, says, “You re­ally have to stay lu­bri­cated. I drink a lot of hot tea when I’m record­ing.” If you know Ward’s para­nor­mal ro­mance sto­ries about vam­pire war­riors, you can un­der­stand why. “You have to give it some au­then­tic­ity. You have to ‘go there’ with your voice,” Fran­gione says. “I don’t smoke, but if I did, I’d share a cig­a­rette with my en­gi­neer after­wards.”

“Don’t look through the glass at the en­gi­neer!” warns Amanda Ron­coni, who has recorded about 70 ro­mance nov­els. Once you get the gig­gles, you’re done, she says. You’ve got to stop, clear your mind, take a walk. When Ron­coni is record­ing par­tic­u­larly erotic sto­ries, her only goal is to stay in the char­ac­ter’s head. “That helps find that bal­ance,” she says, “so that it doesn’t be­come porno­graphic.” The last thing she wants in those mo­ments is for the en­gi­neer — in­vari­ably a young man — to stop her and ask, “Can you say that again?”

As a rule, ro­mance lis­ten­ers don’t want to hear a 1-900 voice: No moan­ing, no groan­ing. Keep it sub­tle. No mat­ter how ex­plicit the scene may be, some things need to be left to the imag­i­na­tion. A great voice evokes shades of grey.

Karen White, who has recorded more than 350 au­dio­books, says the finest com­pli­ment she ever re­ceived was from a re­viewer who said that she reads “sex scenes in a way that doesn’t make a lis­tener feel like they’re a voyeur or in that creepy way that makes you feel like you’re lis­ten­ing to some­one’s sex act.”

In­stead, White says, “I fo­cus on the emo­tions that peo­ple are feel­ing, even if I’m read­ing words that are about . . . spe­cific parts. There are no sound ef­fects. That would be re­ally strange. When peo­ple get too into it, and there’s a lot of panting, lis­ten­ers tend not to like that. Our train­ing is to make the voice con­nect with what we’re feel­ing. That works bet­ter than hav­ing a breathy, sexy voice. If you start lis­ten­ing to that, maybe the first para­graph it’s great, but then you fall asleep.”

Such emo­tional sen­si­tiv­ity is ex­actly what best-sell­ing ro­mance nov­el­ist Emma Chase is look­ing for. “You don’t want to be un­com­fort­able with those scenes,” she says. “The au­dio­book ex­pe­ri­ence — hear­ing the words out­side the book — height­ens ev­ery­thing for the lis­tener,” which makes the voice ac­tor’s job even more cru­cial. “The hu­mor is fun­nier. The ro­mance is more pas­sion­ate. The sexy mo­ments make you blush a lit­tle more.” The first time she heard the record­ing of one of her nov­els, she ad­mits, “I just kind of turned beet red. Who wrote that?”

“He’s the per­fect combo of boy­ishly could-go-to-my-school kind of hand­some, mixed with dan­ger­ously hot and tan­ta­liz­ingly mys­te­ri­ous.”

— “Roy­ally En­dowed,” by Emma Chase

Chase wrote her up­com­ing novel, “Get­ting Schooled” (Au­di­ble Stu­dios), specif­i­cally for the au­dio for­mat, an in­creas­ingly com­mon ap­proach that sub­tly changes the con­di­tions of com­po­si­tion. “I had in mind what it would sound like to the lis­tener,” Chase says. “And I kept in mind — par­tic­u­larly with love scenes — the gasp­ing and some of the words that you use, mak­ing sure it would sound good. A ta­lented nar­ra­tor will be able to take that scene and be bold with it.”

But get­ting hot and both­ered is hardly the most chal­leng­ing as­pect of record­ing ro­mance nov­els. A year or two may pass be­tween nov­els in a pop­u­lar se­ries, but a lis­tener might binge-lis­ten to that en­tire se­ries in a week, and her fa­vorite char­ac­ter has got to sound con­sis­tent from book to book. Like other nar­ra­tors, White records and stores voice sam­ples of every char­ac­ter she reads so that she can go back and re­mind her­self ex­actly how that doc­tor or sis­ter or lieu­tenant sounds. “There are sub­tle dif­fer­ences,” she says, “a lot of dif­fer­ent fac­tors you can change: pitch, tone, ac­cent, pace and other things that af­fect the feel of the voice.”

Aden­rele Ojo, an ac­tress who nar­rates and di­rects au­dio­books, draws an anal­ogy to film. “In a movie, we have the mu­sic and the cam­era shots,” Ojo says. But with an au­dio­book, “we’re fram­ing all the shots for you. That comes from the voice — a lit­tle sex­i­ness, a lit­tle raspy some­times. The pac­ing is al­ways chang­ing de­pend­ing on what’s hap­pen­ing in the scene. When you do get in those more ro­man­tic mo­ments, is it clumsy, is it sexy, is it scin­til­lat­ing? That will tell you how to tell the story, which will help keep them en­thralled.”

In some ways, the process is no dif­fer­ent from ro­mance it­self. “Slow it down; take your time with this,” Ojo tells the nar­ra­tors she’s di­rect­ing. “If you find a re­ally nice mo­ment, you want that mo­ment to live, to re­ally live for the lis­tener. Oh, oh, oh — can you just do it again?”

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