The 'rock star' of audiobooks

George Guidall, who has narrated more than 1,300 audiobooks, makes appearances at libraries around the United States with a behind-the- scenes look at his work.
George Guidall, who has narrated more than 1,300 audiobooks, makes appearances at libraries around the United States with a behind-the- scenes look at his work. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK •Early in his career as a narrator of audiobooks, George Guidall received a note from a truck driver in Montana.

He had been so absorbed in listening to Guidall's eloquent recording of Crime And Punishment that he drove off the road. He was writing from his hospital bed to thank the narrator because he now had time to finish listening to the book.

Guidall, 79, is the undisputed king of audiobooks - more than 1,300 so far, with a stack of new prospects beside his bed awaiting his attention.

Audio is the fastest-growing format for books, generating almost US$643 million (S$879 million) in sales last year, according to the Association Of American Publishers.

It provides a sideline for many celebrities. There is Claire Danes narrating The Handmaid's Tale, Annette Bening doing Mrs Dalloway, Christina Ricci reading Gossip Girl and Colin Firth intoning The End Of The Affair.

But Guidall was once called the voice of choice in this burgeoning industry.

It was never his plan. He was headed for the medical profession, but discovered acting in school.

It was while doing A Flea In Her Ear at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut that he heard about a fellow actor leaving rehearsal early to narrate a book and he started doing "talking books" for the blind.

Most days, he drives from his home in White Plains, New York, to nearby Irvington, where the Voiceworks company owner has outfitted his basement as a recording studio.

He sits in a tiny booth lined with egg-crate-foam soundproofing, with his longtime sound engineer at a computer console right next to the washer and dryer.

A list of phonetic spellings for words that might be challenging to pronounce is provided.

When he read a book about Lincoln's war secretary Edwin Stanton, the Monongahela River required a few tries. Later, an Ohio politician named Clement Vallandigham engendered paroxysms of laughter.

"With a book that's over 700 pages, the pace is important - otherwise it would take two years to listen," Guidall said.

"So I'd rather keep up the speed and go back to correct."

Sometimes a novel has a half- dozen characters on the same page and he must give each a distinctive vocal identity.

"Recently, I heard about a voice clinic for trans people who want their voice to be more female. I want them to teach me some tricks."

He is a bit disdainful of some of his competition. "They're just reading out loud," he said. "They don't have an emotional underpinning.

"There's a rhythm to speech in terms of what's implied.

"If it's raining in the book, there's got to be something about the voice that evokes the rain."

Writers should want to have their books heard as well as read, he says.

"It expands the author's intent, brings it into an immediacy. I am the author when I'm doing it. I'm a literary hermit crab finding a home in someone else's imagined truth."

He is also vulnerable to taking an unpleasant character home with him. When he was narrating Crime And Punishment, the anguish of Raskolnikov was hard to live with.

His wife, a psychotherapist, kept saying: "What's the matter with you? You're slouching, you're mumbling, you look terrible."

Guidall said: "Someone performing the book for you can make it clearer. One guy told me that he'd been trying to read Don Quixote for years and couldn't get through it.

"He wrote: 'Thank you because now the book is mine.'"

At one reading: a man told him:"My wife thinks you have the sexiest voice. Now that I see you, I'm not worried."

He makes appearances at libraries around the country with a behind- the-scenes look at his work called The Art And Artifice Of Audiobook Narration.

Based on the feedback he gets, he believes he is providing something more than entertainment.

"I'm creating accidental intimacy," he said. "The people listening feel so close to me.

"I'm the furthest thing from a rock star, but I'm a rock star."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline The 'rock star' of audiobooks. Subscribe