The Godfather: Peter Corris on the making of audiobooks
Recently I was anxious to hear a reading of Morris West’s 1965 novel The Ambassador. I’d been told it was better than Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1956), which I’d read many years ago and recently heard as an audiobook. I inquired at the Newtown Library and was told various libraries in the state had audio versions. On closer enquiry it transpired that this was wrong – the book had originally been released as a set of cassettes and libraries had discarded their cassette holdings.
Indefatigably, Jean persisted. She contacted actor, playwright and dramaturg Noel Hodda, who had done a narration for Vision Australia. He had narrated several of my Cliff Hardy books in the past and very kindly suggested that if Vision Australia no longer had a copy, he would personally read it for me.
Happily, Vision Australia had digitised the book and I was able to listen to it. While Noel’s reading was exemplary, my judgement was that West’s novel, good in some ways, was inferior to Greene’s.
I contacted Noel Hodda to inquire how the reading process worked. He was very obliging.
He said he’d begun recording books as a student at NIDA to earn extra money, and over the years had read hundreds of books in gaps between his work in the theatre, films and television. He always read the book through, sometimes more than once, to familiarise himself with the material.
To prepare for accents, snatches of foreign languages and unfamiliar phrases, the narrators listened to recordings. In particular, Hodda recalled listening to a version of the Elvish speech in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to prepare himself for the challenging task of narrating the entire trilogy.
A recording session could last for a whole day or half a day according to the actor’s commitments. It was typically done in one-hour slots with the reader taking an ‘eye break’ after each slot. Such was the necessary intensity of concentration on the page that if the reader persisted beyond an hour, he or she risked damage to the eyes. The thing to do was to go outside and look into the near, middle and far distance to enable the eyes to adjust to normal vision.
The readers marked the texts with underlinings, notes and other signs to alert them to changes of tone and nuance, and so on. The object was to read in such a way that listeners would create scenes, characters and dialogue in their minds, much as a normal reader would. To this end, accents would be hinted at, rather than emphasised, except when a broad version was required. A similar technique was used for switches from male to female and rendering children’s voices.
Every book presented its particular challenges and Hodda recalled the formidable job of narrating the Henry Handel Richardson trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, which, apart from its vast array of characters, spanned decades and required the reader to age the voices of the dramatis personae. This reading, occupying many weeks of intensive work, remains his proudest achievement as a narrator.
The process was more difficult for both reader and sound recordist in the days of reel-to-reel taping, where mistakes, hesitations, coughs and so on had to be coped with by rerunning the tape and making the corrections. All this is much easier with digital recording.
The work was paid at Equity rates and was welcome in a profession known for the unreliability of its rewards. It was largely unsung, although there were awards and Noel Hodda figured among the winners. Good books were a pleasure for him to read and bad books were a slog.
When I asked whether he ever listened to his recordings I wasn’t surprised to hear that he didn’t. Many writers, myself included, never read their own books, just as many actors, like Johnny Depp and Nicole Kidman, apparently never watch their own films. Perhaps this is out of a feeling that one could always have done better, but narrators like Noel Hodda have given and continue to give invaluable pleasure to vision-impaired book lovers and deserve to be celebrated.