On Audiobooks: From Page to Mic: An Interview About Adaptations

What goes into adapting a print book into audio? What special considerations are involved when that book is a graphic novel? Listening Library producer Amber Beard and Senior Executive Producer Linda Korn share their experiences of one example: Just Roll with It (rev. 9/21) by Lee Durfey-Lavoie, illustrated by Veronica Agarwal, and narrated by Sheena Kamal, Danice Cabanela, ­Almarie Guerra, and a full cast.

KATE SMITH: What does the process look like for producing an audiobook?

AMBER BEARD: It all starts with reading the book!

LINDA KORN: There are many things to consider, including casting, budget, postproduction, and timeline. The book, the words, the rhythm of the text tell me what it needs; I just listen.

AB: We pay attention to whether any language or accent skill is needed; the age, gender, and background of the character(s). From there, we’ll think about if we need one narrator or multiple. Then, the fun part really begins, in my opinion: we search for talent! We often use the Ahab talent agency, which is a truly invaluable database of narrators from all around the world.

LK: We connect with the author to share casting ideas and make sure they are on board with this approach to their work.

AB: We want them to be just as excited and invested in the audiobook as we are. Once the author weighs in, we move forward with scheduling the talent, booking a studio, and hiring a director.

LK: The narrator and director do extensive preparation on pronunciation, character voices, and tone. Getting behind that microphone is a unique type of performing. Alone in a booth, with no reactive audience, every nuance is performed with your voice or your silence. The headset puts you in a zone (you can lose track of time), but the director keeps the session on track.

Before we press “record” there are practical considerations, like costume. The narrator needs to wear comfortable “quiet” clothes that don’t make that swish, swish noise while they pretend to slay a dragon. Sometimes a prop, like a photo or a sword, can help the narrator get into character. We have the necessary items at the ready — an abundance of water, lip balm, throat lozenges, tea. Mic in position, sound check, headphone levels, talkback: all good to go. Then we roll. (We still call it “rolling,” even though there is no tape.)

Once all the pieces are recorded and edited together, the audiobook goes to a quality control engineer. The producer schedules any necessary final pickups or re-records that are needed, then it goes back to the editor and quality control, and is finally approved for release.

KS: How is adapting a graphic novel for audio different?

AB: This was the first graphic-novel adaptation I worked on, and I learned so much from the process. I think, as with any other book, reading the book and getting a feel for the characters, the world, and the author’s message is the first step.

LK: We had a sort of pre-script to work with that Lee and Veronica wrote in creating their graphic novel. This contained all the action and story elements we needed to successfully adapt to a script that could be read by the main narrator — who describes the action or visual elements not explicit in dialogue — and voice actors who perform the dialogue of all the characters.

AB: Lee wrote the foundation for the novel and Veronica illustrated every ­single panel and fleshed out the story. This story was also personal for ­Veronica, so we did want to make sure the casting was authentic. We sought narrators who were South Asian, LGBTQ+, and diverse in general, to reflect the ­characters in the novel.

LK: Veronica and Lee were so enthusiastic and great to work with. They were able to hear things that we might not because of their lived experiences, which helped us fine-tune and find the perfect matches.

AB: The biggest challenge and what makes producing graphic novels fun is re-creating the illustrated world by using sound effects and music. How do we indicate to the listener that the characters are walking down a school hallway and then someone knocks over the books they’re holding in their hands?

LK: If the actors can’t be in studio together, they often collaborate outside the recording to get a feel for who they’re in dialogue with and how it will flow and sound. The director helps inspire performances that will work well when cut together.

AB: Collaborating with our postproduction team to find an editor and sound designer is an invaluable step in adapting graphic novels to an audio-only format. It’s amazing to hear all the narrators, the sound effects, and the music come together in the final product. You feel like all the challenges along the way were worth it.

KS: How do you translate the illustrations to an audio experience?

LK: We are punctuating moments to underscore action or emotions the way the art does, and through music and sound we hope to further excite the imagination to place the listener at the scene so they can walk in the world of the story.

AB: We use special effects to indicate anything from a simple opening or closing of a door all the way to the more complicated and elaborate task of indicating that a dragon [in protagonist Maggie’s imagination] comes from the shadows and envelopes our main character in black smoke.

KS: What is something that you’re especially proud of in Just Roll with It’s audiobook adaptation?

AB: Some of my favorite moments are when we experience Maggie’s anxiety. We were able to really capture the fear, worry, and overwhelming thoughts that she experiences in such a way that the listener can feel them too.

LK: Words hit harder when you hear them aloud. I loved working on the music and sound, especially with some of the fantasy scenes. You don’t get to “hear” the dragon’s voice when you read the book.

KS: What’s it like working with a full cast?

LK: Most of the time, actors are alone in a booth recording their own parts. The pros can do this so well, and the magic of editing ties them all together. While a nine-hour audiobook with one narrator can be recorded in three days, a two-hour multi-voiced audiobook can take just as long.

AB: For this project, we worked with narrators who live all over the world. For instance, Sheena Kamal, who voices Maggie, was in Paris at the time of recording.

LK: You trust the process a lot and hire extraordinary talent — after you work on enough of them you learn how best to plan it out and make sure it cuts together just as you hear it in your head.

From the March/April 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Kate Smith

Kate Smith, associate publicist for Listening Library, is a graduate of Simmons University's dual-degree children's literature and library science program and a former Horn Book intern. Raised in a family with no cable television, she grew up listening to audiobooks and radio dramas from the library.

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