Book Keeping: A Reader's Community

The Voices In My Head: On Reading Out Loud

James Sie

Still Life Las Vegas by James Sie

There are moments in life, very rare, when everything seems to come together, when separate threads of existence converge and twine into a perfect weaving, and you think, rather extravagantly, “All my life has been leading to this very moment.” I experienced such a moment two weeks ago. I experienced it, surprisingly enough, by becoming a bitter, drunk Greek woman, yelling into a microphone.

Still Life Las Vegas by James Sie
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For the record, I am not Greek. Nor am I a woman. But I am an author and a voiceover actor. And last week I had the distinct pleasure of uniting the two professions into one as I recorded the audio book for my first novel, Still Life Las Vegas. It was a revelation.

Like wife and mistress, my two careers never meet. Voiceover gigs (and I’ve voiced animated monkeys, dubbed martial artists, given life to Saturday morning superheroes) are quick, external and usually fragmented down into a series of lines, repeat three times each, please. Often you’re recording in a room with others; there’s lots of hilarious give and take. Writing, on the other hand, is a solitary, painstaking and deeply internal affair. You’re given nothing to work with but your imagination and a surfeit of caffeine. There are voices you listen to, but they’re all in your own head.

Recording an audio book is a peculiar hybrid of the two, combining attributes of each into one fantastic creature, much like a gryphon, or a Labradoodle. It’s not writing, because by this point the text is immutable (however much you might be tempted to edit as you go), but, like writing, it’s just you alone in a room, for hours, trying to get the voices in your head out, to create a world. It’s not like animation voiceover, either—instead of your allotted 2-3 roles per script, you are playing all of the parts, as well as supplying the scenery and the action. It’s an egomaniac’s paradise. If animation v.o. is a sprint, audio books are a marathon. A three-day marathon, with time off for lunch.

The recording sessions tested my endurance and aptitude as a reader. One of the big questions going in was how far I was going to take the characterizations. There are quite a few colorful voices in the book: a Midwest grandmother; a Polish accordion teacher, Mexican Liberace devotees, among many. I didn’t want to be too cartoony with them, and I didn’t want to disrupt the all-important flow of the book. Should I opt for a more subtle reading, with only slight character flavor, like a Campbell Scott, or go the full Jim Dale? (Audio book aficionados will recognize the names.) In the end I relied on my studio director, who asked the all-important question: Can you pull off all those voices? I thought I could; certainly my versions, at least, the ones that I had conjured up all those years ago when I first read their dialogue aloud from my laptop (with modification, of course: I found the perfect template for the voice of a studly Mediterranean statue performer in the baritone of former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis; his female counterpart was discovered in a recording of Melina Mercouri). And I had enough faith in my technical skills in voiceover to know that I could dial an accent up or down, if need be.

Besides, the bulk of the novel belonged not to that international cast but to three quieter domestic perspectives that I could perform very simply, as variations of my own voice: those of a teenage boy and his father, stuck in the dregs of Las Vegas; and the mother, who disappeared chasing a vision of Liberace when the boy was five. This family was the heart of the story; their truths were my truths and, in a way, their voices were mine as well.

Reading the entire book aloud gave a perspective on my writing that I would never have otherwise gained. After months of examining every comma and dangling preposition during the copyediting process, I now had to let it all go, to read the novel not as my creation, but as a story, something separate from me. Letting it unspool on its own, I found motifs that I had not noticed before, secret connections between early chapters and those that were written months (if not years) later. It also exposed the little habits and tricks of my writing. If you ever wanted to know how many times you use the word “clasp” in one book, try saying that word aloud multiple times in one recording session. It will cure you of that particular quirk forever. And I was surprised by how, after all this time, I could still be surprised by events in the story, could still feel deeply moved by my characters and their many travails.

For Still Life Las Vegas, there was an additional challenge in recording the audio version. The beautiful graphic novel sections that appear in the book obviously can’t be seen while listening in your car (though I believe they will be downloadable). I found a way around this, though, by having the drawings described by the narrator, who is, in the story, the illustrator as well. (In real life I cannot draw so much as a tic-tac-toe board; the wonderful Sungyoon Choi brought the panels to life.) In the weeks leading up to the reading I had to deconstruct the visuals back down to the descriptions I initially supplied to the artist, but in a more character-driven way. And so, I guess I did get to become the author again, finding a voice for the illustrative passages.

I left the studio on the third day, a bit hoarse but extremely grateful. To be a published author is already a magical thing. To be able to take your work and create it anew with your own voice—that’s a rare beast indeed. One that sounds like Melina Mercouri.

James Sie was born in Summit, NJ. and raised on the East Coast by a Chinese father and an Italian mother. He attended Northwestern University and lived in Chicago for many years, working as an actor and playwright, most notably at the Goodman Theatre and Lifeline Theatre. He continued his migration west by moving to Los Angeles with his husband and soon after adopted a son from Vietnam. He currently works as a voiceover artist in animation, most notably featured in “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness”; “King of the Hill” and “Jackie Chan Adventures.” He wrote and performed in a solo show about his bi-cultural upbringing, “Talking with My Hands,” as part of the East West Players/Mark Taper Forum New Works festival.

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  1. […] … I haven’t written too much about my experience doing the audio book for Still Life, but I have an essay about it at FSG Book Keeping! […]

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