Summer Books

Portrait of the Voice in My Head

The audiobook industry is booming, thanks in part to golden-throated narrators like Grover Gardner

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When Grover Gardner goes to work, there are certain things he can’t wear. No watches. No jewelry of any kind. No starched shirts. No starched anything. Nothing that could rustle, click, rattle, or otherwise make noise. “I kind of look like a bum much of the day,” he says. The dress code is something of an occupational hazard: Gardner’s is one of the most respected and beloved voices in audiobooks.

Among the more than 1,200 books Gardner has narrated are Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, Stephen King’s The Stand (all 48 hours), and all four volumes of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson published to date. The resident of Medford, Oregon, was named 2005’s Audiobook Narrator of the Year by Publishers Weekly and has been heralded among AudioFile magazine’s “Best Voices of the Century.” Gardner is also the winner of an Audie, the Oscars of audiobooks. (Because of course there is an Oscars of audiobooks.) Even hearing his warm, patrician baritone — once described by a critic as “sandpaper and velvet” — over the phone feels like an experience worth paying for.

The audiobook industry is booming, a bright spot in the publishing landscape even as e-book sales have declined. “We have seen double-digit growth in both units and dollars the past five years,” says Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association. “Audiobooks are a great place to be these days.”

Currently, roughly 50,000 audiobooks are recorded annually in the U.S, with sales across the sector growing by 20 percent last year. “We started to see fantastic digital growth with the rise of the iPod and then the past decade with the smartphone,” say Cobb. Services like Audm, which enlists professional narrators (including Gardner) to give voice to long-form journalism published in outlets like the New Yorker and ProPublica, and Libro.FM, which offers a subscription membership to a library of more than 100,000 audiobooks, are further broadening listeners’ audio intake options. But for all the technological innovations that have catalyzed the evolution of audiobooks, their screen-free (page-free, even) appeal is almost primal, harking back to a deep-seated oral tradition. There’s something undeniably soothing about being read aloud to, even if the bedtime story in question happens to be, say, less Goodnight Moon and more Gone Girl.

 

In spite of all of Gardner’s accolades, and as intimate as the reader-listener relationship can be, he’s well aware that you probably don’t know his name. And, in fact, he prefers it that way. “People say, ‘Boy, that was a great book. Who narrated it? Well, I can’t remember.’ That’s fine,” he says. “I’m glad you forgot who I am, and that you thought the book was terrific, because that’s my job.”

In 1981, as a young actor in Washington, D.C., Gardner auditioned for the Talking Book program for the visually impaired at the Library of Congress, which eventually led to recording unabridged works for Books on Tape. The industry could hardly have looked more different then: The major publishers trafficked little in audiobooks, and those they did produce were typically abridged and narrated by celebrity readers. The limited supply of unabridged audiobooks, meanwhile, came in ungainly boxes containing dozens of cassettes — and, later, in less ungainly boxes of CDs. Everything changed in the mid Nineties, when the proliferation of the internet made it possible for listeners to download full-length audiobooks with ease. Online audiobook titan Audible, now a subsidiary of Amazon, was founded in 1995. Per the Audio Publishers Association, download was the format of choice for more than 87 percent of audiobooks sold in 2016.

Gardner’s favorite credits include Shelby Foote’s The Civil War, Paulette Jiles’s News of the World, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (“That’s years ago, and I still get emails about that”), David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter mystery series, and the LBJ biographies. “Boy, I hope [Caro] finishes the fifth one before I get too old to read and my teeth fall out,” Gardner says. “I wish he would write ten more, because I loved doing them so much.”

For Gardner, every project begins, unsurprisingly, with reading the book in question, and with detailed visualization of the characters and events described therein. It works: His narration vividly conjures a sense of place, be it the streets of New York City via Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, or the shores of the Mississippi via The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “If you act out the performance in your head, that’s what the listener is going to hear,” Gardner explains. That acting extends to movement within the recording booth (hence the effectively soundproofed wardrobe), vital even though unseen by his audience — for instance, shifting from one side to another while embodying each of two characters in the midst of an animated conversation, or gesturing angrily to punctuate an argument. The trick is making sure you stay on mic.

On a typical day, a narrator might spend between four and six hours in the booth. One finished hour of tape will take two to two and a half hours to record. (According to Business Insider, non-celebrity narrators can command $100 to $500 per finished hour.) Gardner’s longest-ever project was Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume The Story of Civilization. It took him close to a thousand hours — more than 41 cumulative days in front of a microphone. “One of the nice compliments on Audible about that [book] is somebody commented that it doesn’t sound like I ever stopped to take a break,” Gardner recalls. “Being consistent with your energy and your sound through that long a book, over that long a period of time, that’s important. You don’t want it to sound like it took you forever to record it. You want it to sound like you sat down and read it.”

Unlike a stage performance, for which projection is a must, Gardner’s work doesn’t require him to be quite so precious about the condition of his vocal cords, although he is reasonably wary of high-volume conversations in noisy bars and the scourge that is the common cold. But he repeatedly emphasizes that audiobook narration is a physically demanding job. “When authors decide they want to record their books, usually the first thing they say is, ‘I can’t believe how exhausting this is,’ ” says Gardner, who serves as the studio director for audiobook publisher Blackstone Audio.

“I’m not going to tell you the name, but there is an author that we actually had to have a conversation with,” Chris Lynch, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio, told the Voice. “She had read a couple of her books, and we said, ‘The reviews have not been great. We’d like to go with an actor.’ And the author ultimately wanted to do what was best for the book, so she agreed.”

Gardner’s advice to aspiring narrators is to take a digital recorder and a book, sit in a quiet room, and read aloud for an hour without stopping. “Then tell me if you still want to do it. The answer is often ‘no,’ ” he says. “If you had to break down all the components of what goes into quality audiobook narration, it’s staggering. All the things you’re juggling in your head, in the body, in your throat and your voice.”

Even seasoned voiceover artists will find that audiobooks are a “completely different” discipline. “If you’re coming from a context where the point is to call attention to your voice, to grab the listeners’ ear — Tomorrow, big sale!  — that doesn’t work in audiobooks,” Gardner explains. “If I’m listening to the sound of your voice, I’m missing the book. The word that we use a lot in the business is ‘transparency.’ You want people to forget. You want to disappear into the book.” He cites a producer friend’s rule of thumb for evaluating audiobook auditions: If, thirty seconds after hitting play, she’s engaged in the story, that’s good. If she’s still thinking about the sound of the narrator’s voice, that’s not good.

Gardner characterizes the audiobook world as a tight, warm community, not to mention an increasingly thriving, seemingly recession-proof industry. “For audiobook listeners, the last thing they give up are their audiobooks,” he says. And many listeners are equally attached to their favorite interpreters. There are Jim Dale’s and Stephen Fry’s dueling takes on the Harry Potter books, each populated with a staggeringly vast yet three-dimensional cast of characters. To many, David Sedaris’s unmistakable, slightly nasal voice (as heard on NPR and This American Life, as well as his recordings of his own books) is inextricable from his withering prose. Toni Morrison narrates her novels with the same thoughtfulness and poetry with which she wrote them. The recent deaths of Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth might inspire fans to revisit the work of Harold N. Cropp, whose verbal acrobatics capture Wolfe’s Technicolor prose, or Ron Silver, who evokes Roth’s Jewish, North Jersey gestalt.

Sure, A-list celebrity readers like Anne Hathaway (The Wizard of Oz) and Nicole Kidman (Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse) are sometimes enlisted as narrators, but they remain a rarity. “By and large, I don’t feel that someone like Scarlett Johansson is competing with me for audiobook work,” Gardner says. In some cases, as with Colin Firth’s reading of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, they turn in truly beautiful performances. In others, not so much. “A famous actor gets you initial publicity, but there’s not a sustained lift unless the famous narrator is also a terrific narrator,” Lynch explains. “These days, the fans know who the good narrators are. They ultimately don’t care if that person is a household name or not.”

As far as his own celebrity status, Gardner gets recognized only occasionally. It’s happened on an airplane, and once by his mail carrier. “I do get people who say, ‘Did I hear your voice on a commercial?’ I say, ‘No. Probably not.’ ” But a lack of mainstream stardom is worth the privilege of tackling this acting job like no other, a one-man show in the truest sense.

“You’re not just the narrator. You’re the director, you’re the scenic artist, you’re the set designer, you’re the choreographer,” Gardner says. “You’re the casting director, because you get to pick who all these people are and how they should sound. In no other part of the acting profession do you have as much control over your approach to the material.

“And you read some of the best damn stories in the whole world,” he adds. “It’s hard to beat.”

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.

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