Our Audiobook Q&A Series returns, and this time around we chat with Dan Zevin, author of the forthcoming memoir Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad, about recording the audio edition of his book for AudioGO, the perils of pronunciation, and the dangers of carbonated beverages.
1. This is your first book to have an audio edition. What was behind your decision to narrate Dan Gets a Minivan yourself?
I used to contribute funny radio pieces to NPR’s Boston station, WBUR, and I also hosted a funny call-in show called “Everyday People,” where I interviewed non-celebrities like my UPS guy or a birthday-party clown. I forgot how much I loved going into a studio and recording until I posted some of those spots on my website for Dan Gets a Minivan. Narrating my book was a chance to get back into the studio again. Now I want to start doing radio again. Or maybe I can just narrate other people’s books instead of having to write my own.
2. How was the recording process for you? Was it what you expected? Was it different?
It was surreal. My book is a comic memoir about the transition from couplehood to familyhood. It’s funny, but it’s personal. Spending six hours reading it aloud was like spending six years re-living my life. Now I can fire my shrink. I’m cured.
3. What did you do to prepare before you stepped into the recording booth?
I drank six cups of coffee. That’s five more than usual.
4. What was the biggest challenge of recording the audiobook?
Russian translation. I have a story in my book about how my wife and I had our first kiss on a train bound for Moscow, and the conductor suggested — in Russian — that we get a private cabin. In the book, I just strung some random Russian letters together to get the point across that he was speaking in Russian. But in the audio version, I had to READ the Russian dialogue aloud. We took a break and I called up my son’s friend’s mom, who is Russian. “I have very quick question,” I said. “How do you say, “Get a room” in Russian? She told me immediately, helped me with my accent, and we started recording again five minutes later.
5. What were your interactions like with the director and other recording staff? Did they offer advice? Did working with them help you?
Writing is isolating for all of us, but for comic writers like me, there’s a special pathology to it because you never really know if you’re material is funny until you read it aloud to someone. So the two guys that were there in the studio with me — the producer/director and the engineer — were the perfect focus group for me. Every now and then I’d glance up and see them cracking up hysterically from where they were sitting on the other side of the glass wall. That was a good sign.
6. What advice would you have for other authors considering reading their own audiobooks?
First of all, don’t drink Coke before or during your session because you will burp while narrating your book. Stick with coffee. Also: By the time I went in to record the book, I had read it anywhere from 10 times to 1 billion times because it had gone through so many different stages of production with Scribner, from the rough draft to the copy-edited draft to the final draft to the Extremely Final draft, etc. So I thought I’d be able to just wing it in the studio, but I was wrong. Reading your own book is different than reading your own book aloud. For example, there were several incidents where I realized I actually was mispronouncing certain words that I’d written. It was kind of embarrassing when the director had to stop me every time I mispronounced “expat,” for example. And don’t even get me started about trying to pronounce “Ivan Gasparovic,” the President of Slovakia. I mentioned him in my chapter about going to Disneyland with my kids. It’s a long story. But the cool part was that the recording engineer had a voice app on his iPhone that gives you correct pronunciations.
7. Narrators often describe the process of recording an audiobook as “grueling.” Would you agree with that?
I’ve heard some writers say how hard it is to record their books themselves, but for me, it was an amazing opportunity. For me, the hard part about writing is the writing part. The trick with humor is to make it look like the whole book took you five minutes to write. Trust me, it takes me five minutes to write my own name. But recording the book was actually cathartic, which, by the way, is a word I’m not sure I’m pronouncing correctly. You sit in a quiet, cozy room and spend at least six concentrated hours reading aloud from a project you’ve been working on, sometimes for years. When else would a writer sit and do anything like that? You leave the experience thinking, “Wow, I wrote all that stuff? That’s a lot of stuff. So that’s what I’ve been doing all these years.”
8. Did the experience give you a new appreciation for the work audiobook narrators do?
I have a new appreciation for the work audiobook narrators and voice-over actors do. You have to be a good actor. I realized that some of the characters in Dan Gets a Minivan have certain dialects or accents, which I heard in my head when I was writing them, but when I had to read their dialogue aloud for the audiobook, every accent just came out the same. No matter who was talking, I managed to give them all this Yiddish accent that sounded like Mel Brooks in The 2,000 Year old Man. Also, when you’re reading aloud for all that time, your voice starts playing tricks on you, even when you’re not trying to do accents. Every 15 minutes or so, I’d find myself just slurring randomly over a word or sentence, or stuttering, or burping. Plus my voice cracked many times, like I was hitting puberty all over again right there in the studio. I guess it was a nervous thing, or maybe it’s the male change of life.
9. Do you think you’ll be stepping back into the recording studio again? Maybe for your next book?
The day after my recording session, I called up some of my former radio contacts to tell them that my audiobook session really inspired me to start doing radio again. It was really a motivating experience for me. Once they listen to the demo of my audiobook, though, who knows? Hopefully my director and engineer edited out the burping and voice-cracking parts.