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June 15, 2012

Tupelo Hassman on Recording GIRLCHILD

Tupelo Hassman graduated from Columbia's MFA program. Her writing has been published in Paper Street Press, The Portland Review Literary Journal, Tantalum, We Still Like, ZYZZYVA, and by and Tupelo is a contributing author to Heliography, Invisible City Audio Tours' first tour and is curating its fourth tour, The Landmark Revelation Society. Tupelo will be keeping a video journal of GIRLCHILD's book tour for the short documentary Hardbound: A Novel's Life on the Road. She is pictured here with Tantor Studios engineer James Cookson. You can also view a video of her recording part of GIRLCHILD here.

I have a voice only a dog can love, or a perv. I learned this last part from Dr. Drew years ago when I listened to Love Line religiously. These were Love Line’s Adam Carolla years and there is no doubt in my mind that Carolla and Drew, via the tough truths they told with love and humor, helped pull my life back from the edge. I absorbed the show’s wisdom and learned, to my dismay, that some of us who have suffered particular traumas, especially women, well, our balls never seem to drop. Our vocal cords remain stunted. Indeed, I’m eyeballing 40 and my voice remains that of a young girl. Countless dogs have affirmed that my voice resonates at a certain pitch. They adore me for this and this makes up for the attention my young-sounding voice receives from the occasional pervert. I’m lucky to have friends who are able to see, or rather, let’s say, hear, past my voice, and a fiancé who loves me in spite of it, and whether it sounds like they have dropped or not, I’m as ballsy as they come.

Still, it wasn’t that my voice’s range fit that of the young narrator of my first novel, GIRLCHILD, that led me to choose to narrate it myself. And it wasn’t that I didn’t like the options Tantor sent, a delectable collection of reels made by professional voice-over actors that all sounded wonderful. I didn’t make this decision as a listener but as a reader. Like most decisions we make, it can be traced back to a sparkling fountain of selfishness. The frescos around this fountain reveal that when I go to select an audiobook for myself I will avoid those that aren’t read by the author. The frescos show me reading the labels of audiobooks for two pieces of information: whether the book is abridged (egads!) and whether it is read by someone other than the author (pshaw!). Even if an author is dead, I’ll bemoan that I have to listen to what I consider a mediated experience (no offense, you gorgeous professional voice-over artists!). I want to listen as cleanly as I read.

Despite this, I’m clearly not a professional speaker and the days I spent in Tantor’s studio did not allow me a second to fantasize otherwise. Despite the true saintliness in James, the engineer who had to listen to every sigh, horse noise, and curse I uttered in those several days, including many instances of “Why can’t I say linoleum?!” and one “Who wrote this shit?!” it was no easy task. I sweated in that sound booth. I busted my tongue around phrases I’d read aloud countless time in the safety and privacy of my writing cubby. And yet, I’d do it all again. I’d do it again because having someone else read GIRLCHILD is akin to handing them the keys to my computer and saying, “Please, italicize whatever you’d like.” Akin to having them take a highlighter to the text I bled over for ten years and emphasize any words they imagine appropriate. 

Isn’t that mean? Isn’t that a horrid thing to say about professionals who are fabulous at their craft? It isn’t as if these people are big dummies that lumber around a text dislodging meaning. I attended a panel on audiobooks at the Annapolis Book Festival this spring where the stellar voice-over artist Michael Kramer spoke, and he clearly is no oaf but a genius at his craft, a book is honored to be read by him. There are many like him. What’s more, at that same panel, a woman in the audience shared, quite vehemently and so loudly as to not be mistaken (our voices are opposites in pitch and force), that she will not listen to an audiobook if it is read by the author. How my heart sank. In a few days I was off to Connecticut to record GIRLCHILD and here was a woman, let’s call her Vehema, who had already decided that the product of this adventure would not be for her. I’d made my decision thoughtfully, based on my sincere personal preference, and yet here was Vehema, my audiobook doppelganger. Is she wrong? Am I? I’d venture that neither of us are, except in our rigidity.

If Vehema and I can’t stretch beyond our comfort zones and give audiobooks a chance, whether read by the author or not, there is only one other solution: for each audiobook to have a voice-over version and another read by the author. In this fantasy, Vehema and I revel in the glory of choice, we embrace, and birds flitter around our heads trailing ear buds like flowered vines.  In reality, we are left to determine how much outside influence we want between ourselves and the work, much the same way we do when a book is made into a film. We choose whether to read the book or see the film first, or whether to see the film at all, because some of us prefer the film we direct on the screen of our imaginations. Until that fantastic time comes when every choice is made available and ear buds grow on trees, whatever way we encounter a text, I hope that the Vehemas of the world and I will discuss the books we’ve shared as friends, my high-pitched voice and her loud one blending together with our love of words.