For several years I have worked to raise the bar on self-published children’s books, many of which are upsettingly unprofessional. I’ve recently learned that the audiobook field has a similar issue. Amazon’s new platform, ACX, is “a marketplace where authors, literary agents, publishers can connect with narrators, engineers, recording studios … capable of producing a finished audiobook.”
I learned this through an interview with Christa Lewis who seems an exception to my negative expectations. All three of the last books she recorded won audio awards.
Lewis is the sole narrator of the sophisticated young adult novel, “Wolf by Wolf” by Ryan Graudin (book from Little Brown, audio from Hatchette). The heroine 6-year-old Yael is selected for experimentation at a concentration camp and treatments result in her ability to shape shift. After Hitler wins WWII, 17-year-old Yael transforms into an Aryan girl hoping to assassinate Hitler. Christa Lewis switches accents, time periods and moods, and creates flow for a book that she sees as “shards of experience that were almost disjointed, the aches and pains of them all intriguing.”
In recording Kathleen Alcott’s “Infinite Home” (book from Riverhead; audio from Blackstone) Lewis portrays a landlady and a whole apartment building of characters.
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She found Alcott’s “use of language so rich, so full of colors and metaphors, that I thought if I add anything to this, I’m going to drown a listener. So I tried to almost delete myself from the book.” It took her weeks to recover from the recording. Finally Lewis realized it was because the main character was losing her mind. “It took me weeks to recover my own.”
Mary Gaitskill’s “The Mare” (book from Pantheon; audio from Blackstone) was Lewis’ first multicast audio. The story’s four viewpoint voices blend so dynamically it’s hard to believe the roles were recorded independently. Kyla Garcia reads the narrative of Velvet, an 11-year-old girl from a Dominican background who lives in Brooklyn home. Garcia’s recording reflects Velvet’s innocence, fear of her abusive mother and her passion for horses.
Counterpoint comes in Lewis’ narration of Ginger. Ginger, at 47, is yearning for a child and so hosts Velvet through the Fresh Air Fund. Ginger dabbles in art, but her life seems empty before she loses herself in improving Velvet’s situation.
Lewis fully explores the nuances of Ginger’s many confusions, expressing her mix of messy emotions. Sometimes Ginger’s rescuing seems altruistic and at other times she seems only to be saving herself from a void. Ginger is plagued by fleeting insights that she is intruding in Velvet’s life even as she tightens her hold and gets more involved. And yet, it is Ginger whose passion for art parallels Velvet’s fervor for horses.
Are Lewis’ excellent narrations characteristic of all independent narrators? I doubt it. Lewis graduated from Boston University’s 4-year actor training program, afterward did “a million things with my voice” and spent “20 years at the microphone.” She was working in Berlin as an international news broadcaster when a string of serendipities led her to audiobook narration.
“At the time,” Lewis remembers, “the best sound engineers in the world made me sound like a million bucks every time I went on the air.” She spent 18 months teaching herself how to record, edit and master. “I practiced, I failed, I wept, I cursed. I’m a perfectionist and I had been spoiled.”
Her home recording journey took her from “closet to cellar to finally getting a recording booth.” Her “extraordinary odyssey of learning to negotiate ambient noise” has paid off. For all three of the audiobooks that recently earned won awards, Lewis was the narrator, the director and the recording engineer.