Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Listening to Fiction and Talking with Shiromi Arserio

I'm one of those people who thought I would never read on an electronic device. I love paper books. During the four years I worked full time and attended law school at night, on those rare days I took off from both, I wandered book stores. I scanned titles in all their fabulous and varied fonts, ran my hands over book covers, inhaled the combined smell of paper and ink. So I had a certain amount of sympathy when a friend said she would never buy a Kindle, because there was no problem there that needed fixing. Books were perfect as is.

Yet I love the Kindle, too. The ideal vacation for me is a pool, a view of the ocean, and a giant stack of books. (Plus, as you might guess from my photo, a lot of SPF 50 sunscreen.) The Kindle allowed me to not only bring that stack on one small device but to order more with a click. The first time I finished a series and ordered the next, I felt just like a mouse must presented with the lever to get more cheese. Click, click, click.

Enter audiobooks. I bought a Kindle when I decided to publish my thriller The Awakening on it. I felt I ought to know what that reading experience was like. Similarly, a while back, I began hearing more about authors and publishers releasing audiobooks. I was skeptical. My experience was with tapes (yes, I'm old enough for that) and CDs that I bought, aspired to listen to, and never did. I couldn't imagine that I'd ever buy more than one or two audiobooks. Or listen to podcasts for that matter.

Now I listen to one or the other frequently on my iPhone during the day using the Audible app. (My favorite podcast is Dusted by Storywonk, which analyzes Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes.) When I read, I do so to shut off everything else. But with an audiobook, I listen to accompany other tasks, and compelling books motivate me to continue whatever I'm doing so I can hear more. If I'm listening to a book a I love, my condo is very, very clean, my bills are paid well in advance, and my checkbook is balanced. And I'm in great shape, as treadmills are wonderful for listening.
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For both listening and reading, I enjoy thrillers because they pull me right in and keep me engaged. I also like non-fiction on audio, but if the concepts are too complex, that doesn't work. On paper, I can slow down or reread a paragraph and ponder it. While Audible  allows skipping back 30 seconds at a time, that doesn't match seeing words on the page or easily flipping through an earlier section.

Given the differences I experienced in reading versus listening, I became curious about how narrating an audiobook differs from other types of performances. So I asked producer/narrator Shiromi Arserio.

Shiromi and I have similar tastes. I wanted to work with her on The Unbelievers, Book 2 in my series, because one of the first audiobooks I ever listened to, a sci fi thriller with a female main character, was one she narrated. I also was very excited that Shiromi has appeared in a few Lost episodes. (Which has nothing to do with producing audiobooks, I just thought it was cool.) And we both love Michael Biehn, the actor who played Kyle Reese in the first Terminator movie. Cyril Woods, the antagonist/almost love interest in The Awakening is modeled a tiny bit after Biehn's portrayal of Reese, so I knew Shiromi would understand how I saw and heard Cyril.

Her answers to my questions are below. (Notice how I didn't ask her what things about working with authors drive her crazy or make her want to throw things.)

Are the skills you need for narrating different from those you use when acting?

When you're acting, even if it's for a video game, you're playing one character at a time. In an audiobook you are doing an entire play by yourself. Jumping from male to female characters, changing accents. It's a lot to keep track of. Also, as a narrator, you have to remember that it's not about the actor's performance. You want someone to remember how good the story is, not how memorable the actor was.

When you read a book you’re preparing to narrate, do you hear each character’s voice in your mind? Do you need to think about it for a while?

Some characters pop in my head fully formed. I have a clear idea who the character is and how they should sound. Sometimes I’ll have to go away and think about it. Maybe get the author's input, if I can. The more well-developed the character is on the page, the easier it is to “hear” the voice. 

How do you handle a character’s interior thoughts? Is it hard to differentiate that from dialogue?

Interior thoughts can be really challenging. For one of my early books I used a slight reverb effect to change the sound of the thoughts, but it's time consuming and generally ACX (the production platform) doesn’t approve of effects in audiobooks. And most people are listening through tiny headphones while on the way to work or going for a run, and can't even hear the reverb. So now I just get a little closer to the mic and drop my voice as though I'm talking to myself.

What is your favorite type of book to read? To listen to? Is there a difference between the two when it comes to favorites?

I'm a geek, so I love to read or listen to scifi, horror, fantasy. However, with audiobooks I tend to go for ones that are more involved. There are certain books that I just process easier listening to rather than reading. The A Song of Ice and Fire series is like that for me. I read Game of Thrones, but it was a bit of a slog. The first time I read it, I kept losing my place and not realising I’d jumped ahead. Listening to Roy Dotrice's narration became a much more enjoyable way to experience Westeros.

Do you have a type of listener or a particular person in mind when you narrate, a sort of ideal audience, the way some authors do when they write? Who is that person?

I don't necessarily have an ideal listener. To be honest, usually I find myself getting lost in the story. But when I am thinking about the listener and how I’m telling the story, I try to imagine that he or she is sitting right here with me. I'll glance over to a spot in my booth, like I’m making eye contact, just as I would if I were telling a story in person. 

I enjoyed working with Shiromi throughout the production of The Unbelievers, which was released a few days ago. (You can listen to a sample of Shiromi's narration of the book here). She currently has a handful of audiobooks in various stages of production, and she also does a lot of video game work. In a game called Infinifactory, where you build "factories that assemble products for your alien overlords, and try not to die in the process," she plays four different characters.

What about you? What do you do while listening to audiobooks, and what types do you like best? If you're an author or narrator, what experiences have you had?

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. Both are available in paperback and ebook editions and as audiobooks on Amazon or Audible. She is currently working on Book 3 in the four-book series.